The World Today for October 07, 2016


The New Solidarity

Poland’s fight for freedom may have started with a labor movement. But like many other countries of the former Soviet bloc, it has become steadily more conservative since the Solidarity movement ushered in democracy in 1989.

Until now, perhaps.

Following a wave of protests this week by women across the staunchly Catholic country – and in others around the world – Poland’s right-wing ruling government on Wednesday abandoned an attempt to institute a complete ban on abortions that would have imposed lengthy prison terms on any woman who violated it.

While not quite as dramatic as Solidarity’s victory over communism, the massive demonstrations recalled the fervor of those times, as some 100,000 Poles, most of them women, donned black mourning clothes to protest against the proposed law.

Many also held a strike, not showing up to work or to high school or university classes, though the feminist movement in Poland has historically been very weak, the Associated Press reported. The thinking behind that was, ‘we won’t let you take control over our bodies, at home, at the doctors, in the classroom or the workplace. So see how you do without us.’

“Nothing like this has every happened in Poland,” said Agnieszka Graff, a prominent Polish feminist commentator and professor at Warsaw University. “This is what we – the feminist movement – have been dreaming of for 20 years.”

Two decades ago, it was frowned upon for women to live alone, or smoke publicly. Anyone over 25 and unmarried was called Stare Pani (old maid). Advertisements for secretaries (always female) specified hair color, age range and weight. And feminism was a dirty word: Most women were expected to dress feminine, get married, have children and know their place.

That’s partly why what happened this week was so remarkable. But even more so is that the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s decision to step away from the brink on Wednesday – when legislators voted down the same measure they’d passed two weeks earlier – represents one of its “biggest policy climb-downs since winning power 11 months ago,” wrote Bloomberg.

The question is now whether the misstep will result in a further backlash against conservative social policies in a country where Pope John Paul II (a native son) retains the aura of a rock star, even as Pope Francis seeks to radically reform the church’s views on taboo subjects like divorce and homosexuality.

Staunchly Catholic even in the days when the Soviets prescribed a bleak atheism – also because the church was the dissenter-in-chief against socialism – Poland has over the past 25 years moved from post-communist economic reforms to center-right policy and now ultra-conservative orthodoxy.

With the victory of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PiS party last October, the slide seemed unstoppable. For the first time since 1989, no left-wing party gained a seat in the parliament, the BBC noted, while ultra-conservative and center-right parties accounted for a whopping 62 percent of the votes cast.

Close to the Roman Catholic Church, PiS had promised a ban on abortions and in-vitro fertilization, along with a cocktail of saber rattling and anti-Russia conspiracy theories surrounding the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk that killed then-President Lech Kaczynski (the PiS chairman’s brother) and 95 others, many of them the governing elite.

Almost immediately after its 2015 landslide, PiS packed the Constitutional Court, politicized the appointment of prosecutors, and brought public broadcasting under direct government control – prompting the European Union to look into whether it had broken the EU’s democracy rules.

But its similarly imperious handling of tens of thousands of women demanding the barest modicum of control over their own bodies – abortions are already banned in Poland except where the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life or the child has been proven to be the result of rape or incest – may well have revealed the ultra-conservative party’s Achilles heel.

After all, the kneejerk response of Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski was to tell a local TV channel that the protests were “marginal in scale” and that protesters “yelled half-witted slogans” rather than intelligent debate.

No doubt the party apparatchiks had similar complaints against Solidarity’s Lech Walesa in the 1980s. Look at where that got them.


Revisionism and Statues

Mahatma Gandhi is revered by many as a patriarch of non-violent protest and social transformation – but to others, he’s a venomous racist.

At least that’s what petitioners at the University of Ghana in Accra believed. They accrued enough signatures to have a statue of the standard-bearer of the Indian independence movement removed from the university’s campus.

Because Gandhi’s teachings are primarily known to have kick-started independence movements in South Africa and elsewhere, his darker beliefs are often glossed over – petitioners cited earlier writings in which he alluded to black South Africans as “kaffirs” (an offensive racial slur), while claiming that the Indian people were “infinitely superior” to African “half-heathen natives.”

Although experts have defended Gandhi’s work in combating caste prejudice, others in his home country have criticized the father of their independence movement of having bolstered the notorious caste system – he remains a controversial figure.

No More Forgiveness

Pakistani lawmakers passed a bill Thursday to tackle the growing number of “honor” killings in Pakistan by introducing tougher penalties and closing a loophole that let many killers off the hook.

It’s the government’s first significant step toward reining in the practice, wrote USA Today.

More than 1,000 women were killed in honor killings last year in Pakistan by family members who believe the victims disgraced the family.

Many of those who commit these killings go unpunished thanks to a statute in Pakistan’s legal code that allows families of victims to forgive the killer.

But the new measures impose mandatory life prison sentences and ban family members from forgiving honor killers.

Public outrage over honor killings has grown in Pakistan in recent years. Social media has removed the veil of silence that once surrounded the killings, and a series of high-profile murders – including the death of internet celebrity Qandeel Baluch at the hands of her brother – drew new attention to the practice.

Crossing the Border

The Israeli government rebuffed the latest round of condemnation coming from the US toward its settlement plans for the West Bank Thursday – another sign of the increasingly strained relations between Israel and its most important ally, said observers.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the 98 housing units approved for construction – which the US State Department warned were “deep in the West Bank” and closer to Jordan than Israel – did not constitute a “new settlement.”

And Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said Washington should focus its criticisms on Syria rather than on Israel’s plans to build homes.

The Obama administration has been increasingly outspoken against Israel’s settlement expansion since last year when Secretary of State John Kerry said expansion was undermining both Israeli democracy and the possibility of a two-state solution.

Since then, the State Department has strongly responded to nearly every announcement from Israel on new housing in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, calling constructions on the other side of Israel’s borders “provocative and counterproductive.”


Maxing Out

In the 5th century, Greek historian Herodotus was one of many to rave about the fountain of youth.

But according to a new study published in the journal Nature, finally finding it won’t do any good anyway.

That’s because the authors of the study claim that human life spans might max out at about 115 years.

In a study, scientists based in New York combed through data from the Human Mortality Database, analyzing the deaths of super-centenarians, or those individuals who had lived to be over 110 years old.

They found that the very, very old seem to have reached a barrier to their life expectancy – regardless of medical progress, the maximum age of death hasn’t increased in the last two decades.

“It’s almost impossible you’ll get beyond it,” said Prof. Jan Vijg, one of the study’s researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to the BBC. “You need 10,000 worlds like ours to end up with one individual in a given year who will live until 125.”

Still, other demographic specialists remain unconvinced: Those analyzed in the study had been exposed to 19th-century diseases like small pox, first declared officially eradicated in the 80’s.

More modern afflictions like obesity, or even evolutionary predisposition, may also contribute to life’s glass ceiling, they say.

“To get maximum life spans of 120, 125 or 130 maybe, we need to do something very fundamental here,” Prof. Vijg added.

In the meantime, forget the fountain of youth. Instead, watch this great tutorial about how to age gracefully, and enjoy.

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