Sunday, February 27, 2011

Should the UN stop the war in Libya?

I have one question, Should the western world through the United Nations or the EU intervene more than just through sanctions? Muammar Gaddafi has attacked his citizens with snipers, armed militias with automatic weapons from other countries, bombs from planes, artillery and numerous other destructive technologies all against civilians who pose no violent threat. Likely several thoasand men, women and children have been wantonly wasted away for the whim of a insane dictator.
So if it is imminent that the regime will fall and the people of Libya will no longer support him as the ruler, then why can't the UN or US military intervene directly and help stop the loss of more unnecessary human lives. Or to some degree have our past failures in Africa, notably in Somalia or the reluctance to subsequently intervene in Rwanda, have combined to limit the degree the West is willing to commit to intervention.
So suppose that the UN or the African Union sent in a military force it would be soon a huge issue of Sovereignty, if they were able to beat back the remainder of Quadafi's army, did he violate any international territories beyond Libya, but he is still not protecting the citizens of his nation, which does in part dissolve Quadafi's claim to rule. At the very least the United Nations should help in the elections. Still the AU should help stop the needless killing as well.

DO you think it is realistic that a military force could intervene and help or would it interfere with the states sovereignty and the rights of the citizens to choose a destiny for their nation (As was the case in Iraq or Japan, where we had great command on who wrote the constitution and granted them military protection.)?
Can Libya not be helped by other neighbors also in revolution like Egypt and Tunisia, both nations that are adjacent to the county in transition?
Finally, if there becomes evidence that a genocide does occur out of the Western Worlds failure to act are we held responsible by the UNDHR or because we never committed to helping them we have not culpability?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

U.N. Imposes Sanctions on Lybia

It will be interesting to see what the investigation turns up (if anything).

Sex ed as a human right?

All of our discussion in class pertaining to sex has brought up an interesting memory of an experience in China that I had two years ago. My friend Omar told us a disturbing story about a doctor friend of his in China that had some strange encounters with his patients due to their lack of sex ed.

In one case the patients wondered how they had gotten pregnant when they were on the pill. After some conversation, the doctor discovered that the couple had become pregnant due to the fact that the man was taking the pill. Another case related to Omar was about a married couple who had been trying desperately to have a child and yet they were unsuccessful. After further investigation the doctor discovered that these patients were actually engaging in anal sex and had never had vaginal sex.

This total lack of knowledge of the basic action of procreation, both protection and prevention, and the simple act of trying to create a child seems almost laughable. After getting over the comedic value of such outlandish stories, one has to take a moment to acknowledge the seriousness of this threat. In cultures where privacy and conservative behavior is so highly favored that its citizens are ignorant to their own bodily functions, I wonder if there is a human rights violation in that.

The violation isn't just ignorance, its the governments active resistance to the notion of informing their masses. The Chinese government has shut down multiple sex ed programs due to their 'promiscuity,' and this is, in my opinion a violation of their basic human right to understand their own body and protect it from an assortment health problems as well as understanding the act of sex itself.


Human vs. Civil Rights and Universality vs. Particularity… Who wins?

Our question in class about gay marriage revealed our tendency to blur the lines between civil and human rights. The distinction between human and civil rights embodies several characteristics. First of all, while civil rights are related to the constitution of each country, human rights are considered to be universal. Civil rights are hammered out by the founders and creators of new societies, while human rights are gifted to us by virtue of being born a human. Civil rights are individual rights which exist by virtue of legislative action and a state government. Human rights, on the other hand, are universal, and (supposedly) cannot be violated by anyone, not even a state government.

When I think about the significance of the differences between these two rights, I am reminded of the question of universality and particularity. As emphasized in our reading from Donnelly concerning intervention, "The moral universality of human rights, which has been codified in a strong set of authoritative international norms, must be realized through the particularities of national action" (181). In the case of civil rights, the particularity of the state takes precedence; rights are determined and enforced by one government with presumably one predominant set of cultural beliefs and practice. Universal human rights, however, are inherently within each person (the United Nations just wrote them all down for us), applied to each person regardless of culture or belief system, and are enforced by… well…

Let's look at a simple example where civil and human rights may clash: An imprisoned felon in the United States no longer possesses the civil right to vote, but he still has his UDHR Article 28 human right to participate in his government. So is the United States government violating his human right? Other instances of opposition between civil and human rights include rights of women in many states, and others (If you can think of another example or a better example of civil rights and universal human rights in conflict with one another, please post it!)

Clearly, as Donnelly points out on numerous occasions, the enforcement of rights—whether civil or human—is most often upheld by the state, not the international community. If this is true, have we not established a system in which civil rights will always trump human rights in practical application? Is this acceptable to you? Should the international community recognize this fact and allow states to uphold their civil right above "universal" human rights? Or should civil rights take a backseat, and would you advocate that the international community intervene in instances where human rights are being violated within the bounds of local civil rights? Or are human rights and civil rights not as distinct as I've made them out to be?

Reflections on the Zero Tolerance Policy

I enjoyed hearing from Professors Behr and Hamrick last week, and left class wondering if something like the LGBT Working Group’s plan to address recent issues on-campus could apply to the arena of international human rights enforcement. To recap, the Working Group’s plan involves a public administration response to the article published in The Flyer, the hiring of an outside consultant, and the writing of a zero tolerance policy from one of the coaches in the athletic department.

Along with the proposal to address the issues raised in The Flyer, a redrafting of the College’s Commitment to Diversity has been suggested. Professors Hamrick and Behr mentioned that the current version of the Commitment of Diversity must be rewritten to go beyond the merely affirmative language it uses now. The focus on strongly affirmative language and weak implementation is not uncommon among organizations. As Donnelly argues in Chapter 8 of Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, most human rights organizations focus on promoting rights rather than enforcing or implementing them. There are a few notable exceptions that Donnelly points out, such as the European Commission of Human Rights which has a track record for strongly enforcing human rights. Part of the reason for the European Commission’s ability to act as a strictly binding force is, according to Donnelly, due to its presence in a relatively homogenous region and its ability to monitor and adapt specific local practices in light of global human rights norms.

Hannah’s blog post last week drew particular attention to the vagueness of the language in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In the discussion that followed, it seemed that most people believed that an international consensus over a more specific wording of articles in the Universal Declaration would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Looking at the success of the European Commission as well as the LGBT Working Group’s plan, I’d like to offer another idea for a redrafting the Universal Declaration.

To encourage a more global shift from promotion to enforcement, perhaps each country could be required to draft a “zero tolerance” policy for human rights violations by drawing from the Universal Declaration. I’m not sure how the requirement would be mandated, or who would be responsible for drafting the document within each country, but I really like the idea of having, in the case of the Rhodes athletics department, a coach draft the zero tolerance policy for the athletics community. The policy is universal in the sense that it is rooted in the College’s Commitment to Diversity, yet it also has the specificity often necessary to ensure compliance of broader norms. I think that this type of model will result in a higher level of relevance and accountability, and that a similar approach could be applied in the international community. Although, it does raise a ton of questions. Who would oversee the drafting and ratification of these policies? Could the UN Commission on Human Rights read all the proposals and give the final stamp of approval? What would happen if the UN or other countries disagreed with the policies articulated in another country’s zero tolerance policy or didn’t find them sufficient? Would country-specific zero tolerance policies be an effective way to enforce human rights, or simply another opportunity for tyrants to find loopholes in legislation?

Blurring the Lines of Human Rights?

