Occasional Planet http://www.occasionalplanet.org progressive voices speaking out Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:15:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9 Rape culture: Defining it, acknowledging it, working to end it http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/23/rape-culture-defining-it-acknowledging-it-working-to-end-it/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/23/rape-culture-defining-it-acknowledging-it-working-to-end-it/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 12:00:30 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28335 “Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are despised”…. supposedly. Hopefully, that line causes you some outrage—a little indignation. If it didn’t, well, then, case in point.

The problem is that we pay a lot of lip service to how abhorrent rape is, however we as a society have a tendency to systematically treat it with levity. if we don’t just sweep it under the proverbial rug. Rape pervades the music we enjoy, the jokes we laugh at, the media entertainment we enjoy, everything. And we don’t even notice it anymore. What could be stronger evidence than our general desensitization to the atrocities of rape?

Defining rape culture

According to the Marshall University Women’s Center, “Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” By definition, we live in a rape culture society.

Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape Culture affects every woman.  The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.

Convinced yet? Zerlina Maxwell asked in her TIME magazine article:

Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape considered a cultural norm? Is 1 in 6 men being abused before the age of 18 a cultural norm? These statistics are not just shocking, they represent real people. Yet, these millions of survivors and allies don’t raise their collective voices to educate America about our culture of rape because of fear. Rape culture is a real and serious, and we need to talk about it. Simply put, feminists want equality for everyone and that begins with physical safety.

Consider this, too. According to an analysis by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 97% of rapists never spend a single day in jail for their crimes. But statistics take the emotion out of the heart-wrenching facts. So, Maxwell also detailed her own tragic encounter with rape and rape culture.

“You were drinking, what did you expect?”

Those were the first words that I heard when I went to someone I trusted for support after my roommate’s boyfriend raped me eight years ago. When I came forward to report what happened, instead of support, many well-meaning people close to me asked me questions about what I was wearing, if I had done something to cause the assault, or if I had been drinking. These questions about my choices the night of my assault — as opposed to the choices made by my rapist — were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself. I had stumbled upon rape culture: a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.

“Victims are blamed for their own assaults.” I initially found that hard to believe, too. We are an intelligent, well-developed, civilized society; we would never blame the victim, right?


Voices of rape culture

       The cold, foggy weather is like a rape, and ”if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” -Clayton Williams, Texas gubernatorial nominee (March 1990)

       “I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician [for an abortion], with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by rape.”-Chuck Winder, Idaho candidate for US Senate (March 2012)

       “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancies from rape are] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” -Todd Akin, Missouri Senate (March 2012)

       “I struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is that gift from God and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”  -Richard Mourdock, Indiana candidate for the U.S. Senate (Oct. 2012)

        “Some girls rape easy” -Roger Rivard, a state representative in Wisconsin (Oct. 2012)

       Rape is just “another method of conception.” -Paul Ryan (January 2013)

There are more, but I can’t go on. It’s too repulsive. Consider this, though: if our politicians, representatives of us and of our country, make these “speech errors” even after careful pruning and refining their every word, what about we plebeian people?

Pardon another raillery against Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” but f rape victims themselves call the lyrics of the song “from the mouths of rapists.” That’s right. The blockbuster song exemplifies rapes. Please check out the link, and then delete the song from your playlists if you can.

Think about Law and Order SVU. Granted, it’s nice to see the bad guys get caught and thrown behind bars, but it gives us the misconception that a) rape only happens to women b) rapists are usually strangers c) rapists don’t wander our streets, because rapists get caught, and rapists get convicted.The fact that we are so disillusioned and so very desensitized to rape lends credence to the fact that we do live in a Rape Culture, no matter how much we hate to believe it.

Rape Culture is when…

Maxwell created a Twitter hashtag #RapeCultureIsWhen to “spark a public dialogue about rape culture and shift the conversation away from the myths that shame so many survivors into silence. This conversation is meant to be a tool to educate people about what rape culture is, how to spot it, and how to combat it…. The following statements are made up of contributions to the #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag as well as the myriad personal stories of survivors with the courage to speak out:”

Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.

Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”

Rape culture is when people say, “she was asking for it.”

Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.

Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.

Rape culture is when, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody if the rape results in pregnancy.

Rape culture is when college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, “Well… Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie… is there anything you would have done differently?”)

Rape culture is when colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than in supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)

Maxwell advises we stop teaching women how “not to get raped” and start teaching men not to rape. Because that’s rape culture.

