Archive | July 2011

Conservative Mackinac Center Enlists Grad Student to Engage in Union Busting Campaign at the University of Michigan

The Mackinac Center, a far right conservative group which operates on contributions from none other than the Koch Brothers, Exxon and a host of other big business, union busting, mega polluting oil and chemical giants, staged a press conference at the University of Michigan today to announce their involvement in the Graduate Student Employees organization’s (GEO) effort to unionize research assistants.

Presently, only graduate student instructors are allowed to participate in the union. This is the result of a 1981 ruling which determined that research assistants were not to be considered state employees, unlike student instructors who provided a necessary service for the University. At the time, there were only a handful of research assistants, and the feeling was that since these individuals were primarily invested in their own research and not the University, they did not deserve benefits.

Clearly, in 2011, the situation is vastly different. The U of M has transformed from a teaching institution, to a research juggernaut. Graduate student researchers provide a necessary service to the University and the State of Michigan as a whole.

I attended the Mackinac Center’s presentation today, led by Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst for the Mackinac Legal Center, flanked by University of Michigan Life Sciences Graduate student, Melinda Day. Wright repeatedly pointed to the 1981 ruling that research assistants are not to be considered state employees, and thus should not be allowed to unionize.

Melinda Day, sported her youth by spouting a litany of slippery slope arguments and unsupported speculations. She implied that her work week would be unnecessarily restricted by GEO to 20 hours a week. She also believed that the University would not be able to compete for quality graduate students, again due to GEO’s real or imagined work restrictions.

She also tried to claim that since federal funding has established rules for research assistants, union representation is not needed, though she failed to imply where graduate students should go when a true dispute arises. She made the claim that federal regulations already dictate pay and benefits for graduate students, failing to mention that federal regulations also restrict work weeks to 20 hours, though students regularly work longer on research projects. I don’t know how she rectifies this point with the previous point on GEO’s workweek restrictions.

In the end, she attempted to snidely portray GEO as merely money grubbing parasites, sucking off the hard earned money of the poor graduate students, while preventing them from getting their degrees. Without going through and more of the details, her impassioned, though halting speech was, in my opinion, a bunch of absolute nonsense.

Mostly, she looked as if she were about to cry. I kind of felt bad for her. It’s hard to be a fledgling rightist in a room full of angry (though quiet) lefties. Really, she needs a lot of help refining her schtick.

I was the only person to confront these people, which was absolutely disappointing. I think that grilling a political group after they have had time to make their points is absolutely necessary. I pointedly asked what stake the Mackinac Center had in this fight. Wright kept circling around to the same bullet points that he started with. After a few interruptions, he graciously made a statement that the Mackinac Center was against public employee labor unions, waved around some justifications, but again circled around what the Mackinac Center truly is: a group of rightist defenders of big business and wealthy property owners. I really just wish he would come out and said it.

I loathe this group. I really do. I think they are an anti-intellectual, anti-poor, pro money group which operates at the behest of those in our society which would tear down labor unions, public schools, public health care, welfare, environmental protections and host of other issues that are important to me. I’ve written about them before, in regards to an intimidation scheme they initiated against a University of Michigan faculty member.

Still, I made it a point to talk to Mr. Wright briefly and shake the man’s hand and tell him that I wasn’t a fan of his group, but I appreciated him answering my question.

It’s really difficult for me to sympathize with Melinda’s views (mostly spoonfed by the Mackinac Center) but, for the sake of civility, here they are anyway:

Movie of the Week: “The Reporter”

New York Times Nicholas Kristof has always been a hero of mine and partially why I have continued this blog, despite poor writing skills and a lack of good ideas (thank you for continuing to read… all 10 of you).

A fantasy of mine would be to go on one of Mr. Kristof’s “Win A Trip” trips, where he takes one student and one teacher to some of the most troubled places on earth. Unfortunately, I was disqualified from this contest about 2 years ago, when I stepped onto the tarmac of Chileka Airport in Blantyre, Malawi, an event which would forever change my life (like all life changing events).

