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California's Budget Crisis and Higher Education

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker reviews world coverage of the budget crises in both California and Greece. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!
Going to the DMV is never a joyful experience. Due to the budget crisis the trip has become even more excruciating. The State of California has closed DMV offices on the first and third Friday of every month in an effort to save money. This means the offices are more crowded on operating days. This also means it takes even longer for the staff to call your magic number. This might not sound like much, but when you’ve been flipping through a tattered three month-old edition of Better Home and Gardens for two hours, it can feel like a lifetime.

Californians are having to learn to get used to these inconveniences. The budget crisis has affected virtually every interaction citizens have with the state. Bus schedules are slower. State employees are getting their salaries cut. And while all Californians are affected to one degree or another, perhaps the most impacted are students of the state's public universities.

When I started attending San Francisco State in 2004, semester student fees for residents was $1,256.00. In the past six years that number has nearly doubled to $2,370.00. The problem isn’t just that students are now paying more for their education, but that they’re getting less in return. Luckily I had finished school by the end of 2008, before most of the effects of the budget cuts had really been felt. However, for many of my friends still studying at SFSU the budget cuts have taken a toll.

Nicole Dixon is a Cell and Molecular Biology major who started work on her degree in 2004. She’s found it impossible to complete her degree within four years due to budget cuts. “I haven’t been able to get the classes I need each semester. When I did get into classes it was because I had to fight my way in and plead with professors to let me crash them.” She’s also noticed that the budget cuts have affected the quality of her education, “We’ve had fewer classes. Professors have to get all the material crammed into a semester with five less instruction days due to furloughs.”

Even the classrooms themselves have been impacted by the budget crisis. “There aren’t enough chairs in classes. Professors won’t print handouts anymore. There aren’t even markers in some classes to write on the whiteboard,” Dixon said. When asked if she would do it all again she remarked, “Knowing that I couldn’t graduate in at least six years seems unacceptable for a four-year degree. I would have rather gone somewhere where I knew I could get my classes. I thought I’d be in dental school by now.” Nicole isn’t alone. Many Californians are beginning to look for education elsewhere, as the public universities in California continue to face budget cuts.

With attendance being capped at many Cal State Universities, many students don’t even have access to the educational opportunity I had only a few years ago. As bad as California’s economy is now, how will California look twenty years down the line when it doesn’t have the same educated workforce that made it such an innovative place to begin with? The deficit is huge and cuts have to be made, but education is an important investment. It’s not only an investment for students who want better jobs, but also for a state that must continue to nurture its human capital.



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Blame Anyone but the Abuser

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker reviews global coverage of sexual abuses in the Catholic Church. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!

It seems some Catholic commentators who refuse to criticize the Catholic Church are using the myth that homosexuality and pedophilia are one in the same. While researching the subject for this week’s “Global Pulse,” I expected to find outraged Catholics lashing out against the church’s handling of allegations of sexual abuses by priests. While I did find many Catholics who were appalled by these crimes and how the church has often hidden them, I also found former Senator Rick Santorum and the advocacy group The Catholic League, who have taken a different route. Instead of seeing the crisis as an opportunity to root out elements of abuse in their church, they have used the scandal in an effort to cynically link pedophilia and homosexuality.

Back in 2002, in an article for the website, Santorum admitted his dismay at the long string of sexual abuses, but saw it as a reflection of the liberal corruption of society. “It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning ‘private’ moral matters such as alternative lifestyles.” There should be no confusion as to what Santorum means when he says “alternative lifestyles." Somehow, the senator reasoned that homosexuality was the primary motivating force in pedophilia.  As an argument, it benefited his agenda in two ways. By equating homosexuality with pedophilia he was able to demonize all homosexuals, a group he clearly sees as abhorrent. More importantly, by using this argument he was able to portray the priests not as perpetrators of heinous crimes but as victims of a society gone wild. After all, he stated, “Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected.”

More recently, the Catholic League, a far-right advocacy group, took up the theme. The group recently took out an ad in the New York Times responding to an earlier Times article stating that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) helped cover up the abuse of over two hundred deaf boys by a priest in Wisconsin. The League ad countered the Times article by saying, “The Times continues to editorialize about the ‘pedophilia crisis,’ when all along it's been a homosexual crisis,” and justified its denial of pedophilia by stating, “most of the victims were post pubescent.”

