Sunday, April 24, 2011

Faith, charity and cosmopolitanism

On what is arguably the second-most important holiday for the Christian community, I happen to be in the midst of a bit of a "crisis of faith". As a self-avowed secular humanist, I am not struggling with my belief (or nonbelief in my case) but rather with a decision I recently made to apply for an internship with a local charitable organization with a strong denominational affiliation. For the sake of decorum the name of the organization and the specific denomination will remain anonymous but frankly those details are not of particular relevance to my thoughts on this paradoxical matter.

My confliction does not stem from an insecurity regarding my own beliefs but rather from my opposition to many of the professed beliefs and principles upon which this denomination, as well as many other religious doctrines, base their public relations and political activities. In particular I find myself very much chagrined by the institutionalized homophobia expressed by many orthodox faiths and the subsequent anti-gay activism that results from that policy. The work I am seeking to do with this organization is truly altruistic in nature and represents an opportunity for me to gain practical and tangible experience in the field I have chosen as my mission in life. On the one hand, I have the utmost respect for this organization in its efforts towards refugee and immigrant settlement and assistance (which is the area of the organization that I am applying for) while on the other hand I am having trouble reconciling this admirable venture with the proportionally deplorable efforts to thwart marriage-equality campaigns and other such gay-rights movements.

The question I have been asking myself as of late is "Can I put aside my disagreement with this organization on one issue in order to work positively towards another objective?" The answer I have arrived at is an emphatic "yes". I am willing to compartmentalize my feelings on the issue of gay rights in order to become an agent of good and help to bring about some semblance of dignity and stability to an incredibly vulnerable and unfortunate group of people seeking refuge and asylum in this country. I've reached the conclusion that interfaith cooperation is beneficial to all parties involved, especially when working cooperatively towards a common philanthropic goal. Though I may disagree heartily with certain aspects of many religious beliefs and principles, I am willing to accept these differences in philosophy in order to affect positive social change.

The thing that allows me to bridge these doctrinal disparities is the unifying and all-inclusive force of cosmopolitanism. Part of the application process for this internship was to submit a writing sample in addition to all of the usual resume-related materials. I decided to compose an original piece specifically directed towards this internship in which I highlighted my adherence to the moires of cosmopolitanism. I have included the brief essay below so that those of you who are interested may take a gander. As always, I'd love to hear what you think!

A Call To Cosmopolitan Compassion
            The very definition of what it is to be cosmopolitan does not adequately explain the importance of the cause: “free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attatchments”. While this definition does outline crucial components of cosmopolitanism, it lacks the subtle but no less important moral and ethical responsibilities incumbent upon those of us who claim the cosmopolitan mantle. To be a true cosmopolitan or citizen of the world means to lead a life characterized and defined by compassion and a deep, abiding devotion to the idea that we all have the right to human dignity and prosperity, regardless of such demographic factors as national origin or racial identification.
            One of the most vulnerable subsections of the world population is the growing number of refugees and asylum-seekers attempting to escape immensely difficult, often mortally perilous conditions in their native homelands. Many of these people have witnessed or experienced atrocities and hardships that most of us can only dream of in our worst nightmares. In addition to the traumatic and violent experiences from which they are fleeing, they must deal with the cultural and language barriers presented to them once they arrive at their desired place of refuge. The notions of social justice and equality are often alien to refugees and asylum-seekers who have known nothing but despotism and oppression. This presents another set of obstacles to overcome as these people must undergo a fundamental reorientation of their outlook and expectations regarding society and government. Refugees from Africa, Asia and Latin America come to the shores of the United States seeking an opportunity for a better life while at the same time possessing very little in terms of material objects and even less exposure to democracy and institutional fairness.
The application of cosmopolitan values while trying to settle and assimilate refugees would be immeasurably beneficial. Equally as, if not even more important than providing access to clothing and housing for physical comfort and stability is the provision of kindness and understanding to begin the process of healing mental and emotional wounds. It is vitally important to make clear that despite what they may have been told or shown in their tumultuous pasts they are equally valuable members of the world community and deserve the respect and dignity intrinsic to all human beings. It is difficult to imagine growing up in an environment where human life and dignity are valued so little by those in power; being consistently treated as subhuman and worthless can only serve to critically damage the self-esteem and self-worth of any individual subjected to such treatment for so long. The cosmopolitan ethos stresses the principles of egalitarianism and the value of all people and the practical implementation of these principles in helping refugees and asylum-seekers is a moral imperative that cannot be ignored.
            As a self-professed cosmopolite I am obviously subjectively advocating the increased awareness and instillment of the philosophy; the beauty of cosmopolitanism is that, in accordance with its emphasis on inclusiveness and universality, it is compatible with most other ethical or moral codes. The principles of Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, and any other religiously or spiritually derived ethical system, are fundamentally in unison with cosmopolitanism. All of these belief systems and philosophies stress charity and compassion towards others as not only a desirable disposition but a clear and self-evident duty. We cosmopolitans view ourselves as the unifying force espousing values and tenets that people of all faiths, nationalities, races, and ethnicities can embrace. This is a call for all of us as a global community comprised of truly global citizens to the cause of cosmopolitan compassion.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Baseball is beautiful

