Monday, June 30, 2008

The New Agent Orange?

The Boston Globe reported last week, "US soldiers assigned to guard a crucial part of Iraq's oil infrastructure became ill after exposure to a highly toxic chemical at the plant, witnesses testified at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill." KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, allegedly exposed them to "sodium dichromate, an orange, sandlike chemical that is a potentially lethal carcinogen. Specialists say even short-term exposure to the chemical can cause cancer, depress an individual's immune system, attack the liver, and cause other ailments."

So, corporations made chemicals that are poisoning American soldiers at the command of the American government. To anyone who were alive and aware in the 1970's, this must seem like a recurrent nightmare. It's the return of Agent Orange.

According to the American Cancer Society, "About 3 million Americans served in the armed forces in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, the time of the Vietnam War. During that time, the military used large amounts of mixtures known as defoliants, which were chemicals that caused the leaves to fall off plants. One of these defoliants was Agent Orange, and some troops were exposed to it." The wikipedia article about Agent Orange says:
Since the 1980s, several lawsuits have been filed against the companies which produced Agent Orange, among them; Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Diamond Shamrock (which produced 5%[2]). U.S. veterans obtained a $180 million settlement in 1984, with most affected veterans receiving a one-time lump sum payment of $1,200.
Why did the chemical companies pay? According to Lewis Publishing Company, home of The Veteran's Book and Video Store:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (formerly the Veterans Administration, and still known as the VA) currently offers service-connected compensation for certain diseases believed to be associated with Agent Orange exposure. The diseases are:

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
Soft tissue sarcoma
Hodgkin's Disease
Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (PCT)
Multiple Myeloma
Respiratory cancers
(including cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea and bronchus)
Prostate cancer
Peripheral neuorapthy
(acute or subacute)
Type 2 Diabetes (Diabetes mellitus)

This is what we call supporting our troops.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Sad Day for Voters

John McCain famously tried to reduce the role of money in politics. Now, he is running for President with a campaign staff full of lobbyists.

Barack Obama worked as a community organizer in the low-income housing projects in Chicago. Now, we find out that when he was first elected, he started cuddling up to the developers--people who were enriching themselves at public expense by providing housing unfit for human habitation. Those developers gave him money, and now he is running for President with a campaign full of slumlords.

Shame on them both, and God have mercy on our souls. We are in for another bad four years.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Love Makes a Family--and I Help

My late father, Mel Fischman, was kind and respectful to gay men and lesbians as individuals. He would not want them harassed by police or molested by mobs. Not in his wildest dreams, however, could he imagine that same-sex couples would ever be legally married. The closest he came was when my dear wife Rona asked him, "Suppose I were not in love with your son Dennis, but your daughter Denise?"

If Rona were in love with Denise four years ago, we could have gotten married in Massachusetts. As of a few weeks ago, our Massachusetts marriage would be recognized as binding in New York, where Rona grew up. If we were visiting Rona's cousins there and one of us became seriously ill and went to the hospital, the other would be treated as her spouse. And as of today, a left coast Rona and Denise could get married in California (as Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons have done after so many decades).

This past weekend, I did something else that my father, the Jewish community, and I myself would have found unthinkable when I was growing up: I co-officiated at an interfaith wedding. I have known the groom since he was a small boy, the son of close friends at Temple B'nai Brith. I know that his fiancee makes him stronger, saner, more confident, and more able to let his naturally sweet nature show. My brief acquaintance with her has made me like her and admire her intelligence, humor, and commitment to a better world. The two of them remind me of Rona and Dennis--except that she and her family are Christians. Like Rona and Denise, Alex and Katie have had to find their own way to marry.

Why did I sit down with them and the minister from the Welcoming ministry at College Avenue United Methodist Church and help them plan a wedding? Partly, because I knew them and believed in them. Partly, it was because they were so thoughtful about it. They could have had a civil wedding and ignored religious considerations entirely. Instead, using Rabbi Devon Lerner's book Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony, they came up with a wedding that felt true to both traditions.

There was a time when I would not even have considered participating. I believed, and most of the Jewish community believed, that "intermarriage" could never be "good for the Jews." Social science seemed to back up that opinion. Jewish/Christian couples tended to be less involved in synagogues or home rituals and less identified with the Jewish community. The prediction was that in two generations, their descendants would lose all trace of Jewish identity. For a people as minute and as close to extinction as the Jews have been, this seemed like a crime in which I could not be an accomplice.

