Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Broken Machinery of Death: My Case Against Capital Punishment

In modern society, the principle that under-girds the use of capital punishment is the same as in ancient history, while the methods and approaches have changed. This underlying principle is a dysfunctional one that carries with it brutalizing implications for societies within which it is employed, as any system based on retaliation and vengeance will invariably do. Such a system places emphasis and focus solely on the level of the individual and disregards the societal influences that affected the individual in question. In other words, it drags the individual out of any orienting context. In keeping with this lack of contextual basis, the dysfunctional nature of the death penalty is reflected in the unreliability and ineffectiveness characteristic of modern methodologies associated with capital punishment. Capital punishment is ineffective in reducing crime and is unjust by the standards of the U.S. Constitution because the system facilitates an increased possibility of wrongful executions by disproportionately gravitating toward minorities and the poor. The dysfunctional nature of this system has real-world effects that are directly relevant to considerations of ethics and basic human rights.

Capital punishment is a system with a long history that provides a mechanism for retaliation. This mechanism has evolved greatly and continues to evolve, yet stems from the same principle that gave birth to and motivated the sustained use of legislated retribution throughout history. The death penalty existed before prisons and was practiced in a manner reminiscent of reactionary zeal rather than of logically-constructed proceedings. The principle underlying capital punishment was thus quite primitive. In fact, “capital punishment” derived its name from the means of execution known as beheading or decapitation. The Latin word capitalis literally means “regarding the head,” and is the root of our English words capital and decapitation. The use of the death penalty was common to nearly all societies and extends to the beginnings of recorded history. In keeping with its primitive nature, some ancient societies imposed execution for only minor offenses. For example, Rome's law of the Twelve Tablets in the fifth century B.C.E. imposed death as the penalty for disturbing the peace of citizens at night and for dissenting against popular consensus through artistic expression [1]. Other ancient societies reserved the death penalty for what they defined as the most egregious of crimes.

The common thread connecting these societies was their belief in the death penalty as an effective method of discouraging and deterring crime, a belief that flowed from a penchant to gravitate toward primitive approaches characterized by retaliation and vengeance. In an article examining the socio-cultural reasons behind the high execution rate in Texas, research journalist Ned Walpin touches upon the historical relationship between state-sanctioned executions and illegal lynchings:

Lynching [does not] represent justice but rather the clearest way to exclude someone (or, implicitly, a whole group) from society. A member of a society who breaks the law experiences the force of justice; the representative individual who is forcibly rejected by, or excluded from, society is lynched. Based on this understanding of lynching [there] is a direct, inverse relationship between executions and lynchings over the course of the twentieth century. Executions simply replaced lynchings as the accepted way to sate the popular (white) need to "dehumanize" or "exclude" certain groups from normal society. If lynchings reminded white folk and black folk alike who was an "insider" and who was an "outsider"--who was "us" and who was "them"--then executions were implemented to serve the exact same purpose [2].
Capital punishment has been demonstrated by numerous studies and analyses to be ineffective on several fronts. George Bernard Shaw once noted in his characteristically insightful manner, “Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another out but similars that breed their kind.” The failure of capital punishment to deter crime vindicates this observation. Social psychologist and lawyer Mark Costanzo writes that the deterrence argument “assumes that potential killers engage in a dispassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of killing. This assumption is simply wrong. Most murders are crimes of passion – committed under the blinding influence of rage, hatred, jealousy, or fear” [3]. A 1980 study conducted by criminologists William J. Bowers and Glenn Pierce, both of whom hold the position of Principal Research Scientist at their respective universities, found that intentional murders accounted for less than 10 percent of the total [4].

In addition to being ineffective, capital punishment is also unjust on several overlapping levels, not least of which is the fact that the demographics of death sentences reveal disproportionate race and class discrimination. Recent evidence has shown that “a pernicious pattern of discrimination remains in the prosecution process in capital cases" [5]. Moreover, the conclusions assessed from this evidence “suggests in part that the mostly white-administered justice system tends to place a lower value on black lives than on white, in comparable circumstances” [6]. According to a recent report published by Amnesty International, race continues to figure prominently in U.S. death penalty cases. The report states, “African Americans are disproportionately represented among people condemned to death in the USA. While they make up 12 per cent of the national population, they account for more than 40 per cent of the country’s current death row inmates, and one in three of those executed since 1977” [7].

Injustice also emerges in the observable trend of unreliability inherent in the capital punishment system and the resultant frequency of false convictions. The same report by Amnesty International states, “Since 1973, more than 100 people – 45 per cent blacks, 42 per cent whites, and 11 per cent Latinos – have been released from death rows around the country after evidence of their innocence emerged” [8]. An article in the February, 2000 issue of The Progressive reports, “In 1999, eight people were freed and declared innocent of their crimes, bringing the total of those exonerated from death row to eighty-four since 1973, or about one-seventh of all those executed” [9]. The penchant for law enforcement personnel to mistakenly snatch innocent individuals is rather astonishing. A 1996 Justice Department report entitled Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial found that in 8,048 rape and rape/murder cases investigated by the FBI crime lab between 1988 and 1995, a total of 2,012 of the primary suspects involved were exonerated based upon the DNA evidence alone. “Every year since 1989, in about 25 percent of the sexual assault cases referred to the FBI where results could be obtained (primarily by State and local law enforcement), the primary suspect has been excluded by forensic DNA testing” [10]. Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, two of the contributing authors of the report, state further that

Without DNA testing, the prospects of wrongful convictions in these exclusion cases are evident. Even if one assumes half the normal conviction rate (State conviction rates for felony sexual assaults average about 62 percent), one would expect that hundreds of people who have been exonerated by FBI DNA testing in sexual assault cases over the last 7 years would have otherwise been convicted [11].
The legality of the death penalty is also highly dubious, and considerations of both the ineffectiveness and injustice of the system are directly relevant to the legal aspects and make a convincing case for abolishing the death penalty simply on that level. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the use of punishments that are excessive compared to either the crime or the emotional and/or intellectual competence of the perpetrator. The Amendment uses the term “cruel and unusual punishments” to describe such excessive punitive measures. The current methods and approaches of capital punishment in the United States fall into this category, as both physical and psychological pain is inflicted on inmates. The many documented instances of physical pain experienced by inmates attests to the unconstitutionality of the process and to the fact that many execution procedures are botched and inhumane to a degree not becoming to a First World society. For example, many witnesses over the past several decades have provided detailed descriptions of electrocution, to take just one example. In his dissenting opinion for Glass v. Louisiana, Justice William J. Brennan recounted as follows:

The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands . . . The prisoner's limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted . . . The force of the electric current is so powerful that the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out on his cheeks . . . Sometimes the prisoner catches fire . . . When the post-electrocution autopsy is performed the liver is so hot that doctors said it cannot be touched by the human hand . . . The body frequently is badly burned . . .” [12].
In this and similar accounts that relate to other execution methods such as the gas chamber and hanging, the fact that capital punishment has become far more than a matter of meting out correlative justice is made all too clear. Capital punishment has become indistinguishable from any systems of torture that far exceed the alleged crime as well as the mental health of the inmate, as discussed above.

