Thursday, December 13, 2007

Somalia, today -

The scourge of war has been ravaging the population of Somalia for more than a year now causing a major humanitarian crisis that words alone cannot describe. Some 600,000 people, or, half the population of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, have opted to flee Inferno for the rural regions, in search of food or hope. Not that there is much of either food or hope in the impoverished villages, but anyway - let's assume there is.

Failed negotiations in late 2006 between the Transitional Government and the Islamist Movement led to a large-scale warfare when neighboring Ethiopia and the USA intervened on behalf of the Transitional Government, that is, against the combined forces of the Islamists and the Eritreans. Today, the Transitional Government is back in the capital but retaliation acts from the Islamists turn Mogadishu into a battlefield almost daily.

Famine is, for a second time in less than 20 years, a gloomy prospect for Somalia as political precariousness, lack of security and hostile checkpoints around the capital make the distribution of whatever UN and other food reaches the country disturbingly uncertain. Gross suffering and excessive deaths appear to be occurring as wounded women and children are frequently prevented from accessing UNICEF medical stations. If confirmed, the soon-to-happen expulsion of journalists from the area of Somaliland will seal the "death decree" for Somalia as it will sever the region from the world for good.

Reporting from the Shabelle River region for the Washington Post, Stephanie McCrummen is a voice in the field - and she communicates not only the plight of Somalis but also the quintessence of virtue in her article "A wealth of kindness among Somalia's poorest": entitled to only a loaf of bread and a few tomatoes per family, locals welcome their displaced compatriots knowing very well so that this means putting their very own survival at risk. Amidst so much misery, Somalis teach lessons for life - they truly do.

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References:

For updates: UN News on Somalia

Stephanie McCrummen's article: "A wealth of kindness among Somalia's poorest: Clan Ties Open Doors for Refugees From Capital"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

America on the edge, Part C: Spelling it [out]!

When I started writing "America on the edge" my focus was gun violence in the United States; nonetheless, profound social questions can seldom be confined, spanning as they do across different sectors of society. Today's post -the third and final one in the series- deals with failing schools in America: a reality that is diametrically opposed to the picture of schools painted in the previous post and arguably a source of concern for Americans, even when it comes to gun violence.

With the same ease one can find in the United States model public schools boasting exemplary facilities -absent from many private schools- and innovative curricula, one can also find failing schools with students unable to read or do basic math despite years of schooling. And such schools are not difficult to spot, located as they are in major metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles. The controversial "No Child Left Behind Act" is in many ways problematic [despite some good intentions] and more importantly inefficient according to a recent article published in the New York Times; Diana Schemo argues that shutting down schools -a requirement for those schools judged as failing- presents educators with few solutions as on how to deal with the major of problem of generations of children growing without receiving basic literacy skills.

Overly packed schools with failing students present America with a formidable challenge that spans well beyond the inability of students to perform on the infamous standardized tests; such schools are taking the cohesion of the social fabric to the limits. Social ills are often recruited by proponents of gun ownership as evidence to justify increasing gun violence in what is admittedly an attempt to deflect attention from the abundance of guns that circulate almost freely in society. And while it is true that poverty in conjunction with dysfunctional schools account for much of social instability it would be an unfair stretch to argue that social conditions account for the exacerbation of the gun violence we see all over; in fact, let us be reminded of the fact that many of the deadly incidents occurred in socially stable settings.

Rather than trying to draw the line between the two camps, what is a more enlightening path for the understanding of this major issue is to underline the salient feature of American society to host extreme manifestations of any given behavior. Hence for example the best of best schools and the failing schools coexisting within miles. Or, conversely, fierce proponents in either side of the gun ownership question at times refusing to sit on the same round table, let alone to engage in a meaningful discussion.

A trait of American democracy and a product of the convoluted formation of the nation, tolerance is surely a source of strength in America; yet on occasion it may also be nothing short of a colossal vulnerability.

Reference
if registered with the New York Times:
Failing Schools Strain to meet U.S. Standard

Sunday, October 28, 2007

America on the edge, Part B: Voices. Echoes?

(continued from previous post) ... like the fact that 8 year-olds openly talk about shooting.

If this statement is shocking to you (as it was to me), I am sorry to report that it actually gets worse. "Shooting" was not a random thing a young boy brought up and I happened to hear. Nor it was, of course, the subject matter of a discussion in which the little one happened to be present. It was not even a discussion about the "evils" of society. The young boy provided this response when he was asked to name a negative quality that he did not want his best friend to possess.

And now picture this: the incident happened in the local elementary school where the little one is a student. His friends and classmates were naturally present - in fact many of them were sitting just next to him as they were all participating in an activity, which was asking them to name, precisely, "the good qualities they wanted their best friends to possess" and "the bad qualities they did not wish their friends to possess".

Along with such common and anticipated answers like "I want my friend to be kind", "I want my friend to be polite", "I don't want my friend to be jealous of me" - I hear this young boy talking about shooting. And naturally I lose my voice...

I have no knowledge of or training in psychology and yet it seems bewilderingly scary to me that a young boy gave such an answer, to such a question, in a school and in the aftermath of the deadly shooting incidents that have claimed the lives of so many students and others in the United States. Again, I will refrain from taking this point further; but I must admit that I take nothing to be a more serious warning of the urgent need to delve into the issue of "shooting" as well as to dig the ground around it than the response of that 8 year old. Not next month, not next week. Today.

On a more positive now, I must mention that the children were participating in an after-school program the purpose of which is to foster peace in schools. By playing games young children learn peaceful ways to manage their anger and to resolve conflict. This excellent initiative is is the fruit of a non-governmental organization based in Boston, MA called "Peace Games".

The website of "Peace Games"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

America on the edge, Part A: Facing a dead-end?

An open wound that has proved difficult to heal in America is the plight of widespread private weapon ownership - specifically high crime rates resulting from guns put into use against targeted individuals or the wide public. In fact it appears that the wound has become gravely affected; two of the most deathly incidents involving indiscriminate public shootings have occurred within the past twelve months, the first in Pennsylvania, the second in Virginia. And while the Amish killings and the Virginia Tech massacre respectively haunt our individual and collective memories, a Cleveland teenager came very close to lengthening the list of gruesome incidents: on Wednesday, October 10, he opened fire at his former high school wounding four before killling himself.

That no band-aid exists to stop the excessive bleeding and that no pill can cure the wound from inside-out is of course alarming; it is also a testimony to the fact that the ill is much more serious and complex than it is often made appear. Last week's edition of the British "Observer" features staggering statistics about deaths from shootings as well as a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of gun violence in the United States -including political, sociological, historic, legal arguments- only to conclude that weapons are intertwined with American culture and hence almost impossible to combat.

The political response to the shootings of last year centers around a Bill passed by the US House of Representatives which stipulated among others that there must be rigorous background check of prospective gun holders to reduce the probability of weapons reaching people not fit to use them. Still, the Bill is at an early stage and must go through the Senate before it reaches the President.

Of course I do not claim to have the solution to this complex problem. On the other hand, I feel extremely uncomfortable with the "hands-off" approach or the quiescence of many who refuse to even bring up the question. I am also very skeptical of the thesis that gun possession serves their owners as a means of self-defense. Is this the way to go about solving violence? Is arming people making America more safe? I highly doubt it. Not only that, but I believe that the argument is in its core flawed: suppose momentarily the proposition was correct - what about all the people that cannot afford a weapon? Would they not have the right to feel safe in their country?

It is true that weapons alone cannot be held responsible for the form of urban violence one sees today. But they do trigger some very nasty situations - and this should concern people. It should not take another tragedy in some other state to take serious action. When we speak of safety in America, it should not involve terrorism discourse only. Threats need not result from the outside, they can very much originate inside America.

Sadly, the answers seem no longer/not anymore [pending your perspective] satisfactory. Worse still, there are a number of other things that should concern like... (to be continued...)


Reference

Guns take pride of place in US family values

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to basics

Water, water, everywhere
nor any drop to drink.

S.T. Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"


In S.T. Coleridge's famous poem a Mariner and his crew undergo a series of hardships, the most important being that they have no access to drinking water; this is no doubt a great irony considering that they are surrounded by water as they are cruising the ocean. In modern Bangladesh today, at least 20% of the population is in the very same position, lacking access to safe water. Equally ironically, if not more, Bangladesh suffers from deluges which claim the lives of hundreds every year and indirectly affect tens of thousands.

Vivid as the imagery may be in Coleridge's masterpiece, one will ultimately be reminded of the fact that the poem is a work of literature, not an account of real life. Sadly, this does not apply to the Bangladeshi who die in scores because there is "no drop to drink".

Tragedy in real life, it seems, strikes so hard that transcends human imagination. For, it is not the lack of access to our mundane "tap water" -which is so often mismanaged and wasted in our western countries- or to any decent-quality water the only calamity that plagues the Bangladeshi; it is the fact that many are exposed to water that is contaminated; water polluted with arsenic, a lethal chemical element that is perilous for humans.

And, there is more. Arsenic pollution is not a phenomenon of few weeks or months. This "drama" is on stage for the past 25 years.

