Got news? A tale of two collars

50spink_tasselsTwo quick confessions.

Yes, I do read the women’s mag Marie Claire – this wasn’t a tip from one of our commenters.

And no, I didn’t page right past a story about an aspiring politician and an amateur burlesque dancer.

But I didn’t notice the autobiographical commentary by writer Sarah Liston in the middle of the November issue of the magazine until today. After, uh, setting the stage, Liston describes husband Dave’s work as a public servant — and his other volunteer activities.

My husband, Dave, just finished his third term as chairman of our local New York City community board. He serves as cochair of the landmarks committee, and was recently awarded his own Appreciation Day by the borough president. His life revolves around volunteering as a subdeacon at an Episcopal church and listening to the public complain about subway construction, class size, and too-noisy bars. His dream is to make it to Congress one day, and to have an old-fashioned, street-level storefront office where constituents can stop by. After a long political career, he hopes to attend divinity school and become an Episcopal priest.

As an amateur burlesque dancer, I perform mostly at upscale restaurants and wine bars in New York City. My dream is to go on a burlesque tour through Europe, wearing ostrich feathers and velvet and bustiers, removing piece by strategic piece in lush, red-curtained, time-stained theaters. Usually, political scandals implicating half-dressed women involve everyone but the wife. In our case, the sex scandal is the wife. Though, for the record, I never get completely naked when I dance, and I use a pseudonym, Grace Gotham, to stay incognito. But still, you can see how my new hobby might put some drag on my husband’s political trajectory.

So let’s put the pieces of the story together. Here’s a little more biographical information about Subdeacon Liston. Turns out that he’s a lawyer at a New York City law firm and a former assistant district attorney — as well as a mayoral appointee to the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board. In a city of public servants, many of whom are pretty well-known, Mr. Liston would still be someone newsworthy.

Imagine for a moment that an evangelical or Mormon lawyer/public servant had a wife with this eclectic avocation? You’ve got to believe that some mainstream media outlet would be all over this story. Actually, whether you approve of burlesque or not, it’s a potential feature story.

Of course, if you are a well-known lawyer who has a spouse who is an author impelled by a yen for pasties and Edith Piaf — you’d have to be an Episcopalian, wouldn’t you? Stands to reason. Given David Liston’s biographical reference to Holy Trinity, I’d guess that this innovative East Side church is his parish. Tough to tell from his spouse’s commentary if she attends or not. Judging solely by the website, Holy Trinity seems to fit into the “inclusive” or “progressive” category.

I wonder why David Liston wants to wait to become a priest — to atone for years in the political crucible? His wife doesn’t tell us. Sarah Liston does give readers hints that her amateur career placed a bit of stress on her marriage. I also wonder, parenthetically, why she doesn’t note that her husband is a lawyer.

There’s so much more to tell here. Note to editors at the New York Times — all you have to do is figure out whether the Liston story belongs in the “Politics” or “Style” sections — and it sort of tells itself. The religion angle, played for “cute” in the Marie Claire essay, also could use a lot more attention. In short, you could argue that the tale of the kitty-collared performer and the lawyer/politician who dreams of the priesthood definitely has legs. So to speak.

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‘Traditional Iraqi values’ in the news

ht_almaleki_091022_mnQuite a few newspapers and television stations across America have posted various versions of the following short Associated Press story on their websites. For the sake of clarity, here’s the whole report:

PEORIA, Ariz. – Police in a Phoenix suburb are looking for a father suspected of running down his daughter because she was becoming too “Westernized” and was not living according to their traditional Iraqi values.

Police say 48-year-old Faleh Hassan Almaleki of Glendale allegedly ran his daughter down Tuesday at an Arizona Department of Economic Security parking lot in Peoria.

The victim, 20-year-old Noor Faleh Almaleki of Surprise, remains hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. A second woman, 43-year-old Amal Edan Khalaf, also of Surprise, suffered non-life threatening injuries. Police say the women are roommates.

What’s the first thing that leaps into your mind when you read that? The question that hit me was this one: What, pray tell, are “traditional Iraqi” values? Believe it or not, the early coverage from the Arizona Republic also tap-danced around that issue.