The psychological aspect of capital punishment is also draconian. Sister Helen Prejean, whose life work has revolved around counseling convicts on death row, has witnessed firsthand both the psychological and physical pressures exerted upon them. Her experiences and testimony are documented in her memoir Dead Man Walking. Concerning Patrick Sonnier, a convicted inmate with whom she worked, she writes, “Later, in the months ahead, Patrick Sonnier will confide his terror to me of the death that awaits him, telling me of a recurring nightmare, always the same . . . For him there can never again be restful, unbroken sleep, because the dream can always come. Better, he [Sonnier] says, to take short naps and not to sink into deep sleep” [13]. The unnecessary physical and psychological suffering that is inflicted on the inmates prior to the actual moment of death (in other words, the actual prescribed punishment) is a telling reflection of what flows out of retributive tendencies, as opposed to the use of rehabilitation.

The appeal of legislated retribution to political motives that are inherently exploitative is well-documented. Alan Berlow, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, reports on several instances of expressed opportunistic intentions on the part of politicians:

Kirk Fordice promised in his campaign for governor that he would make Mississippi the "capital of capital punishment." Texas Governor Ann Richards, who presided over fifty executions during her four years in office, lost to George W. Bush in 1994 after a campaign in which he attacked her for not executing more people more quickly . . . Kentucky Governor Paul Patton signed five execution warrants on his second day in office, though all five cases were still pending in court. Bob Martinez has bragged that he signed some ninety death warrants during his four years as governor of Florida. And Governor Bill Clinton flew to Arkansas during the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary for the execution of a brain-damaged man who had killed a policeman. Flouting Supreme Court rulings against executing the mentally incompetent, Clinton seized control of the crime issue for the Democratic Party [14].
Perhaps the most infamous proponent and overseer of capital punishment is former U.S. President George W. Bush, who presided over more executions in the state of Texas than any other governor that state's history. Having presided over seventy-seven executions during his first term as governor, an average of one death every nine days was presided over by Bush, and to date no fewer than 100 individuals have been put to death on his watch. It is hard to conclude that Bush was simply fulfilling a duty of carrying out state laws when one considers the famous report by CNN journalist Tucker Carlson concerning Bush's reaction to a clemency plea put forth by a female prisoner on death row. Carlson, who is himself a conservative supporter of the death penalty, expressed the shock and disgust he felt when Bush smirked and mockingly imitated Karla Faye Tucker's plea for a stay of execution: “'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'Don't kill me'” [15].

The sentiments expressed by Sister Helen Prejean should be voiced by those in this nation who stand opposed to legislated death toward the retentive and the fence-sitters, namely, “And I end by challenging people to ask themselves whether we can continue to allow the government, subject as it is to every imaginable form of inefficiency and corruption, to have such power to kill” [16]. The issue of capital punishment is anything but a marginal issue that relates only to the outcasts of society. The power of the government to legitimize state-sanctioned murder is a power afforded by democracy, and such legitimizing trends can be reversed through democracy. The machine of death is broken, a system which severs and which is itself severed. To borrow an age-old aphorism, when the blind lead the blind, faltering is inevitable.


Notes

1. Laurence, John. A History of Capital Punishment. New York: Citadel Press, 1960, p. 2.

2. Walpin, Ned. “Why is Texas #1 in Executions?” Frontline (February 1999). See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/.

3. Costanzo, Mark, Ph.D. Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, p. 104.

4. Bowers, W.J. and Pierce, G. "Arbitrariness and Discrimination under Post-Furman Capital Statutes." Crime and Delinquency 26 (1980): 563-576.

5. Harries, Keith and Cheatwood, Derral. The Geography of Execution: The Capital Punishment Quagmire in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997, p. 72.

6. Ibid., p. 72.

7. Amnesty International USA. "Death by Discrimination - The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases." Amnesty International (April 2003), p. 2.

8. Ibid., p. 15.

9. Progressive, The. "The Case Against the Death Penalty." The Progressive (February 2000), p. 3. Also available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1295/is_2_64/ai_59270817/.

10. U.S. Department of Justice. Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial. Office of Justice Programs, June 1996, p. xxviii.

11. Ibid., p. xxiv.

12. Glass v. Louisiana. 471 U.S. 1080. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1985, pp. 1086-1087.

13. Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Vintage Books, 1994, p. 20.

14. Berlow, Alan. "The Wrong Man - 99.11 (Part Two)." The Atlantic Monthly (Nov. 1999): Volume 284, No. 5.

15. Carlson, Tucker. “Devil May Care.” Talk Magazine (Sept. 1999), p. 106. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karla_Faye_Tucker.

16. Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Vintage Books, 1994, p. 130.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gender as a Social Construction

[Gender] is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. ~ Judith Butler

To say that gender is a socially constructed category and not a purely biological one means that extensive sociological and scientific research has established that the common notion of gender as static and mutually exclusive groups is a misconception, and one that is easily refutable. Biological characteristics of sex do not cause specific gender behaviors, nor is it possessed of a basic identity that can be simply and unambiguously discerned. Biological sex is expressed within the context of social worlds that impose meaning on it, and these meanings differ from culture to culture. Herein lies the difference between sex and gender. While sex is biological, gender is a human invention. Rather than being associated with or constrained by biological characteristics, the cultural construct of gender is imposed on sex by society and cultural expectations. The gendered division of sex is a system derived from external patterns, and from that point the many gender stereotypes that all are familiar with develop.

The understanding of gender as a social construction that is distinct from biological categories is strongly supported by a number of examples. Cross-cultural studies are among the leading evidences of this. Variations and fluidity in the way gender is defined, expressed and negotiated across cultures reveals that gender is not a monolithic uniformity. In addition, studies of the interaction of the sphere of gender with other social constructions such as race, ethnicity, class, nationality and religion illustrates that gender is dynamic; it manifests itself in widely divergent ways depending on which sphere or combination of spheres it encounters. Another example is seen through examination of the behaviors exhibited by individuals in their daily encounters with others, which strongly suggest that gender is a performance or masquerade that individuals participate in to conform to the norms instituted by their particular culture. These three areas of sociological research that indicate the inherent subjectivity of gender are considered here.

