Archive | January 2011

Book of the Week: “All Things Must Fight to Live” (Bryan Mealer)

Blanking on what movies I seen in the past months, I opted for “Book of the Week.” As the “Movie of the Week” is the least viewed feature on this blog, I pretty much have the freedom to write about whatever is available to me at the time.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and one of the bloodiest. Since 1998, the DRC has been home the largest conflicts since World War II, involving no less than seven foreign armies, claiming no less than 5.4 million lives and many times that number in injuries. Sexual violence and rape are common tools of warfare in the DRC conflict, earning the DRC the distinction of being the worst area for sexual abuse in the entire world. More than 200,000 women and girls have been raped and disfigured since 1998.

The DRC has an incredible wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, coltan, copper, zinc and oil. Competition for control of the DRC’s seemingly endless bounty fuels instability and illegal sales of resources funds the conflict. Villagers in the way of potential mining routes are routinely raped, hacked to death, dismembered and displaced, leading to a human crisis of proportions larger than most any other in human history.

Meanwhile, opportunistic foreign powers turn a blind eye to the horrid conditions under which precious resources are obtained. The United States has not, as of yet, demonstrated the political will to get involved. It is unlikely that we ever will, making every single one of us complicit in the vast landscape of death and suffering that is the DRC right now.

Bryan Mealer spent three years as a reporter in the DRC in the late 90’s. His book is a document of his time there, full of stories of drug addled gun wielding teenagers hacking the locals and pillaging their wares, international groups attempting to create some resemblance of stable government against a swirling hurricane of chaos, a largely impotent UN which spends more time keeping itself alive than keeping the peace, and the Congolese who want nothing more than peace and prosperity in their broken country.

Mayer explores the history of how the DRC got it’s present, chaotic state. The DRC could be one of the wealthiest areas of the world. However, the slave trade, exploitative colonial governments, and the brutal and disgusting regime of King Leopold disrupted the natural creation of a stable state. A perfect storm of European indifference to the welfare of Africans helped usher in a series of brutal and corrupt Congolese governments post-independence, leading the DRC to where it is today.

The first half of the book follows Mealer as he insanely enters the most war-torn areas of the DRC. One get the impression that Mealer is either an incredible thrill seeker, a touch mentally imbalanced or a completely dedicated journalist that attempts to document the travesty that which the world has conveniently ignored. The second half takes a more upbeat approach, following Mealer along his trip through the Congolese rain forest and aboard the only “express” passenger train in the DRC. His writing is frenetic, often documenting in a frantic, stream of consciousness style accentuating the chaos of the world around him, alternatively frightened by the insanity around him and exhibited by the level of human resilience of a people attempting to live in the most unlivable of conditions.

Leo Igwe: Nigerian Advocate for Child “Witches”

Yesterday saw the savage beating death of well known Ugandan gay/human rights activist David Kato. In my short post on the event, I briefly mentioned Leo Igwe, a humanist/atheist and human rights activist in Nigeria.

Leo is affiliated with the British Humanist Association and has been a tireless fighter for atheist rights, advocate for children who have been accused of witchcraft and abused and a fighter against for-profit Christian groups which incite abuse and violence. In the course of his fight, he has been verbally and publicly attacked, physically assaulted and arrested and jailed numerous times.

The most recent arrest involved an 8 year old girl who had been accused of witchcraft, forced into sexual slavery and repeatedly raped by a man more than four times her age. Igwe and his team went with police to extract the girl from her horrific living situation. After attempting to take the girl to a clinic, Igwe was arrested for kidnapping, beaten tortured and jailed. He was later released but not after sustaining injuries to his head and hands. The fate of the girl is unknown.

This timing of the arrest is interesting. Just the day before, Igwe was scheduled to testify before a commission on child witchcraft accusations. It appears that the governor of Igwe’s region, who initially supported Igwe’s group’s actions, has caved to the demands of local evangelical groups. It is thought that the governor, Godswill Akpabio, ordered the arrest in the hopes of silencing Igwe.

Of course, as with American evangelistic groups, religious leaders in Nigeria profit from maintaining belief in a religious war between God and evil spirits. Persons who challenge this fundamental assumption are marginalized, threatened and framed as a common enemy to rally around and insure the financial security of bogus religious leaders. Fortunately, violent events in the name of religion are becoming a rarity in the US, despite having a long and bloody history. Religiously swayed politics and divisive, hateful and dangerous rhetoric from religious groups still carries on in both countries, however.