As you can see, the AP report does not even raise the issue of whether this incident is linked to Islam. Surely someone asked if the father is part of the local Sunni or Shiite community? And what about the other victim. Note the ages. What is going on here? Might this have been an attempt at an “honor killing“?

Well, it seems that journalists are asking some of these questions over at ABC News and they may be catching flak for doing so.

Here’s a link to the story. Now, when you move your mouse over the URL, or open it in a browser, look at the original title for this news story. The URL says it right up front:

And it appears, in my browsers, that the “tab” headline at the top of the page still says this: “Arizona Police Hunt for Muslim Father Who Ran Over ‘Westernized’ Daughter.”

But when you open up the story, the headline says this: “Arizona Police Hunt for Dad Accused of Running Over Daughter — Police Say Faleh Hassan Almaleki Believed His Daughter Was ‘Too Westernized.’ ” That’s an eye-opening piece of editing, to say the least. Meanwhile, the top of this story by Sarah Netter contains a crucial new detail:

Police in Arizona are hunting for an Iraqi-American father who they say ran over his daughter with his car to punish her for becoming “too Westernized” and rebuffing the conservative ways he valued.

Faleh Hassan Almaleki, 48, was last seen fleeing the parking lot of the Department of Economic Development in Peoria, Ariz., Tuesday after hitting his 20-year-old daughter and her boyfriend’s mother with his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Noor Faleh Almaleki is in “life-threatening condition,” Peoria Police spokesman Mike Tellef told today. Her boyfriend’s mother, 43-year-old Amal Edan Khalaf, is also still hospitalized, but with non-life threatening injuries. “It occured because her not following traditional family values. We’ve been told that by everybody,” Tellef said. “He felt she was becoming too westernized and he didn’t like that.”

So, did this take place because the daughter was dating the wrong kind of Muslim? Or was she dating a young man from a family that was from the same branch of Islam, but was practicing a more modernized, pro-Western form of the faith? It is also possible, but the odds would be against this, that the boyfriend’s family had converted to another faith.

However, ABC has another detail that clearly points toward an “honor killing” theme.

Noor Almaleki had backed out of an arranged marriage about a year ago, police learned, and had been living with Khalaf and her son in a nearby town. Tellef said the young woman dressed in American clothing and was wearing typical Western attire when she was struck.

said_sisters_1To the newsroom’s credit, ABC directly addresses the subject of “honor killings,” including a candid source that shows why reporters really need to be careful. Once again, there is no one, all-powerful Islamic authority on this kind of topic, no dogma that applies to all Muslims. But is there any way to cover this without discussing what SOME Muslims believe, while others disagree? No way.

Thus, we read:

Ibrahim Ramey, human and civil rights director for the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation, told that whenever this type of crime involves a Muslim it can serve to elevate the fears of people who may already harbor misconceptions about Islam.

“It’s reprehensible,” he said of honor killings. “It’s wrong.”

Ramey pointed out that a verse in the Koran specifically states that there is no compulsion in religion, meaning that people can not be compelled or coerced into being Muslim or adhering to a certain set of rules.

Yes, the ABC News report links this to the on-going coverage of Rifqa Bary, a 17-year-old convert to Christianity who fled her home in Ohio, believing that her life was in danger because her new faith would bring dishonor on her parents. Then there was that 2008 case in Texas, involving the deaths of Amina and Sarah Said of Lewisville, Texas (second photo).

If anything, the ABC News report is unbalanced because of its lack of authoritative voices that can explain that “honor killings” are real, if rare, and the cultural and religious circumstances that produce them (the rejection of arranged marriages being a common theme). Still, the story at least names the issue and discusses it in a sensitive manner.

In far too many reports, readers were left to ponder the content of the phrase “traditional Iraqi” values and whether that means what they probably thought that it means.

Photos: Faleh Hassan Almaleki, in a photo released by the Peoria Police Department. Amina and Sarah Said of Lewisville, Texas.

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Sharia doesn’t discuss execution for apostasy?

Fathima Rifqa

There’s something curious about the way the media have been handling the difficult and complicated story of Rifqa Bary. She’s the Ohio teenager (pictured here) who fled to Florida after she converted to Christianity over concerns her Muslim father might kill her. We last looked at this story when CNN inexplicably referred to the girl as “Muslim” even though the whole point of this saga is that she’s not.

