Monday, 5 December 2016

Sultan Trump: Personalist Rule in the USA

Sultan Trump: Personalist Rule in the USA

Back in 1982, when I was still specializing in African studies, a very important new book was published. Edited by Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rotberg, it was called Personal Rule in Black Africa: Prince, Autocrat, Prophet, Tyrant (University of California Press)

At the time, many scholars were trying to figure out why so many African countries did not become democratic after they gained their independence from colonial rule. The reason, the authors in this book argued, was that African “big men” were personalist rulers. They didn’t care about laws, political institutions, or consistency in public policy. All they did was decide on a personal basis who got what when. And often the people who got— who were given profits, land, mines, slaves, women, graft from foreign aid—were the big men themselves, their relatives and their friends.
These types of rulers engaged in what the early-20th century sociologist, Max Weber, called kadi justice. The ruler made decisions about justice on an ad hoc, individual basis: he didn’t refer to rational principles and he wasn’t concerned with consistency. This was the type of justice, Weber thought, that Muslim sultans often engaged in.

Max Weber
Kadi rulers still exist, for example in Saudi Arabia. You can go to the local prince’s house, line up for an audience (literally, a hearing) with him, and hope that he’ll be interested in your case and give you justice.  But he can just as easily brush you off or even arrest you for questioning his authority or complaining about one of his relatives or cronies.

Donald Trump is now a “big man,” the biggest in the world. His idea of justice is to dish out goodies to his family and cronies. He’s brought in some of the richest men on Wall Street to his government, even though throughout the election he decided Hillary Clinton’s alleged ties to Wall Street. He’s behaving just like the personalist rulers in Africa who smile smugly as they dispense billions of dollars in graft to their families, ethnic kinsmen, and friends. And who occasionally dole out a few dollars or privileges to the “little men” who beg them for help.

And it seems that what Trump would really like to be is a sultan. He showed that last week (end of November, 2016) when he negotiated a deal with a company called Carrier to preserve about 1,000 jobs in Indiana. The employer had been threatening to move the factory to Mexico. To save the jobs, he promised the parent company, United Technologies, about $7 million in incentives. You can read about the deal here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/donald-trump-carrier-workers-indiana-1.3875277  
So now Trump feels good: 1000 people and their families are grateful to him and many voters think that he is able to keep his promise to keep jobs in the USA, despite technological developments and despite globalization. Those 1,000 people, though, will probably lose their jobs fairly soon, as the other 1100 people working for Carrier in Indiana already have. Meantime, other companies have learned that if they threaten to move out of the US, they too may receive goodies from Trump in return for staying.

When Trump did this deal with Carrier he ignored precedent, he ignored consequences, and he ignored the actual policies of the US government.  He preferred crony capitalism, a characteristic of states where rich people and political leaders are cronies. He was completely oblivious to what Weber called “rational,” or rule-bound, justice. Rational justice applies to everyone and is consistent in its application.

After he negotiated this deal, Trump went on a “thank you” tour, where he once again enjoyed the adulation of the crowds that had voted for him. Sultans do this too. They periodically pick up their tents and travel with great fanfare around the country, where residents cheer them (whether they really want to or not). Like African chiefs who have “praise-singers” to accompany them when they travel, Middle Eastern sultans want praise: power is not enough for them. And God help those who don’t praise them.


And God help not only all those Americans who don’t praise Trump, but even those who do, and who will learn soon enough that having an irrational, personalist ruler means they can’t predict what the future holds for them.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Trump's Victory: A Revolt against Complexity?


Trump’s Victory: A Revolt against Complexity?

Like many Canadians, this morning (November 9, 2016) I woke to the shocking news that Donald Trump is to be the next President of the United States.  I am no expert on American elections, and I am waiting to find out who voted for Trump where and why. Most of the pundits I’ve listened to or read discussed disaffected white male voters lacking a college education. But such people are a relatively small part of the entire American population. To whom else did he appeal?

I think that one appeal he had was to people who want simple solutions to their problems.  “Elite”, “establishment” politicians like Hillary Clinton can’t offer them such simple solutions. 

Trump speaks slowly. He uses simple language (although according to a recent report on the CBC program As It Happens, there was a surge of searches of the Miriam-Webster dictionary for the word “stamina,” after he said Clinton lacked it).  He proposes very simple solutions to very complex problems. He repeats his key phrases ad infinitum. (And he has a reassuringly deep male voice, unlike Clinton, whose voice became higher and more strained as the campaign wore on.)

