Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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If You Don’t Like to Think About AIDS, Don’t Read This.

June 10, 2007

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece recently entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy.” I think he was going for getting a reaction with the title, and it worked, at least with me. You’ve probably notice that the media loves stories about endangered species–always cute, cuddly ones, never rodents–because people are moved by these stories. On the other hand, a crisis like the genocide in Darfur is unlikely to get airplay commensurate with its magnitude. And likewise with AIDS, which despite being of tragic scale–two or three flaming World Trade Centers full of people dying every day–rarely hits the news, in part because it’s the same old, depressing story, every day.

So, when I saw that Truthdig had an interview called “Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa,” I gravitated light-wards. The piece is an interview of Stephanie Nolen, the author of a new book called “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” which tells one narrative of a (real, actual, living and breathing) human being with HIV in Africa for every one million of the estimated 28 million living with the virus. I certainly plan on reading this book, but here’s what really caught my eye–this picture:

And its caption:

Bongos, an 8-year-old HIV-positive boy, waits in a hallway at the Sparrow Rainbow Village medical clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, in November 2005.

This really hits home, because I volunteered at Sparrow back in 2005. They do incredible work, and my few weeks there were extremely moving. Sparrow is an orphanage and adult hospice–a “village”–where those with HIV are cared for. The corridor in the background is the central part of Sparrow’s administrative center, which connects some of the hospital rooms (for the sickest patients), a kitchen, administrative offices, and even a makeshift morgue. Because most of the patients there receive some level of antiretroviral treatment Sparrow is really, sadly, one of the best places to be in Johannesburg if you’re a kid with HIV.

Here are some compelling quotes from Nolen’s interview on Truthdig:

You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true.

On narrating an issue where the statistics are numbing:

Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.

On finding stories of progress:

You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes…We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.

On money and broken promises and the real roadblock to widespread treatment programs (trained health care professionals):

And there’s a lot more money available than there was….They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?

On the underlying economic inequalities that drive the epidemic:

You know, I meet lots of young women who’ve been given information about HIV but who are selling sex down at truck stops because their parents have died, they’re raising their siblings and that’s the only option that they have. So, you know, they say, “Fine, we’ve been told about HIV in the safe-sex textbooks, but HIV might kill me in five years or 10 years and we’re all going to starve to death next week if I don’t do this.” So, you can address some of the obvious things around prevention, but unless you change the factors that drive people into risky behavior, then you haven’t achieved very much.

And, a bit further afield, but still in Africa, on Darfur and the war in Uganda:

And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers … you don’t hear about that one.

On Bush’s PEPFAR program (providing treatment for AIDS in Africa):

Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?

And its problems:

…They’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.

I like Stephanie Nolen. And I like Truthdig.

(If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Sparrow, please do so!)


Nigeria…

June 10, 2007

ThruthDig has an excellent piece on the recent “elections” in Nigeria and what they may or may not mean. More thoughts coming soon.


The Kite Runner

June 5, 2007

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My parents gave me a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for Christmas, and it’s a tribute to the crazily-high-busy-ness quotient of the past semester that I just now got to it.

Hosseini immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan and became a physician, a profession he only gave up after the success of his novels. The Kite Runner is his first novel, and runs in a sort of parallel to his own life. Amir, the main character, grows up in Afghanistan and ends up fleeing to the U.S. during that country’s decades of violence.

The Kite Runner is one of those excellent books where fiction may give one a better introduction to a reality that nonfiction ever could. The characters are imaginary, but in a sense they are very real, telling stories about their country’s history, its culture, its religion, its prejudices, and its wars. Amir is an upper-class Pashtun who has a conflicted friendship with Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant. Much of the book centers on Amir’s guilt over an incident from his childhood and his struggle to redeem himself.

It’s not perfect though. At times I thought the coincidences–such as in meeting the same characters repeatedly, unexpectedly–veered away from realism. The book could have used a few more characters not vital to the plot to flesh it out, but this doesn’t interfere too much. If you want to know more about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner is probably an excellent first book to draw you into a world that is otherwise utterly foreign. And maybe reading it will help humanize the people of Afghanistan, in a way that Americans desperately need.


The Debate (II)

June 4, 2007

Awesome question on Pakistan. Hurray for random history professors in the audience.

Many of these hypothetical situations are ridiculous. Kucinich handled the question about assassinations well. I don’t his answer is very politically wise, but it’s the best thing to say.

Hillary really tries to turn everything back to being Bush’s fault. This certainly plays well to the liberal base, but it doesn’t always make sense.

Biden is really extraordinary on foreign policy. On Sudan: “They have forfeited their sovereignty by committing genocide.” Amen brother. He and Richardson are talking sense on Darfur, and on Africa.

There’s a lot of hand raising going on. Wolf Blitzer is a blithering idiot. And Hillary called him on it.

Chris Dodd: Boycotting the ’08 Olympics in Beijing if China doesn’t get tough with Sudan is “going too far.” Bullshit.

Biden is too angry to be a good politician, but he gets things right.

Obama rocks on talking about American moral legitimacy as a world leader.


The Debate

June 4, 2007

Kucinich has the best solution for health care. Bravo. Any ‘solution’ to America’s health care problems that feed the insurance companies will continue being terribly inefficient, and citizens will blame it all on the Democrats. Universal health care doesn’t have to be a bloated, hodge-podge design we create as go along.

Why does Hillary always sound like she’s shouting?

It’s unfortunate Obama doesn’t sound quite as articulate in the debates as he does in his books. I still like him the most, and have the most confidence in his personal integrity (largely based on his community organizing work).

I’m amazed at how many different ways there are to dodge questions.

I’ll be even more amazed if any of the debaters will admit that pulling out of Iraq will likely lead to much more violence. That’s a fact of life, and one we must come to grips with (I still think we need to move out–we’re just prolonging the inevitable). There are some realities that are simply unmentionable for a politician.

