Thursday, 10 May 2018

Famine in Venezuela?

Famine in Venezuela?

“Venezuela’s Crisis Spills Over,” a recent article in the New York Times International Weekly of the Hamilton Spectator (May 5, 2018, p. 1), stated that 5,000 people per day are leaving Venezuela. At this rate, 1.8 million people will have left by the end of 2018, joining 1.5 million who have already fled. This is over ten per cent of Venezuela’s population of 32 million.

Venezuelans on the road in search of food

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines famine as “widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including… government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.”  By this definition, Venezuelans may already be experiencing famine. At the very least, they are experiencing state induced hunger.

Readers of my blog will know that I’ve been following Venezuelan politics since 2012.

Hugo Chávez was elected President in Venezuela in 1999.  He instituted several policies that were meant to feed poor Venezuelans, but actually made the situation worse. From 1999 to 2007 people’s living conditions improved, but food shortages started when oil prices declined. Chávez died in 2013 and was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, whose draconian policies have created massive food shortages.

According to Antulio Rosales (“An Ugly New Low for the Venezuelan President,” Globe and Mail, March 12, 2018, p.A11) and Enrique Krauze (“Hell of a Fiesta,” New York Review of Books, March 8, 2018, pp. 4-7), more than half of all Venezuelans have lost between 19 and 24 pounds, and 90 per cent say they do not have enough money for food. The minimum monthly wage in mid-2017 bought only 12 per cent of one person’s basic food needs, even less now. Sixty per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Formerly dormant diseases such as malaria, diphtheria and dengue are reoccurring, while hospitals are extremely short of personnel, medicines and the most basic equipment. Some people receive subsidized food boxes, but the contents are inconsistent and insufficient, are distributed irregularly, and are more likely to go to supporters of Maduro than others.

This shortage of food is a completely predictable consequence of the policies that both the Chávez and Maduro governments favored over the last two decades. They destroyed the market in food by imposing control prices that resulted in underproduction when the official prices did not meet costs of production. The government expropriated farms, ranches, and even food distributors such as butchers. There’s very little if anything produced on these expropriated territories. Food is now heavily controlled by the black market and by corrupt importers (often members of the military who are also Maduro’s cronies) who sit on food at the ports to drive up the price.

At the same time political appointees, rather than competent managers, now run the state oil company. Failure to reinvest has meant that oil production has fallen drastically, so that Venezuela’s earnings of foreign exchange have diminished.
More Venezuelans looking for food

To keep all this going, the government has undermined the rule of law and the judiciary, and arrested independent trade union leaders. It has manipulated elections and is attempting to replace the legitimate elected legislature, where there are still some opposition members, with a “Constituent National Assembly” completely loyal to Maduro. Both Chávez and Maduro have ruled by decree and used arbitrary arrest, torture and even executions to maintain themselves in power. Maduro also controls the media: it is illegal now to post pictures of empty store shelves or images of desperation, supposedly because it foments hatred.

It’s very difficult to know what to do about this. The US has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan individuals, freezing their assets and banning travel to the US. It’s also prohibited financial dealings by US citizens with these sanctioned Venezuelans. Maduro replies to these measures by accusing the US of imperialism, an easy accusation to make given its real history of imperialism in Central and South America.

There’s also been some regional pressure on Maduro.  He’s been barred from visiting some other South American countries: Peru withdrew his invitation to the 8th Summit of the Americas for April 2018. The Organization of American States tried to persuade Chávez to change some of his policies, but he replied by withdrawing from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012.

I think that Maduro and his cronies should be referred for trial to the International Criminal Court, which Venezuela joined in 2002.  On Feb 8, 2018 the ICC Prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity such as arbitrary detentions and torture. The ICC Statute considers extermination via denial of food as a crime against humanity, but the preliminary investigation did not mention this.

Individual Venezuelan citizens have hardly any recourse to outside institutions to help them in their search for food and medicine. Citizens of some states can complain about violations of their right to food to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but all that committee can do is make recommendations or “name and shame” rights-violating states. But even this doesn’t apply to Venezuela, which hasn’t ratified the necessary international treaty to permit its citizens to make individual complaints.

Nor is there a world human rights court that would hear individual complaints against a state and ensure the individual’s right to an effective remedy.  But even if it did exist, such a court would not necessarily have the right to demand that all affected citizens, not merely the individuals making the complaint, should have their grievances addressed.

There is no international legal mechanism to stop perfectly predictable state-induced food shortages before they happen. Nor can any legal mechanism hold entire regimes accountable, even when all or most senior government officials are complicit in the wrong-doing. All the ICC can do, if it gets that far, is try individuals, not an entire government.

Except for committing genocide or crimes against humanity, states (or the governments of those states) still have the sovereign right to violate their citizens’ human rights. They also have the sovereign right to choose whatever “development” path a state elite wants, even if that so-called development is bound to fail and result in de-development, if not outright starvation, as in Venezuela. These states’ rights are sacrosanct, and far more important to the international “community’ than the rights of starving citizens.

So for the foreseeable future, Venezuelans will continue to flee in their hundreds of thousands to Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere, in search of food.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Anarchists Trashed My Neigbourhood

Anarchists Trashed My Neighbourhood

On the evening of March 3, 2018, my husband and I were watching television when we heard a series of bangs. Looking out the window, I saw fireworks. We thought some local festival was going on.

We live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a city/region of 530,000 people about 60 kilometers west of Toronto. Hamilton was formerly a steel town and still produces steel, although its main industries now are education and health services connected to McMaster University. If you’ve ever driven from Buffalo to Toronto, you’ve passed our smokestacks. Torontonians used to pity people who lived in working-class Hamilton.

