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Freedom and the Welfare State

This article is rekicked from the October 2010 BYU Political Review and written by Tor Aanestad, a sophomore studying International Relations.

Only anti-whaling activists have anything bad to say about Norway. Being Norwegian, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an informed person who genuinely dislikes my country (outside Denmark, and that’s purely football related). Besides, what could possibly go wrong with a little country safely located in northwestern Europe with five million Protestants controlling oil reserves comparable to that of a gulf state?

Glenn Beck & co. might not see it that way. The five Nordic countries are, after all, the most extensive welfare states in the world and have a tax level even higher than France’s. Why, then, do Tea Partiers compare the extension of health care to all citizens to something that Stalin, Mao, and Hitler would have done when they have perfect contemporary examples in Scandinavia? I had a professor during my first semester who warned our class about the link between welfare states and slavery. He said having a welfare system effectively removes freedom, the will to live, and every incentive to be a productive and entrepreneurial person. He warned that this slavery had already happened in countries like Norway and Sweden and was about to happen in the United States of America as well. A little confused, I raised my hand and asked, “I’m from Norway and am pretty sure Norway has a decent democracy; if we really thought we were enslaving ourselves, wouldn’t we have voted differently the last 60 or so years?” Well, I didn’t get an answer then, but if I had had the opportunity to elaborate, i would have said something along the following lines:

Norway is not America. We have a king. He drives a Volvo. Most workers, blue collars as well as CEOs, bring their own matpakk to work, usually three slices of bread with goat cheese and salami. Our greatest sports stars are ski jumpers, and the entire population moves to Spain in July, the only month that is actually kind of nice in Norway. We fear trolls. And we’re socially democratic with an extensive welfare system. That being said, we love our freedoms just as much as a Tea Partier from Kansas does! Freedom is living in one of the most vibrant deomcracies in the world (5 of the top 6 freest countries are Scandinavian, according to the Economist’s Democracy Index), where women are equally represented in government (ca. 40% in the Scandinavian parliaments versus 17% in Congress). Participation in civic society is world leading, and we have a press that is so free that Danish and Norwegian flags are burned on a regular basis in the Middle East.

Freedom is the ability to start a new business with a safety net to fall back on if the venture turns out unsuccessfully. We have some of the most competitive free markets in the world, and our entrepreneurs are behind world-renowned Scandinavian companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Erickson, Nokia, SAAB, H&M, and Carlsberg. Our productivity levels and GDP per capita are among the highest in the world.

Freedom is the ability for eveyrone to go to college at no cost, just like Americans attend high school for free. Even I, who study abroad, have most of my expenses covered by the government and will not have to worry about tuition fees when applying for a graduate school. Freedom is having good health and being able to see your kids grow up with good health too. All 5 Scandinavian countries have higher life expectancies than the United States; Swedes can expect to live 2 years longer than the average American. Scandinavian infant mortality rates are 1/2 of the United States’. The “death panels” that conservatives warned would emerge with socialized health care are nonexistent: according to the UN, the United States has an abortion rate higher than any Scandinavian country.

Freedom is the opportunity to spend time with your family and travel. Scandinavians work 400 hours les than the average American and have almost 40 days of paid vacation every year (but can work instead if they want). Could this be the reason why Gallup’s Happiness Index shows the 3 happiest countries in the world are Scandinavian? Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt countries in the world (according to Transparency International, 4 Nordic countries are in the top 10 least corrupt) where everyone has equal access to government. Freedom is helping other enjoy the same freedoms too. 120,000 Norwegians have served as soldiers in countries like Lebanon, Bosnia, and Afghanistan to support their fledgling democracies.

In conclusion, we’re plenty free and will strive to be still feer. Our welfare states are far from perfect, but we have vibrant conservative parties that work on reducing their expenses. Don’t worry so much, Tea Partiers: though President Obama would be considered a conservative politician in Scandinavia, we’re still freer than most.

too much playa hatin takin play.

Cornell West, a professor at Princeton University, is an American philosopher, author, critic, actor, civil rights activist and prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America. In early November, I was able to attend the 2010 APHA Conference on Social Justice for Public Health where I experienced my first Dr. West lecture. The majority of West’s work focuses on race, gender, and class in American society and weaves together the traditions of the black Baptist Church, progressive politics and jazz. West, who teaches and specializes in black theology, has been intimately involved with the post 1960s civil-rights movement, the 1995 Million Man MarchIn These Times, Call + Response, and President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.