For as long as I can remember, the turn of the calendar from March to April has not only heralded the promise of more pleasent weather but also marked the coming of the closest I ever get to observing a religious holiday: Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. As I compose this blog post my favorite team (Boston Red Sox) is mired in a league-worst slump, having lost 10 of their first 13 contests. The mere fact that I am able to still reflect glowingly upon my sentiments towards baseball despite thisdisheartening start to the season is a testament to just how deep and true my love for this game flows.

Baseball has been my constant companion since I was about five or six years old and not much has changed since then. The start of the season still marks the happiest time of the year for me (yes, it rivals Christmas) and the game still manages to provide a blissful distraction from the vagaries of everyday life. Part of what makes the game so wonderful is that it is an everyday occurrence throughout the duration of the six month season; it's like the comforting warmth of a pet or a lover, or the familiar weight of your favorite necklace dangling from your neck. Baseball is constant, consistent and comforting. It also happens to coincide with the peak seasons for warm weather - birds chirpin', sun shinin', flip flops flippin' and floppin'. And oh yes: baseball.

If you have not had the pleasure of attending a live professional baseball game then you simply must do so. Even if baseball is not of particular interest to you, attending a game in person is a sensory experience of epic proportions. The sights, sounds and smells combine to create a singular and unforgettable event that should be experienced at least once in any given lifetime. The smell of steaming hot dogs and frying fries, the sounds of vendors hocking eheir wares and the crack of the bat striking the ball, the startling, almost surreal colors of the oh-so green grass and the contrast of the freshly painted white basepaths against the deep brown of the infield dirt; words alone cannot do justice to the wonderous secular miracle that is a live professional baseball game.

In addition to the more visceral pleasures that go along with baseball, there is a larger and more socially oriented aspect that is even more important to me. Baseball is one of the true microcosmic renditions of the phenomenon we know as the "melting pot". This put simply is the notion of different racial, ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic entities mixing and melding together to form a cohesive end product. Hopefully a delicious one. As most of us probably know, this idea is a noble one and a goal to which we should all aspire but it does not manifest itself as seamlessly or coherenetly in our society as we might like it to; racial and religious tensions still abound in America (and in the world for that matter) and conflict still results from these tensions. Enter baseball, stage center. Baseball is one of the only places where I have ever observed the peaceful and harmonious cooperation of so many different nationalities, races, religions and cultures. It is quite common in a baseball clubhouse to observe a Japanese pitcher who no doubt ascribes to some Eastern form of spirituality (if he adheres to any faith at all) playing cards with a good 'ol boy from Texas whose religious and cultural moires could not be any more different from and alien to those of his counterpart. But what matters to these guys is their common goal, their shared purpose.

Baseball's distinct form of unity and camraderie is made possible by its unique demographic makeup. Hispanic and Latino baseball players compose 28.5% of the baseball population; Caucasian/white players compose 60% while the numbers for Black/African-American and Asian players (9% and 2.5%, respectively) have been steadily increasing every year. I mentioned the societal impact of baseball because yesterday (April 15th) was "Jackie Robinson Day" which commemorates the first black baseball player to ever break the color barrier. This happened in 1947, almost 20 years before the Civil Rights Act was ever enshrined into law by Congress. Was baseball a catalyst for the civil rights movement? Perhaps. That's a question far beyond the scope of this blog poast and definitely one beyond my pay grade. The point is, to me, baseball is not merely a game. It's more than that to me but I would argue that it has historically been more than that to this country. In short, baseball is beautiful.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Shattering the American DREAM (Act)

In early December of 2010, during what is known in Washington parlance as the "lame-duck" session of the 111th Congress, the House of Representatives passed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (more commonly known as the DREAM Act) by a 216 - 198 party-line vote. As is the case with many pieces of legislation, the DREAM Act would die in the Senate a short time later. The bill would have paved the way to legal status for hundreds of thousands of young people whose parents brought them to this country illegally; potential beneficiaries would be eligible only after meeting a plethora of requirements and adhering to strict parameters regarding educational achievement and demonstration of "good moral character". Supporters of the bill tout the economic benefits while opponents contend that the bill amounts to a policy of "amnesty" for criminals. But, as is so often true in life, the devils (and angels) are in the details.

