Wednesday 5 December 2012

Book Note: Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13

When I was a child, I picked up a habit my parents had. Whenever they met a new person from Europe they tried in a roundabout way to figure out where that individual had been during World War II.  My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who ended up in Britain, where he married my Scottish mother. So they always wanted to know where the latest European immigrant had been and what his or her political views were. We went to a Polish doctor, for example, because we knew she had been in the resistance against the Nazis and later in a Nazi concentration camp. Other Europeans did the same thing when they met us, trying to place my father’s accent and find out his history so they could figure out whose side he might have been on.
I was reminded of this when I read the brilliant set of short stories, Siege 13, by one of my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, Tamas Dobozy of the Department of English and Film Studies. Tamas’ book recently won the Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was also a finalist for the 2012 Governor-General’s Fiction Award. One of the stories in Siege 13, “The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” also won the 2011 O’ Henry short story award.
Some of Tamas’ stories are set in Budapest during the siege of 1944-5, when Soviet and Nazi troops (the latter with their indigenous Hungarian Arrow Cross allies) battled for control of the city. Desperate to save his life, one character in Siege 13 deserts one side for the other, killing his closest comrades in the process, trying as hard as possible to become one of the winners. Bodies lie in the streets, buildings topple, food disappears, families disintegrate, people lose their limbs in the fighting and beg others to kill them. In one story, it seems as though a family, unable to absorb the death of a son, decides to adopt two other young men. The family even pretends one of the young men is the actual dead son, although clearly he is not and may well be, from his looks and his language, a young German. In another story, a family emigrates to Canada but is haunted by the memory of a relative raped multiple times by Soviet soldiers during the siege, to the point where the women of the family, consumed by guilt, convince themselves that they see the rape victim alive, well, and rich in Toronto. Meanwhile, in the post-WWII Communist gulag, men designated as “cows” are taken along by escaping prisoners to be killed and eaten en route (as they hope) to freedom. And a woman in Budapest tells a visiting Canadian about a mythical “Museum of Failed Escapes”, full of balloons, boats and other paraphernalia created by would-be escapees from communist rule.
Several of the other stories are set in Canada in the Hungarian immigrant community. “Who is who?” and “where were you during…?” are questions everyone asks, whether of people’s allegiances and whereabouts during the siege or in the cruel aftermath of WWII under communist rule. A popular character at a Hungarian social club is “outed” as a former censor for the Soviet-backed regime. Even much younger children of émigrés are obsessed with Hungary; one character spends his time pretending that he has pictures of various Hungarian assassins. A young child tries to build a doomsday machine, as if he is genetically encoded with the doomsday siege of his ancestor’s beautiful city.
These days, it is fashionable among academics to who work in “post-conflict” societies to speak about ways to achieve reconciliation among various factions who in the recent past were busy killing each other. Some scholars admire the policy in Rwanda, where people are not permitted—by law—to identify each other as Hutu or Tutsi. In 1994 Hutu extremists murdered somewhere between 500,000 and one million Tutsi: this was the most extreme of a series of reciprocal genocides of Hutu by Tutsi in Burundi, and of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda, since independence in the late 1950s. I have always doubted that the Rwandan policy will actually facilitate “reconciliation.” My guess is that everyone knows exactly who is who in Rwanda, even if they aren’t permitted to say it aloud. Tamas Dobozy’s book is a forceful reminder of how deep political antagonisms are and how long they last. Maybe, you might argue, if the Hungarians had had some sort of truth and reconciliation commission after independence from Communist rule in 1989, these antagonisms might be forgotten. Maybe they are being forgotten anyway as the older generations die off and the younger ones enjoy freedom and the chance to make money.  But then we see the rise of Jobbik, the neo-fascist political movement in Hungary, which persecutes the Roma and is highly suspicious of Jewish Hungarians.
If I lived in Hungary now I would be reverting to my childhood ways, trying to figure out who is who, ethnically and politically. And I surely would not want to “reconcile” with the Jobbik fascists, any more that I would with both the fascist and the communist perpetrators of mass atrocities in Budapest during WWII. The Siege, with its portraits of bitterness, fear, cowardice, opportunism, and perpetual deep mourning, provides better insight into human nature than much of the optimistic literature on reconciliation.

Monday 26 November 2012

Capitalism Good, Communism Bad—except for prison labour! IKEA and the East German police state.