The Atlantic recently published an article in which they describe the Maryland Department of Corrections as requesting the usernames and passwords of Officer Robert Collins’ social media accounts as part of their background testing procedure. These accounts included Facebook, e-mail, twitter, and any other type of password-protected, seemingly private online account. While background checks, especially in jobs such as these, have proven themselves to be essential in the hiring process, this situation is an over-the-top, blatant invasion of this man’s privacy:

With the nearly exponential rise in social media over the past few years, public domain on the Internet is becoming more and more integrated into the selection process of employers, graduate schools, colleges, and even high schools. To me, public is public. What is accessible to anyone and everyone over the web is exactly that—accessible to all. If I post a picture of myself on Facebook chugging a pitcher of beer, I am in essence taking full responsibility of that picture, I own it. Once I put it out there in the depths of the Internet, I should fully expect that picture to be accessible to anyone—even the aforementioned institutions.

Where this story differs, however, is in accessing this man’s private sphere. Now I realize that many people hold it to be true that there is no private space on the Internet. I for one, as part of this technological generation, do believe that private space should be respected online. Checking one’s personal e-mail accounts, for example, is a gross invasion of this personal space. If we are to shift from physical mail to electronic mail (which we certainly are), then we must also be willing to shift the privacy that comes with physical mail to that of electronic mail. The mail-of-old, as I’ll call it, is carefully protected by federal laws. This one for example, clearly states that the unlawful acquisition of mail can leave the perpetrator in prison for up to five years.

While Officer Robert Collins may not have been subjected to a clearly human rights violation, his rights were certainly violated. So where do we go from here? Are we to continue treating the Internet as an opportune forum for public space, or can we recognize it as an increasingly modernized way of doing the very same things that we used to do? In the latter case, as the Internet becomes more and more central to our lives, we must also respect it as such.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Freedom and Terrorism

Recently, authorities in Bahrain freed 23 political prisoners who had been accused of terrorism. Originally, the government accused these individuals of belonging to a terrorist network that intended to overthrow the current ruling factions. However, it appears that they were simply a small portion of the numerous protestors taken prisoner and tortured by the Bahrain government in an attempt to silence any public dissent that might occur.

The release capture and release of these prisoners bring up several human rights issues associated with both terrorism and freedom of speech. One of the questions to be asked in this situation is what truly constitutes a terrorist. I think that most of us would agree that simply protesting the practices of an oppressive government does not constitute terrorism, but at what point do we draw the line when we compare more violent protestors to terrorists? Are there occasions in which terrorism would be acceptable so long as it is limited to an attack on government officials (and likely members of the public/government security forces that protect them)? Perhaps prior to that question is the question of who exactly gets to define terrorism or label particular groups as terrorist networks?

There is also the issue of freedom of speech. As we all know, there are limitations everywhere on what you can say and to whom it may be said. For instance, a man that interrupts a Obama in the middle of a national speech in order to tell yell a twenty minute profanity-laced explanation of why the current administration is the worst in history (I'm not saying it is) would likely be detained quickly and thoroughly. I don't particularly question whether or not it is right or wrong for the man to be silenced, but I do wonder if freedom of speech is truly a right rather than a privilege given the restrictions that we place upon it. While I understand that we all have the choice of saying whatever we like so long as we are prepared to deal with the consequences, which may sometimes include being physically detained or removed from an area, I question whether that is sufficient to call it a right. There are many things that I have the option of doing in any manner that I chose so long as I am prepared to deal with the consequences. For example, I physically have the ability to defecate anywhere that I like, but I doubt that many people would be willing to argue that I have that right. What is it that truly distinguishes the two from one another and how do I have the right to freedom of speech while only having the privilege to defecate in certain locales?

Rights of the Indigenous

There appears to be no one agreed-upon definition of an indigenous people. Typically, however, it can be said that indigenous peoples are individuals who have historically been associated with a specific area before the area was colonized or became a nation state, and may have languages, traditions, and cultural differences from that of the state. Indigenous people all around the world  have sought recognition of their identities, ways of life, and rights of use of their traditional lands in the past and present times.

Indigenous peoples face many challenges in the modern world. Very frequently their lands are overridden by more dominant colonizers. Rather than seeing the natives as cohorts, most colonists, during the era of European expansion and imperialism, saw native peoples as savages in need of control and domination. This led to the justification of expansion and even the acceptance of slavery.

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This document emphasizes the right of indigenous peoples to maintain their institutions and to be protected against oppression, hatred, marginalization, and exploitation. Some powerful countries have been opposed to this document, stating that no country should accept the notion of creating "different classes of citizens". While this does sound like a statement that is difficult with which to disagree, does this not somewhat ignore historic reality? This is not to say that some indigenous peoples have no recognized rights anywhere, because this is simply untrue. Some areas of the world do give the rights of the larger society to those indigenous to the region, but these areas are in the minority.

My question is this/questions are these: Were different classes of citizens not created upon original colonization when indigenous peoples were treated as second-class citizens and cleared out of their homesteads?  Is the statement of those countries opposed to the document made in ignorance? It seems to me as though these countries see indigenous people as humanoids, rather than actual human beings. Is there any validity in the claims of the opposed countries?

Diversity and Ethnic Cleansing

In his article “What’s Wrong with Ethnic Cleansing?” James Nickel defends a position that ethnic cleansing is possibly morally permissible. I would agree as long as such cleansing does not involve any type of coercion. If a government wants to economically incentivize certain people moving in or out of a country, it would be morally permissible to do so. Having beliefs about ethnic superiority isn’t bad in itself. It isn’t our jobs to police people’s thoughts and minds. However it becomes immoral once you start negatively affecting other people because of those beliefs. Economic incentives do not negatively affect the people moving, so it wouldn’t be morally reprehensible.

While in some, very limited situations it might be morally permissible to attempt to ethnically cleanse a nation, I don’t think it is ever beneficial. Nickel suggests that perhaps to prevent a civil war between hostile ethnic groups a government would want to relocate the people of one ethnic group. He says, “The third goal, which is to avoid further ethnic conflict or war by creating a more ethnically homogenous state, may be plausible in some circumstances. Ethnic tensions in Lebanon, Belgium, Canada, and Sri Lanka illustrate that it is often hard for two or more large ethnic groups to coexist amicably in a single country” (Nickel 471). Cleansing may solve the immediate conflict, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem. First of all, if there are two warring ethnic groups, how does the government decide which one stays and which one goes? Presumably the government is controlled by one of the two ethnic groups so it would most likely want to kick out the other. Most likely the responsibility for the ethnic conflict is not entirely on one group or the other, so you couldn’t just ‘get rid’ of the problem. Relocating the minority population might be less costly, but would it be fair? Each ethnic group probably has traditional ties to the land that go back generations, if not much longer. Separating hostile ethnic groups may stop the violence for the time being, but it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.

Instead of simply getting rid of people you disagree with, it is often much more profitable to have them around. While it may be difficult for ethnically diverse populations to get along with one another, it is beneficial for everyone involved if they can learn to live together. The plurality of ideas in such states would help the entire nation grow. Homogeny within a population isn’t a good goal to have. We may not like it, but we can get a lot out of living in close proximity to people who are different from us.

Monday, February 21, 2011

For the Bible Tells Me So

One thing that I wasn't quite expecting in our talk with Dan Savage was the overwhelming focus on religion. Our discussion reminded me of a thought-provoking and entertaining documentary, "For the Bible Tells Me So."