"Mégacontamination", which roughly translates into "super contamination", is the word that Quebec daily "La Presse" uses in its first page this past Sunday, October 7th, to launch a survey of the catastrophe that plagues Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian province of Bengal. Without resorting to embellishments of any sort, the paper's correspondent in Rajarampur, Emilie Côté reports the facts: 35 million people are directly affected; 40,000 thousand cases of arsenic contamination have been reported to date. The journalist also states that the government knew for four years (1993-1997) about the presence of arsenic, but would not disclose it to the people. As information became available, she notes, uncertainty and insecurity prevailed: how were people supposed to know which source of water was contaminated and which not?

And this is just one way of looking into the problem. The repercussions here are multifold: environmental; economic, as the Bangladeshi rely heavily on agriculture; social, for the social stigma, the disruption of family patterns...

For what constitutes a major disaster in our modern times, the World Health Organization has published extensively on the matter, releasing numerous studies on the detrimental effects of arsenic. Promisingly, water testing spreads, and presumably the contamination rate decreases. Yet, the problem persists, and shall continue to ravage the Bangladeshis since it is known that arsenic kills "slowly"...

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the calamity inflicted upon the sailors is a punishment for their hubris; rather than condemning the Mariner who killed the Albatross (the good omen/shield) for no reason, the sailors render his act righteous. What is the share of responsibility for the Bangladeshi? What could possibly justify the magnitude of such an (ongoing) tragedy? Given that arsenic pollution seems to result naturally, one could point to fate as being responsible. Such an answer however is simplistic and fails to convince. While it is true that the process of pollution could not have been fully thwarted, it is certain that its consequences would have been mitigated - had there been not for the four year "silence" period of the government or the low levels of public awareness or the lack of vital equipment for arsenic detection that were long absent or...

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References

The article in "La Presse": Mégacontamination à l'arsenic au Bangladesh

World Health Organization reports Arsenic in drinking water

Thursday, October 04, 2007

African tales

Despite the light that postcolonial writings have been shedding on Africa in the past few decades, the truth remains that by and large the continent lives, still, in shadow; Africa makes only "rare appearances" in the public scene since the latter continues to be dominated by Western, and to a lesser extent Asian and other, "actors". Hence our entrenched ignorance about the lands, the people, the culture; suffice here to point to the international media for instance - Africa appears almost like a tautology for disaster and grief: Darfur - Rwanda - Apartheid.

This is both wrong and unjust for a continent that is home to over a quarter of the world's countries. But it is also highly misleading, since Africa is far from being drained - that is, despite our consistent efforts to deprive it of all its resources, whether human, animal or natural.

But I wish to go no further with general comments; instead it is a personal experience I wish to share - the feelings of guilt and frustration I experienced earlier this evening in the well-stocked neighboring bookstore. Scrutinizing what was a temporary display of African literature, I was chagrined as I realized that I possess only a handful of books and I have read just a few more; I felt deeply ashamed as I was reading the synopses of all the great books that were lying in front of my eyes and some I had not heard of.

A big splash of extra cold ocean water woke me up to a reality that extends beyond Soyinka's literary and non-fiction writings, Achebe's poetry and Appiah's lucid descriptions of Asante life in Ghana. There I had it all; in front of my eyes there was such a wonderful display of books that spanned from Algeria and Djebar's "Children of the New World" to Kenya and Thiongo's 1964 account of Mau Mau atrocities ("Weep not Child") to Zimbabwe and Dangarembga's "Nervous Conditions". South African accounts of Apartheid and "Truth and Reconciliation" proceedings were not absent either; nor were, of course, horrific accounts of atrocities in Darfur, enough to fill quite a few books and volumes - and, note, the real-life drama of the people has yet to end...

I did not want to leave; at least not until I had sucked in summaries, pages and characters, not until I had jotted down titles and authors. Was I less frustrated? Yes - I must admit. Was I more optimistic? No - much as I did appreciate the book display it did not take me much to realize that beautifully stacked albeit lonely books cannot do much. Plus, most of them have no flashy or glossy clovers... To believe otherwise, seems to me quixotic at best, foolish at worst.. I claim to be neither. But I would love to be proven wrong. I seriously do.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Requiem

Perusing the Greek press, I hit upon some really disturbing news: Dozens of birds (mainly flamingos and avocets) were discovered dead on and around the shores of lake Koroneia in northern Greece.

There are hardly any words to describe my frustration; I become angry as I read that this is not the first time that birds actually "die" (or, shall I say "were left to die"?) in the region - only three years ago, in 2004, another group of birds "disappeared". I become appalled as I realize that much of the responsibility lies with people, authorities and the such who appear to have neglected the much needed infrastructure development in the region; said infrastructure would contribute to the preservation of the lake ecosystem which appears to be heavily polluted. Not only that, but regular water-testing for the purposes of controlling the quality of waters has yet to take effect making early detection of bacteria virtually impossible. Still, scientists had been warning of such a disaster since February 2007 when they discovered a deadly bacterium in the waters of the lake, but to no avail.

And, there is more to go. The population of said bacterium increased exponentially, I read, in part because the water levels have been steadily dropping. Why would that be, I wonder. Well, this is because temperature in the area has been increasing over the last years and rainfall has become a rare commodity. Not surprisingly, the concentration of bacteria in water has also increased. And here comes some unanticipated news: the fish that swim in the water become infected by the bacteria...

Stupid, stupid flamingos and avocets then eat the fish that swim in the lake and because of that, they die.

Surely the birds are to be blamed for since people "tried, but could not prevent the crisis" to quote a Greek official, in what was an "anticipated disaster" according to scientists.

I do not know if there is any need for me to go further but I shall stop only because what I read really transcends reason and reasoning and borders schizophrenia: I read that part of the infrastructure work has been completed but not put into use... yet. I read the warnings of scientists that hunting must stop to prevent the spreading of the bacterium of further in the food chain. Is there an official issuing? Yes? No? Maybe? Certainly nowhere near I could see...

I wholeheartedly hope that I am at least partly wrong and things are far better in real life. Yet I have no good reason to believe that my hopes are anything but wishful thinking - the environment has been severely and systematically abused and destruction continues unabated it seems. Still no government has cared enough to make environment a priority; that Greece has no ministry to deal exclusively with issues of the Environment, but instead the bogus "Ministry for the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works" is nauseating, no doubt about that.

Worse still it is horrifying - if incidents such as this in the Koroneia lake or the disastrous wildfires that ravaged Greek forests and killed dozens of people this summer do not constitute sufficient grounds for the creation of a Ministry of Environment, then what does? What catastrophe should we pray for [sic] for people's minds to change? How heavy of a toll must we pay for what arguably falls under common sense?

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References:

Τοξικός θάνατος στη λίμνη των βακτηρίων
Μαζικός θάνατος πουλιών στη Λίμνη Κορώνεια

Monday, September 17, 2007

*Recap*

This blog has been operating for roughly two years now on what can be best described as an on-off basis: the posts are scattered, no more than a handful per month. Yet there have been weeks of prolonged "silence" with no entries at all; still, other times when entries were written yet disregarded shortly thereafter. Two things have remained constant thoughout this period: First is the choice of subject matter of entries; posts deal with a wide array of issues from different fields, including current news, film and fiction. Second is the rationale behind the creation of the blog; a mere collection of thoughts, this blog has always been free of such typical constraints as time, length and other regulations that come with most tasks - save perhaps one rule involving the quality of posts featured.

Having provided this framework as a means of reference, it must be said that the future (the evolution) of the blog is indeterminate. Yet part of the magic is to be found here, namely in observing how lucid statements, fact-based opinions, quotes and statistics coexist and interact along with so much uncertainty and ambiguity, if not thanks to these two...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Hommage"



Dear Dodo,

I will be honest and I will tell you up-front that I did not know much about you - that is until Julien Lepers made your glorious portrait in one of his "questions" at TV5 Monde! You may wonder who is Julien, what is a "question"... - let me tell you for one thing how surprised I was when I realized that you are the symbol of Mauritius today! Is that not "posthumous" (for lack of a better word) fame, or what? Of course, of course I know what you are going to respond: "What does it matter now since I am dead?" Well, this is something we do often down here on earth: first we kill, then we bestow glory! Oh! Just because I hate leaving questions unanswered, let me tell you that you appeared on a television show.. and Julien was the host..

But this is all nonsense what I am writing here.. You do not even know what a television is... But I cannot go into that, it will take me forever to finish off, and you must know that we, modern human beings, are on a "tight schedule", we have a thing we call clock and it regulates our lives.. it tells us how much time we have to accomplish something, until we move on to the next one.. So I beg for your understanding, please bear with me and I promise I will answer all questions you may have. Speaking of begging, this is probably the point we should start apologizing, I and my fellow humans, begging for your forgiveness...

I am very much aware by now that the reason why you are not among us, is because people like me -well, my/our ancestors to be precise- decided to put you out of this world. When the first sailors arrived in Mauritius in the 16th century they spotted you immediately since you could not fly...then you know the story. You could not fly and we could not wait - we humans, let me tell you that, we can get very greedy.. In just about a century you were "extinct" - fancy word for a terrible act, don't you agree? Much as I would have liked for you to continue to roam in Mauritius, so I could come and visit you, I only wonder, was it perhaps better that you never lived to see our "décadence"?

