Archive | December 2010

Haley Barbour’s Last Stand: Organs for Freedom

Haley Barbour, Republican Governor of Mississippi, has proposed that a woman be required to donate her kidney to her ill sister in return for early release from prison. Gladys and Jamie Scott staged an armed robbery in 1993, netted all of $11, and were subsequently sentenced to prison, where they remain to this day, 16 years later. This is well known to anyone who has read a newspaper in the past few days.

Now, let’s set aside the fact that Gladys previously offered her kidney to her sister by her own free will, and did not require any sort of legal coaxing from Mr. Barbour. However, what Barbour is proposing in this absurd condition of release has to be seen in a greater context of American politicians that do not respect the bodies of the poor, particularly those that are minority and African American, and more specifically those that are female.

I was floored when I heard Barbour’s offer, and quickly had flashbacks of how indifferent the white Mississippi establishment is to the human rights of African Americans. Mississippi has a prison system that regularly imposes a systematic apartheid by disproportionately jailing African Americans to “protect the common peace.” Until recently, the Mississippi prison system segregated HIV patients from the general prison population, and excluded them from prison education and religious functions in an unethical attempt to control the spread of HIV. Next, they’ll be creating wards by health status.

This, in addition to Mississippi’s long segregated school system, privately created by Mississippi’s white elite in order to spare their children the misery of having to talk to black people. Mississippi spends three times as much on it’s prisoners per year ($18,000 per inmate), than it does on public school students ($7,901 in 2008).

Barbour’s matter of fact, legal, and thereby forced, organ transplant only serves to provide gross precedent to other forced procedures. It is vastly similar to Louisiana State Representative John LaBruzzo’s offer of $1,000 to female welfare recipients, in return for “voluntary” sterilization. Racists everywhere applauded the move, particularly those with the hopes of reducing or eliminating African Americans altogether.

Aside from the repugnance of Barbour’s absurd, and likely illegal, offer, the implications of the ability of the state to coerce invasive medical procedures are frightening, particularly when levied on people who have little ability to refuse.

A long debate in the world of medical ethics is whether to allow people to sell their organs for profit. We already allow people to sell plasma, and a trip to the local plasma center will quickly provide insight into who is selling. To this day, Iran (big surprise) is the only country which allows the buying and selling of organs for profit, but, given the calls of free marketers in the US, it would not be surprising to see an industry arise here in the United States as well.

Arguably, this whole affair is theater in order to generate publicity for a Presidential run on 2010, but in the mean time, Barbour might do well to visit China, where forced organ trans plantations among prisoners are commonplace. The Chinese have even opened a market for organs to foreigners with sufficient amounts of cash. Perhaps it could be a boon to the Mississippi economy, Mr. Barbour.

Movie of The Week: Minamata: The Victims and their World (水俣ー患者さんとその世界, 1971)

Documentary director Noriaki Tsuchimoto presents an honest and bleak portrait of the victims of Minamata disease. In 1956, it became known that the Chisso corporation had been dumping methyl-mercury into local waters. As a result of eating fish poisoned by the pollutants, several residents of the vicinity of Minamata developed extensive health problems. Deterioration of brain and nerve function, along with congenital birth defects ruined the lives of more than 200 residents. Many more victims likely exist, but as stigma around the disease increased, many were afraid to admit that their afflictions were actually due to Minamata disease.

Tsuchimoto interviews several residents, from a fisherman who after years of therapy was able to finally walk in a straight line, to children born with the disease who face lifelong impairments, to troubled and afflicted adults, who have been shunned by their communities. The extensive political controversy surrounding an economically struggling community plays a major role in Tsuchimoto’s documentary, with many residents afraid to speak out due to the communities dependence on Chisso manufacturing, and the burden of an intense social shame in a conservative culture which often blames the victims for the plight of the community.

Minamata: The Victims and their World is filmed entirely in 16mm black and white, silent film stock with audio manually synced. The result is an immediate and disturbing series of snapshots of the community, which make their plight and anger seem almost unreal, but impossible to ignore.