An IKEA in Dresden, Germany. Retrieved from
I maintain a website on political apologies, which can be accessed here: I define political apologies quite broadly to include apologies by private entities such as churches and corporations as well as governments. Last week I read an article by Kate Connolly in Toronto’s Globe and Mail (see reference below) about one such apology. Peter Betzel is the head of the German branch of IKEA, the furniture and houseware giant based in Sweden. He has issued an apology to former East German political prisoners who while in prison had to manufacture products for IKEA. You can read the same article here, in the British paper, the Guardian:
East Germany was not a nice place. Spying was rife and the political police, the Stasi, were everywhere. Punishments for not being “loyal” to the Communist Party were draconian. From what I’ve read, a favorite punishment was to remove, or threaten to remove, children from their parents’ care if the parents did not toe the line. That’s what happened to one of the prisoners mentioned in Connolly’s article, whose three-month-old baby was taken away from her.
A standard punishment for not fulfilling your quota of IKEA products in the course of a day was solitary confinement. One of the prisoners mentioned in Connolly’s article, Alexander Arnold, said that if you produced less that 80 per cent of your quota, you’d be thrown into an isolation cell for ten days. The quota wasn’t for a standard eight-hour working day, either: the day was much longer than that. Such isolation is a form of torture. Imagine if you had to spend ten days, or even one day, without seeing or speaking to anyone. Arnold said he still has nightmares about his time in solitary.
Some people can endure solitary confinement. When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s, my parents had a friend from the then Czechoslovakia. He spent eight years in Communist prisons as punishment for trying to help someone else escape the country.  Seven years were spent working in mines without proper protective equipment. One year was in solitary confinement. He was a wonderful human being, warm and open, who eventually made a good life for himself in Canada in the hotel industry. But very few people can survive what he survived under such awful conditions and come out as whole, psychologically stable, friendly people. For some individuals, even one day in isolation can do serious damage.
My guess is that IKEA was not the only company to use East German prison labour. Just as we’ve learned over the years than many private German corporations were complicit in Nazi exploitation of slave labourers (Jewish, Polish, and others), so we will probably learn that East Germany sold its prisoners’ services to many Western capitalist corporations. And despite the efforts of many non-governmental organizations over the last two or three decades to monitor the buying habits of major retailers of consumer goods, corporations are probably still using products made by prison labour now. This is OK if the prisoners are well-treated, paid a reasonable wage, and not punished for not meeting quotas. It’s better to work than do nothing. But it’s not OK if conditions resemble the ones that prisoners had to endure in East Germany.
The German branch of IKEA owes compensation to each and every prisoner it employed, and lots of it, even if it employed them inadvertently and indirectly. Until that compensation is paid, I plan to boycott IKEA and I think that other people should do so as well. An apology is not enough.
Reference: Kate Connolly, “IKEA apologizes for prison labour,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), Nov. 17, 2012, p. A26.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Tess and the Republican Crazies

I belong to two women’s book clubs, and recently for one I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, originally published in Britain in 1891. This was a scandalous book for its time.
Tess’ father, John Durbeyfield, is a layabout who discovers that his ancestors were a powerful family named d’Urberville. Seeking to ingratiate himself with a wealthy family of the same name, he sends his innocent daughter Tess to work for them (not knowing that they are an upstart family that took the name just to make themselves seem important). The son of the house, Alex d’Urberville, rapes Tess when she is asleep. She returns home pregnant and has a son, who soon dies.
Sometime later, Tess goes to work in a dairy, where she meets a clergyman’s son named Angel Clare (what could be more indicative of his own innocence?) who is training to become a farmer, and they fall in love. On their wedding night (before consummating the marriage) Angel confesses to Tess that he is not actually “pure”: he had a two-day relationship with a woman. Tess, confusedly thinking that the same rules apply to women as to men, then confesses that she was raped.  Angel leaves her, telling her that her “real” husband is Alex.
Now poverty-stricken and without hope, Tess goes back to work on a farm. Soon she encounters Alex again. He has had a temporary conversion to evangelical Christianity, during which phase he proposes to Tess to make amends for the rape. When Tess tells him that in fact she is married, Alex replies that he is her true husband and convinces her that Angel will never return for her. Tess eventually goes off with Alex: when Angel returns soon after, she kills Alex and hides with Angel for three weeks before being discovered and eventually hanged. Angel, it is implied, then marries her truly “pure” younger sister.
So what we learn from this book is that only 121 years ago in the United Kingdom, if a man raped a woman he became her true husband. We abhor this kind of thing now, when we read about marriage-by-rape being practiced in some parts of the world. Yet we still have to fend off the Republican crazies who argue that rape can’t produce babies or that if a child results from rape, it is “God’s will.” According to the New York Times, Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee for Missouri, said in August that in a “legitimate rape” (by which he presumably meant a “real” rape) women’s bodies blocked off pregnancy: Apparently Akin missed biology class as a youngster. Then Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate for Indiana, said in late October that it was “God’s will” if women became pregnant as a result of rape: So from their point of view, when Alex raped Tess it wasn’t a “legitimate” rape and she must have somehow consented, and anyway  it was God’s will that she became pregnant.
This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These two Republican crazies were defeated in the November 6, 2012 Presidential election and apparently the Republicans are now thinking about whether it is a good idea to alienate every American voter who is not white, older and male. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the Republicans not only had a candidate who thought that rape could not cause pregnancy, but also had an earlier debate among the various men contending to become the Presidential candidate about whether women should have access to birth control.
Without birth control, women are slaves to their own bodies. It is bad enough that there is still no universal right in international law for women to use birth control. Instead CEDAW (the clumsily named Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which came into force in 1981) says in its Article 16, 3, e that men and women have equal rights to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” Much good that does women when there is a disagreement with their men. Women should have an absolute right to use birth control, whether their male partners agree or not. And while I regard abortion as a social tragedy and wish for a time when no women would ever want one, in the world we live in now, women absolutely need the right to abortion on demand. Women have to control their own reproduction if they are to be able to support themselves and the children they freely choose to have.   
I was somewhat active in the struggle for women’s rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  By accident, I even took part in one of the first huge marches for women’s rights in New York City in 1970 or 71. Like many women of my generation, I thought that debates about whether women “asked for” rape, or whether they should have access to birth control, had been long settled in North America, even if in many parts of the world women still don’t have the right to abortion. I don’t relish the idea of having to go out on the streets again when I am in my 70s or 80s to defend women’s rights.

