Noise, measured in decibels, is all around us. Sounds of less than 75 decibels, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. But prolonged exposure to sound over 85 decibels can cause deafness, says the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York and Oakland Park, Fla.A little less noise, please
Whispered voice: 20 decibels
Refrigerator: 40-50 decibels
Washing machine: 50-75 decibels
Dishwasher: 55-70 decibels
Vacuum cleaner: 60-85 decibels
TV audio: 70 decibels
Usual conversation: 60 decibels
Ringing telephone: 80 decibels
City traffic: 80 decibels
Blender: 80 to 90 decibels
Lawnmower, subway trains: 90 decibels
Chainsaw: 110 decibels
Jet engine taking off: 150 decibels
Imagine an American administration in which the Attorney General secretly derives nearly half his income from the Gambino crime family. Imagine, too, that this hypothetical AG is a longstanding confidant of the President. That is what Paul Volcker's investigation of the Oil for Food Program has now demonstrated was roughly the case with Kofi Annan's United Nations.Read the rest of Oil for Fraud after the jump. By the way, Benon Sevan, who's been accused of receiving nearly $150,000 in kickbacks, is hiding in Cyprus and the Cypriot government has no intention of extraditing him.
Fadela Amara has a mission. One sees it in the intensity of her eyes and feels it in the passion of her speech. A good two years ago, the daughter of an Algerian immigrant family in Paris, she founded the organisation "Ni putes ni soumises". This is also the title of her book, which won the "Prix du Livre Politique" of the French national assembly last year. In the book, Fadela Amara tells in a simple and direct style the story of her fight against the growing violence and social disintegration in France's suburbs.
Reading Amara's book, one understands quickly the gravity of the situation. On October 4, 2002 in Vitry-sur-Seine, a satellite town of Paris, 18 year old Sohane Benziane, the daughter of Kabyle immigrants, was burned alive. The perpetrators were two men her age of North African descent. They lured the girl, who refused to submit to the "norms of the neighbourhood", into a cellar. While one kept watch outside, the other poured gas over Sohane and set her on fire with a lighter.
This horrible deed was a catalyst for Fadela Amara. A few days later, she along with 2000 other men and women took part in a silent march. Then she organised gatherings at which girls and women could speak openly about violence in their districts. In February 2003 she initiated a "March of Women from the Suburbs". It went through a total of 23 cities and drew the nation's attention to the particular repression of the "girls of the city". Today "Ni putes ni soumises" has more than 6000 members and 60 local committees. The organisation encourages young women and men in the suburbs to act against ghettoisation and the suppression of women, and to support equal opportunity and rights. Fadela Amara wants to break the law of silence which has masked the violence of the suburbs, mafia-style.
The petite woman with the narrow face and the little pig-tail grew up in a suburban housing development in Clermont-Ferrand, a working class city in the South. "We thought at the time that the French republic was going to give us immigrant children a chance as well." Freedom, equality, fraternity – France's founding principles – are still seminal terms for the 40 year old. Like many daughters of immigrant parents, she didn't enjoy equal rights as she grew up in the 1980s either, but the common commitment to anti-racism movement brought the sexes closer together. The number of forced marriages decreased and the number of female Muslim students increased. Since the economic crisis of the 1990s, however, the clocks have started ticking backwards again.
Fathers in immigrant families don't only lose their jobs when they're unemployed. They lose their authority in the family. This position is then occupied by their eldest sons who, although they may not be able to find legal employment, can provide for the family through their work in "parallel economies": car theft and drug dealing. With the authority they inherit, they are able to impose their conservative notions of religion and morality onto their social surroundings. Their spiritual nourishment comes from the Islamic fundamentalists, whose influence in the suburbs continues to rise.
For girls in the neighbourhood the message is: take on traditional female roles, dress chastely, don't go out and most importantly, remain a virgin until you marry. This unwritten law doesn't only apply to Muslim girls. The north African young men, although they constitute a minority, command the non-Islamic populations in the suburbs as well: African immigrants and lower class French.
In her book, Fadela Amara describes precisely what effect this moral pressure has on the girls. And how much courage they need to stand up to their moral guard dogs by wearing make-up, for example, or a skirt. In the suburbs, both represent an act of rebellion. Many girls dress intentionally unattractively or wear a veil, for fear of reprisals.
"The veil symbolises submission to male dominance," Fadela Amara explains. For this reason, she supports Chirac's hard line of banning the veil in schools. The veil says "I am not available" and should, in principle, buy the women some peace. But what results is a confirmation of the fatal alternative presented in the provocative name "Ni putes ni soumises"; either a woman gives in to her traditional role, or she is considered a whore and fair game.