I do not know how much of a consolation this is to you, but I must tell you that it is not only innocuous species like you that we are after; we go after pretty much everything that can give us even minimal utility, we even go after our fellow humans. No! No! Do not think that we eat human flesh, only our behavior is cannibalistic. And yet I am sure you will be equally disgusted, once you get to learn some of our habits: we have this thing here we call "war" where we pretty much set out to fight against each other for a bigger or a smaller cause. Sometimes we prefer not to kill people but instead to "torture" them - how shall I explain this? Imagine for example if someone was slowly pulling off your feathers... I know, I know you surely do not want to hear more about us. And what a shame really, I was about to start talking about our grand civilizations... We take great pride in them you must know.

I will let you now. Surely, you must be tired hearing all that we humans do - but this was my only way to contextualize your story and explain -in a simple way- why today you are only on stamps and postcards... More importantly, it is the debt I sense on my shoulders too, even though I do not hail from either Portugal or the Netherlands: learning from Julien that you did not have any predators until we, humans, came to Mauritius was enough to cause a sense of embarassment! If you still maintain any contacts down on earth, please let them know that they should be wary of humans... that is, if I am still allowed to offer a piece of advice..

Truthfully yours and very, very humbled,
a human being from Earth


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For more information about the Dodo: Description of the Dodo Bird
Note: The picture that prefaces the letter is also part of the instructive website referenced above.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Toys do not always come in a fancy gift wrap: Children of the World, Part B

I am holding a book in my hands by Ishmael Beah, a young Sierra Leonese who currently resides in New York City. If the name of the 26-year old does not sound familiar to you, there is nothing wrong; he is not to be found among the annals of African literature and story-telling tradition along with Soyinka, Achebe or Gordimer, but this makes his book no less important. In fact, it is precisely the hitherto "anonymity" of its author what is the defining element of the book: "A long way gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" is the story of Beah, a child-soldier in the Sierra Leone Civil War, one of many. Beah's memoir is truly the "voice" of many anonymous child-soldiers from Sierra Leone and abroad who have been trapped in bloody conflicts. It is the book of Beah's brother, Junior, who disappeared one fine day and was never to be seen again, it is the book of his classmates, of his friends, it is the book of other youngsters who could be in his position writing the book, but, sadly, did not "live to tell the tale" [to use the title of Garcia-Marquez's recent novel].

Like flies trapped in a spider web, the children caught by guerrillas (or the government army) are virtually at the mercy of their captors. And yet unlike flies, their death will not be quick and (presumably) painless but, instead, long and brutal. They surrender body and soul, agency and childhood. They get in return the only toy they are allowed to have: a gun boxed in instructions about killing and killing and obeying the superiors. This is because the voracious appetite of the leaders will not be satiated unless the children mutate into obedient recruits capable of satisfying any cause that appears "worthy" to the leaders. Generalized as this description may be, it resonates with the testimonies of several child-soldiers from different countries, Sierra Leone being just one example. A notorious case involves the now-indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) guerrila leader Joseph Kony of Uganda whose group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has abducted some 20,000 children.

Whether it fits the definition of child labor or not, the truth remains that the brutality and exploitation of children-converted-into-soldiers in combat zones and conflicts is repugnant and intolerable. The "institution" of child-soldiers consists, naturally so, an outright violation of the essence of the major human rights texts like the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) or the "Convention on the Rigths of Children" (1989)- in fact, it is safe to argue that captors of child-soldiers nullify the very notion of human rights, let alone of children rights. Conversely, it needs not be repeated how damaging participating to wars is to children; what must be mentioned though is that even the children that manage somehow to escape or are rescued by the international community even at an early stage -like Ishmael Beah who was saved by UNICEF- need to undergo tremendous treatments in order to recover, to heal and to come in terms with their past.

The 11-year conflict that tore apart Sierra Leone erupted in 1991 with the first expedition of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerrila group who wanted to oust the All People's Congress (APC) government. The conflict ended in 2002, leaving thousands dead and an estimated 2 million people displaced. Statistics of the children-soldiers are harder to tabulate and largely do not make headlines during and even after the conflict ends. However child-soldiers are a distinct reality of warfare today, particularly in Africa, notably in Uganda, DR Congo and Angola, but elsewhere too, as in Colombia and Lebanon. According to Amnesty International some 300,000 children soldiers -close to the population of such capitals as Ljubljana, Slovenia or Canberra, Australia- fight in conflicts today. On the legislation front, progess has been achieved by the entry into force of the "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Children on the involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts" in 2002 although sadly not all countries that are party to it have ratified it. Against the distressing reality and in lieu of any conclusion, I have decided to quote from Amnesty International's website a 15-year old girl, a former child-soldier of Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda - she tells: "I would like to give you a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don't have to pass through this violence."

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Reference: Child Soldiers, Amnesty International

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Toys do not always come in a fancy gift wrap: Children of the World, Part A

Yesterday was the World Day Against Child Labor and I, like many, was dumbfounded by the statistics of UNICEF and the ILO: over 132 million children work worldwide in agriculture, the largest "employer" of children. Children work also in private households, factories, mines - the list, sadly, goes on.. And one could take the discussion a step further, only to discover more misery, only to realize how systematic the violations of such major conventions as the Convention of the Rights of Children (1990) or the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999) are...

One of the worst forms of child labor, or shall I say, child exploitation, is occurring in Thailand today: Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing "for children". Children as young as four are taken to booting camps where they are trained -from dawn to dusk and beyond- to participate in "children boxing", a sport that scors high in popularity among many Thais. In fact, behind children boxing there is an entire industry of bookmakers, trainers and parents who collectively and conscientiously exploit children in order to make profit: yes, it is about children fighting for the pure enjoyment of adults and the money-making that comes along.

Even though it has been illegal since 1999, child boxing continues to date - causing acute physical and psychological violence to children, often hampering their physical and mental growth. The industry, however, remains undeterred partly because it is lucrative, partly because of the underlying cultural argument [that Muay Thai is part of the culture of Thailand] - which is true except that it needs not to violate human rights, let alone the rights of the most vulnerable, the children. The version of Muay Thai that is revived in the poor neighborhoods of Bangkok seems closer to a misappropriation of the cultural heritage of the country, rather than anything else.

It is my firm belief that cultures, and more so cultural traditions must be preserved for the people that cherish them as part of their heritage and for the rest of us, outsiders, to be able to observe and enjoy. However one must be alert to potential misappropriation of culture in the name of some obscene goal: it is easy for the culturally sensitive to be overtaken by some mélange of cultural righteousness and a dose of "cultural relativism" discourse. Muay Thai, as practiced today, looks less like a cultural tradition and more like a distorted version or an ill-twisted reflection of something "cultural".

Humbled as I am by my limited knowledge of Thai culture and practices, I have refrained from expressing an inflexible position, even if subtantial evidence has tempted me to do so. Hence in my post so far I have favored "likelihood" over "certainty" when making culturally-related statements. However if there is one thing I am certain of, then this is that the four year-olds appearing on the footage of both France 24 and TV5 Monde did not make a rational and conscientious decision to join the boxing camps, if they made any decision at all, simply because at the age of four one is not in a position to make such decisions. They were taken there. Hence I have grounds to doubt that the physical or psychological torment that children undergo is in any manner or shape acceptable to them. I am even concerned that they may not have the opportunity to express an opinion (about pretty much anything) because of punishment (or fear thereof).

Profit needs not "guide empires" only (to borrow a line from a famous Greek song). Profit needs not be found in modern, industrialized, free-market societies only. Profit can be found in poor, rural Thailand too. And so can voiceless, vulnerable and exploited children - only that news about children ought to surprise us, economics not.

Links

The poignant video of France 24: Muay Thai: No child's play In English. Footage is graphic.

On Child Labor

En français: L'agriculture emploie 70 % de la main-d'oeuvre infantile

Στα ελληνικά: Το δικό σου σουβενίρ ποιο Κινεζάκι θα το φτιάξει;

Friday, June 01, 2007

Για την τελευταία "Αμαλία"

Today's post is dedicated to a brave young Greek woman who lost her life to cancer. And yet it is not only her illness that is to blame for her untimely death; Amalia was unlucky enough to also bear the consequences of medical malpractice. The majority of Greek bloggers have dedicated this day, June 1st, to Amalia; more importantly they call for reforms in the health system so that no additional people die. Amalia maintained a blog (fakellaki.blogspot.com) where she documented her struggle (in Greek) and criticized the current health system. Her last wish was that money be given to ELPIDA a Greek NGO dedicated to help children fighting cancer so that the first hospital for children be built soon. [ELPIDA: info@elpida.org, tel. (+30) 210-7757153]

Η περίπτωση της Αμαλίας συνιστά κατάφορη απόδειξη ότι η Ελλάδα του 21ου αιώνα, καταπιάνεται με μεγαλόπνοα σχέδια αλλά ταυτοχρονα αδυνατεί να σταθεί στον πολίτη στις βασικές του ανάγκες, μια εξ'αυτών η ποιοτική ιατρική περίθαλψη. Πιο συνταρακτικό σίγουρα ειναι το γεγονός ότι στη μοντέρνα μας χώρα, θεμελιώδεις αξίες όπως η ιερότητα της ανθρώπινης ζωής, ενίοτε τουλάχιστον, δεν τυγχάνουν αναλόγου σεβασμού... Το πρόβλημα που περιγράφει η Αμαλία δεν αφορά το σύστημα υγείας μας μόνο. Η Αμαλία μιλάει και για την έλλειψη υπευθυνότητας, για την ηθική αυτουργία, για τη διαφθορά, για το "κουκουλωμα", για την έλλειψη συμπαραστασης.. Για αυτό και το ζήτημα είναι "πολιτικό" - όχι μόνο των πολιτικών, αλλά των πολιτών.