Monday 5 November 2012

Unfree Labor in Canada

When I was a child in the 1950s, my mother told me she had a sister who had gone with her husband to live in Australia via a program called “assisted passage.” As I then understood it, a farmer had assisted their emigration from Britain by paying for part or all of the cost of their transportation to Australia, in return for which they had to work for him for two years. In my child’s mind, I thought this was very generous of the farmer. But in 1999, I finally met this aunt. When I asked her about her two years working for the farmer, she told me it was like being a slave.
Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, Ontario. Retrieved from
So I was interested in the research that Jenna Hennebry and Janet McLaughlin, two of my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, have conducted on temporary workers in Canada. I live in the province of Ontario, where much farm labor is done by temporary workers from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Mexico. These workers—mostly men—come to Canada year after year to work on our farms, but they are not permitted to migrate permanently. They stay every year for as long as eight months without their families, then they have to go home. They are not permitted to change jobs; they are tied to the employer who sponsored their migration and they have to live on the employer’s property. Although technically speaking they have some rights to health care, they often have no transportation to get to doctors and they are afraid that if they take sick time their employers will fire them. Employers can fire them at will: they don’t have to give cause; and as soon as you are fired, you have to go home. So it’s also not a good idea to complain about your working or living conditions, or your employer may decide to get rid of you and you will be deported.
According to Janet and Jenna, temporary farm workers in Ontario are not allowed to join trade unions; they are also excluded from provincial regulations about maximum hours and overtime pay. They are obliged to pay taxes and pay into the employment insurance program, even though they can’t benefit from it since they have to return home if they are unemployed. Not surprisingly, most of these hard-working people whom the Canadian government doesn’t want to stay in the country are Latinos or people of African descent.
Temporary workers in Canada aren’t slaves or even indentured laborers: they can quit their jobs if they want and go home. They are paid –often minimum wages—and their housing, such as it is, is provided for them. Technically speaking, their governments are supposed to protect them if they are abused in Canada. But in fact they are caught in a system that tells them that no matter how hard they work in Canada and how long, they can never migrate here. Yet our government claims that it wants people to migrate to fill gaps in our labor supply. “Canadians” born and bred don’t like farm labor jobs, which can last for many hours a day during harvest time.
Horacio Gallegos, a Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, ON 2002, retrieved
Also, like many other Western industrialized countries, Canada hasn’t signed the 1990 United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. It seems that migrant-sending countries want migrant protection, but migrant-receiving countries don’t. Canada likes to boast about how it’s a country built on immigration, but it favors highly educated, highly skilled migrants, preferably those who can bring money into the country. Poor people, even if they work hard and can already speak English (in the case of Ontario) aren’t as popular, even though there is a shortage of Canadians willing to do unskilled farm labor. My guess is the reason the government doesn’t want to accept these workers as permanent migrants is that it would have to pay them unemployment benefits during the off-season.  And since they work such long hours, they might also become permanently ill as a consequence: by shipping them home, the government off-loads their health costs onto other governments or onto the workers themselves. Janet and Jenna say that seriously ill or injured workers are usually returned home.
Right now it’s fashionable to urge people to “eat local,” especially to eat food produced within 100 miles of where you buy it.  The idea is that your food will be healthier and you will support local farmers. But as far as I can determine from Jenna and Janet’s work, the farmers I would support if I followed the “eat local” policy might well be exploiters of temporary workers.  If I really care about human rights, I would do better to boycott Ontario farmers!

Jenna A. Hennebry and Kerry Preibisch. “A Model for Managed Migration? Re-Examining Best Practices in Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.”  International Migration, 2009.

Janet McLaughlin, “Classifying the ‘ideal migrant worker’: Mexican and Jamaican transnational farm workers in Canada.” Focaal--Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology,  vol. 57, 2010, pp. 79-94.

Janet McLaughlin and Jenna Hennebry, “Managed into the Margins: Examining Citizenship and Human Rights of Migrant Workers in Canada,” chapter prepared from Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts, eds. Slippery Citizenship, in progress.