Lately, however, Hamilton has been coming up in the world. My husband and I live half a block from “trendy Locke Street,” as the real estate agents put it. Locke Street is the shopping street in a popular area of Hamilton known as Kirkendall, consisting of one-family homes, duplexes and triplexes, and a few apartment buildings. The two elementary schools and one middle school in the area have good reputations. The average income is higher than the average income of Hamilton as a whole, but hardly the highest in the whole region. It’s now a popular area for people fleeing Toronto’s high real estate prices.

The bangs we heard on Saturday evening were made by a group of about 30 people, dressed in black and carrying a banner saying “We are the Ungovernables.” They were setting off fireworks and throwing rocks and eggs at businesses and cars on Locke Street. When the police arrived, they dispersed down side streets, shedding their black clothing.

Residents of Kirkendall enjoy patronizing the many shops and restaurants on Locke St, and attending the several churches. My husband has his hair cut by Mr. Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, and sings in the choir of St. Joseph’s Church. I use a tiny branch of the Hamilton library, usually on my way home from the Locke Street Gym. We buy pizzas at Earth to Table, a locavore restaurant, and other food at Goodness Me, a health food grocery. Except for a Starbucks, presumably locally franchised, my guess is that every restaurant, beauty salon, physiotherapy service and shop on Locke Street is locally owned. 

Ron Mattai is co-owner of Mattson’s, a popular Locke Street restaurant that opened a few years ago. Some years ago, when Ron owned a restaurant near Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, a gay-basher brutally attacked him with a broken beer bottle. Ron required four surgeries and still does not have proper feeling in his face. Mattson’s was spared window damage, but some of the Ungovernables threw eggs when they saw patrons looking out at them. The patrons were so frightened by the noise and people in black that they hid under the tables.

Prue is the owner of Pippa and Prue’s, a women’s dress store. One of her plate-glass windows was broken. She asked me why I thought the Ungovernables had trashed her window, and I replied that they probably thought she was a capitalist pig. If so, Prue laughed, that had backfired; her business would probably pick up. When I went into the store two women had dropped in to offer support. One said she’d never shopped there before but would do so now.
Pippa and Prue's women's clothing store, with broken window
The worst hit store was the Donut Monster, which a youngish local couple opened a few months ago. Nine of their windows were boarded up.  On Sunday morning they were offering coffee but no dough-nuts, yet even the loss of one Sunday’s patronage might damage their business. But by Sunday afternoon people had lined up around the block to buy coffee to show their support, and the plywood boards on their windows were covered with messages, of which the one I liked best was “make donuts, not war.” The Beverley, a breakfast and brunch place, was also boarded up.

The “Ungovernables” who trashed Locke Street probably think of themselves as anarchists. Their tactics suggest they’ve studies “antifa” (antifascist) groups elsewhere. They might have been attending an anarchist book fair that has taken place peacefully at a local high school since 2010. Some may have been locals, others from out of town. This was no spontaneous, anarchistic event, though. The rock-throwers had probably not spontaneously gone to the local balaclava store to buy their face coverings, and their banner was quite professionally made.

These Ungovernables probably think they’ve struck a blow against capitalism and the local bourgeoisie, the latter represented by the families who live in the Kirkendall neighbourhood. Apparently some of Hamilton’s local anarchists have been protesting the gentrification of other neighborhoods for several years. But on Sunday morning Locke Street was crowded with people, many popping into businesses to offer condolences and support. On March 10 there will be a march of local people in support of these businesses.

In their defense, I originally thought, the Ungovernables attacked property, not people, seemingly careful to throw eggs but not rocks at restaurants where patrons were still eating. But since then I’ve learned that they had earlier congregated at a local park and thrown rocks at three police officers who turned up to investigate. You can kill someone with a rock.

All the Hamilton Ungovernables have achieved is to provide ammunition for the political right.  The Ungovernables may be young people fed up with what they see as establishment politics; they may also be confusing Canadian politics with the corruption and kleptocracy that characterizes President Donald Trump’s government in the United States. But their actions support the false equivalence of left-wing to right-wing activists that supporters of the very capitalist status quo that they want to overcome use to shut down reasonable political debate.  The more the political right can accuse the political left of violence, the greater the chance of delegitimizing the left.  

What the Ungovernables should have done was stage a peaceful march, then answered questions from local people and the press to get their point of view across.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Another Campus Speech Code Fiasco: Wilfrid Laurier University

Another Campus Speech Code Fiasco: Wilfrid Laurier University

In late 2017, the institution from which I had recently retired, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), was embroiled in a free speech fiasco.

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate teaching assistant in the department of Communications Studies, decided to show her students a clip from a debate on a program called The Agenda, put out by TVO (TV Ontario). This is a highly reputable program, along the lines of PBS debate shows in the US. One of the participants in the debate was Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who opposes the usage of gender-neutral pronouns—or at least, opposes policing professors and students to make sure they use such pronouns.
Lindsay Shepherd

After she showed this clip, Ms. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting with two professors and one individual from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office. Her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, told her that there had been “one or more” complaints under the WLU  Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures (GSVP) about her decision to show it. When she replied that she was merely trying to introduce her students to both side of the debate, he went so far as to ask her whether she would show both sides of a debate about Hitler. He and also claimed, absolutely erroneously, that Ms. Shepherd’s decision to show her students this clip violated the students’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and/or the Ontario Human rights Code. 
Unfortunately for her interlocutors, Ms. Shepherd recorded her interview with them and took it to the press. It instantly became a national news story about freedom of speech, embarrassing WLU. The President of WLU issued a formal apology to Ms. Shepherd and appointed an independent investigator into the incident.  This investigator, among other things, discovered that none of Ms. Shepherd’s students had complained about her. But someone had overheard some of her students discussing the clip.

