Friday, March 28, 2008

Growing Up Online

Last week, we watched a Frontline special on the Iraq War, and I got the notion to go looking through Frontline's many fine episodes, and found one on kids and the Internet -- not just the dire warnings, but talking to kids about what it means to them and so on.

I have a very sociable teenage daughter, and technology has definitely made things different from when I was young. Not only does the phone ring all afternoon, beginning from when school lets out, kids will also call at ungodly hours of the night. The reason for that is that they are on cellphones, parents are asleep, and they don't stop to think that the number that they are calling is not a cellphone kept on vibrate, but the main phone in the kitchen that will disturb the whole family. I've seen Tory talk with the house phone on one ear, and her dad's cell (which she shares) on the other.

And all of this isn't enough; Tory's also got MySpace -- the 21st century teenage hangout. Now, she's never done anything as extreme as the kids described on the program. For that matter, neither have the vast majority of kids online. And, I'm probably a bit more web-savvy than most parents -- that, and my daughter doesn't have her own computer, and tends to be rather careless about signing out. I usually am unhappy at what I find when I do have the opportunity to peek. (She objects strenuously to this parental intrusion, of course.) The way kids talk to each other is *disgusting*, at least to my middle-aged eyes. It's not the lurking pedophile, either -- it's just local kids, who she also knows in real life. As for control, she got herself banned from my computer, but still has access to her brother's laptop -- a tool he needs for college.

But the Frontline program made some good points:

*The Internet has brought about the biggest generation gap since the invention of rock-and-roll. I personally think it's technology, in general, and includes things like cell phones, texting, IMs, etc. Kids that age always have wanted to create an identity seperate from that of their parents -- but technology makes it so much easier now. They not only create their own identity, but their own world. There's some truth to this, but it's possible to make too much of it. Changing times always create kind of a gap. I grew up with television; my parents didn't. I had the opportunity to go to college; my parents didn't. My generation of young women grew up with the Pill and legal abortion; my parents didn't. I don't know if the Internet represents a more startling change than those things.

*The only major study done on the subject indicates that most kids know to just delete any sexual solicitation, so the fear about predetors may be overblown. The only time a guy suggested Tory meet him in real life got put down quick. Tory called him a pedophile and told him to get lost. In reality, he sounded more like some young guy trying to pick up on a girl he thought was closer to his own age -- but her reaction was reassuring. The many known-in-real-life guys who talk to her on MySpace, I'm less reassured about. I consider them much more worrisome than the dirty old man trolling for kids.

*Kids make plans to party and do other things they aren't supposed to online. Duh! Teenage cyberspace is teenagers without adult supervision, which spells teenage stupidity every time. Not to be unfair, but even good kids are dumb -- young necessarily means lacking in experience and wisdom. If we're honest about our own youth, we can certainly see some stupidity there, particularly when we figured our parents weren't looking.

*The Frontline special talked about cyber-bullying, which has, in some well-publicized cases, led to teenage suicide. From what I can tell, that hasn't been a problem with my daughter's friends. There doesn't even appear to be much in the way of the catty squabbling that I remember from my high school days. I see an awful lot of vulgarity, but I don't see meanness. Maybe that's just the crowd my kid hangs with. My experience with online meanness is with adults. I can see how an emotionally vulnerable teenager could get into trouble out here, though.

Anyway, it was an interesting look at the teenage cyberworld. Click on the title of this blog entry; you can watch the entire thing on the web.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Humor Break

I wasn't always a Baha'i, you know. When I was a kid, I went to church -- and around the year 1972 the movie "Thief in the Night" was all the rage. I was twelve, not eight as the song says -- but I always remembered the lyric:

Two men walking up a hill
One disappears, and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready
There's no time to change your mind
The Son has come
And you've been left behind

Randy Bonifield remembers it, too, and pokes gentle fun in this song:

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Correcting "Baha'i Views"

Here's something that I wrote some time ago, but was holding on to until after the Fast -- I generally make an effort to stay out of controversy during that period:

Ever since Moojan Momen's paper "Marginality and Apostasy" came out, George Wesley Dannells of Baha'i Views has become inordinately fond of the term "apostate", and has posted several times about how terrible we all are. But you know who else is fond of that term? The Iranian government, who applies it to all Baha'is. Google "Baha'i apostates" sometime and see what comes up. Yes, the term can be used in a social science context; it is also a vicious epithet on the lips of the orthodox. Baha'i Views is not a social science journal and George is not studying us. He is using "apostate" in the exact same sense that an Iranian mulla would -- as a way to condemn and to warn others about the people in question.

