Posts Tagged ‘burka’

Religion, Assimilation, Vaccination

February 9th, 2010 1 comment

According to this story, an outbreak of mumps has occurred in counties just north of New York City, mostly in Orthodox (or Hasidic) Jewish communities, where parents routinely seek religious exemptions to vaccination requirements for their children. In total, about 1,000 kids (mostly adolescents) have been afflicted.

When I was a kid, we all came down with mumps, and more: measles, chicken pox, and so-called “German measles” (rubella) were the most common. Mostly, these were cause for missing a week or so of school, but nothing more. Yet all of these diseases are properly seen as deadly threats to the public’s health. Measles, which is particularly likely to spike in a population where a significant number go unvaccinated, routinely killed many hundreds of kids each year in the U.S. alone, caused about double that number of permanent brain injuries, and cost the health insurance system dearly through the many thousands of hospitalizations. Mumps, in addition to the quasi-endearing chipmunk cheeks we all had, was most often associated with deafness as a complication.

The outbreak sits at the confluence of two infuriating obstacles to vaccination: bad science and over-deference to religion. Apparently, the outbreak in the U.S. was an unwanted import from the U.K., where a mumps outbreak had spread to some 4,000 people. Vaccination exemptions are frighteningly common there, mostly because of a thoroughly refuted study that purported to show a link between vaccinations and autism. Indeed, the prominent British medical journal that had published the study, the Lancet, last week retracted it after a British medical panel concluded that the lead author had been unethical and had conflicts of interest. And a flood of other studies since that one had already disproven its autism-vaccination link.

Once mumps made its way into the U.S., the congregation Orthodox and Hasidic Jews proved fertile ground for its spread. One locus was an area within Rockland County, New York, where a large, insular community of Hasidic Jews lives. I grew up in Rockland (in a nearby town), and know the community. On a Saturday, we’d drive past the synagogue-going residents — all on foot, the men in simple black garb with a defining hairstyle, the women in long dresses with head covering. Quite an insular community, and one in which, (credible) rumor had it, the families didn’t pay property taxes on their homes (each being considered a holy place). So there’s one exception from general laws that they enjoyed.

I didn’t know until recently of this other exemption for vaccinations, and I don’t support either carve-out. (In my view, no church should be exempt from paying property tax in the first place. There’s another whole post there, but I digress.) Respecting religion doesn’t require subjecting the public to needless risk. Quite the contrary: Religion is honored when we find and protect a proper, separate space for it. But personal or congregational religious expressions should end where the interest of the general public — a secular interest — is imperilled. Thus, it’s hard to justify a ban on the burka in public spaces (compare, say, driving, if evidence showed that the compromise to peripheral vision was significant), but equally hard to justify allowing the adherents of any religious group to forego vaccination. It’s easy to forget the public health success story of vaccinations. This recent story on those confronting new challenges from polio, many decades after they were first afflicted, should be reminder enough — but probably won’t be.

What’s the public health threat if everyone else is vaccinated? First, there’s the threat to the unvaccinated children themselves. The state has an interest in them, too, and at least one state supreme court has held that this interest makes unconstitutional any non-medical exemption. Beyond that, the vaccinations are themselves not completely effective. Thus, even the vaccinated kids can come down with the illness in question; and some of them will if a sufficient number in the population is not vaccinated. So it’s not “just” a question of getting to decide what to do about your own child’s health, an issue that the state has an interest in anyway.

When they first enacted religious exemptions to vaccination requirements decades ago, states did do under duress: Congress tied recognition of such exemptions to federal funding. It’s time to wake up and repeal these laws before we undo this great public health accomplishment.

Back to the Burka

February 6th, 2010 2 comments

In an earlier post, I criticized the French government for its plan to ban the public wearing of the burka. It won’t liberate women, it will drive the issue underground, it sacrifices religious freedom to nothing more than public sensibility, and so on.