Αλλά σήμερα δεν ειναι η ημέρα των αναλύσεων - είναι η ημέρα για τη μνήμη της Αμαλίας. Από τη 2α Ιουνίου μπορούμε να σκαλίσουμε κάτω από την επιφάνεια "της μεμονωμένης περίπτωσης" για να αντικρίσουμε τις πραγματικές διαστάσεις της σήψης μας...

Για τις "Αμαλίες" που φύγανε αθόρυβα, χωρίς να μάθουμε τίποτα.
Για να γίνει η Αμαλία Καλυβίνου η τελευταία "Αμαλία".

Μην πάρεις φακελάκι - Μην δώσεις φακελάκι


Τελευταία της επιθυμία, η οποια συνεισφορά των πολιτών να τροφοδοτεί οργανωμένες προσπάθειες όπως του συλλόγου Ελπίδα για την ανέγερση του Α΄Ογκολογικού Νοσοκομείου για παιδιά. [Σύλλογος Ελπίδα, τηλ: 210-7757153, e-mail: info@elpida.org, λογαριασμός Εθνικής Τράπεζας: 080/480898-36, λογαριασμός Alphabank: 152-002-002-000-515) "Αμαλία Καλυβίνου"]

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Silver and Salt: so much in common

Bolivia, they say, is a "big street market" and I think they are not wrong: The country's few buildings and occasional stores are confined in bigger cities like La Paz or Santa Cruz. Homes, wherever they are located, are tiny and barely hold essentials; people do not shut themselves behind closed doors and windows or else they would (likely) suffocate. To work or celebrate Bolivians also head to the streets (or even further, to the fields) except perhaps for the occasional Mass which unites the community to church. This also makes sense considering that the vast vast majority of the population is in farming, animal raising or the mines; celebrating is something that Bolivians know very well and streets fill during local Carnivals: the Carnival of Oruro is said to be the second in South America after that of Rio.

Such "openness" creates a level of transparency that almost "dictates" that people grow together. People collectively benefit from shared experiences and interpersonal relationships that take place in common spaces - both psychologically and in material terms, through the sharing of resources. This becomes particularly important since few Bolivians have substantial individual posessions, whether material or non-material, to meet their needs on their own. At the same time grievances and adversities are also collectively experienced, magnifying thus the number of affected individuals.

The documentary of Richard Ladhkani and Kief Davidson "The Devil's Miner" confirms just this; although it focuses on Basilio Vargas and his family, the film shows how mining affects the entire community of the city of Potosí in south Bolivia. Cerro Rico, the mountain that "hosts" the mines five centuries now, is often referred to as the "eater of men" [because of the dead miners] and members of the commmunity openly talk about it. At the same time workers and outsiders know they all depend on the mines for survival. For such reasons the entire community participates in the ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mine, Tio (pictured like a Devil), so that he does not take the lives of miners.

If there is one thing that transparent societies are not good at, this is keeping secrets. It is common knowledge to workers and outsiders that there are many children workers in the mines, like Basilio who is 14 and his brother, Bernandino, 12. Many miners openly express their discontent stating that children are unsuitable for such an unhealthy profession. Yet what comes out from the film is that child labor ultimately is not a choice, it is a matter of survival. For single parent families like the Vargas family, working is indeed a necessity as the mother, Manuela, makes only US $25 per month and, hence, is unable to financially support her three children and herself. What is perhaps the toughest part of the film is the moment where Basilio admits that he would not have to work, if his father was alive - "If only..."

"The Devil's Miner" is a "difficult" movie both because its subject matter is a tough one and the scenes in the mine are not particulalry pleasant to watch; also, because it has no "plot" it may appear "slow" - and yet these are precisely the elements that make it an excellent documentary, the very fact that Ladhkani and Davidson capture reality and shun ornaments. Regardless of its technical ans artistic merits the documentary is worth watching for yet another reason: it deals with the major plague that many states in Latin America and elsewhere face, the exploitation of mine workers. A phenomenon that goes back to colonialism, it has taken many forms in the centuries and sadly continues almost unabatted today. In that sense, "The Devil's Miner" echoes Peruvian author Ciro Alegria and his famous novel "El Mundo es ancho y ajeno" (The world is broad and alien); Alegria condemns among others the maltreament of locals in the mine of Navilca at the beginning of the 20th century.



Typical communal meal that is shared among peasants in rural Bolivia; all parties involved contribute by bringing some food of their choice.




Everything can be a reason to celebrate. Here, a children's [sic] road run organized by a television station, near La Paz.




A yet another demanding job is the production of salt. Much like miners producers of salt have to masticate leaves of coca and protect themselves from the harmful fumes that accompany the purification of the salt. Colchani, Potosí.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"We are all Hokies now"



"Hokie"

Just like in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, French daily Le Monde had published the famous "On est tous Americains" [We are all Americans], students and more broadly Americans sympathize with the plight of students and the entire community at Virginia Tech after the massacre of this past Monday. To signal their compassion, sympathy and sorrow students from all over the US will largely participate in the events of Friday, April 20 to commemorate and honor the victims and will be wearing orange and maroon clothes given that such are the official colors of Virginia Tech.

"Hokie" is the bird mascot of Virginia Tech; yet unlike many other school mascots whose task is primarily to foster school spirit in athletic competitions and appear on school logos and insignia, Hokie has been charged with the unsurmountable task of raising up the morale in what has been a tragedy of "monumental proportions" to quote Virginia Tech President, Dr. Charles Steiger. And indeed it will take time and effort in order to heal - the quick passing of the US President from Virginia Tech is important, but will not do the job in itself.

I perceive the Virginia Tech tragedy as part of a bigger question on the culture of violence and weapons in the US. While this does little, if anything, to mitigate my profound distress and sorrow for the 32 murdered at Norris and Ambler Johnston Halls, I cannot but see in this tragedy pictures from the Amish killings or the Columbine tragedy, all infamous cases involving shooting and innocent deaths. Treating the Virginia Tech massacre outside its true context may speed up the healing process and may enable an easier archiving of the case. But it will not honor the victims.

It is breathtaking really to see the level of support and sympathy from colleges all across the US who stand by Virginia Tech students: using modern technology and social networks such as Facebook.com or more traditional means and ways all stand by the students and the community at Virginia Tech. Most schools have a letter of sympathy and solidarity published in their website. Students organize vigils and raise funds for the Virginia Tech memorial fund. And it is not surprising this really given how vibrant student communities in the US are. For one thing, if students do something other than studying and studying hard this is to be compassionate individuals and produce tangible results to better the world they live in. To date, no one forgets that the Free Speech movement started in 1964, in the University of California at Berkeley...












"Hybrid logos" of students from Stanford University, George Mason University and Tufts University [all from www.facebook.com; VT logo from "A tribute to those who passed at the Virginia Tech Shooting"; Stanford and George Mason logos from "Remembering Virginia Tech Students 4/16/07" and Tufts logo courtesy of Mike Sidebottom)]

Top of the post: "The Hokie", the mascot of Virginia Tech
(http://www.hokiesports.com/hokiespirit/)

Friday, April 13, 2007

So much bleeding, and more to come?

As if Iraq was a patient that had not suffered too much already, news of the contention between the Kurds [of Iraq] and the Turkish government comes in to shatter the infinitesimal probability that the region might be healed soon, that peace might come in the near future in the valley between Tigris and Euphrates. But how optimistic could one be if looking at Iraq today, if seeing that the single region of this extensive battlefield spared from belligerence entertains the possibility of immediate aggression?

The warning of the president of autonomous Kurdish region Massoud Barzani against Turkey issued during an interview in Arab television station Al-Arabiyah leaves little room for doubt: if Turkey invades Kirkurk, the Kurds of Iraq would retaliate and attack back this time in favor of the Kurds of Turkey. Not surprisingly the response of the Turkish military establishment is equally lucid. In the words of General Büyükanıt the army is ready and awaiting: "a political commanding decision is needed for a cross border operation. If we are assigned the mission, we will accomplish it".

For there is nothing worse to even ponder at this point than the possibility of an escalated conflict, one that would transcend the highly porous borders of Iraq to diverge and include neighboring states, beginning here with Turkey. To the world, Iraq is already a very badly infected wound; it takes up too many resources while showing little, if any signs of progress. The prospect of grand scale conflict in the region comes only with significant drawbacks; it needs not be repeated how it will compromise the chances for peace or the economic and political stability of the broader region or how it will deepen the divide along ethnic and religious lines.

