Thursday, July 23, 2009

The First non-American U.S. President.

In the last 7 months, we have witnessed the growth of a new species in the United-States: the Birthers.

In short, the Birthers are just a new kind of conspiracy theorists who claim that the president isn't actually president because he is not an American citizen.
Well, conspiracy theories are nothing new in this country (and elsewhere) and God knows Americans have always loved a good conspiracy (think of the 9/11 Truth Movement for one), probably more so than any other people.

But this one is different as the claim is clearly tainted with anger, hatred and racism under the disguise of patriotism. (see video below)
The funny thing is that it doesn't even matter whether Obama was born in the U.S. His mother was a U.S. citizen which makes him a "natural born" citizen as required by the Constitution anyway. So clearly this is not about the law but about him being a black man with a funny name.
Those people are an embarrassment to the Republican party who'd better diassociate itself with the Birthers more clearly as well as with the other crazies out there like Rush Limbaugh or Lou Dobbs. But unfortunately, when 10 members of the House actually propose legislation to compell any future Presidential Candidates to prove that they are a natural citizen, it only adds fuel to the bonfire! What is frakking wrong with those people??
Well, since you cannot reason with the Birthers anyway, we'd better humor them off as Jon Stewart does so well:
"Barack Obama is not only the United States' first black president --
he's also the first non-American president"


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Americans... BIG ?

Whenever I come back to the States from France, I am always struck by how big people are. Then, after a few days, I just get used to it and feel the exact opposite when I go back to Europe. Quite often, "big" is a nice way of saying "fat" though..... but that's exactly it, Americans are essentially big. There's no denying that more people are overweight and even obese in the U.S. than anywhere else. In fact, studies show that a majority of Americans are at least overweight.
But frankly, you don’t need them to see it, it is striking if you come from aboard and start looking around. What is particularly striking is that the very obese are huge – absolutely humongous.
The numbers are outrageous :

More than 60% of all adults in the United States are now medically overweight, and nearly 30% [34%]of those same adults are now obese, and just under 6% are "extremely" obese. (figures by the National Center for Health Statistics - here, here and CDC)

Even though there’s no possible denying that this country has a huge (no pun intended) problem with food, weight and obesity, the figures may have to be taken with a grain of salt.

All those statistics are based on body mass index which compares a person's weight and height. It is highly controversial because it ignores the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body.
Keith Devlin, the “math guy” on NPR had an interesting (yet short) exposé on as to why the body mass index is unreliable - simply because it ignores the waist or the density.

It makes sense to me because the average American is not only fatter but also bigger than, say, the average French or Belgian (The BMI was invented by a Belgian mathematician in the early 19th century). When I say bigger, I really mean “bigger” as in bigger bones and bigger muscles. The fact that many people also do intensive sports means that those (few) who are in good shape are often very muscular and impressively large – and not just the men but some of the women too.
One last note is that in my observation, people in New York city seem to be in better shape than in the rest of the country. That’s probably because they take the public transit and walk around a lot more.
Ironically, the newly nominated Surgeon General (offcial leading spokesperson on matters of health in the United-States) is herself obviously clearly overweight, which of course does not mean she shouldn't get the job and do it well. Still, I kind of like the irony.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Burggie on the Daily Show.

For a more fun take on the Burka ban question (or else see our previous post)
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Burka Ban
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Liberté and the Burka?

As Jon Stewart pointed out last week, there's been serious talk in France about banning the "burka" (which is mostly the niqab, i.e. the full body veil worn by some Muslim women) in public places in France.

It all started with a call by 65 French MPs to create a parliamentary commission to study a small but growing trend of wearing the full body garment in France.

Then last week, president Sarkozy himself said that the burka cover for Muslim women is "not welcome on French soil".

"The burqa is not a sign of religion. It is a sign of enslavement. It is a sign of subservience."
"I want to say officially, it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity.This is not the idea the French Republic has of a woman's dignity", he said. (
BBC news)

The wearing of the niqab/burka is probbaly growing in some places in France (on all accounts, you see more of them than before for sure, but just one in your neighborhood will get your attention).

