Reporting from an Abortion Rally in Oak Park, IL

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Have you ever seen a plastic miniature mold of a dead baby fetus ?

Because I have. The abortion rally on June 26, 2013 in Oak Park, IL drew a crowd of about 30 people outside of Dr. Cheryl Chastine’s office. Dr. Chastine’s work as a physician spans from family practice to abortion procedures. She also travels to perform abortions at a Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas throughout the year–the very same building in which Scott Roeder murdered the 67-year old physician George Tiller in 2009 for providing 3rd trimester abortions. It is primarily Chastine’s work in the gynecological milieu that has caused such an uprising amongst the pro-lifers of America.
The rally was to begin at 11:30 AM, but people posted their picket signs outside as early as 10:15. With no clear demarcation between sides, I was forced to judge books by their covers (or, in some cases, their neon yellow t-shirts) in order to discover their ideological leanings.
Nora, a student from the University of Chicago, became involved with the cause a year and a half ago when she signed up for the Planned Parenthood action program. It made her angry to know that some people want to ban Planned Parenthood’s plethora of services for women. She gradually started working with the Illinois Choice Action Team to support Dr. Chastine’s work and make a stand.
“We’re grateful for her. She’s a hero, not a monster. These protests are actually a disruption to her life.”
Dr. Chastine has had issues renewing the lease on her Oak Park building due to the negative publicity it has attracted in recent months. Some say that she may not be based out of Oak Park much longer.
Brian, Nora’s classmate, works at the Lumen Cristi Institute in Chicago.
“I’d call the ACLU if they fired me for being here,” he said.
A student of the Divinity School at U of C, Brian brought together two of his passions : theology and activism. But were others able to do the same ?
Directly beside Nora and Brian stood Eric Schneidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. Eric’s father and founder of the league, Joe Schneidler, hoisted a picket sign of a mangled fetus in silence while Eric spoke animatedly about what brought him to Oak Park despite the scattered showers.
Before working at the PLAL shop in Aurora, his hometown, Eric channelled his energy toward the efforts of the Gift Foundation, a Christian-affiliated non-profit focused on fundamental marriage issues. In 2002, he realized that his past had brought him to a turning point, and he became the communications director for the PLAL.
Eric’s parents got involved in Roe v. Wade because they were shocked that unborn babies were not getting
“… the legal protection they deserve as human beings. They are fully unique, developing, individuals. Pro-choice people will come to me with evidence from an embryologist. For every embryologist, I’ll find you a guy that flunked out of embryology school.”
Among the societal ills listed by Eric Schneidler is a flawed culture of sexuality that is no longer life-giving. A change in ethics and morals, he said, is the only way to move forward as a society. He drew an analogy between the abolitionists of the 19th century and the pro-lifers of today, who he claims are fighting for human rights and social justice for all.
Concerning the recent filibuster in Texas, Schneidler said : “America’s a republic, so I feel a kinship with the people [in Texas].” About State Senator Wendy Davis’s speech, he said : “That lady will have her own conscience and consequences to deal with.” Schneidler may or may not have been alluding to the biblical judgment day.
Is it possible to reconcile religion and science, rational thought and passionate sentiment ? Pro-choicers and pro-lifers are people who whole-heartedly believe in making the world a better place. Their views are informed by cultural narratives and personal experiences that nobody can pinpoint perfectly. Change, it seems, lies in the delicate balance between dialogue and action. As long as constituents continue to question their policy makers, steps will surely be taken. Whether these are forward steps or backward steps are for each individual to decide.

This post was also published in Thought Catalog. You can read the original here.

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Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest

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When I met Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest in Chicago, the stadium was not packed. I can’t imagine why, considering the man has written some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, including Crime, Acid House, and Trainspotting. We watched Jennifer Day ask the standard questions and corrected them in our heads, thinking we could’ve done the interview better, banter and all.