The Marshall University Women’s Center similarly includes this societal norm as an example of rape culture among other things, including:

       Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)

       Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)

       Sexually explicit jokes (“Don’t drop the soap!”)

       Tolerance of sexual harassment

       Inflating false rape report statistics

       Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history

       Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television

       Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive

       Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive

       Pressure on men to “score”

       Assuming only promiscuous women get raped

       Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped

       Refusing to take rape accusations seriously. A new study suggests police systematically undercount rape reports.


Combating rape culture

       Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women

       Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape

       If a friend says she has been raped, take her seriously and be supportive

       Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence

       Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations

       Always communicate with sexual partners and do not assume consent

       Define your own manhood or womanhood.  Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.

       Get involved! Join a student or community group working to end violence against women.

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As much as ever, in 2014 women deserve the right to choose http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/22/as-much-as-ever-in-2014-women-deserve-the-right-to-choose/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/22/as-much-as-ever-in-2014-women-deserve-the-right-to-choose/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 12:00:13 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28324 Questions related to reproductive health, and most specifically abortion, are not easy to answer. Choice is the kind of issue that should humble us all and make us want to take all necessary steps to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In many ways, this issue reflects the ongoing dilemma we have in America between protecting the rights of the individual vs. protecting the common good of our society as a whole. In most cases, I come down on the side of the common good, for example the responsibility of our society to provide affordable health care for all its citizens.

In the case of abortion, we can ask the question, “Who has a more compelling need to have her rights protected in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, the woman carrying the fetus or the state? I take the pro-choice position for this reason: an unwanted pregnancy will present the mother with far more anguish about the decision than it will to the state. The repercussions of the choice that the woman makes has far more of an impact on her life than it does on the state as a whole.

Some may argue that the choice is not between the state and the mother but rather between the fetus and the mother. This is a reasonable argument. My views on this conflict emanate in part from Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

I believe that at the time that a decision must be made about the termination or continuation of a pregnancy the mother is endowed with reason and conscience. I do not believe that about the fetus. No one likes making a choice between two living entities, but just as we often side with a parent rather than a child, I believe we should trust the woman to make the best choice for herself and her family.

In recent years, our political dialogue has been dominated by conservative activists who have taken numerous steps to undermine a woman’s right to choice. Besides restricting a woman’s rights, they have also endangered her health and security For example, there is only one abortion clinic in the state of Missouri, which is operated by Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. 20% of the PPSLR’s patients drive over 100 miles to receive those services. On top of that burden, Missouri is considering imposing a 72 hour wait period, which would be yet another huge burden for those women coming from more outlying areas.

Instead of limiting accessibility to choice, we should expand the availability of clinics that can counsel women through difficult decisions and provide for her all necessary medical services should she choose to have an abortion. At the very least, no woman should be more than one county away from a licensed choice clinic. Ultimately, abortion care should not just happen in choice clinics, but in standard medical offices and hospitals. Any primary care doctor (internal medicine, family medicine pediatrics/adolescent medicine, or OB/GYN) who is likely to order a pregnancy test should also be able to provide options counseling. Along with decreasing stigma and creating a critical mass of doctors to speak out about the ever-increasing legislation specific to abortion services, this would decrease the distance that women had to drive to access services.

Empathetic and non-judgmental counseling is key to providing an expectant mother with the support that she needs. As a society, we need to work to provide additional counselors who are both trained to deal with choice issues and who temperamentally can be supportive, analytical and empathetic. We also need to train more physicians to perform safe abortions. We must secure choice clinics so that all staff and clients are free of unconstitutional harassment.

Ultimately, the answer we seek is to have fewer unwanted pregnancies. That means making birth control more readily available and affordable. We also need to have sex education classes throughout school for all students, regardless of gender. These courses should include information about the dynamics that exist in dating, relationships, and marriage. Additionally, they should include complete information to students about the availability of resources to help prevent unplanned pregnancies and to help them through ones that do occur.

Our views on choice can be a real litmus test of how much empathy we have for our fellow citizens.  Since Roe v Wade is the law of the land, we should do all that we can to protect a woman’s right to choice.

with help from Miquia Henderson of Medical Students for Choice and Allison Reed

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Scientific study concludes US is an oligarchy, not a democracy http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/18/scientific-study-concludes-us-is-an-oligarchy-not-a-democracy/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/18/scientific-study-concludes-us-is-an-oligarchy-not-a-democracy/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 12:00:51 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28303  

We are so close to losing our democracy to the mercenary class, it’s as if we are leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon and all that’s needed is a swift kick in the pants. Look out below.

