Tuesday, December 18, 2012

For April: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

We have selected Alex Gilvarry's comic novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel, about a fashion designer who runs afoul of the national security apparatus, for April:
Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of fashion school in the Philippines. But on the brink of fame and fortune, there comes instead a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic is swept to America’s most notorious prison, administered a Qur’an and locked away indefinitely to discover his link to a terrorist plot.
Now, in his six-by-eight-foot cell, Boy prepares for the tribunal of his life with this intimate confession. From borrowed mattress to converted toothpick factory loft, from custom suit commissions to high-end retail, we are immersed in a wonderland of soirees, runways, and hipster romance in twenty-first-century Gotham.  Boy is equally at home (if sometimes comically misinformed) invoking Dostoevsky and Diane von Furstenberg, the Marcos tyranny and Marc Jacobs, the vicissitudes of memory and the indignity of the walking sandwich board. But behind the scrim of his wit and chutzpah is his present nightmare of detainment in the sun-baked place he calls No Man’s Land. The more Boy’s faith in American justice is usurped by the Kafkaesque demands of his interrogator, the more ardently he clings to the chimerical hope and humanity of his adoptive country. 
Funny, wise and beguiling, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant gives us a tale so eerily evocative that it, and its hero, are poised to become an indelible part of the reader’s imagination and the literature of our strange times.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Signatures as Powerful as Bullets

Want to do vent your frustration about our nation's gun culture constructively? You can start today by telling our leaders that you support the UN Arms Trade Treaty.  Here are ten reasons why we need a strong global regulations to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands:

  1. 1,500 people are killed every day by conflict and armed violence. Deaths resulting from war, armed homicides, extra-judicial executions and excessive use of force by state security forces amount to over 500,000 per year or 1,500 per day.
  2. There’s more international laws regulating the trade of bananas than weapons. Legal loopholes in the laws governing the trade of weapons enable states and corporations to sell guns, bullets and teargas to dictators and tyrants, who've then used them to kill and injure civilians. Weapons are often traded irresponsibly between countries, with little consideration of whether they’ll be used to commit human rights abuses.
  3. 12 billion bullets are produced every year. There’s an estimated 875 million guns in the world right now, and about 8 million ‘light weapons’ (such as heavy machine guns) are produced each year.
  4. Over 26 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives due to armed conflict. This often pushes people further into poverty by restricting access to clean water and shelter, while increasing the likelihood of deadly diseases.
  5. Child soldiers are being used in armed conflict in 19 countries. Tens of thousands of children are being used right now by governments in their armed forces and by non-state armed groups. These children are often armed using weapons irresponsibly traded by governments and private corporations.
  6. Click to enlarge
      For every death, there’s up to 28 serious injuries.
      It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people are injured in armed conflict, past statistics indicate that as many as 28 people are injured for every person killed by weapons on battlefields.
    1. Damage caused by weapons destroys infrastructure and perpetuates poverty. As well as killing and harming people, weapons such as missiles destroy vital infrastructure that people rely on in their daily lives -- such as access to food, water and shelter. This can push survivors into poverty.
    2. 74 per cent of the world’s weapons are supplied by just six countries. In 2010, almost 3/4 of the world’s weapons have been supplied by six of the world’s most powerful countries: USA (34.84%), Russia (14.86%), Germany (7.43%), United Kingdom(6.57%), China (6.29%), and France (4%). All but Germany are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. By allowing the trading of weapons which are then used to commit or facilitate human rights abuses, these governments are permitting their use for repression, conflict, violence, and other human rights violations.
    3. Systematic rape of women and girls can occur through the use of weapons. In conflict regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivore, and Sierra Leone, the scale of rape and sexual violence is staggeringly high. Many women and girls have been forced into sexual slavery by fighters, and many are raped at gunpoint. Women and girls are often the forgotten victims of armed conflict.
    4. A strong Arms Trade Treaty could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. During July 2012, world leaders came together at the United Nations in New York to decide on adopting legally binding international standards regulating the trade of arms between countries. While the final treaty was not agreed on, it brought us closer then even before to getting a strong Arms Trade Treaty with human rights protections at its core.
    Google "arms trade treaty" and you will find yourself buried in an avalanche of conspiratorial links opposing the treaty generated by the National Rifle Association and it's allies. Why the fuss about this treaty which has no impact on domestic gun laws? From IHT:

    Some American commentators and gun-control advocates have asserted that gun lobbyists get much of their funding from gun manufacturers who could stand to lose from an international arms control deal. 
    The U.N. treaty might not dent U.S. manufacturers’ domestic market, but it would potentially impact exports that by one estimate were worth $336.5 million last year, making the United States the world leader. 
    “Is the N.R.A. working for casual gun-owners, many of whom, according to polling, support tougher restrictions on gun ownership?” Lee Fang asked in The Nation this week. “Or is the NRA serving the gunmaker lobby, which is purely interested in policies that will promote greater gun sales and more profits? 
    Despite efforts to debunk the misinformation put out by the NRA, even on Fox, it's going to take an enormous effort to amass a human rights movement counterweight in favor of a strong treaty that regulates the trade of all conventional weapons, including small arms, machine guns, bullets and tear gas and prevents the sale and transfer of weapons that could be used to commit serious human rights abuses. Please help us build a safer world today!

    Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Get Ready for More Mohsin Hamid in 2013

    I'm a bit disappointed that the film version of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (releasing next spring) hasn't been getting better buzz, but it I suspect it will be must-see for our Loyal Readers regardless. But something I am really excited about is his new book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia also coming out next year. Read this great short story, “The Third-Born”, taken from the novel in The New Yorker. Then follow up with their Q. & A.
    I can’t shake the idea that a novel is like a dance, with two people dancing, writer and reader, and it’s a bit strange to pretend I’m doing it by myself. This time around, after a couple of failed drafts, I gave in to the second person completely, and I found it pretty liberating as a form: you can move from a hyper-intimate first-person-like perspective to a cosmically removed third-person-like one very easily. It seems to invite that kind of riffing.
    As reported in the New York Daily News, Hamid spoke recently with author Jay McInerney about writing the book,
    Hamid described how he had felt he needed to exorcise a self-censorship in the writing of the upcoming “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” — which takes the form of a self-help book and charts a boy’s rise from rural urchin to corporate tycoon — due to a fear of angering Pakistani authorities. McInerney asked: “Do you ever have a tiny Salman Rushdie on your shoulder telling you ‘be careful’?”

    “In a way it’s the American writers who are atypical,” said Hamid, “in most of the world, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to be careful about, and so yeah, there are many constraints on speech in Pakistan. The flipside of that is if someone will kill you for saying something, it means what you’re saying matters...even slightly pushing the boundary feels worthwhile...I have not received any kind of threat” he added “but I’m careful.”
    In other Mohsin Hamid news, Moth Smoke (which we also enjoyed) is being set to film as well. And, add him to the list of our favorite authors who love the hobbits-- see evidence here and in this reflection on Hamid's childhood journey from culture to culture and how it fed his interest in language and imaginary lands.

    Saturday, December 15, 2012

    Think Like a Hobbit

    Alright, I know some of our Loyal Readers are off to see The Hobbit this weekend.  At least a couple of our favorite authors will be right there with you.

    Maybe you recall the LotR references in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Here's Junot Diaz in a new book about authors' favorite reads, My Ideal Bookshelf,
    I think it was the way Tolkien created this extraordinary, secondary world, and how, through that, he enchanted the primary world. That resonated with me. His books had the power to transform what we otherwise take for granted. Reading The Lord of the Rings made me see how a novel was another – and see that I could immigrate there, too, whenever I wanted.
    And he expands on this a bit more at NYT:
    Tolkien I grew up on, fed my insatiable Ungoliant-like hunger for other worlds; I was a young fan and yet, even as an adult, I continue to wrestle with Tolkien for reasons that have much to do with growing up in the shadow of my own Dark Lord — that’s what some dictators really become in the imagination of the nations they afflict.
    (Read the whole article for more reading recommendations from Diaz).

    Salman Rushdie was also an early Tolkien fan,
    There was a sweet, elderly gentleman called Mr. J. B. Hope-Simpson, who apart from being a good history teacher was also the person who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings when I was fifteen. I completely fell in love with it, somewhat to the harm of my studies. I still remember it in uncanny detail. I really responded to the language project, all the imaginary languages. I got quite good at Elvish at one point.
    While you're waiting for The Hobbit Part 2, you might find this 2003 Guardian article, in which Rushdie shares his opinion on the second film in the Lord of the Ring series, interesting. Written on the eve of the Iraq war he examines the appeal of Tolkien's tales of good men at war in a struggle against a Great Evil.

    Finally, I think this article from the BBC, The Somme and Tolkien, does an excellent job explaining how Tolkien's tales grew out of his experiences in World War I, and more than Dark Lord dictators  and ferocious battles, why we love hobbits,
    In spite of the horror of total war, Tolkien chooses in his writing to focus his attention on the redemptive power of individual human action offered unconditionally as part of a common cause. Frodo Baggins is each of us aspiring to do good within modest limits.
    "I should like to save the Shire, if I could," says Frodo early in his quest. "Though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words."
    Tolkien's epic works are large-scale memorials to the modest struggles of ordinary people doing their best for good against the forces of inhumanity. They are a brilliantly achieved exemplar of the way the human imagination can configure a better future even in the aftermath of senseless, bloody destruction.
    That's right, in the face of the latest disaster, think like a hobbit: light a candle, write a letter, build a better world.