So let me get this straight. Because some of the abuse victims were 13 or 15, instead of 7 or 9, it’s not pedophilia? Of course it is…but are pedophiles gay? According to one of the few studies that has attempted to understand the sexual orientation of pedophiles, the answer is, mostly no. “…child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals…because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman. Instead of gender, their sexual attractions are based primarily on age.”
In any case, the hetero-homo debate is meaningless in this context. Instead of focusing on the mental illness that is pedophilia, commentators like Rick Santorum of the Catholic League are confusing the issue by framing it in terms of homosexuality. With this kind of denial and blame shifting, the chances of constructive action are diminished. I guess we should expect they will continue to make excuses for church officials, lash out at legitimate media attention, and blame homosexuality (not pedophilia and church secrecy) as the root of the problem.



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Exercises in Futility: Dress Codes in Iran and France

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker talks about the evolving world of Islamic fashion. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!

When I was studying in France a few years ago, I taught at a high school in a largely Muslim suburb. One of the most profound rituals of daily life at Voillaume high school happened during the few minutes immediately before and after the school day. Many Muslim girls would arrive at the school gate wearing the traditional Islamic head covering called the hijab, (Arabic for “scarf”). Seconds before entering the gate, they would whip off their hijabs, and they would just as rapidly reapply them as they exited through the gate when the school day ended. The speed and grace with which these girls would take off and put on their hijabs, within feet of the school entrance, fascinated me.

But, why did they have to take them off? Because restrictions passed in 2004 disallow religious head coverings in public schools in France. The French government argues that the wearing of hijabs in public schools is an affront to the concept of “laïcité,” and threatens secular government. The vast majority of Muslim youth I encountered in France, many recent immigrants, cherished the personal liberties that France gave them. In fact, students I spoke with who objected to the policy didn’t frame the headscarf controversy in terms of the government suppressing Islam, but rather as a kind of hypocrisy - the French government limiting the same personal freedoms it claimed to defend.

Nonetheless, they understood the secular nature of the French government and would find the idea of replacing it with an Islamic version as preposterous. Compare this to Iran, where the hijab is compulsory. A new generation of Iranians wants increased freedom from a stifling dress code that has been in place since the Islamic revolution. Simply put, many young women in Iran are sick of religious modesty laws and other limitations on their personal freedoms. Some women are fighting the dress code by following it to the bare minimum. As opposed to wearing the chador – a traditional loose garment covering the entire body (and still worn by Iran’s most religious women), many young Iranian women have adopted modifications that comply with the law but allow a degree of fashion and mobility. These modifications include jackets that sufficiently cover the body but are form fitting and stylish. Some wear hijabs in bright, lively colors instead of traditionally modest monotones. An Iranian journalist who has worked for increased rights for women in Iran, responded to these newer fashions by saying, "It signals that we obey the law, but nothing more than that." 

The objectives of women who want to wear hijab in France, and those who would like to moderate it in Iran, are different. But the desire to have freedom to dress as one sees fit is essentially the same. When governments mandate how people can and can’t dress, they aren’t just trying to control what people wear, but how they feel. But does the Iranian government really think that easing restrictions on Islamic dress would instantaneously lead to a rise of Paris Hilton clones, promiscuous activity and the forsaking of Islam? Does the French administration really believe that allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab will lead to a sort of “Franganistan,” where women lose all rights and Islam replaces secular governance?

The fact that many French girls reapply the hijab as soon as they leave the gates of school, and that many Iranian women see modesty laws not as a symbol of their relationship with God but as an imposed annoyance, shows the ultimate failure of the social engineering schemes in these two countries. While governments can dictate how people dress, they ultimately can’t change how people feel.



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China: The U.S. Balancing Act

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker examines media coverage of the evolving relations between China and the US. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!

While this week’s Global Pulse, called “Chimerica,” looks at what the two nations share, there are plenty of points of friction between them. The U.S. regularly criticizes China’s human rights record, and now China has published a report equally critical of the U.S., for “destabilizing the world economy and meddling in other countries' affairs.”

The United States is in a tricky situation. On the one hand, the U.S. wants to encourage human rights and increased democracy in China; on the other hand it fears alienating China, its most prominent trading partner, which holds upwards of $800 billion of American debt. So how has the U.S. walked this delicate tightrope so far? Not very well.

