Headlines: Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising; 1 in 50 U.S. Children Homeless

Democracy Now Headlines: Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising; 1 in 50 U.S. Children Homeless

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

US: Iran Lacks Material for Nuke Weapon

US intelligence analysts have concluded Iran lacks sufficient material for a nuclear weapon and hasn’t yet decided if it wants to try to make one. Testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples was questioned by Republican Senator John McCain.

Sen. John McCain: “General Maples, Do you believe that it is Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons?”

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples: “I believe they are holding open that option, sir, but I don’t believe they have yet made that decision.”

Senate OKs Spending Bill After Treasury Assures Cuba Embargo Backers

The Senate has approved a $410 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government for much of this year. The vote came after the Treasury Department assured supporters of the US embargo on Cuba that new provisions in the bill will mark almost no change from current policy. The spending bill was held up last week amidst opposition to several provisions loosening trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. But in a letter sent to lawmakers opposed to easing the embargo, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the provisions will be narrowly enforced. As the Obama administration touted the continued restrictions, a group of South American defense ministers issued a call for ending the embargo. The twelve ministers were gathered at a meeting of the twelve-country Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR.

Uruguayan Defense Minister Jose Bayardi: “Right now Cuba does not represent any security problem for the US. And US policy with respect to Cuba is more determined by internal pressure, by lobby by North American Cubans. That’s the frank analysis of the situation.”

Obama Unveils Education Reforms

President Obama has proposed a new set of reforms to fix what he calls a crumbling education system. On Tuesday, Obama called for a longer school year and higher pay for top teachers.

President Obama: “The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens. And my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best universities, the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals and passionate teachers and gifted students, and we have parents whose only priority is their child’s education. We have a legacy of excellence and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did.”

Biden Urges NATO Support on Afghanistan

Vice President Joe Biden was in Brussels Tuesday to make a new appeal for international backing of the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. Speaking at a NATO gathering, Biden defended the Obama administration’s escalation of the Afghan war.

Vice President Joe Biden: “I know the people of Europe, like the people of my country, are tired of war, and they are tired of this war. But many of our citizens, both here in Europe and at home, question why we need to send troops and treasure so far from our homes. But we know–we know that it was from the space that joins Afghanistan and Pakistan that the attacks of 9/11 occurred. We know that it was from the very same area that extremists planned virtually every major terrorist attack on Europe since 9/11 and the attack on Mumbai.”

The Obama administration has ordered an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan and is hoping for more non-US forces, as well.

Intel Pick Withdraws Nomination, Blasts Israel Lobby

The Obama administration’s pick to become the nation’s top intelligence analyst has withdrawn his nomination after an intense lobbying campaign by backers of Israeli government policies. Former US Ambassador Charles “Chas” Freeman had come under Republican-led opposition over his comments criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Freeman has years of diplomatic experience, including stints as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and assistant secretary of defense. Some Democrats joined in on the opposition to Freeman’s appointment.

In a statement, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer took credit for Freeman’s withdrawal, saying, “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”

In a statement, Freeman blasted lobby groups, lawmakers and pundits who support Israeli government policies for forcing his withdrawal. Freeman wrote,

“The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency…The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.”

Freeman continued,

“I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.”

Gaza Family Sues Israeli Government

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, a Palestinian family that lost twenty-nine relatives in the Israeli attack on Gaza has filed a $200 million lawsuit against the Israeli government. The ordeal of the Samouni family drew international attention after it was revealed Israeli forces shelled their homes and then blocked medical aid. In addition to the twenty-nine dead, another forty-five relatives were injured, most of them children. Family member Naela Samouni described her family’s ordeal.

Naela Samouni: “My mother-in-law died, my sister-in-law and her daughter and two more people. The majority of my family died in the home that I am standing in now. Of course, we’re going to file a lawsuit against them.”

The surviving members of the Samouni family now live in the rubble of their destroyed homes.

Suit: Israel Stealing West Bank Resources

Meanwhile, an Israeli human rights group has filed a High Court challenge seeking to block Israeli digging in the occupied West Bank. The group, Yesh Din, claims Israeli mining in the West Bank amounts to a robbery of Palestinian resources. Yesh Din attorney Michael Sfard said Israel is violating international law.

Michael Sfard: “The natural resources that are digged out of the earth in the West Bank is transferred into Israel for the benefit of the Israeli construction market. This is, of course, an illegal enterprise. It violates the very basic principles of international law and laws of belligerent occupation. It is also immoral, because we’re literally swallowing chunks of the earth of the West Bank that belongs to the people of the West Bank and for their future development.”

According to Yesh Din, 75 percent of the resources mined by Israeli companies in the West Bank are being transferred to Israel. Some of the remaining gravel is being used to construct new Israeli settlements that further carve up Palestinian land.

Clinton Sees Hope in Haiti for “First Time”

In Haiti, former President Bill Clinton joined UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday to promote an anti-poverty initiative being launched there. Clinton said he sees signs of hope in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Bill Clinton: “I have followed Haiti for more than three decades. This is the first time I have ever really believed that the country had a chance to slip the bonds of poverty and escape the heritage of oppressive government and misgovernment and abuse of people that have held people down too long.”

Clinton is sometimes described as a champion of Haitian democracy for restoring the overthrown elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after the first US-backed coup. But Clinton was widely criticized for forcing Aristide to accept US-imposed neoliberal economic policies as a condition for his return to office.

Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising

Here in New York, hundreds of pro-Tibet demonstrators marched through the streets Tuesday to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against China. The marchers passed by the UN and the Chinese consulate.

Protester: “Today is the fiftieth anniversary after we losing our country. So we are here to raise our voice to all the international people, especially to the Chinese, to say that Tibet was an independent and is an independent country still. So we are here together to tell the world the story about our Tibetan cause.”