"For the Bible Tells Me So" is a feature documentary about the intersection of religion and homosexuality in America today. Seen through the eyes of five conservative Christian families with gay children, the film highlights their efforts to successfully and peacefully reconcile family and theology. In addition, "For the Bible Tells Me So" interviews prominent Judeo-Christian scholars to reveal that Church-sanctioned anti-gay bias is based almost solely upon significant (and often malicious) misinterpretations of the Bible.
I know that this isn't a class about religion, but I think this is a really fascinating documentary that many of you may be interested in, particularly after our talk with Dan.
This documentary is not just for people of Jewish or Christian beliefs; I'd recommend it to anyone desiring and willing to think critically about the relationships between homosexuality, religion, prejudice, and public policy in America.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Issues Surrounding Humanitarian Intervention

In his article on humanitarian intervention, Michael Smith explains that the dynamics of international society has grown increasingly complex. Although sovereign and stable states remain the majority in the contemporary international system, they now face a greater threat from the development of renegade states (480). In addition to “failing” or “failed” states, which have broken down due to their inability to establish legitimacy, there has been an increase in states where conflict seems unavoidable. These “dangerous” states seek to bring attention to themselves through excessive and violent actions. Smith believes that these types of states will “continue to provide a worry for those trying to enforce some version of international order,” leaving no shortage of occasions for intervention (481). The international community, however, has been unable to determine when or how humanitarian intervention is appropriate. In the current international system, which Smith defines as a “subjective” environment, it is difficult to determine the moral value of humanitarian intervention. He argues that there is still a great deal of doubt and suspicion of unauthorized intervention within the international community (483). The multiple forms of humanitarian intervention (unilateral and collective) have further complicated these problems. Traditional international law has typically been unfriendly towards both types of intervention, with the exception of a few specific situations: threats to peace, breaches in peace, and “overt” aggression (483). Although organizations have intervened in state affairs to provide relief for minorities, monitor elections, and keep the peace, the UN has failed to endorse a general doctrine concerning the nature of humanitarian intervention.

Smith believes that international intervention should operate under the following principle: “Individual state sovereignty can be overridden whenever the behavior of the state even within its own territory threatens the existence of elementary human rights abroad and whenever the protection of the basic human rights of its citizens can be assured only from the outside” (498). Therefore, the international community should intervene in domestic affairs whenever there is a clear violation of human rights. Although this seems to be an appropriate guideline, it is only a step towards removing the ambiguity surrounding the concept of humanitarian intervention. The UN will be unable to endorse a general doctrine until the international community defines who is responsible for protecting human rights. Should the international community rely on specific nations to intervene whenever human rights are violated (the members of the Security Council, for example), or is it more plausible for the “defenders” of human rights to vary according to the situation? Furthermore, the international community must also define what humanitarian intervention consists of. “Is humanitarian intervention a rescue operation…or an attempt to address the underlying causes of the conflict?” (483). Until these specific issues are resolved, humanitarian intervention will remain in a cloud of confusion.

Article 16 and Cultural Relativism

The progression and development of the right to nondiscrimination, especially for GLBT members of society, is one that I feel has picked up in the last twenty or so years. However, while America can be seen taking huge steps in the area, there are still many countries in which it is the total opposite. When the question of whether or not we can eventually change Article 16 in the Universal Document of Human Rights, Dan Savage responded, “we must.” But I feel like the true meaning behind the question was lost. Personally, I was more trying to articulate the question of, I guess when relating back to cultural relativism, whether or not it is a reasonable goal to try and change Article 16. I feel like there could easily be a chance for my words to get mistaken here – I am not saying that people should not try to progress things for GLBT rights, I am just frustrated by the idea that it is useless to try, and that it cannot happen. This is mostly a manifestation of the frustration I felt with the reading by Jack Donnelly, “Non-Discrimination and Sexual Orientation: Making a Place for Sexual Minorities in the Global Human Rights Regime.”
In the text Donnelly wrote, “In the short and medium run, there is no chance of anything even close to an international consensus on even a working text for a draft declaration of the rights of homosexuals.” While I understand that the International Document of Human Rights is largely one with fixed standards, this statement by Donnelly really bothered me. I feel like LGBT people have been denied these basic human rights for so long, that they should not have to wait anymore for their rights. I know that it is hard, especially when looking at cultural relativism, to make all cultures agree on an issue. But to deny someone rights purely because they are choosing to love someone that you do not agree with – that to me seems so backwards.
Amongst all these ramblings, I guess my main question is, is this really a long-term goal? Can we, in a relatively shorter period of time, actually come to some sort of global consensus? Furthermore, what steps have to be taken to get things such as Article 16 changed? Do you think it is possible to see this happen in the next generation?

Permissible Ethnic Cleansing?

James Nickel's essay on treads largely uncotroversial ground in its examination of the moral pitfalls of ethnic cleansing, but perhaps his somewhat guarded explanation of the grounds for permissible instances of ethnic cleansing offers a more interesting field for discussion. Nickel provides a series of criteria for evauluating such instances and suggests that certain forms might be "morally tolerable as a way of dealing with severely deteriorated situations".

In truth, Nickel (probably due to the senstive political context of the Bosnian War at the time of publication) probably gives short shrift to the effect of forcible population transfers in favor of political stability. The single largest such transfer occurred after the Second World War, as (among others) millions of Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe and driven destitute into Germany proper. This was undoubtedly a brutal process, but it was essentially endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt as an expedient to stable postwar political boundaries (Hitler, after all, had used the plight of the Sudeten Germans as a pretext for his annexation of Czechoslovakia). Indeed, the remarkably peacable state of modern Europe can be explained in large part by the relatively homogenous character of most of its nation states. By contrast, it's cliche to note the arbitrary, trans-ethnic borders of postcolonial Africa are responsible for much of the political instability there.

To highlight a more specific example, a Mideast peace settlement leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state (should that ever occur) would almost certainly require forcible population transfer from some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as already occurred in the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Given that this policy is essentially what most of the international community is demanding, it calls into question the moral objection to population transfer per se, rather than merely its nastier manifestations.

Power of Words

Like everyone else, I also enjoyed the question session with Dan Savage and the following lecture. I was pleasantly surprised because, honestly, I didn't think I would learn much of anything from it. I thought the conversation would stay very surface level. I mean the message is "It gets better," and bullying those different is bad. I get that. But, particularly in our personal session with him, a ton of things I hadn't even considered came up.
My specific subject this blog is spurred by the one of the few responses he gave that I found inadequate. I had wanted to ask this in our class and was thrilled when it got brought up in the general session. However, I think a combination of nervousness at the divisive topic, combined with the lecture moving to a close, led him to an unsatisfactory answer. The topic is the use of pejorative gay terms and how he feels about their use (fag, queer, etc...). While the individual asking clearly expected a clean-cut "Don't say that" answer, Dan was vaguely supportive of their use.
My best friend and roommate the first two years of College was and still is gay. We used gay slurs at each other all the time-sometimes jokingly, but other times only using the negative connotations, not the gay connotations. This has, by the way, caused me many problems later on in public since, instead of being trained against casual slur use by the friend you'd think would, I was encouraged. But I wonder if it is actually better to cut those words out of our vocabulary? I feel like that does the same thing as segregating swear words from the masses, it places their value on a pedestal. All of those words are symbols we place on other things. None originally meant gay (even gay). I think that use of them in more acceptable ways could actually diffuse their meaning, devalueing, rather than empowering them.
Now I'm not sure if this was Dan's reason for not disparaging these words. After all, as Dan loved to reiterate, he is a dirty sex columnist, and I imagine those words can be quite useful in that line. However, what do you think? Do we need to eradicate this language to help eradicate the thoughts often behind it? Or can we water the language down and steal its power out from under it?

A Shift in Ideology or a Continuation of Instilling Fear?

To continue the trend of Dan Savage posts that Liz started, here are my questions after our evening with Dan Savage. I was not familiar with Dan Savage’s column or work but he is a very captivating speaker. His “It Gets Better” campaign is very original and thought provoking. However, after our time with Dan Savage I had two main, interlinked questions.

Essentially Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign is about standing up for the violence and injustice against gay, bi, trans, and lesbian students. Hence, Savage is trying to reestablish those students’ human rights through his campaign. I am wondering if this campaign needs to try to further impact the ideology of the students who are the bullies. Because the campaign has grown so fast and effectively it might be beneficial for an even more powerful change to occur by creating a part of the campaign that understands and attempts to change the bullies’ mindset in order to rework this unjust system of continuous wrongdoings. Thus, my first questions stemming from Dan Savage’s campaign are do you think that the campaign should be gearing some small portion of its efforts into influencing those bullies who cause all the injustices? Also, do you think this will actually bring about a different and lasting, peaceful change in the lives of the GLBT students?