How, one might ask, was this possible?  The answer is the content of the GSVP document, which can be found at . It is supposed to be a document laying out procedures in the case of sexual assault, harassment, etc., but its drafters took it upon themselves to also police freedom of speech.

The GSVP defines  “Gendered Violence”   as…. “an act or actions that reinforce gender inequalities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic or mental harm. This violence includes sexism, gender discrimination, gender harassment, biphobia, transphobia, homophobia and heterosexism, intimate partner violence, and forms of Sexual Violence. This violence can take place on any communication platform, (e.g. graffiti, online environment, and through the use of phones” (Definitions, Clause 3:02).

This means that under the GSVP, speech is considered to be violence, as the stress on communications platforms shows. There is no distinction in this definition between actual physical violence and potentially (depending on the eyes of the beholder) offensive speech. Nor are there any guidelines as to when speech might be considered “violent,” as opposed to merely offensive to some. While Canada does have a hate speech law, the bar is set very high for prosecutions and convictions, and in general freedom of speech is protected.

There is no mention in the document, either as a preamble or elsewhere, about the university’s primary purpose of protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech. Nor is there any mention that Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The GSVP claims the right to police the speech of any member of the university community at WLU (Definitions, clause 3.04). It especially claims the right to police the speech of any student “regardless of their position or role or time of incident (e.g. evenings, weekends and holidays)—when on University property or when off campus and there is an impact on their academic program or campus life (for e.g. in residence, at the gym, etc.) [Sic, Jurisdiction/Scope clause 7:00].  

The GSVP further stipulates that third parties can make complaints about an individual’s speech, saying that those who have experienced sexual violence and “those who have become aware of an incident” can report it (Definitions: Clause 3:07), and that anyone making such a complaint can do so anonymously (Student Procedures, Clause 2.01). Presumably, this is what permitted someone who overheard Ms. Shepherd’s students talking about her class to make a complaint.

The GSVP procedures for adjudicating complaints were updated on December 17, 2017, following the national publicity over the Lindsay Shepherd incident. But it is biased from the start. Complainants are free to identify themselves, or to ask that those assisting them identify them, as “survivors” throughout. Thus, the presumption that the action or speech complained about is true permeates the procedures.

On the other side, there is no assurance of due process for the individual against whom a complaint is made. Even in the updated version of the document, bias is evident against the accused person. If he (or occasionally she) does not comply with the university rules, s/he will endure “further disciplinary action,” thus assuming that disciplinary action is automatically forthcoming. (Policy: Clause 8.03) Moreover, the personnel of the SGVP are available for support to the complainant, but not to the respondent, who is on his or her own.

Here are some useful rules for drafting university harassment documents. They are derived in part from the two years I spent at McMaster University, 1992-1994, chairing a committee to draft anti-harassment and anti-discrimination documents, with the aid of a legal scholar. I was given this job after I stood up in the McMaster Senate to denounce a proposed document that, in my view, severely violated the due process rights of accused harassers.

1    1. Always make sure that the document is drafted by, or with the assistance of, a lawyer with experience in administrative law in the jurisdiction in which the university is located.
2    2.In deciding what to prohibit, never exceed what is prohibited by the law of the jurisdiction in which the University is located.
3    3.Do not have two sections, one written by people with a political/ideological agenda, and one written by people familiar with the law and the rules of due process.
4    4. Always makes sure that due process is absolutely protected.
5    5.Always include a preamble about the importance of, and protections for, freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Had WLU followed this advice, it might not have found itself with the problems it faced last year.

In the meantime, I would advise any parents thinking of sending their child to WLU or any other Ontario university to carefully investigate its policies and procedures regarding speech and sexual harassment, before making a final decision. Otherwise, the parents might find themselves paying hefty legal fees to defend their children against charges for offenses that may be deemed contrary to the  the uthe university’s speech code, but that are not crimes in Ontario. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Women Perpetrators of Crimes against Humanity

Women perpetrators of crimes against humanity

In 2010, a judge in the United Kingdom denied refugee status to a Zimbabwean woman, known as SK. According to a report by David Gardner in the South African Mail Online, (“Woman who took part in violent attacks on farmers in Zimbabwe denied UK asylum” 16 September 2010) SK had admitted attacking white farmers and beating up ten black workers and their families; she beat one woman so badly that she thought the woman would die. But she said she had done so to prove her loyalty to Zimbabwe’s then dictator, Robert Mugabe, who was deposed in late 2017 by a military coup.

Zimbabwe had been ruled by Mugabe’s terrorist dictatorship since 2000. Mugabe encouraged “land invasions” of white-owned farms, driving almost all white farmers out of the country. This seriously undermined the country’s capacity to produce food, as the “liberated” lands were distributed to Mugabe’s family and cronies, many incapable of large-scale farming. About 1.5 million black farm workers and their families were also driven off the land. Meantime, in “operation drive out trash” another 1.4 million people were driven out of cities in 2005, losing their homes and livelihoods. Zimbabwe went from being a bread-basket of eastern African to dependency on the World Food Program. Many Zimbabweans had barely enough food for one meal a day.

Women members of the opposition to Mugabe, and women whose only crime was to be related to members of the opposition, were systematically raped and tortured, especially during the election period in 2008. Some women resorted to prostitution to support themselves because the economy was in such disarray as a result of Mugabe’s policies. Millions of women and their children had barely enough to eat. Hospitals and schools closed.