A parallel demonstration was held near the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. The Dalai Lama marked his fifty years in exile on Tuesday by calling for “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet and accusing China of imposing a “hell on earth.”

Afghan Journalist Once Jailed by US Slain in Kandahar

An Afghan journalist once jailed by the US military has died in Afghanistan. Twenty-three-year-old Jawed “JoJo” Ahmad was shot and killed while reporting in Kandahar. Ahmad’s death comes less than six months after his release from US military imprisonment after nearly a year of being held without charge. He was working as a videographer for the Canadian television network CTV when US forces jailed him in October 2007. He later revealed US soldiers broke two of his ribs, deprived him of sleep and held him in a grave-like cell during his captivity. After his release, Ahmad said he wanted to tell his story and help other prisoners abused at the US-run Bagram prison where he was held. In a statement, law professor Barbara Olshansky of International Justice Networks said, “‘s death should compel all who have stood in the way of examining US policies in Afghanistan to make way for the investigation that has been needed for eight years. We are all responsible for the death of a brave young man who worked for the US and Canada in Afghanistan and paid the ultimate price for his heroism.”

Van Jones to Advise Obama on Green Jobs

The Obama administration has tapped author and activist Van Jones to become a special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. Jones is expected to start work next week. He is author of the bestselling The Green Collar Economy, which lays out a plan for a green economy he says could help solve the nation’s economic inequality while also addressing the long-term environmental threats to our survival as a planet. Jones is the founding president of Green for All and the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. That group challenges human rights abuses within the US criminal justice system.

Attorney: Madoff to Plead Guilty on All Charges

The indicted financier Bernie Madoff appeared in a federal court Tuesday on allegations of operating one of the biggest frauds in Wall Street history. Madoff was arrested last year and accused of running an estimated $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Madoff’s lawyer says he will plead guilty to all criminal charges in court tomorrow. He faces a prison sentence of 150 years.

Staffers Force Disabled Youths to Fight at Texas Facility

In Texas, caretakers at a state-run residential facility have been caught forcing disabled youths to fight each other. Cell phone video shows staffers provoking and then shoving the youths to ensure they start fighting. Corpus Christi Police Captain Tim Wilson called the fights some of the worst child abuse he’s seen in over thirty years.

10 Die in Alabama Shooting

In Alabama, a lone gunman killed at least nine people in a shooting spree Tuesday before taking his own life. Four of the victims were relatives of the gunman.

Study: 1 in 50 US Children Homeless

A new study says that one in fifty American children are homeless. The National Center on Family Homelessness says the number marks an increase over ten years ago and continues to grow.

Foreclosed Homeowners Call for Bankruptcy Reform

In Washington, D.C., a bus tour of foreclosed homeowners made its final stop Tuesday after a cross-country trip. The “Recovery Express” picked up passengers who lost their homes in eight cities across the nation. Edith Adachi made the trip from Chicago.

Edith Adachi: “My home is gone. I’m never going to get that home back again. But there’s many of you who have homes and now in foreclosure, and there’s something we can do about them. And I’m here to represent all those people.”

The “Recovery Express” was organized by the group People Improving Communities through Organizing, or PICO. Organizers are calling for bankruptcy law reform that would grant troubled homeowners the right to appear before a bankruptcy court if banks won’t negotiate with them.

Green Architect Greg Franta Found Dead at 58

And the green architect Greg Franta has been found dead. His body was discovered inside his car in a ravine between Golden and Boulder, Colorado. It appears that he crashed on his way home over a month ago, when he was reported missing. Greg was the chief architect at Rocky Mountain Institute and named Colorado architect of the year in 1998. He worked with the Clinton administration to make the White House more energy efficient. He had been spearheading the building of Democracy Now!’s new studio, which we are looking forward to being the first LEED-certified TV/radio/internet studio in New York City. In this video for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Franta spoke about the importance of green building.

Greg Franta: “When we think about high-performance buildings, it’s having a lower environmental impact, and it’s good for our economy. Creating a place for the building users, so it becomes sustainable in a variety of ways.”

Greg Franta was fifty-eight. His death is a tremendous loss for us all. Our condolences to his family and to the Rocky Mountain Institute, which we know will continue to pursue his dreams of building a more sustainable world.

ACLU Urges State Senate to Pass Bill Ending Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

The ACLU of Michigan is urging the state senate to pass a package of bills that would end the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole. Michigan currently has the second highest number of offenders serving such sentences in the United States.


The ACLU of Michigan is urging the Michigan Senate to adopt a package of bills passed by the Michigan House last week that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole.

The ACLU is asking that people send email letters to their state senators telling them to pass the bill.

In Michigan, there are currently 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as children. Michigan’s laws are some of the harshest in the country. While 43 other states have similar laws, Michigan is one five states that account for two-thirds of youth imprisoned under these laws. Judges and juries in Michigan are given little leeway in sentencing. For example, laws require sentencing juveniles convicted of “felony murder” to be sentenced to life without parole even if they did not commit the crime and were merely present when someone was murdered.

The ACLU further argues that these mandatory sentencing laws are another example of institutionalized racism in the US, as 69% of people receiving these sentences are African-Americans although African-Americans make up only 15% of Michigan’s population.

Because conditions in Michigan prisons–and the prison system as a whole–are often neglected, we’re reprinting a fact sheet from the ACLU of Michigan on children serving life sentences:

* Each year in Michigan, children as young as thirteen are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without opportunity for parole. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, the United States allows children to be treated and punished the same as adults. Children are increasingly excluded from the protection of juvenile courts based on the nature of the offense, without any consideration of age, maturity or culpability of the child, and without taking steps to ensure their understanding of the legal system under which they are prosecuted.

* Life sentences without possibility of parole have been renounced internationally as a violation of human rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which specifically forbids sentences of life imprisonment for children under the age of eighteen. The United States stands alone in rejecting this article of the Convention and in the implementation of this sentence on adolescents convicted of crimes.