To be sure, the goal here is not to present worst case scenarios, let alone to contribute to their popularity. Nonetheless, to refuse to undertake tough questions in whole or part just because they appear bleak is no good either - shunning away from reality does not help. It does help though to think that gloomy scenarios need not materialize into dreadful realities: it goes without a say that politics involves much more talking and much less action - thankfully so in most cases. Moreover it is in times like these that one resuscitates the lost confidence in diplomacy or for that matter discovers it for the first time: whether it is power dynamics or covert strategies, a number of unrelated factors shape outcomes and skew the decision-making process for better or worse - often in unpredicted ways. Finally, if one was to stick with the facts, in order to realistically assess the situation one must consider a wide array of factors and assumptions including dispelling notions of applicable: just because Turkey has a significant Kurdish minority this does not mean that all Kurds of Turkey want independence, let alone to be found overnight in a poor, landlocked state with little to offer.

Having said that all, Kirkurk is an important city with oil "worth" vying for. But it is neither oil and the fact that it scarce nor any other such individual factor that causes the greatest concern; it is the greedy nature of humans that makes one fear the most. Mahatma Gandhi has often been quoted for saying that "there is enough on earth for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed"; he could not be more right here.


Links


The story: "Iraqi Kurds urged not to 'interfere' in fighting"
The Turkish reaction, in Turkish: "Siyasi irade isterse Kuzey Irak'a gireriz" and in English: "Assign us the mission and we will enter Iraq"
On the "international dimension" of the story and where diplomacy fits in "Gül urges Rice over Barzani's threats against Turkey"

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Post-Olympic "fiesta"

It has been a while since I last posted anything and this was not because I lacked ideas. As I sit down and read my scribbles on news I have read or observations I have made in the past days, I find a lot indeed; I will devote however this post to something that happened in my native country, Greece, a few days ago and with which I still cannot make peace: the killing of young man as a consequence of mob fighting between fans of the two major sports' clubs in a suburb of Athens.

For anyone who is Greek the story is no news by now. For the rest let me simply say that in the context of a volleyball game fans of the two major teams, Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, "met" in order "to put an end" to some hitherto unresolved claims and contentions. And they did put an end indeed - in the life of a 25 year old whose death verdict is too tragic for me to repeat here. Of course my one sentence summary is only the backbone of what appeared to involve a decent dose of planning and quite a few individuals - arrests continue to date. For information purposes, I do link articles at the end of the post - but my point is not to provide with a factual reportage. Instead it is my outright condemnation and frustration what I want to share here.

It is my belief that those most involved in sports issues in Greece were long aware of such and similar issues occurring and had opted, in what is a very "greek way" of dealing with things, not to do anything or do very little. Tragic as it is and horrendous as it may sound it comes as no surprise to anyone really, even to ordinary people like myself, that such incident did occur; not a single football (=soccer) match between the two major teams has been spared from violence or threats thereof... what has only varied is the degree. And while I do not want to give the picture that people persistently die, hooliganism, and to be precise, violent behavior between members of opposing teams, is yet another modern disease sadly not confined within the borders of the small south European state.

To be sure, responsibility lies among many people. It includes, of course, those in the industry, those in "the politics of sports", and those that have been assigned jobs directly relating to sports, in the government or the various agencies and secretariats. It of course involves the "fan clubs". But it goes well beyond that. It touches upon the media and the culture of conflict (not to say violence) they propagate; has any reporter/journalist ever really wondered about the consequences of his/her word choice? When the most popular description of an Olympiakos/Panathinaikos game is that of an encounter between "THE perennial rivals" ("το ντέρμπι των αιωνίων") there is something wrong and someone to blame too. One can go as far as to argue that all ordinary citizens who refuse to go to the games are responsible too: their contempt for the state of Greek sports contributes nothing really towards a solution.

But I wish not to go the full distance. Nor do I wish to undertake a study of who is to blame and how much. Policing is not what I have chosen to do for life. And inasmuch as I cannot let go of the news because I am concerned with what happens in Athens too, I do not think that I would ever do a full length post of this incident and the folly that has been cursing people - because after all the full responsibility goes to those narrow minded individuals thinking in this paranoid way. Not because it is not an important matter: certainly it is. It just so happens that a thousand other things are happening too at the same time which merit my/our attention: in my scribbles I read about how the value of life of Indian children has "depreciated" and how the peaceful citizens of the Solomon islands woke up to a tsunami that wrecked their lives. But there has been one thought in my mind since March 29 and this is what has spurred all this: "if we condemn fighting and killing even when this occurs for a loaf of bread, how much less tolerant can we be of such a killing that occurred not in the name of survival or of a God but in the name of a product of a man-made, drug-influenced and money-making business?"

Links

στα ελληνικά:Οργανωμένο σχέδιο πίσω από το «ραντεβού του θανάτου»

in English: All Greek team sports suspended after death in volleyball riots

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"The women did not accept the flowers"

My second reaction after reading a reportage in the March 5th edition of Turkish daily Sabah on a women protest in Istanbul was that the title of the article ("Çiçekleri almadılar", "The women did not accept the flowers") should figure in my next blog post. My first reaction was, of course, that I should seize the opportunity to discuss yet another facet of Turkey, one that surely affects politics but primarily speaks volumes of the society itself.

What brought 500 women in Çağlayan and another 3,000 in Kadıköy was not only the upcoming Women's Day; it was an urge to denounce discrimination and abuse of women. "Honor killings" and sexual abuse are, sadly, present in portions of Anatolia and further to the east, particularly in the countryside. Often embedded in cultural norms and traditions, such practices are in violation of both the major international human rights texts, to which Turkey is a party, and the legal foundations of the Turkish Republic as established by M. Kemal Atatürk in 1923. But Turkey epitomizes contradiction; suffice here to say that Turkey has been an early proponent of women's emancipation introducing bold social and political reforms including women's suffrage as early as 1930, much earlier than France (1945) or Belgium (1948).

Earlier, I spoke of women in the streets of Istanbul as constituting one facet of Turkey: this is because I align myself with the view that Turkey's unique combination of different and at times contradicting streams requires a cautious approach, one that acknowledges particularistic elements and thoughtfully places them in the historical and cultural context. Otherwise one risks being overly superficial. It is only wrong (and dangerous) to see just the face value of such incidents as the protest and much worse to pass judgments on Turkey's respect of human rights or lack thereof based just on fragmentary evidence.

In Turkey there is a strong kemalist secular legacy and at the same time a religious pro-Islam faction that was muted in the early years of the Republic but has successfully re-emerged in the last decades. At the same time, the cultural norms are holding strong and they vary substantially based on the region and the composition of the population. The European endeavor that Turkey has been pursuing since the signing of the Ankara Agreement for accession in 1963 has increased the scope of the European (or Western) influence: partly represented by the secular pro-modernity faction, this stream is also an entity of its own in the form of media, governmental and non-governmental institutions and monitor groups with offices in the Bosporus or the capital.

Turkey of 2007 is a state that is at the eve of presidential elections (with parliamentary elections to follow in the fall), with a moderate Islamic party, Erdoğan's "Justice and Development Party" in power, that in the view of many has failed to rise to its true potential, and yet might also win elections, and with the military still present and "watching". This is the context within which women demonstrated but one should also be mindful of legacies of the past that are echoed today: the headscarf controversy, the rise of right-wing parties, the 1997 return of Kemalists. Women demand a responsible approach to some arguably crucial issues and most importantly make their commitment clear. The symbolic gesture of not accepting the flowers that were being handed by the police emphasizes the very core of the notion that reforms must be deep, not just a "face lift". In addition, such a protest is also important because it denotes a certain sense of national unity, a concept that itself has been challenged lately: women in Istanbul called for the rights of all women even if it is clear that women of urban areas suffer less.

Having said that, it is clear that the issues that bring women in the roads this time are much less controversial than, say, the headscarf debate. The difficulty here lies not so much in mustering support -for no one really opposes such demands- but in bringing about change. And change is a difficult and lengthy process. Raising women issues -from very basic to second-tier- requires a greater "opening" that political elites and civil society must be willing to undertake and allow. Most importantly it requires going above and beyond the traditional course of action by introducing bold reforms primarily socially and legally, and later by implementing them. And this is much easier said than done, for to undertake the strenuous path of reform requires challenging at the same time established norms and respecting culture, it requires assuming political cost without jeopardizing one's power base, it requires "confronting" the people and yet engaging them in the struggle.

If Turkey in the 1930s achieved great strides with its innovative reforms, the same does not apply today when reforms are not even an option. Can women and their protest instigate and sustain the much-needed change or is Turkey, yet again, in deep need of a charismatic leader?

Links:

The original article: "Çiçekleri almadılar"
A translation in English: "The women did not accept the flowers"

Saturday, March 03, 2007

'Vodka Lemon'

An Iraqi born Kurd who lives in Paris, director Hiner Saleem hits the snow-covered mountainous villages of Armenia to make a film about endurance and perseverance in times of adversity and uncertainty. Set in the post-Soviet era, the film explores the daily struggles of a population that is trying to adapt simultaneously to freedom and the new economic reality: focusing on the lives of Hamo and Nina, two widowers that ultimately develop a relationship of their own, the film never loses sight of its primary goal which is to extol the inner power of humans to rise above calamities.