    Friday, December 14, 2012

    Our December Author: Amos Oz

    This month we are discussing Scenes from Village Life by the Israeli writer and peace advocate, Amos Oz. For basic biographical reference see his Wikipedia entry. If you've got some more time you might want to check out this 2004 New Yorker profile, The Spirit Level, by David Remnick. This 1996 Paris Review interview has some fun bits too,

    INTERVIEWER:Does it ever snow in the desert? 
    OZ: Oh yes, every two or three years. And then you should see the expression on the faces of the camels crossing the desert! That is when I understand the real meaning of the word bewilderment! But even without snow, it is bitterly cold in winter, a savage place at dawn, when stormy winds seem determined to sweep away the whole town into the desert. But walking alone knocks things into proportion. If later on I read in the morning papers that some politician has said this or that will never happen, I know that this or that is going to last forever, that the stones out there are laughing, that in this desert, which is unchanged for thousands of years, a politician’s never is like . . . a month? Six months? Thirty years? Completely insignificant.
    Oz is so quotable, it's hard to know what to excerpt, so dive into these links for more worthy nuggets.

    Turning to Scenes, check out the video from 92Y above and PRI's The World interviewed Oz about the Israel presented in the book,
    The real Israel is a temperamental, hot-headed, passionate, noisy, argumentative society; very militant and it belongs in a Felini movie and not in an Ingmar Bergman film.
    NPR also discussed the novel-in-stories with the author. In this recent interview from The Jewish Chronicle Oz talks about drawing inspiration from village life,
    “I tend to think that every great literature is provincial. Chekhov, Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner and others all tend to write about small places. 
    "I lived for 30 years of my life in a very small village of 500 people, but I learned so much about those 500 people. It was an education in human nature. I knew all the secrets and the gossip, I knew who was doing what with whom. If I had travelled 10 times around the world I still wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about people as I did in those 30 years.”
    Finally, you may have heard about Oz' most recent book Jews and Words, which he wrote with his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger. NPR has an entertaining Scott Simon interview with the authors here and here's a bit of take-home wisdom courtesy of Aslan Media,
    AM: What can we all learn from Jewish self-criticism?
    Fania: That Jewish self-criticism is not only Jewish. It is universal. Many of the things described in our book, the mental curiosity, the irreverent reverence, the ability to laugh at oneself and one’s ancestors, while sometimes rather loving them – all this is universal. So many people, probably from every culture, share these things or aspire to them. The love of reading, the rise and rise of the printed word, which now commands almost all of our waking hours – all this is universal. We can critique what is dearest to us, or tease it, but still have a strong sense of belonging. This is a lesson the Jews might offer the world.
    Amnesty International's concerns regarding Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can be found here.

    Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Amos Oz: How to Cure a Fanatic

    This month we are reading Scenes from Village Life by Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz. To jump start our discussion of the author I suggest beginning with this speech-- How to Cure a Fanatic. (You can search iTunes for audio podcast versions if you prefer).

    With a good deal of humor, Oz examines the worldwide plague of fanaticism from Bin Laden to Anders Breivik and the psychology that underpins it. Fanatics lack imagination, he says. The inability to empathize, to put oneself  in another's shoes is at the root of the problem. His stories certainly reverse that equation.

    Tell me if you found yourself thinking more about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the negotiations over the 'fiscal cliff' when he waxes eloquent on the subject of enemies learning to compromise!

    Thursday, December 06, 2012

    Podcast Pick: Ugandan LGBT Rights and Amnesty's Suzanne Nossel on Kojo Nnamdi Show

    Kojo Nnamdi hosted an interesting discussion a couple days ago-- the first segment with Ugandan LGBT activist Julius Kaggwa talking about a bill in front of the Ugandan Parliament that would entrench discrimination and hatred against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. You can take action to oppose the bill here. Learn more about Amnesty International's campaign to decriminalize homosexuality here.

    The second segment was an interview with Amnesty International USA Executive Director Suzanne Nossel which covered a range of topics, from the excitement of being able to host an event with youth activists during Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit to the treatment of accused Wikileaks conspirator Bradley Manning. Plus Pussy Riot, Guantanmo, Syria and more. (For the next few days you should be able to find the podcast for download from iTunes otherwise you will need to visit the website for audio or transcripts.)

    Wednesday, December 05, 2012

    Write for Rights Global Marathon 2012

    Once again the Pasadena chapter of Amnesty International is gearing up for the global human rights letter-writing marathon-- Write for Rights. Every year activists around the world gather at this time to send notes of encouragement to human rights defenders and letters to governments requesting action on their behalf. Of course, our Loyal Readers write letters every month, but this is a special opportunity to work in solidarity with the organization's membership around the world in conjunction with International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). Please join us!

    Group 22 Write-A-Thon
    Saturday, December 8, 2012 9AM - 3PM
    Zephyr Coffee House and Art Gallery
    2419 East Colorado Blvd
    Pasadena CA 91107 (map)

    Even if you can't make it, you can still pledge to write letters and participate online. We are especially pleased that our adopted prisoner of conscience, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is among the featured cases this year. In the video above, Gao's wife expresses her frustration at not being able to communicate with her husband. Even if you can't understand Chinese or the German subtitles, you can feel her emotion. (If I can find a version of the video above with English subtitles I will revise this post). The other cases are also very compelling, including a Bahraini activist jailed for a tweet, Missouri death row inmate Reggie Clemons, people of the Niger Delta affected by oil spills, and the jailed Russian musicians known as Pussy Riot. Read about them here.