There are not words to describe the horror of African child witchcraft accusations. Children are abandoned by their families, abused, raped, killed, and worse, sometimes brutally maimed. AP reported last year on a 9 year old boy who had been doused in acid by his father, who believed the child to be a witch.

A much more detailed set of reports on Igwe and child witchraft accusations is at Richard Bartholomew’s blog.

MakeaPACT.org, an advocacy group for children who have been accused of witchcraft, have a website here.

Below is a video of a local (but very powerful) evangelical group invading and attacking a Nigerian Humanist Conference. Spreading Jesus’ word, indeed…..

You Reap What You Sow: Gay Rights Activist Killed in Uganda

This morning the New York Times featured an article on David Kato, a Ugandan gay-rights defender who was bludgeoned to death in his home yesterday afternoon. Human rights work in any context entails a certain amount of bravado and the recognition of the reality of risks to health and welfare. Unfortunately, there are those who feel that it is a moral right to exclude, marginalize and oppress people who violate accepted social mores and will commit violence to preserve that right. We have seen this in just about every society on earth, including the United States, where hate based rhetoric and homophobic attacks are commonplace.

In the context of Uganda, this is especially troubling. This reprehensible act not only damages and reinforces traditional western views that African societies are somehow savage, brutal and inherently socially underdeveloped, but also exposes our own failings and intolerance. Uganda’s bill proposes to induce severe penalties including life imprisonment and death for homosexuals. This is well known here in the west. Social liberals view such measures in disgust, social conservative and rightists either publicly or secretly praise such initiatives, hoping to rid society of it’s deviant element. In the end, they wish to secure a power base from which to dictate morality to a country which they view as too forgiving of those those who are different. He who wields the power of God and moral codes, wields infinite power over all.

It has been well established that American Pentecostals were involved in the drafting of the Ugandan bill (which has yet to be ratified in Parliament), uncovering the meddling and irresponsible power of American religious groups in Africa. The particular individuals have since backtracked from their involvement in stirring already existent anti-homosexual fervor in Uganda, but their complicity cannot be denied given that they spew similar hateful rhetoric here in the United States. They routinely reduce sexual minorities to a status less than human and undeserving of basic human rights and respect and set them up as a common enemy to preserve their own status as keepers of society’s moral codes.


With the urging of Ugandan Christian groups, conservative Ugandan keepers of morality and American backers, a sensationalist newspaper media posted Mr. Kato’s face, name and address on the front page of a small newspaper (oddly called “Rolling Stone”) calling for the man to be hanged. No doubt, this was the wet dream of bigots all over the United States. For social liberals, it is a moralistic horror become real.

My limited work with with human rights workers in Malawi should be well known to readers of this blog. While the Secular Humanists in Malawi have claimed that they have not recieved any physical threats, the recent arrest of prolific Nigerian writer and humanist for murder after speaking out on behalf of a rape victim gives me pause to worry. Mr. Igwe runs a fantastic blog on his secular and human rights activities which can be found here. One can only hope that the brutality of Mr. Kato’s death will encourage moderate voices to speak out, rather than silence them with fear.

Bachmann and the Tea Baggers Rewrite American History

Michele Bachmann, genius in chief and Congresswomen representing a largely white and rural area outside Minneapolis had the following to say about the founding fathers and their attitudes toward slavery:

“the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States….Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”

Now, let’s move aware from our preconcieved notions that anyone involved in the Tea Party holds a batshit mish-mash of handpicked historical ideas and interpretations that rival even the most moronic of Biblical “scholars.”

It is well known that John Quincy Adams was vehemently against slavery and supported the abolitionist movement. Bachmann is correct on this. But Adams was also quite aware of the political realities of abolishing slavery and hoped that the Constitution itself would result it’s demise. Rather than “fight tirelessly to end slavery,” he just waited… and died. It would be nearly a full 20 years after his death that slavery was abolished, and another century before African-Americans would obtain legal equality. We’ll just ignore that he was a mere 9 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

George Washington owned more than 300 slaves at any one time in his lifetime. He inherited his first piece of human property at age 11. However, despite years of guiltlessly holding humans in bondage and working them morning til night, feeding them like pigs and beating them when they attempted to run away, Mr. Washington experienced a mid-life crisis and had a change of heart. He later refused to sell slaves, not wanting to break up slave families and emancipated all his slaves upon his wife’s death. His wife owned half the slaves on Washington’s plantation. We can credit him with his belated good will, but Washington was no soldier in the fight against slavery. Not to belittle a man’s moral transformation, but does it really take that long to realize the horrors of human exploitation? Apparently so. Rather than fight against slavery as a moral and social issue, he just simply felt bad for his own slaves and sheepishly tried to assuage his own personal guilt. Too little, too late, George.