At great risk of being insipid to the audience and even aesthetically unappealing, the film blatantly refuses ornaments and embellishments of any sort. Instead, it takes on harshness of everyday life - for Hamo (and Nina) it means taking endless trips to the cemetery to talk with the deceased spouse, selling their meager possessions for a few dollars, living in dilapidated houses, letting their children go... And yet a touch of humor or a proof that life has a hopeful side are also present in the film - just like vodka lemon, to lift the spirits. The finest example of this positive attitude towards life comes from the end of the film where Hamo and Nina ultimately hold on to the piano they intended to sell, despite being in a dreadful financial position. This is a truly powerful scene, one which through visual effects beautifully communicates l'état d'âme of the protagonists and their optimism to the audience.

Testament to the high caliber of the film is without a doubt its treatment of the question of resilience after the collapse of the Soviet regime: how does freedom stand next to the economic precariousness that came along? While freedom is clearly endorsed, criticism about the economic plight that ensued is not absent: references to the old times, "when there was no need to pay for gas, electricity or water" do exist. The heartbreaking scene of Hamo walking in the snow carrying an extremely heavy closet -just to sell it for a few dollars in the street- also goes along this direction. But even here one sees how characters soar beyond basics: when the bus driver forbade Nina to board because she had no money for the fare, she did not even think of asking a second time, but instead silently stepped down and walked back. And it is indeed interesting to see that this all comes from a director who is himself an individual longing for freedom, being a Kurd who fled Iraq and Saddam's regime. In an interview that accompanies the film Saleem comments on the question of freedom and Soviet nostalgia: "I do not make a judgment. I know that when people are hungry, they are in need of bread. But I also know that when people have bread but no freedom, it is as if though they have nothing at all."

Freedom being a notion almost interwoven with human existence, it has been at times a positive force but equally often, if not simultaneously, a source of clashes, even bloodshed. The cultural and geographic proximity of the film to an area of the world that has yet to agree on a common understanding of freedom -not to say adds a whole new dimension to the term- may be an additional impetus for watching this film. However, to label Vodka Lemon as political only or describe it with a single adjective would be a major injustice to the film, just like it would be to constrict freedom within a Wilsonian or a purely political framework.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A price for what -we were told- is priceless

A bouquet of gladiola in my left arm, I enter a pharmacy (non-Americans read: supermarket) this morning for some needed supplies. As I was strolling past the ostentatious aisles stocked with luring merchandise I came across an older gentleman, who, having pushed his half-empty cart on the side was counting -with religious devotion I might add- a handful of single dollars. Prescriptions are getting more expensive I said to myself.

And this got me thinking. If there is something I have been struggling to come to terms with in my five years in the United States is this expanded notion of unpredictability of human life: you live today, you die tomorrow. Bearing striking resemblance to narratives about everyday life in post-Saddam liberated Iraq, this statement describing life in Massachusetts and other (wealthy) US states is neither a puzzle nor a trap: it is true and should be read literally - this is what makes it also very disturbing. Because health insurance is largely privatized -with the burden of responsibility befalling to the citizens and (increasingly less) to employers- those citizens unable to pay the fees -which can be anywhere around $3,000 upwards- may have no coverage whatsoever and hence, simply, die.

Apparently a few thousand individuals -those on the very bottom of the income echelon- will be spared the 'death' sentence in Massachusetts [capital punishment does not have to do necessarily with one's moral standing] thanks to a recent state initiative to fully cover the insurance costs of those making less than $9,800 a year. At the same time, the "rest of the poor" may well contemplate whether it is better to die of a disease or of an accident overnight as opposed to suffering a slow painful psychological death, such as the one that comes along with loans, interests, eviction, homelessness... and mind you the latter guarantees death in freezing Massachusetts.

If in reformist Massachusetts one can spot a modern Hamlet contemplating "to live or not to live", news from France comes as a soothing, much-needed, reminder of the fact that humans have not crossed communal life off of the dictionary - yet. As of December 1st, 2008, homeless and all those living in a poor housing situation will be entitled to some decent housing.

To compare France and the United States on an equal footing would be unfair and a proof of ignorance of the different paths that the countries have taken with respect to social policies. Conversely, it would be wholly wrong to overly accentuate the particularistic elements that account for the American experience by not being critical vis-à-vis what constitutes a direct assault on human dignity; or how differently could one describe the fact that "the little less poor" -those not covered under said legislation- "decide" not to buy insurance because the cost of the penalty is cheaper than the monthly payment for the insurance?

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that Massachusetts is "reformist" or "different" and hence requires that people buy insurance. Similarly, the proposition for free insurance for the poorest of the poor is considered too "advanced" and costly by other states with greater proportion of poor. Interestingly so, many such states voted President Bush a second time into office, aware of his agenda priorities: let us not forget that John Kerry was, after all, a senator from Beantown [a nickname for Boston].

References and Links

I thank Dimitris Stefosis for the link and the original idea: Massachusetts spurs health-care debate

On housing in France: Un toit pour tous. Enfin, peut-être...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One (more)

In his article today titled "Η φωλιά του κούκου, 2007" republished in his blog , well-respected Greek journalist Michalis Mitsos takes up the question of victims of wars and warfare. Citing the case of Iraq he underscores the disproportionately grand analogy of casualties to dead -particularly when juxtaposed against previous wars- mostly thanks to advances in the medical field.

Meanwhile here in Boston word has come of the death of a young woman in Iraq - one that was not fortunate to make it into the "list of wounded". This morning I grabbed the local edition of "Metro" newspaper before riding the "T" [the name we have for the subway here] only to find its front page dedicated to Marine Captain Jennifer Harris, of "Swampscott, MA". The next page was a report from her funeral which was held at her native Swampscott, -a small community of some 15,000- yesterday, "with full military honors" - as if this would soothe the pain of her family, her fiancé Maj. Christopher Aaby, the community, us reading the newspaper.

Of course her fellow soldiers wanted to honor Jennifer, her life, her service - this was the rationale behind the elaborate funeral. Lt. Gascinski -a roommate of Harris at the Naval Academy- in her speech stressed the "calm demeanor" of Harris whose nickname was "Dove" for this reason.

But that said and done, bottom line is that 28 year old Jennifer is dead: her helicopter went down on February 7. Fate, death, the Sunni group, -how you want to name it- did not take into account her youth or the fact that she was a woman pilot or that this week was her last week in Iraq: she was expected to come home the following week.

Jennifer and every man or woman killed in Iraq or any war: this is the version of Iraq war that rarely makes it to non-US papers. The mere listing of casualties and victims no matter which place it occupies within the newspaper or how it is commented, it can never be compared to that of "the individual dead", the resident of the community, the neighbor, the college classmate.

In a densely-knit community-based America there is one puzzle, one unanswered question which at the same time dwindles support for the war and gives hope to all of us opposing it: "for how long more can people assist to funerals of their loved ones, their fellow citizens?" For Swampscott, Jennifer was not the first one. 20 year old Army Spc. Jared Raymond died just a few months ago in Taji, Iraq, the newspaper tells us, leaving us with this thought in mind - not without a reason I believe.

As numbers of dead and wounded rise, as our expectations from the constituencies in Massachusetts and elsewhere increase, so does our hope that this "war" will be brought -somehow- to an end: for one thing, the newspapers of Iraq, if they were to be printed regularly, they would need an extra budget to dedicate articles to all the casualties, not to say front pages.

But learning from the American experience and the pain and sorrow that such news brings, perhaps is better this way, without articles. It may not honor the memory of those killed, but it does not suck whatever courage has been left to the citizens of Baghdad and all those other cities where a trip to the market has a risk factor greater than swimming in a pool with sharks: an avid diver, my father tells that if you do not move and stay still the shark does not perceive your presence and hence does not attack.

Unfortunately, running or standing still, bombs manage to get you in Baghdad - somehow.


Links

"Metro" newspaper
The town: Swampscott, MA

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading on Reading

With all due respect to Mr. Carroll, his op-ed in Boston Globe's February 12 edition is one of such columns that risk to -but hopefully will not- be left -entirely or in part- out of the average reader's reading of the paper. The lack of 'hot', sensational, 'buzz' content [echoing Wolfsfeld's thesis/explanation on why peace negotiations are more often than not 'less attractive' to the media industry] along with the limited time one allots to reading in a clock-dictated world are a few explanations - by no means justifications. How ironic really this is, since Mr. Carroll undertakes the very same issue of our (changing) reading habits in what is another interesting viewpoint of his.

Focusing on the self primarily, James Carroll surveys our reading habits from childhood on, underscoring the value of silent reading and specifically the internal/intellectual process that accompanies it. Such highly beneficial process -it promotes growth- is violated -if not negated- by modern technologies: interruption of the reading process is the fundamental difference here as a variety of simultaneous electronic processes (email, IM among many) often interfere with reading. And while the net impact of this 'change' is perhaps too early to assess, Carroll concludes by cautioning against a possible change even retrogression of our reading skills.

