Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Human Rights

The Right to Be

May 15th was a day when bloggers around the world wrote about Human Rights. I was going to, but didn't. I got stuck. Here you can find a list of some of the posts. The 27th Comrade who did an excellent round-up of posts in the Ugandan blogosphere.

The real reason for not posting was I got distracted. But thinking about a post was harder than I thought. It's easy when I'm stuck about writing simply for me to ignore the blog. Daisy of Daisy's Dead Air tagged me with a meme and maybe it's just the right prodding to get unstuck and back writing on the blog. While I don't think too highly of any of my posts, I'm extraordinarily fond of the many blogs I read. It seems only fair to participate.

Seven Songs Meme

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring-summer. Post these instructions in your blog along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what they’re listening to.
Oh Happy Day--From Sister Act 2
Shostakovich - Symphony No. 11 `The Year 1905' Mvt.4(2/2)--NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yukio Kitahara.
Lapowny--Geoffrey Oryema
Please Send Me Someone to Love--Jeff Buckley
Harvest For The World--The Isley Brothers
Redemption Song--Bob Marley
All Along the Watchtower--Sungha Jung

I'm all for crediting parents when their children grow up well, but am slow to blame parents when children go awry. There are many influences. I can hardly blame my parents for my many shortcomings. They tried very hard and both gave me so many gifts. Among the gifts I treasure from my mother is her lesson that everyone has a right to be.

Daisy blogs in Greenville, South Carolina. We moved there in the early 1960's and when my younger brother star started primer, my mother began teaching. It was the era of school desegregation, so in a way the dialog about race which Barak Obama speaks about in his speech A More Perfect Union (YouTube video) engaged me early on.

A memory from my mother came to me when thinking about human rights. She taught first grade at John Street School which probably isn't there anymore because it was an old school then. Her first year the school district went to a "freedom of choice" plan. What that meant for the John Street School is it went from being all white to mostly all black in a single year. The memory must be from the second year my mother taught there, and I must have been in sixth grade. Towards the end of the year she organized an excursion for her kids to the city park and I was brought along. Among the treats was a box of cupcakes with bright blue-green icing roughly applied provided by one of the children's mother. I must have looked at them with a scornful look because my mother said to me:
If you so much as say one unkind word about those cupcakes, I'll spank you in front of everybody.
I don't actually remember ever being spanked by my mother. She didn't believe in spanking in school, but certainly didn't believe she should take spanking out of her arsenal at home. Punishments at home were not very ritualized, and I'm grateful about that. In any case I knew my mother well enough to know she didn't make idle threats. And when I remember this, a face of a little girl with corn rows in her hair and missing her two front teeth is grinning widely at me. The feeling I get along with a picture of her in my head is her grin reflected schadenfreude; the teacher's boy got yelled at. It's probably just projection, I doubt my mother said that to me so she could hear. The message was clear: My mother loved every single one of these kids, just as she loved me. Beware hurting anyone my mother loved! And that's why the girl was grinning!

A song popular a year or two latter that always moves me, and I've listened two several times recently is "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Here's great version from the movie Sister Act 2 that captures something of the awkward joy of cultures interacting. The students and parents of the children she taught brought her great joy. As a child myself the great sin as she showed me was not to take joy, especially for stupid reasons of racism.

Racism is partly what got me stuck trying to write about human rights. Racism can be a personal characteristic, but there are also so many racist structures built into everyday existence. In R. D. Laing's book The politics of Experience, he writes:
It is not enough to destroy one's own and other people's experience. One must overlay this devastation by a false consciousness inured, as Marcuse puts it, to its own falsity.

Exploitation must not be seen as such. It must be seen as benevolence.
Keguro writes brilliantly and he has helped me to understand better this "wolf in sheep's clothing" quality of American politics--politics including how Americans ordinarily act. Mulling that sent my head spinning. I don't know how to deal with the cruelty my country perpetuates, but surely I can't expect my righteous indignation about other countries will wear well.