The worst though, has to be Thomas Jefferson . Mr. Jefferson owned as many as 200 slaves at any one time in his lifetime. Although involved in the abolitionist movement, his trademark contradictory rhetoric can’t really be used to pin him as a true abolitionist. Jefferson may have personally been opposed to slavery, but he certainly didn’t put his money where his mouth was, later selling his human property to pay for his vast debt load and using humans as down payments on new pieces of property. To add insult to injury, Jefferson’s debts largely were the result of entertaining white guests and drinking fine wine, while his African property lived in squalid conditions and ate gruel.

Jefferson is credited with treating his slaves well, but upon further inspection, one realizes that his benevolence was motivated by profit. His efforts to reduce infant mortality stemmed from his through that “a woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm.” Jefferson was hardy a “tireless fighter against slavery and oppression” but rather an irresponsible and mealy mouthed enabler of human exploitation!

I have great respect for Jefferson mostly due to his relentless pursuits of intellectual understanding on a variety of topics, but his vast flip-flopping and battery of contradictory statements and views make him it difficult for me to say that he represents any aspect of my politics. In fact, I don’t think many people can claim him. Jefferson is like the Bible: if you search his writings long enough, you can find just about anything to support whatever you’re trying to say.

Bachmann’s statements represent a long tradition of rightists attempting to rewrite and whitewash the horrors of slavery. It was telling during a Tea Bagger inspired reading of the Constitution at the beginning of the present Congress, that all references to our countries complicity in human exploitation and the horrors of treating humans as products to be bought and sold, were conveniently avoided. Unless we can have an open and honest discussion of our history and the role that slavery played in making the United States the wealthiest country on earth, we will never move on morally from this stain on humanity’s history. We are all complicit. Let’s never forget that and make sure that the commodification of humans never occurs on this planet again.

Journalism in North Korea: Rimjingan Magazine

A recent issue of the Economist ran a short blurb on Rimjin-gan, a news magazine from North Korea. Asia Press International is a vibrant Japan based news organization which specializes in all forms of human rights reporting. Since 1987, Asia Press International has provided a forum for over 30 activist writers and filmmakers. Their output spans the globe, but focuses on issues of political repression, warfare and health in developing countries. Asia Press International, with seven offices throughout Asia preserves a tradition of activist journalism which has largely been lost in today’s media.

Accurate reporting from North Korea is almost nonexistent. Much of which appears on the western media are reports of international talks, verifiable military actions and that which can be obtained from those lucky enough to escape one of the most isolated and repressive governments on the planet. Largely lost are reports of the experiences of average North Koreans, their attitudes toward the Kim dynasty and the grave state of human rights and health there. Enter Rimjim-gan, named for the Rimjin River which runs through North Korea.

All of Rinjin-gan’s journalists are North Koreans living in North Korean. Asia Press International was able to train them in techniques of covert journalism across the border in China, and provided some with satellite phones. Asia Press now maintains contacts with eight journalists spread throughout the country, who work at incredible risk to their own lives and the lives of their families. These on the ground informal correspondents record conversations with North Koreans, often unbeknownst to the subjects. This, of course, violates traditional standards of journalism, but as the subjects risk imprisonment, torture and death by outwardly stating their opinions, covert methods are preferred. Asia Press obscures the identities of interviewees.

What results is nothing short of incredible. A true independent and subversive press, unheard of in North Korea, provides a voice for those victimized by the Communist regime, and tells a story of food shortages, fear and widespread anger at the present government. A video shot by a Rimjin-gan reporter of a 23 year old woman foraging for food on a mountainside, clearly suffering the effects of malnutrition. She is foraging for food to feed her rabbits, whcih she sell at the market. When asked what she east, she plainly says, “Nothing.” Her parents are both dead and she sleeps outside. If she were born just 60 miles south, she’d likely be thinking about a hopeful future. Here, she likely doesn’t worry about much more than finding enough food to stay alive until tomorrow.

Movie of the Week: “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story (2007)”

Ideally, I would have had this ready for last week MLK day, but alas, the DVD pile gets no smaller and other things get in the way. 2007’s “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story” documents the problems of racial segregation in Yonkers, NY, a small working class community north of the Bronx.