Perhaps the best recent example of the awkward U.S.-China relationship is the controversial meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Most in the west see the Dalai Lama as a man of peace who dares to stand up to the might of the Chinese government. Not surprisingly, China considers him to be a threat to a unified China, due to his advocacy for the independence of Tibet. They also see him as a pawn of western nations bent on embarrassing the Chinese government. Even some western media sources have criticized the motives of the Dalai Lama. In an editorial from the UK’s Guardian, Brendan O’Neill describes the Dalai Lama as a poseur who “once auctioned his Land Rover on eBay for $80,000 and has even done an advert for Apple.” He also charges that the Dalai Lama “has [been] used as a battering ram by western governments in their culture war with China.”

But celebrities like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone are prominent followers of the Dalai Lama who advocate his return to Tibet, and American Buddhists have made some of his books pop-religion best sellers in America, so there was tremendous pressure on Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama. Although the meeting was carefully planned to try to not offend either side, it ended up offending both. Initially Obama refused to meet, citing the need to meet with China’s Hu Jintao first: human rights activists and western media called it a snub. When the meeting finally did happen it took place in a closed room without cameras. The Chinese were angry that the meeting took place at all.

Whether this and other rights issues are geat walls that will ultimately divide the two nations, or just side roads on the long march to cooperation remains unknown.



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The Culture of Obesity vs. The French Paradox

On the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker examines media coverage of rising obesity rates around the world. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!


I, like many (well, most) Americans have had issues with my weight. After going off to college in 2004, I noticed my weight beginning to climb until I started feeling unhealthy. I tried dieting and adding more exercise to my daily routine, but the extra weight stayed on. Then something miraculous happened: I left the country. During my year of study abroad, my waistline shrunk. Was I beating myself up about keeping to a certain number of calories a day? Did I take up an intensive exercise schedule? Not at all. So, what explains the weight loss?

In a word, culture. Although diet, exercise, and body chemistry are the critical factors in determining body weight, there is evidence that one's culture plays a huge role (pardon the pun) when it comes to obesity. While America is known worldwide for obesity problems, it isn't technically the most obese nation on earth. According to Forbes, that distinction goes to the tiny island nation of Nauru with a remarkable 94.5 percent of its population overweight. In fact 8 out of the top 10 overweight nations are located in the South Pacific. Part of the reason for this may be genetic, but part of the cause is the widespread poverty on these islands and the dependence on imported foods. Highly processed foods imported from the west are a cheap sources of calories; unfortunately they're also the unhealthiest. Cultural factors, including, "[the] notion that 'bigness' is a sign of wealth and power" also contribute to a culture of obesity which has left the South Pacific the fattest region in the world. Is America, like the South Pacific, a victim of having a culture of obesity? We certainly don't equate 'bigness' with wealth and power - quite the reverse, if our celebrities and icons are any indication.

Which brings me to France, the country in which my weight-loss miracle occurred. While the United States and the South Pacific are two of the world's fattest regions, France is championed for its low national obesity rate. How do the French, with a diet rich in carbs, fats, and oils, stay so thin? Researchers have called this the French paradox.

But the French paradox really isn't much of a paradox at all. When it comes to how French citizens stay thinner than Americans, both the quantity and quality of food consumed makes the difference. French consumers typically eat less processed food than their American counterparts, and when they do indulge in fats and sweets, they generally eat smaller portions. In my personal experience, I found processed junk foods to be more expensive in France than fresh fruits and vegetables - where in American supermarkets, the situation is often the opposite. America also has a 24 hour fast food culture with opportunities to eat just about anything at anytime, anywhere. In France, the majority of supermarkets are closed by 9PM - and you can't get a decent burrito anywhere.

So do I really attribute my weight loss to a geographical change? In many ways, I do. When I was surrounded by a culture whose values about food and eating promoted a healthier way of life, I found myself behaving like those around me. Think of it as positive peer pressure. This is not to say that all is perfect in the land of foie gras and baguettes. The French, like many cultures worldwide, are beginning to grapple with their own obesity problem as the fast-food culture spreads.

So how is my weight now that I'm back in the US? In 1.5 years, I've gained back most of what I lost in France. I can't blame America, though. In France I was able to change my lifestyle so I could eat fresher, smaller, and more slowly. I learned the right way to eat, but I just started to get lazy once I returned to a culture where it's a little harder to do so. Oh well, I gotta go... the pizza delivery guy is here.



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