Trump presents clear explanations and enemies. China is the reason free trade deals don’t work.  Free trade deals deprive Americans of jobs. Illegal immigrants, mostly Mexican, are the reason that Americans can’t get those jobs that remain. Muslims in general cause terrorism. There’s too much crime. All these problems can be fixed by one-step solutions: end free trade, deport illegal immigrants, deny entry to Muslims, let police use stop-and-frisk tactics.

Trump implies that there are simply solutions to complex foreign-policy questions. Hillary Clinton should have known what to do about ISIS, and she didn’t (this is, of course, partly because she wasn’t Secretary of State when ISIS arose).  Trump “alone,” as he frequently said, knows what to do in the Middle East.  He isn’t interested in the Middle East’s complex history, America’s role in destabilizing the region, or the numerous political and military actors involved. Bomb the hell out of them is probably his solution.

Trump is anti-fact. This plays well with people who don’t like evidence, who like to form their opinions based on their prejudices, who don’t like to evaluate the legitimacy of the sources they watch or read.  Facts aren’t just irrelevant; they are an annoying challenge to imagined reality.  Facts are what teachers expect you to consider.

So for Trump and his fans, the “elite” isn’t the rich, including him. The elite is those who insist on complexity, who try to evaluate conflicting pieces of evidence, who refer to empirical facts rather than to prejudices. They are highly educated people.

I’ve seen the same attitude among some of my neighbours and among acquaintances at the gym where I assiduously lift weights three times a week.  I’ve been advised to read the “Clinton Chronicles” instead of mainstream media (actually, I read “elite” media such as The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books). I’ve been told that I would learn that Hillary Clinton does not even have a law degree from Yale, that the Clintons used their time in Arkansas to run drugs into that state, and that the Clinton foundation is stealing billions from Africa. I’ve learned that I should just thank these individuals for the information they offer me and carry on: there’s no use arguing.

In January 2016 I posted a blog discussing whether Trump was a fascist. You can find it here:  http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2016/01/donald-trump-and-fascism-debate.html  I think he does have some characteristics common to earlier fascist regimes, and of course to the nationalist, anti-immigrant right in the United Kingdom, France, Hungary and elsewhere today. But maybe it is not so much fascism as simplicity that is attractive to Trump’s voters. Hitler blamed Jews, modern demagogues blame foreigners like Mexicans, Muslims, and Chinese.

Trump claims he can fix Americans’ problems easily and quickly, implying that the elites he despises could do so too if they weren’t so self-interested. People want to believe him, so they do. As my local paper, the Hamilton Spectator, reminded its readers in an editorial this morning by Howard Elliott, Canada is not immune to Trump’s type of appeal. As Elliott put it, “We should be worried.” http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/6954935-the-spectator-s-view-we-should-be-worried/

Meantime, my biggest worry is that the US will shortly have a President who denies climate change and who thinks that it’s okay for more countries to obtain nuclear weapons. His saner Republican advisors will probably persuade him that the latter isn’t a good idea, but many of them also deny climate change. Climate change is probably too complex for many Republican voters to understand, though for others, mitigation of climate change might lower their profits.

The real elite is the one Trump belongs to: the corrupt, self-interested, tax-avoiding, scofflaw capitalist class.




Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Return by Hisham Matar: Book Notes


The Return by Hisham Matar: Book Note

This week I read Hisham Matar’s The Return (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016). Matar is a novelist of Libyan descent, now in his mid-40s, based in London. The Return is a memoir about his 2012 visit to Benghazi, in Eastern Libya, in the brief period between the overthrow of the dictator Muammar Qadaffi and Libya’s descent into civil war. Matar’s large extended family (he had 130 first cousins) was based in Benghazi and a smaller southern town called Ajdabiya.

Hisham Matar
The purpose of Matar’s visit was to find out what had happened to his father,Jaballa Matar, apparently a democracy activist opposed to Qadaffi. The family had left Libya for Cairo in 1979, where they thought they were safe, but in 1990 Egyptian authorities turned Jaballa over to Libya.  He was probably then incarcerated and tortured in a notorious Tripoli prison called Abu Salim. The family received a few smuggled letters from him until 1996, when the letters stopped. Jaballa was probably killed in a massacre at Abu Salim in 1996. Guards and soldiers took several hours to machine-gun over 1200 prisoners concentrated in six prison courtyards. But Hisham Matar never found out for sure what had happened to his father.