More recently, the Religion News Service has an interesting story about the case. The lede places the court battle over the case as just the latest example of crazy custody battles taking place in Florida:

If you’re involved in a high-stakes custody fight, Florida, it seems, is the place to be.

Could Rifqa’s father in Ohio really kill her for leaving Islam to embrace Christianity? Has the 17-year-old read too many fundamentalist Christian Web sites? Or is it all just teen dramatics?

Those are all questions swirling around the 17-year-old Ohio girl who became a Christian several years ago and sought shelter with an Orlando pastor after she feared for her life because, as she says, her father is bound by his Islamic faith to kill her.

Now, much of the piece is informative and it’s a good introduction to the case if you’re not familiar with it. But notice the somewhat flippant way the teen’s concerns are handled? Is it all just fundamentalist Christian web sites? Is it teen dramatics? Could there be any reason — other than teen dramatics or “fundamentalist” Christian web sites (whatever those are) — for why she might have fled?

Now let’s look at how the parents’ case (family pictured below) is presented:

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found no evidence of any threat or abuse against Rifqa and said her allegations are “based on her belief or understanding of the Islamic faith and/or Islamic law and custom. (Rifqa) stated that she believes Islamic law dictates she must be put to death for her abandonment of the Islamic faith.”

Her father, Mohamed Bary, denied making any such threat, according to the report, but he told investigators when he confronted Rifqa about her conversion last June he lifted a laptop to throw it but reconsidered, thinking about how much money he had invested in it.

The case has put Muslim groups on the defensive. Islam condones no such killings, said Babak Darvish, executive director of the Columbus chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Darvish said the girl’s parents are distraught about her behavior. They brought the family to the United States from Sri Lanka when Rifqa was a child so that she could receive better treatment for an eye injury that eventually left her blind in one eye, he said.

So we’ve got teen dramatics and fundamentalist Christian web sites on the one hand and a Muslim denying that Islam condones killing for apostasy. Case closed? It is for this article. But is that all there is to the underlying issue?

Well, here’s a story from April of this year about Harvard’s Islamic chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser endorsing death as a punishment for apostasy. (Note the correction appended to that article where a Muslim student who thinks the chaplain should be removed asks that his name be removed from his quote “to avoid conflicts with Muslim religious authorities.”) And here is what Wikipedia says about the matter:

In Islamic law (sharia), the consensus view is that a male apostate must be put to death unless he suffers from a mental disorder or converted under duress, for example, due to an imminent danger of being killed. A female apostate must be either executed, according to Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), or imprisoned until she reverts to Islam as advocated by the Sunni Hanafi school and by Shi’a scholars.

A minority of medieval Islamic jurists . . . held that apostasy carries no legal punishment . . . these minority opinions have not found broad acceptance among the majority of Islamic scholars.

That article goes on to say that beheading is the preferred form of execution for convicted apostates, that the use of execution as punishment varies, and that there are a number of recent examples of killing for apostasy. (I should note that the article does seem to underplay Muslim opposition to capital punishment for apostasy.)

Unfortunately, precisely none of that information makes it into the story. I’m in no way saying that I think that Bary’s parents could kill her. I don’t know her and I don’t know her parents and, what’s more, I’m just as sympathetic to their plight as I am of hers. It’s a difficult and complicated situation about the religious rights of parents. But it’s not like the idea of capital punishment for apostasy from Islam is something Christians invented, much less “fundamentalist Christian” types.

Teen Convert

And should an employee of the Council for American Islamic Relations really be the go-to source for a quote on whether or not Islam condones execution for the crime of apostasy? Reporters really like to go to CAIR for quotes, which is somewhat surprising considering their controversial ties to Hamas (You can read more about that from when the group was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case regarding terrorist financing). I think a more impartial, more theological, less political Muslim source might be a better source. Or maybe we could get a discussion between Muslims from different perspectives about whether Muslim law would apply in this case and how it would.

Here’s another quibble, which I like to file under the “show, don’t tell” category:

In her few public appearances, Rifqa is at times emotional, impassioned, giddy and sometimes a little incoherent. In a YouTube video during which she shares her testimony, Rifqa calls her parents “radical, radical Muslims” and says, “they can’t know of my faith because if they do know the consequences are really harsh. Just the culture and the background that they come from is so hostile toward Christianity.”