And while there may be no sufficient scientific evidence of potential biological consequences of "interrupted" reading, one finds reasons to be alarmed. Next to the "democratic dissemination" of knowledge that Internet embodies and people advocate, one wonders if not the rhetoric is not taking us "too far". Simply put, while it is undeniable that the Internet and the modern technologies have contributed to an unprecedented spread of knowledge at relatively low cost (especially in the western world), one needs not to assume that the mere existence of knowledge makes every "surfer" a scholar. Of the many factors that determine one's absorption of information, distraction or interruption are classified as obstructive.

Regardless of how successful the Internet truly is to its goals or human expectations on its educational mission, it comes as no news that interruption brings also segmentation and may even jeopardize cohesion [referring here exclusively to the readable material]. Interruption can be temporary, in which case the reader resumes reading but may also be long-term or even permanent if the reader never goes back to finish the article. My inability to calculate probabilities of different types of behavior (along with of course estimating the impact on perception and other neurobiological processes) does not allow me to draw specific conclusions.

However, to the extent that the reading experience becomes compromised in some manner (for example lack of concentration or abandoning of reading altogether) unease should ensue. This is particularly important when it comes to readings that extend beyond entertainment and involve political or other such issues. To avoid what can amount to a lengthy discussion on opinion formation, media influence and democracy, suffice here to say that partial information and fragmented knowledge over a given issue of some stake can have equal if not worse consequences to lack of knowledge altogether - as a reader may be anything from vulnerable to information extraction to unreasonably confident and vocal. Of course one must turn to specific studies in order to substantiate further such claims; that one makes better and wiser choices if well-informed is however considered common knowledge.

Some five and a half years ago, a very good friend of mine said (and wrote) that "modern technologies [referring to Internet and computers more broadly] entered our lives silently, with out any drum roll" Inasmuch as I tend to agree with him, I cannot help but think that part of this reality is because we also chose to shut our eyes and close our ears. Would this have changed anything? Perhaps not, but it would have certainly made us more aware of what is going on around us, as opposed to our childish almost experimental and certainly empirical understanding of reality.

Notes:

The Boston Globe Editorial: Silent reading in public life

Gari Wolsfeld. Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Monday, February 05, 2007

From Maryland all the way...

On February 1, The Washington Post published an interesting editorial on Martin O'Malley, the incumbent governor of Maryland. A few weeks into office only, the former mayor of Baltimore is already making his voice heard: O'Malley calls for a staunch position against capital punishment - to the surprise of many who would have never predicted such an initiative based on his electoral campaign. O'Malley swift policy U-turn justifiably draws quite some attention for yet another reason: the state and the country remain divided along -at times stiff- fault lines over a number of social (policy) issues - the death penalty is only one of many controversial topics.

For what it really is, O'Malley's position is important as it constitutes an endorsement of human rights principles in what is a long struggle for the implementation of a human rights culture. Conversely, it becomes crucial in the context of the American culture as the United States is still struggling with concepts of justice attribution and punishment. One of the very few consolidated democracies that is still resorting to the death penalty as a correction method, the United States distinguishes itself from its liberal counterparts by engaging in a practice to be found primarily in nondemocratic countries, or, [to imitate a phraseology popular among US government officials,] "in countries failing to espouse liberty and such fundamental virtues". Still, the consistent use of death penalty by the world's most fervent proponent of human rights is problematic and counterintuitive in itself.

For all the controversy it may spur and all the praise it will receive, O'Malley's decision holds a further connotation as it becomes the embodiment of what "standing by one's principles" truly means. A long-time campaigner against capital punishment, O'Malley neither abandoned his core principles nor decided to hide himself behind them once in power. In a cost/benefit structured framework, O'Malley's deviation is highly dissonant to the ears of many political advisers or policy makers and perhaps even justifiably so. Yet at the same time one wonders whether the exemplary valor embedded in a courageous act, as this one, could in fact be providing with a raison d'être: to the rational scornful conclusion that rejects this line of thought one juxtaposes the alternative standpoint common to those who see corrosion and saturation in politics, corruption and individualism aspiring primarily, if not solely, to re-election - all frequent occurrences in many countries. Not surprisingly therefore one might feel inclined to give at least a chance to something different, something genuine. Against the sour taste of decadent politics, risk may acquire an unprecedented sweetness.

In the merciless battlefield we conventionally call politics, one hopes that ingenuity and initiative will be given some room to breathe. That Maryland borders congested Washington D.C. is a source of concern and a reason for hope at the same time.

------

Reference

The Washington Post Editorial: A governor stands up

Monday, January 29, 2007

A, B, C....

Despite being a fervent proponent of multilingualism myself, I promise to try and mute the plethora of opinionated voices in me, in favor of a more dispassionate analysis on the very important subject of acquiring (foreign) language skills in our (post)modern times. Hence it is to be said -in lieu of an introductory comment- that responsibility for foreign language encouragement (or lack thereof) befalls upon many actors: politicians, academia/teachers, individuals all contribute through choice or decision. Conversely, anything from dogmatic views to budgetary issues to cultural streams within society can impact the popularity of languages and language-learning. The already heated debate becomes more contentious today as additional parameters become influential: a supranational phenomenon, globalization is one such example of a factor that shapes attitudes towards languages.

As the world and individual states experience interaction and interdependence at such an unprecedented level, some practical requirements must be met, the first being to successfully "communicate". How states choose to respond to the resurrection of the lingua franca concept [or to a handful of prevalent languages] does already -and will even more so in the coming years- affect economic, political and cultural decisions across as well as within states. In a debate on globalization and France in Le Figaro, Jacques Attali, the French political thinker cautions that global markets may bring about the end of languages if reason does not prevail and if languages are not sufficiently protected. Moreover, the superimposition of a single language can be disastrous to peace, security and more broadly stability, if, for example, the premises which bring about the dominance of the language cease to exist, are deemed threatening or unjustifiable or more broadly are rejected by some population. This is very important to observe as languages are not only tools of communication; they are also carriers of a culture and often become symbolism, perhaps unjustifiably so, of politics even ideologies.

For such reasons and many more, the trend today seems to favor promotion of multilingualism and cultural awareness based on an understanding that people can come "closer" and cooperate more efficiently if there are not linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Partly as a reaction to this phenomenon and to serious political criticism for the Iraq war, the United States has been encouraging its citizens to acquire foreign language skills as they are "intrinsic to the security and the interests of the country" as the 2006 National Security Strategy tells - following thus the honorable example of many other countries, most notably the Scandinavian states. In her bitter comment in the December 20th edition of The Guardian (republished in the January 28th edition of Kathimerini) Agnès Poirier chastises British snobbery of foreign languages arguing among others that monolingualism is a source of decay for the society and a threat to the English language (on the premise that language learning improves one's native language too) and a serious threat to democracy (as it creates xenophobia and hinders critical thinking).

Is learning many languages therefore the solution that humanity seeks? Unfortunately, for the world's most complex issues there is no panacea today, as there has never been one in the past. Peace, security and prosperity the perennial concerns of people have always depended on a number of factors; globalization only magnifies the scope of such concerns by showing how dependent (to one another) or vulnerable countries are. The ability to "communicate" solves only the logistical part of the equation. Adding to this the "cultural parameter" -which accompanies language learning- can take us a step further. But no more than that.

Save a few merchants and wanderers, the vast majority of people well into modern times would only speculate about other languages as they would spend most of their life in a ten mile radius from where they were born. Interaction with people of other cultures the way we experience it today is novel to us and the history of mankind more broadly. Languages offer us a magnificent tool to improve the quality of interaction with humans from different backgrounds; to view them however as tools only or as tools primarily would be to misunderstand their purpose and logic. To reduce language learning to the utilitarian value would be killing the language - period. A language is much more than communication; it is immersion in another culture, the past and present of a people; it has volume and texture, depth and shallowness.

Learning a language establishes lines of communication not only with the speakers but the world: it is not the vocabulary or the grammar, it is the "decomposition" and "reassembling" that the self undergoes in the process. For this reason, even a single (foreign) language has profound impact on its student. Naturally people will never be able to speak all the languages, not even "many languages" considering how many there are and how costly and time-consuming the process is. But the more people decide to explore this realm for the magic it offers -more than the practical application it unquestionably yields- the more rewarding the experience it is. True magic happens from time to time too, as when a Spaniard can understand a speaker of Portuguese and vice versa... OK, maybe with a few gestures and body movements, but this is all game, right?

References and Links:

The very interesting debate between Jacques Attali and Pascal Lamy on globalization: La mondialisation économique ne suffit pas

Agnès Poirier's article in English: The high road to decadence and in Greek: Η αλαζονεία της μιας και μόνης γλώσσας

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A praiseworthy initiative

It started small but it is growing by the day; it is still very much local but has always had an international flair "attached" to it. What makes the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" distinct however is its effectiveness: from its very first day of operation it has tremendously benefited the locals and the community in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. But let us pause momentarily to briefly explain the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" project.

An initiative of Jane Mirandette, the project started as a way to literally "bring the books to the Nicaraguans"; in a country where 50% of the people live in poverty and a third of the society is illiterate access to books is a privilege reserved to the very few. What Mirandette did was to set up a small lending library in the 'backyard' of her hotel: the very first lending library of the country was the beginning of a much bigger project. The library found its own place a block down the street and the aspirations grew; a 'mobile library' would spring out of this, so as to serve the the villages of the region. Today, books are rotating reaching as many as 27 communities in rural Nicaragua. Hence the name "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" which translates to "Mobile Library of San Juan del Sur". In the meantime, Mirandette established a not-for-profit organization based in Colorado, USA: the project was well underway.