But what about the government’s recent decision to deny citizenship to a Muslim man whose wife is veiled? Is that equally indefensible? I don’t think so. The guy’s comments about his power over his wife amounted to an almost cartoonishly chauvinistic litany. According to the official with responsibility for the decision, the less-than-enlightened hubby said: “My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.”

If that’s really what he said, the government made the right choice. This is quite a different situation from the one presented by banning the burka in public. Here, the government has to decide whether to accept, as a French citizen, someone who openly rejects gender equality, one of the principal pillars of modern, secular society (at least rhetorically, anyway). The burka that his wife wears is but one tangible expression of his repressive behavior, and the government should no more approve his application than one filed by a domestic abuser. To gain membership in a secular democracy, there are certain principles by which one agrees to abide.

So what’s different about the “no burkas in public” rule? It’s all a matter of degree, of course, but I think the cases are quite different. Although the burka is certainly a marker of women’s inequality under religious law, it’s more than that; for some women, at least, it might be a deeply felt expression of their own religious belief, uncoerced at least in any obvious way by their husbands. A society should be open enough to accommodate the kind of conversation that the burka invites, even if it makes many (including me) uncomfortable. But a potential citizen who openly sneers at the very foundations of gender equality, in 2010, should be rejected — both on the merits and as a symbol of France’s willingness to take a stand in favor of women, and against those who would oppress them.

Two Stories of Civic-Minded Nazis

January 26th, 2010 2 comments

I.          Things to Adopt: A Highway and a “Whites-Only” Policy

According to this story, a National Nazi party (called the National Socialist Movement) has just adopted one mile of U.S.  85 in Colorado. Here, in their own words, is what they stand for:  “The rights of white people everywhere…and promotion of white separation.” Want to join? Here’s who’s eligible: “non-Semitic heterosexuals’ [sic] of European Descent.” I guess it’s too much to expect good grammar from angry pinheads.

You know the drill: The state is helpless to prevent this message, it’s free speech, if the government allows one message it has to allow them all, blah blah blah. But is this true? First, states, however revenue-strapped, should get out of the business of having organizations “sponsor” miles of state roads. This is a quintessentially government function, and now we can see what happens when the government allows third parties to participate. Under the program, the sponsoring group agrees to pick up litter, thereby saving the state some money in would otherwise spend in doing so. A worthwhile project, but maybe not worth it. What’s next, the Wal-Mart Old Faithful Geyser? And the argument about the need for government to stay out of this dispute, by letting every message wash over it, is much too simple. States also have non-discrimination laws, and the state should be able to stand its ground here, saying that it can’t be in bed with neo-Nazis. Let them march. But they shouldn’t get the imprimatur of state sponsorship. States with those terminally annoying vanity plates set ground rules for those displays (i.e, no profanity, no offensive language, no sense of irony, etc.), so why not here? If we can dictate or limit what people place on their own cars, why not on state highways?

The policies related to the program are here. As you can see, the state leaves itself plenty of discretion. Why not use it in this case?

II.     (Ne) Vive (Pas) La France!

I hate the burka. My reaction to it, and to what I think it says about the women who wear them — and worse, the uncovered husbands who enforce this anti-social discipline — is visceral.

I’m not alone. The French government, apparently taking its cue from the more defensible ban of religious symbolism in schools, is now seriously considering banning full face coverings from many public places, including government offices and public transportation. For a good debate on the issue, listen to the BBC Newshour story from today.

This would be a terrible mistake, precisely because people feel so strongly about the issue. It’s in those cases that individuals most need protection. And banning the burka will only mean that many Muslim women wouldn’t be able to leave their homes. How is that going to help the assimilationist goal of this legislation? I don’t oppose all government policies in support of secularism; in fact, we are too sometimes too far to the contrary, as with the bans on same-sex marriages, which are justifiable only by appeal to (dominant) religion, But this measure is likely to be counter-productive, and will feed the rhetoric of extremists.

As for the title of this post: It’s not fair, even in blog-hyperbole speak, to call this move Nazism. And the parallel I’m trying to draw is obviously too simple. But there’s surely something to it, and this latest move by the French should concern us all.