The predators in Washington are only this far from monopoly control of our government. They have bought the political system, lock, stock and pork barrel, making change from within impossible. That’s the real joke.

Bill Moyers

For some time, those of us on the Left have been calling the United States an oligarchy, meaning that the democratic process and our elected officials have been co-opted by banks, corporations, and billionaires who have undue influence on public policy. It means a small group of wealthy people control the government for their own ends. When calling the United States an oligarchy, we’ve been accused of hyperbole. Well, no more eye rolling when we say the “O” word. Sadly, we’ve been vindicated.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University will be publishing their study, “Testing Theories of American Politics,” in the Fall, 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics. They asked the questions “Who governs?” and “Who really rules?” in the United States. And this is what they discovered:

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, . . . America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

In this first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, Gilens and Page demonstrated that theories that premised America as a democracy failed to hold water. They discovered “. . . the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America].” When the authors say “median voter” they mean average Americans.

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Their study was conducted using “a unique data set that included measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.” The authors suggest that the pervasiveness of corruption could be even worse than their data shows.

So, bottom line, you can keep calling the United States an oligarchy because it is a scientifically proven fact—the study strongly suggests that American democracy is a sham. A choice between corporate owned candidate, A, and corporate owned candidate B, is not really a choice. And neither candidate—Gilens and Page tell us—is going to represent your interests anyway. If your interests are reflected in policy decisions, it’s probably not because they listened to you, it’s because your interests coincided with the interests of the elite. After the recent Supreme Court decision that gives oligarchs free reign to buy as many politicians as they want, your elected officials may no longer have to pretend to listen to you. A hand full will, but the overwhelming majority are going to be serving their corporate donors.

Paul Craig Roberts, ex Assistant Treasury Secretary under Reagan gives a working definition of oligarchy and connects it to US foreign policy:

An oligarchy is a country that is run for private interests. These private interests–Wall Street, the military/security complex, oil and natural gas, and agribusiness–seek domination, a goal well served by the neoconservative ideology of US hegemony.

The takeover of government by oligarchs is both hidden and furthered by corporate-owned news media. These news outlets most often function as stenographers to power, delivering the administration’s official line on the issues of the day. The current reporting on the crisis in Ukraine is one example of how lies and fabrications are reported on a daily basis in order to convince ordinary Americans to accept whatever the administration and its shadow state are doing in service of the elite. Iraq anyone?

Of course there are cracks in the facade. Good reporting happens now and then even in corporate owned media. But, the main point to remember is this: while we are deliberately being distracted by false narratives on government policy and issues (NSA, for another example), or force fed oil and gas company ads claiming fracking is safe and will make us “energy independent,” or entertained by partisan Punch-and-Judy shows, our government is crafting oligarch-serving domestic and foreign policies behind closed doors.




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Dressing up: A feminist issue http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/17/dressing-up-a-feminist-issue/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/17/dressing-up-a-feminist-issue/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:00:53 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28284 /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Arial","sans-serif"; color:black;}

“Dressing up means wearing a dress,” she said. “It means you put on a dress or skirt, high heels, and some makeup and you look good. AND, ladies, you’re not going clubbing; you’re skirt needs to reach past your fingertips when your arms are down.”

The National Honor Society members were supposed to dress up for induction of the new members, and I was astonished and confounded by non-inclusion of dress pants. I had turned to ask my friend why in the world none of the girls were wearing pants. That was her response to me in an imitation of our National Honor Society advisor.

Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the insinuations. At all.

I’ve actually been told something fairly similar multiple times through the course of the past few weeks. It’s graduation season, and that means Honors Nights, Induction Ceremonies, Graduations, and all kinds of other flamboyant events we’ll all forget about in a few years. But I won’t forget the dress code. Nope. I’m much too riled up for that.

Let’s pick it apart one by one by one.

1. Since when does “dressing up” mean a dress???? The guys don’t have to wear dresses! And if they did show up in dresses, I bet most parents and teachers would throw a fit about how they were mocking school protocol or corrupting the youth or something equally preposterous and then refuse to let them participate in the ceremony! So then that rule only applies to females… which is simply antediluvian and antiquated.

2. Oh thank you so much for permitting us skirts. I suppose it would be too much to ask if we could wear pants? I forgot those were reserved for XY- individuals. My mistake. (Yeah, I’ll be wearing pants, thank you very much).