After listening to Dr. West in person, I realized that I had legitimately witnessed something much bigger than myself. I had tasted the fire remnants of the civil rights movement and seen this man’s passionate attempt to further advocate love, equality, and moral questioning. Do yourself a favor: Relive the experience with me by watching the videos below. After you fall in love with Cornel, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and NPR.

You can’t save the people if you won’t serve the people.

The Impact of Literacy

Women are the single most important market opportunity for changing the world. Even though innumerable international organizations stand behind the decree to eradicate gender gaps in literacy rates and promote the education of girls, 800 million adults were illiterate in the world as of the year 2008. While that number represents 18% of the total adult population, the more staggering figure is the statement that 64% of the illiterate adult population is female.

Literacy is a lifelong process through which women strive to attain equality with men in education, thereby guaranteeing their full participation in society. The definition of literacy is expansive and not restricted to something a person does or does not have.  Instead, it is a range of values inextricably linked to sustainable development, democracy, justice, and gender equity. In essence, literacy is the attainment of mathematical and reading skills.

Traditionally, women’s literacy attracted international support solely as a means to improve the health of the family. Literacy and educational attainment for women were seen as a means of benefiting others, rather than women themselves. Thankfully, literacy and education over the years has been recognized as a basic human right inherent in and deserving by all people. Today, however, girls and women still systematically fail to achieve this dream of education in their lives for differing reasons. In many cultures around the world, families prefer to educate sons over daughters since the cost of educating a girl seems pointless when she will simply be married into another family and leave. Some cultures still expect girls to stay at home and help with domestic chores, agriculture and raising families. Education simply does not fit into the picture. A UNESCO study in Africa found that families valued the domestic work of girls more than the value of their education. Contrary to cultural beliefs, what the international community has discovered through research is that “investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.” The education of girls has been identified as one of the best methods to fight poverty and catalyze development worldwide. The empowerment of women (as a result of literacy and education) raises economic productivity, reduces infant mortality and increases the chances of education for the next generation. Other studies show that nations that invest heavily in the education of girls benefit directly through longer life expectancy for both men and women, more knowledge of nutrition, lower birth rates and lower infant/maternal mortality rates.

Recently, UN countries gathered together to discuss the progress of the MDGs or Millennium Development Goals as their deadline (2015) draws closer. The third goal calls for gender equality and empowerment of women through the elimination of gender disparities in primary and secondary education. This parallels nicely with the 2000 Education for All goal of achieving a 50% improvement in adult literacy, especially for women by the year 2015. The importance of achieving these goals resonates with NGOs, aid agencies and international governing bodies who desperately advocate for the overwhelming positive outcomes of increasing literacy for women. As more women receive more education, they are more likely to educate their girls, which begins to break down the cycle of illiteracy. There are certainly many success stories in the field of development.  The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or BRAC is an excellent example of a literacy program that focuses specifically on females. BRAC effectively works to promote the social and literary status of women in one of the poorest and most populated countries in the world. Through literacy, empowered women not only increase the quality of their own lives but also serve as a huge force in the economic, political and social development of their countries. While education is not the panacea to cure all development problems, a unified, global investment in the education of women is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and raise the status of women.

The U.S. Health Care Reform & You

According to the Institute of Medicine, the United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have health coverage. More people in the U.S. cite medical bankruptcy as the leading cause of debt than in any other developed country. The United States spends more money on health care than any other United Nations member state (except for East Timor) even though the actual use of health care services is below median usage. While debate was raging around the Health Reform Bill, Americans were divided on their views regarding the role of government in the health economy.

“Those in favor of universal health care argue that the large number of uninsured Americans creates direct and hidden costs shared by all, and that extending coverage to all would lower costs and improve quality. Opponents of laws requiring people to have health insurance argue that this impinges on their personal freedom and that other ways to reduce health care costs should be considered.”