She explained that a classmate introduced her to Christianity, and then grows emotional as she describes the moment she became a Christian, during an altar call at church.

“The Lord completely wraps me in his arms of love, and I break down on the floor and weep,” she said. “I felt nothing but love, nothing but this great radical love.”

Now, maybe this young woman is all of these somewhat pejorative adjectives. (Ever notice how infrequently we hear of men described as “giddy” or “incoherent”?) But are we supposed to get the “incoherent” part from these quotes? If so, I don’t get it. If not, the “incoherency” should be substantiated or eliminated from the copy.

Again, this is a complicated story with competing claims and a truly tough situation. Any parent can imagine the horror of a falling out of this nature with their child. But the other issue — the threat of death for apostasy — is legitimate enough that it should be treated more seriously and with more input from religious scholars.

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Getting religion and statistics

makemydataA couple of years ago, there was a flurry of stories about a study on abortion rates worldwide. Published in the Lancet based on research by the Guttmacher Institute, the stories said that abortion rates were the same throughout the world, regardless of legality.

Yet if you looked at the data, you saw some pretty significant variations. North America reported 33 abortions for every 100 live births while Africa reported 17 abortions for every 100 live births. An accompanying graph showed variations of 12 abortions per 100 live births on up to 105 abortions per 100 live births. And, most importantly, the abortion rate is the number of abortions per 1,000 women. The numbers above are ratios.

Well, Guttmacher is out with another study — I notice that some of the authors of the Lancet study are doing this one as well — on abortion rates. Again, that’s the number of abortions per 1,000 women. Here’s the BBC’s take:

Restricting the availability of legal abortion does not appear to reduce the number of women trying to end unwanted pregnancies, a major report suggests.

The Guttmacher Institute’s survey found abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is legal and regions where it is highly restricted.

You will probably not be surprised to find that the accompanying graph doesn’t really bear this out. Just, for example, the graph shows Latin America and the Caribbean with a rate of 31 abortions per 1,000 and Oceania with 18 abortions per 1,000 women. If you go to the actual report, you’ll see that the abortion rate for Eastern Europe in 2003 is 48 abortions per 1,000 women compared to 12 abortions per 1,000 women for Western Europe. One region having quadruple the abortion rate of another doesn’t read the same way to me as it does to most reporters, I guess.

Now, I read through the report and the authors are honest about dealing with some significant limitations in data collection. All of the numbers, in fact, are estimates and not actual. But the significance of the report is that it is a longitudinal study. It compares abortion rates from 1995 with those from 2003 and attempts to show that restricting abortion doesn’t reduce the number of women trying to end unwanted pregnancies.

Unfortunately the BBC report doesn’t demonstrate this finding in its story at all. Which is a shame since that’s the point of the study. But moving beyond that, it would be nice to have a report that got a bit more balance in any case. Take, for instance:

Even the UK, which has a relatively high rate, fares well in comparison to the US, where the number of abortions is among the highest in the developed world. The institute says this rate is in part explained by inconsistencies in insurance coverage of contraceptive supplies.

Now, remember that the point of the study is to show how abortion rates change as restrictions are increased or lessened. The above paragraph doesn’t speak to that issue. (To be fair, the report itself doesn’t deal much with that issue in these regions either.) It also doesn’t explain that the United States has more liberal abortion laws than the UK. Of course, the abortion rate declined in the U.S. at the same time that some states enacted some restrictions on the practice.

Perhaps most egregiously, the paragraph above alleges that the report says something it never did. I quickly read the report and never came across such a claim about the U.S. abortion rate being explained by insurance coverage. I did a word search for insurance and while there is discussion of insurance in various countries, the claim above is not made. And all the mentions of inconsistency deal with contraceptive use, not insurance coverage of same. I looked at the press release that Guttmacher sent out and it didn’t make that claim either.

I know this is the week for inventing quotes out of whole cloth, but really. Reporting shouldn’t be this difficult. And on that note, while the study itself frequently mentions the role of religion in influencing societal reaction to abortion law, you’ll note that it’s not mentioned here by the BBC.