3. I really love high heels, I do, but I abhor this implication that they are the only shoes fit for women to wear. I will wear sandals or flats or wedges or plain old sneakers if I so choose and I will still participate.

4. I think we ought to be confident enough in ourselves not to need to don five pounds of makeup every time we leave the house. I mean teenage girls are inundated with calls for us to “love ourselves” and be “proud of our bodies” whatever they may look like (in order to counter the mass-media perception of women as big-breasted, small-waisted know-nothings). I can understand that yes, the theater lights will probably make us look fairly washed out and pasty and therefore a little makeup may perhaps do us some good, but the implications of what we were told was not necessarily that, but rather that we cannot look good without makeup- that women are incapable of being attractive without primer, foundation, concealer, rouge, eyeshadow, kohl, blush, eyeliner, bronzer, highlighter, brow pencils, tweezing, waxing, bleaching, plucking, tanning, dieting… Need I go on?

I want to address one more thing: a misconception about feminism. Yes, feminism is about breaking gender stereotypes (as I have already espoused)- in fact it’s about a complete obliteration of even the concept of gender stereotypes. That means girls can wear camo pants and guys can wear pink skirts if they want. That does not in any relate to homosexuality or heterosexuality or anything of that sort. Believe it or not, I have heard that argument against feminism as well. Feminism simply advocates for gender equality. That may often lead feminists to accept all people- homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, black, white, asian, and everything in between- but there are plenty of people with “stringent” beliefs in other areas.

Resuming my rant:

5.   Perhaps I’m just a prude, but I am perpetually astonished by the fact that people have to be reminded to cover themselves up in public- that guys have to be told not to sag their pants and show off their boxers and girls have to be explicitly told the minimum length of their hemline. Well, first off, do you know where the custom of sagging originated? Prisons. Men in prisons trying covertly to inform other prisoners of their homosexuality (that’s also where “swag” comes from; it stands for “Secretly We Are Gay”). Secondly, ladies, like the gentlemen, we too need to be aware of the messages we are sending with our clothing. There’s a lot that will be said about a woman’s morals, religiousness, intelligence, personality, “easiness,” etc. just by the way she presents herself (men, too, but predominantly women). I’m not saying it’s a good thing or an honorable thing or anything we should necessarily encourage; I’m simply saying it’s a fact of life.

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Spend a little time on the Ft. Lauderdale water taxi and you’ll soon get a feel for the world of the 1% of the 1%. As you drift along you will see row upon row of mega-yachts – sleek vessels, 80 feet, 120 feet, 200 feet or longer in length. According to the City of Ft. Lauderdale, about 1,500 mega yachts visit annually. There are some 100 marinas housing 42,000 resident yachts.

Among all of the craft that dominate the view, one stands out. It’s 282 feet long. It has a black hull and a huge equipment mast. According to a story in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,

It boasts luxury amenities for 12 guests, with a crew of 26. There is a large master stateroom with a study and private deck, a helipad, indoor cinema and an infinity pool with a 15-foot glass wall that converts to a movie screen so the director and his guests can take in a film while swimming.

The Seven Seas is the personal toy of Steven Spielberg. The cost? Just $200 million. The flag on its stern? Cayman Islands. Why is that?

The reason so many American yachts fly non-American flags has a whole lot to do with tax and employment laws and United States Coast Guard regulations.

According to Power and Motoryacht Magazine, U.S.-registered yachts must be staffed by American citizens who have obtained USCG certification. What’s more, the yacht owners must actually comply with U.S. employment tax laws. Of course, it’s much cheaper for them to register in a friendly country and hire foreign nationals.

Power and Motoryacht Magazine further points out that U.S.-registered yachts also are required to meet USCG regulations for firefighting, safety equipment and staffing. These regulations insure that a yacht is safe for both passengers and crew. All of that boosts the cost of ownership and operation.

Spielberg is not alone. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s yacht is registered in the Caymans. So is Larry Ellison’s (CEO of Oracle and ninth richest man in the world). Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht Octopus also flies the red Cayman flag. In fact, most U.S.-owned mega-yachts are registered in the Cayman Islands and other tax-friendly countries.

Safety, decent pay, fair taxes? That must be too high of a price for the mega-rich to pay.