Monday 22 October 2012

Canada's Crime Creation Policy

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in Parliament, retrieved from
On  August 2, 2012 I posted a blog on torture in American prisons. Lest it be thought that I like to criticize the Americans but not my own country, I want to point out that our current Conservative government is engaged in a policy to ensure more crime in Canada. The government thinks that the way to combat crime is through stiffer sentences, even though we know that “tough-on-crime” policies fail and even though Canada’s crime rate has been falling since 1992 and is now at the same level as 1972, according to an article by Gloria Galloway in the Globe and Mail. The government  has instituted minimum sentencing rules that don’t give judges the discretion to take the particular circumstances of the offender into account; some judges have refused to abide by these rules, saying they violate our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet data on recidivism rates show that offenders given non-prison punishments are much less likely to reoffend than those who are incarcerated, according to an article in The Walrus, a Canadian monthly, by Edward Greenspan, a prominent Toronto lawyer, and Anthony Doob, a criminologist.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners say that “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself,” but our prisons are now so overcrowded that double-bunking in cells built for one is common. In fact, according to Galloway, it’s so bad that the president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, Pierre Mallette, is complaining. With serious overcrowding, fights and other disruptions are more frequent and guards have to rely more on firearms. Mr. Mallette is also worried that there aren’t enough educational programs for the inmates, who will be released one day into the community without the resources they need to survive without committing more crimes. Yet the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for prisoners also say that “further education shall be provided to all prisoners” and that  “recreational and cultural activities like sports, music and other hobbies shall [also] be available to all prisoners.” Without these programs, there will be more mental illness, more fighting, and more attacks on guards; and more former prisoners will return to crime upon their release.
And then there are the aboriginal prisoners. With more incarceration and higher rates of recidivism the crime rate will undoubtedly increase in aboriginal communities. And one can predict that there will be even higher rates of suicide than the shockingly high rates that already exist among aboriginals, when prisoners are released into the community without the resources to fend for themselves.
Meantime, the same government that has opened an Office of Religious Freedom in its foreign affairs department has decided to cut the number of chaplains available in our prisons by eliminating paid part-time positions Yet according to an article by Jill Mahoney in the Globe and Mail, most of the paid full-time positions are for Christian chaplains, while 18 of the 49 part-timers are members of minority religions. The government thinks Christians can minister to all prisoners, even providing services for all of them. I am sure the Christian chaplains would do their best to minister to prisoners’ psychological and social needs, but how can a Christian chaplain conduct a Muslim, aboriginal or other service, or recite the correct prayers? I guess our current government supports freedom of religion for everyone except people in Canadian jails.
Canada has the resources to take care of our prisoners, we have the trained personnel, and we have the chaplains. But we also have a government that won’t look at the evidence and that uses a purported surge in crime to garner the populist vote. God help us all when the crime rate rises as a result of these policies.

Gloria Galloway, “Overcrowding makes life dangerous for workers and inmates in prisons,” Globe and Mail, September 14, 2012.
Edward L. Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob, “The Harper Doctrine: Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal,” The Walrus, September 2012, pp. 22-26.
Jill Mahoney, “Prisons to lost non-Christian chaplains,” Globe and Mail, October 6, 2012, p. A16.
Thanks to:
 Andrew Basso for helping me with the research for this post.

Monday 8 October 2012

Genocide Denial 2012: Pol Pot Revisited

A few days ago Chris Alcantara, one of my colleagues in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, forwarded me an article by one Israel Shamir in a newsletter called CounterPunch, entitled “Pol Pot Revisited.” You can find it at Chris suggested I might want to reply to Shamir’s genocide denial. Shamir seems to think that all the evidence of genocide and mass atrocities that has accumulated since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 is false.
Stupa filled with skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at Choeung Ek,
retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Yet every scholar of genocide and of Cambodia that I have ever encountered agrees that the Khmer Rouge perpetrated genocide against ethnic and religious minorities (Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslim Chan) and politicide against ethnic Khmer whom they viewed as their opponents; they also cleared out Phnom Penh, the capital, in order to implement a radical, so-called “peasant,” revolution. Shamir admires the Khmer Rouge for its attack on Phnom Penh, which he thinks was a cesspool of money-grubbing capitalists. He doesn’t mention the horrible deportations of all its residents in the space of three days, the deaths of children, the elderly, and the sick on the forced march to the countryside. He doesn’t mention that both urban and rural ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese were murdered en masse. The Cambodians may be “peaceful and relaxed” in 2012, as he claims -- though I doubt that those who live in poverty and insecurity spend much time being relaxed—but they definitely were not in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge were not peaceful; they were cruel and brutal. Their victims were certainly not relaxed: they worked ferociously long hours in the countryside, and in the hours they were not working somehow had to find food to supplement their extremely meager rations without getting into trouble for “stealing” roots and weeds. Child prisoners were neither fed, educated, nor cared for in any way; they died en masse as slave labourers.
Mass graves at Choeung Ek, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Shamir’s piece reads like a leftover from Stalinist days. He says that the memorial of the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, which he visited, “recalled other CIA-sponsored stories of Red atrocities, be it Stalin’s Terror or the Ukrainian Holodomor.” Timothy Snyder says in his recent book, Bloodlands, that about three million people died of starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33. Stalin’s official stole Ukrainians’ crops and exported food overseas while Ukrainians starved.  There’s also plenty of evidence that Stalin’s purges and political terror caused millions to die, though the exact figures aren’t yet known. As well as reading Bloodlands, Shamir should read The Black Book of Communism.
I have a question for the editors of Counterpunch. There’s plenty to criticize about capitalism and globalization. I am sure Shamir is correct in saying that Cambodian women manufacturing T-shirts for the world market earn very little and are not permitted to unionize. I’m also prepared to accept his assertion that Cambodian forests are being denuded of valuable trees. Shamir is also correct that the Americans bombed Cambodia ferociously (and illegally) during their war against the Viet Cong in the early 1970s, that many peasants fled to the capital to avoid the bombing, and that to understand what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970s we have to take the American bombing into account. But why also publish genocide denial? Even if every person who was murdered, tortured to death, or died of starvation or dehydration in Cambodia from 1975 to79 had been a blood-sucking capitalist, it would still be genocide. You’re not allowed to engage in the mass murder of any social group.
Bones of Khmer Rouge victims, retrieved from
Wikimedia Commons
But I also have a question for myself: should I even bother, as I am doing now, to reply to Shamir? Is it better to reply or just ignore such an obvious denial of what every reputable scholar of the field acknowledges as genocide? I certainly can’t reply in this short blog to everything Shamir claims as truth. And it’s all the more surprising that Shamir himself writes what he does, since he knows that former Khmer Rouge members still hold power in Cambodia. Shamir tells us that the Cambodians he met on his short trip there “have no bad memories of [the Pol Pot] period.”  But he tells us this despite acknowledging later in his article that “the present government does not encourage…digging into the past, and for good reason: practically all important officials above a certain age were Khmer Rouge members, and often leading members.”
There’s one interesting little factoid in this piece though.  Shamir tell us that Cambodian factory workers earn about $80.00 per month, which may well be accurate. Then he tells us that “NGO reps earn in one minute the equivalent of a wormer’s monthly salary.” I did the math: at $80.00 per minute times 60 minutes per hour times 40 hours per week, that works out to $192,000 per week for “NGO reps.” A great opportunity for young activists starting out in life with massive student debt!
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Stéphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Sunday 30 September 2012