    Thursday, November 22, 2012

    Gangnam Style for Gao Zhisheng!

    British sculptor Anish Kapoor, with the help of PEN, Amnesty International, and a worldwide network of artists, museums and galleries, takes up where Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei left off with the video above- "Gangnam Style for Freedom." Apart from the video being loads of fun as a celebration of free (and silly) expression, the end card signals the send up's serious side with a sadly long list of prisoners around the world who have been denied the right to express themselves. Not only is the Pasadena chapter of Amnesty International's adopted prisoner of conscience Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng included in the list, awareness of Gao's plight is the focus of Amnesty-UK's page for the video. You can also learn more about Gao and take action on his behalf here. In addition, please explore PEN's Day to End Impunity website which will feature 23 cases in 23 days of bloggers, cartoonists, poets, journalists and more who have been threatened for expressing their views beginning tomorrow.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    For March: Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl

    We are looking forward to reading Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl in March,
    In 2007, the booming port city of Lianyungang achieved the dubious distinction of having the most extreme gender ratio for children under five in China: 163 boys for every 100 girls. The numbers may not matter much to the preschool set. But in twenty years the skewed sex ratio will pose a colossal challenge. When Lianyungang's children reach adulthood, their generation will have twenty-four million more men than women. 

    The prognosis for China's neighbors is no less bleak: rampant sex selective abortion has left over 160 million females "missing" from Asia's population. And gender imbalance reaches far beyond South and East Asia, affecting the Caucasus countries, Eastern Europe, and even some groups in the United States --a rate of diffusion so rapid that the leading expert on the topic compares it to an epidemic. As economic development spurs parents in developing countries to have fewer children and brings them access to sex determination technology, couples are making sure at least one of their children is a son. So many parents now select for boys that they have skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world. 

    Sex selection did not arise on its own. Largely unknown until now is that the sex ratio imbalance is partly the work of a group of 1960s American activists and scientist who zealously backed the use of prenatal technologies in their haste to solve an earlier global problem. 

    What does this mean for our future? The sex ratio imbalance has already led to a spike in sex trafficking and bride buying across Asia, and it may be linked to a recent rise in crime there as well. More far-reaching problems could be on the horizon: From ancient Rome to the American Wild West, historical excesses of men have yielded periods of violence and instability. Traveling to nine countries, Mara Hvistendahl has produced a stunning, impeccably researched book that examines not only the consequences of the misbegotten policies underlying sex selection but also the West's role in creating them.

    Friday, November 16, 2012

    Anna Funder on The Lives of Others

    I'm sure many of our Loyal Readers thought of the Oscar-winning film The Lives Of Others when we decided to discuss Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall this month. Well, it turns out that the author wrote a column on the movie for The Guardian,
    I think the film deserves its public and critical acclaim. It is a superb film, a thing of beauty. But its story is a fantasy narrative that could not have taken place (and never did) under the GDR dictatorship. The film has, then, an odd relation to historical truth, a truth that is being bitterly fought for now.
    The article has some great background on the making of the film and many other great insights,
    To my mind, hoping for salvation to come from the change of heart of a perpetrator is to misunderstand the nature of bureaucratised evil - the way great harms can be inflicted in minute, "legal" steps, or in decisions by committees carried out by people "just doing their jobs".
    Do read the whole thing.

    Thursday, November 15, 2012

    Funder, Politkovskaya on The Day of the Imprisoned Writer

    Anna Funder on Courage from Australian Broadcasting Corporation on FORA.tv

    Today is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual day intended to recognize and support writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression sponsored by PEN International. The timing is perfect for our reading of Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall because it gives me a reason to share the author's thought-provoking PEN lecture made on this day in 2008. Her talk on the subject of courage takes the life and death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy) as her starting point and moves to discuss the courage required for dissent in Germany and the relationship between courage and culture. (There's also some Q&A relating to Stasiland).  

    If you haven't got time for the lecture, I recommend this little audio nugget from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a brief Funder interview where she talks about her motivation to bear witness.

    Please visit the PEN International page to learn more about the imprisoned writers like poet and songwriter Ericson Acosta of the Phillipines and journalist and blogger Eskinger Nega of Ethiopia and take action on their behalf.  For an update on the never-ending investigation into Politkovskaya's murder see this recent article in the Washington Post.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012

    Our November Author: Anna Funder

    This month we are reading Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall and as usual we have a few links to supplement our discussion. The author has a personal website where you can learn more about the author, Stasiland and her latest book, the novel All That I Am.