This incredible document of one of the most famous and terrible examples of corporate disregard for human health culminates in an unforgettable scene of the Minamata victims trip to the annual shareholders meeting of Chisso in Osaka, Japan. A victims group realized that they could become shareholders merely by owning one share of stock, which would gain them access to the annual meeting, of which the Chisso management would be present. Victims dressed in white with slogans drawn on their clothing, disrupt the meeting through Buddhist chants and loud demands to be heard. The incredible scene of the small against the big quickly degenerates into a riot, with Minamata supporters directly confronting the Chisso management in front of an army of media representatives. Ultimately, the Chisso management flee the scene, but not after a gut wrenching confrontation of a desperate mother who’s child faces a lifetime of illness with the CEO of Chisso, who heartlessly dismisses her. Mostly, the Minamata vitims seek recognition, admitting that money can do little to repair the damage done. The Chisso management, in their hope to avert the legal and image related damages that would result, coldly refuse.

In the end, the massive negative publicity surrounding the shareholders meeting earns the Minamata victims a large compensation package, but no amount of money could ever repair the damage to human life exercised through Chisso’s irresponsibility. To this day, they legal fight for compensation and recognition continues. Tsuchimoto’s documentary remains and a disturbing reminder of the indifference of corporate entities to health and human welfare, but also stands as a testament to the power of brave, ragtag filmmakers to keep this memory alive.

Unrelated documetary, but it does use some of Tsuchimoto’s footage:

Bank of America and Wikileaks: Frightening Prospects for a Free Press

Recently, Bank of America and several other financial institutions cut banking ties with Wikileaks, effectively shutting them out of the American market. While they will certain be able to bank elsewhere, their ability to perform monetary transactions in the United States are severely hindered. Conservative and Liberal voices both applaud the move, branding Assange and the group “traitors”, despite not being American, and calling for Assange to be shot or assassinated for merely doing what American newspapers and news organizations have been doing for more than 200 years.

This, of course, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that the publication of leaked government documents is protected by the Constitution. So much for rightist respect for their sacred document.

Even though not a single person at Wikileaks has been arrested nor tried, Bank of America took the initiative to cut financial ties with the organization, merely because they don’t like Wikileaks and are likely afraid that the publicity will hurt it’s business model. While this may seem innocuous, what it is is an obvious example of the market as instruments against the most important precept of our Constitution, namely a free press and the free exchange of political criticism and ideas.

I have long cringed when listening to individuals discuss America as a “free” country. Our Republic is only as free as the market players will allow. Look at the perverse level of informational control levied by heavy hitters such as Fox News, who knowingly and blatantly manipulate and selectively present news to vast sections of the population to support a rightist, jingoist and often racist agenda. It’s no accident that, although the first country on the planet to legally protect a free press and the freedom to publicly criticize the government, the United States does not even rank in the top ten on the World Press Freedom Index. A sad and embarrassing state, indeed.

The recent move by Bank of America (along with other banks) frightens me. Not in the same way that Obama frightened old ladies during the 2008 election, but the precedent that will be set by financially strangling news organizations, who may present news damaging to market giants. What’s next? Freezing the New York Times accounts because they publish the fruits of Assange’s labor? Preventing NPR from receiving donations during the yearly fund drive?

It’s interesting that this comes on the heels of this weeks decision on “net neutrality.” Republican members of the Congress and Senate both are unwilling to stand up for the voice of the people, but perfectly happy to fight for big business’ right to control the airwaves. Ostensibly, this is intended to create market opportunities, but in the end will only prevent the dissemination of information which competes against their business model. Imagine having to depend on ComCast for news?

It’s true. Banks are not highways. Banks are not power grids, nor are they national parks. But the sweeping powers of banks over every day American life should not be underestimated, nor should those powers be unlimited. All Americans should be more frightened of this prospect, than of any single file that Wikileaks has ever distributed.

Or, maybe we can just let American banks take cues from Hugo Chavez. Or China. Or North Korea. Or Iran.

