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Iran, Albany and Understanding

Head of New York State Peace Action brings the Capital Region her experiences in Iran

‘It was about checking out my preconceptions, checking out my notions, getting information, sharing information,” said Melissa Van last Thursday of her recent trip to Iran. Van, who heads New York State Peace Action, decided to gauge the preconceptions of the 20-plus people gathered in the First Universalist Church in Albany: “I don’t know how savvy you all are on Iran,” she said. “What do you think about when you hear ‘Iran’?”

The answers started coming almost before she had finished asking the question. “I think about a very ancient civilization. . . . I think about a people who are more pro-Western than other countries in the Middle East. . . . I think about a non-Arabic-speaking group.”

Having recently returned from a two-week peace trip to Iran put together by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Van has begun touring the state talking about her experiences, organizing Iran-focused Peace Action groups and trying to correct misconceptions people may have about the country. However, in Albany, faced with a group that included at least five people who had been to Iran within the past year, her task was a little different. She didn’t have to spend too much time correcting misconceptions, and so she instead dove right into her trip.

Unlike members of the Albany peace community whose trips to Iran had involved meetings with politicians, or others whose trips were more personal, Van spent a lot of her time meeting with groups whose job it is to deal with the lasting effects of the Iran-Iraq war.

Van described a citizenry hungry for peace, still consumed by the grief of loss incurred during their last war. “People are still recovering from the effects of the Iran-Iraq war,” she said. “The idea of being in another war is not tasteful. It is horrible. Everybody I talked to lost family members in that war—brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews—the war was incredibly devastating to the country. There are 50,000 still suffering from affects of chemical weapons Iraq used in that war.”

Van visited a home for victims of chemical weapons. There, she met a 17-year-old who lost her mother and sister to a chemical-weapons attack when she was two years old. “She is 17, and she is trying to get her life together,” Van said, “and trying to take care of her father who is probably going to die in a year or two because of the effects chemical weapons had on him.”

Not every part of her visit was shrouded in sorrow. Van spoke about the rich cultural life of the Iranian people. She noted that “there wasn’t that apathetic mall culture where people pretend not to see each other.” She said Iranians are very involved with each other. They are just as taken with cell phones and chat rooms as they are with meeting before work for a pick-up soccer game or at lunchtime for a picnic in the park.

Last Friday, Van and Albany Peace Action coordinator David Easter held the first meeting of their Iran working group. Easter reported that they had a turnout of about 10 people, half of whom had been to Iran. Lana Cable and Carole Ferraro both said that despite recent talk of diplomacy with Iran they still think the prospect of a United States-Iran conflict looms. However, they and the rest of the group want to do everything they can to avert conflict by letting the people and culture of Iran represent their country instead of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The group plans to start with an Iranian film festival.

Cable said her group may be able to reach sympathetic minds in the region more easily than in other areas, but she is not so sure that will make their mission any easier. “It’s always going to be an uphill battle. I think to some extent that the fact this country has finally, fortunately begun to open its eyes to what is going on in Iraq may make people a bit more alert and open to political critique than they would have been one or two years ago,” she said. “That does not mean the battle is over or that it is easy. It may be a hopeless battle still.”

—David King

The Peace Action Iran Working Group will meet again on June 20 at 7 PM at the Social Justice Center, 33 Central Ave., Albany.

What a Week


Seventeen beers in one day: alcoholic or health nut? Researchers found in a recent study conducted at Oregon State University that an ingredient in beer could help fight prostate cancer. The Associated Press reported that “the compound xanthohumol, found in hops, inhibits a protein in the cells along the surface of the prostate gland. The protein acts like a switch that turns on a variety of cancers, including prostate.” As wonderful as having an excuse for binge drinking may seem, the probability of drinking seventeen beers a day is unrealistic (sorry guys). But a pill, which is a more realistic, preventative option, is definitely a possibility, Dr. Richard N. Atkins, CEO of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition said.


Ever found yourself finishing that last drop of Jagermesiter at 5 AM only to quickly put on a pot of coffee to jolt yourself ready for another day? As reckless as this may sound, some research indicates that this may not be such a bad idea after all. Well . . . at least the coffee part. A report from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Oakland, Calif., says that drinking coffee cuts the risk of cirrhosis of the liver by 22 percent per cup each day. Some researchers have theorized that caffeine may act as a protective ingredient; however, studies of tea drinkers have not shown the same protective effect.


