20 Nov 2010

Condom use and the RCC

The Roman Catholic Church has long forbidden all condom use, regardless of any mitigating circumstances. Can't afford kids? Can't use a condom, just don't have sex. Scary genetic markers? Can't use a condom, just trust God. Sex out of wedlock? Can't use a condom, and stop sleeping around. HIV-positive husband? Can't use a condom, just go contract AIDS and die.

I wish I were exaggerating. I remember one Newman meeting where Fr. Bruce professed to care very much about the plight of women but adamantly claimed that all condom use was an inherent moral wrong. All of it. We even set up the not-very-hypothetical situation of a woman with an HIV-positive husband who was insistent on having sex with her one way or another, and Fr. Bruce was quite clear that it would be immoral for her to even request a condom. He said, with no irony and a perfectly straight face, that using a condom would mean that she was not making a complete gift of herself to her husband (and that he would not be making a complete gift of himself to her). Nice gift.

So wherever the line really should be drawn, the RCC has been well on the wrong side of it, and finally (but somewhat earlier than I expected) the Pope has admitted as much. In a book to come out next week, the Pope concedes that condom use may be acceptable to reduce HIV risk, at least in some cases. So, progress.

But what's really, really weird about this is the context in which he made this concession. When I first saw this in a Telegraph article someone shared on Facebook, I thought maybe it was a mistranslation or just an odd focus, but the BBC article linked above framed it the same way, as did the Trib and NYT. Here we go: the example where AIDS-preventive condom use might be acceptable is male prostitutes, starting on the path back to morality. Not spouses with HIV; not prostitutes generally. Male prostitutes.

I'm going to take a deep breath here, so I can give you a measured, rational response to this:


Look, we know that the RCC is basically misogynistic at its core and has been for basically its entire existence. And we appreciate that it's been making some progress in that regard, with fewer restrictions on what women can do and at least a handful of women in reasonably high posts in the Curia. And we know that change in one of the oldest institutions in the world isn't going to be fast. And surely by giving an example he is only giving an illustration of the principle—although based on what I've read it's not entirely clear that the reasoning is meant to apply to the spousal case I outline above.

It still manages to shock me how completely blind to women the Pope can still be about this. He went far out of his way to cite an AIDS-prevention example that didn't protect any women at all—just men. Apparently he just couldn't bear the thought that women might have even a small measure of control over their own bodies. Only in the context of sexual relations that the church already forbids on at least three separate grounds (extramarital, homosexual, and prostitutive) did he specifically concede that perhaps condoms might not be adding to the burden. And in setting the context up as possibly "a first step towards moralisation", he didn't even cast the net wide enough to include all sexual sinners. He specifically addresses this to male prostitutes.

This is at the very best a criminal level of tone-deafness from the Pope. But I'm pretty sure it's actually just another manifestation of the boy's club's continuing distrust and loathing of women.

"To many of us Brits, the cry 'keep government out of health care' just sounds a little kooky, on a par with 'keep government out of defending the nation' or 'keep government out of building roads'. In Britain one of the main things the government does, one of the main reason people pay taxes, is for health care, so naturally the revulsion at it in the States seems a little strange." --Mark Mardell, BBC

Posted by blahedo at 6:03pm | Comments (0)

9 Nov 2010

Trading privacy, freedom, and health for... nothing

You might have heard me complain before about airports. I flew a lot when I was in grad school, several times a year, and I enjoy the flying itself. But since 2001 the whole airport experience has become increasingly unpleasant, with most of the changes designed to make us think we're safer without doing a whole lot to actually improve our security.

This trend has run completely off the rails in the last year with the introduction of the strip search scanners—showing naked pictures of you to someone at a terminal somewhere to verify that you're not carrying anything that they suspect might be a weapon. Backscatter X-ray scanning first made a splash a year or so ago and seems fast on its way to becoming standard equipment in US airports. A boon for Rapiscan (actually their name! I couldn't make this up!), but a huge loss for the travelling public.


We're told that we shouldn't worry. Why? Well, partly because the images were too blurry to make out any detail of skin or genitalia, they said. But they lied about that. The genitalia might be sort of smooshed up depending on your undergarment preferences, but the machines take images in pret-ty fine detail.

Oh, but the machines aren't even capable of storing the images, they said. But they lied about that, too (see page 16). In fact the spec requires that the machine store things and even make them downloadable onto USB sticks. Ok, they said, they're capable but we would never do that, don't you trust us? I'm not entirely sure why we would, since they required the machines to have storage capability and are now going out of their way to claim that they don't. In a somewhat related case, US Marshals were caught lying about this too—they have a slightly different type of strip search scanner than they're bringing in to airports, but the images were, sure enough, stored away. TSA is trying to distance themselves, but it's unconvincing.