The Newsroom: Finally Great Political Television

These past couple of weeks my husband and I have been watching season 1 of a cable television show, The Newsroom. This is great political television, based on real events shortly after they occur: for example, Obama’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 (leading to an interesting discussion between my husband and me: why wasn’t Bin Laden arrested and put on trial? Why wasn’t the press allowed to see his body?)
Retrieved from
This program consistently raises questions that television is usually too frightened to address, even the US Public Broadcasting System. Last night in the episode I watched, the news anchor, a character called Will McAvoy, asks why baseball players can be indicted for perjury if they lie to a Congressional Committee, but Presidential candidates aren’t indicted for perjury if they lie to the American people. Good question. The Republicans are trying to get more of the female vote despite their anti-abortion and even anti-birth control policies (shades of the 1950s). According to the Economist, they claim that 92 % of the job losses under Obama’s Presidency were women’s jobs. But the Economist says this isn’t so: there are only 29,000 fewer “women’s” jobs than when Obama took over. And even these losses were causes in large part by the Republicans’ cutting stimulus packages to local governments, causing job losses in education.
In another segment the anchor asks a fictional spokesman for Mitt Romney how exactly Romney’s marriage has been adversely affected by gay marriage. This is a question I have often asked: how exactly does gay marriage adversely affect straight marriages? I live in a country that’s had gay marriage since 2006, and as far as I know not a single heterosexual marriage has been endangered in any way. I did once see a gay man from California claim on television that he and his partner were threatening the straight marriages on his street, because ever since they moved onto the block, the wives had been criticizing their husbands for not keeping their houses in as good repair as the gay couple! But that’s the only adverse effect I ever heard of.
In yet another segment of The Newsroom, the economics reporter has a running battle with the producer over air time. The economics reporter wants to report on Congress’ unwillingness to raise the US government’s debt ceiling which, if you can remember back to 2011, threatened another collapse of the US economy. According to my economist husband, if the US had not raised its debt ceiling it would have had to default on its bonds. This would have increased future investor uncertainty, because of the added risk that it would default in the future: to counter that, the US would have had to offer higher interest on its future bonds.
Meantime, the producer is forced to devote time to a case of a cute little (white) two-year-old girl allegedly murdered by her mother. Finally, a character comes on the TV and recites statistics on the extent of child disappearances and murders, and points out that equally horrific murders of black children go un-noticed by the media.
All these episodes are intelligently written, serious looks at what is wrong with US politics and mass media. I could do without the hysterical outbursts by the female lead, as if women executives can’t always be businesslike, but must occasionally revert to their “innate” emotional characters. Otherwise, The Newsroom is great television.
Reference: “Battle of the Sexes,” Economist, September 15, 2012, p. 25.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?
The other day I was teaching my first class on human rights for the fall 2012 term, leading my class on a quick march through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of my students questioned whether labour rights should be included as human rights. Article 23, 4 of the UDHR specifies that “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” Article 8 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights further specifies that everyone has the right to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice. It also ensure the right to strike, though it modifies it by saying the right to strike must be “exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country.”
At my current place of employment, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where I have worked since 2003, I am a member of a union. I don’t agree with everything the union decides, but I am grateful for its protection and for the long hours that union executives put in negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions. From 1976 until 2003 I worked at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. There as well, executives of the Faculty Association put in long hours negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions, but because we were not unionized we could not threaten to strike. I also remember as a young faculty member feeling constrained about what I could say at faculty association meetings because the vice-Presidents and Deans—effectively my bosses—could attend the meetings.
When my student questioned labour rights, another said that perhaps they were useful rights in the past but were no longer necessary. But it seems to me that they are more necessary than ever before. As union membership rates decline in Canada and the US, so also many more people are forced to rely on poorly paid jobs. Adults supporting families often work at two or three poorly-paid, non-unionized part-time jobs. Without unions, employees can’t negotiate for higher wages or for enough hours to entitle them to benefits such as supplementary health insurance. This is one of the major reasons why inequality is widening in Western countries. Its’ not just that the rich are getting richer: it’s that members of the middle class are falling into the ranks of the insecurely employed. Meantime, the stable industrial working class is declining and many of the people who used to work in unionized industries can’t find new jobs. Even highly educated people in high-tech jobs are vulnerable to market fluctuations with little protection, without unions to negotiate conditions for them.
And labour rights are not only necessary in the West. They are even more necessary as a result of globalization. The new industrial workers in export processing zones often live in appalling conditions in company compounds and work extremely long hours especially in periods of high demand for the products they make, as Naomi Klein has documented in her book No Logo.  Women workers are often subject to sexual harassment, even rape, and they are fired if they are pregnant. Recently  hundreds of workers died in a clothing factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. According to The Economist (September 15, p. 7), "The building apparently had no emergency exits, and the windows were covered with metal screens." This was similar to the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 in which over a hundred women and girls died, and which helped to strengthen the American labour movement.
So labour rights aren’t old-fashioned rights, as my student suggested. They are urgently needed all over the world, as more and more people are employed in light industry and service jobs. We need international unions for employees of McDonald’s, or Starbucks, or Wal-Mart. And we need laws mandating that employers must consult the representatives of unions when they make major decisions. The desire for profit must not be allowed to completely over-ride the well-being of workers, any more than it is allowed to over-ride the well-being of consumers.
Economies can still evolve and prosper even when there are strong trade unions. Indeed, they will be more prosperous because workers will also be consumers. This doesn’t mean trade unions are always in the right and that their judgements should never be questioned, but it does mean that they are necessary to preserve human rights.