To the best of my knowledge the project is growing virtually by the day and the much-needed contributions, mostly from the US and elsewhere abroad, are fueling the project. When I was in San Juan del Sur in November I saw the "headquarters" but I can only imagine the significance of this library moving to remote villages where the percentage of illiteracy is greater and access to books a rare occurrence. A perfect example of what "sound development in practice" is, the library is administered by the locals who know the needs of the people best and volunteers from abroad who bring their expertise. Most importantly, while promoting literacy and educational opportunities the project does not interfere with the traditional patterns of living: by providing opportunities for education in one's village it reconciles work and family obligations with education and intellectual growth.

Praise for the achievements of this project goes to all those involved, directly or indirectly, in San Juan del Sur or elsewhere in the world. The labor of love bears fruits by the day in Nicaragua; it also transcends the borders of the small country proving to the rest of us that the joined forces of humanity can bring change, positive change. Something which indeed is useful to remember nowadays as the deleterious effects of dubious in nature and often catastrophic initiatives monopolize our attention in many ways and quite often end up preventing us from seeing beyond the facet of reality which is masterfully tossed upon us.


A condensed presentation of the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" activities.

For more information please visit the site of "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil". The site has an English and a Spanish version.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

94

When Hannah Arendt published her pivotal, prototypic and controversial [when juxtaposed against her previous publications] "Eichmann in Jerusalem" in 1963 she argued her famous "banality of evil" thesis - that people committing atrocities need not be inherently bad but may be influenced by an ideology or a set of codes. Because they are good "bureaucrats" they abide by rules, principles and orders thereby committing crimes.

Seeing the atrocities that occur on a daily basis at Iraq -United Nations announced today the death toll for Iraqis to be 34,000 for 2006- I cannot help but question what is that has made "evil" look like a "banality" in the lives [and hence the culture] of a people. Conversely, what sort of "banality" is this, which spurs an almost routinized coverage of Iraq by media and non-media actors, an awfully repetitive sorrow-dominated vocabulary to politicians and officials of any sort and a "yet again" or "not again" [at best] reaction to "innocent, powerless" civilians, if not of "evil"?

A great paradox and virtue of language is this, namely that it allows one to play games with words, to deconstruct phrases and to create wholly new and different meanings based on a word or two. Language can also downplay or increase the importance of virtual anything simply through wise word choice and word ordering. But numbers, are not like that; numbers cannot get dressed up to look "good" or "sloppy", they are destined to carry the naked version of the story - whatever this story maybe.

It so comes that 94 is the number for Iraq. If 34,000 was difficult to comprehend, the fact that this figure translates to 94 people being killed every single day at Iraq may help those not handling easily big figures, myself included. Early on we learn also that metaphors help, as they render our speech or writings clearer. Strikingly painful as it may appear, and it is, 94 dead Iraqis is almost like if a Boeing 737 crashed everyday or if the entire grade six of a 564 elementary school disappeared again and again and again every single day of the calendar year - rain or shine.

It almost causes shame to me the fact that I dared to quantify in this most disgraceful and dishonorable manner human life. And as I am about to delete my previous statement, I decide I will not - I think it does much less justice to victims to refuse to refer to their plight; it is much too hypocritical and shameful to aspire to a Pontius Pilate attitude when we all have some share of responsibility for the atrocities on the Iraqi soil. Unfortunately, few of us have the excuse of "abiding by an ideology" and fewer still are "the good bureaucrats" exercising at our best the civil duties entrusted to us.

That 94 people die everyday at Iraq because of the mess calls, once more, for urgent action. Much advocacy still focuses on "an end to the war". Will that suffice? Most journalists and experts signal otherwise; they talk about a possible splitting of Iraq into three states and they allude to further bloodshed. Even the most optimist would agree that the current state of Iraq is one of utter fragility and instability and that no deus ex machina can bring this tragedy to a bloodless conclusion. Regardless of the course of affairs at Iraq what seems clear is that we, non-Iraqis, are not entitled to any more mistakes, to any more gambling of human lives in our futile attempt to transform "vision" into action. Our duty is to help: may we be fortunate to find ways to assist - not to absolve ourselves from our atrocities, but, simply to decrease suffering. And to lower this damned 94.

References and Links:

in English: Blasts kill at least 70 in Baghdad; U.N. reports 34,000 Iraqis died in '06

en Français: Irak: plus de 100 morts dans des violences, 34.000 civils tués en 2006

an interesting study of Arendt's "banality of evil" in the context of fear is to be found in Corey Robin "Fear: The History of a Political Idea" (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

Friday, January 12, 2007

The world could be a better place: Irène Némirovsky

Duty often befalls upon us, future generations, to speak of those most capable and enlightened individuals who did not receive recognition during their lifetime - not to say were maltreated. One such person that deserves to be honored is author Irène Némirovsky, a Ukrainian-born French-raised Jewish woman whose last book "Suite Française" was published in 2004 by Denoël in France.

Remarkable as the literary style of Némirovsky may be, it is the "Némirovsky-individual" as opposed to the "Némirovsky-author" that I wish to bring up here. Besides, if it was just about the prose, a literary review would suffice; instead here is the case of an honorable person which happens to be known to us via books and manuscripts.

A woman of principles and values, a woman that perhaps exemplifies the true meaning of 'love of the other', the symbol of anti-racism, Némirovsky was born in Ukraine in 1903 to a Jewish family and to a mother that paid little attention to her. Thanks to her French gouvernante, Némirovsky adjusted easily in France - where her family moved and grew to love as her own; yet France never granted her citizenship paving the way to her death. Like many and despite being a published author already, Némirovsky was not spared from Nazi horror; she was arrested in 1942 and died at Auschwitz shortly thereafter.

"Suite Française" comes to us half a century after her premature death in the form of a manuscript; foreseeing her arrest in 1942 Némirovsky put her handrwritten loose pages in the suitcases of her two daughters as she was sending them off to a Monastery so that they -at least- could escape Nazis. In the first edition of "Suite Française" one is able to read notes from the Cahiers (Notebook) of Irène where she explains in detail the ambitious project that "Suite Française" would be: a series of four books that would commence with the raid of Paris and would end with the triumph of peace and love epitomized by a marriage. But Némirovsky managed to write only parts I and II: the rest of the book remained forever with her.

The narrative, the full structure, even her choice of simple words all receive praise from critics; truly, the full book would be an epic achievement. What is most important in this book to me as a reader is the humanity that comes out of it. I cannot think of a better example of dignity and nobility than Némirovsky's portrayal of average German soldiers. Nothing strikes me as a greater proof of kindness than conceding virtue to one's enemies knowing that such men will have to kill you and your children. It requires great reserves of kindness to be a Jew during World War II and to create the character of Bruno von Falk: powerful as the descriptions are one almost comes to believe that Némirovsky feels pity for the fate of the Germans. Everyone sees the dividing line between Nazi ideology and average German soldiers; one can hardly believe nonetheless that such words of peace and solidarity come from a woman that knows her death is coming.

The following is a passage from "Suite Française". Némirovsky initially talks about Bruno von Falk and later permeates into his soul to talk about how the soldier fantasizes taking his French hostess -with whom he shares a lot- Lucile to a Ball... The passage comes from Book II (Dolce).

"Bruno s'abandonnait à cette excitation puérile à la fois un peu folle et presque désespérée qui s'empare des soldats dans les moments où le combat fait trêve et où il espère quelque diversion à l'ennui quotidien. (...) Il avait envie de dire, comme un enfant à qui l'on a promis le cirque et que l'on voulait garder à la maison(...) Il n'était pas uniquement soldat du Reich. Il n'était pas mû simplement par les intérêts du régiment et de la patrie. Il était le plus humain des hommes. Il songea qu'il cherchait comme tous les êtres les bonheur, le libre épanouissement de ses facultés et que (comme tous les êtres, hélas, en ce temps-ci) ce désir légitime était constamment contrarié par une sorte de raison d'Etat qui s'appellait guerre, sécurité publique, nécessité de maintenir le prestige de l'armée victorieuse. (...) Mais ce que les Français n'auraient pu comprendre, c'est qu'il n'était pas orgueilleux ni arrogant, mais sincèrement humble, effrayé de la grandeur de sa tâche.

Mais justement aujourd'hui, il n'y voulait pas penser. Il préférait jouer avec cette idée de bal ou bien rêver à des choses irréalisables, à une Lucile toute proche de lui par exemple, à une Lucile qui pourrait le suivre à la fête... Je délire, se dit-il en souriant. Bah! tant pis! En mon âme, je suis libre. Dans son esprit, il dessinait une robe à Lucile, pas une robe de ce temps-ci, mais semblable à une gravure romantique; une robe blanche aux grands volants de mousseline, évasée comme une corolle, afin qu'en dansant avec elle, en la tenant dans ses bras, il sentît par moments, autour de ses jambes, le fouettement d'écume de ses dentelles."


(Extract from: Irène Némirovsky. Suite Française. Paris: Denoël, 2004, pp.367-368.)

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