Dan Savage’s campaign’s and talk’s provocative quality made me wonder what exactly we are fighting when we are correcting any human rights violations? By this I mean, when we advocate and begin to fight for change in regards to human rights violations, the point is definitely to defend the victims and punish the violators. I completely agree with this method because of the level of immorality that comes along with human rights violations. However, by applying my previous questions to a bigger scale I further inquire by asking, should there be more of an effort made to influence the mindset of the violators? Would trying to influence the ideology of the violators transform the way violations of human rights are globally handled?

It is very easy to write about influencing the violators than it is to actually execute this theory; however, I wonder if the purpose of fighting human rights violations is to bring about a systemic change through shirting the ideologies of the violators or continuing to instill a sense of fear in the violators through means of punishment so that such actions will not be repeated? Perhaps, the point of challenging human rights violations is a combination of both of these purposes?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Deconstructing Humanity

In what we may consider an enlightened understanding, all the vast peoples of the earth comprise a single species we may collectively deem humanity. Contemporary anthropologists refute earlier models for separate and distinct races of the earth, favoring instead concept of a single humanity. But does this construction not itself merely another way of constructing an understanding of the world not inherent in it? Does the notion of humanity correspond to any actual category in the real world? Ultimately the perceived variation between blacks and whites is not much different from man and chimpanzee. In reality the relation we perceive within our species is very isolated, and this directly corresponds to a notion of universal humanity. I find this view abstract and selfish. When constructing a notion of humanity, we do so at the cost of our discriminated neighbors, our fellow animals. What not if instead of regarding myself as distinctly human, I saw myself as no different than any other beast, appearance aside. For is this not what happens when a person identifies himself a human instead of white?

Joseph Conrad’s Victory displays vividly the elasticity conception of “humanity” we now cling to so dearly. Written in 1914, the novel takes place in the Euro-infiltrated Far East coast. Certain European hotelkeepers privilege the their race at a distinguished table d'hôte. World traveling Brit Mr. Jones keeps a hairy indigenous from the Mexican coast as a bestial servant and a sidekick who regards him as a gentlemen. The trio gives little consideration to an idea of common humanity.

My point is that the affinities we have toward common humanity are abstractions of our feelings of care. We may assume our actions should be targeted at humanity, but this completely ignores our actual surroundings. Just as Mr. Jones denies rights to Pedro, so too do we do so with “simple” beasts when we harvest forests. And clearly this term is relative, for it is not too far off from how American natives were originally treated. The idea of humanity is not innate to humans. Before our species evolved into the mono-conglomeration of humanity we understand today, several related but distinct species of Homo dug dirt together. What obligations have we to indigenous creatures or “wildlife” in our cohabitation? Mr. Jones treats his like a beast, but are our furry natives not as just as much Memphians as we are?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

“Getting Thrown Down the Stairs” is Not Acceptable

My post this week is going to be a little different than usual, because I want to focus on a controversial topic that specifically and typically applies to students, the topic of bullying. I chose this topic because this past week we heard from Dan Savage and his thoughts about gay rights and his project “It Gets Better,” and also our class has started to touch on the issue of bullying. In Savage’s talk in class as well as his lecture, he gave us numerous ideas and influential points, statistics, and quotes to think about, but the one thing that really stuck with me when Savage spoke was the idea of kids getting bullied, and more than once, bullied to death. Listening about the suicides of the children who were facing a tough time in discovering their sexuality, and hearing that the students in their schools who were brutally beating them up not only physically but mentally, was a difficult thought to digest.

I’m very pleased that someone is attempting to stop this bullying as well as trying to support the children who are going through a time that is most likely confusing and unforgiving for many. However, although these are baby steps to moving in the right direction to stop bullying, shouldn’t this issue of bullying be under control at this point in time? I know that sounds like an incredibly difficult task, to simply stop bullying everywhere, but why do you think bullying is still permissible in schools and as Dan said, “sometimes even encouraged?” I believe that each student, whether they are a first grader or a senior in high school of even a college student should have a right to an education, free of bullying, and accepting of diversity in any and all categories. Do you think that it is possible to grant such a right to students?

On that note, we talked vaguely about Rhodes College in particular with bullying and degrading words to people who are LGBT. It seems that many people in the class had known someone or heard phrases from people here that are degrading and could be considered bullying. Do you think that Rhodes College is a place where bullying goes on, especially in relation to LGBT youth? When we discussed in class, we also mentioned how people can use derogatory terms that could or would offend many LGBT people. Some of us admitted that we have either heard phrases that would fit this category or used them ourselves. So my question is why do these phrases get such little recognition as distasteful words? If they are offensive, why do so many people find them acceptable to be used with friends or in general? Do you think that these words are just used among students or do you think they are used by all ages? Moving beyond the schooling realm, do you think that bullying continues into the work world?

Dan Savage really opened my naive thoughts and has made me question bullying and its impact on people of all age. I know that I have asked a lot of questions in this week’s authors post, but I really enjoyed the conversation in the last class and I want to continue the conversation through the blog.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Continuation of the Cultural Relativism Conversation… and lots of Questions

If I'm correct, the concept of cultural relativism claims that since each culture has its own values and practices, we should not make value judgments about cultural differences or assert our conceptions of morality on them. Each culture is a unique specimen of the historically formed collective personality of a people and consequently, rights of individuals are culturally specific.

If we consider something such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, however, it seems unlikely that even the staunchest cultural relativist would argue that this could be acceptable within certain cultural or traditional contexts. But as we saw in class, other practices such as female circumcision present harder questions of culturally relative morality. Where do we draw the line? When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, should we choose to protect and promote human rights? How can an international body such as the UN do this without imposing their Western views of universal rights?

In addition to this question, I take issue with cultural relativism in that it seems to perceive cultures a black boxes—individual, specific, well-defined and exclusive societal organisms in which traditions and beliefs are uniform and universally agreed upon. Within “cultures”, there are countless amorphous sects, groups, and individuals whose opinions, experiences and belief systems are constantly changing, shifting and evolving.

The problem with cultural relativism, then, is that the supposed consensuses prevalent within cultures are exaggerated if not manufactured altogether. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. For example, the “norms”, beliefs and perspectives of Brahmin priests in Indian culture cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society.

With this in mind, how can we designate specific “norms” to different cultures? In order for a practice or belief to be considered a norm, must it be upheld by the entirety of the society? The majority? The majority as dictated by a supposedly-democratic state? If so, then cultural norms are nothing more than what has been clearly established or institutionalized. Does this really represent and reflect the beliefs and practices of a “culture”?

Egpyt Human Rights Past and Future.

As we all have been fervently watching the news in the past weeks and just yesterday Hosni Mubarak, the President of 30 years stepped down, bringing hope that the Human rights situation that has haunted the country and the world for much of the last century. Egypt in the past holds a record of abuses in elections, some of the worst prisoner where punished and tortured, very limited free speech (again shown by the shut down of the internet), religious persecution of minority religions, and a limited system of social and economic mobility.

Now only of of these actually is in a league of their own for Egypt: It is the Torture, Cruel imprisonment and the numerous cases of extraction and rendition. In the pre Mubarak years, in the wake of the assassinations of Sadat and attempts on Nassir both lead to huge crack down on radical islmasist groups and most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Members of these organizations were whipped with electrical cords, attacked by dogs, shaved off their beards and hair, water boarded, starved and kept in extreme cases of isolation. These men many times were scholars like Syed Qubt whose imprisonment lead them to radicalized against the government and the west, the very roots of the terrorist groups that America argues we should torture to gain information. In the 1970s, men like ayman al-zawhiri, the mastermind of 9-11, was arrested and dehumanized to the point that he made it his life mission to destroy the society that had created this unjust world.