Again, though, the real problem with the story is that it takes the claims of the Guttmacher Institute as the Gospel truth. And while Guttmacher is a respectable research outlet, it’s unabashed in its advocacy work as well. If you simply read the report, you’ll see that it’s all about advocating for liberalized abortion laws. This isn’t surprising, considering that Guttmacher was founded as the research arm of Planned Parenthood and they are very open about this aspect of their work. However, there are plenty of academics, including those of differing political persuasions, who disagree with their findings. Reporters have a basic duty to include them as well.

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Three in a casket

One Month Old Quadruplets Leave Tongji Hospital

Anyone concerned about America’s fertility industry should ponder “21st Century Babies” being posted in installlments on the the New York Times website. Writer Stephanie Saul is doing an excellent job of revealing the moral dilemmas and, frankly, distress and suffering that may occur when potential parents decide to try in-vitro and intrauterine insemination.

Here’s the first story, about the dangers of bearing twins.

As a person who struggled with infertility, but never had to go the hormone injections route, I read the second article with a disturbing question– why didn’t I know this already? Although she includes many quotes from parents and doctors enmeshed in the business of fertility medicine, Saul’s main focus is the heartbreaking story of Thomas and Amanda Stansel :

For more than a year the Stansels had been relying on Dr. George Grunert, one of the busiest fertility doctors in Houston, to produce his industry’s coveted product — a healthy baby. He was using a common procedure called intrauterine insemination, which involved injecting sperm into Mrs. Stansel’s uterus after hormone shots.

But something had gone wrong. In April, an ultrasound revealed that Mrs. Stansel was carrying not one but six babies, and Dr. Grunert was recommending a procedure known as selective reduction, in which some of the fetuses would be eliminated.

The Stansels rejected Dr. Grunert’s advice and, since then, their vision of a family has collapsed into excruciating loss: the deaths of four children after their premature births on Aug. 4, including one who died late Sunday night. The two other infants remain in neonatal intensive care, their futures uncertain.

When I first read this story, three of the babies had died — now the story has been altered to reflect the death of a fourth child.

Generally speaking, Saul doesn’t mince words in delineating the awful choices that patients and doctors may have in balancing one life against others. Yet in that context is it is very odd that she places a few religious ideas so deep in her story that they almost seem to play lesser roles. And yet it is likely that they are actually quite important.

Sauls carefully notes that causing the death of some fetuses (any word choice can’t capture this) is “known as” selective reduction. But the pro-life movement, as Sauls comments later in the story, call the same procedure elective abortion. The words “selective reduction” dance in and out of quotes in a way that seems to signal either ambivalance or poor editing. And the fact that this procedure has ethical and religious implications should have been closer to the top.

More crucial is where Saul mentions the faith that affected the
Stansel’s decision to attempt to carry the babies to term — near the article’s end.

Turns out the Stansels are Mormons.

For the Stansels, the decision was influenced by their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church generally opposes abortion. After learning that Mrs. Stansel was carrying sextuplets, the Stansels decided to meet with church elders and consult with a reduction specialist.

“It just never felt right,” Mr. Stansel said. “We prayed many nights. A lot of sleepless nights. Originally we thought we might do the reduction. We chose to carry all six and, we believe, let God do what he’s going to do.”

In a long article, replete with details, placement means a lot. Was I the only one who read the first Thomas Stansel quote, about holding the babies before they died and thought — boy, this guy is a bit narcissistic? After all, they “rejected” their own doctor’s advice.Whether readers end up feeling empathy or not, this quote gives them more of a sense of the family’s own suffering, and the discernment process they went through.

It’s hard to finish the article without being aware of the suffering on all sides of some of these terrible decisions — and that’s a witness to Saul’s thorough reporting. But while religion isn’t a ghost here, it’s more of an appendix. Throughout the story I was asking: what where they thinking? Why did they behave the way they did? Finding out at the end makes the Stansels rather two-dimensional.

Where are the voices of counselors, ethicists and clergy? Given that, as Sauls says, religious convictions are a part of what motivate many couples, they could have been threaded throughout the story.

The fertility field, supply and demand on steroids, is virtually unregulated. Thus we would be naive to expect that these stories would leave us with easy heroes and villains — but given that so many potential parents are harnessing fertility treatments to produce babies, they really need to be told. At least then patients will have a better idea of the possibly ghastly decisions that may lie ahead.