A common punishment for girls who rebel, in the worst case, is the so-called "tournante" – gang rape. Samira Bellil was the first to describe this phenomena in her book "Dans l'enfer des tournantes" (in gang-rape hell). She had been the victim of three gang rapes before she found the courage, after psychotherapeutic treatment, to tell her story. Samira Bellil was also patron of "Ni putes ni soumises" until she died last year at 31 of stomach cancer. (Here an obituary from the Guardian.)
Bellil's book and Amara's activites have woken up politicians. In various cities, emergency hotlines and hostels have been set up for women and girls forced to flee their neighbourhoods. In police stations, specialised workers are being trained to deal with "migrants' problems". But Fadela Amara believes that these measures address only the symptoms of the grievances; to eliminate the roots of the problem, steps have to be taken against mass unemployment and the ghettoising of the suburbs. But the author does not hold political forces responsible. In her book, she is very critical of the way many immigrants bring up their children.
"In Muslim immigrant families, the sons are treated like kings. They are not just preferred over the girls, they are spoilt and coddled." The crux is that when these young men encounter resistance beyond the family for the first time - when they don't get into university or college, for example - they react helplessly and destructively. They compensate for their fury and inferiority complexes with machismo and violence against those who are socially and physically weaker – girls in particular.
"In the suburbs, sexual education takes place through porn videos – how can these boys not have a twisted image of women?" Amara asks. She demands better sexual education in schools. The boys should learn values: how to deal with the opposite sex respectfully. To this purpose, Amara published a "How to respect" guide that's designed to fit into a trouser pocket. Her colleagues take these into the schools and discuss with students their notions of marriage, virginity, forced marriage, circumcision, tenderness and love.
Amara emphasises that this is the difference between those who talk about cultural relativism and her organisation, which is aimed at achieving universal human rights. "An exaggerated tolerance of supposed cultural differences which results in the maintenance of archaic traditions - that's just not acceptable."
Neither whores nor submissives
Mexico's President Vicente Fox is having a tough year.As long as Mexico keeps exporting its racial problems to the US, it won't have to deal with them at home. Maybe that's a reason why illegal immigration should be better-controlled: to force Mexicans to deal with their own problems and make their society an attractive place for Mexicans of previously unfavored ethnic backgrounds to want to be.
During the much-publicized Minuteman Project in Arizona last March, Fox's arrogant comments and dismissive attitude didn't win him too many fans north of the border. Then in May, while making yet another speech about how America couldn't function without illegal immigrants from Mexico, Fox managed to insult African Americans in the process. He claimed that illegals do the work that "not even black people want to do," implying that African Americans make up the lowest rungs of society.
About a month later came the unveiling of Mexico's latest series of postage stamps, featuring none other than a black character like something out of a minstrel show. Needless to say, Fox found himself on the defensive yet again -- with good reason.
It turns out that racism in Mexico, both against blacks and dark-skinned indigenous Indians, has a long history. Mexico's colonial past has left its mark on modern-day society. Prejudice toward "pureblood" Indians from those who are "mixed-blood" (Spanish and Indian) is rife. Almost uniformly, people who are darker-skinned and of Indian descent make up the peasantry and working classes, while lighter-skinned, Spanish-descent Mexicans are in the ruling elite. Fox himself comes from that background, as his appearance makes evident.
This inequality may explain in part why the majority of immigrants coming into the United States fall into the darker-skinned category. Beyond the failure of the Mexican government to sustain a decent economy, darker-skinned Mexicans have a difficult time getting work because of job discrimination. According to the Web site IndigenousPeople.net, "sixty percent of Indians over 12 years of age are already unemployed, and of those who work, most earn less than the minimum wage of about $2.50 a day." The same story notes that Mexico City's top restaurants don't allow patrons to bring along Indian domestic workers for fear of tarnishing their business image.
Mexico's racial dynamics are perhaps best summed up by Steve Sailer in his article, "Where Did Mexico's Blacks Go?" He writes that "[w]hat Mexico does have instead of a color line is a 'color continuum.' There are no sharp racial divides, yet the rule for social prestige remains 'the whiter the better.'"
With this in mind, the popularity of the "Memin Pinguin" postage stamp series in Mexico starts to make sense. In fact, the flat-nosed, thick-lipped, bug-eyed, shucking and jiving Memin Pinguin is one of Mexico's most beloved comic strip characters. He's a children's character from a 1945 comic book that's still published in Mexico today. The cartoonist, Sixto Valencia Burgos, describes Memin as "this funny little kid. And nice. And generous. Oh, and black, too."
Fox's spokesman Rubén Aguilar vehemently denied that the character was racist, even going so far as to make the absurd claim that the series served to "combat racism and promote family values." Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez chimed in with his own defense of the Mexican comic strip and had the gall to accuse critics of showing a "a total lack of respect for our culture."
But Americans were unmoved. The White House issued a statement saying that the stamps had "no place in today's world," and the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson demanded that the stamps be withdrawn from the market. He also vowed to lead a demonstration at Mexican consulates unless Fox apologized. Leaders of the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League also spoke out against the stereotypical stamps.