Matar provides some historical background to these events. His description of Italy’s conquest of Libya in the early decades of the twentieth century reminds me of the all the massacres—indeed genocides—by Europeans who conquered Africa. The population of Tripoli fell by one-sixth between 1911 and 1916, as the Italians especially selected “scholars, jurists, wealthy traders and bureaucrats” (p. 32) to murder, exile or imprison. They also established enormous concentration camps in which thousands of starving Libyans were kept in rags. Under Mussolini entire villages were gassed and bombed. Matar’s own grandfather was a tribal resistance leader who for some unknown reason was not assassinated by the Italians. (Matar bases his description of the Italian conquest in part on a book by a Danish journalist, Knud Holboe, who was murdered in Jordan, perhaps by Italian intelligence.)

The sadism practiced by Qadaffi’s regime is also beyond belief. Many family members were unaware until 2002 of the deaths of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers in the 1996 prison massacre. That year officials came to their doors to ask for the “family books” in which each family officially registered birth, marriages and deaths. A few weeks after taking the books, the officials would return them, saying all was in order. Some families checked the books right away, others not till days or even weeks later. When they did, they discovered that “died of natural causes in 1996” had been written over the names of their imprisoned family members.

One mother made a twelve-hour trip every month to see her son in Abu Salim. After 1996 she never saw him again. But every month, the guards would accept the gifts of food, clothing, and soap that she had brought him, and encourage her to come the next month. Not until she examined the family book after the officials returned it in 2002 did she learn that for six years, she had been making futile trips to visit a dead man and supplying guards with goods that they could sell to surviving prisoners or keep for their own families.

Matar’s memoir is a little disingenuous. He never informs the reader of the name of his father’s oppositional “organization” based in Chad. Nor does he inform the reader of the name of the tribe he came from, based in Benghazi. Jaballa Matar was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, which suggests that he was a non-violent activist for democracy. But it would have been nice to have more concrete political information so that one could follow current events in Libya more clearly.

Nevertheless, if, like me, you know hardly anything about Libya, this book is a good place to start. It exposes how truly dreadful Qaddafi’s regime was, and puts the lie to those who nostalgically remember his “orderly” society in these days of civil war. It also introduces the reader to a family of patriotic scholars, poets, engineers and diplomats, an extended cosmopolitan family still strongly rooted in Arab tradition. But this type of family—nationalistic, patriotic, but still tolerant and learned, is fast being destroyed all over the Middle East.  

Thursday, 6 October 2016

White Africans: Is There Such a Thing?


White Africans: Is There Such a Thing?

In the past few days there have been reports in the Canadian and international press about a white farming family that escaped from Zimbabwe to Canada; the father had rights to live here through his grandfather.  Danielle and Mark McKinnon and their three young children fled after various officials and private individuals claimed ownership of their farm. Three years ago, Mark MacKinnon was kidnapped and beaten. They had had enough and decided to leave.

This is just the latest in the sorry tale of expulsions of white farmers from Zimbabwe. While the official myth is that all white owners of large productive farms inherited them from the original British colonists in what was formerly Southern Rhodesia, this is untrue. A substantial proportion of the farmers bought their property legally after independence in 1980.  The government had the right of first refusal on all such sales, and if it decided not to buy, then white (and black) farmers were free to do so.

As it happens, last week I read another tale of white people in Zimbabwe, The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers (published in 2009 by Harmony Books). Rogers’ book is about his white parents, who in 1990 legally bought land near Mutare, Zimbabwe. There they established a backpackers’ resort and also built 16 small chalets for rent. This resort became quite famous and was featured in The Lonely Planet, a guide for inexpensive world travel. Until 2009 Rogers’ parents survived as owners living in their own house, mainly by ignoring what their black African tenants were using their property for; first as a brothel and then as a refuge for illegal diamond traders. I couldn’t discover what happened to them after 2009.

Douglas Rogers
This leads to the question whether white people can be considered indigenous Africans. On one side, Rogers’ ancestors had lived in Africa for 350 years. While nowadays many white Africans take advantage of their residual citizenship rights in places like Ireland, in case they are expelled, Rogers’ parents had no such rights. Nevertheless, at one point his mother was declared effectively stateless. Zimbabwean authorities refused to renew her passport unless she renounced her British and South African citizenship rights. She had no such rights, but she had to visit the South African and British consuls to obtain their certification that she didn’t.