Cross-cultural Evidence
As mentioned above, there exists a multiplicity of sex/gender systems around the world. Anthropologist Serena Nanda's analysis of the multiple genders that existed among Native North Americans is a good example of cross-cultural research that emphasizes gender as being a continuum that can be negotiated, rather than a polarizing binary. She writes, "There were many variations in North American gender diversity. American Indian cultures included three or four genders: men, women, male variants, and female variants (biological females who by engaging in male activities were reclassified as to gender). Gender variant roles differed in the criteria by which they were defined" (Nanda, 48). Sexuality was not central among most criteria defining gender status in the American Indian cultures. The Navajo represented an intriguing example of this gender diversity.

The Navajo have four genders; in addition to man and woman there are two gender variants: masculine female-bodied nadleeh and feminine male-bodied nadleeh. A sexual relationship between a female nadleeh and a woman or a sexual relationship between a male-bodied nadleeh and a man were not stigmatized because these persons were of different genders, although of the same biological sex. However, a sexual relationship between two women, two men, two female-bodied nadleeh or two male-bodied nadleeh, was considered homosexual, and even incestual, and was strongly disapproved of (Nanda, 50).


Nanda's research clearly indicates the distinction that exists between sex and gender and demonstrates that there is no causal relationship between the two. Indeed, if it was true that biological characteristics caused specific gender behavior, or that they are inseparable, then the variation and fluidity found among these multiply-gendered Native American societies simply would not exist.

The Interaction of Gender with Other Socially-Constructed Spheres
The interaction of gender with other interlocking categories of identity also creates cultural rules and gendered expectations. Because each sphere of the social structure is different as far as context (race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, etc), the interaction of gender with these prisms of experience often produce conflicting and contradictory messages about what society expects from us. In a study published by the journal Gender & Society, Karen Pyke and Denise Johnson examined cultural influences that instilled racial expectations in Asian American women and exerted pressure on their gender performance among whites in the dominant culture of America. This study serves to illustrate that as the dominant culture is compared and contrasted with other cultures, patterns of social pressure that favor the dominant culture become clearly delineated and noticeable. By interviewing 100 daughters of Korean and Vietnamese American immigrants, Pyke and Johnson found that "Racialized gender categories were deployed as an interpretive template in giving meaning to experiences and organizing a worldview" (Pyke and Johnson, 83). In addition, it was concluded that "The assumption is that Asian American women can be advocates of gender equality or strong and assertive in their interactions only as a result of assimilation, evident by the display of traits associated with hegemonic femininity, and a rejection of their culture and identity" (84).

Pyke and Johnson's research findings demonstrated that White, Euro-American culture norms were often perceived by the subjects as "normal" and valuable. Furthermore, the interviewees tended to ignore or overlook variations in their own cultural experiences of gender, while continuing to perceive white Euro-Americans as a monolithic unitary culture. In discussing one source for this perceived superiority of white culture, Pyke and Johnson point to what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has termed controlling images, the process by which a dominant group claims to identify who is superior and who is inferior based on categories they create to serve their purposes. Hence, the "Lotus Blossom" stereotype emerges as an example of a controlling image, and this lies behind the popular and shallow perception/expectation that Asian women are passive, soft-spoken, submissive, and deferential to a fault.

Gender as a Performance
Many social scientists refer to gender as a performance or masquerade. By this it is meant that gender is created, recreated and perpetuated by the ways in which we present ourselves in daily encounters with the multiple social prisms around us. How we do our gender depends completely on our class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationalities, and (dis)abilities. Far from being defined by biological characteristics, gender is a social construction consisting of attribution, enactment and performance. Acute social pressures to remain easily identifiable in our culture's two-and-only-two binary system of gender is the central impetus that serves to create in most people a tendency to conform to the masquerade. Sociologist Betsy Lucal's examination of her own experiences as a reference for inquiry provides strong evidentiary qualifications for this. Lucal argues that, because of cultural rules that are deeply-embedded in the process of socialization, we cannot escape "doing" gender:

Given our cultural rules for identifying gender (i.e., that there are only two and that masculinity is assumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary), a person who does not do gender appropriately is placed not into a third category but rather into the one with which her or his gender display seems most closely to fit [...] Even if a person does not want to do gender or would like to do a gender other than the two recognized by our society, other people will, in effect, do gender for that person by placing her or him in one and only one of the two available categories (Lucal, 23).


Betsy Lucal writes from the perspective of one whose physical appearance does not clearly identify her as a woman. As such, her experiences in navigating and negotiating a gender-structured world in which she is often mistaken as a man serves as a compelling illustration and demonstration of the fact that gender is socially invented. In her observations, she writes of how she has "failed" her gender because of how our society constructs it. At the same time, her experience challenges our gender stratification because she actively expands the category of woman. Her analysis of the boundaries and margins that constitute the genderscape is unique in that she has used herself as a case study to deconstruct gender. Elucidating further on the distinction that exists between sex and gender, she writes, "I am, in effect both woman and not woman. As a woman who often is a social man but who also is a woman living in a patriarchal society, I am in a unique position to see and act" (Lucal 29).

In conclusion, we can not avoid being female, male, or intersexed in a biological sense. But we can subvert gender, blurring the lines that distinguish boundaries by making gender an unnecessary social identifier and divider. Like divisions of race, class, nationality, religion, etc., gender is a socially invented system of inequality. This system of inequality and division, which happens to be predominantly patriarchal, tends to justify and maintain unequal distribution of control and privilege. The invention of gender can be viewed as a result of the evolutionary trait our species inherited to detect patterns and create points of reference that are easily identifiable, even if such systems contradict the real state of things. But, as many social scientists and anthropologists have come to realize, the matter is far more complex than that. In considering the power and influence of the gender binary, authors Joan Spade and Catherine Valentine pose the question: “Even if an individual would like to 'give up gender,' others will define and interact with that individual in gendered terms. If you were a physician, you could 'leave your professional role behind you' when you left the hospital or office and went shopping or vacationing. Gender is a different story. Could you leave gender at the office and go shopping or vacationing? What would that look like, and what would it take to make it happen?” (Spade and Valentine, 7).

The reason it is hard to imagine what it would take to make that happen is because, in a world immersed in gender, it is embedded in every facet of everyone's lives. Yet, as C. Baker eloquently points out, the lesson of the kaleidoscope that gender represents is that “nothing in life is immune to change" (Baker, 29). As cultural definitions of sex and gender are increasingly expanded and made more malleable and flexible, it is not far-fetched to speculate that cultural/intellectual evolution may bring us to a condition described above, in which gender becomes a disposable role in the same way that a profession is stepped into and out of at will.

References

Baker, C. (1999). Kaleidoscopes: Wonders of Wonder. Lafayette, CA: C&T Publishing.