In any case, some of the things he says seem to indicate a profound ignorance of who we are, and what we're saying. So, at the risk of putting myself in the middle of the maelstrom, I think some corrections are in order:

Claim: The "apostates" don't teach the Faith.

False. Alison Marshall has a teaching website. Baha'is Online and Baha'i Rants have a variety of positive stories about the Baha'i community, as well as critical ones.

Claim: "Have you noticed they never post about children?"

False. I have a lot of posts here about education -- I am. after all, a teacher. This critique seems particularly bizarre to me, because the lack of resources for my kids is one issue that greatly frustrated me when I was enrolled. No use talking about "core activities" now -- childhood passes swiftly; they can't wait years for the local community to get its act together. Our children's classes here were active when my kids were infants, then largely dropped out of sight. It's true my kids aren't Baha'is, but most of the kids that attended those long-ago classes are estranged from the community now. So, it's not like the Baha'i community has done such a stellar job at retaining these children after they grow up. The old saying about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones come to mind.

Claim:"Death to Baha'is" is being scratched on doorways even today in Iran. And yet the Internet Anti-Baha'i Society is not moved, and is focused instead on its own apostate narratives and mythology."

False. Both Baha'i Rants and Baha'is Online, the two main websites that George complains about, are replete with stories about what the Iranian Baha'is are suffering -- almost every news story that comes out finds its way to one or the other. Several on the list of Moojan's "apostates" have made public statements about the Iranian government's shameful violation of human rights and religious freedom that Baha'is must endure in that country.

There is also another jab, that while not exactly false is exceedingly silly: George put both "Baha'i" and "unenrolled Baha'i" into a search, and found that the latter had an infinitesmal percentage of the "Baha'i" total. I'm not sure what this is supposed to prove, but search engines look for words, and even on unenrolled sites, the word "Baha'i" is likely to be used far more often than the specific term "unenrolled Baha'i" -- so a comparison like that tells you nothing. Not only do I use the word "Baha'i" much more often, I also use the abbreviation "UB" which wouldn't be picked up on a search. In any case, not all religionists are as obsessed with numbers as the administrative Faith is. For example, nobody knows how many Sufis there are in the U.S., because they simply don't keep those kinds of statistics; trotting out numbers to prove their progress just isn't important to them. I don't see why it ought to be important to unenrolled Baha'is, either -- I wouldn't even try to hazard a guess at the numbers.

Besides, the whole premise of this kind of numbers game is wrong: I don't view unenrolled Baha'is as being in competition with the Baha'i Faith organization. Why should we be? We're all believers in Baha'u'llah, after all. But not everyone's a joiner -- as the growing number of unaffiliated religionists in this country indicates. It would be nice if Baha'is took the approach that Christian churches do towards unchurched Christians -- they ask themselves how they can attract such people into community activity, instead of sneering about how "insignificant" they are.

There are other things I could get into -- it seems that George feels the need to mention the apostates/marginals/opposition about twice a week. But one thing I will agree with him on: The Internet is changing; people have backed away from the turmoil of debate that seems almost inevitable on forums. It's one reason I started blogging, and I'm sure that's true for others as well. I'm sure that's all to the good -- may we all generate more light than heat!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Common Tables: Breaking Bread and Boundaries

Here's a project that I think would warm the cockles of any Baha'i heart:

CASTLE ROCK, COLO. -- The four couples were just settling into small talk over appetizers when Kenneth Holloman cleared his throat.