Note: When I originally posted this blog, I said the recent factory fire was in Bangladesh, not Pakistan.  My apologies.

Another note: On November 25, 2012, there was a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh. Many women died.

Yet another note. In mid-April, 2013 an estimated 400 garment workers died in Bangladesh when a building collapsed. Inspectors had warned the owners of the building the day before the collapse that there was a crack in the structure, and it was unsafe. The owners told the workers to go to work anyway. As I write this (April 29, 2013) one building owner has been arrested while trying to flee to India.

The low-budget Canadian chain, Joe Fresh (part of Canada's food giant, Loblaws) bought clothes from the factory where the 400 workers died, so now ther's a lot of discussion in the Canadian press about what concerned Canadians should do.  I agree with those commentators who say we shouldn't boycott Bangladeshi-made products; despite terrible working conditions, long hours, and extremely low pay, many Bangladeshi workers, especially women, are better off with these jobs than without.  But we should pressure Loblaws to oblige its suppliers to pay their workers more and ensure better working conditions.
Reference: Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000)

Tuesday 11 September 2012

North Korean Slave Labour
Camp 25 in the North-East of North Korea as seen from a satellite in May 2012.  The facility has significantly increased in size since 2003 with a reported prisoner population of 5,000 and with presumed more set to arrive soon.  Solid blue lines represent solid walls and dotted lines represent perimeter fences.
Retrieved from
In this morning’s Globe and Mail (Toronto), reporter Mark MacKinnon has an article on North Korean slave labour in Vladivostok, the site of the recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting.  North Korean workers are common in the Vladivostok construction industry, which according to MacKinnon underwent a $20 billion overhaul before the APEC meeting. MacKinnon interviewed a North Korean worker named Babai, who claims that his pay is much better than in North Korea itself, even though he himself never sees it, despite working 12-15 hour days. Instead, an official from the Korean Workers’ Party collects his pay and sends it back to the North Korean government. Meantime, Babai and other North Korean workers live in  seemingly abandoned apartments and even in an abandoned underground bomb shelter. North Korea is so blatant about this slavery that it even advertises its workers on the Russian equivalent of Craigslist!
I wonder how many of the officials who attended the APEC meeting knew that much of the revitalization of Vladivostok is a result of North Koreans slave labour. Babai and his co-workers are slaves: they are not paid, they cannot leave their jobs, and they are rented out by their owner, the government of North Korea. North Korea has quite a habit of renting out its slave labourers to other countries, including Bulgaria, China, Iraq, Kuwait and Mongolia, according to Human Rights Watch. I’ve written an article. “State Enslavement in North Korea” which can be found here, or here 
There is little we can do about slavery inside North Korea. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people are imprisoned in concentration camps where they produce raw materials and industrial goods for export to earn hard currency, without pay and often on sub-starvation rations. The North Koreans believe in imprisoning three generations of any alleged criminal’s family, so many of these slave labourers are elderly or children. The amount of food they are given depends on how much they produce, so there’s a downward spiral leading to death by starvation: the less you produce, the less you eat, the less you eat, the less you produce, etc. until you die. These prisoners also produce luxury goods for the party élite and the military, and work in mines, quarries, and nuclear facilities. Obviously, they are not issued protective clothing, nor are they allowed days off or rest. Prisoners also perform hard labour by hand, repairing roads or pushing train cars, because North Korea doesn’t have enough functioning machinery. For more on North Korea, see my post on July 27, 2012 reviewing Blaine Harden’s book, Escape from Camp 14.
But even if we can’t stop slavery within North Korea, we can stop North Korean state slavers from renting out slaves to other countries. Slavery has been illegal under international law since 1926, and slavery is a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Yet the Russian government colludes with North Korea to import these workers. The Russian government and all others who “hire” North Koreans through their governments should stop this immediately. And the Russian government should advise local officials and private contractors that they must immediately cease renting these slaves from the North Koreans, or risk arrest.  In the meantime, I wonder if any of the APEC participants will care enough, even in retrospect, to condemn the Russian officials who tolerate this slavery.
Mark MacKinnon, “How Unpaid North Korean labour helped Russia welcome the world,” The Globe and Mail, (Toronto), September 11, 2012, pp. A1 and A19.
Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, “State Enslavement in North Korea” submitted to Joel Quirk and Annie Bunting, eds. Slavery, Human Rights and Development (working title). Available on-line at or at Genocide Watch,, or contact me at for a copy.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Republicans, Community and Hypocrisy