My own experience at TBB has shown me that it ain't necessarily so. In fact, both in Somerville and in Melrose, where I tutor, if it weren't for the children of mixed marriages, there wouldn't be any children's schools! A recent study by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (CJP) finds that in Greater Boston, "the majority of interfaith Jewish households — around 60 percent — are deciding to raise their children as Jews." Said Christopher Winship, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, who converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish woman:
"Intermarriage has often been claimed to be a disease that's slowly going to wipe out the American Jewish Community, but now you've got to do the math, and you see that if all the Jews that intermarried raised committed Jewish children, we could double the size of the Jewish population in one generation."

That's a particularly rosy view. I don't think it's likely. What's more probable is that we will double and redouble the number of people in the U.S. who think of Jews as family. As my father's example shows, it makes a difference if you think of members of a particular group as "those people" or as "Rona and Denise," or "Alex and Katie." Homophobia declines among people who know out gays and lesbians. Antisemitism is bound to decline among Christian or secular people who have Jews in their families.

The CJP study also shows that when we welcome interfaith couples to the Jewish community at the time they're getting married, they're more likely to stay involved with the community. That made me feel even better about doing what I already considered a mitzvah: helping these two loving people celebrate the love that God had given them.

So, my final words on interfaith marriage will be the final words I spoke at the wedding: Mazel tov!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Too Soon to Declare Victory on Health Care in Massachusetts

If you believe the papers, the politicians, or the pundits, the Massachusetts plan to make sure everyone has health insurance--by forcing them to buy it for themselves--is a great success. The uninsured don't believe it, however. Neither do low-income people in Somerville, where I live. Neither do I.

According to the Boston Globe, "The number of uninsured adults in Massachusetts fell by almost half last year." Proponents of mandatory health insurance said "that not only are more people getting coverage, but that only a fraction of taxpayers contested the health insurance mandate."

Sounds like great news, right? It does--until you look at who supports mandatory health insurance and who doesn't. People who already have insurance favor the plan by 71%. Not surprising: it doesn't cost them anything out of pocket, and the taxes needed to fund the plan haven't kicked in yet. But a majority of people who don't have health insurance yet--the people the plan is theoretically supposed to benefit--don't support it, according to a study by the Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue.

In Somerville, where I live, we recently surveyed 537 mostly low-income residents or employees. We asked them what should be the top priority of CAAS, the anti-poverty agency where I work. Keeping housing safe and affordable was the $1 priority (not a surprise, given the high cost of housing in our area). English literacy and finding a job, or a better job, were essentially tied at #2. "Access to health insurance" ranked #3. The people who need health insurance the most are telling us that the Massachusetts plan is still a problem and not yet a solution.

What do they know that policy makers don't know? I have suggested in the earlier version of this blog:
  1. Too many people will have coverage without care. The affordable plans people can purchase hardly cover anything. There’s a huge “deductible,” a payment people have to make up front each year before the insurance policy pays a dollar. If I go to the hospital for a week, sure, I’m covered after the first day. But if I go to see my doctor or dentist, or if I have to buy prescriptions or eyeglasses, I’m the one who’s paying. How many thousands of Massachusetts residents will be insured but never get any more health care than they have now, under this plan?

  2. Too many people still won't have health coverage, period. For some desperately poor people, or even people with a decent income but a lot of expenses, there’s no plan on the market that can really be called affordable. Massachusetts graciously exempts them from the mandate. But that means they won't have health insurance, the same as before!

  3. The plan penalizes the poor and subsidizes the corporations that sell health insurance. The mandatory plan has teeth because the tax collectors can fine you up to $912 if you don't buy health insurance. "You think you're too poor to buy health insurance?" they are saying in effect. "Well, how would you like to pay the state and get no health insurance, instead?" The money that we are forcing the working poor to pony up for health insurance they can't use and can't afford is going straight into the pockets of the big health insurers. We are robbing the poor and giving to the rich, and patting ourselves on the back while we do it!
We don't need to be forced to buy health insurance from for-profit corporations. What we need is a "Medicare for all" system that efficiently provides high-quality care to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rona's blog

Rona and I were so glad when Memorial Day weekend rolled around! She has been working straight out during the real estate busy season, and both of us had parents who died in the month of May (as well as our dear friend Fred Friedman). We needed the break. I hope to blog more in the month of June. In the mean time, check out my darling's blog at the Boston Globe. Her readers actually write her back! (hint, hint)