    There are two very useful interviews available to flesh out issues raised in the book, one from Australian Broadcasting (transcript and audio):
    I mean when I went on tour there it was very interesting and very fraught. I did a ten-city tour of East and West Germany for the book, and the book was introduced in the Leipzig Stasi ballroom, this massive, literally secret policemen's ballroom, at the Leipzig Fair nearly two years ago now. And in the front row there were some very fierce-looking, Brylcreemed, bomber jacket-wearing clearly ex Party and Stasi men, sitting in a kind of phalanx with their arms crossed, and when they uncrossed their arms, they started furiously to take notes about what I was saying when I was reading from the book, and then when it was opened for question time after the reading, they sort of scuttled out. And you have to wonder why they're taking notes if not to intimidate me or whether they're keeping more files somehow just out of habit. 
    Then after they'd left, (this happened in other cities as well) someone would stand up at the back and say, 'These stories, this happened to me, and no-one talks about it here, and why don't they? And why does it take a foreigner to come and do it?' And all these sorts of questions. Or people would be very angry and stand up and say - one woman who was a journalist in the GDR stood up and said to me, 'Why didn't you write about normal life?' I said, 'I didn't find it normal.
    And another from Worlpress.org,
    One of the biggest questions the book poses is whether it’s healthier (for a person, a group, a country) to remember a painful past, or to try to forget it and move on. Did you come to any conclusions about that? 
    I think the question of how useful it is to rework trauma is a very individual one; it’s a balancing act for each person. There’s one school of thought that says you deal with a past trauma in analysis and then you move on, but that’s a fiction we tell ourselves. You don’t just get something out and move on. In a political sense, not a psychological one, I think it’s incredibly important to compensate people who’ve suffered under a terrible regime—until that’s done, there’s no moving on, and it’s a double repression.
    In addition to the video above from Deutsche Welle explaining the process for accessing Stasi files today, check out this new Google multimedia resource which presents the fall of the Iron Curtain with curation assistance from German, Polish and Romanian museums.  Finally, this sophisticated animation, also from DW,  recreates the Berlin Wall and explains it's fortifications.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Intro to Stasiland

    This month we are reading Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. The book explores the psychological legacy of the communist-era East German state security apparatus. The Australian video above is a great way to get started with the topic, introducing you to a couple of unrepentant Stasi officers, visiting Stasi headquarters and taking you on a tour of the Stasi prison, Hohensch√∂nhausen, led by a former inmate. Anna Funder provides insight along the way. To hear another inmate tell his story, including how Shakespeare helped him through his ordeal, see this PBS Newshour slide show. More discussion (and photos) of the work of the prison museum is available from Wired. Stay tuned for more on the book in the next few days.

    Tuesday, November 06, 2012

    Pick a Book for the President-elect to Read

    While we are waiting around for the results of the election to come in here's a question to ponder: what book would you assign the President-elect to read? I was reading a recent LA Times article by Rights Readers favorite, Hector Tobar, in which he opines on the presidential candidates book picks,
    [Romney choice] "Thunderbolt Kid" is a fun book you can read in a day, whereas the Iowa book on Obama's list — Robinson's "Gilead" — is a brooding work of serious literature that won the Pulitzer Prize. That pretty much sums up the difference in the men and their taste in books: In Obama's favorites the characters suffer, they philosophize, they struggle with and reflect on injustice, and they sermonize — the Bible is another book on Obama's list of putative favorites. 
    In Romney's favorites young people go out into the sunshine and glide down rivers ("Adventures of Huckleberry Finn") and battle alien species ("Battlefield Earth" and "Ender's Game"). Apparently, Romney is like a lot of people: He reads for pure escapism. Good and evil are pretty clearly defined in most of the books he likes. Life is simpler.
    That got me to thinking, what Rights Readers books would I assign to each candidate? Because immigration reform is said to be a priority for both candidates, I think Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, which we just finished, would be a great way to explore the changing cultural landscape that immigration brings to our nation.  For Mr. Romney's struggle to understand the 47%, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is the obvious prescription. I might also suggest that he travel through Iran with Jason Elliot (Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran) before setting a foreign policy course. And perhaps a novel with a strong feminine voice like Louise Erdrich's Tracks or Toni Morrison's A Mercy would give him some new perspective. For Mr. Obama I'm thinking of Junot Diaz' advice to the President to tell the story of where we've been and where we're going. He needs a good yarn. Maybe Ella Minnow Pea, the free speech fable? That's as close as I can get to tweaking his executive overreach. Or perhaps he could join us in reading Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads this February as an aide to a relationship with China that isn't solely focused on trade wars. Or for a nonfiction pick, maybe we could help him 'evolve' his position on the federal death penalty with Jarvis Jay Masters' memoir That Bird Has My Wings. What human rights-themed books would you recommend?

    In addition to our list of human rights-themed books, of note in the listmania department: Obama's reading list according to The Daily Beast and a list of reading recommendations to the president in 2009 from Washington Monthly.

    Sunday, November 04, 2012

    Election Author Opinion Sampler

    Voted already? I have, but I'm still pre-occupied with the election while awaiting the results and can't quite move on to other topics, but I'm tired of reading the same old predictable pundits. So just for fun, let's have a look at what some of our favorite writers have been saying about the issues and candidates:

    Kwame Anthony Appiah (The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen) in the New York Review of Books on how our electoral choices shape legacies and lessons learned and at Think Progress about this election and racial identity.