It has been speculated that it was the very poor, cruel and inhuman conditions that pushed many of groups and individuals to radicalize, not entirely, but if they had been respected as humans maybe they would not have reacted through the violence of needless terrorism. Egypt has now been given a new opportunity to act as the new paradigm for a region that is know for its abysmal human rights record, but how can their new government and America's sway in the region help?

Well I think there are four things that could be done, first and most obvious would be the establishment of transparent and fair courts and prisons in Egypt. Even in this crisis, the police were arrested journalists and human rights activists, this will only limit the free speech allowed for the nation, and the security people feel.
Secondly, Egypt needs to stop doing the dirty world for the Arab world and the US, they need to stop torturing suspected terrorist and focus on creating a functioning multicultural society. If they don't stop these techniques they will still be seen as the servants of American imperialism, and we need to promote less cruel ways of extracting information because not all suspected terrorists are actually terrorists, innocent men and women are affected by our policies.
They need to keep a secular state to protect the religious minority inside and around Egypt. With a Coptic christian population of about 8 million, their security could be a major issue if the government does not help promote a religiously open culture.
And finally, countries like Egypt and Tunisia need to help their neighboring people to actualize their dreams of revolution and to bring the government back to the people, not held in the hands of an intransigent elite.
How can the Arab world and the UN or US help promote human rights in this region in this new time of political upheaval? Or would it be better to leave them alone to arrive at their own moral conclusions?

Predatory Lending

Recently, Memphis has attempted to fight against the practice of predatory lending. Predatory lending is when banks focus on giving mortgages to low income individuals or families. These mortgages are high risk, high cost mortgages that usually result in foreclosure. The city of Memphis is trying to hold banks responsible for disproportionally targeting African Americans. The lawsuit states that 51 percent of loans make to black households were subprime, whereas only 17 of loans make to white households were subprime (here is the full article). Is this a form of discrimination against African Americans?

While there is no specific right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about this specific type of lending, Article 2 does state that everyone is entitled to their rights regardless of race or color. Given the statistics, it seems like a disproportionate number of these subprime mortgages were given to African Americans. Does this necessarily mean that the banks giving these subprime mortgages are privileging white people over black people? The banks argue that it isn’t, saying that the city is accurately appropriating blame.

More fundamentally, are these subprime mortgages and predatory lending practices a violation of human rights regardless of race? It seems like this type of lending practice is taking advantage of people who do not know much about mortgages or borrowing money in general. If the bank tells them that there won’t be a problem, they tend to believe it. To what extent does the bank have a responsibility to inform the people it is giving loans to about what the loan entails? Obviously the bank shouldn’t be able to lie to its customers, but if the homeowners looking to get a loan are ignorant of banking practices, is it the bank’s responsibility to inform them of the ramifications of taking out a high risk loan? Someone who is trying to own a house should probably be at least familiar with the process of taking out a loan and should know the benefits and risks of having each kind of loan.

To what extent are the potential homeowners responsible for these types of predatory lending? To what extent are the banks responsible? Do white and black homeowners have equal opportunities to invest in homeownership? The statistics seem offer evidence against this idea of equal opportunity.

Lessons from Haiti and Egypt

Our discussion on Tuesday reminded me of an article I had read a few years ago called “Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language,” by Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a lawyer an human rights activist from Nigeria. Surprisingly, as the title of the article may suggest, it’s not an argument for cultural or moral relativism.

“Human rights norms articulate values that are truly universal and essential. There is a distinction, however, between human rights norms and human rights institutions, which, as organizations of human beings, are necessarily imperfect,” Odinkalu writes.

According to the article, the problem with the current human rights paradigm is essentially two-fold. Citizens need more than the UDHR to assert their rights, especially when facing corrupt regimes. Secondly, international human rights organizations are too distanced from experiences on-the-ground to effectively mobilize a local membership base. Even organizations working directly in communities are detached in the sense that they typically depend on grant funding or support from countries abroad, leading these organizations to be more accountable to people thousands of miles away than to the individuals whose rights they strive to defend.

Odinkalu argues that “instead of being the currency of a social justice or conscience-driven movement, “human rights” has increasingly become the specialized language of a select professional cadre...” However, recent events in Egypt and Haiti suggest that this claim may be as strong as it was when Odinkalu wrote the article back in 1999.

Mass protests in Egypt over the past couple weeks led Mubarak to resign recently. In Haiti this January, the government raised charges of human rights violations against Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During “Baby Doc’s” presidency from 1971-1986 and his father’s rule preceding, the Duvaliers called for an estimated twenty to thirty thousand murders of Haitians. After almost 25 years in exile, Duvalier returned to Haiti in January for the first time, promptly charged with embezzlement and numerous torture allegations from former prisoners. Ordinary citizens worldwide are calling on human rights discourse, unlike what Odinkalu asserts in 1999. Uprisings in Egypt and prosecution in Haiti did not emerge from an outside force, but from within the country.

What do you think the Egyptian protests mean in the context of the human rights movement? Do the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Haiti reflect a growing universal resonance of human rights discourse and action? Is Odinkalu’s argument that human rights is a “specialized language of a select professional cadre” still relevant?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Water, water.....everywhere?

Water is everywhere. It's all around us. Clearly, those of us who have access to fresh, clean water don't stop to think about how fortunate we are. We turn on the faucet, and out pours fresh, pure H2O. Sadly, however, this is not how it works for many across the world. Almost one billion people in today's world do not have access to fresh, sanitary water. In fact, more than 3.5 million individuals die each year from water sanitation-related issues, of which approximately 85 percent are children.

Today's water crisis isn't an issue of rarity, but rather it is an issue of access. In a world where more people have access to a cellular phone than a toilet, and as cities and slums grow, the issues of fresh water access is an ever increasing problem. Only 62% of the world's population has access to a sanitation facility that ensures security and cleanliness in local waters. When projects for clean water are undertaken, according to the Blue Planet Run Foundation, almost half of the projects fail due to lack of funding or other means of support. Less than 1% of the sanitation facilities in the world have long-term monitoring to ensure quality water is delivered to the people.

So, clearly, water and sanitation are essential to life. Water and sanitation have been formally recognized as human rights as they are indispensable for the the right to life, the right to health, and the right to dignity. In many countries, the people own the water. The state simply distributes the right to use the water so as to increase social capital. Conventional wisdom has stated that "water flows towards money". This saying perhaps provides hints to the real issue here: countries with weak infrastructures,  muddy politics, and deeply rooted corruption often play a part in this fight for clean water. Thus far, seventeen countries have amended their original constitutions to include a right to potable water.

How is restricting access to fresh water a human rights violation? Is it naive to hope that a right will lead to safely flowing faucets and wells in places where (in some locations) free speech can get you killed, where politicians give away state assets foolishly, and where sometimes police even solicit bribes from victims? Would society benefit from giving water to people in the form of property rights (i.e.- giving property rights to the water they already own as citizens)? And even then, are these rights vague or unenforceable? Why or why not?

Deporting the Mentally Disabled

While certainly not a new issue, deportation and its rather arbitrary stipulations are among today’s top human rights concerns. This article, published back in the summer of 2010, discusses the deportation of those with mental disabilities. Within the United States, the article states, those with disabilities are “at greater risk of erroneous deportation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because courts do not ensure fair hearings for those not able to represent themselves.” What is more, immigrants with mental disabilities are oftentimes arbitrarily detained for indefinite amounts of time as, again, they are unable to sufficiently represent themselves both in and out of court. The article then lets the reader know that some of the individuals interviewed for the larger, more extensive report did not know their own names and even were at times delusional. One of the most enraging aspects about this entire situation is that, as Sarah Mehta states, “‘few areas of US law are as complicated as deportation, and yet every day people with mental disabilities must go to court without lawyers or any safeguards that make the hearings fair.’”