Another early concern was health-related: if these are X-ray machines, and we're supposed to limit our lifetime exposure to X-rays and other radiation (due to cancer risk among other things), don't they pose a health risk? But no, they said, the radiation is really weak, nothing to worry about. Well, they might have been lying again, both in underestimating the per-dose risk and particularly in downplaying the social risk: even if one pass through the scanner is low-risk, if millions of people go through these things, with some people repeating it frequently, it's near-certain that these machines will be responsible for increased risk in the population. Furthermore, among children and the perhaps 5% of adults that are more sensitive to radiation, the risk is, again, higher. TSA responds: nah.

New developments

But aside from all of that, TSA has long claimed that you could decline to be scanned by these machines, in which case you would be screened using traditional means. They've now upped the ante with a new policy that mandates that the TSA person actually grope your genitalia rather than the traditional pat-down. The apparent goal of this is to embarrass people into going through the strip search scanner instead. I've been seeing various reports that corroborate this idea.

There's currently a rumour spreading in the blogosphere that the APA, a major pilots' union, is calling a boycott of the backscatter X-ray scanners, which would be huge. One libertarian blog prints a (purported) copy of the letter to the union members. So far I only see it in one "real" news outlet, news.com.au, but possibly it just hasn't gotten traction yet. It's certainly good news for the anti-strip-search crowd, though.

Are they really so bad?


As established above, these scanners take a pretty detailed picture of your naked body. They show the picture to someone (or several people, who knows), and save it to a hard drive that they claim they won't do anything with, where it will sit indefinitely. Furthermore, it definitely exposes you to some amount of X-ray radiation, which might or might not be generally safe, and might or might not be specially problematic for you personally, depending on your medical background and/or genetic makeup.

This is an incredibly invasive form of search. One might suppose that the Fourth Amendment would prevent the government doing such a search without probable cause, but in a particularly puzzling turn, the Supreme Court has ruled that "administrative" searches (like metal detectors) are acceptable specifically when they don't suspect you of anything. The strip search scanners haven't been constitutionally tested yet, but I wouldn't count on help from that quarter. Even if they turn out to be constitutional, that doesn't change the fact that your basic freedom of movement has a tollgate across it, and the toll is that you either have to flash a stranger or let him grope you. Under other circumstances, this would be a clear case of sexual assault.

Which brings me to one of the most important problems with this system. There is a significant proportion of our population who were subject either to child abuse or to some other form of sexual trauma. Requiring them to relive the trauma—again, you're given a choice between letting a stranger see or touch your genitalia—is truly a form of psychological assault. It's just a matter of time before someone goes into a full-scale panic attack over this at an airport, although the likelier result is that people who've suffered that sort of sexual trauma will simply not fly.

There are two other constituencies who are particularly affected by the policy: the young and the religious. Parents who don't particularly want naked pictures of their children floating around, or who are concerned about the radiation vulnerabilities, may choose to not let their children be scanned—which means they get groped instead. I dearly hope that there are no pedophiles on staff at the TSA, although at this point I have to assume that would be an attractive job option for them. As for religious people, there are a number of denominations that have fairly strict rules about modesty and physical contact (and not just for women). Such denominations are effectively barred from flying if these policies become fully mainstream.

And the worst part is, they aren't really improving security. You already couldn't get a gun through, or electronics, or various other things that set off the metal detector; the main thing that they weren't already able to catch was liquid or plastic bomb-making materials, and these are still hideable in various body cavities or through surgical implantation.

What can you do?

Of course, this is one of those dumb things that takes on an inertia of its own, propelled forward by uncritical people who will trade away anything for even the illusion of security, as well as—let's follow the money here—the purveyors of the scanners, who are making gobs of money right now. There are some things you can do to push back, though.

Don't fly. Drive or take the bus or train (or don't travel at all). This is a form of voting with your feet (as it were), but is most effective if you also write to any airlines of which you're a frequent flyer, explaining why you won't be using their services anymore, as well as to your local Congressional representation, explaining why you're not contributing to that sector of the economy anymore. Airlines and Congress are two groups that might actually have some influence on TSA policy.

Decline the scanner. If you do fly (unavoidable for some of us), and get selected, turn them down. Politely, of course, but firmly and in terms that make it clear to everyone around what you're doing; here's a suggested script:

"I'd prefer the pat-down (or 'groping') to the strip search, please."
If challenged on the term strip search, as seems semi-likely:
"It records a picture of my naked body, and sends it to a screen for someone to look at, right?"
Then, regardless whether the responds is "yes", "no", "yes, but...", silence, whatever, follow up with just:
"Pat-down, please."
You don't want to overly provoke anyone, but it's important to get the facts out there: this lets everyone else in the line what they're actually signing up for. As an added benefit, it may gum up the security lines—and the more they get gummed up, the more likely that policy gets modified.

File a report. If you feel the TSA has been abusive with a pat-down search, you might try filing a report with TSA but you should definitely report it to the ACLU, who is tracking these abuses and building a case. You should also report to EPIC even if you go through the scanner, as they're trying to build a case about those as well (and to see if any particular groups are being profiled by being selected disproportionately for scanning).

