Tag Archives: obama

Going Home Again

What’s the old adage? “You can never go home again”? I’ve decided that as an American living in France, it is my duty to put this theory to the test to find out if it’s just an old wives’ tale or somehow based in truth. It’s been one year and 10 months since I’ve seen the other side of the Atlantic and I feel surprisingly unhinged about my impending trip home.

The much-loved cliché originates from novelist Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 You Can’t Go Home Again. In the book, Wolfe discusses the themes of a changing America and the passing of time, within the context of a series of events that inhibit his main character George Webber of ever being able to return home again. The title of the book refers to Webber’s realization that “you can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…. Back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Basically, looking back, much less going there, is emotional suicide.

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So, here I am, in my parents’ house in Minneapolis, with remnants of my youth all around me. The first thing that returns is my pre-cell phone memory. I can’t pass a house within a ten-block radius without some long lost childhood recollection crossing my mind. Names I haven’t thought about for years pop back into my head. Old faces trigger experiences long passed. Seeing a former teacher reminds me of who I once was and who I once wanted to be. It’s painful, confusing, gut wrenching, glorious and enlightening. Who knew going back home would be so similar to schizophrenia?

Some things are the same, like good friends. The not-so-good ones show their shadows early and so, like Punxsutawney Phil, retreat into their holes, too deep to dig up ever again. The clothing people wear in the Midwest certainly is blasphemous, but I guess it always was. And the food. Don’t even get me started. If I don’t die of high fructose corn syrup poisoning by the time these five weeks are up, I’ll probably become an addict instead, requiring a drip of the stuff to slowly wean me off when I head back to France.

What I do know is that something has undeniably changed. People have changed. And it’s not because of 9 to 5 jobs or weddings or babies. It’s more than that. Life here has moved on and I am no longer a part of it. Of course, most would say that I left first, that I escaped my life to create a new one with different and more exciting memories – which is perhaps true. But can’t dualism hold a place in life? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? In other words, can I leave home for good, but still keep a part of it back in Paris?

Whether or not I’m allowed to take a piece of my Minnesota self back to France, I know that I undoubtedly will. My twenty-some years in the U.S. won’t disappear just because I have acquired a certain fondness for buttery pastries, high fashion and the language of love. Being American has never felt so intrinsic to me than it has in these past few weeks – when I was eating my Uncle Allan’s barbecued hamburgers or putting ice in my water glass or laughing about Sarah Palin with my friend Jenny. Call them the small things, but they’re part of what makes me unique over there on the European side.

I hope that after five, or even ten more years in France, I’ll still be able to recognize those so-very American qualities in myself. I also hope that all the amazing French habits I have adopted will be wedged in there alongside. Maybe then, every time I visit home, I won’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve left it too long, whether the life I left behind me is too far back to retrieve. I’ll just know in that intangible sort of way that home is inside of me forever.

First published in Brit’mag, November/December 2010

Human rights on the line: Obama snubs Dalai Lama and meets with Chinese president

I find it interesting that Obama, the man who speaks loathingly about torture, who caused a cafuffle over Guantanamo and denounced Iran’s violent crackdown on protesters last June, is now seemingly devoid of emotion toward human rights abuses caused by China.

The most recent photos of President Barack Obama have him not sitting white-scarved and smiling with the Dalai Lama like most U.S. presidents before him, but shaking hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Sure, Obama has every right to meet with the leader of this swiftly developing nation, but the wounds are still fresh from last month when, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to the U.S., President Obama canceled their planned meeting and postponed it to a still unidentified date.

On November 17, Obama and Jintao met to discuss environmental issues and what Obama calls their shared “burden of leadership” (as he put it to a forum of students in Shanghai). The two talked, shook hands like old friends and agreed in advance not to talk about the sticky issues.

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If anyone still remembers, Obama recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. As shocked as I am over this development, I would think that his top advisors, if not the man himself, would want to protect that award and prove to us naysayers that he does indeed deserve it. Slapping butts with the Chinese president – who recently allowed the execution of two Tibetans who participated in the deadly protests against Chinese oppression in Tibet last year – won’t get Obama any closer to winning international approval on his ability to make equal rights a priority. Especially when the Dalai Lama is a fellow Nobel prize winner himself.

The Times of India had this to say on October 6, before the Jintao/Obama meeting even took place:

“The loud sucking noise you hear? That’s President Barack Obama kissing up to the Chinese.

At least that’s what supporters of the Dalai Lama would have you believe after the U.S President passed up a meeting with the Tibetan leader in Washington D.C. this week – ostensibly to not offend Beijing ahead of Obama’s visit to China next month.

It’s the first time in ten visits to the U.S. in 18 years that the Dalai Lama has failed to meet with the American president. The political and diplomatic slight to the man widely admired in the US has brought forth a volley of criticism against Obama, hitherto hailed a champion of human rights.”