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Oprah, Uma … Luther?

LutheranAnnMargretMuch to my parents’ chagrin, I resisted early bedtimes from a very young age. So they would let me stay up and watch Johnny Carson. When Carson retired, I moved to Letterman. Somewhere along the line he lost me. He’s just seemed off for, well, a decade. And now I have Craig Ferguson, who I greatly enjoy. Here’s a sample.

Recently, as you know, David Letterman told his audience that he, a 62-year-old man with a wife and five-year-old son, had slept around with various employees. Now, I’m actually old-fashioned enough to think that Letterman shouldn’t have waited 20-odd years to marry his girlfriend. They just got hitched a few months ago. And I’m backwards enough to think that sleeping with multiple partners is wrong. And it’s really bad when they don’t all know what’s going on. So those are my biases going into this thing.

Let’s begin with the early coverage, after Letterman made his confession on air. It wasn’t just about sex with employees but also that, allegedly, someone had tried to extort money from him on account of his sexploits. Here’s the Los Angeles Times on the matter:

The audience, both at home and in the studio, was still reeling, lost in the echoing chasm between what Letterman said — over the years, he has slept with his employees — and how he said it — a humorous recounting of threat by tell-all screenplay.

At least they didn’t have to worry about the poor star who had to walk into that ringing vacuum — Harrelson, no choir boy, can take care of himself.

Keep that choir boy thing in mind. This rather light and breezy treatment was par for the course in much media treatment. And check out this little bit:

Reminding us that he is a man motivated by “Lutheran, Midwestern guilt” and repeatedly referring to the charges as “terrible stuff” and “creepy stuff,” Letterman explained how he called his lawyer and then authorities who informed him it was blackmail.

Reminding us? Reminding us? I think I speak for the Venn diagram of Lutherans and people who watch Letterman when I say that his Lutheranism is complete news to me. And I’m one of those people who pays attention to these things. I can tell you, for instance, that Bruce Willis was confirmed a Lutheran. I know which Lutherans dated Elvis (Yes, Ann-Margret, I’m talking about you). I can even tell you what fictional Lutherans are out there (e.g. LCMS-member Woody Boyd on Cheers facing a crisis of conscience because his ELCA fiance doesn’t believe the Book of Concord is in line with the Scriptures).

So when I say I never knew that Letterman claimed any affiliation with Lutheranism, I know of what I speak. And the fact that usually people joke about Lutheranism in the opposite fashion (e.g. “All the Catholic, half the guilt!” etc.), makes me think it’s awfully convenient for him to discover Lutheran roots at this time. Not that I don’t encourage him to move beyond the guilt phase into knowing forgiveness for his sins, of course. All of which to say, that I’m not sure what the Times means by this “reminding us” business.

So let’s move on to the various analytical pieces on Letterman. When the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz penned his look at a later Letterman apology (this one to his wife on Monday night’s show), it focused greatly on the legal aspects of whether Letterman did anything wrong. And while I think it’s important to ascertain whether any of his employees claim they were wrongly coerced into sex, it might be good to just look at the moral angles apart from that. I mean, some people think that any power imbalance as great as that between a 62-year-old man who pays the bills and his fresh-faced, just-out-of-college interns is cause for sexual harassment alarms. Some people think that cheating on the mother of your child is wrong. It’s not just about whether it’s illegal, is it?

Or let’s go one step further and look at Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales’ take on the thing. It’s a bit bizarre; headlined, I kid you not:

Let’s Remember That Letterman’s a Clown, Not a Cleric or Congressman

Okay, so here we get a distilled look at the general theme that only conservative pastors and Republican congressman can be charged with hypocrisy. The article is largely about how his apologies to Paris Hilton and Gov. Sarah Palin were more embarrassing (because they were so unnecessary, natch) than his apology for sleeping with the help. But there’s so much more:

One of many sad things about recent stanzas in the ballad of David Letterman is that now, in all media, Dave will be lumped in with other sexually misbehaving celebrities, even though he stands head and heart above most of them. …

Some of those who’ve seen the current Letterman mess as a golden opportunity to trash and attack him claim that it’s fit retribution for the jokes Dave has made about naughty-boy politicians and their sexual high jinks. Letterman can continue to lampoon sleazy political figures with no real fear of hypocrisy, however, because a TV comic is not an elected official responsible for the well-being of the nation or its citizenry.