In “The Reporter,” Kristof travels to the DRC, a anarchic hellhole of warfare, systematic rape and violence to show the winners of his “Win a Trip” contest the horrifying effects of of civil war on the civilian populace. Most, notably, he interviews and subsequently has dinner with warlord and war criminal Laurent Nkunda, a charismatic, university educated sociopath who has managed to assemble one of the largest and best equipped military rebellions in Africa (he has since been arrested).

To me, the most important revelations from Kristof’s journey is a chance meeting with a dying woman, Yohanita Nyiahabimama. Once a school teacher, she now weighed 60 pounds, having eaten nothing but bananas for the past 6 months. Yohanita’s death is not notable. Thousands of people like Yohanita die all over the world in a similar manner every single day. The conditions which lead to an individual like Yohanita dying from starvation in one of the most fertile areas on the planet, however, are quite notable.

Paul Farmer, a physician/anthropologist from Harvard, wrote a magnificent book “Pathologies of Power” in which he explored the idea of “structural violence,” a term originally coined by peace advocate John Galtung. Farmer posits that poor health outcomes and the suffering of the poor are not natural nor inherent states of being for humanity, but rather the result of designed structural factors which deny access to services and benefits which may empower them. Basically, the factors which generate affluence are the same factors which create conditions of poverty.

The DRC is one of the most resource rich areas of the world. The DRC is, by no accident, one of the poorest countries on the planet. A combination of a miserable colonial past, US support of the despot Mobuto (due to his resistance to communism), resource exploitation, systematic indifference and unwillingness to intervene have kept the DRC in a perpetual state of warfare and anarchy.

Yohanita dies because the peculiarities of US electoral politics prevent it from getting involved. Sending troops and sacrificing lives to root out a small group of stateless terrorists continually for nearly a decade is an acceptable response to the killing of 3000 people in NYC, but the loss of even a few troops to halt the killing of more than 5,000,000 black people in poor Africa is unacceptable to the American voter.

Connecting the dots between the plight of the poor in the DRC and affluent countries such as the United States is a difficult leap for many, and reasonably so. The connections between localized wealth and global poverty are insidious and often invisible and vastly complex, yet very, very real.

US/European/East Asian demand for cheap resources keeps rebel groups in business, by creating sources of income with which to buy arms, notably a source of vast profit for Israel, whose extensive weapons industry maintains close ties to the United States. Keeping resources cheap and unhindered by export taxes benefits producers of American consumer goods and discourages efforts to create stable, functioning governments. Most importantly, American consumers demand cheap goods and very rarely question where they come from. Essential in this dynamic and fluid network of affluence and poverty, is the role of indifference in creating the conditions of structural violence which kill millions and the systematic manner. Everything about life in affluent countries, through politics, media, education and cultural mores, work together to cover them up.

Kristof clearly hesitates intervene in Yohanita’s plight. The student member of his group also appears conflicted in her role as whether to be a physician or an observer/reporter, yet the clear and present suffering of an individual and the ability to assist demand that they do something to help Yohanita. In the same way, we as members of some of the most wealthiest societies on earth are naturally obligated to act. By not acting, or acting in a manner which merely throws crumbs at the poor in order to placate the complaints of others in the international community, we are all complicit in the suffering of the poor.

A Rising Tide of Wealth Redistribution Sinks All Boats

The wealthy of America have got wealth redistribution down to a science. No, I’m not talking about taking money from the rich, but the exact opposite. The wealthy spent the better part of the late 90’s and 2000’s figuring out new ways of extracting more and more money from poor people. They did it through novel bank fees, credit card fees, check cashing services, high interest mortgages and, most importantly, shrinking wages, union busting and non-existent job benefits. Good for them!

Evidence suggests that they’ve won. The Census has reported that while all racial groups have seen a decline in overall wealth, the divide between whites and everyone else is wider than it has been in the 25 years that the Census has been collecting data.

White families saw a 16% decrease in household wealth over the past four years, whereas Hispanic families have lost more than 66% of their household wealth and African-American families have lost more than 53 percent. Granted, white people make more money, so an absolute drop in household wealth that is equivalent to other less affluent groups may reflect a smaller percentage drop in overall wealth, but the differences are staggering.