The China-Tibet issue is not the only tolerance card Obama has left undealt. He has yet to ban CIA-organized “extraordinary renditions” – in which suspected terrorists are abducted and shipped offshore, interrogated and usually tortured – despite his supposed opposition to the use of coercive cross-examination techniques.

In fact, Obama’s softening backbone also seems to apply to his definition of torture and consequences for those who practice it. His condemnation of waterboarding last year ended in a retraction to press charges against CIA officials who had employed the tactic. He claims that instead of rehashing the past – and squabbling over wrongs committed by the Bush administration – he and his team were better off focusing their energy on the future. That’s all fine and dandy, except that it sets a mean precedent: if Bush’s authorization of torture was acceptable based on legal rationale, then what is stopping Obama’s administration from following suit?

I don’t doubt that Obama, the man, is against torture, is pro-human rights, is looking out for the genuine good will of every man, woman and child in America. Behind all the media and PR hype, there is a strong, intelligent, liberal and effective man who deserves to be leader, president, Nobel prize holder (perhaps).

But without some of that early grit and resolve that made so many vote for Obama, he’s bound to lose his head among the many self-serving and manipulative world leaders hoping to profit from his hyper-egalitarian nature. And there’s simply nothing human or right about that.

Obama wins the Nobel prize. But will anyone believe it?

Today everyone, even the man himself, seems to be asking…. did Obama deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

The header for Yahoo news is actually: “Surprised, humbled Obama awarded Nobel Peace Prize.” They might as well have ended the sentence with a large yellow exclamation point and a “so were we” in parentheses.

Is a world leader eligible for this award? Yes, we’ve seen it time and again. But has Obama done enough yet to earn it?

Sure, he’s inspired hope in millions and changed the theme of the race wars in America (and abroad). But should the Nobel prize be based lightly on what the guy’s already done and more so on what is expected of him in the future?

Some past winners of the award include the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jimmy Carter and Mother Theresa. Now, I love Obama as much as the next liberal, but placing him beside Mother Theresa is a bit of a stretch.

I don’t doubt that in a few years, Obama will have proved his name worthy of being placed next to these world greats. He is already well on his way by improving relations with the Muslim world, pushing for a more comprehensive U.S. healthcare plan, and generally inspiring Americans to do more, care more, and be proud of themselves for once. But view him already worthy of the Prize? No, I can’t.

Depressing Depression in France

As I watched yet another person walk by me in Paris muttering to himself tonight, I was reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with a psychologist friend about the French healthcare system. Considering it has one of the most inclusive and admirable ones in the developed world, I was shocked to find out that the social security – the near-full coverage that is given to all who live in France – does not cover mental health.

A visit with a psychologist in Paris costs around 80 euros for a one-hour session. That equals out to 80 euros once a week, or 320 euros per month – about half a month’s rent. If you’re lucky enough to warrant medication and thus, a psychiatrist (read: “doctor”), you can get your bill mostly covered by the social security. But what about all the others with anxiety, mild depression, or other illnesses that can be treated – oftentimes better – without medication?

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or talk therapy, has been proven effective alongside medication but also all on its own. Talking out problems, finding constructive ways to deal with difficult situations, reversing negative thinking, and learning techniques to calm the body and mind is what CBT is all about. It’s such a shame that the French government would rather pay for someone to pop a pill than to correct what is really at the root of his or her problems.

Young girl crying

And the government should take note. According to the NOP World Health’s Western European Depression and Anxiety Physician Study from 2004, France has the highest proportion of depressed people in Western Europe. It says:

Many sufferers are undiagnosed, however — and even those who are diagnosed are often not treated with prescription medications. This continues to be true, in spite of the fact that many established depression and anxiety therapies are available in Europe — several in generic form or recently re-launched with new formulations.”

Of course this isn’t just a French problem. Mental health is still a hush-hush issue in the most modern countries on the planet. In Japan, where suicide rates are among the highest in the world, killing oneself is seen as an act of nobility linked back to the days of the Samurai. Japanese have even been known to join internet suicide clubs to meet and talk about their planned deaths.

One nation attempting to fade the stigma is the U.S., which has paved the way with bestselling self-help books and pop-psychology. Seeing a therapist in America is trendy and a normal topic of conversation among friends. Billboards for depression and suicide line the highways, and Dr. Phil is a regular on afternoon TV. While the Obama administration struggles to find a solution to the healthcare crisis in the U.S., mental healthcare would most likely be included in a medical insurance plan as it is now under private insurance, with perhaps a slightly higher deductible.

