Friday, May 17, 2002

Carter Criticized for Speaking Out
Essay Implies that Free Speech is "Undemocratic"

Chris Suellentrop presents the following argument, which I find very strange, in today's issue of Slate. Suellentrop says that Former President Jimmy Carter's activities sometimes undermine, or attempt to undermine, the policies set by the US's democratically elected President, and that therefore these activities are themselves undemocratic. What activities does Suellentrop have in mind? Meeting with foreign officials and giving them advice, talking to the media, writing letters, and speaking out on policies Carter favors -- in short, the exact behaviors that most of us would call "free speech." Since when is free speech "undemocratic?"

According to Suellentrop, if Former President Carter doesn't like US foreign policy, his only options should be to "work within the system" by lobbying Congress. (Presumably, lobbying the executive branch of the US government would also be OK with Suellentrop, although he doesn't explicitly say so.) Making direct statements to the press or to people outside the US amounts to "conducting a guerrilla foreign policy operation," says Suellentrop.

Let's think about this for a moment. I regularly get letters from groups such as Amnesty International, who ask me to write directly to heads of foreign governments and request the release of imprisoned dissidents. Would doing this be "undemocratic?" Would putting out a press release saying that dissidents should be freed, or writing the UN and asking them to take action, be undemocratic? Presumably not; Suellentrop seems to think that speaking out is undemocratic only if it "undermine the foreign policy of America's democratically elected president." So, Suellentrop is saying that in a democracy, public statements should only be made if they agree with the current government. Now, there are plenty of countries in the world that follow this policy -- public statements may be made only if they agree with the government -- but these countries are not democracies. (North Korea is a good example.)

Perhaps you think I'm being unfair to Suellentrop. After all, the current government of the US was elected democratically. (Well, more or less, depending on what you think of that little vote counting problem in Florida.) North Korea's leader definitely was not elected democratically. Therefore, perhaps it is democratic to criticize a dictator like Kim Jong Il but undemocratic to criticize a democratically elected leader like George W. Bush. Sorry, nothing doing. Being democratically elected shouldn't shield a government from criticism. The Nazis initially came to power through an election. If a German citizen had written to the international press saying he disagreed with the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and minorities, would that have been undemocratic? I certainly don't think so.

Well, there is one more argument that Suellentrop could try. Maybe its OK for an ordinary citizen to speak out on foreign policy, but not for a former President like Jimmy Carter. I don't buy that, either. Why should having been elected leader of the US reduce one's right to free speech?

So, anyway I look at it, Carter's entitled to say what he thinks when it comes to foreign policy. It's not a "guerilla operation" unless it involves a gun.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Bad Health Advice on the Internet, Part One
The first installment of what will no doubt become a long series, since there's no shortage of material

Her Sereneness (that's me) has a confession to make. I am an insomniac. Not just a garden-variety insomniac, but an industrial-strength, world-class, major-league insomniac. So, a few nights ago, probably at about four in the morning, I was surfing the web looking for advice on beating insomnia. While sifting through the usual useless platitudes ("Try to fall asleep at the same time each night" -- if I could do that, I wouldn't be an insomniac), I came across a site called, run by some guy who has a dream analysis show on the radio in California.

Mr. Dreamdoctor has a section on his site about insomnia, where some poor 17-year kid had written in about his problem. He signed his letter "Desperate." It was obvious to me that "Desperate" was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where unwanted, unpleasant thoughts keep running through ones mind. Yet, he was not given any advice about OCD, just bland advice like "get up at the same time each day" and "make a list of your worries before you go to bed."

I was dismayed that "Desperate" had gotten so little help, so I wrote to Mr. DreamDoctor. Here is (most of) the text of my email:

"It is obvious to me that this boy needs evaluation for OCD. His sleep problems are caused by repetitive, obsessive thoughts. His thoughts about his insomnia are themselves obsessive. He even mentions having an 'obsessive-compulsive attitude' towards schoolwork.

The bland sleep hygiene advice he was given trivializes his problem. Rather than helping him, it is likely to make him feel that he is at fault for his problem. The longer OCD is left untreated, the harder it is to cure, so he should be encouraged to seek OCD treatment immediately, rather than trying a bunch of irrelevant lifestyle changes first. This boy's problem is quite serious -- he says 'I hate myself because I can't stop thinking,' says the problem is driving him crazy, and signs himself 'Desperate.' Ignoring his OCD is extremely irresponsible.

This is what I would have said to this boy: 'You are obviously very smart, because you have already figured out the cause of your problem. You are having obsessive thoughts, one of the hallmarks of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Your mind is getting stuck playing a thought over and over again, like a broken record. It's not really known why some people have this problem, but it may be biological, since it runs in families. OCD often responds to prescription medication. I'd ask your parents to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist. OCD responds best if treated soon after onset, so you should be evaluated soon.'"

I sent this email 5 days ago; no response yet. Maybe Mr. DreamDoctor is asleep on the job.
Index: International Relations

My Serene Proposal for Peace in the Mideast 6/6/2002 6:55 AM

EU Countries Agree to Take 13 Palestinian Militants 5/19/02 11:50 PM
Why isn't France taking any?