* Even more disheartening, we can recognize early signs of juvenile delinquency, but we do very little to stop the inevitable streamlining of troubled youth in to prisons. We are failing our children before we even sentence them to life without parole by simply denying them their right to an education. Children who are forced out of the education system by suspensions, expulsions or because of learning disabilities are more likely to commit crimes. Over 70% of juveniles serving life without parole in Michigan were not attending school at the time of their crime. When they were attending school the majority of juvenile offenders reported that they were either enrolled in special education courses or experienced learning difficulties, but were not given the special help they needed it be successful.

* Michigan now has the second highest percentage of juveniles serving life without parole–Louisiana has the highest. There are currently more than 308 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences. The automatic, mandatory and permanent sentencing laws leave no room to reasonably assess the juvenile’s growth or maturity or to individually assess the need for continued incarceration.

* Passage of juvenile life reform legislation does not guarantee release. It only provides an opportunity for a parole board to evaluate whether the individual, now grown and matured, is a current threat to public safety. This legislation allows for a fair evaluation of those sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed when they were a minor. Further, the cost of incarcerating a juvenile for life–without ever evaluating whether they are truly a continued risk to society is over $1 million dollars per child.

In 2004, the ACLU of Michigan released a report on juveniles receiving life sentences.

Additionally, the harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders by the states have also drawn the attention of the United Nations. The United States is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would prohibit these mandatory sentences.

One in Three Children’s Toys have Significant Levels of Toxic Chemicals

A review of over 1,500 children’s toys by the Ann Arbor, Michigan based Ecology Center has found that one in three children’s toys have significant levels of toxic chemicals including lead, flame retardants, and arsenic.


One in three children’s toys tested have significant levels of toxic chemicals including lead, flame retardants, and arsenic.

For the second year in a row, the Ann Arbor, Michigan based Ecology Center has released a consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys. The guide–online at HealthyToys.org–reviews over 1,500 popular children’s toys on sale on store shelves this holiday season.

The review found that one of three toys contained “medium” or “high” levels of chemicals of concern. For example, lead was found in 20% of the toys tested this year. Lead levels in some products exceeded the federal recall standards for lead paints and will exceed new regulations that go into effect in February of 2009. The lead paint standard is 600 parts-per-million (ppm) while the American Academy for Pediatrics recommends limiting lead in children’s toys to 40 ppm. 3% of products exceeded 600 ppm.

However, it’s not just lead. 4.2% of toys contained Mercury, 2.9% contained bromine–likely due to the use of brominated flame retardants. Arsenic was found in 18.9% of products. 27% of toys were also made using PVC which creates major environmental hazards in its manufacture and disposal.

While the review highlights many potentially dangerous toys, its creators point out that 62% of products contain low levels of chemicals of concern and 21% contain no chemicals of concern.

Grand Rapids Area Campaign for USA ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

A new campaign is being launched in Grand Rapids to push for the United States’ ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A new group–Parenting for Peace–is organizing an upcoming event in Grand Rapids on the issue.


A new campaign is being launched in Grand Rapids to push for the United States’ ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the U. N. General Assembly on 20 November (Universal Children’s Day), 1989. Exactly nineteen years later Parenting for Peace, a newly formed group based in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the Institute for Global Education (IGE), is undertaking a local campaign to help secure USA ratification. We believe it should not take 20 years for the USA to ratify the CRC!

Join us on Thursday, 20 November, to help us launch this effort. The launch will be held at IGE, 1118 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids. Schedule as follows:

* 4:00pm: Write letters, make calls, and/or send emails to our two Senators and the President-Elect, as well as friends or others who might want to become involved.

* 5:00pm: Enjoy a potluck supper.

* 6:00pm: Join together to make plans for the campaign.

Here is some basic information about the CRC as it applies to parenting and children:

Nations that ratify the CRC agree to respect and support the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents to provide direction and guidance for the development of their children. In addition, the CRC calls on governments to develop policies conducive to family and community environments that will allow children to grow up in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.

The CRC sets forth basic norms and standards that individual nations agree to pursue on behalf of their children. Those internationally recognized norms include:

– Protection from violence, abuse and abduction

– Protection from hazardous employment and exploitation

– Adequate nutrition

– Free primary education

– Adequate health care

– Equal treatment regardless of gender, race or cultural background.

Effects so far in various countries have included separation of detained juveniles from adults and providing them legal representation, extended ability to prosecute for child prostitution and pornography, reform of the child protection system, training of criminal justice personnel in child-friendly practices, revised justice codes for children, reduction in hitting and other abuse of children.

The sponsoring organization for this local effort, Parenting for Peace, meets at IGE. Its mission is to:

-Promote children’s rights and well-being;

-Support parents/caregivers rights and well-being, and their efforts to raise healthy, happy children;

-Make connections between peaceful parenting and a peaceful world;

-Bring diverse groups together to learn from each other and strengthen our collective voice.

We hope to work with the Campaign for U. S. Ratification of the CRC, a national coalition which brings together many interested groups. See childrightscampaign.org for more info on that coalition. We also plan to look into the possibility of getting a City of Grand Rapids resolution in support of the Convention. In addition, we are considering a petition.

If any of these ideas grab you, we welcome your help in advancing them. If you have other ideas, please come and share them. We are open, we love enthusiasm, and we value diverse approaches.

For more information about the local campaign or about Parenting for Peace, contact us at IGE:

ige@iserv.net or (616)-454-1642.

Renowned Childbirth Educator Suzanne Arms Speaking in Grand Rapids

Birth activist Suzanne Arms–who has written extensively on how we have children in the UNited States–will be speaking Friday in Grand Rapids.