Movies of the Week: Women Make Movies

Instead of a single movie this week, I have decided to present three from Women Make Movies. From their website, “Women Make Movies is a multicultural, multiracial, non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women.” WMM provides not only distributional and promotional resources but has also been offering training in film making to women since 1972. They have a fantastic catalog of documentary and fictional works by women from all around the globe, who aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions, particularly about warfare and human rights. I have so far seen three films from their collection that have left a significant impression:

1. My Daughter the Terrorist – Sri Lanka’s bloody and controversial civil war with the Tamil Tigers separatist group has left many dead, and the country in turmoil. The Tamil Tigers are largely branded a terrorist group after a series of suicide bombings and political assassinations. Beate Arnestad manages to get behind the Tamil lines of control and interview several women who are part of the rebel movement. What results is a complicated portrait of a victimized ethnic minority who suffer from abuse and attacks by the Sri Lankan military juxtaposed with almost matter of fact explanations of the need for suicide bombings that smacks of brainwashing. Interviews with mothers of Tamil fighters brings a human dimension rarely seen in discussion of warfare. My Daughter the Terrorist is a document of the complicate nuances of warfare and ethnic conflict.

2. The Sari Soldiers – From 1996 to 2006, Nepal experienced a bloody civil war which left more than 13,000 people dead and displaced another 150,000. Maoist rebels and democratic revolutionaries fought a protracted military and political battle against a corrupt Nepalese Monarchy. Julie Bridgham managed to gain access to all sides of the conflict, including female Maoist rebels, democratic student activists, village matriarch victimized by the Maoists, members of the Nepalese Royal Army’s female brigade, and a heart wrenching series of interviews with a lower caste mother, whose 15 year old daughter had been raped and killed by the Nepalese Royal Army. All sides are able to tell their stories against a backdrop of a society in turmoil.

3. Iron Ladies of Liberia – Liberia suffered under a series of conflicts between warring factions for more than 20 years, culminating in Charles Taylor’s brutal dictatorship. The war was eventually brought to aclose by that Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which consisted of nothing more than groups of women praying in front of government and military buildings. Eventually, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first African female head of state, and was able to bring stability to what was once one of the most ineffective governments on the planet. Siatta Scott Johnson and Daniel Junge follow Sirleaf through her daily dealings with shaky politics, rioting former military members demanding pensions, and the eventual burning of the Presidential Palace. Amazingly and without hesitation, Sirleaf confronts armed men with histories of guiltless killing and violence with nothing more than words and a firm, but open ear. It’s amazing to watch.

Happy Late Solstice: Armed Conflict Report 2010

Ploughshares, a Canadian religious group devoted to promoting world peace, has produced their annual armed conflict report. A summary of the results of their analysis is contained within a down-loadable poster. Subsections include tracking of the number of conflicts over time, the countries in conflict and the possession and the amount of money spent worldwide on arms. The world spent more than 1.5 trillion US dollars on arms in 2009, with nearly 50% of that spent by the United States.

On this Christmas, let Christian peoples everywhere take these words seriously:

“and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

The Biblical implication is that the Abrahamic god and his Messiah will be the ones to broker peace. This is, in itself, troubling, but let us hope on this Christmas that the message of peace is taken seriously by all. Most often it appears that people in the United States ignore this fundamental aspect of the Christian faith.

With that, I wish all a happy late solstice.

Antimalarials as Torture: Damning Evidence from Guantanamo

Mefloquine was once a common antimalarial, both for prophylaxis, and for treatment given infection. These days, while still available, Malarone is the choice for those who can afford it and Doxycyclene is still commonly used though it’s efficacy is often in doubt. I’ve personally taken Malarone with no ill effects (besides an increased waistline). Mefloquine has fallen out of favor largely due to complaints of serious psychological side effects. It is not recommended for those with underlying psychological issues as it can induce paranoia, rage and vividly violent nightmares. People I know who have taken it have related stories of frighteningly real, sexually violent dreams and of seeing hallucinations of rabid dogs and demonic manifestations.