(Click on the picture below to enlarge)

Major Ways the Health Care Reform will affect Women:

  1. The big idea: the passed health care bill will extend insurance to 32 million Americans who are currently uninsured, including 17 million uninsured women. How will this happen? By adding people to Medicaid, extending insurance premium subsidies for low and middle class families, penalizing employers for not offering health care, and creating state-run insurance exchanges where people not covered by one of the initiatives above can shop for competitively priced private plans.
  2. Effective as soon as the bill is signed into law, it is illegal for insurance companies to maintain existing industry practices that make health care more expensive for women than men– sex discrimination in health insurance is now against the law.
  3. No health plan would be required to offer coverage for abortion. In plans that do cover abortion, policyholders will pay for it separately, and that money will be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money. States could ban abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother, but the majority of women will now lose coverage for abortion care for policies paid for with private dollars.
  4. Insurance plans are required to cover preventative care. Preventive care is of course critical for all ages and both sexes, but dramatically expands women’s access to screening for cervical and breast cancer and other forms of preventive reproductive and sexual health care unique to women.
  5. Insurance companies will now be required to cover higher percentages of both family planning and maternity care costs– maternity care will now be covered by basic insurance.
  6. Insurance companies can no longer deny health coverage to women who have had a prior Caesarean section or been victims of domestic violence. Some companies providing individual policies have refused coverage in those circumstances, regarding Caesareans or beatings as pre-existing conditions that were likely to be predictors of higher expenses in the future.
  7. The Health Reform bill will expand funding for and access to community health centers and primary health care doctors, often used by low-income women and their families.

Rape as a Weapon of War

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, being a woman has proven to be more dangerous than being a man fighting in war. Since 1998, the  prevalence and intensity of rape and other sexual violence in eastern Congo has been described as the worst in the world. Rape is frequently  used as a psychological weapon of war because it is considered an attack on a woman’s family and culture. In some cultures women are recognized as embodying a community’s cultural and spiritual values.  Women who are raped are often rejected by husbands, families and communities. Sexual violence creates a stigma that humiliates the victim and punishes the local population– it is the easiest way to terrorize a community. Even though the UN maintains its largest peacekeeping force in the DR Congo, forces have been ineffective in stopping the rape of women. The country has taken steps to halt the problem; in 2006, parliament passed legislation criminalizing rape. Rape is now recognized as a crime against humanity and a war crime, but it is unlikely the Congo will experience change until its regions are no longer affected by civil unrest. In the unofficial rape capital of the world, women are afraid to come forward due to fear of punishment and rejection.

Many ask why use sex in this way? It is because a woman is the mother of the nation; you hurt the women and you hurt the nation. The 2006 documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, tells the history and plight of women in this region of the world.

CASE STUDY:

“In 1992, three Serbs in the Bosnian city of Foca – Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic – imprisoned young Muslim girls, tortured them, kept them as sexual slaves and raped them. But the men did not really understand why they were being tried. One of them defended himself by saying: “But I could have killed them!” From his own prospective, he actually saved their lives. Rape? What kind of crime is this compared with killing people? This case is important because on Feb. 22, 2001, Florence Mumbal, the International Criminal Tribunal judge from Zambia, found them guilty. The three were the first men in European legal history to be sentenced for crimes against humanity – torture, slavery, outrages upon human dignity and the mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women.”

How do we change these perceptions to protect women from rape in areas of the world that suffer from civil unrest, war and natural disaster?

Paper Cranes for Peace: One Girl’s Success Story

During World War II, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered the first atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan after refusal to surrender. On August 6, 1945, nearly 80,000 people died and most of the city destroyed. Everything within a mile of the bomb was completely burned. Radiation poisoned many who had survived the blast as well as generations to come. Ten years later, a young 12-yr old girl named Sadako Sasaki discovered she had developed leukemia, the atom bomb disease. She was given one year to live. Reminded by her best friend of an ancient Japanese legend that promised healing and long life, she began folding one thousand paper cranes. After her death, Sadako’s friends and classmates began collecting funds to build a memorial in honor of her and other children that died as a result of the atomic bomb. A statue of Sadako holding a golden crane was unveiled in 1958 at Hiroshima Peace Memorial (and later in 1990 at Seattle Peace Park) with the inscription: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.” Sadako is well known throughout Japan and August 6th, annual peace day, is dedicated to her.