Friday Oct. 24, 7 – 9 p.m., at Holistic Care Approach, 3368 Beltline Ct. NE., Grand Rapids. $10 suggested donation. Sponsored by The Bloom Collective.

Birth, as the body intended, empowers women and starts infants on the adventure of life as balanced, healthy human beings. During the ’70s and ’80s, a sea of women activists worked to reclaim birth, which in the US usually takes place in the hospital setting. The medical industrial complex viewed this movement as a challenge to their power, practices and profits. Today, the few babies born without medical intervention in the hospital setting are those impatient brats born in the parking lot.

Electronic monitoring, induced labors, epidurals and cesarean section are now the norm. As one intervention leads to the need for another, profits rise –and maternal and infant outcomes plummet. According to the New York Times (Oct. 15, 2008), the US infant mortality rate “remains well above that of most other industrialized countries and is one of many indicators suggesting that Americans pay more but get less from their health care system… In 1960, the United States ranked 12th lowest in the world, but by 2004, the latest year for which comparisons were issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that ranking had dropped to 29th.”

A birth activist since the ’70s, Suzanne Arms has written books on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and adoption; created films and photographs; and presented hundreds of talks at conferences worldwide. Her book, Immaculate Deception, was a 1975 New York Times Best Book of the Year. Arms advocates holistic, sustainable health policies and practices and conscious parenting that is based on ancient and cross-cultural wisdom. Her 1977 documentary, Five Women, Five Births, remains a staple among natural childbirth educators. Arms weaves modern science: cellular biology, neurobiology, psycho-immunology and attachment theory with ecology, feminism and spirituality. Arms writes:

“My purpose is to help shift the paradigm that drives the loneliness, anxiety, addiction, greed, and aggression so prominent in post-modern societies to one that promotes joy, wellbeing and peace. I work at the beginning of life, where the patterns are set. We must transform how we bring human beings into the world and care for each childbearing woman and mother-baby pair from conception to the first birthday, when they are one biological system and the baby’s developing brain and nervous system are laying down patterns for a lifetime.”

“For too long, our approach to childbearing and caring for mothers and babies has been fear-based, its hallmarks isolation, intervention in natural processes, hyper-stimulation and maternal deprivation. Women’s experiences and their feelings about themselves, their babies and motherhood, translate directly into thoughts and biochemistry that lay down patterns in their baby’s developing nervous system and brain. These patterns shape not only how we see ourselves as children, but the relationships we form as adults and how we care for others and our world. The mother-baby relationship is crucial. Thus, how we treat the women who bring children into this world – with honor and tenderness or neglect and abuse – profoundly influences the direction of our society. Love and fear, and peace and violence, begin in the womb.”

Arms is a founding and active member of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children. At the pioneering Holistic Childbirth Institute in San Francisco, in 1977, Suzanne created and taught the first course on the evolution of childbirth practices and how we got the practices we have today. A year later she co-founded The Birth Place, the country’s first resource center for pregnancy, birth and new parenting and one of the first independent birthing centers in the U.S. Suzanne was a founding and active board member of Planetree, the international organization working to transform hospitals and clinics into true healing centers. Suzanne lives near Durango in SW Colorado.

IGE Talks: Beyond the Spanking Debate

Here is the latest “IGE Talks,” a monthly cable access show hosted by the Institute for Global Education (IGE) and aired on Grand Rapids’ public access television. As part of our ongoing efforts to support independent and do-it-yourself media here in West Michigan, we will be posting these shows each month. In this episode, “IGE Talks” focuses on “Beyond the Spanking Debate: Respectful, Child-Centered Parenting:”

The topic for the next show is “globalization.” It will be taped on June 5 at 7:00pm at the IGE office. IGE is located at 1118 Wealthy Street SE. The public is welcome to participate in the discussion.

The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

We all have heard the saying, “the children are our future.” This idea is definitely embraced by corporations and advertisers, with one additional word – “the children are our future consumers.” If anthropologists 100 years from now were to look at how children were viewed in the US in the late 20th century and early 21st century, what would they discover about their playtime habits? Susan Linn, in her newest book The Case For Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, would provide some pretty good indications of what those anthropologists might find.

The Case for Make Believe is an excellent sequel to Linn’s first book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. In Consuming Kids, Linn explores how media companies and advertisers have taken aim at children in order to develop what they call “brand loyalty.” With The Case for Make Believe, Linn discusses how the hyper-commercialized world of children has deprived them of one of the most important aspects of childhood development, play. Linn says, “Most child development experts agree that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration. It’s how children learn how to learn.” When children are given a healthy environment and are not distracted by screen media or other contemporary toys they will quickly resort to using their own imagination. This is a fundamental problem, according to Linn, of the hyper-commercialized world of kids where most toys and media they consume do most of the work for them.

Linn goes on to say, “The ability to play is central to our capacity to take risks, to experiment, to think critically, to act rather than react, to differentiate ourselves from our environment, and to make life meaningful.” However, when kids are put in front of screens, given dolls that talk or toys that move on their own they are less likely to use their own imaginations. The less they use their own imaginations the less likely they will engage in self-discovery. This is particularly difficult when media companies are pushing so-called learning tools on children even infants.

As an example, look at the push of videos like Baby Einstein and other screen media tools that have been marketed in recent years to parents. The long-term consequences of this type of commercialized play could be devastating. Linn cites a pediatrician who says, “Screen media directed at young infants exploits the orienting reflex. By constantly changing themes, having the flashing lights and sound, they keep the child focused on the screen. They have to do that, in effect, because infants don’t understand the content.” Besides Baby Einstein, there are a whole new line of screen-focused baby videos like Baby Wordsworth, Baby Galileo, and Baby Da Vinci. Fortunately, these so-called educational tools are coming under more scrutiny. Disney, the owner of Baby Einstein no longer markets this product as an educational tool because of pressure from the group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

Linn has discovered the importance of play in her work over the years, particularly the work she has done in hospitals with children who have terminal illnesses. The author uses puppets as a means to get kids to talk about themselves and to explore the world through their imaginations. Linn discusses her experiences with children in a variety of settings and how each of them has taught her a great deal about the importance of play. Half of the book is devoted to stories about several children she has had a relationship with and how play has helped each of them deal with different issues.

