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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

MacArthur Awards and the Immigrant Experience

Last week a couple of our favorite authors, Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and Dinaw Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears), won prestigious MacArthur fellowships. As it happens, we are reading Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, an immigrant odyssey through contemporary Los Angeles this month and in that context I found it very interesting to hear Diaz and Mengestu discuss the influence of immigrant communities (Dominican and Ethiopian respectively) on their work in these MacArthur introductory videos:

The Diaz video can be found here. As I mentioned in another post, Diaz has a new book out, (This Is How You Lose Her) already nominated for a National Book Award and it seems Mengestu's third novel will be out soon. Interestingly, Carolyn Kellogg and Hector Tobar chat about the significance of the MacArthur Fellowships for the Los Angeles Times in the video below. In addition to praising the work of Diaz and Mengestu (with additional nods to Rights Readers favorites Edwidge Danticat and Toni Morrison), Tobar talks about the life of the writer and the impact of such awards.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Authors Speak Out on Immigration

I thought I'd share this clip from Junot Diaz, (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) currently on a book tour for his latest novel, This Is How You Lose Her. He was asked about the politics of immigration and the DREAM Act, which provides an opportunity to gain legal status for undocumented students who entered the country before the age of 15, have been physically present in the United States for at least five years, graduate from high school, and/or complete at least two years of college or military service. Take action for the DREAM Act here.

As I am sure many of my Loyal Readers know, President Obama implemented the so-called mini-DREAM Act, allowing temporary relief to undocumented young people.  Edwidge Danticat writes,
There is a powerful photograph of a group of undocumented young people—DREAMers—lying in the sand in Miami, their joined bodies spelling out the words “DREAM ACT NOW”, as if hoping to be seen from the heavens.
“DREAMers” are just what they sound like: bright, hopeful, and optimistic young people. They came here as children and have spent most of their lives in the United States. Yet they have remained in legal limbo, with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads. ...
Earlier this year, the Obama Administration granted relief from deportation to between 800,000 and 1.7 million DREAMers and made it possible for them to try to find work and/or get an education. This new policy can be reversed at any time—especially by an administration that is hostile to immigration—and can leave DREAMers back in limbo, back in the sand.
Danticat wrote powerfully about the failures of our migrant and refugee policy in Brother, I'm Dying. Still on the case, check out her more recent New York Times editorial on immigrant detention here.

Finally, this month we are reading Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, a novel layered with rich portraits of the immigrant experience in America. Tobar has also written a nonfiction book, Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States, so it's not surprising that he has insight to offer on the plight of young immigrants in the video below.

To learn more about how immigrants' rights are human rights and how you can get involved in supporting the DREAM Act and opposing abuses of immigrants in detention visit Amnesty International's campaign page.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our October Author: Hector Tobar

This month we are reading The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar. We are long time fans of Mr. Tobar, his first book The Tattooed Soldier being one of the very first novels we read together and we have all been looking forward to another opportunity to experience the author's street-level view of Los Angeles and Orange County. It's especially exciting to be reading this book which explores culture, class, immigration, crime, media and half a dozen other front page issues right on the brink of a major election. Here are a few links to supplement our discussion...

Most of us are also already familiar with Mr. Tobar's reporting and opinion in the Los Angeles Times. The author has a personal web page, where I found the most interesting link to be this page of links to the journalism he is most proud of. Pepperdine has a podcast interview (scroll down to Episode 20) with the writer that predates Barbarian, but I think is an excellent place to get some good biographical insight.

For an in depth look at the book, you can't go wrong with the Tobar's appearance in the Los Angeles Public Library's ALOUD series. KCRW's Bookworm has a shorter interview and of course, there's our friend Sonali Kolhatkar's video interview above.

As a bonus, check out these recommendations from Mr. Tobar: Favorite L.A. novels, and a playlist to accompany your Barbarian journey.

Last but not least, it appears that the film rights to the book have been sold and a writer is working on the screen adaptation. Let the casting speculation begin in comments!
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