So what does it mean to be indigenous?  We can easily agree that the people who lived in Zimbabwe or South Africa (or Canada or Australia) before Europeans arrived were indigenous to those territories.  But are people who know no other home, who were born and grew up in those countries, and whose ancestors, in many cases, arrived decades or centuries before, also to be considered indigenous? Or does skin color mark you as a permanent outsider?

The legal solution to this problem is to ignore the question of who is indigenous and focus on citizenship rights instead. If a country’s laws says you are a citizen if you are born there or are naturalized there, that should be the end of it.  But some countries allocate citizenship not on the basis of birthplace but of ancestry. You can be born in a country and your parents can be born there too, and still not be a citizen if your most immediate ancestor in that country is from somewhere else. This is the type of law that made it easy for the Nazis to render German Jews stateless in the 1930s, and still makes it difficult for German-born people whose ancestors emigrated from countries such as Turkey to become citizens. 

It seems like Zimbabwe would like to move from citizenship by birthplace to citizenship by ancestry. It’s been applying this criterion not only to white Zimbabweans but to people whose ancestors migrated from places like Malawi. Anything to get rid of people who don’t support Robert Mugabe’s thuggish regime.

The anti-white rhetoric in Zimbabwe under its aged dictator, Robert Mugabe, is outright racist.  As I document in my new book, State Food Crimes, he’s said all sorts of terrible things, stirring populist anger against white people and justifying his campaign of theft of their land. This theft  has resulted in enormous economic upheaval and shortages of food. No matter to Mugabe and his allies: they don’t care.
Robert Mugabe

Populist anger against so-called outsiders is always dangerous, whether it’s Robert Mugabe in Africa or Donald Trump in the United States. In Africa, populist anger against white Africans (and also Asian Africans, in earlier times such as in Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s) has ruined national economies. If populists take power in South Africa and force their indigenous white population to flee, the same thing will happen there.

White Africans are indigenous to Africa. You can’t go on claiming that white people are outsiders because their extremely remote ancestors came from Europe. Calling people “settlers,” despite their birthplaces and despite their legal purchases of land, puts them permanently at risk. Their citizenship rights and their human rights are under constant threat, and the entire society suffers as a result.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Even Silence has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt: Book Note


Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt: Book Note

Recently I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir (published in English in 2010 by Penguin Books) of her six years in captivity with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Betancourt was the leader of the “Green” party in Colombia, campaigning for the Presidency when she was captured in 2002.

Colombia has endured an appalling civil war for 52 years between the government and FARC. The FARC's tactics included taking prisoners for ransom or for negotiating purposes. Ransoms were useful in supporting its activities, although much of its money in later years came from the illegal narcotics trade. Betancourt’s capture was a negotiating tool, as she was a prominent public figure in Colombia. She was also a dual French-Colombian citizen, so the French government was interested in her release.

As a valuable commodity for FARC, Betancourt was not subjected to rape or any other form of sexual abuse, and was able to report a young man—a child soldier—who was peeping at her as she went about her daily business. Nor was she subjected to any violent form of torture.  She was, however, underfed, sometimes deliberately. And after several escape attempts, she spent quite a lot of time in chains. Some of her guards would tighten the chain around her neck if they were displeased with her.

Ingrid Betancourt
The memoir shows how people who might have joined FARC out of poverty, or genuine belief in its original revolutionary ideals, were corrupted by power. The guards used the small amount of autonomy they possessed to humiliate their prisoners in unnecessary ways. Many of the FARC guards were child soldiers, who quickly learned the ways of their elders. Betancourt had some sympathy for the children, especially for the young girls who along with being guards and soldiers put on lipstick and talked of the boys and men they were in love with.  FARC child soldiers do not appear to have been subjected to the same horrible brutalities one reads about elsewhere, such as child soldiers in Sierra Leone or Congo who were forced to kill other children as part of their initiation into rebel armies.

Several things kept Betancourt going throughout this terrible six-year ordeal. One was weekly messages via radio from her mother and sometimes from her children, who were not living in Colombia as it was too dangerous for them: they lived elsewhere with their father. A special radio station delivered these messages, and most of the time the FARC permitted her to listen to them.

Another thing that kept her going was her love for her children.  At various times she persuaded her guards to give her birthday cakes for her children’s birthdays. She and other prisoners, and sometimes guards, would then “celebrate” the birthday, singing Happy Birthday and pretending that the child could hear.

Betancourt was also Roman Catholic, and as far as I could determine, her faith strengthened during her years with the FARC.  Faith is something I do not personally understand, as a life-long atheist, but it clearly sustained her.