Assets of white families are nearly 20 times that of African American families and 18 times that of Hispanic families. It leaves on to wonder whether wealth inequality in the United States will ever abate itself.

This is particularly troubling when one considers that there are 50 million people who identify themselves as Hispanic living within the United States. This means that 50 million people have seen a 66% drop in overall household wealth due to unemployment, loss of property through foreclosure, shrinking wages and retirement savings that have long disappeared. That’s 50 million people that have seen their total assets drop by two thirds within FOUR YEARS.

We can assume that during the loss of assets, the most important asset of all, health insurance was the first to go. Thus, now, in 2011, given high levels of stress and declining life-styles, incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and a host of other will only rise, leaving future leaders facing a litany of serious choices as to how to spend the country’s money.

To be fair, the wealthiest of all Americans are in the “white” category, perhaps artificially inflating the results for that group and hiding the poverty of the white America of trailer parks and unemployment lines, those white people who overwhelmingly get ignored in these media reports. I doubt that white people in Michigan have been spared the worst effects of our economic downturns.

The evidence is there, but still Washington fights, with the support of the American right and a frightened electorate, for the wealthiest of Americans. They hold the erroneous belief that these holders of the financial keys will install enough new bathrooms and swimming pools to keep America afloat.

Thanks, Washington!

Malawian Demonstrations Turn Into Riots

DPP Vehicle in Flames

Months of foreign exchange shortages, fuel shortages, unemployment and heavy handed policies by the increasingly autocratic President Bingu wa Mutharika have resulted in mass demonstrations througout Malawi today. An unprecendented number of Malawians have taken to the streets to protest Bingu’s Presidency and to call for his resignation.

What were originally intended as peaceful demonstrations, however, have quickly turned to violent riots. Bingu’s Democratic Progressive Party have dispatched trucks filled with machete waving thugs. Police and military, at the behest of the current government, have been reported to have been witnessed beating protesters.

"To Hell with Bingu"

A reporter for Capital Radio Malawi has been beaten by police in Zomba. Deaths and injuries are already being reported.

Worse yet, the chaos has allowed looters to break into store fronts, including the Bata Shoe Store in downtown Blantyre, which now sits empty. Women have ben spotted carting off groceries and household items from local stores.

Protesters have set fire to DPP vehicles, and a police station in Chirimba sits in flames, even as I write this.

The situation is quickly spiralling out of control, though news and pictures are proving difficult to come by. I can imagine that as night falls (very soon) things will only get worse.

DPP thugs are out in full force. The Nyasatimes reports:

The gang of machete-wielding youths took to the streets in DPP branded vehicles and stopped at several points, got out their vehicles and sharpened their pangas.

“It’s scary. They have literally blocked the main road and are sharpening their knives right on the tarmac and threatening
everyone,” a bank executive, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
Bingu’s Young cadets wileding machetes

Eye witness report said they chanted the now familiar DPP war-cry in Malawi’s lingua franca, Chichewa: “Onyoza boma sagona, timpweteka! (“Those opposing government will not sleep, we will deal with them!”)

They also savagely attacked a Mandasi seller who appeared to have made“rude” remarks against the threats.

Update: Capital Radio reports: “The world is on Malawi, CNN, BBC, Aljazera, CCTV and more. Riots in Ndirande, Chitawira, Zingwangwa. Ndirande is a WAR ZONE.”

Update: 12:07 pm EST RT @ianchakhaza: The volatile township of Ndirande in Blantyre is erupting with reports of police using live ammunition there #July20 #Malawi 20 are reported dead.
(These photos came from Capital Radio Malawi)

Update: 12:21 pm Chirimba, across from teh Queens Hospital is in flames and people are still stoning the police

Mandela Turns 93

Anti-Apartheid leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela turns 93 years old today. Any day above 90 is certainly a cause for celebration. On Mandela’s birthday, let’s also remember a few of the greats of the South African anti-apartheid movement who do not have enough celebrity to get mentions in the American press. Obviously, there are more than just these three.