Lucal, Betsy. 1999. What it means to be gendered me: Life on the boundaries of a dichotomous gender system. Gender & Society 13(6).

Nanda, Serena. (2000). Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Pyke, K.D., & Johnson, D.L. 2003. Asian American women and racialized femininities: 'Doing' gender across cultural worlds. Gender & Society, 17(1).

Spade, Joan Z. and Valentine, Catherine G. (2008). The Kaleidoscope of Gender: Prisms, Patterns, and Possibilities. Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on the Genealogy of Jesus

For about a year now, I have been fascinated by the study of ancient religious texts. Specifically, I have been delving into the lost gospels and other non-canonical writings of early Christian groups whose writings were not included in the New Testament due to the influence of the proto-orthodox influence that eventually won by popular vote.

(The conversion of a certain Roman Emperor to the proto-orthodox version of the Jewish sect called Christianity was a major deciding factor there. Imagine if Constantine had, for whatever reason, preferred the Gnostics, the Ebionites, or the Marcionites in place of what eventually became what we today recognize as "orthodox Christianity." Modern-day adherents to Christianity would likely be revering, say, the Gnostic Scriptures or the Nag Hammadi Library as sacred scripture instead of the fragmented and inherently divisive anthology known today as the New Testament. But I digress).

I have also been interested in immersing myself in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, ancient Jewish writings that were not included with the thirty-nine books we know today (I use the term "know" loosely; most people are not even aware of what is in their own Bibles). These apocryphal writings often expand and elaborate on well-known accounts, such as entire books detailing the life and death of Adam and Eve, an extensive life of Enoch, birth narratives of Noah, visions of Moses, etc.

What I definitely did not anticipate, however, was that I would become a full-fledged Bible nerd. That is essentially what I have become, and the realization of this did not strike me until today. The other afternoon I found myself in the large university library, poring over thick scholarly historical criticism commentaries on New Testament genealogies. This brings me to the subject I tackle here.

As you may be aware, two of our four canonical Gospels provide genealogies of Jesus. Matthew's Gospel traces Jesus' line through thirteen generations of Jewish descent, back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke's Gospel traces Jesus' family line all the way back to Adam, the alleged father of the human race according to Jewish mythology (quite the fantastic genealogy!). As it turns out, the genealogies in each become important commentaries on what each author wants to emphasize about who Jesus meant to them. If you are familiar with Matthew's Gospel, you will know that Matthew seeks to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. His gospel strives throughout to drive home the point that Jesus fulfilled a number of important Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout his account one finds numerous references to an Old Testament prophecy that Matthew ties to various sayings and actions of Jesus. Matthew has a distinctly Jewish perspective on who Jesus is.

Luke, on the other hand, has a distinctly different emphasis on who Jesus was and what he was all about. Luke's perspective of Jesus diverges from Matthew's in that Luke seeks to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. Throughout his gospel account, Luke is primarily concerned to portray Jesus as a significant figure to all people, Jew and gentile alike. When reading through Luke's Gospel, one is impressed upon by the author to recognize the ways in which Jesus relates to all of humanity. Therefore, Luke's genealogical family tree of Jesus seeks to connect him to Adam in order to emphasize his relation to all people. This is also why the genealogy of Matthew and the genealogy of Luke have different ending points.

As a side note, both of these genealogies present a rather perplexing situation. Both Matthew and Luke want to insist that Jesus was born of a virgin who conceived not by having intercourse with her husband Joseph but through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit (unlike in Mark's Gospel, where a virgin birth is not even hinted at). This creates an obvious problem that is difficult to resolve. If Matthew and Luke are to be taken seriously when they say that Jesus was immaculately conceived, why is it that both Matthew's and Luke's genealogies trace the bloodline of Jesus precisely through Joseph? This question is not addressed at all in either gospel. According to the text, Jesus' only bloodline is found through the family history of Mary and no one else. Thus, both accounts present the wrong genealogy; neither one of them provides Mary's genealogy.

This is a general problem with the genealogical accounts. But there are two other more specific problems and discrepancies that are revealed when studying and comparing the genealogies in any detail. These problems and discrepancies are quite interesting and thought-provoking indeed. One discrepancy has to do with irreconcilable differences between the two accounts. The other problem that I took note of through my own study is a historical/literary oddity that emerges when one looks back to the Old Testament to read of some of the ancestors mentioned in Jesus' bloodline. This oddity does not represent a contradiction within the New Testament, but rather between the Old and New Testaments (Orthodox Jews, of course, would say there is no contradiction, since they do not consider the New Testament to be sacred scripture).

The easiest way to recognize the first discrepancy for what it is involves asking a simple question: Who, in both the Matthean and Lucan genealogies, is said to be Joseph's father, patrilineal grandfather, and great-grandfather? The two genealogies diverge from the outset, giving contradicting information. According to Matthew 1:15-16: And Eliud begat Eleazar, and Eleazar begat Matthan, and Matthan begat Jacob. And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

The family line is completely different in Luke's account. According to Luke 3:23-24: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph.

What are we to make of these genealogies which are clearly at odds from David to Joseph? The typical argument is that the genealogy in Matthew is of Joseph and that Luke's genealogy is of Mary. It is a persuasive and attractive attempt at reconciliation, until you read more carefully. In Luke 3:23, it is explicitly stated that the family line provided is that of Joseph, not Mary. Furthermore, Matthew 1:16 is clear on the point that it also speaks of Joseph's family history.

There are several other problems in terms of both consistency and historical accuracy, but I will turn my attention to just one more that I observed through my study. When the careful reader of New Testament genealogies turns to the Old Testament to read about some of the Jewish ancestors mentioned in the genealogies, some very interesting findings result. For example, consider yet another point of conflicting difference between the two genealogies. In Matthew 1:11-12 we read: "And Josias begat Jechoniah and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel."

Compare this to Luke 3:27: "Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zerubbabel, which was the son of Shealtiel, which was the son of Neri."

Besides the obvious discrepancy of who Shealtiel's father is (Jechoniah according to Matthew, Neri according to Luke) there is another perplexing situation that arises when one reads about some of these figures in the Old Testament. In his extensive volume of commentary on the Matthean and Lucan infancy narratives, the late scholar of New Testament critical studies Raymond E. Brown writes:

"The whole Lucan picture from David to Jesus is complicated by the fact that, having avoided the direct royal line throughout the monarchy by tracing the genealogy through Nathan rather than through Solomon, Luke rejoins the royal line after fall of the monarchy by listing Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, who appear also in Matthew's list. Some have been impressed that, despite all biblical evidence, Luke makes Shealtiel the son of the otherwise unknown Neri rather than of the last king Jechoniah; but his motivation may have been theological, namely, to avoid having in Jesus' ancestry a figure whom Jeremiah cursed . . ." (Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1977, vol. 1, p. 93).