Other hostages who were imprisoned with Betancourt disagree with her account of her captivity: some saying that she acted like a “queen bee” and demanded—and received--special privileges from FARC.  I can’t comment on those allegations, as I have only her account to go by. But she strikes me as an exceptionally brave woman, who in very difficult circumstances (including sometimes having to share quarters with several men) managed to maintain her sense of self and her human dignity.

I don’t possess any expertise on Colombian politics, and indeed I didn’t follow Colombia in the news until I read this book. I have met two people from Colombia in my life. One was a recent student, whose family fled to Canada as refugees after the FARC demanded that they give up some land they owned to it. I asked him why they didn’t just give up the land, and he said the FARC would then hound the family for all its possessions, and possibly kidnap them for ransom.

 The other person I met was a human rights activist, a woman in her early thirties. I met her at a seminar in the University of Lund (Sweden) human rights program in 2005. She told me that she had decided never to have children, as they would be at too much risk, given her activities. That struck me then, and now, as an enormous sacrifice.

As it happens, FARC and the government of Colombia are concluding negotiations for a peace treaty as I write this. The treaty is controversial as it includes amnesties for both FARC leaders and military officials who committed atrocities. There will be a national vote on the treaty, and according to the news sources I read, it’s not at all certain that voters will accept it. There’s a huge debate among scholars of what is known as “transitional justice” (or injustice?) about whether people who commit crimes against humanity or war crimes should be given amnesty in the interests of national peace, or forced to stand trial even if convictions will undermine the peace process.  In this case, my guess is that amnesty is necessary for peace, however unjust it is.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Memoirs of a Man's Maiden Years by N.O. Body: Book Note


Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years by N.O.Body: Book Note

Recently my husband and I watched the film, The Danish Girl. The film stars Eddie Redmayne in a brilliant depiction of a man who wants to live as—and eventual to biologically be—a woman. Redmayne is brilliant and would probably have won the Oscar for best actor, had he not won it the year before for his performance as Steven Hawkings, the severely disabled physicist, in The Theory of Everything.
The film is loosely based on the true story of an early 20th century Danish artist, Einar Wegener, later Lili Elbe. He gradually became a she, and lived as a lesbian couple with his wife in Paris.  In 1931 she died after surgery in Germany attempting to transplant a womb into her body.

This movie reminded me of a book by the pseudonymous (obviously) N.O. Body, called Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years, originally published in German in 1907 and republished by the University of Pennsylvania Press in English translation in 2006, almost a century later.  These are the actual—but partially fictionalized-- memoirs of N.O. Body, but with a useful preface by Sandor Gilman and an Afterword by Hermann Simon that explains the actual facts about N.O. Body’s life. The original book was also published under the pseudonym N.O. Body,  taken from the English “nobody.”
The Memoirs are of a person who appeared to have been intersex, not transgender. For those of you who are still not familiar with these terms, intersex people are people born with both male and female organs (external or internal). Transgender people might also be intersex, or they could simply be people who “feel” themselves to be the other gender. Sometimes they live as the other gender without having surgery; other times they may also have surgery. In the case of Wegener/Elbe, the person on whose life The Danish Girl was based, s/he may also have been intersex, possessing residual ovaries.

According to his memoirs, N.O. Body was born with ambiguous external genitalia. Her (as he then was) mother wanted to take the baby to a specialist, but her father refused. So she was raised as a female, despite the fact that both the household servants (who appeared to have been paid off) and other children noticed something odd about her. At the time of puberty, she developed an unusually deep voice for a female and also grew facial hair, while never developing breasts or menstruating. She also developed sexual feelings for females. 
Despite this, N.O. Body continued to live as a woman, taking a job in a city as a shop-girl but then, according to the story, becoming a reporter in Eastern Europe. There she met another woman and fell in love. Fortuitously, according to the story, she eventually met a doctor who examined her and confirmed that she actually was a man who needed a “simple operation” to clarify her/his external genitalia. She had this operation and returned to Eastern Europe to find her true love, who divorced her original husband and married her.