Welsh told us he moved to Chicago to escape the monotony of London life. Dealing with high-end publishers is so New York, and he and his wife wanted a change of pace. Chicago, Welshit seemed, offered a reprieve from the non-stop hustle of places like London and New York City without the confetti and cake of Los Angeles. With all the Irish influence in the city, he felt right at home.
After spending hours in pubs making his liver beg for sweet mercy, Welsh realized he had to get down to business. He said that some writers have the great task of reconciling their socialite tendencies with their creative sensibility, which requires them to isolate themselves for days on end with people who don’t exist. These fictional characters become a part of them–he even creates a soundtrack for each character to inspire him to write from a particular perspective.
Welsh’s next novel will focus on the serendipitous encounter of an overweight artist and a personal trainer in Miami. The trainer will sequester the artist in order to monitor her caloric intake, and the two will learn loads from each other about life, love, and all the rest. Sounds satirical, no ?
Welsh quipped about frequenting pubs for “character building”, but his most accurate remark was about the quality of life in America, establishing him as a social critic and a classic Chicagoan. Progressive taxation, he argued, is a must for a society that wants to have healthier workers and higher productivity. Take that, Tea Party.
In his book Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt argues that progressive taxation leads to a more trusting society that is egalitarian. The crux is that when benefits like health care, unemployment, and time off are similar across the board, people trust each other not to screw each other over for a raise at work or a better deal on car insurance.
A slice of the proverbial pie is available to any and all.
This opportunity makes social reform easier to propose on a grander scale. So the higher our taxes, the more likely we are to lead harmonious lives. Associating higher taxes with happiness is unheard of in modern American culture. Maybe what Welsh means is that it all makes for a fitter, healthier, and harder-working community and that should be Big Brother’s number one priority.
Regardless of whether or not we agree with what Welsh said, it’s important for us to have people with diverging opinions in our country, especially when these people are literary boons and social critics. It’s been years since an author spoke out about anything for fear of jeopardizing their sales.
Irvine Welsh waxed poetic on the formation of the world’s most egotistical, innovative, and productive nation, pointing out weakness to a public with a keen literary sensibility. He also told me that his favourite brand of whiskey is the Scottish Highlander. For his courage, his insight, and his sense of humor, he deserves to stay in America.

“Get married. H…

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“Get married. Have a quiver full of kids if you can. Some people could marry but choose to take more time… They’re going to miss so much of living, I’m afraid.” – Mitt Romney’s speech to Southern Virginia University’s graduating class ’13

What’s a quiver ? This quote is comically misplaced, much like Romney’s political career. It’s as if an alien descended on Earth romney and decided to give a commencement speech using book-learned English. Can someone please make a movie out of this ? Romney has to be saying these things for kicks. There is no way he truly thinks young people will know what a quiver is. The full article is a reminder to all of us that even though the man in the white house is not top-notch, he may just have turned out to be the lesser of two evils.

The Re-United States of America

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Obama's victory

PHOTO : AP

 

E Pluribus Unum- “Out of many, one”. Engraved on every single American bill and coin, this Latin phrase reminds Americans of the importance of economic growth during the next four years.

For swing state Wisconsin resident Anna Steinbrecher, the morning after the elections was difficult. “I got to bed at about 4 AM. I’m running on a lot of Starbucks and adrenaline right now”.

For others, like independent freelance journalist Stuart Sipkin of swing state Colorado, the election was just another night at home with the family. Sipkin says Obama’s victory is proof that no matter how divisive the days leading up to the election might be, the end result is a coming together of the people. “I voted for Obama, but I don’t think Romney is a bad person. Everyone wants the best for the country they come from, and that’s what I saw at these events”. Socially liberal Republicans may have chosen not to vote at all, or they voted for Obama because Romney’s policies were too extreme. The Hispanic vote turned Colorado into a blue state, even though Hispanic voters tend to be split. The anti-immigration stance of the Republican party was the dealbreaker”.

Immigration has transformed the American political landscape in huge ways

Anna, who works at the Institute for Latino Research Policy in Chicago, expanded on the changing demographics of swing states: “According to a report by the Huffington Post, about 70% of the Latino vote went to Obama. Despite failing to pass things like the “Dream Act”, and also despite the differences in voting behaviors between different Hispanic groups (Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans), Obama seems to be perceived by the Latino community as being the most in touch with their needs.” Over the past 30 years, immigration has transformed the American political landscape in huge ways. Appealing to the rich in election campaigns is no longer a viable means to becoming president of the United States.

Speaking of gamechangers, most people agree that the decisive points in Obama’s victory were the debates. Kristopher Radder, a freelance journalist from New York, said: “That was the turning point where you saw this man get fired up and it was almost like a second wind for the last coming weeks of the elections. Also, the photos of him coming out with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie show bipartisanship. He can put away political differences during hard times, and that says a lot.” Kristopher added that at all the events he attended, the most remarkable thing was to see people of starkly different backgrounds standing side by side, just like Obama and Christie did.

“Obama can put away political differences during hard times, and that says a lot.”

Teamwork is more complex than it appears, but politics has not changed that much since the first American election. Jefferson and Adams invoked images of hell and called each other secret monarchists in the 17th century. This strong link between religion and politics is still prevalent in America today: “At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing… And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.” In his concession speech, Romney acknowledged the need for cooperation in the government that rejected him from office, bidding farewell to a population whose demographic has morphed beyond the scope of his party.