SK was a woman; we tend to think of women as victims of political violence, not its perpetrators. According to Gardner’s report, SK didn’t claim that she was entitled to any special treatment because she was a woman, but the judge seemed to think he should nevertheless comment on her gender. He compared SK to female Nazi concentration camp guards. While those women did not initiate the Nazi policy of genocide, they did willingly carry it out; they were not forced to be guards. Indeed, according to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial 1997 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, some of these women exceeded their orders at the end of the war, driving Jewish women prisoners to their deaths on forced marches even after they had been ordered to be less cruel, as the leaders of Germany were afraid of the consequences once the Allies took over.

But the judge did not have to look so far afield for examples of savage women to whom to compare SK. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the Minister for Women’s Affairs encouraged her own son to rape Tutsi women. Three Rwandan nuns were convicted in Belgium for the crimes they committed in Rwanda.

These horrible instances contradict many feminists’ assumptions that women are more caring than men, more empathetic, far less likely to commit crimes against humanity or genocide than men. What is SK’s responsibility? She claimed she had to prove her loyalty to Mugabe, and that may be true: until a couple of months ago in Zimbabwe, if you were not for Mugabe, you were against him. But how far did she have to go?  Did she really have to participate in land invasions, or did she do so at least partly by choice? From 2000 to 2017 Zimbabwe was a free zone for people who hated whites.  Even if SK hated whites and wanted them driven out of Zimbabwe, what motivated her to beat up fellow black women?

We do not know from Gardner’s report if SK was an educated, upper-class Zimbabwean or a poor person. Nor do we know if that should matter. Should a person who is not educated be assumed not to be able to tell right from wrong, like some of the male killers in Rwanda who after their orgy of bloodshed regained their senses? While international courts do take into consideration whether people who commit crimes against humanity are leaders or followers, they do not let anyone off on the grounds that he was just following orders. Nor is lack of education an excuse, although it may be a mitigating factor.

The judge in the UK made the right decision. Women, like men, have to take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Otherwise, feminism simultaneously demands equality and undermines it by suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Note:  I originally wrote this blog for another site in 2010, but decided it was worth updating a re-posting here. 
suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Statelessness in the Caribbean by Kristy Belton: Book Note

Some scholars maintain that in developed democracies, legal citizenship is losing its salience, as such democracies tend to grant most human rights to everyone resident in their territories, even including undocumented (‘illegal”) migrants. Kristy Belton disputes this contention. She argues that even if migrants are afforded human rights in some democracies, this privilege does not extend to the stateless.  You can find this argument in her 2017 book, Statelessness in the Caribbean: The Paradox of Belonging in a Postnational World, published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
Belton argues that statelessness in the 21st century is very different from the statelessness that Hannah Arendt analyzed in her Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt wrote about stateless migrants, wandering the world to find a place that would take them in after their own countries expelled them or forced them to flee. By contrast, Belton argues, in the 21st century many people are rendered stateless in situ, in the place where they are born.

Belton’s evidence for this contention is drawn from her case studies of the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Both are democracies, and both have significant minority populations of people of Haitian descent. Drawing on her own interviews with local officials, NGO actors, stateless individuals and others, as well as upon interviews conducted by other individuals and organizations, Belton paints a picture of people living in limbo or liminality, part of the society but not formally members of the polity, in effect “noncitizen insiders”(p. 10). Technically eligible for Haitian citizenship, they are stateless de facto, as they are often not aware of their eligibility and in any case, do not wish to be considered Haitian.

These individuals are not wandering stateless migrants: they were born in the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic but are not entitled to citizenship in those two countries, at least not at birth.  In the Bahamas, they have a narrow one-year window at the age of eighteen to apply for citizenship. During this period they are often rendered de jure stateless for a few months, as they are obliged to renounce their nominal Haitian citizenship before being registered as Bahamian citizens. In the Dominican Republic, things are much worse. Not only may people of Haitian descent not obtain citizenship at birth, but a law passed in 2010 retroactively deprives hundreds of thousands of citizenship. Only those of Haitian descent who can prove they are descended from individuals born in the Dominican Republic before 1929; that is, four generations ago, are now entitled to citizenship.

Bureaucratic inertia and deliberate obfuscation of the seemingly non-discriminatory rules surrounding citizenship compound the disadvantages imposed on people of Haitian descent by these laws. Often individuals born in the Dominican Republic do not know that they are actually considered to be citizens of Haiti, nor do they know how to go about obtaining confirmation of that citizenship. When persons of Haitain descent turn 18 in the Bahamas, they may not know of the one-year window available to apply for registration as citizens. They may also be denied the documents, such as birth registration, needed to make their applications. Some are also victims of gender-biased policies that grant citizenship to children of citizen fathers born abroad, but not to mothers in the same circumstances. Belton argues that they should have the right to know about citizenship rules, and be ensured the right to judicial review of sometimes arbitrary decisions about their citizenship.

The quasi-stateless individuals of Haitian descent are often victims of racism, enduring discrimination in employment, housing and education. In the Dominican Republic, people identify themselves as white or “Indio” and look down on black people of Haitian descent. In both countries they are considered impure, equated with dirt and criminality. Belton quotes heartbreaking stories from her informants of deplorable living conditions, racist school bullying, and opportunities denied.

Technically speaking, many of the “stateless” individuals of Haitian descent in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic are not stateless; if they knew how to go about it, they could claim Haitian citizenship.  But that is not the citizenship they want. They want to be citizens of the countries where they were born and raised, where they attended school, where their families are. They want to realize their ambitions, to get an education and a job and start a family, in the country to which they are attached.