Interestingly, as the Afterword by Hermann Simon explained, this story was also wrapped up in European anti-Semitism. N.O. Body claimed in his memoir to have been born into a Catholic family, but was actually Jewish. Her reporting assignment in Eastern Europe as Marie Baer was to investigate the Jewish “white slave trade” on behalf of a German Jewish agency. His true name was Karl M. Baer, and after he became a man he was the director of the Berlin B’nai B’rith until he left Germany in 1938. The “accidental” meeting with a doctor was actually a consultation with the great German-Jewish sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld. The part about the love affair is true though. After she became a man, Baer returned to Eastern Europe and did indeed marry the woman he loved, although sadly, she died soon after. He remarried but never had children.
Talk about intersex people and transgender people is hard for some people to wrap their heads around, and seems to go against the order of nature. As the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a speech to the  Human Rights Council, an organ of the UN, “I understand…like many people of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues.”  He was firm in his insistence on human rights for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but tactful in the way he introduced this subject to people from many parts of the world where—as in my own parents’ generation in Britain and Europe—you simply did not talk about these things. (you can find the quote from Ban Ki-Moon in a brilliant article by my former student Elizabeth Baisley in Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016, entitled “Reaching the Tipping Point? Emerging International Human Rights Norms Pertaining to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”, p. 159).

I have sometimes talked about homosexuality in seminars with human rights activists from various parts of the world, including Africans and Indonesians, Christians and Muslims. I’ve done this after being warned by colleagues not to do so. I’ve found that these activists are receptive to discussing these topics with me, perhaps because I don’t immediately blame them for not being as “enlightened” as liberal Westerners. I always think of my own parents and the views they held on such taboo issues. If I were to discussion intersexuality and transgenderism in future seminars, I would introduce the subject by referring to N.O. Body’s memoirs and to The Danish Girl.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Misogyny and Motherhood in US Politics


Misogyny and Motherhood in U.S. Politics

Like many Canadians, I spent the last two weeks (late July 2016) glued to my television set, watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. By the end of it, I was sick to death of hearing what a good parent Hillary Clinton was.
Hillary Clinton

I’m a Clinton fan. I am very impressed by her 45-year-long history of public service, starting with her work trying to ensure that schools were desegregated and that children with disabilities attended school.  I am even more impressed that she was US Secretary of State for four very difficult years.  I admire tremendously her organizational and negotiating skills. I can’t understand why as Secretary of State she didn’t separate her professional and personal emails (something that as a professional woman, I routinely do) but I don’t think that disqualifies her from the Presidency. 
I think Ms. Clinton has been given a raw deal in US politics (a raw deal that the Canadian press also picks up on with its insistence on reporting on her supposed “untrustworthiness” instead of all her accomplishments and commitment to the public good).  I think a lot of the hostility to her is outright misogyny; how dare she be so competent, how dare she be so self-confident, how dare she be so cool?  She had to counteract that image and present herself as warm and “human” during the Democratic convention.
So it didn’t surprise me when Michelle Obama started her long speech by talking about how Hillary was a good parent and grandparent, and cared so much for “our children and grandchildren”. But it did surprise me that her entire speech was woven around that theme.  There was a point where she could have switched to Clinton’s accomplishments, her organizational skills, her views on foreign policy, etc.
It also sickened me that Mrs. Obama had to present herself as just a wife and mother. Michelle Obama is a brilliant lawyer, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, but she’s spent the last eight years suppressing her professional qualifications and her intellect, focusing on children, exercise, and a healthy diet. Perhaps she learned from Hillary Clinton’s faux pas in 1992, when Clinton mentioned in an interview that she hadn’t spent her time before the election baking cookies, preferring to focus on her professional career. That should not have been controversial, but it was (perhaps deliberately) misconstrued by the misogynist press as a denigration of housewives.
This nonsense about women politicians having to be good wives-and-mothers does not go on in the rest of the world, as far as I am aware. Recently Teresa May succeeded David Cameron as Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: When her opponent Andrea Leadsom claimed that she would be a better Prime Minister than Ms. May because she had children and Ms. May did not, she suffered a very quick fall from grace. And as far as I know the political fates of Angela Merkel (Germany), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina) have not been tied to their qualifications or lack thereof as mothers, whatever one might think of them.
Angela Merkel
Michelle Bachelet

People who study genocide know that being a good parent doesn’t necessarily make you a good politician or even a good person. By all accounts Rudolf HÓ§ss, the commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, was a good father.  He did his job—killing Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Polish anti-Nazis—during the day and then returned home in the evening to the bosom of his family. Lots of German women, many of them probably excellent mothers, joined the Nazi Party (see Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, The Family, and Nazi Politics, St. Martin’s Press, 1987). So I’m prepared to believe that even an ignorant, racist, narcissistic egoist like Donald Trump might have been a good father (though despite his children’s’ testimonials, I rather doubt it.)
I’m really glad that in my several decades as a professor no one has ever asked me how good a mother I am. When I publish books or receive academic awards my son does not have to show up to testify that I am a good mother; who knows what he would say. As for chocolate chip cookies, the ones he baked as a child were better than any I ever made.  