According to medical records from Guantanamo, the US military prescribed Mefloquine for all detainees upon arrival to the makeshift prison. Not only that, but they also prescribed it at a dose that is 5 times the normal dosage of Mefloquine, and without evaluating detainees for possible preexisting conditions (depression, epilepsy) that rule out the use of Mefloquine. Here is the intake form used at Guantanamo:

Now, Mefloquine is a prophylactic, meaning that it is intended to prevent malaria infection. Malaria is unknown in Cuba. Many of the countries that the detainees came from are malaria endemic countries, but no doctor would ever prescribe Mefloquine without first obtaining a positive test for malaria. The intake form indicates that a malaria test is performed, but that the detainee would have already been given Mefloquine.

The conclusion is that Mefloquine was unnecessarily prescribed at a dosage higher than ever given. The only logical option is that Mefloquine was prescribed at a massive dosage to intensify lvels of fear among detainees, particularly at a time when detainees would already be psychologically compromised. In short, Mefloquine was used at Guantanamo as a form of pharmaceutical torture.

Guantanamo is already a well known stain on our history for reasons that anyone who reads this blog should be well aware of. The Bush admin was one of the worst periods in our history and I regret that I was not educated nor aware enough during those 8 years of insanity to realize how bad it really was. It is, of course, entirely regrettable that the Obama admin didn’t have the fortitude to close Guantanamo down within a week of it’s inauguration.

Allegations of medical experimentation at Guantanamo have persisted for years. The awful mix of torture and medicine raises specters of Josef Mengele and Unit 731. It blatantly violates the central tenet of the Hippocratic Oath that deliberately protects against needless treatment and promotes the welfare of patients. What’s worse, we paid for it. Countless Americans who don’t understand the necessity of due process, the Geneva convention and human rights lent their full support.

The full text of the Seton Hall investigation is here. It’s a fascinating read.

Confessions of a Scrooge

Truthfully, I don’t like Christmas. It’s the perfect collusion of business and religion, the populace wandering like drugged sheep through a series of economically inspired motions with puppet strings laden with Biblical half-truths and myths. In short, if you want to get people to do things en masse, wielding the power of God is a good way to get it done. I understand the incredible negativity contained withing that statement. Please understand that I like gift giving and the exchanging of pleasantries to those you wish to keep contact with throughout one’s life. It’s the culture of religious guilt and coercion that I can’t stand (can you tell that I was raised Catholic?).

Religious coercion is what fuels the Holocaust, the Lords Resistance Army, the Japanese occupation of east Asia, the Spanish Inquisition, American slavery, lynchings, rapes in the Congo, Al Qaeda, the Bosnian genocide and any number of other human atrocities. Granted, buying gifts at Christmas isn’t in the least bit comparable to that litany of human horrors. The stage is set, however. Religion is like keeping nuclear weapons. Governments can wield it’s power at any time, to insure maximum destructive results.

This is exactly the reason that Jefferson and company pushed for a secular state. The founding fathers envisioned a limited government. With the power of God behind it, the powers of government are unlimited. Conservative figures in the United States know the power of religion, hence the disdain for secularism and the infusion of religious symbolism into our state discourse and the wish to have prayer in schools. Religious plurality and secular government in America is our best check against a runaway state. Conservative leaders would do well to visit Iran.

Mostly though, I dislike that people on one day a year feel the need to be charitable to the poor, but for the rest of the year, they blame them for all the world’s ills.

Dear Christians: I like that you want to be charitable to the poor for single day out of 365. Now stop giving tax breaks to the wealthy and start providing health care, education and peaceful opportunities.

But that’s a tall order.

Go forth, though, and be kind to your neighbor. Give gifts. Respectfully listen to people you don’t agree with. Be aware of the humanity of people everywhere, even if they may not speak the same language as you, and may not have the same opportunities. Try this every day and we might actually make it through all of this.

Here, though, is one of my favorite Christmas songs:

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