This book not only critiques what is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of children, it provides readers with examples of how people are challenging this assault on kids. Linn acknowledges that it is not enough to just critique the problem of screen time for kids, but to challenge the reality that there isn’t adequate space for kids to play and to explore in their own communities. Linn also points out that much of the “play space” that has taken away traditional park and green space are now replaced by McDonalds Playland or cookie cutter jungle gyms. “We need to stop mistaking commerce for community. Corporations are all too happy to leap into the breach when we lose the political will to build a society based on responsibilities and benefits of publicly supported institutions.”

Fortunately, there are movements like No Child Left Inside which seek to not only provide opportunities for more children to explore play through the environment, but also challenge policies that make it difficult for children to have those experiences. Linn provides a list of groups like No Child Left Inside and other resources at the end of the book and encourages readers to take up the cause of fighting for the right of children to healthy and safe play. The Case for Make Believe is a clarion call to parents, educators, and anyone who cares about the future of our children.

Susan Linn, The Case For Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, (New Press, 2008).

Summer, A Summit, and Some Sanity

Summer is easy in our western Michigan city. The Farmers Market bustles, the garden grows, the kids live outside. Lake Michigan beckons and leisurely dinners at the picnic table are the norm. We go weeks at a time without exposure to the artificial lighting of grocery stores, electronic entertainment or the seduction of chain stores or restaurants. We vow to buy and eat locally and are able to keep our promise.

Family activities come in the form of full moon bike rides, walks to parks, and outdoor festivals. Mother Nature is in full force and we follow her commands. If she graces us with a clear sky, we are out the door as fast as you can say sunscreen. If it rains, we are happy for the plants and for our friends the farmers who work so hard to bring us a cherished tomato, flecked dozen of eggs, or head of crisp lettuce straight from the ground. Something ancient and wise takes over and lives in us all deeply. Television. What television? We are tuned into something different- something much more sustaining.

Despite the crisp air, fabulous apple orchards, and drop dead beautiful colors, autumn gives us our first hint of the challenges to come. It starts with the catalogues- the gobs and gobs of stapled glossy sheets reminding us that the “holidays” are marching towards us and that their new leader is Halloween. A tradition that used to be pretty simple- jack-o-lantern, costume, candy- has morphed into an all out marketing bonanza that includes hundreds of chintzy costumes and stuff straight off the China boat with toxicity contents more frightening than any horror mask could ever be. Even more appalling are the “child” nurse, devil, cheerleader, and kitty cat costumes targeting my five and nine year old daughters all complete with short skirts and- I kid you not- assortment of matching garter bands.

We make our own costumes and throw a low key Halloween party instead. The highlight is a pieced together haunted garage that owes its existence much more to the dedication of a few highly creative mamas (and perhaps more than a few bottles of red wine) than any credit card purchased accessories.

School starts and the girls quickly catch up on what is the latest must-have gizmo or show. They come home from school talking about Hannah Montana concerts, Webkins and I Pods. We rarely indulge these things as evidenced by the creative ways our girls have had to piece together their understandings of items, games and trends that they have had no exposure to. They are far from immune to the influences however. It’s right around the fourth or fifth week of school that my beautiful nine-year-old girl comes home, and for the first time, tells me she’s fat.

Thanksgiving arrives and the tug-of-war intensifies. Every year the acquisition machine rolls out earlier and earlier trumping longstanding traditions of thanks. One has the sense that the holiday train has jumped the rails and is hurtling out of control with the massive Christmas cars overtaking all the others. This year I had the inkling that if it wasn’t for the strange representation (and incredible girth) of those ten foot high inflatable turkeys gracing yards all around our area, one might worry that Thanksgiving was in danger of being shut out all together. How this most pure of holidays came to revere televised football and “Black Friday” sales as much, or more, as time together around the table is beyond me. There’s nothing like folding hands in gratitude one day, and then pummeling strangers at 4 am the next, to be the first to get those same hands on the year’s most coveted discount appliance.

By the time the true Michigan cold sets in, I am in an all out slugfest. Winter is always the hardest. We all know that the Christmas season was hijacked by marketers some time ago yet every year the extent seems to be more and more mind-boggling. This year we were told that we could buy and receive everything from better relationships with our kids (it’s as simple as giving them the right cell phone) to the assurance of monogamy (which conveniently now comes in the form of diamond bracelets and pendants). I daydream of a new version of that POW/MIA flag flying on the back of Harley Davidson’s all over our roadways. This one sporting the bearded silhouette of Jesus in the middle.

While we are not church goers per say- I do have the standard that if I’m going to celebrate something you sure as heck better believe I’m going to know why. Despite all my efforts to the contrary- I may be losing this battle with my children. My five-year-old was in tears as she finished unloading her Christmas stocking this year. Her simple hand-knitted stocking made by her great-grandmother and filled with a mixture of fun necessities, unique novelties and special treats paled in comparison to the images she had subconsciously compiled from the few print ads and commercials that had snuck past the recycling bin and the mute button. Those scenes depicting Santa’s bounty as overwhelming heaps of every toy and box and bow imaginable had seeped in and consumed her expectations without any of us ever being in the know. The quivering lip and big tear-filled blue eyes of this beloved child (whose every imaginable need we strive to meet) would have been comical if it wasn’t so unbelievably sad.