When Rep. Patrick Kennedy was “heading to the Capitol to vote” at 3 AM last month, he crashed into a barrier head-on (after driving with no headlights, swerving into the other lane and ignoring police commands to pull over). Because of his actions, Kennedy was charged with a DUI, reckless driving and failure to exhibit a driving permit. The prosecutors told Kennedy that they would drop the two additional charges of reckless driving and the failure to exhibit a driving permit if he pleaded guilty of being under the influence. The assemblyman said Tuesday that he will plead guilty to the DUI charges and has now returned to Congress after receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Burn, Baby, Burn?

Emotions fuel amendment to protect flag, but first amendment activists argue cooler heads should prevail

Laura Youngblood fought back tears to recount the day her husband was buried. Travis Youngblood was a corpsman in the U.S. Navy and he died in Iraq in 2005 from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device, one day before he was set to return to the states. She was speaking Friday (June 9) at the Crowne Plaza hotel to supporters of Senate Joint Resolution 12, better known as the Flag Amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

A young widow, Youngblood’s grief was still fresh. It quaked in her voice as she told the crowd of veterans and aging American Legionnaires that her husband’s funeral procession into Arlington Cemetery was disrupted by a protest. Her husband, she said, was not allowed the honorable ceremony he deserved. The protesters stood on American flags, held the flag upside down and—for her, the worst insult possible—set a flag to flame.

“My husband died while serving his country. And when my son remembers his father, he kisses the flag,” she said. “I ask you as a Gold Star widow, as a veteran, and as a proud American that we fight to get this amendment passed.”

The demonstration that so upset Youngblood wasn’t a ’60s-styled antiwar rally, however. It was a small group made up of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. They were led by the notorious Fred Phelps.

Phelps gained the national spotlight in the late ’90s with his vitriolic attacks on the gay and lesbian community at the time of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student murdered because he was gay. And now, in a bizarre twist of hate that only a man like Phelps could conjure, his followers have taken to protesting at the funerals of fallen servicemen, chanting slogans such as “God is America’s terrorist,” and “Thank God for IEDs.”

Youngblood had been recruited by the Citizens Flag Alliance, a group of 140 organizations that have bandied together to support an Constitutional amendment that would, in effect, ban any seeming desecration of the U.S. flag. According to CFA, 66 Senators support passage of the amendment. With 58 co-sponsors, and eight Senators who have pledged support, the CFA is confidant that they will gain the one additional vote needed to move the amendment out of Congress and into the states. Then, it will need ratification in 37 states. All 50 have passed resolutions in favor of such an amendment.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Paul McMasters, a columnist with the First Amendment Center. “It’s a radical solution to what is pretty much a nonproblem.” The anti-flag-burning crowd, he said, usually rally together after a spate of flag burnings. This time, however, there has been no such occurrence. “I am myself deeply offended when I see someone burning the flag, but we shouldn’t amend the basic charter for our fundamental freedoms—the Bill of Rights—to address a problem that is practically nonexistent.”

“It is unfortunate too,” he added, “that it comes to such a close vote in the Senate, when there hasn’t been a vigorous national debate about what a flag amendment would mean.”

The amendment leaves open to interpretation what a flag is, what desecration means, and what, if any, punishment could be leveled. All of these need to be hashed out in vigorous debate on a national and local level, McMasters said, before there is change to the Constitution. A debate, however, is exactly what he thinks proponents of the amendment don’t want.

The supporters “fly in the face of six different decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. The majority of those justices voting in those decisions were appointed by Republican presidents. So it’s not as if this is some sort of liberal/conservative, patriot/non-patriot debate,” McMasters said. “Our surveys have shown consistently, since 1987, that 60 percent of Americans said they would not amend the Constitution to protect the flag. However, 8 in 10 say they think that the flag should be protected from desecration. The majority of Americans want to see the flag protected, but the majority also do not want to see an amendment to do that.”

Most people will recognize, after all the rhetoric and patriotic talk is over with, he said, that what is being proposed is the elevation of the symbol of our freedoms above the reality.

We would be aligning ourselves with Iran, Cuba and China, he said, “in punishing freedom of speech to protect a national symbol.”