    Walter Mosely (Little Scarlet) opines at The Guardian: 'He was like a surgeon given a rusty scalpel'

    Stephen Kinzer (Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds) in a talk at Northeastern University offers foreign policy advice to the candidates: 'Precisely because we are so powerful, the U.S. desperately needs a more humble attitude as we consider how and whether to intervene around the world'. Video of the complete lecture here.

    It can't be too surprising that the preferences of most authors we have read lean Democratic, but there is at least one exception -- Mary Ann Glendon (A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a registered independent who is an adviser to the Romney campaign: 'The population is divided, families are divided; it’s like the Civil War when some wore blue and some wore grey and (they) were often brothers.'

    Philip Gourevitch (The Ballad of Abu Ghraib) at The New Yorker on Syria, Sandy, and surviving disaster: 'The storm we’re now riding out is beyond any government’s control, but the response to it is not.'

    Junot Diaz (Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal), who made an eloquent case for the importance of a motivating story in critiquing Obama's State of the Union a couple years back, thinks the president has the edge at the moment,  'But as far as the level of storyteller is concerned, I have a far clearer sense of who Obama is during this election, than I do at all of Romney'.

    Amnesty International USA put out a bingo card for the debates highlighting human right issues the presidential candidates should be asked about and discuss. Sadly, many of these topics did not get their due. I know I would have liked to hear a stronger human rights narrative from both candidates. You can still play human rights bingo with Amnesty while you await election results, with each square offering up the chance to inform your elected representatives of some human rights priority. Get started on our human rights agenda today.

    Friday, November 02, 2012

    Connecting the Dots on Climate Change

    Hurricane Sandy and now Mayor Bloomberg have finally managed to inject climate change into next week's election, but before Nature intervened, Mark Hertsgaard made the foreign policy-climate connection for PRI's The World,
    Two years in Pakistan, there was a climate change disaster, terrible monsoon rains and resulting floods that put 14 million Pakistanis out of their homes, made them homeless. If you want to know why there’s that kind of unrest in Pakistan, and unhappiness, these kinds of natural disasters are a perfect breeding ground for terrorists. Or Mali, the African nation of Mali was mentioned by Governor Romney. I reported from Mali for The World, and in the north of Mali, why is it that there’s this resurgence of terrorists and radicalism. It’s partly because nobody there can farm any more because the climate has become too inhospitable. And more and more of the planet is threatening to come under those conditions unless we really get serious about reducing not just the emissions but putting in place real adaptation programs to build the resilience in those places.

    We learned reading Hertsgaard's Earth Odyssey some years ago that environmental disasters have human rights consequences, so it is useful to have this reminder of the relationship between climate and unrest..

    A few weeks back, Herstsgaard connected the dots between the farm bill and climate change in an NYT editorial decrying the proposed bill's failure to encourage farmers to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and aid them in taking measures to protect crops from weather extremes. In his latest post-Sandy article for The Nation, Hertsgaard continues to find fault with the presidential candidates failure to discuss their plans (if they exist!) to address climate change. He is optimistic about the technical fixes (for more on that see his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth) but not so much about the political way forward, "No president can cross Big Oil in the way that is required to defuse the climate crisis without the help of a powerful and sustained popular movement" and to that end he points us to 350.org's Do the Math Tour launching immediately after the election to build the community for change. Check to see if there's an event near you and meanwhile you can support their call for Big Oil to contribute to Sandy recovery.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    Zombie Rights Movement!

    So it's late, late on Halloween, all your charming neighborhood goblins have retreated to their lairs to count their treasures, you've put aside the balaclava you donned in honor of Pussy Riot and you're ready to get back to the 'real' world of serious human rights activism. May I suggest transitioning back with Amy Wilentz' great NYT op-ed "A Zombie is a Slave Forever," in which she explains how the zombie legend sprang from the institution of slavery and goes on to riff,
    The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea...
    This zombie-slavery connection just has Doo-Dah parade entry written all over it. Zombie Rights Movement anyone?

    We enjoyed Wilentz' novel Martyrs' Crossing and if this opinion piece is any indication, we could be very interested in her forthcoming book, Farewell, Fred Voodoo:
    It was no surprise to Amy Wilentz when Haiti emerged from the dust of the 2010 earthquake like a powerful spirit. Her book is about magical transformations. It is filled with raucous characters: human-rights reporters gone awry, movie stars turned into aid workers, musicians running for president, doctors turned into diplomats, a former U.S. president working as a house builder, street boys morphing into rock stars, and voodoo priests running elections. 
    Wilentz looks back and forward at the country: at its slave plantations, its unthinkable revolutionary history, its kick-up-the-dirt guerrilla movements, its troubled relationship to the U.S., the totalitarian dynasty that ruled for decades, as well as its creative culture, its ancient African traditions and attitudes, and its uncanny resilience. 

    Amnesty Has a Day in Court

    In the deluge of Hurricane Sandy coverage you might have missed that the Supreme Court was in session to hear Amnesty International's challenge to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Clapper v. Amnesty International USA. This argument was just to establish "standing" and not on the merits of the law itself.