Maybe I’m just envious, but I can’t wrap my head around what one might do with a 282-foot, $200-million yacht. Do a little fishing? Enjoy the ocean breezes? Escape from the drudgery of the workaday world? Maybe.

But then again there’s sea level rise waiting at the doorsteps of the ostentatious $10-million mansions that line the Ft. Lauderdale waterways. Perhaps escape is what those yachts are really for after all.


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Voting rights watch: Florida’s bathroom blockade http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/15/voting-rights-watch-floridas-bathroom-blockade/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/15/voting-rights-watch-floridas-bathroom-blockade/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 12:00:22 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28265

In their incessant quest to find ever more creative and nasty ways to suppress the vote, Florida Republicans have come up with a doozy. Not only will voters have to wait in long lines, they won’t be able to use a bathroom during the wait! [I’m sorry, but that deserves an exclamation point.] As you may remember, in 2012, voters in Florida’s Miami Dade County—whose early voting options were severely curtailed by new rules—stood in lines at polling places as long as six hours. This time around, under the newer, more insane and inhumane rules, the long wait could become even more unpleasant, because there will be no potty breaks.

Here’s the full story, as told by Reader Supported News:

Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade County Elections Department quietly implemented a policy to close the bathrooms at all polling facilities, according to disability rights lawyer Marc Dubin. Dubin said the policy change was in “direct response” to an inquiry to the Elections Department about whether they had assessed accessibility of polling place bathrooms to those with disabilities.

“I was expecting them to say either yes we have or yes we will,” Dubin said.

Instead, he received a written response announcing that the county would close all restrooms at polling places “to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not treated unfairly,” a January email stated. “[T]he Department’s policy is not to permit access to restrooms at polling sites on election days,” Assistant County Attorney Shanika Graves said in a Feb. 14 email.

…Dubin said he was “shocked” at this response, and not just because it suppresses the vote for everybody. The Americans with Disabilities Act also requires entities to make “reasonable accommodations” to those with disabilities. For those with a number of conditions, including diabetics and those taking diuretics, closing the restroom will make standing in that line impossible, and thus discriminate against disabled voters.

So, they’re doing under the guise of “not discriminating against disabled voters,” while, coincidentally and simultaneously making it even more difficult for anyone to vote? Gee, that’s thoughtful. I’m sure there are many puns to be made around this ridiculous new twist in voter suppression, but I’m not going to make them, because this is an outrage that defies humor.

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U.S. corporations stashing $2 trillion in profits offshore http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/14/u-s-corporations-stashing-2-trillion-in-profits-offshore/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/14/u-s-corporations-stashing-2-trillion-in-profits-offshore/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 12:00:49 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28248 According to Huffington Post, corporations are keeping $2 trillion in profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. One of the many ways corporations enrich themselves is by giving money to elected officials who then tailor the tax code to benefit their bottom line. Elected officials of both parties, who are given campaign funds and promises of future lucrative consulting jobs, write laws that allow corporations to stash profits abroad, untaxed. So, corporations get to practice legal tax avoidance.

In Washington, D.C., corporate money is the not-so-secret ingredient in the legislative sausage making process. Rationalized by members of both parties, our money-soaked system ensures Washington works for the wealthy and not for ordinary people.

Offshore corporate income tax deferral

Under our loophole-infested U.S. tax law—specifically, the “offshore corporate income tax deferral”clause—corporations can avoid paying income tax on most of their overseas profits until those funds are brought back to the United States.

A handful of senators and congressmen object to our corporate written tax law. Senator Ron Wyden, one of the few calling for repeal of offshore deferral, aptly refers to the tax code as “a rotten carcass that the special interests feed on.”  I appreciate Senator Wyden’s candor.

The tax evasion problem keeps growing year after year. According to the Huffington Post, from 2008 to 2013, the total amount of corporate profits held offshore increased 93 percent. The amount of untaxed profits corporations are stashing abroad is estimated at $2 trillion. General Electric, Inc. leads the pack with $110 billion stored, who knows where, in the Cayman Islands? Then next is Microsoft with $76.4 billion, Pfizer with $69 billion, Merck with $57.1 billion and Apple with $54.4 billion. And the list goes on. They have plenty of willing tax havens to choose from.

What onerous taxes are these corporations avoiding? Huffington Post reports that the top U.S. corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, “though few multinationals pay anywhere near that thanks to tax-reducing loopholes written into the code in the past 28 years.