"Would the group permit me to ask an impertinent question?" he said. "How many here believe there's a hell?"

It was not your typical icebreaker.

But then, this was not your typical dinner party.

The couples, strangers to one another, had been brought together by Common Tables, a nonprofit that aims to nurture interfaith friendships. Holloman is an atheist; his wife, a Methodist. Their group included a Jewish couple; a Baptist minister and his wife; and a couple who left the Mormon Church and now belong to a New Age movement called Religious Science.

Common Tables puts together group rosters and asks members to meet for dinner at least four times. Participants can talk about theology or the weather. They can share prayers or photos of their children. Nothing's required. And nothing is off-limits, except proselytizing. The point is simply to reach out, to shake hands with a Buddhist, enjoy a glass of wine with a Wiccan, share laughs with a Sikh or an agnostic or a Jain.

"We're not trying to solve academic or theological problems," said Randy Harris, who co-founded Common Tables last spring in Denver's suburbs.

"We just want to help people realize they can honor and respect each other. They can get along."

Traditionally, interfaith work has been left mostly to religious leaders, who gathered a few times a year for a unity breakfast or panel discussion. Where grass-roots groups existed, they often focused on drawing together diverse congregations for service projects, such as cleaning up a neighborhood park.

Since Sept. 11, however, veteran interfaith activists have noticed a hunger among Americans for more personal, one-on-one connections across religious lines. For many, it began with a desire to meet Muslims, to work past the fear and anger raised by the terrorist attacks. Since then, the movement has broadened. In some cities, parents are even organizing interfaith Sunday schools to teach their children Bahai, Zoroastrian or Greek Orthodox values.

"People know they have to develop the capacity to get out of their comfort zone," said Jill Carroll, executive director of Rice University's Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance.

Harris and his co-founders believe in the concept so passionately, they all quit their jobs to devote themselves to Common Tables. They hope to build a national movement; for now, they're working on calling every house of worship in the greater Denver phone book. So far, they've signed up more than 300 participants and set 20 groups in motion.

There's more to the article, but the Blogger software keeps telling me that the URL is illegal. However, it's a recent story, still being featured on the LA Times Religion page. You can find the organization at, which Blogger won't put through, either.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Kyrgyzstan's Religious Laws

The Presidential Administration has rejected for now a harsh new Decree which would have brought in sweeping controls on religious activity. But Kanat Murzakhalilov, Deputy Head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 News Service that his agency hopes to present a final draft of a controversial new Religion Law to the government by the end of March. He refused to say if the draft will require 200 adult citizen members before a community can gain legal status, a provision in the latest publicly-available draft which is opposed by the Russian Orthodox, the Catholics, many Protestant Churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'is. But he stated that registration will continue to be compulsory. Boris Shumkov of the Council of Churches Baptists told Forum 18 that such harsh provisions "would lead to repression and persecution of our congregations". They have named 5 March a day of prayer and fasting. "Our country has so many urgent problems – poverty, the lack of medicine, Aids, crime, corruption," one Baha'i told Forum 18. "Why don't officials work on these instead of making life harder for religious believers?"

Well, it's good that the harshest version of this law isn't going to be passed, but I have to agree with the Baha'i quoted there that this government -- any government -- would be better occupied elsewhere. And good on him/her for standing up.

Here's the defense for the law: But Fr Dronov insisted that a new Law is necessary. "The current Law is too liberal and should be amended. Registration should be better regulated. And the problem at present is that faiths new to Kyrgyzstan have the same rights as faiths that have been here for a long time. New groups should have fewer rights as they are not part of the established culture here. Some new sects are harmful and should be restricted."

Among those Fr Dronov singled out as needing tighter control were Pentecostal Christians, which he alleged "harm members' psychological health". However, he admitted that no medically-documented proof of such harm was yet available.

It makes me think that the Pentacostals have had rather more success in Kyrgyzstan than Fr Dronov is comfortable with.

Click on this blog entry's title to get the whole article -- and there are further links at the bottom of the article for anybody who wants to read up on the situation.