Sadako’s story has been memorialized throughout history in books, poetry, and music. I first learned about Sadako when I saw BYU’s dramatic production of A Thousand Cranes along with its joint display of 123,000 paper cranes and art produced by Japanese-Americans living in Utah’s Topaz Internment Camp from 1942-1945. That’s where I also learned of two 7th grade girls from Minnesota who started the Cranes for Peace Memorial as a school project. From 2007-2009 they collected and made 120,313 paper cranes that represented each of the 11,212 Japanese Americans incarcerated at Topaz plus 109,101 for those at nine other camps in California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Colorado. These paper cranes were then donated to the Topaz Internment Museum.

Courtney Jensen, A Thousand Cranes Dramaturg stated: “…I have found that I have become more aware of how war not only affects those who are literally being shot at, but has everlasting effects on generations to come…What can we do to make sure something like this never happens again? Any action we take as human beings may just be a tiny drop of water in an ocean, but that drop will then make ripples as soon as it hits the surface. We have the power to change the lives of others…

Today, school children all over the world continue to fold paper cranes and send them to Sadako’s memorial in Hiroshima as their universal wish for peace. These cranes symbolize hope for a peaceful future. After seeing A Thousand Cranes with my friends, we each were encouraged to fold a paper crane and write our wish for peace on it. After the production and art exhibit ended, these cast of BYU students sent our cranes off to Japan. (9 metric tons of paper cranes make their way to Hiroshima every year.) As Sadako Sasaki taught us, our wish and our cry should be for world peace. Please check out the links above, especially the Hiroshima Peace Memorial website, where you can learn more about Sadako’s story and the many ways war affects young children. Follow this if you’d like to fold your own paper crane (one of the international symbols of peace) and promote peace in your life and those dearest to you.

What is BYU Women’s Services “yakking” about?

So last week as I was walking through the student Wilkinson Center on campus–easily the building that generates the most foot traffic here at BYU– I noticed a particular poster hanging near the Cougareat. These large posters typically do a great job of hooking students into attendance or compliance, whether it’s running the Rex Lee Run for cancer research or reminding us that yes, ecclesiastical endorsements are indeed due tomorrow. These are no small advertising matters; I’ve personally experienced the BYU bureaucracy of trying to advertise an event. Sure it’s easy to walk into the scheduling office… but whether or not you get a spot on that coveted wall is debatable. Some wall spots (that thousands of students walk by every day) are scheduled weeks, even months in advance. You’ve got to know someone high and mighty to get a good spot or else they likely have another poster that can trump yours in importance.


This poster in particular advertises the BYU Women’s Services and Resources blog. Its message declares:

blah, blah blog

from recipes to relationships and back again.
yakking about all things womanly.

Now, I have participated in many the Women’s Services activity such as: free yoga classes, depression seminars, and that annual birthing options conference (purely out of public-health curiosity, of course). I also think they’re doing a fantastic job with their current Voices of Courage campaign to raise awareness about intimate partner violence in an environment (the BYU Bubble) where many people may not know a lot about violence against women. (I also ran the Voice of Courage of 5K last fall semester). BUT when I did see the blog poster and the “yakking about all things womanly” tagline, I did experience a customary eye-roll and wondered at how extreme they were stereotyping the campus female population. YES, the Women’s Services office creates programs that cater to its audience, but why couldn’t we also yakk about great females throughout history that advocated for social justice like Gloria Steinem or Harriet Tubman? Or AT LEAST, why couldn’t they advertise something a little more substantial on the poster? Recipes and Relationships? Is that all I’m worth? Is that really all that constitutes “womanly”? Is that what I would like the male population to think of first when acknowledging my existence as a female? With a defeated hunch in my shoulders, I turned away and almost missed this little gem that someone had written on the poster:

Maybe I turned away a little too quickly. It was refreshing to see another comrade’s handwriting expressing my exact thoughts; especially amid a shaky year of what some call the “sketchy” shutdown of the Women’s Research Institute (do yourself a favor, click here and here). I walked through the Cougareat again yesterday– the poster was gone. Curious to see if they had taken it down because of the person’s comment, I called the Women’s Services office. They said that the poster had simply been taken down because its wall time had run out. I’m still wondering if that was the real reason.