Speakout is Truthout's treasure chest for bloggy, quirky, personally reflective, or especially activism-focused pieces. Speakout articles represent the perspectives of their authors, and not those of Truthout.
An earlier version of this post entitled “Ebola, Monsanto and Me” contained several factual errors. I thank the dedicated readers for pointing them out. Please be sure to use this version for circulation and re-posting.
During the first months of the growing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, other than on NPR it was hard to find any American thoughtful media coverage of this historic public health tragedy. In mid-July I attributed this apathy to several factors: the “otherness” of Africans; a sense that “it couldn’t happen here;” compassion fatigue, especially regarding Africa and Africans; and our own American disinterest in developing and supporting public health infrastructures. Still today, this kind of “reporting” goes uncritiqued in the mainstream media: “Apparently, the Ebola virus now enveloping three West African nations wouldn’t have developed into an outbreak if not for the people’s ignorance and belief in witchcraft.” I’m hard-put deciding what appalls me most: The not-so-thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia (“people’s ignorance”), the uninformed dismissal of traditional healing practices (“witchcraft”) that effectively treat many illnesses and that are available before and after foreign aid workers swoop in, or the failure to recognize the role of poverty, malnutrition and deforestation in making a region ripe for the spread of disease.
January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.
And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.
Part I - The Precarious Status of International Humanitarian Law
By the end of the 19th century it was recognized by those concerned with human rights that the nation-state was a destructive anachronism. It was an entity that seemed addicted to periodic spasms of mass violence, particularly in the form of war carried on with little or no regard for non-combatants or other restraining factors. As a consequence, efforts began to create instruments of international law - treaties, conventions and other agreements - to modify state behavior in such areas as the treatment of prisoners and the victimization of civilian populations. Progress was spotty until the very end of World War II, when various human rights charters came into existence as a part of the United Nations. Through that institution, provision was made - albeit in very narrowly defined circumstances - for the fielding of UN military forces (the famous Blue Helmets) to try to enforce peace and protect civilian populations. Other institutions, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), were also eventually brought into existence.
The post-war move to expand international law to cover human rights and provide enforcement measures was all for the good, and in the future it will hopefully prove a powerful precedent that can be built upon. However, this period of progress did not last long. It soon gave way to a hypocritical selective application of humanitarian law. The truth is that today only those nations which are relatively weak and have no great power patronage are in any danger of being called to task for gross violations of human rights. If you are the leader of some small African or Balkan state and you go on some ethnically or religiously inspired rampage, you run a real risk of being charged with crimes against humanity and hauled before the ICC, while the UN Security Council votes to send military forces into your country. On the other hand, if you are a great power, or the close ally of one, you can pretty much do what you want, where you want. Great powers hold the concept of their own sovereignty sacrosanct and the us-versus-them mindset that goes along with hubristic nationalism remains unchallenged. That goes for their allies as well who, under the protection of their patron, often commit with impunity the same crimes that land smaller, unprotected powers in deep trouble.
War is becoming increasingly dangerous to humanity at large. We saw what happened with the nuclear blasting of two Japanese cities. Einstein later lamented that he had signed a letter to FDR urging the bomb's development, saying it was the one great mistake in his life and that he had always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.
Will the world's leaders ever learn to fight peacefully for peace and eschew war? Will they learn before it is too late? The world needs leaders with Einstein's conscience and at least some of his intellect.
Texas Governor Rick Perry is on the record with his objective to “make abortion a thing of the past.” Looking at the evidence, it is hard not to come to any other conclusion than the war on women is being won by a radical and regressively religious agenda.
Trenton, NJ—Today the New Jersey State Assembly passed major bail reform legislation. The legislation has already passed in the State Senate and will now go to Governor Christie’s desk for consideration. The bail reform legislation is comprised of two pieces. The first is a resolution that would put a question on the ballot for voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the preventative detention of dangerous offenders (SCR128/ACR177). The second part is legislation that would implement the resolution and change the way New Jersey makes pretrial release decisions (S946/A1910). S946/A1910 would require risk assessments on higher level arrestees, mandate that release decisions be based on risk rather than resources, and encourage nonfinancial alternatives for release.
The reform was supported by a broad coalition of community, faith and criminal justice reform groups. Advocates successfully argued that using money bail as the primary mechanism for pretrial release results in a socially and fiscally irresponsible system in which dangerous individuals with economic resources are able to secure release, while others who pose no threat to public safety languish behind bars awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford often nominal bail amounts.