Professional women should unite to defend Michelle and Hillary against the pressure to present themselves as “just” wives-and-mothers when they are so much else.

Here's a link to an article about how much negative press Clinton is getting, compared both to her former opponent, Bernie Sanders, and to Donald Trump.
 https://www.good.is/articles/hillary-clinton-negative-press


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) is a very long novel (720 pages) that’s been getting a lot of praise.  I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.  Two of my friends have also read it: the one I would have predicted would hate it loved it, and the one I would have predicted would love it hated it. You might not want to read further though, if you haven’t already read the novel, although it isn’t giving much, if anything, away to tell you what it’s about.

The novel’s protagonist, Jude St. Francis, is a highly accomplished man who was severely abused and prostituted when he was a boy.  He is also progressively disabled.  So in excruciating detail you read  about what you probably knew only in passing from news articles about adult male survivors of childhood abuse; many loathe themselves, blame themselves for what happened to them, ask themselves all the time what they did to bring the abuse on. You also get a fictionalized, but I think probably accurate, description of how child victims of sexual abuse are groomed by their abusers. 

And even though it’s a novel, you can’t just turn the page and forget about what happens to these boys, as I do while reading the latest scandal about abuse of boys by trusted authority figures. I spend a lot of time swearing at the Catholic Church when I read these accounts, but it’s not only Catholic “brothers” and “fathers” who do this kind of thing: it’s also teachers, Protestant ministers, rabbis, and a lot of other people to whom we entrust our sons. 

In the case of Jude St. Francis, you also get details, page after page after page, about what it’s like to be progressively more and more disabled.  There’s a lot in the novel about his sense of pride, his unwillingness to admit his disabilities, his determination to manage on his own as long as he can.   

Some decades ago my husband and I watched a television program called The Rockford Files. Rockford, a private investigator, was forever getting beaten up and then just walking away.  So then you begin to think that’s how it really works: it isn’t. A beating can leave injuries and scars that last a lifetime. One of my students was beaten up in the 1980s by members of a motorcycle gang who were angry that they were denied entrance to a student-only pub at McMaster University.  My student just happened to be walking by at the time.  He was severely injured and almost blinded. 

Sexual abuse can leave both physical and psychological scars. For some people, they never go away. The psychological abuse intensifies when people blame themselves, asking themselves constantly if they could have done something else, if they could have avoided their abusers. Many of the people whose accounts are printed in the newspapers mention these feelings of shame and guilt.  Many engage in self-harm and some commit suicide.

If you can take it, A Little Life is a very compelling novel that tells you a lot about abuse and disability. The historian Lynn Hunt in her Inventing Human Rights (W.W. Norton, 2007) argues that the emergence of novels in 18th-century Europe allowed readers to empathize with the fictional characters; this extended to a capacity to empathize with real people in their real environments. This is what A Little Life does; it extends our ability to empathize with abuse survivors and people with disabilities.

One very important criticism of the novel: the cover features a photograph by Peter Hujar called Orgasmic Man. This is absolutely the wrong photograph for this book. One of the saddest lines in it is something like “Being an adult means you never have to have sex again.”

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Mother of Mohammed by Sally Neighbour: Book Note


The Mother of Mohammed by Sally Neighbour: Book Note

Recently my husband and I watched the movie, Eye in the Sky.  It’s about drones: English, American and Kenyan military and political figures are trying to kill some Al-Shabad leaders in Nairobi. The film raises two questions. 

Most centrally, the film asks what is the permitted “collateral damage” (civilians killed in the course of the operation), and what if the civilians are children. The movie also raises the question of the whole morality of long-distance killing. I don’t know whether drone technology is really as sophisticated as the movie makes it appear, but the question of killing children certainly gets an airing, as the film focuses on a cute little girl about eight years old, who may or not be killed if the attack goes ahead.

In this film, one of the objectives of the attack is to kill a woman convert to Islam from the UK, who is implicated in suicide bombings. I wondered if this woman was modeled on an Australian named Robyn (later Rabiah) Hutchinson. This extraordinary person was a normal young woman in the 1970s, partying and smoking dope. Then she travelled to Indonesia and converted to a rather benign form of Indonesian Islam in order to marry. That marriage failed, and she then married another Indonesian adhering to a stricter form of Islam, this husband was later assumed to be one of the people behind the 2002 Bali bombing. After that marriage failed as well, she had a series of other husbands and eventually had five children. She also raised a grand-daughter.