Without the pro bono aid of appointed lawyers to ensure fair trials, these individuals, given severe disabilities, are usually unable to complete a trial and are detained until further notice—which, in the U.S. legal system, hardly ever comes. Subjugated and dehumanized, these individuals—even U.S. citizens—are literally left to further break down in already overcrowded prisons at no fault of their own. Multifaceted issues like these indicate inherent flaws within both the legal and the social systems of the United States. How can our legal immigration system allow the mentally disabled to be present at a trial unrepresented? To not, at the very least, treat these immigrants as United States citizens—to offer them lawyers and other necessities of a fair trial—is not only to violate the UNDHR, but it is wrong.

How can we begin to address issues like these? It seems to me that to jump into the “what’s wrong with immigration” pool with this issue is to skip many of the more basic flaws with our system, but to let these people, many of whom do not even understand what deportation means, sit in prison is unjust. I’m certainly not clear on many of the other issues of immigration, but the direct implications of treating the disabled in this way are unacceptable.

Cultural relativism and us.

So I have been thinking, and although I did my best to argue my side on Tuesday, saying that there are universal rights and wrongs, I must admit that I am not so convinced myself. This is not to say that I do not believe in rights and wrongs, or that FGM is wrong, I do, however I am unsure as to what authority I have to pass judgement like that. Heres where I am coming from:

So the other day I was reading CNN online, and I stumbled upon this article addressing Julian Assange.
In this article the Swedish take the stance that they would not, if given the chance extradite Assange to America as they do not support Human rights violations. This really threw me off, seeing as I think I can speak for most Americans in saying that we generally think of our country as the sort that stands up for Human rights, not the sort that violates them, at least not with enough regularity to warrant such a harsh stance. After thinking about this though, I have come to realize that this is not the case. Assange's lawyers brought up a good point in saying that they were afraid for his safety if he were given over to America.

It seems that when we are talking about 'un-warranted' human rights violations, Americans are on board with saying "NO thats not right... EVER!" but I feel like then after we take this stance, we mumble under our breath "unless you really piss me off... then all bets are off." This is not a stance that is defendable in my opinion, yet I think that most people agree on some base primitive level that there are people out in the world who they would like to see have their human rights violated. Thus, I really don't know if anyone is in a position to judge what constitutes a human rights violation ABSOLUTELY, rather their may be some subjectivity involved.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A little bit of Information on Female Circumcision or FGM

After our conversation on Tuesday night it seemed that a number of us were interested in learning more about Female Circumcision

During my year in Germany, a friend of mine and I researched and presented to our Women's Rights class some basic information on FGM. Though I certainly can't claim to be an expert on the subject, I thought I would share some of the more valuable sources we found for those of you who are interested in learning more.

First, this map shows the areas in Africa where FGM is practiced, and how widely it is practiced in those areas. My understanding is that, while FGM is most widely practiced in Africa, there are areas in Asia and the Middle East where FGM is a prominent practice.

This article, from Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute contains a number of journal entries from a researcher working in Northern Sudan. Though her original research related to the disability of women infected with Schitstosoma Mansoni, she witnessed a number of circumcision ceremonies during her field work, and I think her first person accounts, and her later reflections on those ceremonies can offer us some insights.

Also, the World Health Organization has a lot of good information on the health risks related to FGM that we were discussing in class. I found the 'classification' of the different types of FGM to be particularly helpful in understanding what exactly happens to these girls.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Nobel Laureate Speaking at University of Memphis this Friday

There's an awesome lecture happening in Memphis this weekend related to our class.

At 4:00PM this Friday, February 11th, Rigoberta Menchú will be speaking at the University of Memphis in the UC Ballroom. As a member of the Quiché-Maya group in Guatemala, Menchú is an advocate of indigenous rights. She drew global attention to the effects of the Guatemala Civil War on the country's indigenous population and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

I'm planning to go, so let me know if you'd like a ride!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dan Savage and the It Gets Better Project

On February 15th, author and activist Dan Savage will be joining our class for a discussion of his It Gets Better Project. Dan Savage is the creator and author of the syndicated relationship and sex advice column Savage Love. In September 2010, he and his partner Terry posted a YouTube video (below) in response to a number of news stories about LGBT youth taking their lives after being bullied. Over 10,000 others have posted similar videos encouraging LGBT youth as a part of the It Gets Better Project.

Please take some time to look into the It Gets Better Project and Dan Savage's other works in preparation for his visit to our class.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Global Migration

In the section discussing global migration and the question of citizen’s rights, Micheline Ishay explains that both globalization and the development of mass media have encouraged countries around the world to focus on the debate concerning an individual’s right to movement. Although a variety of people have migrated to foreign lands for centuries, Ishay defines the three main factors that continue to contribute to immigration: war, scarcity, and the “lure for greater opportunity” (267). Because these issues are ongoing, countries have been faced with the issue of defining the rights of immigrants. Ishay offers a variety of positions that countries have taken regarding immigration policies. Germany, in an effort to maintain its current ethnic composition, generally views immigrants as “intruders” and has established relatively strict citizenship requirements and immigration policies (269). Other countries, including France and the Netherlands, are more tolerant of migrants and have accepted a political approach to nationhood based on universal ideals. As long as immigrants embrace “universal legal procedures, common work, and a shared sense of collective values,” they are allowed to gain citizenship. The United States, which has typically ignored the presence of illegal immigrants within the country, has also adopted a more moderate immigration policy. Many human rights activists argue that, when faced great threats to personal safety, individuals and groups of people have the right to leave their country in search of a better place. But this “right to movement” seems to conflict with other human rights (at least on some levels). The countries that uphold a lenient position on immigration and are more accepting of migrants seem to face an increased risk of violence and acts of terror. Ishay explains that, although they often acknowledge the individual’s right to movement, countries normally place the importance of national security (its citizens’ right to safety) above preserving the rights of immigrants. For example, in an effort to help secure the United States after the September 11th attacks, President Bush restricted tourism and foreign student visas and issued tougher immigration policies (271). In addition, the rights of immigrants may eventually conflict with an individual’s right to culture. “Staunch” internationalists fear that the views of the most powerful cultures will eventually overcome the cultural values of secondary nations, creating a world with universal morals perspectives (277). If countries open their doors to peoples of other nations and are more accepting of immigrants, do they not risk the safety of their citizens and the erosion of their own culture? Although the right to movement should be conserved, countries must carefully balance its policies on immigration with that of national security and the rights of its own citizens. Failing to find this balance will only lead to more war, scarcity, and the lure for greater opportunity.

Foreigners Ability to Contribute?

Last week, I noticed a blog post about immigration and the right of movement. I found this blog post very interesting as I had been doing some research on the idea of immigration and the responsibilities of the citizen. The final point that was made within the blog post reiterated my same thoughts, that often times foreigners are deemed as foreign without giving them a proper chance to contribute to a society. The foreign label strips the person of their equal rights as human beings. This depiction of a human less than deserving of equal rights does not allow for people to even give them a chance of being respected and emphasizes the divide between a foreigner and a nation. With the issues of immigration so public within our own society, this idea raises a few questions: Can foreigners ever become a part of a nation? If so, how? What are the steps to allowing foreigners into a society without creating a divide between the citizens and the immigrants? Finally, if there are ways, where is the ending? How do we stop everyone from coming?