Alan Pyke at Think Progress weighs in on corporate tax evasion

These companies face no meaningful negative consequences to stashing trillions from the taxman. When they need to access their offshore cash for investing in production or personnel, they can simply use the untaxed profits as collateral for borrowing from the financial sector. There is no business reason to stop ducking U.S. taxes, so it is up to lawmakers to address the problem.

Pyke reports that many in Congress want to reform tax law, but insist on ways that would be very generous to companies that offshore profits. They would slash the corporate tax rate and/or offer a “tax holiday” for bringing money back to the U.S. But few in Washington are willing to propose an outright end to profit offshoring, also known as “profit shifting.” Without ending the practice entirely, because tax havens have such a low tax rate, even with lowering the tax rate and a tax holiday, the practice will continue. This kind of  “tax reform,” assures campaign funds will keep flowing into Congressmen’s re-election coffers.

The accounting industry helps corporations subvert democracy      

Jerry Alatalo, writing at The Oneness of Humanity, says the accounting industry is complicit in corporate tax evasion. He turns to Finance and Accounting Professor Prem Sikka who describes a “very lucrative global industry” that is having a huge impact on the world’s economy and overall conditions.

Professor Sikka points out that . . . “Financial engineering” is not taught at universities anywhere, but is the first item on the agenda for newly hired, freshly pressed accounting graduates at the Big Four—Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte, and Price Waterhouse Cooper. Financial engineering is the focus of new hires’ initial training workshops, and is all about creating, selling, and implementing off-the-shelf tax avoidance evasion schemes for, and to, high net worth clients.

Taxes are not a “cost” to be minimized.

Alatalo says, because of his views, Professor Sikka is a renegade in the accounting world. He holds the idea that taxes—from the vantage point of everyone paying their fair share—are not a “cost” like raw materials used in the manufacturing process, wages paid to employees, office supplies, etc. Sikka points out that, “bending the rules, at any cost, to increase profits is now seen as an entrepreneurial skill.” From Alatalo’s post:

[Sikka] shared a statement by one of the Big Four, “our profitability rests on the ability of our employees to serve clients well.” There is no mention at all about the public interest. The professor recounts a debate he had with a manager from Price Waterhouse Cooper where his debate opponent finally says, “ . . . we create tremendous revenues for the state, and we have very many satisfied clients. Professor, what is your problem?” The professor responded with, “ . . . that is the language of drug pushers and pimps.”

The public cost of corporate tax evasion Alatalo reports:

The United Kingdom could be losing 30-150 billion, the European Union one trillion, and the U.S. Treasury 345-500 billion, maybe more. Developing countries’ revenue losses from tax evasion could be in the range of 500 billion per year—while total foreign aid is around 120 billion dollars.

Those figures are per year. What would the world be like if, year after year, that $2 trillion or so in unpaid taxes around the world was used for the public good?

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“It only takes a girl” focuses on child marriage and the cycle of poverty http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/11/it-only-takes-a-girl-focuses-on-child-marriage-and-the-cycle-of-poverty/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/11/it-only-takes-a-girl-focuses-on-child-marriage-and-the-cycle-of-poverty/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 12:00:50 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28237

It all starts with the girls. That’s the message of a video, called “It Only Takes a Girl,” produced by Zoe Keating on the website Upworthy. The video invites the viewer to stop and think about the mostly forgotten 600 million girls in developing countries around the world—one in seven of whom is forced before the age of fifteen to marry an older man and lives a life devoid of education or opportunity. If the topic sounds depressing, it is. But the video is anything but depressing. It’s inspiring and clever and engaging (thanks, in no small part, to a young Bobby Dylan—watch it, and you’ll see what I mean)

Upworthy, an online aggregator of videos, was founded by Peter Koechley, former managing editor of The Onion; Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org; and Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook. Upworthy has been described as “social media with a mission.”

Here’s how the worthy folks over at Upworthy describe their goals themselves.

We’re a mission-driven media company. We’re not a newspaper—we’d rather speak truth than appear unbiased. And we’re not a political campaign – we’re more interested in the powerless versus the powerful than in Democrats versus Republicans.

But we do have a point of view. We’re pro-gay-marriage, and we’re anti-child-poverty. We think the media is horrible to women, we think climate change is real, and we think the government has a lot to learn from the Internet about efficiency, disruption, and effectiveness.

If you’re new to Upworthy’s carefully curated collection of message-driven videos or even if you’ve visited the site before, watch this moving example. If you’re a woman, a sister, a mother, a grandmother, or an aunt, it might just get you going in the morning with a new sense of possibility.