Walter Sisulu
served 26 years in the same prison as Nelson Mandela after multiple arrests for the crime of asking for equal rights and representation for black South Africans. Sisulu, though instrumental in South African rights movements, was a communist, hence his obliteration from American recognition.

Oliver Tambo, former President of the ANC, who spent 30 years in exile from South Africa. He, along with Sisulu formed the ANC Youth League, was arrested numerous times but regrettably died before he could see the end of apartheid.

Steve Biko, South African writer and inventor of the phrase “black is beautiful,” was instrumental in bringing attention to the rights movement, mostly through having been tortured and killed while in police custody, underlining the brutality of the apartheid government.

In my view, Mandela’s contributions are immense. In conversations with South Africans, however, a different view emerges. Mandela was palatable to the Americans as a non-violent, compliant figure that would do little to embarrass foreign opponents of apartheid. Other figures in the movement either advocated violence and forced resistance by Africans everywhere, were communists, or both. Some South Africans lament the attention given to Mandela at the expense of numerous leaders and martyrs.

On this day of Mandela’s birthday, let us also remember that an apartheid continues to operate with the blessing and funding of the United States government. It is unconscionable that Barack Obama, as the first African-American to ever serve as the President of the United States, would praise someone like Mandela, while turning a blind eye to the US funded apartheid in Israel.

China Rails on Drunken U.S. Defense Spending

America needs to enter a sobriety program. During this recent debate on raising the debt ceiling, Congress has passed a wide reaching defense spending bill, one that increases the amount of money that Americans spend to throw its weight around the world to an astonishing $17 billion more than last years bill to reach a grand total of $649 billion.

Nearly half the world’s defense dollars are spent by the United States. If we’d just keep raising the amount of money we spend, just a little, we could outspend every other country on earth COMBINED. Certainly, a feat to be proud of.

Yet, this budgetary crime has garnered nearly zero attention in the minds of Americans, mostly because military spending is thought to be sacred, a hold over from our victory in World War II, but absolutely unrealistic in 2011. Mostly, though, the encouragement of defense spending comes from interested parties including the obvious corporate parties such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Dell, General Dynamics, Hewlett Packard and a host of other private entities that would not exist without generous spending from defense appropriations.

Less obvious are the states which depend on the military to provide employment to its citizens. States such as Texas, Virginia, Alabama, Alaska and Montana, where more kids join the military than enter the private sector., Presumably this is because few job opportunities exist in those states, at least none which offer generous pay and signing bonuses, educational benefits, retirement after 20 years, and health insurance for life.

Does this sound like welfare to you? It sounds like welfare to me. I wish I got that deal. It is interesting that the same people shouting to keep spending money on guns and soldiers are the same people that want to cut public education and health care for poor people.

Recently, Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Cheifs of Staff had the opportunity to visit and meet with officials from the Chinese military.

General Chen of the Chinese Army made the following statement:

“I know [the] U.S. is still recovering from financial crisis, still has some difficulties in its economy,” Chen said. “Given such circumstances, you are still spending so much money on the military. Isn’t it placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If [the] U.S. could reduce a bit military spending to spend more on the improvement of livelihood of American people and also do more good things for world people, wouldn’t it be a better scenario?”

This is obviously going to feed conservative resentment of liberals who suggest shrinking the US military. Conservatives will inevitably suggest that supporting reductions in defense spending is akin to taking the side of a communist power, so I’ll just be prepared.

The statement itself was interesting. It is doubtful that Chen came up with the statement on his own, but was rather prompted to make the statement by others in the government. China is well aware that any reduction in the US military will still leave the US spending several times the amount that China spends. However, China is also aware that the United States is a consumer economy, and that China’s economy depends on the cheap manufacture of American consumer goods.

Defense spending is an economic blackhole for the average American consumer. Every tax dollar diverted to the military is one that is not spent on investment in infrastructure or even tax breaks that will create opportunities for American small businesses, which in turn create jobs. Every tax dollar spent is another that is taken away from providing health care to Americans, who can’t buy TV’s if they are busy bankrupting themselves to pay for long ignored health issues. Every tax dollar spent on an unnaturally bloated military is one that is not spent on education to insure that kids grow up to meet their earning potential.

