What now seems like eons ago, the presidential race began with arguably the most diverse cast of candidates in our nation’s history. As we enter the fall stretch, the field includes an African-American and a woman, a heartening display of the diversity that is now acknowledged as a fact of life by most Americans. The ascendancy of both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin was unexpected, and in many ways they are unlikely representatives of their respective demographic groups. Unlike most African-American leaders of the last 40 years, Obama did not take part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, nor is he is a descendant of American slaves. Palin is a pro-death penalty, pro-drilling-in-the-Arctic-Reserve member of the National Rifle Association and Feminists for Life. She has little in common with Hillary Clinton, much less with Gloria Steinem.
Perhaps because of their unusual biographies, both Obama and Palin have proved able to confront divisive issues and mend longstanding rifts. In a speech delivered on Father’s Day, Obama called for African-American men to play a greater role in their children’s lives, a neuralgic issue in the black community, and under his leadership the Democrats have started to bring some pro-life Catholics back into the tent. Sarah Palin targeted members of her own party suspected of corruption, and her rise to prominence is proof that the term anti-abortion feminist is not an oxymoron.
Much has already been made of the youth of these candidates (both are in their 40s) and their relative inexperience. Yet could it be that their youth is an asset, that it allows them to see old problems with fresh eyes?Refugees With Disabilities
Driven from their homes, refugees and internally displaced persons stand out as perhaps the most afflicted people in the world. Within their own ranks, however, the most hidden among them are those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities. In a June 2008 report, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children estimates that worldwide, 3.5 millon people with impairments in refugee camps and urban slum settlements lead a marginalized existence, marked by “attitudinal, physical and social barriers” that hinder their societal participation even among other refugees. The commission’s research took place in five developing countries: Ecuador, Jordan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen.
Social barriers include being overlooked for needed specialized services, as in the treatment of landmine wounds and injuries incurred while fleeing conflicts. In some cases fleeing families have abandoned handicapped children. During flight, moreover, those with disabilities are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse because of their limited ability to defend themselves. For those who manage to reach refugee camps, many with physical or mental limitations may have to stand in long lines for food distribution or other services. Blind refugees are susceptible to theft of rations by refugees who can see. In addition, health clinics are often inaccessible, with very limited services for those with psychological impairments. Among its recommendations, the commission urges equal access to mainstream services for all people with disabilities, as well as campaigns to promote tolerance and respect for them.Risky Business
They will not go bankrupt for now, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage insurance giants, though some commentators say that is precisely what should happen: that they deserve it for corporate mismanagement. During the Depression, when Fannie Mae was created, its purpose was to add liquidity to the U.S. housing market. Fannie would guarantee mortgage debt, freeing the banks to continue lending to consumers. The secondary goal was to promote affordable home ownership. In 1968 Fannie was rechartered as a publicly traded company, even though it was also government-sponsored. This untested hybrid structure, which Congress replicated in 1970 when it created Freddie Mac, set the stage for their current woes. The hybrid structure works like this: in flush times the private investors and management profit, but in hard times the taxpayers are left footing the bill.
As long as the economy was strong, housing prices rose and defaults were rare, few heeded those worried about the $5.3 trillion in risk the government indirectly had guaranteed. Few cried foul when Fannie and Freddie failed to maintain adequate capital; worse, the capital they held was largely in the form of mortgage-backed securities, backed increasingly by subprime loans, which pay the highest rates of return because of their risk.
The Treasury must now decide whether to infuse capital or nationalize them—options by which the U.S. taxpayer pays for management’s errors. Although that will increase market stability, it is unfair to taxpayers. To prevent future mismanagement, Congress must put in place a string of safeguards, including effective oversight. But first the public should debate government’s role in promoting affordable home ownership.Safer Vaccinations
With the successful results in hand of recent tests on guinea pigs, bioengineers, doctors and immunologists have taken another step toward improving the delivery of vaccines in the developing world. That progress, still in the experimental stages, has just been reported in Science magazine and in the Harvard Public Health Review. While the new method, which does not use needles, might be used in the future for all sorts of vaccines, the current target is to use it to prevent tuberculosis.
Currently, the TB vaccine is the most widely used vaccine in the world. Called BCG, it is a live vaccine injected each year into 100 million children. Its effectiveness varies widely, depending on many factors, so the vaccine needs to be improved. But the needles used for injecting the vaccine pose a major problem in the developing world, because up to half of those used are not sterile. Nonsterile needles transmit such viral infections as H.I.V. and hepatitis B and C to millions of people each year. The new experimental delivery method, which is based on freeze-drying technology, would be administered as an aerosol mouth spray.
Some researchers claim this method would make the vaccine more effective, since it is much more stable in heat, which translates to better prevention for those who live in hot climates. And because it would be inhaled by mouth straight into the lungs, it would bypass the bloodstream, which takes longer. The new aerosol vaccine is also less expensive to produce, so it ought to cost less than the current vaccine, which would be a rare benefit in the world of medical technology and public health.How Now, Mini-Cow?
The barnyard meets the backyard for owners of Great Britain’s trendiest new pet: the mini-cow. According to London’s Sunday Times, over 4,000 “Dexter” mountain cows were registered in England last year, twice the number registered in 2000. These cows, originally from Ireland, stand no taller than a large dog, produce drinkable milk, eat most varieties of grass and can produce a calf a year (and can be used for meat). Why this sudden popularity? Pundits cite rising prices for milk and beef, but just as important may be the growing interest in environmentally less destructive food sources. Many readers of troubling exposés like The Omnivore’s Dilemma are more cognizant these days of the economic, environmental and health consequences of large-scale corn-fed beef production. Perhaps for some it makes more sense to eat the lawn mower.
The appeal of keeping a barnyard animal can also come from a nostalgic hearkening back to the past. In the living memory of many Americans, rural and even suburban households often featured a chicken coop or a rabbit hutch. Increased migration to urban areas, along with stricter and stricter health controls over livestock, made that phenomenon largely obsolete—which can be a surprise to new arrivals to America used to keeping small animals for food or sale. Will the appearance of the mini-cow mean Fido will once again have company in the backyard?Daunting Issues at the U.N.
The 63rd Session of the U.N. General Assembly opens on Sept. 16, with debate from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1. What lies before it? The provisional agenda is 16 pages long, listing 155 agenda items. The labyrinth of topics includes peace and security (42 items), economic growth (17), development of Africa (1), human rights (7), humanitarian assistance (1), promotion of justice (13), disarmament (17), drug control, crime and terrorism (3) and, finally, organization and administration (54). A word search uncovers nothing (yet) on Zimbabwe or the handicapped, and one item each on the millennium goals, malaria and sports.
On April 18 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the U.N. General Assembly. The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, considered this the most significant speech of the pope’s visit to the United States. The pope spoke strongly in favor of strengthening the capacities of the United Nations. He gave new prominence to the principle of “the responsibility to protect,” which he called the “moral basis for a government’s claim to authority,” and spoke of the duty of the international community to intervene if a country cannot or will not take care of its own people. As in a family, the stronger members must take care of the weaker ones. If and when the international community must intervene, this “should never be interpreted as unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty.” On the contrary, “it is indifference or failure to intervene that does the real damage.”
Pope Benedict pointed to two words common in Catholic theology as important for the success of the U.N., namely discernment and dialogue. Discernment—the capacity to distinguish good from evil—is an indispensable and fruitful skill. Dialogue, more specifically interreligious dialogue, is the way that leads to consensus around the truth.