However, it remains miniscule even though there is not clear study on the extent of this new trend. You certainly see fewer of them in France than in Great-Britain for instance - probably because the French Muslims tend to be more integrated in France.

Needless to say that just like anyone else, I was in shock the first time I saw this garment in France (previously, you'd just see the niqab worn by rich Saudi tourists in Paris). Covering the face and hands cannot be compared to any other form of clothing. In this respect, it cannot be compared to a nun 's habit or even the hijab (the 'regular' veil). Covering the face makes communication very hard if it doesn’t prevent it at all. It also causes all sorts of issues with regard to identification.
That being said, does my malaise justify a ban by the law? Is the law the proper response to something that remains marginal and is not yet well understood?

There are different speculations as to why some women have begun to wear them.
What is certain is that neither the burka nor the niqab belongs to the tradition of north-African and African cultures (from where most Muslims in France originate). The former is worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the latter in the Gulf States. So it is easy to see this as a sign of import from extremists in the Gulf region (from the Wahhabists and Salafists).

The center of the debate has been about whether these women are forced to wear the full garment (by their husbands, fathers or family) or whether it's a choice of their own.

French president Sarkozy has made up his mind by framing the topic as an issue of women's right and not as a religious issue.

Two possibilities : either those women choose to wear the niqab or they are forced into it. However, in this (latter) case a ban on burkas/niqab would most likely only confine those women to their homes which would be counterproductive and might only alienate them even more.

Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, says: "If a law bans the burka,
these women will still have it but will remain at home; they will no longer be
seen." (
If, on the other hand it is a choice, then a ban would not be about "them" (the women wearing them) but about our discomfort and our fear that Salafist and Wahhabist extremist views might take hold. Can a law really change that? I doubt it. My take is that only education and integration can. In fact, all French Muslim leaders have taken strong stances against the garment :
Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate head of the main Paris mosque, described the burka
as a radical import that is alien to the tradition of Islam. (USA Today)

At the same time, French Muslims fear that a law would stigmatize Muslims. French Muslims are overall very moderate and in fact, it is suspected that most of them are not even practicing Muslims:

A number of surveys indicate that a solid chunk of Muslims [in France], possibly the majority, do not go to the mosque regularly or observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. (USA Today)

In any case, Sarkozy has rejected the notion that the niqab/burka is religious expression. If it is a question of women's rights, he said, and if most of these women are not forced but choose to wear it, then, what would be the legal base for a ban?

If the niqab is a means of expression (of values or ideas, however offensive they might be) then it is and should be garanteed by the law. And indeed, rights are only meaningful when they garantee views not supported by the majority.

As John Stuart Mill argued, (see On Liberty) freeedom of speech should not be constrained by "the limits of social embarrassment" but only by "the harm principle" :

"the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member
of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to other"
What is interesting though is that very few French people see the issue as one of the state encroaching on the rights of individual.

But what sort of society should give the state the power to tell people what to wear and what not to wear?

In this particular case, I agree the niqab is not simply a garment like any other because it covers the face. But the only limits for someone to hide her face should practical and moslty situations in which identification is required

For instance, a teacher should be able to legally ask the woman who comes to pick up her kid at school to show her face so he can be sure she’s the right person. This right should be extended to the administration, banks, etc… and of course the police.

Those circumstances in which a woman must show her face must be defined by the law, and other than those it is not the business of the government to tell people how to dress or to show their faces if they choose not to - unless their clothes represent a clear danger to society.

I am afraid most French people do not really see the issue this way, and it seems that many other European countries have taken considered similar bans (in Belgium, the Netherlands, for instance).
No doubt that such a law banning the burka/niqab will have to be in accrod with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which both guarantee the right to freedom of speech as "the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression".

That's going to be an interesting debate.....