I am in no way suggesting that it is realistic for the United States to have a military the size of Malawi’s. However, it is troubling to me that in these debates on spending, conservatives have not put their money where their mouth is and asked for deep cuts in the scale and scope of a gargantuan military run wild. More disappointing is the lack of political will in the Obama administration to lead by example and make bold cuts to an unsustainable dependence on throwing our military might around the world for the sake of pleasing a few companies and states.

Harold Williams: 193?-2011

Inspector Harold Williams

I woke this morning to find that a friend of mine, Harold Williams, passed away from leukemia last night. I had only known Harold for a few months, but communicated with him regularly through email. Through our entirely too brief series of exchanges, I developed incredible respect for what I considered to be a kindred spirit, one of only a few on this planet.

I first met Harold on my last trip to Malawi. I was shooting footage for a documentary project of mine on atheism in Malawi, as was referred to him as a member of the Malawi Association of Secular Humanists. In fact, he was the vice president of this very small but vocal group. I went to meet him at the Blantyre Sun Bird Hotel on a Monday afternoon. Not knowing what he looked like, I entered the courtyard looking for a Malawian. Instead, a middle aged white man called me over and introduced himself as Harold Williams.

Harold first went to Malawi in the 1950’s to work as a policeman for the Colonial government in Zomba. He instantly fell in love with the country (as everyone does). He met and married a Malawian woman, and signed on to stay after Malawi attained independence in 1963. I asked him why he stayed where many went back to England. He wished to help Malawi create a viable, independent government and help create a brighter future for this struggling country.

Harold's wedding photo

Harold eventually attained Malawian citizenship, raised children in Malawi, and created a life for himself in Malawi. He led a life very integrated with the people around him, spoke the language(s) fluently, and became one of Malawi’s most active and vocal advocates. Harold’s citizenship and dedication to Malawi called the very idea of what it is to be a “Malawian” into question, and larger ideas of “citizenship” that all states in the 21st century must face. Harold would enthusiastically discuss these broad but important questions in a manner usually reserved for sequestered academics.

Harold was deeply involved in the political life of Malawi. He participated actively in demonstrations, once even leading a protest against President Muluzi’s efforts to remain in office beyond the number of terms allotted to him in the Constitution, and found himself strong-armed by members of the Malawian military. Harold worked tirelessly for the right of free speech and protest in Malawi, which faces the same sorts of questions of protest and democracy that have recently been the focus of news reports on Egypt, Iran and Libya. Malawi’s small size and lack of resources keep it out of the world news, but its political concerns are really no different nor any less important than that of other, larger states.

Harold resisting arrest during a 2003 demonstration

Harold ran the Malawi Concern Blog, which publicly addressed the problems of the present administration under Bingu, found himself on a watch list of potential political enemies, and even had his blog blocked and suppressed recently. Harold was a vocal critic of Bingu’s Presidency, and regularly called him out on his habit of playing ethnic politics with Malawi, wide human rights abuses and his unapologetic flouting of Malawi’s secular Constitution.

Of course, Harold’s role as an advocate of secular humanism and secular government cannot be forgotten. Harold was an avowed secularist, and perceived fanatical religious belief to be a threat to the peace and welfare of Malawi. Particularly, he fought alongside other Malawi secular humanists to provide advocacy for persons accused of witchcraft related crimes and the economy surrounding it, battled the inclusion of Christianity into government policy, and publicly resisted the widespread and dangerous phenomena of religious opportunists in Malawi. Among other activities, Harold ran the official blog for the group.

Harold was a great guy. If I end up being half the person that Harold was by the time I am his age, I will consider this a life worth having lived. In writing this short, pseudo-obit, I feel as though I am leaving much out, but I think this speaks loads to what kind of person Harold was as a political activist, a human rights advocate and as a human being.

I miss Harold and am so very sorry that I will never have the opportunity to meet him again.

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