Exploring The Idea Of The “Intolerant Muslim”

In his column today, the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat takes Comedy Central and others to task for censoring depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  Douthat sees a double standard afoot, pointing out that while our sensibilities are routinely satirized, “Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.”  Phil Donahue and Sinéad O’Connor no doubt will find that statement astonishing.

Douthat is, of course, wrong.  Not only has it become acceptable to attack Islam and vilify Muslims, but xenophobia directed at the community has become commonplace and in some places, rampant.  These days, it’s not unusual for Muslims to be referred to as barbarians.  Anti-Islam/Muslim books are New York Times bestsellers.  Prominent Christian groups have called for American-Muslims to be deported.  Others want Muslims barred from serving their country.  The term “Islamo-fascism” is as casually used as “Judeo-Bolshevism” was in the 1920s and 30s.  When Rep. Keith Ellison first won a seat in Congress, Glenn Beck said to him, “[P]rove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

Substitute any other group in place of Muslim and you’ll see just how insidious such rhetoric truly is.  Arizona recently passed a law which for all intents and purposes will open the floodgates of racial profiling.  The bill is rightfully being attacked as unconstitutional and unjust.  But as any Afghan or Arab man can tell you, profiling has long been a reality in the Muslim community. And we have endured and joined the democratic process and aimed to influence policy.  As a group, we are neither victims (as some claim) nor a protected class (as, no doubt Douthat believes).  We are Americans who are oddly asked to repudiate the actions of people we don’t know and linked to the actions of people we disagree with.  Imagine for a second if a Christian in Kansas was constantly asked to repudiate the actions of Christians in Kenya.

Not only is criticism of Islam and attacks against Muslims acceptable, but actually, the fact that they occur go against Douthat’s underling claim that it is Muslims alone who are pushing for censorship in the public square. You’ll remember that several years ago, the Dixie Chicks received death threats for political speech.  More recently, congressional Democrats received death threats because they voted for health care reform.  Abortion clinics have been attacked because people’s religions tell them that abortion is a sin.  It’s not Muslims who’ve led these attacks.  That’s a fact.  It wasn’t a man named Khalid that called for the banning of the dictionary.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians have openly embraced pastors who’ve said very vile things about Islam.  Sarah Palin’s praise of Franklin Graham (who called Islam “evil” and advised Muslims to accept Christ so that “they don’t have to die in a car bomb“) is but the most recent example.  It’s unlikely that Palin will be forced to distance herself from Graham.

This begs the question: Is Mr. Douthat being naïve, dishonest or both?

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald also has a very interesting take on Douthat’s fallacious conclusion.

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Firms Make Money By Disputing Unemployment Claims
April 4, 2010, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Economics, Poverty | Tags: , ,

With unemployment still hovering around 10% and the prospects for recovery still uncertain, millions of Americans are really struggling and most of us who do have jobs still face some sort of economic uncertainty.

The economy is slowly finding its footing, but just barely.  Most economists predict that a so-called double-dip recession is not likely to occur.  The stimulus has had a positive impact.  However, despite the good news that’s slowly starting to come out, rampant unemployment is and will continue to be part of the equation for many more years to come.

The middle-class safety net – unemployment benefits, COBRA and the like – was designed specifically to work best in conditions like these.  Compared to many other industrialized nations, our programs are relatively ungenerous.  COBRA, which allows someone to keep their health insurance coverage after they leave their job, is important but also very expensive.  Health care reform legislation will fix some of these problems, but that will take some time.

Despite their shortcomings, we’d be in a much worse place without such programs.  However, keeping the net in place, expanding it during a recession and guaranteeing that the middle-class has enough to get by on has not come easily.  In the Senate, Republicans are delaying the extension of benefits, and in the private sector, the New York Times reports, companies are hiring firms that specialize in fighting to delay unemployment claims.

Claims can be denied if a worker is fired for some offense, say for example, sexual harassment or stealing.  That’s fair.  But these firms are not trying to keep the system fair.  They are exploiting the rules and disputing claims so as to compel workers who would otherwise qualify to not apply for benefits in the first place.  The fewer people who apply, the lower the tax on the company.  It’s the invisible hand and it’s ruthless.

With a client list that reads like a roster of Fortune 500 firms, a little-known company with an odd name, the Talx Corporation, has come to dominate a thriving industry: helping employers process — and fight — unemployment claims.

Talx, which emerged from obscurity over the last eight years, says it handles more than 30 percent of the nation’s requests for jobless benefits. Pledging to save employers money in part by contesting claims, Talx helps them decide which applications to resist and how to mount effective appeals.

The work has made Talx a boom business in a bust economy, but critics say the company has undermined a crucial safety net. Officials in a number of states have called Talx a chronic source of error and delay. Advocates for the unemployed say the company seeks to keep jobless workers from collecting benefits.

“Talx often files appeals regardless of merits,” said Jonathan P. Baird, a lawyer at New Hampshire Legal Assistance. “It’s sort of a war of attrition. If you appeal a certain percentage of cases, there are going to be those workers who give up.”

When fewer former workers get aid, a company pays lower unemployment taxes.



Creditors Kicking People While They’re Down
April 2, 2010, 1:08 am
Filed under: Economics, Poverty | Tags: ,

In the middle of a severe recession, you’d expect creditors to make their rules a bit more amendable so as not to overburden those who have already lost their homes and quite possible, their livelihoods.

But of course, where the supposed superiority and wisdom of the market is concerned, such an expectation is pure fantasy. In fact, when people are struggling, it seems, the opportunities to profit off of their miseries become even more plentiful.  Creditors and collection agencies are raking in millions.

The New York Times reports that “[o]ne of the worst economic downturns of modern history has produced a big increase in the number of delinquent borrowers, and creditors are suing them by the millions. Concern is mounting in government and among consumer advocates that the debtors are not always getting a fair shake in these cases.”

Bankruptcy can clear away most debts. Yet sweeping changes to federal law in 2005 — pushed by the banking lobby — complicated that process and more than doubled the average cost of filing, to more than $2,000. Many low-income debtors must save for months before they can afford to go broke.

In some states, courts allow creditors to charge high interest rates for years after a lawsuit is decided in their favor. In others, creditors can win lawsuits by default and seize wages and bank accounts without a case ever appearing before a judge.

Lack of participation is the most fundamental problem. Some consumers do not even know they are being sued; the people who are supposed to serve them with formal notice have sometimes been caught skipping that step and doctoring the paperwork.

In far more cases, consumers are served but still do not offer a defense. Few can afford lawyers; others are intimidated or confused. In their absence, judges can offer little relief.

What collection companies do is perfectly legal.  But going after those who have the least ability to pay back their debts and garnishing their wages, when they often have just enough to survive, is ruthless.