Unsatisfied with life in Australia, Hutchinson took her younger children to Pakistan and later to Afghanistan, where she joined a compound of Islamists seemingly connected to Osama Bin Laden (who also, it seems, was considering marrying her at one point). She was admired in this community and although lacking medical training was put in charge of the compound hospital. She insisted that in conformity with the teachings of Islam, she be treated with respect by all males. Ordered to marry because single women should not live independently, she did so. 

When the compound was being bombed, Hutchinson refused to leave until her husband ordered her to; she believed in the strict Islamic rule that women should obey their husbands. She escaped with her children to Iran and turned herself in to the Australian Embassy. Unlike her counterpart in the film, the government was eager to have her returned to Australia where she could be questioned, rather than killed or abandoned.  When Sally Neighbour, the author of The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) interviewed her, she was living in a suburb of Sydney, wearing a full burqah, seemingly under the strict eye of Australian security forces.

Psychologically, it appears that Hutchinson needed very strict moral guidelines and rules, which she found in Islam. Despite the fact that she spent almost her entire adult life married to and surrounded by violent Islamists of various sorts, she denied any responsibility whatsoever for their actions, insisting that she was a simple wife and mother. Politics did not interest her, she said. This is a standard women’s trope: wives and mothers are not expected to be aware of, interested in, or responsible for the actions of the men in their lives. According to Neighbour, “Rabiah’s view…was that the jihad against America was ‘Osama’s war.’ She had some sympathy for it, but regarded it as a quite separate undertaking from her own quest to help build an Islamic state.” (p. 251)

I think Hutchinson’s disingenuous claim that all she was doing was minding her own business was appallingly immoral, but women seem to get away with that more than men do.  If we want equality, we have to be equally aware of the world around us and equally responsible to notice and remedy injustice and violence. In her early life Hutchinson was attracted to a romantic vision of jihad, but later in life, enmeshed as she was in violent groups, she chose to close her eyes and ears to what she witnessed. This assumes, of course, that she was telling Neighbour the truth, as opposed to adopting the woman’s role to cover her own criminal activities.

Hutchinson’s two oldest children had spent part of their childhoods in Australia, so when she brought them back there after one of her forays abroad, they broke with her and stayed (although her daughter turned over her own daughter to Hutchinson to raise). I wondered what happened to the other children, so I checked on-line. It appears that in 2014 one of her sons was fighting with a rebel group in Syria, and one of her daughters married a man implicated in terrorism and arrested in Sydney in 2005.

 The Mother of Mohammed  is a fast read, extremely interesting and also scary. I am not an expert on terrorism so I can’t offer any interesting academic insights into the book, but I do recommend it.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Audio Podcast on State Food Crimes


Audio Podcast on State Food Crimes



Readers of this blog over the last four years might have noticed that I have posted several entries on North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Israel and West Bank/Gaza.  That is because I have been writing a book entitled State Food Crimes, which is scheduled for publication by Cambridge University Press on August 15, 2016.



 Recently my colleague Todd Landman of the University of Nottingham interviewed me about this book for a 22-minute audio podcast. The podcast is called “Digesting Food Crimes: is there an appetite for Prosecution?” and is published by The Rights Track: Sound Evidence on Human Rights.  Here is the link:








And here is a brief summary of the book.



Governments sometimes introduce policies that cause malnutrition or starvation among their citizens or others for whom they are responsible. After an introduction on the right to food, Part I discusses historical cases; communist famines (Ukraine 1932-33; China 1958-62; Cambodia 1975-79); and neglect of starvation by democratic states (Ireland 1840s; Germany post-WWI; Canadian Aboriginals 1870s). Part II discusses contemporary starvation (North Korea) and malnutrition (Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and the West Bank and Gaza). Part III uses the cases in Part II to analyse international law (the law of genocide, crimes against humanity, refugee law, and penal starvation); sanctions and food aid, and civil and political rights as they pertain to the right to food. It also includes a chapter on the right to food in advanced capitalist democracies, focusing on Canadian Aboriginals, and concludes with a brief consideration of the need for a new international treaty on the right to food.



If anyone would like to know what I have been working on for the last six years without actually reading the book, this podcast will tell you.  Or you might actually decide to read the book as well!