Last week I dedicated three evenings to watching the Republican National Convention. Like many Americans and Canadians, I was appalled.
One theme of the Convention was achieving the “American dream” by your own hard work, without help from anyone else. Another theme was how small business is the backbone of the American economy. Speaker after speaker recounted stories of immigration, hard work, building a small business without relying on any government help. The Convention’s theme was “We Built It,” in reaction to President Obama’s reminder that in fact, no one can build any business in America without government-provided infrastructure such as roads and bridges (and, I would add, sewage systems and clean water, responsible for much North American prosperity).
The first speaker I watched was an African-American woman whose parents immigrated from Haiti, and who by dint of hard work—or so she said—had built up her own business. To me, it seemed that the implied message to African-Americans was “I succeeded, why can’t you: Get off your butts (welfare) and work hard like me.”

Sher Valenzuela speaking in Philadelphia, 4 April 2012
Retrieved from
Another speaker was one Sher Valenzuela, who talked about how she and her husband had built up an upholstery business that now employed 70 workers. No information about how her workers felt about her, how much they were paid, whether they can bargain collectively, etc. Valenzuela implied that she and her husband had built up their business entirely without government aid. But Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times that in fact, the Valenzuelas received $2 million in loans from the Small Business Administration, and another $15 million in noncompetitive government contracts. Valenzuela herself mentioned that some of her business was to build unspecified equipment for the Israeli army, leading one to wonder what kind of upholstery the Israelis need. So in fact, taxpayers paid Valenzuela and her husband $17 million to help their small business.
Back in 1995 I wrote a book, Human Rights and the Search for Community. I argued that there was a significant social trend in the US toward what I called “reactionary conservatism.” Reactionary conservatives look backward to a mythical past, stressing the values of family, religion, and community. I’ve  wondered since then whether I exaggerated, but it turns out I was too charitable. Republicans appear to be interested in family but not community. Families are supposed to hang together to help each other out in times of trouble: It’s OK to draw on your religious community too (although in the Republican world, the only religious communities worth mentioning are Christian or Jewish). But those who can’t make it on their own, the poor, the downtrodden, the ill and the troubled, are responsible for their own fate. If their families and their religious communities can’t help them out, too bad.
Two speakers at the convention, both members of Mitt Romney’s Mormon congregations, talked about how generous he had been to them when they had sick and dying children. I have no doubt he was. But his generosity did not extend to all those people whom his own company, Bain Capital, put out of work. Nor does his, or Republicans’, sense of community seem to extend to anyone outside their own narrow circle.
Paul Ryan (L) and Mitt Romney (R)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, retrieved from
There are lots of reasons to oppose Republicans. As a woman who took part in Canada in the 1960s and 70s in the struggle for access to birth control and abortion, I am appalled at their attitudes to these fundamental rights, without which women are slaves to their own bodies. The Republican “community” excludes not only sexually-independent women, but also gays and lesbians, non-striving immigrants, the unemployed who can’t get back on their feet, and all those who aren’t blessed by good fortune, good health, or everything else you need to “make it” in a competitive society.
I used to joke that given its imperial influence, the entire world should be allowed to vote in US elections. Then, I was thinking about protecting non-Americans from the US, but now I think everyone in the world should be allowed to vote in US elections to protect Americans from the Republicans.  

Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Secret Weapon: All of Us”, the New York Times (distributed by the Hamilton Spectator, Canada), Sept. 1, 2012, p. 15.
Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995, pp. 176-81.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

What is the Global South?