Bipolarisation of politics is old news. Anna Steinbrecher said “Although there is no way to measure public opinion from the 1860s, it is suspected that the country’s opinion is as divided as it was during the Civil War. This means less compromise in politics. In a “too big to fail” country like the US, this polarization means that the consequences made here affect the whole world.”. Although it is still too early to tell what the global repercussions will be, the 2012 election is different because the average American has more representation than ever before.

Bringing meaning to the name “United States of America”

In a time when the country’s general political stance is drifting to the right, a Democratic leader has been re-elected as president of the United States. Whether this is due to immigration or the realization that some social issues should remain outside the realm of government control is still unclear. What is clear is that a majority of the people share common values, and everyone wants the best for their country. After all the personal attacks, public facades, and private jokes, Americans know how to put their differences aside for the common good, bringing meaning to the name “United States of America”.

Note: This piece was also published on Citizenside. You can find the original here.

Squats That Went Straight: Dispatches into Alternative Art Culture in Paris

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By: Kera Mogue
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Wisps of smoke intertwined with music escape through the window, which is cracked open ever so slightly to properly air the studio. Pascal is oblivious to the steady flow of observers that walk through his open air gallery as his hands craft the next project: a canvas that uses the principles of light perception to optimize the visual experience of the observer. “When I was invited to work here, my only condition was that I wouldn’t work in trash”. Pascal prefers the company of his clients to the solitude of his courtyard, where he used to design his masterpieces. He could care less that artists at illegal squats look down on him for “selling out”.

At the 59 Rivoli art gallery, 30 artists spread their studios over 6 spacious floors and have the opportunity to interact with their visitors on a daily basis. The artists welcome local bands and singers to expose their work by contacting the administration. Located in one of Paris’s most commercial districts, this squat-turned art gallery is undergoing an audit by the government of Paris to verify that all artists are properly paying their dues, among approximately 40 other items on the list.

The Story Behind the Squat
Before 2001, “59 Rivoli” was the shortened address of a squat called “chez Robert électron libre”: a community of artists illegally living and working in close quarters. “It was a tree in the forest of other squats in the city,” explains Pascal. His good friend and fellow artist Gaspard found the building, which had been empty for 15 years and belonged to Crédit Lyonnais. As the leader of the group of artists, he fought for their right to stay there when the city of Paris threatened to seize the building and expel them.

Gaspard hired a lawyer that insisted they use the “lois d’hiver” (laws of winter) to their benefit. The laws of winter state that squatters may stay in a building from November 1 to March 15 without being expelled as long as they did not enter the building by force. So they stayed where they were. Before winter had turned to spring, the giant snowball of the press and the public had melted into a puddle of success; the squat had gained such a large acquaintance that the city of Paris decided to purchase the building in 2001 and let the squatters stay as long as the association paid its monthly rent.

Today, that rent equals €130 per artist, or €3,900 euros total a month. The audit being carried out by the Mairie of Paris is to verify that each and every artist whose work is on display in the gallery is paying rent to 59 Rivoli to prevent ongoing squatting and undue exposure for friends of resident artists. The audit also involves making sure the gallery is open when it says it will be and that the building meets fire codes. The results of this audit will determine whether or not the Mairie decides to renew the contract with the 59 Rivoli association.

“If the audit fails and the City is not happy, it’s all over,” says James Purpura, an artist from Ohio.

Although James’ 6 month stay is almost over, he hopes to move up on the waiting list. But competition is rough. “It’s very communal here. People here feel like they have the right to make use of an abandoned space. This is owned by the people, it’s accessible to everyone.” Indeed, the gallery’s open door policy and free entry represent the change in attitude toward alternative art galleries in a culture that prides itself on prodigies of the past.
The political attaché of the city of Paris said : “The politics of squats has evolved since we bought the squat and is continuing to change.” It is true that in the past decade, the political aspects of squats consisted of a binary pitting classist ideology against that of a counterculture. When trying to make a statement about homelessness, individual resistance and collective resistance are not synonymous.

According to Cécile Pechu, artistic squats in Paris are traditionally collectives based on the counter-cultural concept of redistribution of wealth. Pascal Foucart’s baguette sculpture says it all: a 2×4 row of freshly baked baguettes are lacquered in brightly colored acrylic paints, illustrating the daily action of buying bread without realizing that some people are too poor to afford such a luxury. While this work of art is a clear example of counter-classism, today it is appreciated by the public thanks to the government’s purchase of the property in 2001. Without 59 Rivoli’s current level of exposure, Pascal would still be painting in an empty courtyard.
Jeux Politiques
As the politics of squats softens, the housing market in Paris gets even more competitive.