Initially a predominantly Italian community, the State of New York required that Yonker’s build low income housing, which they managed to concentrate in a small corner of Yonkers. As New Yorkers began to move to the area, real estate agents and town officials conspired to segregate persons of color to the east side school district. Eventually, white residents, worrying that black home owners would spill over into the predominately white west side, purchased a ten foot strip of land separating the two districts and build a mile lone wall, blocking streets and restricting movement.

The school district intentionally steered black students into vocational school post-high school, disproportionately concentrated resources in the white schools, and, along with the white city council, maintained a seperate but absolutely unequal school and city policy for more than 20 years post Civil Rights. African-American residents, concerned with growing crime and poor schools brought the case to the federal courts leading to a landmark decision requiring that Yonkers cease discriminatory practices and build low income housing in the West Side.

White residents naturally protested, stymieing efforts to build the proposed housing, which would be small town houses situated in blocks of 10 to 20 in predominantly white neighborhoods. Eventually armies of aging white residents reminiscent of angry Tea Partiers descended on the city council and the mayor, leading to stand off between Yonkers and the State and Federal courts.

Brick by Brick is a record of deep seated racism and bigotry that exists all over the industrialized North East. Yonkers is not unique. Practially all New England cities practice an insidious form of segregation enabled by urban planners and business developers. However, in the case of Yonkers, an empowered black community succeeded with the support of wealthy and educated New York African American transplants and the power of the media. “Brick by Brick” is an American story, it’s background and roots inherent in an American society of exclusion and racial discord.

Frances Piven, Social Welfare and Gun Waving Internet Maniacs

The right is apparently getting the guns out for a little known, 78 year old political science professor from City University of New York, Frances Piven. Apparently, Beck and his cloud of gun waving fanatics don’t believe that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free political speech, and are calling for Dr. Piven to be, at best, tried for treason, and, at worst, shot on sight. The almost impossible to comprehend graphic on the left should provide an indication as to the comedy of their claims.

Hearing that the right has a new academic boogyman, I am of course eager to learn as much about this person as possible.

Most of Beck’s vitriol stems from a 1966 article “A Strategy to End Poverty“, published in the liberal magazine, the Nation, outlining a plan to free America’s poor from oppressive welfare systems that do little to raise their standard of living, and more to keep them poor. The article and plan were mostly aimed at the Democratic Party at the time, with the hope that action could induce the Party to provide more benefits for the poor. Along the way, Piven hoped that they would at least get some help for people who need it. She called for education programs to assist individuals in filling out the daunting welfare forms to maximize efficiency amongst applicants and to insure that the groups that welfare are targeted at, have representation in welfare offices.

I can corroborate Piven’s claims as to the backwardness of welfare. I was on food stamps in the early 90’s and was amazed at a) how much work and savvy it took to maintain the benefits and b) how the system would immediately punish recipients for trying to escape poverty. This was during the first Bush admin, and well after Reagan era budget cuts.

If a welfare recipient made a dollar above $800 in a calendar month, he or she would lose $400 a month in food stamp benefits. If one went to university, one was barred from receiving benefits. Recipients were therefore required to be in a GED program or to not be in school at all, basically insuring that a poor family would remain poor for the rest of their lives.

Forms were dauntingly complex and reams of documentation were required to prove eligibility. The semi-literate, those living unstable lives and the homeless were effectively shut out of the process. Welfare workers and policy makers systematically withheld information from potential recipients. Policy makers consequently marginalized the very populations they were thought to be helping. Your only hope was to find a welfare worker that was willing to subvert the system and provide you with help and benefits.

She advocates a national minimum income in the text, which is where Beck and his batshit followers likely go ballistic and start hoarding Glock 9’s. Rightist seeking to discredit her have repeatedly pointed out that she has indicated that marginalized groups as the victims of violence often were required to use violence to achieve their own ends. Despite rightist protestations, I cannot find any place where she suggests using violence, but she does often put out that, in reality, it often is. You can check out the video below and decide for yourself.

Piven is hardly an enemy of democracy, despite Beck’s obsessive claims. In the introduction to “Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America ,” which I just skimmed through, she rightfully points out that what we have in America is not a democracy, but more like “authoritarian populist regimes in Southeast Asia and Latin America” that do not represent the interests of the people, but rather the interests of a small and powerful group. I somehow recall Tea Partiers making similar statements. It’s an interesting book. I doubt that many of her critics have actually read it.

Piven wrote a great history of how she came to be the right’s enemy number one. Apparently, a Republican activist from Michigan posed as an interested student, went to her apartment in NY, filmed an interview with her for an hour, and then cut out the damning portions and posted it on the internet.

Check out the comments:

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