    Amnesty (represented by the ACLU) argued that they have standing to challenge the law’s constitutionality because human rights advocates, journalists and attorneys, rely on confidentiality in international communications with victims of human rights abuses and government officials. The Obama administration claims that groups like Amnesty don’t have standing in the case because they can’t prove that they are subject to surveillance. But how can they prove such a thing when the information about who the government monitors is secret and the process of surveillance is designed to be undetectable? From AI's statement:
    The Obama Administration, under the guise of a war on terror, has tried to ban judicial review of the constitutionality of the law that in 2008 expanded the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 casts a wide net that is ensnaring individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing and infringes on their rights. The government’s Catch-22 argument that no one has standing to challenge this program because no one can prove that they have been targeted must not be allowed to immunize this far-reaching wiretapping regime from legal review. 
    So how'd it go? Blow by blow argument summary is available at ScotusBlog. Adam Serwer's verdict at Mother Jones:
    Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in the past has been a key swing vote on war on terror cases, said attorneys for suspected terrorists would be guilty of "malpractice" if they talked on the phone with their client with this statute in place. It's often hard to know where the justices stand based on oral arguments—but they seemed at least somewhat sympathetic to the ACLU's argument that the law made life more difficult for the plaintiffs.
    So far so good. Here's hoping we make it over the "standing" hurdle so the full statute can be put to the test.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012

    Yes on 34 with Sister Helen!

    Nun-activist extraordinaire Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) and death row exoneree Kirk Bloodworth (in not-so-subliminal DNA tie!) make the case for California's Yes on 34 campaign to end the death penalty in the video above. Prop. 34, the SAFE California Act, will replace California’s death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole as the maximum punishment for murder. This means convicted killers will remain behind bars forever – with no risk of executing an innocent person. Why support Yes on Prop 34?

    • Savings: Many people think that the death penalty is cheaper than life without parole. That is just not true. The Legislative Analyst's official report on Prop. 34 says California taxpayers will save $130 million each year without releasing a single prisoner. 
    • Accountability: Convicted killers will be held accountable and pay for their crimes. Prop. 34 requires persons convicted of murder to work and pay restitution into a victim’s compensation fund. 
    • Full Enforcement: The SAFE California Fund* takes $30 million a year for three years in budget savings and puts it into the investigation of unsolved rape and murder cases. Our limited law enforcement dollars should be used to solve more crimes, to get more criminals off our streets, and to protect our families. 

    Momentum is building to end the death penalty and find better ways to fight crime. Sister Helen also spoke recently to The Oregonian about the movement to abolish the death penalty (Oregon may be the next state to attempt a referendum):
    Q: Since 2007, there have been five states that have abolished (the death penalty) and now California's voters will decide … Do you think that this wave of states abolishing capital punishment is going to continue … and where do you see it happening next?  
    A: Yeah it is… There are a number of states. Kansas is close to doing it. California is actually close to doing it… You know Americans are practical. So let’s take this death penalty thing that’s supposed to deter violent crime. So let’s look at the states that are practicing the death penalty the most. And we see roughly states that do have the death penalty have double the homicide rate of states that don’t have the death penalty... Then another factor is the money. All states are under budget crunches. ... And so like California spends $185 million a year to keep their death penalty machinery in place. The average waiting time for an execution is 20 years. I bet you Oregon is close to that because you don’t actually practice it. So it’s almost like you’re holding this symbol in place, a political symbol. That’s basically what it boils down to because (for) politicians, it’s the easiest symbol in the world to say ‘I’m tough on crime.’ It ‘s got nothing to do with dealing with the roots of crime and violence.

    Learn more and get involved with the SAFE campaign today!

    Monday, October 29, 2012

    Hector Tobar Visits Rights Readers!

    Book discussions don't get better than this! Congratulations to our Loyal Readers (especially mastermind Stevi) for luring author Hector Tobar to our discussion The Barbarian Nurseries. The novel is both layered with complex characters and at the same time covers quite a bit of Southern California terrain, exploring issues of family, race, class, immigration, culture, media, justice and more (see this post for more). Stevi shares,
    Not only did we learn that the
    Torres-Thompson children are based on Hector’s own sons and daughter, but that the gritty, very real people and descriptions come from Hector’s experiences as a reporter for the LA Times. He is a writer who enjoys his characters, their experiences and the settings in which they find themselves.

    Currently, Hector’s working on two more books, one a historical novel about the trapped Chilean miners and another about a man who wanted to write a novel so he lived the life of a novel but was never able to write the novel. Both books sound like they are right down our Amnesty alley.
    Yes, I feel certain this is not the last time we will be reading this author's books, and meanwhile, we strongly recommend this great novel which is both thought-provoking and fun to read! The novel has already won the California Book Award for fiction this year and congratulations to Hector who just became the most recent recipient of UC Santa Barbara's Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. Well-deserved!