Snowflakes fall and my oldest reads Little House on the Prairie, Where The Red Fern Grows and Naya Nuki. I find myself in tears when she talks of the thoughtful preparations for a community dance, a cherished orange at the bottom of a Christmas stocking, the milking of a cow, and ancient Native American traditions. I know I’m in danger of being called sappy and nostalgic but, truly, where has this kind of reverence gone?

I feel a strange pull to what my kids have coined the “Old Fashioned Town” exhibit at the Public Museum. No matter how many times we have strolled its reproduced cobblestone streets, musty smells and squeaky screen doors-I want to linger in this exhibit the longest. The lure of the tiny specialized shops- the grocer here, the pharmacy across the way, the artful function of the printing press- provides an enchanting comfort. I am intrigued by the bolts of fabric, the intricate beauty of a hair comb or a pocketknife – the purposefulness, simplicity and beauty of it all.

The snow piles up and gray skies dominate. I shop at Target. I try not to bring the girls with me-something in me intuiting that this retailer has a power that just may trump mine. This is a most unsettling feeling for a mother who is really close with her kids. When they are pushing the red cart, I cringe at what I’ve exposed them to. The mixed messages, the marketing targeting them at just their vulnerabilities, the needless nature of so much of it all, the waste.

We go to a new movie store to look for the fabulous 1970’s version of Pippi Longstocking with the English dubbed over the Swedish. We search futilely amid huge televisions blaring R rated film clips overhead. Violent video games are organized by the checkout at a height that anyone over the age of eight would have to bend over to see. The store is teaming with families and young children yet cleavage, crotch shots and gore meet us at every turn. Why is there not any outrage over these things? Are we that immune already? We get the hell out of there as fast as we can- a subscription to Netfix moving quickly to the top of the to do list. I feel so alone.

My husband- a doctoral student- talks about French intellectuals, post-modernism and the fragmentation of society due to the lack of any guiding narrative. I think I may know what he is speaking of. Something in me feels like it is breaking into a gazillion little pieces.

There is a huge television when we walk into our local YMCA. In the split-second it takes to walk past it, my five-year-old sees footage of a house fire- someone screaming for her baby. My husband doesn’t notice it. It haunts her dreams for weeks. Televisions are everywhere- cars, gas station pumps, family restaurants, grocery store carts and checkout lanes. I am so angry. So overwhelmed. Something in me is dying. My own fire to combat these things seems to be going out- smothered by the sheer volume of it all.

Playtimes are turning deadly as kids in our community accidentally shoot their best friends with guns. In contrast to their video games- they don’t get back up. Local fire chiefs, school teachers and city council members are getting busted for porn- for child porn- for taking pictures up student’s skirts. Boyfriends are killing their girlfriends. A mother I know left her two-year-old for an hour and he was shaken to death by the man who was supposed to be caring for him. Husbands are killing their wives- in front of their children. I am in despair.

A front-page article in our main paper profiles local school districts that are signing up for Bus Radio- a for-profit company that will install radios in school buses for free. Of course you then listen exclusively to the Bus Radio channel pumped full of the “child friendly” advertising of their sponsors. The drivers love it- the kids are “so well behaved”. Districts love it- “it’s free”. The article doesn’t ever mention the effects on kids or the opinions of their parents. The only contrast to all the glowing reviews is one reference to an organization called “The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood”. I immediately sign up.

A few weeks later I am e-mailed a notice of a summit hosted by the campaign. It is titled “The Sexualization of Childhood and Other Commercial Calamities”. Every single part of the agenda resonates with me. It is in the spring and in Boston. It is too far and too expensive of a trip but I can’t get it off my mind. My husband suggests that we both go and that we drive. My 22-year-old brother hears of the idea and offers to watch the girls. My very elderly grandparents agree to loan their vehicle for the trip. A friend of a friend in Boston offers us a place to stay. Things come together and we sign-up.

Crocuses push through the ground the week we are to leave. The first real promise that spring is on its way. The drive is indeed long but painless. A warm sun melts snow along our entire route. Trace elements of green can be seen among the many shades of brown in the fields and roadways.

On the opening day of the summit and the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, we hear Director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s, moving account of working with the man and the Civil Rights movement. He likens the current assembly to those that took place in the fifties and sixties and highlights that such gatherings are fundamental to the future of human rights and to the continued generation of change. Child psychologist pioneer and child advocate Dr. Susan Linn, also of Harvard Medical School, tells the audience that she too is reminded of not only the Civil Rights movement but of the individuals who came before the movement- the activists of the 1920’s and 1930’s- the people who didn’t come close to seeing any of the major changes on their behalf but who knew that change was needed.

Something stirs deep within me. The cold paralysis of my seasonal anguish is shifting a bit. Like those flower bulbs planted deep within the ground must at some point detect- light is out there. Start moving towards it.

The day goes on to hold plenary sessions by education professor Dr. Diane Levin, author of the forthcoming book So Sexy, So Soon, and investigative journalist and broadcaster Susan Gregory Thomas, the writer behind the fabulously titled Buy, Buy Baby. Dr. Levin chronicles the history of children’s marketing in the United States, a legacy that we owe primarily to the Reagan administration and the deregulation of children’s television in the 1980’s. This dislodged the avalanche that has been pummeling us ever sense- burying us from birth in the ceaseless barrage of promotion and product that piles up (both literally and figuratively) threatening the ecological survival of our planet and invading the most sacred dimensions of our humanity.

Dr. Levin further illustrates the effects of unregulated children’s marketing with gripping examples of gender divisions generated by children’s television and toys (Bratz dolls vs. WWF), the increasing evidence of age compression (Tickle Me Elmo Barbie anyone?) and the vital importance of distinguishing sexualization from sexuality. As a mother of daughters and an early childhood educator I want to stand up and cheer. Ms. Thomas is illuminating as well, with a reading from her book about the history and savvy of both branding and marketing Barbie in the fickle and competitive children’s retail marketplace.