Similar to U.S. Caricatures
Far from it being a "cultural misunderstanding," as members of the Mexican government term it, Americans know all too well what Memin Pinguin represents, as such caricatures originated in their own backyard. According to David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., the character is "consistent with what we in the United States would refer to as a pickaninny image."
But such stereotypes have long been banished to the realm of collectibles in this country, and rightfully so. Long before the overreach of political correctness, people worked to rid the nation of some truly ugly elements. This was a product of political struggle on the part of African Americans and others who fought for an integrated society. So naturally most Americans recoiled in disgust when the offending stamp was revealed.
But in Mexico the stamps have been selling out, with lines out the door of local post offices. In fact, the Mexican postal service defended the series vigorously, calling Memin Pinguin a "nice, little motor-mouth who, thanks to his good humor and particular way of seeing the world, wins the hearts" of the other characters. Isn't that special?
Mexicans themselves seem perplexed by all the hoopla. In a society where such terms of endearment as guero (blond) for Caucasians or fair-skinned Mexicans and negro (black), negrito (blackie) or moreno (brown) for darker-skinned Mexicans are standard, the Memin Pinguin stamps are simply par for the course.
So is it reasonable to suggest that the struggles that have been waged by African Americans have not filtered down south of the border? Both countries have a legacy of slavery, but different pathways led to the divergent populations that exist today.
Slave Trade in Mexico
Although the study of slavery tends to focus exclusively on the United States, it was widely practiced in the ancient world and later by various people around the world, including of course Europe. It was the Spanish slave trade that first brought Africans to Mexico, as early as 1520. Although slaves were initially treated more like personal servants and Christianized before their arrival, the Spanish crown soon expanded the practice into a full-blown slave trade. The population of blacks grew to outnumber the Spanish and eventually reached 200,000. With Mexico's independence in 1829, slavery was finally abolished after almost 300 years.
But slavery had taken its toll on the remnants of African culture, and intermarriage with indigenous people, and to a lesser extent with the Spanish, created a population of mixed-bloods, or mulattos. The descendants of these people continued to intermarry, which may be why the contemporary Afro-Mexican population is relatively small.
The two areas where the most blacks in Mexico live are the Costa Chica and the state of Veracruz. Like the indigenous people in the area, Afro-Mexicans are mostly campesinos or peasant farmers. Because the Mexican government does not use "race" in its census data, it's difficult to gauge population, but Afro-Mexicans appear to be short of both political and economic power. Compared to the legion of African American faces among the rich and famous, Afro-Mexicans are relatively invisible in popular culture, except of course for derogatory figures such as Memin Pinguin.
Despite the backdrop of slavery, many Mexicans are in denial about this aspect of their history. Colin A. Palmer, in an article titled "A Legacy of Slavery," recounts one such conversation in which a Mexican student insisted that Africans came to Mexico only as fugitive slaves from North America or Cuba. Yet at one time, Palmer notes, Mexico "probably had more African slaves than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere." And unlike the United States, where people have openly confronted their past, Mexico has yet to come to terms with its history. Maybe this is why gross misrepresentations of blacks such as Memin Pinguin are considered harmless. If racism never existed in Mexico, then how could this caricature be racist?
Then there's the factional attitude of various Latin Americans toward each other -- often partly based on the color continuum. These prejudices have traveled along with their purveyors to the United States and are well known by those who rub shoulders with Latino workers. My stepfather and his brother work in construction, and over the years they have noticed the hostility between Mexicans and the mostly darker-skinned Hondurans. They often refuse to work together and must be segregated by job. Although hardly politically correct, this bigotry is overlooked because it's perpetrated by one brown person against another. The truth is, racism transcends any one group, and when one looks beyond the white-vs.-black paradigm, discrimination is between degrees of brown.
Americans schooled in the ways of racial sensitivity can be shocked to travel abroad and witness the real world. My mother and I were in Hong Kong during the late 1980s and ran across something astounding: a toothpaste called "Darkie" (since changed to "Darlie.") On the front of the tube was a drawing of an Uncle Tom-like character from the Old South. We were so flabbergasted at the offensive find that we had to buy a tube to bring back and show our friends. But it was left in our hotel room, destined to be only a crazy story.
Unfortunately, Memin Pinguin is no crazy story and the proof is staring us all in the face. It's just too bad that it doesn't seem to bother our Mexican neighbors.
“My little Chad/Rebecca saw a HUMAN FOOT IN A BUCKET ON THE NEIGHBOR'S PORCH!"...by confiscating the foot. You know, for the children. Not to mention the property values. As it turns out, much to the police's chagrin: possession (and display) of your own foot is not against the law, so Zeke got his foot back. He put it right back on the front porch, in the bucket of formaldehyde, along with a can of Hamm's beer and a porcelain horse.