They need to turn of Wolf Blitzer’s mic when he’s not asking questions. That’s just not professional.


McCain’s Agnosticism Kills

March 20, 2007

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I now officially loathe John McCain. When asked simple questions about whether condoms protect users from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, McCain simply “didn’t know.” In other words, he’s so afraid of offending his “moral conservative” base that he professes to be agnostic about the most basic of scientific facts, and ends up supporting policies that kill.

A transcript borrowed from The Caucus blog:

Reporter: “Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?”

McCain: “…Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it.”

Reporter: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Reporter: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?

McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Reporter: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Reporter: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

Mr. Senator, this is absurd. I’m nauseous. Actually, this reminds me of the President of Gambia. He had a vision from his ancestors telling him about a magical cure for HIV. And because of his ignorance, people are going to die.

And it reminds me of Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa. In 2000, while under pressure from activists to begin providing life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment for HIV using public funds, Mbeki found the easy way out. He publicly questioned whether HIV causes AIDS, and suggested people should opt for good nutrition alone, with no other treatment. Mbeki’s dithering was eventually overcome, but the delay in providing public treatment for HIV in South Africa cost lots of lives, and those lives aren’t just statistics. In 2004 I watched several kids die of HIV in Johannesburg–kids who might have been on treatment by then if Mbeki hadn’t publicly encouraged ignorance and backpedaling.

And with McCain, it’s worse. Really, who do you expect to be more scientifically informed, and more likely to use financial resources to promote condoms, a former revolutionary and current president of a country in Africa? Or a United States Senator, who is a leading politician in a country with massive resources?

And how did McCain respond? He laughed. He hedged. He refused to acknowledge that condoms in any way prevent the spread of HIV or STDs. He probably would deny they prevent pregnancy as well!

This is no laughing matter. McCain will get some negative publicity, but his conservative base will say “look, he’s really anti-condom, so we like him,” imagining that not sending condoms to Africa is actually going to make people celibate and turn them to God.

May McCain be cursed with a stingy bout of gonorrhea and ongoing neural degradation (if he can afford it, since he’s obviously already lacking) from syphilis.


Bush Reinvents “Progress”

March 20, 2007

CNN has a piece on the 4-year anniversary of the war.

There are some real darling quotes in there. Like this:

“There’s been good progress.”

Am I missing something?

“If American forces were to step back from Baghdad, before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country,” Bush said. “In time this violence could engulf the region.”

This is true. But is Bush offering a legitimate option for creating a lasting peace? It seems not.

But, in case all the sectarian violence has you feeling gloomy, we’re going to have a hanging pretty soon. Should be a good one.


Shooting the Messenger

January 20, 2007

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Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul. Dink had been outspoken about the Ottoman genocide of Armenians at the start of the 20th century. While this may seem like ancient history to present-minded Americans, it plays heavily into regional politics in Turkey and Armenia. Many Turks think the killings were a justifiable part of a civil war, while Armenians see it as genocide (most non-Turkish sources I’ve read agree with the latter).

Being a prominent journalist about an unpopular issue is never an easy task. But in some places the messenger is more likely to get shot than in others. For example, I don’t think Anderson Cooper has gotten many death threats lately. (However, this may be a symptom of how any prominent journalist–especially American ones–pander to the system. If you’re not getting death threats or hate mail, your work might not be that important…)

So how big of a deal is calling the killing of Armenians genocide in Turkey? Evidently it’s illegal to insult the Turkish state (in America it’s mostly legal, just unpopular). From CNN:

Described as a “well-known commentator on Armenian affairs,” Dink had been called into court a number of times on allegations of “insulting” the Turkish state in his writing.

And apparently Dink isn’t the first Turkish journalist to be targeted for unpopular beliefs:

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Like dozens of other Turkish journalists, Hrant Dink has faced political persecution because of his work. Now it appears he’s paid the ultimate price for it.”

Campagna said that Turkey “must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished like other cases in the past and that those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.”

He said that over the last 15 years, 18 Turkish journalists have been killed — making the country the eighth deadliest in the world for journalists in that period. He said many of the deaths took place in the early 1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Unlike Anna Politkovskaya, who was likely assassinated by the Russian government itself (for criticism of atrocities in Russia’s war on Chechnya), Dink’s death is more likely that of an Islamist or Turkish ultra-nationalist extremist (the assassin reportedly shouted “I shot the infidel”), categories which can often become blurred, but the Turkish government is anything but blameless for the overall situation:

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told CNN that the case is the “product of the environment that the Turkish government has created” — its persistent denial that the killings of the Armenians last century did not amount to genocide.

How Turkey handles this event, along with its relations with the Kurds, will also inevitably tie into Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. But while this killing raises political questions, it also brings me to a more philosophical inquiry.

Is there really a right to free speech? Do people inherently have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where do any of these rights come from? In the idealistic sense the answer may be yes, we have these rights, but many authors on human rights (Farmer ‘s Pathologies of Power comes to mind) would be the first to admit that they can’t “prove” rights. Nobody truly possessed a right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion until people decided that they had those rights, declared them, and made them a reality.

A right can exist as an ideal that has no real correspondence to actual conditions, but over time the ideal may come closer to realization. Our freedom of speech is still imperfect, but there are arguably more people in the world today who can speak freely than ever before. There will always be people and governments who will shoot the messenger, but if we shed light on and punish those who violate the right to speech, we may move closer to the ideal, if only incrementally. In the same sense, I hold that people have a right to health care–a right that is inseparable from our right to life–but recognize that this right is less realized in America than any other wealthy nation. The act of smoothing over the edges between the ideal and the reality is the whole pursuit of social justice.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the case.