Be vocal! A lot of people still don't understand just what the problem is; talk about it and explain that the screenings (either the strip search scanner or the manual groping) are invasive and abusive; that they are not helping security; and that they certainly violate the spirit of the 4th Amendment and arguably its letter. Show nothing but the deepest of contempt for anyone who claims to either A) value freedom or B) hate big government but still supports this massive, expensive, invasive, overreaching waste of time and money.

In closing, I'll leave you with a clip that is probably familiar but looks rather different now than it did a couple years ago. It was funny in 1982 because it seemed so absurd. Now it just seems prescient:

"Gah, if TPTB want to shut down all airline travel, it'd be way easier to just come out and say it. ALL AIRPORTS CLOSED! Better than this long drawn-out charade where we all have to hate airplanes first." --Eva Sweeney

Posted by blahedo at 2:36am | Comments (0)

3 Nov 2010


I have seen every mainstage show at Knox since the Fall of 2003, and the current production of Euripides' Medea is without question among the very, very best of them.

The show opens strong. The set---the enormous, stage-encompassing set---puts us all in the courtyard of a (modern) Corinthian villa, complete with a deck, grass, sandbox, the illusion of a canopy of trees, and fallen autumn leaves strewn about. Whereas just about every "classical" play I can think of takes a scene or two to achieve full immersion---for a variety of reasons that I've written about before---Avery Wigglesworth's narration as the Nurse draws the audience in immediately, and much of her activity (hiding the house's sharp objects) explains itself long before she gets around to telling us about it. Almost without realising it, we get the entire backstory as a prologue without feeling like we've been Talked At.

As the play continues, there are a variety of actors that rotate through, many of them for a single memorable scene as a character they have quite made their own. Notable among these is Noel Sherrard, camping it up and, without ever straying a single step from the text as written, giving us a King Aegeus that few of us would ever have seen in a mere reading of the play. Lines that could have been played straight were given a second (or third!) meaning, and the whole scene injected unexpected levity into some very dark proceedings. Jason (Jack Dryden) has only three scenes, one of them fairly short, but manages to pack a lot in there: at several points we very nearly become sympathetic to what he's done, which is only possible because he convinces us that his actions were not due to an evil nature or even rampant egotism so much as a breathtaking unawareness of the humanity of the female sex. That's kind of tricky, actually, considering all that Jason did, but somehow he pulls it off... which makes the ending vastly more tragic than it might otherwise be.

The interpretation of the chorus was interesting. I believe it was written this way in the translation (a recent one by Robin Robertson), but the chorus doesn't recite any of its lines en chœur. Instead, the three women act as a sort of coffee klatsch, sometimes including Medea and sometimes just talking amongst themselves; rather than speaking to the audience, they are an extension of the audience, but since they are women of Corinth, they are an audience for Medea's monologues that situate within the play itself. It was worth keeping an eye on them, particularly Kathleen Donoghue but to some extent all of them, for the meaningful glances they exchanged or the shocked, surprised, or sympathetic reactions they gave to whatever Medea was up to.

And then there's Medea. Nellie Ognacevic has to be all over the map with this character: grief, anger, jealousy, love, happiness, regret, dread, satisfaction (not necessarily in that order). The character herself is a woman of great fortitude and able to set aside certain emotions when she has need to, so at various points Nellie had to play a woman who was deeply grief-stricken, but setting that aside to be devious, but burying that to present as submissive and apologetic. Flawlessly! She turned in a great performance, and it's hard to imagine what the other plays will have to be like to edge her out of this year's Colton prize. There were multiple scenes that---even each by themselves---would have been noteworthy. Her long monologue flaming the crap out of Jason, for starters; it would have fit right in to the best Usenet flamewars, picking at him with scathing remarks and blistering accuracy. Her grand act to convince Jason that she's come around, from the first "Jason" out of her mouth (which drew a laugh, it was so different from Medea's regular speech!) to every time she tells him how submissive she is and how silly women are... and the shadow that crosses her face as she turns away from him to regain composure. Possibly the best scene in the show, where she decides, then un-decides, then decides again that she needs to kill the children: truly chilling. And finally, her "evil for evil, grief for grief" speech, driving home every last tragic little detail of the story.

If you live in Galesburg, or will be in Galesburg sometime this week, or can find some excuse to visit sometime this week, do try to make it to this show. It's worth your time, and it's precisely the sort of thing I'm talking about when I extol the cultural offerings of Galesburg. It's playing through Saturday in Harbach (in CFA on the Knox Campus).

Why major in CS?: "It seems obvious to me that one would have to be an idiot to be employed doing anything other than practicing magic in a world filled with sorcery." --Maxwell Galloway-Carson

Posted by blahedo at 11:58pm | Comments (0)