This past week the Arab American Institute (AAI) released its third biannual poll of American attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. Conducted by Zogby Analytics, 1100 likely voters were surveyed nationwide. The results were deeply troubling.
What we found was that there has been a continued erosion in the favorable ratings Americans have of both Arabs and Muslims, posing a threat to the civil rights and political inclusion of both Arab Americans and American Muslims. For example, in 2010 favorable ratings for Arabs were 43 percent. They have now declined to 32 percent. For Muslims, the ratings dropped from 36 percent in 2010, to 27 percent in the 2014 survey.
Last week, here in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers welcomed activist Carmen Trotta, from New York, who has lived in close community with impoverished people in his city for the past 25 years, serving meals, sharing housing, and offering hospitality to the best of his ability. Put simply and in its own words, his community, founded by Dorothy Day, exists to practice “the works of mercy” and to “end the works of war.” We wanted to hear Carmen’s first impressions of traveling the streets of Kabul on his way from the airport to the working class neighborhood where he’ll be staying as the APVs’ welcome guest.
He said it was the first time he’d seen the streets of any city so crowded with people who have no work. Carmen had noticed men sitting in wheelbarrows, on curb sides, and along sidewalks, unemployed, some of them waiting for a day labor opportunity that might or might not come. Dr. Hakim, the APV’s mentor, quoted Carmen the relevant statistics: the CIA World Fact Book uses research from 2008 to put Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 35 percent – just under the figure of 36 percent of Afghans living beneath the poverty level. That’s the CIA’s unemployment figure – Catherine James, writing in The Asian Review this past March, noted that “the Afghan Chamber of Commerce puts it at 40 percent, the World Bank measures it at 56 percent and Afghanistan’s labor leaders put it at a shocking 86 percent.”
Generational change performs an important role in American society by implementing change on social and political issues in the continuously evolving United States. The best example of this is the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the end of segregation in America. As new generations of young people entered college after World War II, many questioned the entrenched ideology of white racial superiority and the political solution provided by state sponsored segregation, and horrified at what they found, united to protest for change. An eclectic mixture of ethnicities joined to overturn centuries of morally corrupt white dominance, forcing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government to follow suit. The following year, the Voting Rights Act halted state sponsored efforts to deny African Americans a place at the polls, and the United States finally achieved its promise of a democratic nation.
The effects of generational change on the individual's political and social life in 2014 abound as more states act to provide support for same-sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis sales and use. As young Americans enter the political fray at the state and national level, their attitudes reflect a greater tolerance for issues conservatives find intolerable. Both of these movements find overwhelming support at the local level, but national politics are catching up as generational change makes its way into the legislative and executive branches of government. For the most part, generational change is positive and continues to move the country in a progressive direction, but the single branch of government resistant to generational change is the judicial branch.
What kind of country do we now inhabit? Where I live, a small city of 60,000, there is absolutely nothing reminiscent of the world I once knew. This town is one of boxstores, strip malls, third rate mass transit (duh, like hardly any), and subdivisions where few even know one another, let alone socialize that much. Even the suburbia of my youth offered more than this… yet they tell us we have evolved in this 21st century whereupon Wal-Mart has become the new city market!
I'm a dinosaur from the village of Avenue U in the city of Brooklyn (called borough despite its population of nearly three million). Got that? Now I realize this doesn't make sense to anyone who never lived in such a place. A village in such an urban environment? What gives? You see, we dinosaurs roamed around in a much more viable and practical place than you do now in this Amerika in the Age of Empire. Avenue U, circa 1960s, was in fact just like a village. I could walk around the corner and shop for almost everything my family needed. We had the produce store, butcher shop, German deli (with those great wood barrel sour dill pickles ), Italian bakery ( where they referred to loaves of bread as fish: "Let me have two large fish with no"), luncheonette (where you could get a Lime Rickey or Egg Cream - that's for another column), pizza parlor (as they were called then), pharmacy (they delivered till closing at 9 p.m.), dry cleaner, shoe repair (yeah, they had one in every village), men's tailor and ladies dress shops, leather goods shop… need I go on? We had it all, right there within the radius of a few blocks. You wanted Chinese food, right in walking distance. Ditto for Italian food, or a Jewish deli (with hot dogs on par with Nathans from Coney Island). Here's the nostalgic irony: Travel less than 10 minutes by car or bus and you would be in another village just like mine! They were all over Brooklyn!