Without legal citizenship, these de facto stateless individuals cannot realize their life projects. Bahamian-born minors of Haitian descent possess identity documents, but cannot use them for travel; thus young people are unable to compete in international sports competitions or accept scholarships to study abroad. Persons of Haitian descent in both countries are at high risk of illiteracy, undermining their capacity to understand the procedures and documents necessary for them to obtain citizenship. They are ghost people, un-noticed and uncared for, denied social membership in the places of their birth and personal identification.

Belton closes her book with an eloquent plea for citizenship to be considered an aspect of global distributive justice which, she argues, should not be confined to material goods. It should encompass citizenship, necessary in order to enjoy all other human rights. Citizenship is also necessary to the right to belong, to feel oneself part of the community in which one has grown up, and part of the territory to which one is attached.

Everyone, contends Belton, should have the right to citizenship in the place of one’s birth. In making this argument she draws upon ideas of social membership and sense of place. In the light of her two case studies, this assertion makes sense. But it might not make sense for the many people who are victims of prior forced displacement or who are born in countries of which they would rather not be citizens. The next step, then, is a right to migrate. But such a right would upset completely the sovereign prerogative of all states to decide who should be its members, regardless of the criteria they use.

Belton’s arguments are sophisticated and theoretically rich, and her compassion for the subjects of her research suffuses her analysis. This is an excellent study of what might be considered the “forgotten” stateless, people who are not members of stateless groups such as the Rohingya of Myanmar, but are rather individuals forced into social liminality and legal insecurity by borders, immigration laws, and racism.  

Note: I wrote this review for Human Rights Quarterly, whose editor, Bert Lockwood, kindly agreed to let me post irt on my blog as well. 

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Note

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Notes

Gary Younge, a black British journalist who lived in Chicago for several years, is the author of Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books, 2016). Each chapter documents the life and death of a young American between 9 and 19 who died by gunfire in the 24-hour overnight period of November 22-23 2013; all are male and most black or Hispanic. This was, incidentally, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though that doesn’t seem to have affected Younge’s decision to choose that particular date. On an average day, seven American children will be shot dead.
Gary Younge

Three of Younge’s observations particularly struck me.

The first was the perhaps universal tendency to assume that victims of crimes have to be innocent; if not, they somehow deserve their fate. The opening chapter in Another Day recounts the story of Jaiden Dixon. Jaiden was nine when one day he opened the door  to the father of one of his older half-brothers. The father shot him, then sped away to shoot a woman he’d previously been involved with. She survived the shooting, and was terrified that he’d find her again until she was told that the police had killed him.

This was a story of domestic violence, and Jaiden, by all accounts a sweet child, was clearly innocent; his murderer was trying to get revenge on his mother. Several of the other murder victims were older teens, some of whom had been gang members and one of whom, Younge observes, was just as likely to have been the perpetrator as the victim of murder. In the public eye and that of the media, Younge observes, these victims somehow “deserved” their fates in a way that Jaiden did not. But as a black child, had he been a few years older his death might have garnered less sympathy.

Younge’s second observation was the way that everyone accepted the presence of guns in their lives as inevitable and a fact of life.

The only white child to be killed in this one-day period was 11-year-old Tyler Dunn. Tyler was playing with his friend Brandon in Brandon’s house. Brandon’s father, Jerry, was supposed to be supervising them, but he left them alone while he was working. The boys found a gun, assumed it was unloaded and played with it: Brandon killed Tyler. Jerry, a convicted felon, was found guilty of improper safeguarding of his guns, and inadequate supervision of his son. 

Tyler’s family just assumed that nothing could be done about guns. And tragically, this was also the attitude of the black and Hispanic families featured in the book.  Edwin Rajo was accidentally killed by a female friend when they, too, were fooling around with guns without adult supervision.
Nor was this attitude at all unrealistic. Despite repeated surveys showing that the majority of Americans support gun control, the power of the National Rifle Association over candidates for election is so powerful that nothing is ever done, even after the Sandy Hook tragedy, when a mentally-ill young man killed 20 tiny children and their teachers. Then-President Obama tried and failed to institute tighter controls over gun sales at that time.

The black families in this book react to the presence of guns by trying to control their children’s access to “the street”. The best way to protect them against random gunfire or mistaken identity (such as wearing the wrong color hoodie in an area in which gang members identify themselves by the color they wear) is to keep them indoors as much as possible, ferrying them by car from home to school to church and other activities. Younge points out that black parents are just as concerned as white parents about their children’s safely, but they have fewer resources to protect them.

The third observation that really stuck with me is Younge’s description of some of the worst areas of South Chicago and Dallas as “open-air prisons.” 

Housing, schools, public amenities, and private businesses are all run-down or lacking in these areas. So also are employment opportunities; indeed, for many young men, the only available employment is drug-dealing or other forms of crime. Tax-payers in wealthy areas of the same cities seem happy to let their municipal authorities neglect these areas. Murders of blacks by blacks are not a matter of concern, sometimes not even reported in the press, other times meriting only a short paragraph in the local paper. The implication here is that as long as the imprisoned population stays in these areas, they are free to kill each other.

The gun culture in the US is inexplicable to the rest of the Western world. It seems to have something to do with libertarian political culture, as well as particularly wrong-headed interpretations of the US Constitution. As a Canadian, I worry about its spread here, as well as the illegal importing of guns. We too have gun-related crime, and we too have citizens who believe that everyone should have the right to own a gun for self-defense.

But Younge shows us how gun culture, like everything else, is tied to racism, economic inequality, and publicand public neglect of black and Hispanic citizens.   

