Saving scrap metal. Buying war bonds. Gathering around the radio for a fireside chat after a simple but nutritious Mom-cooked meal made from rationed ingredients. It can’t really have been much fun to work in a munitions plant while worried to a frazzle about your son or sweetheart overseas, but the domestic front of World War II has entered our collective memory as a safe and happy place full of solidarity, adventure, a sense of purpose and an egalitarian spirit. If you think about it, many of our favorite American stories have that poor-but-happy feel: Walden, Little Women, the Little House books, the Waltons, even Huckleberry Finn.
Real life is something else again. World War II was just about the last time Americans accepted the challenge of sacrifice in pursuit of common goals. As many have noted, Jimmy Carter was mocked and scorned as a cardigan-wearing wimp when he gave a fireside chat of his own in 1977, declaring the energy crisis "the moral equivalent of war" and calling for a massive panoply of conservation measures. No wonder George W. Bush urged us to go shopping after 9/11 and in the wake of the BP oil disaster, President Obama has suggested vacationing in the gulf region. Pundits love to summon us to tighten our belts—practically every week Tom Friedman calls for raising the federal gas tax—but they don’t have to get elected.
I would gladly pay higher taxes to prevent layoffs of teachers, cops and firemen; to improve our schools and universities; keep libraries open; expand public transportation; and put unemployed people to work repairing our tattered infrastructure, building public housing, maintaining our parks, staffing childcare centers. And what about that green technology Obama used to talk about—wind power, solar power, high-speed trains? There is no shortage of important work that needs to be done, and the costs of not doing it are very high. Unfortunately, the same leaders who fear asking us to sacrifice by paying higher taxes have no qualms about spending the money we already give them—and borrowing more—to pay for wars, war toys and prisons, while organizing the tax structure around the greed of corporations and the richest sliver of the population. The lavishing of treasure to pay for our militarized, increasingly unequal society is the sacrifice most of us are already making. Is it any wonder that people respond to calls for sacrifice with defensiveness and cynicism?
Adding to the difficulty of selling the public on sacrifice is that the salesman is usually a very rich and successful person who will barely feel the pinch of the policies he proposes. "Americans have become masters of ‘sacrifice avoidance,’ " intones Eliot Spitzer in his Slate column. This immensely wealthy man, who spent more than $100,000 on prostitutes and thereby cost New York its best shot in a generation at a functioning state government, tells me to read the Gettysburg Address and be inspired to "a greater sense of national purpose"?
Multimillionaires who argue for raising taxes should start by proposing taxes on themselves that would actually lower their standard of living. Until then, they’re not really sharing the sacrifice they want to impose on the rest of us.
* * *
Great News! Remember Nazia Quazi, the young Canadian who was held in Saudi Arabia against her will by her father for almost three years and whose struggle to return to Canada I wrote about here in February? She’s finally free. With her parents’ permission, she married her longtime boyfriend, Bjorn Singhal, in Dubai on May 17, and is once again a free Canadian adult woman. Mazel tov to the happy couple—may they have much joy.
It’s fortunate that Nazia was able to solve her problem herself, because as far as anyone knows, the Canadian government did little to help her beyond asking the Saudi Human Rights Commission, a government agency, for a meeting. (The Canadian Foreign Affairs Department refused to comment for this column, invoking the Privacy Act.) This, despite significant press coverage and the best efforts of Human Rights Watch, Muslims for Progressive Values and numerous individuals—to protest Nazia’s treatment, three Canadian Gulf War veterans returned medals bestowed on them by the Saudi government.
Nazia’s troubles are over, but the Saudi laws that trapped her are still firmly in place, under which all women, no matter their age, are legal minors under the guardianship of a male relative, whose permission is required for just about every aspect of normal life. That Nazia is not a Saudi—and neither is her father, an Indian—should have made a difference, but it did not.
Sadly, Nazia is not the only Canadian woman to have been trapped in Saudi Arabia. Twenty-six-year-old Nathalie Morin and her three young children have been held prisoner by the father of her children, Saeed al-Sharahni, for more than five years; although a new law permits foreign wives to leave the country without their husbands’ permission, it is not retroactive and does not apply to their children. According to her mother, who has tirelessly campaigned for her daughter’s return, Sharahni has imprisoned Morin in a locked room, prevents her from communicating with the outside world and frequently beats her. Her mother also claims Nathalie and Saeed were never actually married. Amnesty International has taken up Morin’s case, and recently all three opposition parties in Canada have called on Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to take action. It is really hard to believe that nothing can be done, and yet, amazingly, nothing happens. Find out more at nathaliemorin.org/english.
Of course, Saudi women are the primary victims of the guardianship system and Saudi family law. I’ll have more about their stories in a future column.