Earlier this month I went to the symphony with my father for a performance of Shostakovich - Symphony No. 11 `The Year 1905'. It was a moving performance. That clip is from the 4th movement. The reviewer criticized the balance and the brass as too loud. So you can see that the whole piece is not as quiet as the selection posted. In the quiet parts I thought of Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Music is one way to be captured by sorrow and to heal.

I do feel sorrowful often these days, so some of the songs I've been listening to lately reflect that. I loved Geffrey Oryema's Lapowny when I first heard it. This is a great live version. It's worth checking out some of the other videos of Oryema too. From the album notes:
This song is about a school teacher whose body was found lying in a school compound. He was struck by lightening and died on the spot, just as he was getting ready to head home. He had a pile of exercise books which he was supposed to correct at home. As a tribute to their beloved teacher, the pupils composed a song that they entitled Lapwony. It rained heavily on the afternoon Lapwony died. Someone found his farewell letter, the ink all but washed away.
When I'm feeling down the great Percy Mayfield's song Please Send Me Someone to Love comes to mind:
I lay awake night and ponder world troubles.
My answer is always the same.
That unless men put an end to all of this,
Hate will put the world in a flame, (oh) what a shame.
And also this song: The Isley Brothers - Harvest For The World. The keys are, I suppose, love and gratitude. I so often am neglectful.

I am grateful that I got to see Bob Marley perform live here in Pittsburgh. Redemption Song is rather permanently in my head, and I love to hear it in all sorts of cover versions. When I think of human rights, of course I want rights of all to be respected. But rather quickly the problem those that have power over come to the fore. So the question of rights leads to how to do right. Marley's answer always moves and inspires me: "All I ever had are these songs of freedom. Won't you help me sing?"

I can't find a link, I'm almost sure that there is one at Tim Boucher's site, but I can't find it. In any case somewhere I read that when G. I. Gurdjieff was asked what we can do in the face of evil, he replied:
Create something good.
I like that very much.

One of the things I like most about YouTube is seeing people's creations. There is a young South Korean guitar prodigy named Sungha Jung. I love to watch and listen to him play. It's hard to pick a favorite, but his rendition of All Along the Watchtower is surely a favorite.

That's seven songs that have been meaningful to me lately. I won't tag anyone, I hardly know any bloggers well enough. I also know that YouTube is useless where bandwidth is low. But I would love it if others, especially in Africa, take up the meme and let me know you have.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bloggers for Human Rights

Photo: Indybay 2007 Anti War Action.

BloggersUnite has set May 15th as a day for bloggers around the world to blog on Human Rights. Human Rights are essential so I could use the nudge to blog about, and to learn more about ways to promulgate Human Rights.

I never know what I'm going to write, but today I've been musing about politics as I've been turning the damp ground. Hardly an expert on American politics, I follow it a bit obsessively. Obama in the race and Clinton nipping at his heals has raised some interesting dynamics among people I know who vote fairly reliably for Democratic Party candidates. And one of those dynamics are about the awful subject of race.

In the printed version of this morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the front page was a story: Obama putting One-Drop Rule to test; online the heading is: Obama candidacy raises old questions about what is black which strikes me as a somewhat less obnoxious headline. The article made me squirm. It's written by L.A. Johnson and I've no idea whether L.A. is black or white, a woman or a man. I do know that Johnson has tackled the tangled subject of race in America for the newspaper before. In the fall, readers were able to spout off about being race 'ambassadors' which I thought was pretty cool because basically everybody said "What's with that?" or something to that effect. (Searching the archives for a link, I discovered that when L. A. Johnson gets and AP byline it's Linda A. Johnson, so I guess she's a woman.) I don't really fault Johnson that the article made me slightly sick, the problem is Americans in general are strangely warped about race and ethnicity and the article simply reflects that.