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Islam: Book Note

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam: Book Note
A couple of weeks ago (mid-Dec 2017) I read The Golden Legend, a novel by the British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. According to his Wikipedia biography, Aslam has lived in the UK since he was 14, when his father, a communist, fled the regime of President Zia. 

Nadeem Aslam
This is a good novel for anyone not familiar with life in Pakistan in the era of militant Islamists, US drone strikes, and police and military corruption. The main interest of the novel, though, is the difficulty of being Christian in Pakistan. The story recounts the trials of three Christian Pakistanis. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, about 1 per cent of the population.

The central figure in the novel, Nargis, is a Christian masquerading as a Muslim. Raised in the relative security of the home of her uncle, a Christian bishop, she decides at college to pretend she is a Muslim. It seems much easier than constantly enduring ostracism and persecution because she is Christian. She marries Massud, a Muslim man, without telling him the truth. They both become architects, living a tranquil life until Massud is killed in a shoot-out between a couple of Islamists and an American diplomat/CIA agent. At the same time, she and Massud have been acting as patrons of a young woman named Helen, the daughter of the Christian couple who are their servants. Helen’s father, a rickshaw driver, is in love with a Muslim widow whose husband was killed and son severely injured by an American attack. Without giving away the story, a military official pressures Nargis to forgive the American in return for a million dollars in blood money. Meantime, Helen is endangered as well. They both flee the city with the help of a young Muslim man who is in love with Helen.

Aslam's depiction of his fictional Christians is not an exaggeration, according to an article in Foreign Policy (May 16, 2016) by Usman Ahmad entitled “Is Pakistan Safe for Christians?”  Ahmad explains that many Christians are converts from lower-caste Hindus and are commonly known as “sweepers” (a low-caste occupation). This term is used in Aslam’s novel. Sometimes Pakistani employers looking for sanitation workers deliberately advertise for non-Muslims; that is, Christians. In recent years there have been several attacks on Christian churches and schools in Pakistan, in part because Christians are identified with the West: that is, with the United States and its campaign of bombing and drone attacks against perceived Islamist militants in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. At Easter 2016 more than 70 Christians were killed by a Taliban bombing in Lahore. Forced marriages and conversions of Christian girls to Muslim men are common, and the girls are afraid to testify in court because they are in the custody of the families that kidnapped them.

Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in Pakistan, and Christians have been severely punished for it. Somewhere in the novel a character mentions that it’s easy to accuse a Christian neighbor of blasphemy. The payoff is high; if your neighbor is jailed for blasphemy, you may be able to acquire his house or property. This kind of thing also goes on in Iran, when people denounce members of the Baha’i faith, just as it did in Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis, when you could acquire really good houses and apartments by denouncing Jews. 

At the moment, Christians are under attack in several countries in the Middle East and Asia.  Coptic Christians, about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, have endured several violent attacks on their churches. Coptic Christianity predates Islam; Copts are among the very earliest converts to Christianity.

One can assume that since his father was a communist, secularism was not a dirty word in Nadeem Aslam’s household when he was growing up.  Now secularism appears to be something that is considered dangerous even in the West. I have written about this before in an entry to this blog called “I Am an Atheist Blogger” , where I mentioned that many Americans consider atheists to be worse than Muslims. It is important that we should protect everyone who is persecutes for their faith, wherever the country.  But we should also be protecting the principle of secularism, the rights of individuals to marry whomever they want regardless of their religion, and the rights of individuals to be non-believers.

Monday, 30 October 2017

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

A few weeks ago the world learned that a famous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was a serial sexual harasser who had paid off several women so that they would not reveal his activities in court. Some of the things he did were so disgusting that I won’t repeat them here.

A woman at my gym asked why it had taken so long for his behavior to be revealed.  I answered that he was very powerful, so each individual woman would have been afraid that he could sue her for libel or ruin her career. As is usual in these cases, once one woman comes forward, others speak out. It seems several famous actresses such as Angelina Jolie suffered harassing incidents with him. Personally, I was not surprised by this as I’ve long assumed that all powerful men have extra-marital affairs and harass women (or men, depending on sexual preference).

After Weinstein’s behavior was revealed, someone started a #MeToo hashtag, so that women who had experienced harassment could discuss their own experiences. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail then wrote a piece called “Please Turn down the Volume on the Outrage Machine” (October 21, 2017, p. F7) 

In her column Wente discussed what she called “the standard menu” of what happened to women in their teens and twenties when she was growing up (as I was too ) in the 1960s and 70s. The menu included “sidewalk catcalls, being trailed on the street at night, dates who wouldn’t desist until we got really angry, a few flashers…bosses who tried to kiss us…a handful of overly friendly colleagues, someone’s dad who made a pass when we were underage.”  All of these things, Wente noted, had happened to her. She argued that we should not pretend that these everyday incidents were the equivalent of actual rape. A few days later a retired (female) police officer wrote to the editor to point out that every one of the things that had happened to Wente was now illegal.

I thought about this for a while as I reviewed my own past. I also wondered if I should write about this at all on my own human rights blog.  Is it too personal, or should an older woman who is a human rights scholar write about this topic?  

I recently read an article by the distinguished geologist and memoirist, Hope Jahrens (Lab Girl, 2016)  that convinced me all older women should speak out. Jahrens wrote about how one of her best ever female students was considering leaving science because of sexual harassment by a professor.  According to Jahrens, this is one of the major reasons there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields: women keep leaving because there is nothing they can do to stop the harassment. If you are working with the single most distinguished professor in your field, and he harasses you, what do you then do?  Find another supervisor and lost grant money? Switch universities and lose grant money? Or leave the profession entirely?