Carter Criticized for Speaking Out 5/17/02 11:34 PM
Essay Implies that Free Speech is "Undemocratic"

[index posted 6/04/02]
Alleged Abuse Victim Shoots Priest
Where is the Church’s recognition that molestation is also a form of violence?

This week, a tragic new phase opened in the continuing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church: A priest was shot by a young man who had accused him of molestation in 1993. (The priest, Reverend Maurice Blackwell, survived and fortunately is expected to make a good recovery.)

According to the Baltimore Sun, the shooter, Dontee Stokes, complained in 1993 that Rev. Blackwell had been molesting him over a period of three years. Stokes was 17 at the time of his complaint. Church officials and civil authorities investigated, but Blackwell was not prosecuted and he was allowed to remain as a parish priest, despite a lay council’s recommendation that he be removed. Five years later, Rev. Blackwell admitted to sexual relations with a different minor and was removed from his position as parish priest, although again he was not prosecuted.

The gunman’s mother, Tamara Stokes, said that her son has recently become extremely agitated by media reports of other abusive priests, and approached Rev. Blackwell for an apology, but was rebuffed. Tamara Stokes said Blackwell’s refusal to apologize caused her son to “snap” and shoot Blackwell. (Dontee Stokes has no previous criminal record.)

A later article in the Sun provides more information on Dontee Stokes' 1993 allegations of molestation by Blackwell: "A spokeswoman for the city state's[sic] attorney's office said Wednesday night that prosecutors had believed Stokes' assertions in 1993, when he was 17, that Blackwell had fondled him over a three-year period. But prosecutors have said that they declined to charge the priest with fourth-degree sexual assault because they could find no corroborating witnesses.....'There's no one who witnessed the touching,'" the spokeswoman said.

This is a common problem in cases of alleged sexual assault. Assaults generally take in private since few molesters or rapists are stupid enough to commit their crimes in front of witnesses who might testify against them. Society needs better ways to tell who is telling the truth in these cases. Until they are developed, churches, schools and and other institutions need to err on the side of caution, keeping potential offenders away from children. Working with children is a privilege, not a right, and children's right to be protected should take precedence over an adult's desire to work in a particular institutional setting such as a church.

What I find especially tragic in this case is that the Catholic Church again seems to have no idea how it contributed to this situation. Blackwell’s superior, Cardinal William H. Keeler, made the following bland statement about the shooting, "I am appalled that another act of violence has occurred in the city of Baltimore and that tragedy touches a person I have known personally,” and then went on to praise Rev. Blackwell as “much beloved” by his parish.

Of course, I agree with Keeler that violence is appalling, and I certainly don’t support vigilantism. But where is the Church’s recognition that molestation is also a form of violence and must be stopped? Where is Cardinal Keeler’s recognition of his own role in producing this crisis? It was Cardinal Keeler himself who returned Rev. Blackwell to his parish in 1993, over objections from the council that had investigated Stokes’ complaint, yet Cardinal Keeler seems to have no regrets about how he handled this case. (I searched the website of the Baltimore Archdiocese for further statements from Cardinal Keeler, and found none.)

While I certainly don’t condone the shooting of Rev. Blackwell, it seems obvious to me that the Church’s insensitivity towards abuse victims was a major trigger of Dontee Stokes’ rage. Even ordinary Americans, who are not personally touched by the abuse crisis, feel overwhelming anger at the indifference shown by the Catholic Church. If there is such anger among those who have not been abused, imagine the helplessness and rage victims must feel, as they see proof that the Church has spent years ignoring their suffering. The Catholic Church’s obvious lack of sympathy for abuse victims is adding to the victims’ trauma.

[Update: Since I wrote this, The Archdiocese of Baltimore has posted a number of additional statements to its website, including one that includes an apology for previous failures to act.]

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Index: Medicine and Mental Health

Medical Fee Follies 6/1/2002 10:17 PM
The first of a continuing series

No Need to Fear Designer Clones 5/22/2002 10:05 AM
Despite Fukuyama's fears, technology to clone designer babies is far off

Bad Health Advice on the Internet, Part One 5/16/2002 10:04:41 PM
The first installment of what will no doubt become a long series, since there's no shortage of material

[Index updated 6/01/02]

Monday, May 13, 2002

Index: Sexual Abuse by Priests

Catholic Journal Objects to Coverage of Sexual Abuse
The Church needs to realize that its failure to protect children is the real scandal 6/3/02 6:48 PM

LA Ponders Charging Cardinal Mahoney 5/19/02 4:45am
Cardinal Mahony knew priest was a child molester but refused to inform the police; he then gave priest continued access to children on the grounds that the priest had not been convicted of molestation

Alleged Abuse Victim Shoots Priest 5/16/02 12:02am
Cardinal decries the shooting, but where is the Church’s recognition that molestation is also a form of violence?

[Index updated 6/04/02]