I'm just some blogger in a basement, and I'm identified as white. I self-identify as white simply because the option seems untenable. While I deeply resent the racism of the society in which I live, my anti-racist credentials are slight. Obama running has helpfully made the endemic racism of the USA so visible, but as a people we're still grappling for ways to discuss race.

Ethan Zuckerman
is taking the month of May off the computer to recover from eye surgery. I wish him a good recovery and will miss his posts. One of Zuckerman's blog categories is xenophilia. Your Dictionary defines xenophilia as:
attraction to or admiration of strangers or foreigners or of anything foreign or strange
zuckerman is a proponent of xenophilia and has recently been engaging in blog conversations about homophily (use his xenophila category link. Homophily doesn't refer to gay people and issues, but rather the old adage:
Birds of a feather flock together.
In his post Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia he wrote:
I’ve been talking and writing about homophily as one of the concepts that helps explain the challenges and issues that surround Global Voices and my larger media attention work. It’s my contention that living in the 21st century requires understanding what people think, feel and want in different parts of the world, given that both the challenges and opportunities of next several decades are global, not local ones.
One of the advantages of reading a few Ugandan bloggers is getting to know a bit about how others view the USA. And I am especially grateful to The 27th Comrade for taking the time to specifically point out to me that the view of the USA from there isn't often rosy.

All of this long wind-up is to remark about an issue of American politics. The President of the United States under the Constitution must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." It is abundantly clear that president Bush has not done his duty in this regard. The list of law breaking that we know about is astoundingly large. The administration also has gone to great lengths to bury the evidence and to stretch reasonable interpretations beyond all recognition. Their is a Constitutional remedy for such a president; i.e., impeachment, but the Speaker of the House--where a bill of Impeachment originates--has taken it off the table. So most observers assume that he will follow his father's precident and pardon members of his administration for their crimes before he leaves office.

I agree that he probably will. But it occurred to me today that such pardons may not be the panacea imagined. The reason I believe so is because among the many crimes this administration has committed are War Crimes which are violations of International Law. It's true that the United States has refused to participate in the International Criminal Court. It also seems the case that Americans turning over those accused of committing crimes against humanity seems far-fetched now. However so damaged is the good opinion of the world about the USA, and that increasingly in the future a good opinion will be keenly in the national interest, that demands for the USA to be held to account may well be difficult to resist.

If the President uses his powers to pardon crimes against the United States, those pardons will most likely make prosecution of those implicated in crimes against International Law, impossible, or nearly so within our legal structures. Upon refusing to prosecute, the International Community, might demand extradition to the International Criminal Court. It's easy to predict that even a Democratic Party controlled government would refuse. However so extreme are the violations, for example torture of detainees being coordinated in the White House with the approval of the President, by highest ranking American officials, such refusal would severely undermine the myth of American goodness.

For so many in the world today, the myth of American goodness was debunked long ago. But it is a powerful myth for Americans and much depends on it. I believe that in the future Americans will want to sustain the myth.

So my argument to Bush not to grant pardons at the end of his term boils down to the notion that it's so likely that Americans will treat American officials leniently, perhaps even something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission where amnesty is nearly assured. This hardly would reverse world-wide condemnation, but would have some mollifying effect. I probably would go a long way to shoring up American perceptions of ourselves as good.

Such thinking probably "outs" me as a hypocrite. I'm not very comfortable with that, but on the other hand very much believe that it's good to be good. Nothing in politics is ever very pure. I suppose I'm simply grasping at straws to imagine some way that my country can move from our embrace of the dark side towards the light. There is precedent in our history. Martin Luther King observed:
“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Many outside the USA are demanding that we as a nation be held to account, if for no other reason than there can be no reconciliation until we as a people acknowledge our transgressions. Not all Americans are so blind. Humanity shares an obligation to bend towards justice. My hope is that Americans more generally will become concerned about human rights for all and work to make those rights real. Together we can create something good.