Nothing really terrible every happened to me. In 41 years as a professor, preceded by 10 as a student, no professor, student or colleague ever sexually harassed me. Perhaps this is because I have a sharp tongue, am relatively self-confident for a woman (by Canadian standards, anyway) or because by the 1980s there were strict controls about harassment in Canadian universities.

I did have a few incidents when I was younger. When I was eleven a man entered the bedroom I was sharing with my sister at a summer cottage, but I woke and called for my father before anything much could happen; my parents called the police. When I was seventeen a man exposed himself in the lobby of a building I was passing: I didn’t call the police, nor did I report it to any older person. When I was eighteen a boss made what we would now call an “inappropriate” remark to me, but I made a caustic reply, and he never bothered me again (though I heard from another girl about something truly appalling he’d said to her.)

When I was 21 a man lurking in the book stacks of the McGill Library exposed himself to me; a friend and I chased him into the arms of a security guard. That guard called the chief of security, who interviewed the man and then told me that he was a visiting professor from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I agreed not to press charges if he would visit a psychiatrist, as I was concerned about what would happen to him if I did and then he had to go home to a Communist country. You might think in retrospect that I should have pressed charges, but I could not take that responsibility and I am still glad I did not.

Once when I was a young professor, I attended a party for a distinguished visitor given by one of my husband's colleagues.  The visitor, who was drunk, grabbed me in a way that even then would have been considered assault.  I didn't say anything because I didn't want my husband to attack him, I didn't want to spoil the party, and I figured no one but my husband (whom I told later) would believe me anyway. 

In my first year as a professor (1975-76) I had a colleague who kept a large semi-pornographic poster of a nude woman in his office. It bothered me, and I assume it bothered his students.  In 1991, I had a meeting with a Dean (now deceased) in his office: he had a framed poster on his wall of a nude woman tied to a chair with a bag over her head, implying she was about to be tortured. I didn’t say anything in either of these two cases, in the latter because I was afraid the Dean would take revenge on me in some way if I said anything.

So that’s my #MeToo story. Nothing too dramatic, nothing seriously dangerous, nothing warranting the label “victim,” though some these of incidents were illegal and others would be considered inappropriate in a university setting now. It was, as Wente said, a normal part of being female at the time. But it’s a good thing it isn’t considered a normal part of being female any more.  And it is a human rights matter.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Nazism Then and Now

Nazism Then and Now

Back in Germany in the 1930s, my father had a second cousin who drove a taxi. He was a Jew and a Communist. One day some Nazi cab drivers beat him to death. No one did anything about it: it was OK to murder Communist Jews in those days.

Nazi Brownshirts at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I remembered this story while thinking about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend (August 13, 2017), where there was a legal demonstration by American Nazis and their sympathizers. The demonstration was ostensibly to protest a decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Southern slaveholder and rebel who led the Confederate Troops against the legitimate government of the United States in the American Civil War of 1861-65. There was also a counter-demonstration. One of the Nazis drove a car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators and killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman. Nineteen other people were wounded, including one young man severely beaten around the head. On August 13 it was reported that five people were in critical condition in hospital.

But you might say there’s no equivalence between Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and Nazism in the US now. There’s still a free press and free speech in the US, and many people denounced the white supremacist and anti-Semitic marchers. The man who drove the car was arrested (though I’m not sure about the people who beat up and injured the other 19 people). Even President Donald Trump (sort-of) denounced the Nazis, though he claimed there were good people on both sides. That’s hard to believe if you watched (admittedly liberal, anti-racist) CNN, and saw footage of protesters shouting “blood and soil” (a slogan from 1930s Nazism) and “Jews will not replace us!” (I’m not sure what the latter slogan meant).

But there is a kind of equivalence between German and American Nazism. With all the other stuff going on, we forget that the unarmed counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville were extremely brave people. They faced a group of heavily armed men carrying assault rifles; Virginia is an “open-carry” state, where citizens can legally carry weapons. According to an African-American pastor whom I saw last night on CNN, they also carried improvised weapons such as bottles filled with urine and cans with concrete. So as shocking as events in Virginia were, we should be grateful that nothing worse happened. One or more of the Nazi terrorists could easily have started firing and killed scores of people.

The US has two sets of laws that would be inconceivable in any other Western democratic state. The first is gun laws that permit practically anyone to buy outrageously dangerous weapons. The second is unrestrained freedom of speech laws. In Canada, if people shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans at a demonstration, they could be charged under hate-speech laws. Laws prohibiting late speech are also permitted by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a Convention that the US originally opposed because it would have prohibited some of its racial segregation laws. I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech, but I also support hate-speech laws.

Some of the white supremacists wore white robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wore military-style clothing. All of this was legal. To me, this looked like armed private militias, which are against the law in most countries. That the US tolerates such armed militias suggests a further resemblance to Nazi Germany. Hitler’s militias started making trouble in the 1920s, and by the 1930s many people tolerated them. 

I am not suggesting that the US is likely to become a Nazi state. I am suggesting that the new, proud and public Nazism we saw last week reflects a President and Administration who—if they are not white supremacists themselves—certainly seem to sympathize with those who are. The President denounced white supremacists and the KKK in what appeared to be a scripted speech on August 14, but then reneged on his denunciation the next day.  Probably his Jewish daughter and son-in-law had pressured him to say something he didn’t really believe. 

When he reneged on his condemnation, Trump asked, “who’s next?”  If we remove statues of Robert E. Lee, he asked, will people soon want to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, early US Presidents who were also slave owners?  Perhaps that’s a good idea. Alternately, all statues of former slave-owners, or buildings built by slaves, or universities funded by slave-owners, should have plaques placed on them, explaining their relationship to slavery.