Sara Grimes of Simon Fraser University provides a crash course in the virtual branding of children’s play through internet games and social networks. The evolution goes something like this: children’s television shows provide characters and “scripts” for children’s play that lead them to the purchase of licensed play toys that then have an internet or media based play component. Commercialization convinces children that product play is superior to their own imaginative play. Online sites consist of very thinly veiled advertising that promotes the purchase of additional products or, as Ms. Grimes refers to them, “advergames”. These games often revolve around the virtual purchase of more products perpetuating an endless cycle of consumption.

Dr. Michael Brody, chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry presents on the effects of playing with sex and death in video games. It is both disturbing and fascinating to hear him speak of video games as immersion mediums that visually, physically, and emotionally promote atmospheres of violence and constant fear. Dr. Brody shares that “habits of the mind become structures of the brain”- an observation I have made time and again in classrooms. The behavior and personalities of children as young as two or three-years-old show the very real impact of large daily doses of electronic media stimulation. Dr Brody goes on to demonstrate the “normalization” of violence perpetuated by video games as well as examples as to the objectification of (and violence towards) women, compulsive behavior, and the lack of empathy or altruism that result from extended video game exposure and play. There is a reason video games are used to train U.S. troops prior to going into battle. Players are not conditioned to think or to problem-solve, only to follow a predetermined story without distraction or hesitation.

Workshop sessions throughout the day highlight equally potent and timely topics that serve as top-notch primers for pretty much any angle on the commercialization of children. I struggle with making the choice of which to attend.

The day wraps up with Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, speaking on hyper-consumerism and our increasing ecological crisis. It is vital to take in the global effects of consumer and disposable societies and Dr. Schor’s illustrations and data are especially compelling. Dr. Poussaint closes with a brief talk on toxic marketing to African Americans; an incredibly destructive dimension of consumer targeting based strongly in the exploitation of under privilege and the perpetuation of the message that being black comes with inherent deficits that can be filled through the purchase of certain products and images.

These are far from uplifting topics so why am I feeling so much better? After the decompression provided by a long walk and dinner in a nice Irish Boston pub (not to mention a few sips of my husband’s Guinness) I begin to put a finger on it. All of these things I have perceived and chronicled as an educator and a mother. As a wife, daughter and granddaughter. They have names. People are writing about them and researching them. People from all across the country are speaking a language that I have intuited but struggled to articulate. I go to sleep with my head spinning- both exhausted and energized.

On the second day of the conference I have a first time crash course in hard-core pornography- and this was right after breakfast. Presenter Dr. Gail Dines did the difficult yet critical job of demonstrating the crisis that is upon us. This is a tragedy written by the highly addictive nature of the medium, the push for ever more shocking conquests and the very real evidence that this need is generating a serious increase in child pornography.

Porn is everywhere and the internet has created the perfect home for the anonymity and accessibility that feed its proliferation. Dr. Dines shares that the average age that a male sees his first pornographic image is eleven-and-a-half. That is the average mind you, meaning our boys are being exposed to representations of females and sexuality that their development cannot even begin to comprehend. Soft porn is the norm on television programming and even advertising. Most disturbing is the fact that after developing a porn habit, many men find themselves unaffected by the glut of images of women doing anything and everything and have moved on to seeking out “teen” and ultimately child pornography- the last real taboo.

The pornography industry is a shrewd, profit driven organization- always motivated by the bottom line. This means that they are willing to push the envelope as far as they possibly can to continue to find a customer base. Increasingly this means the exploitation of incredibly young looking “teens” in child-like settings, clothing, behavior and language. Proliferation of the kind of thinking and behavior that this perpetuates is unconscionable; yet, it is becoming more and more the norm. I am grateful for the call to arms provided by Dr. Dines, Wheelock College professor, author and activist. In her speed-fire twenty-five minute presentation I saw more than enough evidence to believe that the sanctity of childhood is indeed in serious peril.

Author Joe Kelly, President and Co-Founder of the nonprofit organization Dads & Daughters, follows with a timely presentation of the impact of pseudo-sexualization on boys. This is a dimension that comes up often when I speak with other mothers about the sexualization of children. Parents of boys often shrug their shoulders with a version of the “thank god I’ve got boys” statement but Mr. Kelly points out that boys and men are actually the less visible (but no less affected) victims of a hyper-sexualized culture. Pseudo-sexuality is a false, oversimplified and constructed portrayal of sexuality that leaves out all of the complexity and beauty of human relationships. The constant inoculation of pseudo-sexuality furthers spiritual illiteracy and emotional illiteracy, which unchecked, leads to emotional death in boys and men. This is a shadow dimension to the crises presenting themselves to parents and caregivers and leaves many young boys floundering, hurting and disabled as they struggle on their journey to be healthy men, partners and fathers.

I am six months pregnant and with another conference attendee joke as to whether I dare let the baby come out. I admit to her that there are times that I wish I could return all of my children to the safety and holiness of the womb. She smiles knowingly but reassures me by briefly sharing how impressed she is by her twenty-something son- by the lack of materialism in his life and the healthful pursuits that he is engaged in. I am reminded of my brother and know that as parents there is a way to cut through all of this but I also recognize that the volume of competing messages is getting stronger everyday. Confronting and challenging the commercialization and sexualization of our children takes constant vigilance, conversation and presence.