As it turns out, Matthew's attribution of Jechoniah as Shealtiel's father has biblical support (see 1 Chronicles 3:17). Luke's attribution to Neri as his father is unsupported by any biblical evidence, as there is no mention of such a Neri in the Old Testament. As Brown points out, it is likely Luke's inclusion of Neri in his genealogy has a theological motivation behind it. And this is where an interesting observation comes to bear on a comparison of Matthew and Luke's family lines. As it turns out, the "brethren" of Jechoniah as mentioned in Matthew 1:11 included both Jehoiakim and Coniah, who were also sons of Josias. In Jeremiah 22:13-30, we are given a description of a harsh curse that God places on Jehoiakim, Coniah, and their brethren. Taken in the context of the entire chapter, the prophet is writing of these sons of Josias collectively:

"And I will cast thee out, and thy mother that bare thee, into another country where ye were not born, and there shall ye die. But to the land whereunto they desire to return, thither shall they not return. Is this man Coniah a despised broken idol? Is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure? Wherefore are they cast out, he and his seed, and are cast into a land which they know not? O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:26-30, KJV).

In light of this OT passage, it is easy to understand why Luke would feel motivated to omit Jechoniah from his list, replacing him with the fictional Neri, given the theological implications. This theological motivation to subtly alter the family tree of Jesus renders it inaccurate. On the other hand, Matthew does include Jechoniah in his genealogy, even connecting him with his brothers Jehoiakim and Coniah (Matt. 1:11)! In this instance, Matthew is faithful to the record of history. But in so doing, he is creating another contradiction. It would appear that Matthew is by implication suggesting that the God of the Jews did not stay true to his word. Keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel strives throughout to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, to emphasize that Jesus was in fact the Jewish Messiah to the Jews from the Jewish God as prophecied in the Jewish scriptures. But if Matthew is correct, it turns out that God's curse in Jeremiah 22 was not followed through, that the Lord in fact lied about Josias' children not bearing descendants that would prosper and sit upon the throne of David.

Interestingly enough, this difference between Matthew and Luke reflects on what each author was trying to say about Jesus. One might be inclined to expect that Matthew would have serious qualms about including Jechoniah in his genealogical account, considering that Matthew goes out of his way to uphold the Jewish scriptures throughout the rest of the gospel. Yet he does not omit that which he must have recognized was historically verifiable from the Jewish scriptures he must have known well. For Matthew, it would seem history takes precedence over theology. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned about including the name of a man who was banished from the royal Davidic line, because of the serious implications on his theological perspective. He therefore alters the record however slightly, throwing in the unknown name of Neri.



Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Thoughts on Family Values

Because families are a reflection in microcosm of the social structure at large, its politics and philosophies are always subject to a state of flux. As society changes and experiences shifts on any number of levels and aspects, so too does the family as they absorb that influence and adapt accordingly. Therefore, when it comes to defining "family values" it is important to develop a pragmatic understanding and approach. Attempting to define what constitutes an "ideal" set of values for all family models is a mistake, for it fails to take into account the ever-changing nature of the social structure the family is an integral part of. Therefore, I believe family values should be receptive to change and able to adapt in a manner that best serves the well-being of society. The particular kind of receptiveness and adaptiveness depends entirely on the situations that emerge in the course of cultural evolution. Family values should reflect a commitment, but not of a dogmatic type that accepts an unchanging template and attempts to superimpose this template on cultural and social conditions to which it does not apply and only becomes a detriment to progress. Rather, family values should reflect a commitment to adapt constructively to changing social conditions. I echo the viewpoint expressed by Vera St. Erlich in her book Family in Transition, who writes "At any moment, there are various different courses of action possible, and people make decisions. Which course they will choose is dependent on subjective considerations, that is on inclinations and predispositions which evolved in earlier periods" (Erlich 394).

Furthermore, family values should be manifested in practical ways; values should not be composed merely of ephemeral rhetoric but rather should be allowing of application. People should maintain a healthy skepticism toward any attempt by popular culture to define a social demographic or institution symbolically rather than realistically or practically. Post-war capitalism fostered just such cultic symbolism in the development of the breadwinner/homemaker paradigm of the 1950s. In his discussion of the family of the 1950s, sociologist Robert Heiner rightly calls into question the popular conception of this period as being "traditional" or ideal for modern society. He writes, "The family of the 1950s - both on and off television - however, was far from traditional. It was, in fact, most unusual and, historically, almost freakish. Men returned home from the war, and a great many of the women who had been in the workforce during the war left their jobs (either willingly or not so willingly). New families were being formed at an astonishing rate, and the baby boom was under way" (Heiner, 76). The 1950s represented a sudden and pronounced shift from previous trends that were characterized by declining birth rates, increasing divorce rates, and marriage at later ages. The popular tendency on the part of many people today to implicitly assume that the 1950s family structure was representative of family life throughout the first half of the century is testament to the power of social and cultural constructions. One could argue that the sudden rise in post-war birth rates explains this current popular assumption that the 1950s was a "Golden Age" of the family, the culmination of time-tested idealized principles. After all, the "baby boomer" generation, by definition, represents a significant number of people who were socialized by the anomalous culture of the 1950s. This leads me to a consideration of functionalism. Functionalism seeks to understand society's institutions at the level of the contribution by each in enabling the smooth running of society as a whole. In light of this perspective, it is clear that the family model that emerged in the 1950s was not functional to any significant degree, since it did not survive longer than a decade and the advantages the model offered were few and short-lived.

The evangelical right-wing movement today is egregiously attempting to re-define society in dogmatic terms that blocks all form of progress and acknowledgment of shifts in social structures that necessitate adaptation. Vera St. Erlich writes what I recognize to be a critical constructionist viewpoint: "Values can be more easily recognized by looking at the reactions of people than listening to their words and slogans. If some economically backward people or groups complain about the misery of their life, that does not necessarily mean that a higher standard of living is their most cherished value. If they do not care to repair their poor homes, nor to become literate, show indolence toward hygiene and medicine and little enthusiasm to irrigation and tractors, it is evident that a high standard of living is not their most important goal. That does not mean that they do not share the common human values of a better life. But it shows that they don't want these achievements at any price" (Erlich 394, emphasis mine).