Letterman’s monologue is not a nightly sermon full of moral lessons preached to politicians or the public. His stance is that of the proverbial court jester, a clownish figure with a mandate to prick the powerful — not set himself up as a model of virtue.

Could Letterman’s misbehavior be compared to the disreputable legislator who ranted and railed against homosexuals, and worked to deny them the right to marry and other civil privileges — and then was caught soliciting anonymous sex in an airport men’s room? That’s socially destructive misconduct with the potential for inflicting harm, pain and injustice on a portion of society and on society at large. Letterman’s misadventures contain potential harm, pain and injustice only for the individuals specifically involved — and since there have been no allegations about the sex having been nonconsensual or any partners having been underage, it’s all unpleasant but hardly some sort of threat to the public welfare.

This is just obtuse. Of course Letterman — and all court jesters, if that’s what you want to call him — are preaching moral lessons. You can do that and prick the powerful, you know. And does anyone really think that, say, former Rep. Mark Foley had more influence on national politics than David Letterman?

And notice that last line about how his partners weren’t underage? Well, turns out Shales doesn’t have a problem with underage victims either, speaking of hypocrisy.

But more than that, why is hypocrisy the only sin — or one of the very few sins, at least — that the mainstream media recognize? Why can’t sleeping around on the mother of your kindergartner just be a sin straight up? Why can’t society look askance at a powerful old man paying the law school bills of an employee half his age who he’s cheating on his wife with? Why won’t those kids get off my lawn?

One bright note in the media coverage, I suppose, was this Associated Press piece that did point out the silliness of Shales’ article:

Turns out David Letterman doesn’t just live on a TV show. He also lives in a glass house, where for years he’s hurled comedy zingers at misbehaving politicians, even as he brashly engaged in hanky-panky of his own. . . .

During an indignant rant [against former N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer], he called for the scandalized governor to step down.

“I mean, can you imagine,” said Letterman, “if this happened to me how fast they’d have my … (backside) out of here?”

That’s a nice quote.

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Good to the last smoky detail

BensChiliBowl_01There are cities and regions in these here United States that, when you mention the name, certain foods instantly zoom into your mind.

The Southern Highlands: Pulled-pork barbecue (get ready for intense theological debates about the sauce).

Baltimore: Crab cakes.

Kansas City: Steaks, of course, or beef brisket.

Boston: Clam chowder (New England, of course).

Cincinnati: Spaghetti covered with cheese and chili (containing a hint of cinnamon).

You get the idea.

Anyway, I’m not sure that Washington, D.C., has a signature food — in large part because of its astonishing array of restaurants specializing in ethnic and regional foods from coast to coast and around the world. It’s a crossroads city. Come to think of it, what’s the unique signature food of New York City? How about Los Angeles (not counting the In-N-Out faith)?

Now, people who live here know that there is a big difference between “Washington,” the power city, and “DC,” which is a city of rich and poor, while its culture lives in neighborhoods and rides the buses.

I don’t think there is an official food of “Washington,” unless it’s grilled crow with a side of bitter herbs. But what about “DC”? Yes, the District has an official food and it is called the “half-smoke.” If you don’t know what that is, then you haven’t been to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Get with the program, people.

The half-smoke is a sausage and if it’s good enough for President Barack Obama, as well as an army of media and sports celebrities, it’s good enough for you. As a veteran of this fabulous joint (this is not where you want to be during Great Lent or any other fasting season), let me assure you that the “half-smoke” is worthy of the hype.

Anyway, the “Ben” who owns this establishment died the other day and the Washington Post and other local newsrooms rolled out nice packages on Ben Ali, 82, and the remarkable story of the Trinidadian immigrant who wanted to be a dentist. However, he ended up running a restaurant in which working-class folks sit next to senators and listen to the same world-class juke book while chowing down on chili, hot dogs, sausages, cheese fries and, well, more chili.

So why am I bringing this up at GetReligion?

If you read all the way to end of the long A1 feature on Ali’s life, you will hit a remarkable detail linked to his life and the practice of his faith. It’s a stunner:

When Mr. Ali and Virginia Rollins were married October 10, 1958, she converted to his Muslim faith. Although Mr. Ali was reluctant to admit it in public, he firmly obeyed the Islamic prohibition on pork. Throughout his life, he never tasted the hot dogs and half-smokes that made his restaurant famous.