The last questions I am still having struggles answering, but in regard to the first couple I think there are a few issues that can be addressed regarding foreigners. First, there is the issue of perspectives. Nations want to keep their own identity and keep the security of their citizens in mind. This furthers the idea of the social contract and maintaining a political unity within a country. Citizens are proud of the success of their members and take pride in their country. These are contributing factors as to why foreigners would be interested in being a part of the country and why they would choose to move from their homes to some place unknown. It is through recognizing the foreigners perspectives that one can see why they chose to be there. Countries, like the United States, provide people with hope, a chance to succeed, and the possibility to contribute to society. Through first recognizing the human rights of foreigners, citizens can seem them as equal human being with the capacities similar to themselves. Once, this has been established, there must be some form of education that can teach the foreigners how to be a part of the nation. There are many differences that keep them apart, but through education, I am willing to say that foreigners will be more confident in trying to maintain a nation’s identity. If foreigners are willing and trying to contribute to the nation, the citizens will be more likely to accept them within their country. From acceptance, there will be a sense of respect and the people of the country will appreciate the originality that comes with foreigners while still identifying them as fellow citizens.

If this argument could be taken as valid, how is a country able to decide who would stay in their country? How can the nation be in accordance with the declaration of human rights, while maintaining a national identity?

Free Thinking

Many factors contribute to the possibility and manifestation of human rights. Tradition, personal views, popular views, government, theory, and material conditions all affect the mission. Free market capitalism means that laws of supply and demand rule the transfer of money. We are accustomed to saying that in America we are free. Just as Marx argues that our ideologies are superimposed onto material conditions, it seems to me that most Americans are very much ignorant to what is really going on around them. Many Americans live comfortably so there is no reason for them to question their world. It seems to me that one’s conception of freedom is not determined by actual material freedom, but rather the idea one has that he is free. While in reality a person’s material conditions might severely limit his freedom, as long as he believes in the possibility of freely changing his situation then he will delude himself about his real lot. Our interpretation of our condition is very much skewed from what is actually happening.
The media gives us icons such as Lil Wayne, the perfect role model for black youth. Only in America can you make millions of dollars being Lil Wayne. He inspires aspiring rappers everywhere; talent will take you to the top. Really, these icons are discovered by people looking to increase the pile of money they are already in possession of. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few white people aren’t cashing in on folks like Wayne.
If left to its own devices capitalism is blind to human rights. Slavery and slave-like working conditions are products of fastening monetary worth on humans. Morality is an idea and often gets shoved to the side when actual material gains are to be made. One solution is government intervention. The government can establish laws to regulate working conditions. But as much as we would like to think that human rights are inalienable and self-evident, they are very much confined to what material conditions will allow. Increasing worker salary for example, drives up production cost, so the finished product might cost more, so what good is more money? Universal healthcare would be great, but what are the material ramifications?
As Americans we believe our country is the best in the world. Our country is the most forward thinking, the home of model citizens, and champion of freedom and human rights for all. I find these ideas a bit clouded. America has been involved in a war in the Middle East for several years now, I hope those Iraqis appreciate all we’re doing strictly on behalf of their freedom. As an advanced nation, America is able to impose base standards on working conditions that are much higher than many nations. Johnny makes $7.25 an hour scooping ice cream, not bad Johnny. But whereas service jobs require workers on site and thus must conform to federal standards, industrious capitalists (God bless them) have actually determined that it is cheaper to send their manufacturing jobs to cheap unregulated labor overseas and simply ship products. The alienation of one’s labor is nowhere more apparent then in factories in India where $1 a day salaries make Nikes that go for $100+. Billionaire capitalist tycoons are completely entitled to the fortune they make; it’s called playing the game—right? Or are they? Marx criticizes private property for fostering self-interest. One solution is a heavy taxation for the wealthy. Is this fair? What responsibility to human rights do these big shots have?

Faith in Freedom?

Ok, I'm in a bizarre mood tonight so this blog is going to challenge the value placed on human rights. This isn't to say that I don't respect them at a high level, but it is saying that at the current moment I'm feeling a bit dubious. A favorite bumper sticker of mine is the Ben Franklin quote: "Those that sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither." That statement sounds/feels/emits vibes of/ pure, unrestrained liberty. It sounds great, feels great, so on, so forth. But almost all aphoristic quotes drastically overstep their boundaries when generalized to the entire state of things, and this is no exception. Anyone who believes that economy should have no governmental restraints is either an idiot, or a pleased beneficiary. Likewise, the whole intent of the social contract is to limit freedom to expand security (and freedom-kind of).

Ok, new perspective on the value of freedom. I'm from Detroit, in my opinion the city with cruddiest social dilemmas in the nation right now. People are regularly committing crimes (often violent) to go to jail so that they can obtain those three complementary meals a day and a not-freezing sleeping environment. My cousin even did this very act, damning himself for three months in his little rebellious "I don't need the family, but I can't actually make it on my own" phase. The people who do this to themselves are free. More free than any of us since they have no material wealth constricting their actions. But the value of that is lost on them, and who could really expect otherwise?

If any of you read the book The Giver, perhaps you remember how one boy was given the troubles of all humanity so that everyone else could live in their utopian world (portrayed as un-ideal). His suffering was immense, but that is secondary to my thought. When I re-read the book, I noticed that those supposedly constricted, de-humanized, individuals all appeared, at the very least, relatively happy. That is no worse than what I would project the mean satisfaction level of citizens of this (and most other) country(ies).

I recognize what being born with a relative excess of freedom has permitted me. I also do not excessively challenge the value of general freedom within parameters. I guess I'm just curious about what makes the rest of you fellow classmates of mine value this highest of rights at the level it is consistently lauded? Yes, it sounds nice, but so does the Constitution. And, while I respect that document, I don't consider infallible. The same with democracy. Our country's people masturbate to its concept-and the idea is, indeed, respectable. But infallible? The superlative concept? Come on. And so, getting back to my original query, I'm simply curious about the personal reasons you guys hold for valuing this liberty so much. It's not so much that I completely doubt its value, but that I'm sick of generic, patterned, pre-organized opinions on the matter that arise from the fact that we live in a country promoting its morals. I simply want the truth without a nationalistic filter of bias. Any assistance?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Say Ya Want a Revolution?

I've been ruminating on our last class discussion on Marx, a philosopher that provokes uniquely strong reactions, given that his uncompromising indictment of capitalism provides a focus point for our own criticisms the existing social order. Given the manifest and manifold shortcomings of American capitalism, particularly in regard to the least fortunate, the question was raised: We don't we revolt?

There are the relatively prosaic answers, of course: Americans are too comfortable, some will say, though this very fact seems somewhat at odds with Marx's prediction of the growing misery of the proletariat. Alternatively, one may take the globalist view that the real proletarians of today are to be found in the developing world, though these are typically precisely the places that are experiencing material improvements at the fastest rate (as Hans Rosing's data will indicate below). Others have argued that the myth of the "American Dream" creates unrealistic hopes of fabulous wealth for the downtrodden (Marx would call this "false consciousness"). More fundamental however, would seem to be the question of whether a radical alternative to capitalism is at all plausible. For all the miseries that exist in modern society (and I would not deny they are many and grievous), it makes a great deal of difference what the character would be of the system  with which we would propose to replace it.

I will not waste time by pointing out the hideous shortcomings of past and present socialist states; it is true enough to say that no nominally "communist" state has perfectly replicated Marx's ideas. Marx's view of communism itself, after all, entails a gradual "withering away" of the state in favor of a classless worker's paradise. The perrenial argument among various stripes of Marxists (Trotskyites being the most insufferable) is that if only the right people had taken power, if only the revolution had not been sidetracked by Stalinism, or revisionism, or dogmatism, or nationalism, etc., etc., , then things would have come up roses. They miss the point. It is cliché to remark that communism "never works in practice", but the truth is that no advanced society could ever reach the blissful state of Marx's worker's paradise, (and it has not been for lack of effort).