With that in mind, there are two specific shifts in the social structure and its policies that I think would help U.S. families to better live out a set of family values that is receptive to progress and a changing consciousness:

1) The United States should follow the relatively recent example of Canada and open its doors to gay marriage, accepting it as a legitimate union and a legitimate foundation upon which a family can be based. Acceptance of gay marriage represents veritable progress beyond petty discrimination based upon genitalia alone. It is also conducive to encouraging healthy, family-oriented activity rather than, for example, prostitution or unhappy and unfulfilling heterosexual marriages that result from society looking down on a person's sexual orientation and forbidding that person to marry someone of the same sex. Thus, the acceptance of gay marriage in the U.S. at large could potentially precipitate a decrease in divorce rates as individuals pursue relationships that are truly in line with their personal orientation. Consequently, children benefit not only from the increasingly rare luxury of being raised by two adults, but also by being instilled with progressive values that educate and discourage the socially detrimental homophobia that many children, from elementary grades even to high school, are often heard to express. Clifford Krauss, writing for the New York Times about Canada's dramatic social shift towards being identified as a tolerant society, attributes this progressive transformation to the fact that Canada has become a very multicultural society within the last generation, as well as to the fact that Canada enjoys a more evenly distributed government. He writes, "Increasingly, Canada has been on a social policy course pursued by many Western European and Scandinavian countries, gradually moving more out of step with the United States over the last few decades" (Krauss 68).

It is my contention that family life is greatly enhanced and benefited by the kind of cultural diversity that Canada exhibits, and this includes tolerance of same-sex marriage and may even be an issue that warrants high priority in light of its civil rights nature. The U.S. would do well to overcome its narrow-minded nationalism and follow the example of our more culturally evolved and revolutionary neighbor. To put it another way, family values should not be concerned with matters of mere reproductive ability, but with matters of more profound cultural and social import that take into consideration long-term issues, such as overpopulation, that will have an impact on future generations of families.

2) U.S. policy leaves much to be desired and improved concerning its attitude toward childcare and family leave. In the United States, child care is by and large a peripheral priority for the government, as parents are expected to bear the financial responsibility for expensive programs that are not even meeting standardized criteria for quality and adequacy. In a country where influential politicians and corporate pundits often engage in rhetoric that refers to children as "our nation's future" and "our most precious resource," it is striking to see just how much of this rhetoric is simply lip service to better enhance the success of a political platform. It is an illustrative example of Erlich's distinction between words/slogans and actions; between what people say they care deeply about and what their actions actually reveal. Applying this concept to U.S. child care and family leave policies, a comparative analysis with the policies of other countries reveals unambiguously where America's priorities lie. Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel, in an article from the journal Contexts that details the results of just such a comparative analysis, write, "Any child care program or funding system has social and political assumptions with far-reaching consequences . . . these emphases entails different national assumptions, if only implicit, about children and parents, education, teachers, peers and societies as a whole" (Clawson and Gerstel, 28-29).

Family life and the values intimately associated with it would be vastly improved and enhanced if U.S. policy engaged child care and family leave reform in a manner that does not target the poor. The current U.S. policy emphasis on subsidies for poor families and their children is inadequate to resolve issues of inequality and accessibility to quality child development. As Clawson and Gerstel point out, "Subsidy systems favor the poor, but subsidies (unlike tax breaks) depend on the level of appropriations. Congress does not appropriate enough money and, therefore, most of the children who qualify for subsidies do not receive them" (Clawson and Gerstel, 30). Besides this practical problem, there are other potentialities to consider. For example, through the government's singling-out of the poor for appropriations that rarely come to fruition, the self-fulfilling prophecy has the potential to become a significant factor, and one that ends up maintaining the status quo rather than creating a viable and practical solution to inequality. Other countries such as France and Denmark, while both different in their emphases on the importance of early education, are both representative of a better alternative than the United State's capitalistic policies. Essentially, families in the U.S. would be much better off financially and socially if the government established a combination of publicly-funded child-care for children that incorporated a preparatory educational program (as in France) and paid family leave for working parents with infants and younger children (as in Sweden).

References

Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel. "Caring for Our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States," Contexts (Fall/Winter 2002).

Erlich, Vera St. Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Krauss, Clifford. "Social Shift Opens Door to Gay Marriage Plan," New York Times (April 13, 2003).

The Roots of Family Problems in America

The politics of family structure and the historical trends that illuminate its current popular constructions is a field of study of particular import to sociology. The family is in many ways a microcosm of societal structures at large, a model that features a basic formulation behind all the varieties and undulations to be discerned within its manifestations. Thus, by understanding family structures and politics, one can arrive at an understanding of society and culture overall. This is because culture exerts a certain influence that family models tend to emulate on a much smaller, more diluted scale that allows for concise analysis. Although inferences to the larger, more complex nature of society from concise family structures may not represent factual or practical views of society, it does reflect perceptions and popular constructions of that social universe. These perceptions and constructions are wide-ranging and very diverse, but out of this diversity certain identifiable trends emerge over time, trends that have accelerated in the past century.

When attempting to understand the social problems associated with U.S. family life, sociologists have pointed to several key roots of these problems. There is much debate among sociologists who identify deleterious factors that have influenced American families, and these debates are often specialized depending on what aspect of social problems is being discussed. There are of course many historical factors that have contributed to the current condition of the family, and they all apply to general considerations of key roots. Among the most pronounced and significant of these influencing factors was the marked shift in gender demographics in the workplace in the 1970s. The effects of deindustrialization accounted in large part for this shift in demographics. Sociologist Robert Heiner writes, "The demand for high-paying blue-collar workers, in automobile and steel manufacturing, for example, began to shrivel; and the demand for low-paying 'pink-collar' workers, sales clerks and secretaries, for example, began to expand. With several economic recessions in the 1970s, men faced unemployment and stagnating wages. Women moved into those pink-collar jobs and into other jobs as well; and though their wages were lower, they were able to offset the declining financial situation of their families" (Heiner, 80). According to the documentary The Motherhood Manifesto, "In 1960, 70% of our families had a breadwinner who went to work everyday and a homemaker who went home and took care of the children or an elderly parent or a sick relative. That has completely changed; it's reversed."