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Rape insurance abortion rider goes into effect in Michigan http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/10/rape-insurance-abortion-rider-goes-into-effect-in-michigan/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/10/rape-insurance-abortion-rider-goes-into-effect-in-michigan/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 12:01:45 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28225 Starting in late March, Michigan women really  started feeling the affects of the “War on Women.” The state’s new law known as “rape insurance”—an additional insurance policy if she wants reimbursement for an abortion—went into effect.

This new law drops coverage of most abortions from existing policies. Women who do not buy insurance through an employer-based insurance plan will not be able to purchase the additional coverage, called an abortion rider, from Michigan insurers.

The medical journal Women’s Health Issues found that 36% of Michigan women lack health insurance, but 69% were paying out of pocket for abortion care. Not only are travel costs an issue, but so is the question of what is more important: is food and rent more important than my abortion? 14% of women who underwent abortions put off paying rent, 16% buying food, and 30% to pay utilities and other bills.

The “War on Women” is real and alive, especially in states like Michigan where women may have to pay out of pocket for a legal, medical procedure. Contact your state legislators and check their stances on abortion. More states cannot afford to have legislation like this.

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Free speech and free spending vs. fair elections: A Constitutional dilemma http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/09/free-speech-and-free-spending-vs-fair-elections-a-constitutional-dilemma/ http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/04/09/free-speech-and-free-spending-vs-fair-elections-a-constitutional-dilemma/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 12:00:44 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=28220 So often we hear about our inherent rights to what is guaranteed in the Constitution. If it’s regarding free speech, we are entitled to say anything because the First Amendment protects us. If it’s about owning a gun, any of us can do so because the Second Amendment guarantees it.

Our founders provided very little guidance in these situations in which one right collides with another. This certainly came to play in the recent McCutcheon v FEC Supreme Court case regarding financial contributions to political campaigns. In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS ruled that individuals could essentially contribute as much as they wanted to in as many campaigns as they wanted to. The decision was clearly a victory for those who believe that those rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are essentially inviolate. The right to free speech extends beyond the spoken or written word to money, which is now considered another means of expression.

Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking for the minority (which also included Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) wrote, “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo.”

The minority argued that the Federal Elections Commission is mandated to “prevent quid pro quo corruption,” and its appearance—was a “sufficiently important governmental inter­est” to place limits to campaign contributions. This means that the right to express oneself through money in a political campaign is not absolute. There comes a point at which society as a whole has the right to take steps to try to keep its electoral process as clean and honest as possible.

We should keep in mind that placing limits on campaign contributions is far from the first time that the Court has ruled that the right to free speech is not absolute. In numerous decisions, the Court has ruled that an individual cannot slander another individual. In other words one cannot knowingly and willfully say something that is false with the intent of harming someone else. And it’s well known that “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” That dictum emanates from Supreme Court rulings that one cannot say something that causes a threat to public safety.

What the Court has not said is that our electoral process (outlined in Article. I., Section 1. and Article. II., Section. 1. of the U.S. Constitution) has as much of a right to be honest as people have the right to free speech. The dilemma of protecting both the right to free speech and the right of citizens to have honest elections clearly come in conflict with one another. In recent years, the Court has ruled that the right to free expression through campaign contributions is of greater value than the right of people to know that their elections are free of undue outside influences.

In practical terms, because Republicans are generally the party of “big money,” they benefit more than Democrats from few restrictions on campaign contributions. However, Democrats have worked to take advantage of the loopholes in previous restrictions on campaign contributions, and Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to refuse to take public monies for his campaign, so that he could raise an essentially unlimited amount of money from private sources.

In light of the McCutcheon v FEC ruling, we are left with two ways of cleaning up our elections. The first would be a constitutional amendment protecting our right to honest elections by curtailing private contributions and taking additional steps to eliminate electoral fraud. The second would be for candidates to voluntarily refuse contributions and for the public to consider that to be such a positive step that it will back such candidates.

The hurdles that must be cleared for a constitutional amendment that protects our right to free elections to be passed are monumental. It’s highly doubtful that any such amendment will be forthcoming in the near future. So, we must ask candidates and the public to accept the notion that excessive money in politics is a bad thing, and for the public to hold candidates who raise (or their proxies raise) excessive amounts of money to be a stain on their reputations and qualifications to hold public office. That too seems to be asking for too much, but we should at least try.

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