Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slow Change

This post is not about something new, strange or unusual happening to me in Azerbaijan. It is an article I wrote for our Azerbaijan Peace Corps newspaper, which we use to help each other out with different ideas and suggestions or just to make each other laugh. We are scattered all over the country and never get together as a full group, so the articles allow one person to communicate with everyone.

I wrote it to address the fact that some of us come here thinking we will make a drastic change while we are here. The Peace Corps training helps us understand that this is not usual or even desired. When we are sent to our assignments, we usually think that the biggest projects we will work on will be with our assigned organizations. Many times we find out that the things we are most interested in and proud of are activities that we do outside of our organizations.

But still, the slow pace of change weighs more heavily on the younger people. It is easier for the older volunteers to look back at history during their lifetimes and find that things do change drastically, but usually not over two years, the time that we are in our assignments. So this is what I wrote:

In the TV series “Mad Men”, a drama about a 1960’s-era advertising agency, a picnic scene stands out. The upscale family, a mom, dad and two children are beautifully dressed and having a meal in a lovely park, sitting on the ground. A fabric tablecloth is covered with tempting dishes, colorful paper plates, napkins and plastic flatware.

At the end of the picnic, the husband hurls his beer can into a grove of trees and the mom picks up two ends of the tablecloth, shakes off the remaining food and all the trash onto the ground, folds up the cloth and they drive off.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we are here to help Azerbaijanis make the changes they want to see in their country. Sometimes it can be discouraging when we and the Azerbaijanis we work with constantly run up against roadblocks to change. People say that the way things are now is just fine or that the idea is untried and probably won’t work. The family on Mad Men had no understanding of why their trashing the park was a bad idea, but a decade later, their behavior would have been unacceptable.

As an older volunteer, I think it may be easier for me to have faith that things will change. I was a teenager in the 1960’s and still remember the vociferous opposition to safety equipment such as seatbelts (“who does the government think they are telling me I have to have expensive, useless equipment in my car?”), medians and guard rails on highly-traveled roads (“they are running up my tax bill to protect idiots who don’t know how to drive!”), child safety seats (“why does the government think they know better than me how to raise my child?”) and even the law that childrens’ pajamas must not easily combust when near a flame.

As the ‘70’s arrived, a minority of women began marching for the Equal Rights Amendment. They wanted equal pay for equal work, the ability to get credit in their own names and without their husbands co-signature and protection from discrimination at work guaranteed by the Constitution instead of being in statutes, which can be arbitrary, incomplete and subject to change. Most people did not agree with these new ideas. It was common for women to say “We are proud to be women, we don’t hate men”, “Those women make me uncomfortable”, “Why do you want to try to get a professional job in the business world when you know you’re not wanted there?” Many women who did see problems for women were afraid of angering their husbands or boyfriends if they stood up for themselves or other women.

In 1976 a bill was introduced at the behest of a feminist group that would outlaw marital rape. Most people were aghast that such a thing could be considered rape and the bill was widely ridiculed in editorials, late-night talk shows, and at workplaces and parties. It took until 1993 before marital rape was illegal in all states.

Until the mid-70’s children with special needs were frequently not allowed to enroll in public schools. Passage of the Federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 spawned the delivery of services to millions of students previously denied access to an appropriate education. There was a public outcry (“Why should I pay taxes for a kid who will never be productive and can’t learn?” “What will we do when these kids get out of school and expect to hold a job? The whole thing will fall apart then.” “I don’t want my kids in class with kids who can’t learn.”)

In the 1980’s indoor smoking bans in workplaces started to take effect, to the dismay of much of the public (“Big Brother shouldn’t try to tell me what to do in my own office” “I own the business—I should make the rules, not the bozos in Washington”). Leaf burning was outlawed in most communities, which was portrayed as an assault akin to banning apple pie (“what will they say next—carving pumpkins is too dangerous?”).

And in the 1990’s The Family Leave Act, which allowed unpaid time off for family medical emergencies (up until then, parents with terminally ill children could be fired if they took time off to take care of their child) made millions angry (“it will weaken American business” “people will be taking months off any time they can manufacture an emergency.”)

Over the years I have seen that progressive initiatives are rarely supported by the general public, but are supported by those individuals who are talented, educated and informed. When the tipping point eventually occurs and the change is made, there is a backlash that can take years or even decades to subside. My grandmother in the 1960’s still complained about the existence of Social Security (which she received and spent, but didn’t pay into) and the interstate highway system (“an expensive boondoggle—we never use those roads.” “Why build a road in the middle of nowhere?”).

Today, most of the American public supports trash pickup, safety equipment in cars, marital rape laws, special education, smoking bans and the Family Leave Act—everything except the Equal Rights Amendment, which has never passed. Some new hot-button issues are rights for gays, abolition of the death penalty and the right to health insurance—issues which have been supported in more progressive countries for years.

As we try to help Azerbaijanis make the changes they want to see in their lives, we can remember that in the past 40 years we have come a long way in America. Forty years from now, I hope that both Americans and Azerbaijanis will look back and be grateful for the changes we have seen in our countries.

Which reminds me of a question that I have that you may be able to answer. All my life I have been surrounded by Republicans and so when I want to know what the Republican position is on an issue I ask or already know. But few Republicans seem to join the Peace Corps or else they keep quiet here, so I don’t have anyone to ask.

My question is about the new health bill. It seems to me that it is all about the Republican value of personal responsibility. For example, now if people don’t have health insurance and have a medical emergency, they are treated and then the hospital most likely doesn’t get paid. This can drive a hospital out of business and raises prices for everyone else. Forcing people to be responsible for their bills by buying private insurance doesn’t seem like socialism to me.

Republicans are fine with parents being forced to pay support for their children and to buy auto insurance so others don’t have to pay their bills. What is different about health insurance?

Republicans like to have an even playing field for American businesses with foreign businesses. So why should GM and Ford have to pay for insurance for their employees when Honda and Toyota don’t?

I would like to buy private insurance when I get out of the Peace Corps, but because of my health history, no company will sell to me. So if I have an emergency, I can either not pay or empty my IRA and have no savings when I am older. With the new health bill, I can buy insurance. I am not sure why Republicans would think my paying for my own medical care is a bad idea. So email me or leave a comment on my blog to explain. Thanks.