Back in France, the general health insurance outlook is much better. Under the national social security, patients are covered up to about 60%, which is often supplemented by a 30-euro per month mutuelle plan, bringing that coverage to 100%. One would think then, logically, that mental health would be covered by some small percentage, if not the whole 60%.

Sadly, this is not the case. My psychologist friend says that they are working on it. But I wonder, what does that mean? And what needs to happen for the social stigma of mental health to once and for all, finally wear off so that people can get the help they deserve?

Whether it’s the depressing news about mental health in France or the depression itself, I have a feeling I know why the French never smile.

UNTV looks at Paraguay’s mental health crisis

I just watched a clip on CNN international/UNTV about two young men, Julio and Jorge, in Paraguay who were locked up for years in a psychiatric institution. They’ve got autism and because of this, receive no treatment for their illnesses and are shut away from society like unruly, wild animals.

The images shown in the video left me with a grimace, furrowed brow and a sick feeling in my stomach. They showed the two men in their cells, completely naked, where they lived all alone for 23 hours a day, in the same space where they defecated and urinated. One clip shows a nurse feeding Julio with a spatula through the bars of the cell like a circus tiger.

I don’t think you need to be a gung-ho activist to see that this is an enormous violation of human rights. Apparently Paraguay doesn’t have the money to provide for cases like this, and sadly many impoverished countries are stuck in the same situation, with no resources or humane options for the mentally ill. Parents, poor and desperate, turn to the government who then put the children into these prison-like conditions.

Here are some quotes from Alison Hillman, a Mental Disability Rights International lawyer who discovered the two men and has worked to get them out of their predicament:

“They were both detained in tiny isolation cells that might have been 6 feet by 6 feet in size, naked, without access to bathrooms; they slept and ate and resided in the very same space that they defecated and urinated.  They were taken out of their cells to be hosed off.

“… We’ve found really the same conditions everywhere.  The same conditions of isolation, seclusion, segregation from the community and when you have a locked institution, whether it’s an orphanage or a psychiatric hospital or a prison ward, you find abuse, neglect, children tied to beds.  When people are locked away from society, they’re really invisible.”

Jorge’s mother said that the institution told her that her son was of no use to society and needed to be locked away. But, they told her, she could visit him whenever she liked. How sweet.

There’s much more to the story but I don’t want to give it all away. You can download the video onto Real Player here:


And to think we have been wasting the last few days getting Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others’ opinions on Obama’s mild crack about the Special Olympics when important things like this are actually going on in the world. Geez.

Can Obama be the perfect president?

We’ve all heard the cliche that Obama is under more pressure than perhaps any other president in history: to fix what the old administration broke, to implement innovative legislation, to repair international relations and to restore America’s image in the eyes of the world.

After watching the Tom Daschle fiasco go down today, I realized that Obama not only has pressure, but he has to be perfect. The media, the hopeful voters and the world onlookers have put their hopes into this one man to do the right thing at all times. And no one is cutting him any slack.

Obama confidently chose Tom Daschle to head the Department of Health and Human Services and stood up for him when Daschle’s tax scandal broke. For weeks, the American public watched Obama’s Bush-like bull-headedness in Daschle’s defense, despite the evidence that this was a man who may or may not have lied about his financial records. My question is, what’s wrong with being right when everyone else thinks you’re wrong? What’s wrong with a little stubborness?https://i0.wp.com/everystockphoto.s3.amazonaws.com/newyorkcity_newyork_downtown_907727_o.jpg

Something I disliked in Bush is now a quality I wish Obama had more of – and it has something to do with a backbone. I don’t find anything wrong with him defending his choice of Tom Daschle and making the American public see what he saw all along, to give us faith in his decision. After all, aren’t we supposed to have total confidence in this one man in every circumstance?

Sure, perhaps things would have gotten complicated down the road, and maybe Daschle would have stepped down at some point anyway. But jumping ship without at least attempting to prove the naysayers wrong is surprising, especially so early in the game. Maybe Daschle’s the one in need of a little backbone.

As Obama admitted to the world today that he had made a mistake, I saw a faint glimmer of regret in his eyes. Regret that someone in his PR department had forced him to say that it was all his fault, instead of Daschle’s inability to handle the intense media pressure.

Sure, Daschle can say that he didn’t want his actions to negatively affect the presidency (much like the words of Bill Richardson and his recent corruption scandal), but for a man to give up one of the most prestigious jobs in the world just to preserve the image of some other guy? Sorry, I’m not buyin it.

Obama will never be the perfect president, but what he might want to consider is to let his administration make mistakes. Yes, he must hold them accountable, but he shouldn’t take the brunt of their misguided efforts on his shoulders. In the case of Tom Daschle, what would have been so wrong with Obama repeating his original stance of “I believed he was the right man for the job” and letting Dashcle walk away a – somewhat – proud man?