Two more plenary sessions are included in the morning, the first focused on The Failure of Self-Regulation from Big Alcohol to Big Food by public health lawyer Michele Simon from the Marin Institute and the second, Transforming the U.S. Media: Commercial Free at Last presented by Berkeley psychologist, Dr. Allen Kanner. Both presentations are tangible, substantive and helpful. To create a healthier landscape for our children we have to know what works and what doesn’t. Ms. Simon’s experiences in the world of food and alcohol leave her with plenty of ammo to destroy the myth of “self-regulation” that she defines as voluntary, vague, unenforceable, undemocratic, and biased often providing a big distraction from authentic policymaking and debate. Dr. Kanner introduces and then breaks down the fantasy of the advertising and marketing “meta-image” of the whole world coming together around corporate products. Meta-marketing narrows any sense of the future by it’s main message that we can buy our way to happiness. The goal of a materialistic monoculture lacks any of the richness or value of everyday life. Dr. Kanner offers Sao Paulo, Brazil as a beacon of hope. Sao Paulo is a commercial free city that has placed public well-being over private profit, aesthetics over ugliness, and cleanliness over trash. It is indeed an inspiring example.

After another fascinating workshop breakout we return for the final plenary sessions of the day. Dr. Tim Kasser of Knox College makes the hypothesis that the well-being of children is lower in nations with more marketing to children. Using UNICEF’s 2007 report on the well-being of children, he shows that among wealthy nations, those with more marketing indeed have higher instances of child ill-being. Amplified marketing correlated with increased marijuana use, increased teenage pregnancy, obesity, and the finding that fewer peers were ‘kind and helpful’. Dr. Kasser goes on to illustrate that marketing values reduce the likelihood of lasting relationships as there is a trend to view others as objects. Dr. Kasser’s research substantiates the observations of so many child researchers, families and educators that a child’s development is indeed intertwined with their environment.

Julie Gale, of Kids Free 2 B Kids, joined us all the way from Australia to provide some much needed comic relief, inspiration, and a reminder of what the determination of one person can do. Ms. Gale was a riot as she spoke of the “corporate sleaze and community complacency” that she has encountered in her neighborhood and beyond. So much of what it takes to counter these influences is just a dose of common sense coupled with perseverance and the willingness to ask questions and to speak out. Ms. Gale is an inspiration on all of these fronts.

Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University professor, long-time child advocate, and author of the just-released Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World, spoke on consumer culture and the obstacles that parents face. I find Dr. Carlsson-Paige’s solutions to be simple and to the point. Some examples include: no ads for kids under eight-years-old as they are not developmentally ready to understand and distinguish persuasive content and the prohibiting of toys and products directly tied to television, especially toys and action figures connected to PG13 movie ratings. These initiatives are rooted in solid child development research and would provide monumental progress towards the goal of reclaiming childhood.

Our final two speakers are Enola Aird; scholar, lawyer, activist mother and director of the Motherhood Project and Josh Golin; Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Ms. Aird reminds us that those who tell the stories determine the culture. Who is telling our children their stories? In the United States, the current narratives are undoubtedly dominated by marketing and advertising and consumption. Ms. Aird reminds us of the spiritual dimensions of the marketing crisis, the loss of the sacred, the rituals, and the rites of passage that guided humanity for so much of our history. The recognition of these dimensions in my own life, the lives of my children and the lives of so many of the classrooms and homes that I have spent time in, has been my primary motivation for making the trip to the summit. All the statistics and research aside, the preservation of the sacredness of childhood is what it is truly about and as Ms. Aird reminds us, “marketing to children has no place in a society that holds up it’s children”.

Mr. Golin brings it on home with an address that is equal parts passion, celebration and motivation. He highlights a number of significant successes made by CCFC members and the CCFC organization. These include the taking on of my latest local nemesis, Bus Radio, as well as efforts involving schools, hospitals, fast food chains, and more. I feel pride and joy in this newly found network of activism and scholarship and am reminded again of the summit introductions, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the timeless power of people coming together for change.

On our return trip, trees are budding and new colors dot the fields and yards that we pass. The landscape is transformed and so am I. I leave Boston better educated, inspired, emboldened, and most importantly, not alone. I have connected with what I have been longing for. When we exit the car for a stretch, the ground is soft and springy under my feet. I feel a similar thawing. A few hours later my youngest calls to tell me that the tulips in Michigan are coming up. Summer is right around the corner.

Mindy Holohan is a writer, parent and is hoping to start a local chapter of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. mgholohan@gmail.com

Racial Disparities in Infant Mortality Growing in Michigan

Racial disparities in infant mortality are growing in Michigan according to a new study by the Michigan League for Human Services:

Right Start in Michigan – 2008: Targeting Disparity in Infant Mortality found that while infant mortality rates dropped from 8.1 to 7.6 deaths per 1,000 births between the periods of 1998-2000 and 2004-2006, racial disparity persisted. Statewide, African-American infants are three times more likely to die before their first birthday…

The Right Start report examines 10 counties where more than 90 percent of the state’s African-American babies are born. Wayne County is separated into Detroit and out-Wayne.

In 2004-2006, Ingham County had the highest infant mortality rate for African-American infants at 20.1 deaths per 1,000 births compared with a white rate of 4.3. Detroit’s rate was 16.9 for black infants and 4.7 for white babies.

The gap between white and black infant mortality rates grew in Detroit and in Macomb, Washtenaw, Genesee, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Kent and Saginaw counties. It dropped in Oakland and Berrien counties and in out-Wayne County.”

A 2007 study of racial disparities in infant mortality speculated that low birth weight among African-American babies–one of the leading causes of infant mortality–is due to racial discrimination at both the individual and institutional levels.

IGE Talks: SpankOut Day

Here is the latest “IGE Talks,” a monthly cable access show hosted by the Institute for Global Education (IGE) and aired on Grand Rapids’ public access television. As part of our ongoing efforts to support independent and do-it-yourself media here in West Michigan, we will be posting these shows each month. In this episode, “IGE Talks” discusses “SpankOut Day” and raising children compassionately:

The topic for the next show is “globalization and fair trade.” It will be taped on June 5 at 7:00pm at the IGE office. IGE is located at 1118 Wealthy Street SE. The public is welcome to participate in the discussion.