Contrary to the popular conceptions disseminated by various corporate media relations, the gender disparity associated with "pink-collar" jobs (most notably sales clerks and secretaries, among other like vocations) does not have its roots in women's liberation and a victory for feminism on an economic level. Rather, as more and more men lost their jobs as manufacturing dwindled in the face of deindustrialization and the introduction of an increasingly high-tech workplace, many women found themselves with no other alternative but to enter the workforce. Furthermore, the prevalent breadwinner/homemaker culture of the 1950s had instilled in many women the "cult of domesticity." Economist and feminist Julie A. Matthaei writes, "Since a homemaker would enter the labor force only if her husband's income was insufficient to provide for family needs, her labor-force presence signaled his inability as head of household. Only if he earned sufficient income to provide for the family's basic commodity needs could she specialize in domestic homemaking, allowing the couple to live out clearly polarized masculine and feminine lives" (Matthaei, 121). This polarization of gender roles and cultic attitude toward female domesticity had an effect on women even as she entered the workforce in terms of what she settled for in the way of salary. On this note, Heiner remarks, "In that women demanded less in terms of salary, . . . many company owners and managers came to prefer hiring women because they were 'better adapted, cheaper, more reliable and more easily controlled' than men." (Heiner 80). The disparity in income between gender was a direct result of women being socialized to assume their role in society was homemaker (a role that men used to reinforce their social reputation of independent masculinity) and this socialization caused women to be content with a salary that did not represent the amount of work she actually performed. This in turn led to the development of "sex-typed" jobs, abstract designations that produced the gender disparity between manufacturing jobs and "pink-collar jobs" mentioned above. In her seminal American Quarterly article "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60," Barbara Welter wrote, "Somehow through this mixture of challenge and acceptance, of change and continuity, the True Woman evolved into the New Woman - a transformation as startling in its way as the abolition of slavery or the coming of the machine age. And yet the stereotype, the "mystique" if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity" (Welter, 174).

This came to represent a problematic development for family life in a number of ways. The "cult of domesticity" and the resultant development of sex-typed jobs that Matthai writes extensively about in her book An Economic History of Women in America helped the symbolism of women as homemakers to survive even as more and more women entered the workforce. According to Heiner's research, "[M]ost women working outside of the home basically have two jobs because they also do most of the housework. This undoubtedly causes stress and resentment and decreases marital satisfaction among many women. Another part of the correlation between dual-earner families and divorce is explained by the fact that a woman earning an income has greater independence and is better able to exit a failed marriage and live on her own" (Heiner, 81). Thus, the dual-earner family model represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presence of women in the workforce afford them the opportunity to leave a failed marriage and thus become independent and liberated from an out-dated model of domesticity. On the other hand, the potential for divorce has a deleterious effect primarily on families with children, not to mention the fact that most couples depend on a dual-income to maintain their financial security. The aforementioned documentary The Motherhood Manifesto brings to the forefront of the discussion how the marginalization of working mothers and the divorce rates that are sometimes associated with it has a negative impact on childcare and is correlated with the extremely high rates of child poverty. According to the film, single moms earn 34-44% less than their male counterparts. "We're the wealthiest nation on earth and we refuse to take care of our children and their families."

References
Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

The Motherhood Manifesto. Dir. Laura Pacheco. Perf. Mary Steenburgen. Bullfrog Films, 2006.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60." American Quarterly, 18 (1966).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Independent Media: Anatomy of a Panel Discussion

At the panel discussion I attended on the evening of April 24, 2009, there was a sense of enthusiastic and heartfelt revolution in the air. I arrived at the panel discussion expecting a series of short lectures that were mainly academic in nature. However, the panel digressed rather quickly from objectively discussing the "Socio-Economics of Media Culture" (as it was advertised to be) to a more activist approach, promoting and advocating independent media as a tool to combat corporate greed and mainstream media deception.

Independent media is certainly a worthy and helpful effort that is readily conducive to protecting a democracy. I applaud the efforts of the Rogue Valley Independent Media Center for working to place the tools of communication and influence in the hands of ordinary people, and thereby strengthen healthy democracy and stimulate free speech in our public arenas. However, the solution to the social problem the media has become is not simply to create an alternative media. Without the introduction of an adequate method of accountability into the equation, "independent media" is vulnerable to the production of false information, sensationalistic stories, conspiracy theories, and the like.

The panel discussion was commenced with a hearty introduction by Wes Brain. After thanking everyone present for "being classy enough to spend a Friday evening in this way," his introduction consisted primarily of a reverent discussion of the legacy of the late Hal Jamison, a local media critic who had called for a media truly independent of mass manufactured deceit on the part of the corporates. Rogue Valley's Independent Media Center seeks to make Jamison's vision a reality, and they have certainly come a long way in realizing it. After speaking of Hal Jamison's activist legacy and their efforts to perpetuate them, Brain proceeded to introduce the three panelists, two of whom were to speak very briefly while the third was to be the keynote speaker.

The first panelist was Jason Houk, the editor of the Rogue Independent Media Center as well as the Station Manager for Ashland Community Radio (popularly known as KSKQ). In his brief lecture, Houk spoke of the importance of an independent media outlet as a means of surviving in what he called "the belly of the beast." By this he referred to the corporate world's manipulation of of public sentiment by stifling innovation. This is a cause for great concern, Houk says, because sustainability is weakened in the absence of innovation.

Carol Voisin, the second speaker on the panel, followed closely on the heels of Houk's short speech with a great discussion of the indispensable role critical thinking plays in a democracy. Voisin is an Ashland City Council member who recently challenged the mainstream media at Southern Oregon University's recent "First Amendment Forum." She is also a faculty member at SOU where she teaches ethics, critical thinking, and writing. To tell it in her own words, she teaches first-year students "how to think." Although to me that remark sounded antithetical to critical thinking, the remainder of her short lecture contained several redeeming points. Her speech consisted of a simple deductive syllogism: A). Critical thinking is the backbone of democracy. B). Independent media is an indispensable tool in the hands of a critical thinker. C). Therefore, independent media is the voice of democracy. She closed by encouraging the audience to use independent media to "give a voice to the incumbents." This statement strikes me as something of a discrepancy on her part. Just last month at SOU's aforementioned First Amendment Forum, she had complained that in her race for Congress two years ago, newspapers would put the incumbent on the front page while placing her on Page 10. However, her apparent change of sentiment at this panel discussion may have been due to the rebuttal of Medford Mail Tribune managing editor Bob Hunter, who challenged her claim and said he remembered the Mail Tribune doing many prominently featured stories on her.

The third and final panelist, Peter Phillips, was the keynote speaker and seemed to be generally regarded by all present as the main celebrity of the evening. Phillips is a Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and the director of Project Censored. According to their website, Project Censored was founded in 1976 by Carl Jensen and "has as its principal objective the advocacy for and protection of First Amendment rights and the freedom of information in the United States." Project Censored conducts research on national news stories that they perceive to be underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored by the corporate media. Project Censored publishes a ranking of the "most censored nationally important news stories" each year in the yearbook, Censored: Media Democracy in Action.