The other day I was having lunch with an old friend who teaches the sociology of the family. She has noticed that lately her students have been using the term “global south” a lot, and she asked me what I thought of it. This gives me the chance to expound on one of my pet peeves. My students use the term “global South” to contrast the world’s rich with the world’s poor and to show their sympathies with the South.  But when I ask them where the global south is, they are stymied.
It’s not a geographical term. Some countries south of the equator are rich, such as Australia and New Zealand. Others are or are becoming middle-income countries, such as Chile. And in the North, there are many poor countries; one of the poorest, Haiti, is in both the North and the West. Another area that is very poor is the Arab Middle East, in the northern half of the world.
Nor is global south an economic term, meant to embrace all “underdeveloped” countries as “southern” regardless of their actual geographical location. Some formerly underdeveloped countries, both in the north and the south, are becoming much wealthier than they used to be when academic concern with underdevelopment first became widespread in the 1970s. About three billion people live in a group of six growing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, some in the north and some in the south. China has been growing in leaps and bounds since it embraced authoritarian capitalism in 1979.  India has been growing since 1991, when it relinquished economic protectionism. China is now an exploiter of Africa, where it grabs up oil and minerals without a concern for internal development or democracy and human rights; it certainly doesn’t belong in the same “south” as the Africa it cheerfully pillages for resources.
Finally, the global south is not a good political term. China is now a major player on the world scene and in the United Nations Security Council, and many commentators think that this century will be the “Asian century” with China in the lead. The emerging economies also have more political clout, especially through the formation of regional political and economic blocs, such as the Organization of American States and the African Union.
When students use the term global south, they often mean to imply that the south is poor because the north is rich; that is, the north has been exploiting the south.  Yet we know that many causes of poverty are internal to the countries that experience it, not external. A few years ago the Arab Development Report, written by Arab scholars, mentioned the lack of democracy as one of the chief causes of underdevelopment in the Arab Middle East. In China there are still gross inequalities between rural and urban areas, and migrants to the cities are treated particularly badly: this is a result of domestic policy, not “northern” exploitation, past or present. In India, much poverty is a result not of relations with the north but of the caste system and severe gender discrimination. In Africa, a chief cause of underdevelopment is government corruption: witness Nigeria, whose hundreds of billions in oil revenues are ripped off by the governing elites and their cronies.
So what it comes down to, as far as I can see, is that the global south is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is in the geographical south, is very poor, and still has very little global political influence. It’s not a good idea, then, to use the term global south. The so-called south is divided by geography, economic prosperity, and political influence. The world is too complex to be divided into two categories, especially when such categories conflate the present with the past.

Friday 10 August 2012

Irresponsible Intellectuals

Karl Marx, 1875
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
This past week I read an old book by Paul Johnson, Intellectuals. It’s about twelve prominent intellectuals, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lillian Hellman (the only woman).  Johnson’s thesis is that to be able to evaluate intellectuals’ theories, you should also understand their private lives. What we learn from this book is that almost all the intellectuals he discusses treated their women in their lives terribly, no great surprise. Also, most of the ones who claimed that they spoke for “the workers” had nothing at all to do with workers, except perhaps their servants and the mothers of their illegitimate children. An example is Karl Marx, who had a son with his household servant but never helped care for him or recognized him as his child.

Johnson’s bias in this book is obvious. He calls the leftist intellectuals with whose ideas he disagrees “intellectuals,” while he reserves the term “men of letters” for more moderate or conservative thinkers. One of his intellectuals is Jean-Paul Sartre, famous for his apologetics for the Soviet Union. When asked about the gulag (the system of Soviet prison camps), he replied, “As we were not members of the Party… it was not our duty to write about Soviet labour camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of this system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” He also admitted lying after visiting the Soviet Union, partly because “it is not polite to denigrate your hosts.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1950
Retried from Wikimedia Commons
While conducting research on the historical backgrounds of the state-induced famines I am currently researching, I found a number of other examples of irresponsible intellectuals. Approximately 3.3 million Ukrainians (and many others) died in the state-induced famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union. Yet British observers such as the socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb travelled through Ukraine at the height of the famine and brought back glowing reports of the harvest. George Bernard Shaw in 1931 “discovered that Stalin was a fine fellow and that everyone in Russia had plenty to eat.” Walter Duranty, a reporter for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting on the Soviet Union. He claimed in November 1932 that there was “neither famine nor hunger,” yet he was aware of the famine’s extent, privately telling both American diplomats and fellow journalists that as many as ten million people might have died of hunger. He finally admitted in the press in 1933 that there were food shortages in the Soviet Union, but famously defended Soviet policies by stating that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
As in Ukraine, Western journalists were either duped or closed their eyes to what was happening during the Great Leap Forward in China, 1958-62. When asked by editors at Look magazine to investigate reports of famine, the American journalist Edgar Snow blamed the reports on Cold War propaganda, and in his later memoirs wrote “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph.” The leftist French politician—and later President of France--François Mitterand, visited Mao during the Great Leap Forward and later reported uncritically Mao’s contention that there was no famine, only “a period of scarcity.”
Leftist intellectuals also disregarded the plight of the Cambodians during Khmer Rouge rule, 1975-79. In their single-minded mission to expose the United States’, but not other states’, violations of human rights, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman referred in 1979 to a “propaganda campaign” that they maintained ignored “interpretations of developments in Cambodia that departed from the theme of systematic genocide.”
Slavoj Žižek, 2009
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
And now we have to ask about the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek. According to an article in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of Books by John Gray, Žižek thinks neither Mao nor the Khmer Rouge went far enough in their attempts to create new, revolutionary societies. Gray quotes Žižek referring to revolutionary violence as “divine” and “redemptive.” If Žižek really celebrates violence as Gray suggests, does it matter? Is he merely an obscure intellectual whose influence is limited to those who actually ready the International Journal of Žižek Studies, but whose thinking doesn’t influence anyone in the real world of policy-making? Liberals, and those who value human rights, are proponents of freedom of speech, while university scholars like me also try to protect academic freedom at all costs.  But do we have a responsibility not to glorify violence and not to ignore evil? I think we do.

Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, quotesfrom Sartre on pp. 243 and 244.
John Gray, “The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek,” New York Review of Books, vol. 59, no. 12, July 12, 2012, pp.22-24.