An estimated 755,000 young people would be eligible to receive the benefits outlined in the DREAM Act; that number increases every year by about 65,000, as that is the estimated number of children of undocumented residents that graduate from high school in this country per annum. In order to qualify for the bill's benefits an individual must meet a strict range of prerequisites; a potential beneficiary must have graduated from a U.S. high school or attained a GED, submitted to and passsed an exhaustive background check, have been brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been living in the country for at least five years prior to enactment of the bill, and then the real demands begin. Once it has been determined that the DREAM Act applicant is neither a criminal nor a security risk and has met the other educational and residency guidelines, that person must then enter a ten-year period in which they are granted "conditional nonimmigrant status". During this period the individual must complete either two years of college or two years of military service. In addition, an applicant must also avoid any sort of legal or criminal issues, which would further demonstrate the aforementioned "good moral character". After this initial ten-year period, if all requirements have been met, the individual is permitted to apply for a three-year period of "permanent legal resident" status. Only after this 13-year stretch of pristine living and societal contribution can a beneficiary even contemplate achieving citizenship in the United States. Does this seem like an easy undertaking? It isn't.

Now that I've bored you with some of the nitty gritty of the bill, let me bore you further with some of the positive economic impacts that enactment of the DREAM Act would provide to a struggling economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that enactment of the bill would lower the federal budget deficit by $1.4 billion over the next ten years. In a study conducted by RAND (Research ANd Development) it was estimated that for every immigrant that eventually graduates from college as opposed to those who drop out of high school, there is an average increase of $5,300 per person in tax revenue and an average decrease of $3,900 in federal government expenditures. That alone amounts to a net-positive impact of over $9,000 for every immigrant that would be eligible to attain higher education through the DREAM Act. The Congressional Budget Office also reported that the newly legalized workers and students resulting from enactment of the DREAM Act would increase revenues by $2.3 billion over the next ten years. We're hearing quite a lot these days about the solvency and long-term viability of programs such as Social Security; the Foundation for American Policy states that newly legalized immigrants will contribute $407 billion to the Social Security fund over the next 50 years. If I were so inclined, I could literally enumerate beneficial economic impacts that would result from passage of the DREAM Act, and from a comprehensive legalization policy in general, for pages upon pages. But I think that I've droned on long enough with the numbers and the dry factoids.

The numbers and the nuts-and-bolts aspects of this issue are important and I would not contend otherwise. I am however more compelled by the moral and ethical implications that this debate brings to the surface of our collective consciousness. This is a debate over the kind of country, the kind of society that we want to be. These young people are de facto Americans who have undergone the same uniquely American brand of cultural socialization that I have; they grew up watching the same cartoons, following the same sports teams, going to the same schools, observing many of the same social norms and customs that the rest of us have. These young people were brought here at even younger ages then they are now and are here "illegally" through absolutely no fault of their own. Having lived here since the age of two, or six, or twelve, the hundreds of thousands of individuals who would be affected by the DREAM Act love their adoptive country and know no other home. Opponents of this bill are exacting a harsh, punitive form of xenophobia in which innocent bystanders are held accountable for the proverbial "sins of the father". The DREAMers we're talking about here are high-achieving potential assets that are left in a legal limbo once they've graduated high school; these are our future doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists. These are not criminals or social parasites, freeloaders or fiscal burdens, or any of the other hateful and factually inaccurate epithets used by immigration opponents. The 755,000 young adults who would potentially be eligible for the relief provided by the DREAM Act are ostensibly as American as any of us. So what is it that they lack? Paperwork. The only thing that seperates a 25-year old whose parents brought him here illegally when he was a young child from, let's say, the 25- year old composing this blog post, is mere paperwork and a small rectangular piece of cardboard with a randomized nine-digit code printed on it. Is this what we have finally reduced that indefinable notion of American-ness to? Is being an American simply crossing t's and dotting i's? In my opinion, being an American is far more than that. It means striving to better oneself and ones community. It means experiencing and ascribing to the singular American ethos and way of life. The DREAMers at stake here represent the next generation of innovators, leaders and visionaries and they deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams. But not just any dream: the American dream.

Addendum: For those of you desiring to learn more about the DREAM Act, either for your own edification or to fact-check me, I have provided links below to the House and Senate versions of the DREAM Act legislation. Upon request, I can provide further documentation to support my assertions as contained above or to provide more educational resources.

House version: : http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:H.R.1751
Senate version: : http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:S3992