The heart of Mr. Phillips' argument was that corporate media is no longer relevant to democracy. His argument consisted of a series of examples of recent media censorship and misinformation. His discussion of problems with the corporate media was complemented with common-sense solutions. He argued that grassroots efforts are the only way to combat corporate greed, strongly emphasizing that solutions do not come from the top down. He also spoke of universities as playing a vital role in the push for a truly democratic society. I agreed with many of his ideas and points, including his take on the recent Somalian "pirate" incident. Another side of this pirate story, he pointed out, involved the collapse of the government in Somalia, a nation that saw many barrels of waste being dumped into their seas by foreign fishing boats intruding on their fish industry. The origin of the "pirates" story, Phillips says, is to be found in Somalian fishing families who are calling for help from the Coast Gaurd. He also called attention to the problems in the United States healthcare system, summing up the problem in four words: "deny, delay, diminish, blame." He brought up the millions of civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of our unjustified war in that country, as well as the loss of habeas corpus under President Bush in America.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Phillips' assessment of these current events issues. But it was not long before he allowed himself to entertain notions that bordered on conspiracy-theory status. He made mention of the Trilateral Commission and how they were going about integrating Barack Obama into their plan. The Trilateral Commission has been a favorite subject among conspiracy theorists for some time now. It does possess a grain of truth, in that organizations such as the CFR does hold strong influence over U.S. foreign policy. But this is all too obvious, and is hardly indicative of a conspiracy. The Trilateral Commission theorists grasp onto such obvious kernels of truth and run with it, adding misinformation that is elusive and subtle precisely because it is unverifiable. What Phillips seems to be overlooking is that the elite have a unity of interests that often gives the false impression that they are conspiring. Phillips apparently has fallen for this false impression.

On more than one occasion in his lecture, Phillips also mentioned his involvement on the steering committee and advisory board for "911Truth.org." 911Truth is a nonprofit corporation in the state of Missouri that seeks to educate the public about the "truth" behind the September 11 terrorist attacks and inspire a "political transformation" among the American people. He infused this part of his speech with highly technical information, citing an article released on April 6 by Salt Lake City's Deseret News, which claimed that traces of nano-thermite, an aluminum-based explosive, were discovered in the dust from the fallen towers. What was not mentioned is that uses of nano-thermite (which is still in its research stage) fall far short of being capable of weakening massive columns. But what really caused me to raise an eyebrow was when he stated that "Everybody wants to ignore it [the truth behind 9-11] and hope it goes away." That is a very interesting (not to mention carelessly broad) accusation, and one that warrants clarification.

I found opportunity to seek just that during the Question & Answer session. I asked Mr. Phillips what role skepticism can play in the information provided by independent media itself. I also expressed my skepticism of notions associated with the Trilateral Commission and 9-11 conspiracy theorists, and my concern that independent media has the potential to lapse into unfounded claims merely because they challenge corporate agendas.

His response did not answer my question. Rather, he responded by saying he "didn't know what books you've read" but that the information is readily available for me to delve into. He also stated that he did not claim to know whether 9-11 was a domestic government plot or not. According to him, he simply did not know and was not willing as of yet to arrive at a conclusion on the matter. This struck me immediately as odd. If he is uncertain concerning the nature of the September 11 attacks and whether or not it was an inside job, what was the point of his discussion of nano-thermite? If he was truly agnostic concerning the matter, would he not have presented the counter-argument? And what is he doing serving on the steering committee for "911Truth"? According to the Mission Statement on the 911Truth website, their mission is "to expose the official lies and cover-up surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 in a way that inspires the people to overcome denial and understand the truth; namely, that elements within the US government and covert policy apparatus must have orchestrated or participated in the execution of the attacks for these to have happened in the way that they did. Why Phillips felt inclined to misrepresent himself is beyond me.

Not long after my questions, a young, bearded man in the audience wearing a tie-dyed shirt stood up. He began by expressing how supportive he was of Project Censored and how passionate he was about independent media. He proceeded to say, "I completely agree with you that 9-11 was a U.S. government cover-up and that we need to get that word out." Peter Phillips interjected at that moment, saying he wanted to make it clear that he "never said that" and was unsure either way. Apparently this gentleman in the tie-dyed shirt came uncomfortably close to blowing his cover.

Following the closing of the panel meeting, I made my way out into the foyer, where this same tie-dyed man (I never caught his name) stood at a table enthusiastically endorsing Alex Jones films, copies of which he was distributing for free. Alex Jones is an outspoken conspiracy theorist who believes in a wide array of far-fetched paranoia and proliferates these ideas from his radio show. Through films such as Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement and The Obama Deception, Alex Jones is outspoken in his warnings of a coming New World Order which, so he claims, seeks to eliminate the vast majority of mankind and enslave the rest. He is acutely obssessed with government cover-ups and plots, which he happens to see around every corner. On his radio program, which I listen to regularly for research purposes (and perhaps for entertainment), Jones is in the habit of promoting himself as a prophet who "has rarely if ever been proven wrong" about his predictions. In fact, his ego is blown far out of proportion. In one of his promotional advertisements, he shows himself to hold no qualms about comparing himself to some of the greatest minds in history. To quote directly from this promo, "Einstein failed math, quit school, and his rebel ideas led to some of the world's most amazing discoveries. Edison rebelled against the dark, failed over a thousand times, then invented the light bulb. George Washington rebelled against an entire country, and led the creation of a new one. Now, Alex Jones is working to save that very country." Alex Jones is a midget kicking at the shins of giants.

His radio program is also replete with countless advertisements promoting self-defense devices, organic food supplies, resources on switching to the gold standard, and atmospheric water generators that provide its users with a way to avoid the "government-poisoned water supply." All these resources and more are advertised to prepare people to survive what Jones calls the imminent government takeover.

Upon being asked my opinion of Alex Jones by this man, I related all of this background and what I understood to be his fringe beliefs, beliefs that depended on its fringe status in order for Jones to remain in his niche (after all, if there ever came a time when Jones was satisfied with the government and relieved of all fears and alarms, he would no longer have a platform. As it is, paranoia is what is perpetuating and sustaining his career). Upon hearing this, the man handed me a copy of Endgame and informed me that Jones's platform and views only seemed preposterous because people have been deceived by the "illusion of the left-right paradigm." The fact of the matter is, he told me, Alex Jones is "spot-on."

I have been keenly aware that independent media does, by definition, represent an exercise in skepticism toward mainstream media's constructions of social problems. But I also argue that skepticism should not stop with independent media. In other words, the mere presence or success of independent media does not constitute complete objectivity. The agendas it harbors, however benign and well-meaning it may be, should be critically studied to verify the standards it claims for itself. Independent media is a cultural movement that deserves the same amount of critical scrutiny as the mainstream media. Independent media has the potential to depend on its "independent" status in order to maintain its core principals and ideals. This is what the 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan intended to convey when he famously theorized, "The medium is the message." This was confirmed for me at the IMC panel meeting and is what I came away with more than anything else, not least of all because there I encountered some misinformation and a little dis-ingenuousness. But for the most part, there were well-intentioned common sense solutions presented that fortunately were not as misguided as some of the actual problems presented.