    Sunday, October 28, 2012

    Introducing Human Rights Film Diary

    Our Loyal Readers have been known to enjoy the occasional movie outing, particularly when it involves a book-to-film project like the forth-coming Midnight's Children and Reluctant Fundamentalist. And no doubt our Netflix and Amazon Instant queues are heavy with human-rights themed documentaries and features. But there is always room for more, no? I've recently discovered a new resource for the human rights-minded film buff -- Human Rights Film Diary. Blogger Keina Yoshida is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics in the law department. Her research looks at the interaction of international criminal justice and cinema and her blog explores human rights-themed films with summaries and personal commentary. Many of her suggestions might be hard to locate, but just today I noticed The Whistleblower is now streaming on Netflix, so I'm eager to give that a try. Have fun browsing Keina's blog, a welcome addition to our on-going investigation of the role of compelling narratives in the human rights movement.

    Saturday, October 27, 2012

    The Malala-Malalai Connection

    It's heartening to hear that the young Pakistani child, Malala Yousafzai, nearly killed by the Taliban for her advocacy of education for girls, is recovering and that arrests have been made in the case. Don't forget to send her a solidarity message here. The story of Malala Yousafzai wasn't new to me as I had been impressed by the New York Times video above around the time we were reading Stones into Schools. But the first book I thought of when I heard about this attack was one we read last spring, Malalai Joya's A Woman Among Warlords because of the obvious similarity between the these two activists courageous struggle for gender equality in the face of Taliban death threats. It turns out the two are linked by the a common namesake and that the younger girl holds Joya in high esteem. A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor reports,
    The first time I met Malala, a couple of years ago, I asked her what her name signified. She answered: "Probably, a hero like the Afghan heroine Malalai [of Maiwand] or Malalai Joya. I want to be a social activist and an honest politician like her," she said, smiling. Ms. Joya, a 30-something activist, politician, and writer who was bitterly critical of both the Taliban and the Karzai regime, was at one point dubbed the bravest woman of Afghanistan.
    Read Joya's response to the attack on Malala here. (Also, there's a documentary film version of A Woman Among Warlords in the works. You can support it here.) Finally, I've read through Malala's BBC diary excerpts which help us see this wartorn region with the moral clarity of childhood. I hope there's more writing where that came from, and that she will recover sufficiently to continue documenting and sharing her life, bringing inspiration to all of us.

    Friday, October 26, 2012

    Ai Weiwei's Dance Revolution

    Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei goes "gangnam style"! (Okay, I know some of my core readership is pop culture illiterate - for comparison the original is here.) Asia Society decodes this parody of a parody.  For something more serious see this video in which Ai discusses styles of dissent with the New Yorker's Evan Osnos, a topic relevant to our up-coming discussion of Nobel Literature Laureate Mo Yan. And at the same time he's fomenting dance revolution, Ai's got some great articles in the current edition of New Statesman. With all this activity it's hardly surprising to find that he is one of the inaugural winners of the Vaclav Havel Award for Creative Dissent. If Ai's got your toes tapping and you're inspired to do something on behalf of dissenting creatives, I have a suggestion: FREE PUSSY RIOT!

    Thursday, October 25, 2012

    Louise Erdrich, The Round House and the Violence Against Women Act

    A few years back we enjoyed reading and discussing Louise Erdrich's Tracks. Her latest book The Round House, which has already been nominated for a National Book Award, looks like a book we may want to be talking about in the future,
    One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. 
    While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.
    In this Chicago Tribune interview, Erdrich explains:
    This is the first time I've written a book that was at once about human relationships, and yet very political, so I would encourage readers to look at the end. (An afterword discusses the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to reduce violence in tribal communities, and includes references to organizations working to advocate for Native American women.) When I started the book, I had the knowledge of this tremendously agonizing situation that is a truth on reservations, but as I wrote the book, it became an interior, psychological drama as I lived this boy's life. He was with me all the time.
    When I heard about the book, I immediately thought of Amnesty International's 2007 report Maze of Injustice: Sexual Violence Against Indigenous Women in the USA and our work to pass the Tribal Law and Order Act. Untangling the jurisdictional 'maze' is an on-going process and will be helped by reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Voice your support for VAWA here.  Read the whole Trib interview for more and Minnesota Public Radio and NPR also have great audio interviews with the author. I especially like this quote via NPR: "Revenge is a sorrow for the person who has to take it on. And the person who is rash enough to think it's going to help a situation is always wrong." I am really looking forward to reading this book for a deeper understanding of these issues.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    For February: The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan

    We are pleased to select The Garlic Ballads by 2012 Nobel Literature Laureate Mo Yan for our February discussion,
    The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believed. Warehouses fill up, taxes skyrocket, and government officials maltreat even those who have traveled for days to sell their harvest. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields. Families are destroyed by the random imprisonment of young and old for supposed crimes against the state.
    The prisoners languish in horrifying conditions in their cells, with only their strength of character and thoughts of their loved ones to save them from madness. Meanwhile, a blind minstrel incites the masses to take the law into their own hands, and a riot of apocalyptic proportions follows with savage and unforgettable consequences. The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love between man and woman, father and child, friend and friend—and the struggle to maintain that love despite overwhelming obstacles.
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