There are 200 years of case law supporting freedom of expression and symbolic speech, said Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer and author of First Report, Implementing a Flag Desecration Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Notably, the first time the Supreme Court took up the issue of symbolic speech was in 1931, in the case of Stromberg vs. California. The high court ruled that waving a red flag to express solidarity with the international Communist movement was protected speech. During the Vietnam War, taping a peace sign to the American flag was held to be as protected speech.

In 1971, Abbie Hoffman was arrested and convicted under the 1967 national flag desecration law for wearing a flag-styled shirt. His conviction was overturned on the fact that the shirt didn’t desecrate the flag. It didn’t say, however, Corn-Revere noted, that the shirt wasn’t a flag. That interpretation—of what a flag is—was left open.

And it is in this way, he said, the proposed amendment is fraught with legal complications. To illustrate, he drew a simple comparison: “The prescribed way to dispose of a used or soiled flag is burning. So the same act if committed by someone in protest might be considered desecration. But if it is done by someone that is perceived as being respectful, it is an act of consecration.”

When the exact same act, he said, can be either defined as a crime or an honored event, then you have a real definitional problem. “This, if it passes,” Corn-Rever warned, “will be in the courts for years.”

—Chet Hardin

No cure for controversy

FDA-approved vaccine fuels debate over parents’ right to educate their kids about sex

Cervical cancer affects more than 9,000 women annually in the United States, and an estimated one-third of these women will die. In an effort to combat the disease, the Food and Drug Administration announced the approval of a new vaccine, Gardasil. According to the FDA, this is the first vaccine developed that can prevent cervical cancer due to human papillomavirus, or HPV.

“This is a huge step forward for women’s health. Prevention is the key to good health, and this vaccine will give future generations the promise of health, safety and peace of mind,” said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. “Now we must move forward to educate the public about the vaccine and ensure it is available to all Americans, regardless of their income level.”

HPV is a sexually-contracted virus that affects millions of people, and in some cases has been linked with the development of cervical cancer. It is difficult to detect as it is transferred from skin to skin, regardless of condoms, and carriers may have no knowledge that they are ill. Although this new vaccine is welcome news, it also comes with its share of controversy.

The effectiveness of Gardasil is based solely on a woman’s previous exposure to HPV. The idea is to vaccinate girls while they are still young—between 9 and 11—hopefully treating them before they become sexually active. This touches on the well-worn controversy surrounding a parent’s right to discuss sex and abstinence with their children. Critics believe the vaccine will send the message to young girls that sex is OK.

The vaccine, which is recommended for females between ages 9 and 26, has come under scrutiny by many abstinence advocacy groups. The Family Research Council has stated: “While we welcome medical advances such as a HPV vaccine, it remains clear that practicing abstinence until marriage and fidelity is the single best way of preventing the full range of sexually transmitted disease.”

Equally controversial is whether or not the vaccine will be made mandatory for all females in the qualifying age range. Each state is individually responsible for mandating vaccines based on standards set forth by the Centers for Disease Control. Planned Parenthood Vice President for public affairs and marketing Blue Carreker stated “ This is an important health care development and the focus should be on health and not become entangled with political and religious beliefs.” She continued, “We are going to advocate to ensure the vaccine is available to the largest number of people, regardless of income.”

Dr. Gene Rudd, associate executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, said, “We support the vaccine and the health benefits it will have for young women. However, we are concerned with any state mandating compulsory vaccination. Parents should have the opportunity to opt-out based on their beliefs and values. It would be wrong to tell parents they cannot make that choice.”

According to Dr. John Treanor, a member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the mandatory administering of the vaccine is a misconception. Dr. Treanor maintains that “based on the impact of the human papillomavirus, we will likely give a universal recommendation making the vaccine standard in children ages 9 to 11. All this means is that it will be mandatory for physicians to offer the vaccine. Anyone can refuse to take it. Furthermore, it will not be a requirement for school entry.”

Yet, this raises the question of disclosure. Does a parent have to reveal to their young daughter what the vaccine is for?

John Bracchi, a father of three daughters, said he would encourage the vaccine for his girls, “because it would obviously benefit their future health. However, I would talk to them about the dangers of sex as well. It should be up to my wife and me to decide whether or not to explain to them what the vaccine is specifically for.”

—Ashley Simmons



“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.


Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.

Loose Ends

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