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

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,
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'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.
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