Thursday, September 27, 2012

Are the forces of "crusading ignorance" preparing to burn books in Latvia?

It is getting seriously deranged in this country, and hard to decide whether this is the culmination of one of the many processes that make Latvia a kind of failed state/society lite, or the start of a censorship and book-burning campaign by crazed religious fundamentalists.
It all started with a perhaps expensive (more that LVL 6000 for 500 print editions, an internet version and a teachers’guide) translated Danish children’s book with stories of small children switching gender roles for a day. The general idea is to put children in the place of others, to think what it would be like to play a girl’s traditional gender role (play with dolls) or for a girl to do “boy” things like team sports.
When Latvia’s Minister of Welfare Ilze Viņkele presented the book and the gender equality program, she was angrily criticized by a group of fundamentalist Christians. Some 50 Christian and “pro-family” groups also wrote letters to the Prime Minister, other government ministers and the media denouncing the book and asking for Vinķele’s resignation.
The reaction of Latvia’s holy rollers was hysterical, with one man claiming to be the father of six children suggesting on television that a book burning be organized. Many comments on the internet by people who had apparently never read the book saying that it was aimed at teaching homosexuality. Others saw it as a plot to deprave Latvia (as if a girl playing European football and a boy wearing a sweater with glitters was the height of moral collapse). It is almost as if Vinķele’s presentation of the book opened the depths of ignorance, religious fanaticism, and anti-Western or anti-modernist rage. It is like a time portal opened to the 19th century, if not the Middle Ages in a country that is outwardly a modern democracy and European Union member state.
Vinķele herself said that she feared book burning or physical violence could be the next step in the outrage by a segment of the public over what they see as “homosexual propaganda” in the kindergarten. Nothing, least of all facts and the views of modern science will convince these people otherwise. It almost makes one think that there was something positive about the Soviet Union’s “militant atheism” and anti-religious campaigns. A little of that might be useful, though as much at odds with democratic values and an open society (committed to freedom of belief) as the Soviet’s totalitarian crusade to repress everything except the secular religion of Communism. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

What could be behind the "pro-life" campaign in Latvia?

Pro-Life or, if you please, anti-abortion movements aren't something I follow. Now, it appears that a relatively low-key pro-life campaign has started in Latvia, using the rather clever device of placing 27 statues of sleeping full term babies on the ground in a square near the Freedom Monument (a kind of entrance to the Old Town). Each of the babies had a small label in three languages, Latvian, English and Russian, stating what amounts to a kind of “Bioethics 101” problem along the lines of “my dad abused my mom, he drank, she had no place to go, no work...etc.”
Basically, the 27 bioethics “problems” (it is said that 27 abortions are preformed every day in Latvia) are meant to be thought provoking, though (I have glanced at most, but not all of them) they skip over such cases as rape, especially the rape of an underaged girl, incest and other examples where abortion is probably the only solution.
The installation also doesn't deal with issue of fetal viability, something best left to scientists, but basically a standard for determining that, up to a certain point in a pregnancy, the fetus is not able to live outside the mother, even with massive medical assistance. In other words, the standard determines that up to XY weeks of gestation, an aborted fetus would have no chance of living and its biological existence up to then must be weighed against the interests of the woman or young girl facing an unwanted pregnancy. 
What concerns me is that these pro-life thought provokers may have another agenda, more in line with the hard-core religious right. At least one of the organizers of the installation and campaign is former Soviet-era Latvian dissident Jānis Rožkalns. He is a very brave and decent man (did time in the Gulag for his actions and beliefs). However, in the past more than 20 years, Jānis has aligned with at least one right-wing religious cause – opposition to gay rights, gay pride parades and the like. I participated in debate against him and another religious hard-liner, the Riga City Council member Jānis Šmits and a retired Catholic archbishop and Cardinal, Jānis Pujats. I took a libertarian position, that any and all public expression must be permitted.
It would certainly be good if this particular “pro-life” action was simply one to make people think whether abortion is a desirable form of “contraception”. Indeed, the next step should be actions to address the social problems in some of the examples given – preventing violence against women and the sexual abuse of under-aged girls, broad sex education for children age 12 and up, and an acceptance that adolescent sex is inevitable, therefore contraceptives must be available if all other “restraints” fail --Christian chastity advocacy, non-sectarian sexual ethics lessons, whatever.
So, giving the benefit of the doubt, let's see where this goes. But I have a nagging feeling, that under all this are people who would like to see abortions banned, to declare that an inviolable life starts at conception and  that Latvia should be  made into a sexually repressive theocracy.  
I must say that abortion is a creepy thing for me. I would rather not have it as an inevitable choice for women or couples, but creepier, still, is the idea of law-mandated forced birth and the suspension of personal choice and autonomy for any woman the instant she becomes pregnant for any reason and under any circumstances. So given the choice, I tilt toward free choice.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Buffoon politics (?) appears in Latvia

If anyone thought the totally batshit side of Latvian politics was also on vacation this week, they were proven wrong by the antics of former TV comedian formerly known as Viesturs Dūle. Things started out innocently enough a couple of weeks (?) ago when Dūle, the Latvian rapper Gustavo and some other dude announced they intended to start a political party called Skaistā Nākotne or “Beautiful Future”. That should have been a hint that this enterprise would quickly tilt to the gonzo side of things.
And soon it did. After what must have been a hearty breakfast of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Dūle announced that was henceforth to be called Zuarguss Klororus-Zarmass. Gustavo, who was a stage pseudonym to begin with, will henceforth  be called Arstarulsmirus Arsujumfus-Tarus and the third dude - Jurgstulajstus Lajurgus-Urgurus. 
Now I have read a little about ketamine-induced highs, where people apparently are propelled into a different dimension where choirs of elves appear. Or perhaps it was DMT that did this to you. Anyway, the names of our new political party founders appear to have come from the lyrics of what those elves were singing. From here on, whatever these guys do is total crank-o-rama as far as I am concern. Believe nothing they say. Oddly, just like real politics. Which may be the point of the whole, as Latvians would say, balagāns. 
To be sure, what Zuarguss and his buddies are up to is nothing new. In Britain, the Monster Raving Loony Party  has been a part of the comic political landscape since the 1980s. It seems to have become a small business and a means of promoting various alternative and strange musicians. Nothing wrong with that. What is worse is when there are politicians and political movements that are geniunely wackbat (my word, derived from wacko and batshit), as illustrated by this New York Times blog on The Crackpot Caucus.  Perhaps the balagānšik formerly known as Viesturs Dūle should get back to exposing the real crackpots and cranks in Latvia, which I think he was trying to do in his satirical TV shows some years ago. In any case, Zuarguss has also cast a pall of unseriousness on his movement to improve education in Latvia. There are real, serious problems in Latvia that cannot be solved by yet another put-on political movement -- but at least one that signals that it is not for real.  At the same time, Skaistā Nākotne it has published some programmatic material (in Latvian) that appears to take a serious, if somewhat unconventional stand on the issue of corruption (those guilty of bribe giving or taking should be fined, not jailed, etc.) Too bad little of this can be taken seriously, now that Zuarguss and Arstarulmirus have been chanting with the elves.