I am not one of those Canadians who goes around flaunting moral superiority to Americans. To the contrary, I support all those American liberals who find themselves having to defend freedom of the press, racial equality and other liberal values against the extremist and possibly Nazi-sympathizing individuals who currently inhabit the White House.

Even worse are those Republicans who don’t hold white supremacist or anti-Semitic views, but who support Trump because he promises to lower their taxes. Just as in Germany, it’s not only the disenfranchised working class that supports Nazis. Many of Hitler’s supporters were rich, upper-class people who wanted to protect their property and privilege against the Communist threat. There’s no such threat in the US, but there are still a lot of rich people who want to become even wealthier than they already are.

This shameful behavior by Republicans is even more a threat to American democracy that the horrible Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville last weekend.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Recently (June 2017) I read The Autograph Man, a 2002 novel by Zadie Smith. She is the daughter of a Caribbean mother and an English father, who often writes about “multicultural” issues of various kinds. The protagonist of The Autograph Man is Jewish, son of a non-Jewish Chinese father and a Jewish mother (presumably of European descent).  His friends are an African-American Jew and two “white” Jews. 

The novel is full of rather learned, if not arcane, references to things Jewish, especially the Talmud and the Kabbalah, so much so that I wondered if Smith were Jewish. Apparently she is not, and apparently there was a debate at its time of publication about whether The Autograph Man was a case of cultural appropriation. Perhaps only Jews should be permitted to write funny novels about Jews, incorporating religious references along the way.

About the same time as I reads Zadie Smith’s book, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, one of his series of novels about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. McCall Smith is a white man, an eminent professor of medical law, born in 1948 in what is now Zimbabwe. Precious Ramotswe is a much beloved fictional character, a “traditionally built” middle-aged African lady of tremendous human warmth, perspicacity and kindness. I wondered if anyone had ever accused McCall Smith of cultural appropriation, or whether, perhaps, at least some Botswanans are pleased that so many people are reading about their peaceful, well-governed country, sadly still a rarity in Africa.

While reading these novels I thought about a quite acrimonious debate that’s been occurring in Canada lately, about whether white (or indeed non-white) “settler” Canadians should “appropriate” the culture of indigenous Canadians. In this debate, anyone who is not indigenous is a settler who has participated in the theft of indigenous lands, regardless of how recently he or she may have come to Canada. The question is whether people who are not indigenous, or who have only partial and remote indigenous ancestry, should write novels about indigenous people.  One of the people caught up in this debate is the novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been accused of mis-representing himself as indigenous while writing novels about indigenous Canadians.  Apparently he is of mixed ancestry, and was interested in exploring that part of his ancestry that was indigenous.

Several Canadians of European ancestry have been caught up in this, according to various newspaper reports I’ve read. An artist named Amanda PL (yes, that’s correct) was going to exhibit at Visions Gallery in Toronto, but then people started noticing her paintings’ strong resemblance to those of Norval Morrisseau, an indigenous artist. Perhaps she thought her paintings were an homage to Morrisseau, or perhaps she was merely exploring indigenous art, but she was accused of cultural appropriation. The gallery cancelled her exhibit.

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of a small literary magazine called Write, a quarterly published by the Writers’ Union of Canada. He edited a special issue of works by indigenous writers, but in the same issue he wrote an editorial defending non-indigenous writers’ right to engage in “cultural appropriation” by writing about indigenous characters. In fact, he even went so far as to propose, presumably tongue-in-cheek, an “appropriation prize.” Several non-indigenous Canadians tweeted their support for the prize (undoubtedly a stupid thing to do: irony does not play out well on Twitter).

Then Jonathan Kay, Editor of The Walrus magazine, Canada’s answer to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, resigned, apparently in response to social media criticism. Kay’s sin was to write an article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, defending the right to debate the question of cultural appropriation.

One question I asked myself when reading accounts of these debates was whether the resignations constituted censorship. Many literary magazines in Canada receive subsidies from various levels of government, as does The Walrus, and I wondered whether governments had some responsibility to protect the freedom of speech of editors and contributors. Probably they did not, as long as Niedzviecki and Kay resigned voluntarily.

On the other hand, I worry about the arts and academic atmosphere in Canada. I suspect that some individuals who adjudicate grant applications believe that you should not write about cultures other than your own. Some people also think that you shouldn’t be involved in indigenous affairs if you are not indigenous yourself, even if you are trying to help them, as a couple of my white students and colleagues have discovered over the years.

So where does this leave me on the debate about cultural appropriation? I enjoyed both The Autograph Man and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. I think Zadie Smith had every right to explore Jewish liturgy and lore and create funny Jewish characters, whether or not she is Jewish. I also think Alexander McCall Smith should continue writing his books about Botswana. 

And I think Canadians of all ancestries should be permitted to explore indigenous history and culture. Some may do so in ways that are insensitive or offensive and if so, their critics will have every right to say so. Similarly, if artwork is bad or derivative, critics can say so. But other writers and artists may be able to imagine the lives of indigenous people in ways that are sensitive, enlightened, and even contribute to the remediation of the grievous ills that indigenous people in Canada have suffered over the centuries. This is cultural exploration, a common way for writers and artists to explore—often with sympathy and grace—the lives of people unlike themselves.

It was foolish at best, disrespectful at worst, to propose a cultural appropriation prize. A little civility goes a long way. On the other hand, I have very little respect for those who countenance censorship by social media. Freedom of speech and expression are important human rights, and they are so with good reason. No one should be allowed to stop anyone from expressing himself solely on account of his real or presumed racial, ethnic, or any other identity.