“Squats, especially the illegal kind, have a short life-span”. Pascal references La Miroiterie in the 20th district of Paris, which has recently been shut down due to property laws. A dozen artists will have to find a new home, and 8 others will be losing their workspaces.

Despite the level of culture the squat contributes to the neighborhood, they have no choice but to concede to the property demand. For galleries like le Point Ephémère, being endorsed by Paris is good news, as it gives structure to their exhibits and allows them to be creative in other ways. Still, Le Point Ephémère is about to be closed, too, and art-loving Parisians are buzzing about it.

Not all artists have a circulation of over 40,000 people a year in their studio. Some of them do not want this kind of traffic because it disrupts their creative process. Still, the future forecast for squats can’t be too cloudy if the government is going along with the concept of alternative art in an abandoned space.
The results of the current audit at 59 rue de Rivoli will determine the future of a place that offers 30 different perspectives and a cultural spot different from all the rest. Like the sign on the second floor says, ‘Earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘meh’.

 
For more information about expositions and upcoming events, visit the official gallery website of 59 Rivoli.

Note: This piece was also published on Citizenside. You can find the original here.

No Place Like Homeland: The Marriage of Politics and Media

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What came first, the chicken or the egg ?

Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud threatened to sue the producers of American television series Homeland on October 19, 2012 for their negative depiction of Beirut as a violent city in Season 2. Considering the fact that a fatal car bombing in Beirut happened just hours after this statement, it is hard to tell whether the recent episodes of Homeland caused unrest or if the violence in Beirut inspired these gory media representations.

Before getting into the mechanics of the USA-Lebanon-Israel love/hate triangle, an explanation of the show is needed. Homeland is based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War and has an Israeli co-creator, Gideon Raff. The Emmy Award winning series features CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Nick Brody, a U.S. Marine and ex-POW in Iraq that returns to his family after 8 years in captivity under US-identified terrorist Abu Nazir.

The American government and the public revere Brody as a war hero and all-around great guy, but his new life is anything but picture perfect. Brody has to deal with a bunch of first world problems, one of them being that Carrie thinks he is secretly working for the American enemy in the Middle East. In the recent episode ‘Beirut is Back’, Carrie heads to Beirut to take down the head honcho of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim organisation that Homeland shows as allied with terrorists in Al-Qaeda.

Now, about the charges.

First and foremost, Mr. Abboud claims that Homeland is misrepresenting Beirut because the recent episodes were filmed in Jaffa, a multi-ethnic neighborhood in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel, and not in Lebanon. Although Israel borders Lebanon, the two have had an icy rapport ever since 1982 when Israel occupied the country and raged war against neighboring Syria. Jaffa is a mixed urban area, so the producers of Homeland were able to make it look like Beirut. Still, Lebanon wants nothing to do with Israel, and to think that Tel Aviv got film-time and Beirut didn’t drives them up the wall. Gideon Raff and others from the show say that they were not allowed to film in Beirut, so Jaffa was their next best option.

What’s more, the key scene in this episode is meant to portray Hamra Street in West Beirut. Abboud says that Hamra is actually a lively boulevard with bookshops and cafés, far from the boiling cesspit that the viewers of Homeland have seen on their screens. Although this statement may be true, a car bombing killed 80 people in Beirut on the same day as this threat and injured hundreds more. Gruesome photos of the attack can be found at www.citizenside.com.

The United States government is Israel’s number one ally. Aside from providing millions in aid each year to Benjamin Netenyahu’s government, Obama has not explicitly denounced any of the current havoc in the Middle East, being too preoccupied with the upcoming elections, the Libyan conflict, and continuing to say that he will pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. To Lebanon, the United States is another face of the two-headed political dragon.

Homeland lets people view Lebanon in through the eyes of CIA agents. That is to say, this country is not war-torn and full of suffering people, but terrorist-infested and rife with political extremism. This image of a “non-secure zone” is exactly what the Minister of Tourism is working to dispel. The fact that the show was filmed in Israel and is based on an Israeli television series reinforces the real-world political ties that influence American media representations of the Middle East.

Is Beirut really so dangerous all the time, or is Homeland exaggerating on preconceived notions to gain inexperienced viewers by appealing to their Islamophobia ? For someone that has never been to Lebanon, these images are stored in their subconscious, generating prejudice, propagating the discourse of “terrorism”, and potentially discouraging tourism in the region.

For critical thinkers, the show is fiction, and Lebanon is an unknown place with a complicated story to tell. For the Lebanese insurgents fighting against Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon’s government, the representation is somewhat accurate in portraying the volatile atmosphere of a place that is oft misunderstood and rarely explained–in short, their very own homeland.

Note: This piece was also published in the Citizenside blog. You can find the original here.