The reason is relatively straightforward. Economic activity in a modern industrial society involves countless interactions among people with no personal connection to one another. No one individual can possibly know what everyone else in society wants or needs. Yet we still manage by and large to secure these wants and needs through the coordinating effect of the market. Of course, it doesn't have to be done this way. Instead, a central authority can use its supposed expertise to mandate what will be produced and consumed. Naturally, such an authority will require coercion (actual or threatened) to maintain its ability to issue binding decisions on the economy. Such regimes are typically human rights disasters, but you can indeed run an advanced society this way (the Soviet Union did it for 70 years), however badly.

These are the choices: supply and demand, or state control (in reality, nearly all countries operate under some combination thereof). What is utterly impossible is the existence of a sophisticated society operating without either private property or the state, as Marx imagines communism. Under capitalism, self-interest determines economic behavior; under socialism, obedience to the state. In a society lacking both motivators, there is no force able to coordinate economic activity beyond the individual and his immediate neighbors. One may indeed labor purely for the benefit of his or her fellow human beings, but only if one knows who they are. If each is to recieve "according to his needs", there must be some way of knowing what those needs are and providing for them. On a large scale, this is utterly beyond the power of the individual without either the "invisible hand" of the market or the sterner hand of the state.

Marx's vision of communism would essentially require a sort of spontaneous collectivism in which everyone works purely for the benefit of their fellow human beings. It would be, in essence, an economy based on love. But this is precisely the problem. No one can love (in the active, agape sense) a person of whom they have no knowledge. Our ability to act out of charity is restricted to the limited circle of persons with whom we may actually have some kind of meaningful interaction. But as already noted, an advanced industrial society requires commerical interactions among people who are otherwise total strangers. It requires specialization, and a means of conveying those specialities to the customers who desire them. Individual altruism simply cannot accomplish this.

Communism can indeed work in practice; it occasionally works satisfactorily in communes (not to be too obvious), kibbutzes, etc. However, such projects are possible precisely because they involve communities small enough to maintain personal contact between members. An agrarian village can accomodate communism; an automobile plant (with thousands of workers and suppliers of goods like rubber and steel from around the world) cannot. Rejecting both private property and the state means a return to medieval economic conditions.

Some of course, would gladly give up the inequalities and neuroses of modern capitalism in favor of a simpler lifestyle. Such a desire is perfectly understandable (and no one looks down upon, for the example, the Amish, for living out of synch with modern social and economic mores). What must be abandoned is the notion that all the material wealth produced by capitalism could be fairly distributed and society would eventually bask in harmony if only the common man would rise up. Such uprisings reach the "socialist" stage of development but never quite seem to manage to obtain communism, precisely because an advanced society is incompatible with it (Pol Pot seemed to have figured this out, oddly enough). There is no escaping the trade-offs that define human existence; communism is the ultimate free lunch. 

To recapitulate, the choices are capitalism, socialism, or medievalism. Marx has much to say that rings true about the cruelties of the capitalist system, and nothing in my argument is intended to urge quietism in the face of real injustices that may be corrected. But what must be repudiated is the utopian revolutionary project. Communism is a chimera, one that has left a trail of blood in the wake of every attempt to advance it. Anyone who wishes to advance human rights ought to recognize it for the malignant illusion it is.

The Memphis Education Debate in The New York Times

It all began as a matter of finances and tax break downs but has evolved into a deeper problem beyond monetary distribution. Whether the Memphis City Schools (MCS) should be consolidating with the Shelby County School ( SCS) is headline news not only making history in Memphis but also nationally. In the article, ‘Memphis to Vote on Transferring School System to County’ in The New York Times, Campbell Robertson quotes Mike Carpenter, a Republican county commissioner saying , “It’s the city-county split that has to do with race and class.” This quote illustrates the overarching problems involved with the potential consolidation of the school systems. The school system debate is more than simply about whether SCS can become a “special school system” or if the tax distribution will be more efficient with this consolidation- the debate involves the history behind this SCS and MCS division.

I am a product of SCS schooling. In my senior year of high school , there were some slight changes in the organization of the district lines and new students were entering my high school that school year; many of these students happened to be African American. My high school administrators noticed some negative changes in the student body as a whole. The entrance of the new students was said to be the cause of this change. The students who were integrated were from the MCS system; thus, the concern as to whether SCS educational standards will be negatively affected by letting MCS students in is a pivotal issue that is seen in the current consolidation debate. I do not think that the integration of the new students the reason why my high school changed in the manner it did during my senior year; furthermore, I am for the consolidation to take place between SCS and MCS.

Here is my concern though, we are debating over a decision that will affect the students’ right to education. However, because most of the students are legally minors they do not get to vote in a decision that will affect their own education directly, negatively or positively. Diversifying SCS schools might be a good thing in the long run but in the short run it will be quite an adjustment that causes me to wonder how the current students in both SCS and MCS feel about the matter.

If you were still a high school student in your own hometown, what would your stance be on such a debate taking place in your city? I want to know how you think the students can be better incorporated into the decision that affects their own right to education? Additionally, do you think that the school systems could work around the borders of "race and class" if the consolidation were to occur; if so, how?

See the link below for the full article:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch is a fabulous website worth a visit. Below is an excerpt from their "About Us" section:

"Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

Mission Statement:
Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all."

Check it out.

Hans Rosling's New Insights on Poverty

Paul Collier on "The Bottom Billion"

"Rethinking Life and Death"

Peter Singer. For most or many of you, this name rings a bell. Peter Singer is a highly recognized Australian philosopher of the modern day. Singer is an interesting man who has had concentrations in several highly debated topics and written several books that concentrate on those various topics. It is not uncommon to find Peter Singer’s works in a college class and especially on a college campus. Peter Singer’s philosophic viewpoints are both challenging and fascinating to think about especially in comparison to other older philosophers, as well as ones own perspectives. My freshman year at Rhodes College, I was enrolled in Professor Shade’s “Medical Ethics” course and we were assigned to read Peter Singer’s Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics. Now the reason I am sharing this fact is that Peter Singer’s book is a challenge to a common ideal of what we tend to consider rights on human life. Peter Singer presents several old school commandments and flips them to fit our new technology dependant society.

Singer’s book has several incredibly important parts but one of the most shocking parts are the “New Commandments,” which is where, as described previously, Singer takes an old ethical view on life and death and completely revamps the entire system in order to more appropriately fit the situations that are more fitting for a technology dependant world of 2011. The first commandment Singer challenges is, “treat all human life as of equal worth.” Singer changes this old commandment into the new, “recognize that the worth of human life varies.” The second old commandment is, “never intentionally take innocent human life,” and is turned into, “take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions.” The third commandment is, “never take your own life, and always try to prevent others taking theirs,” which is thus turned into, “respect a person’s desire to live or die.” The fourth commandment is, “be fruitful and multiply,” which is changed into, “bring children into the world only if they are wanted.” The final commandment is, “treat all human life as always more precious than any nonhuman life,” which is changed into, “do not discriminate on the basis of species.”

Although this may seem like a really tedious long list of commandment changes, for this post I only want to focus on one, the third new commandment, which is “respect a person’s desire to live or die.” Do you think that people have a right to live or die?

A highly controversial topic in recent years is the “right to die.” The “right to die” is so notorious because it deals with each individual’s wants and desires and then an individual’s quality of life. Singer believes that each individual has a differing quality in his/her life and depending on their quality of life, the individuals should be able to decide their own demise if they so choose. For example, Singer describes individuals who are in a permanent vegetative state (pvs) as having a very low quality of life. Singer believes that people in this state may not even have the desire to live and he then brings in another philosopher to back up his statement. Singer describes how John Locke believes that a person is a being with reason and those who are in a pvs cannot be assumed to be beings with reason. Singer attempts to challenge any and all who would argue that his new commandment “respect a person’s desire to live or die” is not a right that should be observed by all. Do you think that this is a right that should be observed? In our technology-obsessed world do you think we need to have our old ethical medical commandments challenged to fit the rights of our current world?

On a side note, I’m still looking for a match with a group for the project, that is if anyone is still looking for one more person please let me know!