Now here is my question: Should this detail have come higher up in the report? I mean, I understand the impact provided by putting it at the very end. But I can also understand the temptation to put it earlier, perhaps even in a symbolic-detail lede.

Reporters and editors, what think ye? It’s not a matter or right or wrong. I’m just curious. Wherever you play it, this is an amazing detail from an amazing life.

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Religion ghost in the maternity ward

BabyFair2005 Attempts To Tackle Low Korean Birth-rate

The New York Times published a fascinating and deeply troubling story about the plight of Korean women who become pregnant. It begins with the story of Choi Hyong-sook. When she found out she was pregnant by her former boyfriend four years ago, she considered abortion. But when she saw her child’s heartbeat, she couldn’t do it. She put her baby up for adoption but felt so bad about it that she persuaded the adoption agency to let her reclaim the baby five days later:

Now, Ms. Choi and other women in her situation are trying to set up the country’s first unwed mothers association to defend their right to raise their own children. It is a small but unusual first step in a society that ostracizes unmarried mothers to such an extent that Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to “an unmarried woman seeking an excuse to give birth.”

The fledgling group of women — only 40 are involved so far — is striking at one of the great ironies of South Korea. The government and commentators fret over the country’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, and deplore South Korea’s international reputation as a baby exporter for foreign adoptions.

Yet each year, social pressure drives thousands of unmarried women to choose between abortion, which is illegal but rampant, and adoption, which is considered socially shameful but is encouraged by the government. The few women who decide to raise a child alone risk a life of poverty and disgrace.

Shame, of course, is a huge motivational force in Korean culture and it’s a big part of this story, too. But the reporter doesn’t unpack the eclectic religious environment of Korea, much less the tremendous influence of Confucianism on Korean culture. Confucianism has moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious aspects and one of its most important concepts is shame — as it relates to the individual and family.

But we don’t learn about any of that. It would help in a story where we’re told that the conservative social elements advocate abortion of children conceived out of wedlock. Of course, we don’t learn anything about the religious role that may or may not be played in the efforts to help unmarried women:

One such supporter, Richard Boas, an ophthalmologist from Connecticut who adopted a Korean girl in 1988, said he was helping other Americans adopt foreign children when he visited a social service agency in South Korea in 2006 and began rethinking his “rescue and savior mentality.” There, he encountered a roomful of pregnant women, all unmarried and around 20 years old.

“I looked around and asked myself why these mothers were all giving up their kids,” Dr. Boas said.

He started the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, which advocates for better welfare services from the state.

Now, I don’t know anything about Boas’ religious beliefs or whether they played a role in his philanthropic efforts. But there’s this story from July in the Addison, Vt., Independent. It’s about how the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network organized a delegation from Korea to visit effective programs being run in Vermont. And that story includes religion angles. While the New York Times story emphasizes the role of the government, this Independent story emphasizes religious efforts.

We learn about AeRanWan, a residential support program for pregnant and unwed mothers directed by Han Man Soon. While the group started out in the 1960s as a way to help prostitutes, it now provides pre- and post-natal care, counseling for education, training for employment, support for women who give their children up for adoption, housing for single mothers and crisis intervention. One of the first directors, Sue Rice, and her husband the Rev. Randy Rice were missionaries in Korea:

AeRanWan has been able to help unwed women dramatically buck the trend of abortions in Korea. More than 80 percent of the women who enroll in the program elect to raise their children, according to Boas. . . .

Han is often referred to in Korea as “the mother of unwed mothers.” She takes her job very seriously, inspired by her own experiences with motherhood (she has three children) and her Christian faith.

“It is one of my missions from God,” she said of her work at AeRanWan, which she has been pursuing for almost 20 years.

There are many religions in Korea. And while Korea is more Christian than any other country in East Asia or Southeast Asia (with the exception of the Philippines), it is still a minority religion. Most Koreans claim no religious affiliation, with the rest adhering to Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Confucianism and other religions. This complex religious brew — along with the philosophical and moral traditions of Confucianism — are so important for understanding various parts of this story.

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