Thursday, January 31, 2013

Egypt Erupts Again: More from Amnesty and Alaa Al Aswany

Amnesty researcher Diana Eltahawy gives an on the ground report on the current unrest in Egypt in the video above, passing on concerns about impunity for police who commit human rights violations. If an action becomes available, we will pass that on.

This brought to mind that Alaa Al Aswany, activist and author of The Yacoubian Building has given a couple of interviews about the progress of the Arab Spring revolution that are worth your time. A short one from BBC Newshour here, and a longer podcast from Radio Open Source here. In a wide-ranging discussion, he talks about his public confrontation with Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik during the uprising and dispenses advice for moving forward.
What we are expecting but never had from the Western governments is just to leave us alone. We are going to do our democracy for ourselves. But do not support the terrible dictators! That’s what happened with Mubarak. He has been supported by the Western governments for decades, right? Everybody knew what kind of dictator he was. But this question of ‘interests’ — he was ‘okay’; he was doing what Israel wanted; and there was another assumption that he was the barrier against Islamism; but he was not the barrier, he was the reason for the fanaticism in Egypt. That’s clear in my novel… The point here is that what we need from the Western governments is not to support Arab dictators any more…
Wikipedia suggests that another novel is forthcoming.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Stephen King on Guns

Stephen King has written an essay, Guns, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. As master of the horror genre, King has special insight into our deepest psychological fears and the lethal ways they can combust especially in adolescence. The piece deals in part with his early novel Rage, which he had pulled after it was implicated in several shootings,

My book did not break or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it. 
King asks gun-owners to similarly accept responsibility and work for sensible gun restrictions. A provocative read for those who want to wrestle with First and Second Amendment dilemmas! Download the essay here. You can also learn more about the essay from Brain Pickings.

(Don't forget: take action to stop human rights abusers from getting weapons here)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fiction and Nonfiction Strikes on Drones

Looking forward to our April discussion book, Alex Gilvarry's From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, which makes use of satire to expose the post-9/11 security state, I was excited to see Teju Cole's experiment in Twitter fiction which exposes our 'empathy gap' with drone victims by deploying strikes on famous literary characters:

I highly recommend this interview with Cole from CBC Radio about what he is trying to accomplish here. Does the graft of fiction on news headline work for you? (From Think Progress, here's an interesting critique). You many also want to learn more from Teju Cole (tejucole) on Twitter and his personal website. Cole's novel Open City has been on my to-read list for quite awhile and this is going to bump it up to the top. Maybe we will get him onto the Rights Readers list soon, too.

By the way, it occurred to me that we had previously discussed the empathy gap brought about by advances in military technology when we read  Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond by Michael Ignatieff more than a decade ago. Sure enough, he has something to say about drones (Financial Times June 2012), noting that they fulfill our wish for harm without consequence, thereby becoming the 'mercenaries of the 21st century,' but it's not at all clear they are effective in achieving political goals,
Before succumbing to these technologies, leaders should remember how little virtual war has actually accomplished. Kosovo is still a corrupt ethnic tyranny; Libya will take years to put itself back together; and no one can see a stable state in sight in Afghanistan. Virtual war turned out to be the easy part. Democracies have little staying power for the hard part.
Urge the President and Congress to bring US use of armed drones and other lethal force in line with our obligations to respect human rights here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Justice at Last? Pete Seeger on Victor Jara

Did you catch the news that Chilean authorities have arrested the former army officers accused of involvement in the murder of singer Victor Jara? Jara was killed after the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973. Listen to the clip above from PRI's The World to hear Pete Seeger tell the story of Jara's death and how the musician inspired him. Further arrests in the case are expected, according to the BBC, including one officer who currently lives in the U.S. An international justice case worth monitoring.

Something else to watch for in the coming year is a new documentary, The Resurrection of Victor Jara. See the trailer below:

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gao Zhisheng Gets a Family Visit

Good News! Human Rights in China is reporting that Chinese human rights lawyer and prisoner of conscience Gao Zhisheng was permitted a visit by his brother and father-in-law on January 12,
Gao’s mind seemed clear and he spoke normally. His younger brother was not able to find out when Gao is scheduled to be released, or whether he received the letters from his wife and children.
This was the first family visit since March 2012. Most prisoners are permitted monthly visits.  Amnesty International - Pasadena has been advocating for Gao's release for some years. You can help us by sending greetings to Gao at the prison. Even if he doesn't receive them himself, cards and letters let guards and prison authorities know that the world is watching and expects to hold them accountable for his treatment.  See this page to learn more about Gao, how to send him a card and suggestions for further action.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

For May: Rez Life by David Treuer

For May we have chosen David Treuer's Rez Life,
Celebrated novelist David Treuer has gained a reputation for writing fiction that expands the horizons of Native American literature. In Rez Life, his first full-length work of nonfiction, Treuer brings a novelist’s storytelling skill and an eye for detail to a complex and subtle examination of Native American reservation life, past and present. 
With authoritative research and reportage, Treuer illuminates misunderstood contemporary issues like sovereignty, treaty rights, and natural-resource conservation. He traces the convoluted waves of public policy that have deracinated, disenfranchised, and exploited Native Americans, exposing the tension and conflict that has marked the historical relationship between the United States government and the Native American population. Through the eyes of students, teachers, government administrators, lawyers, and tribal court judges, he shows how casinos, tribal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have transformed the landscape of Native American life. 
A member of the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation, but was educated in "mainstream" America. Treuer traverses the boundaries of American and Indian identity as he explores crime and poverty, casinos and wealth, and the preservation of his native language and culture. Rez Life is a strikingly original work of history and reportage, a must read for anyone interested in the Native American story.

Friday, January 25, 2013

California Innocence Project: Join the March!

Hard-working anti-death penalty campaigners in California may still be nursing some disappointment at the outcome of the SAFE California initiative, but there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of death penalty abolition.  After all, who could have predicted Richard Viguerie and Bill O'Reilly would join the cause?  More seriously, Amnesty International cites seven significant steps toward abolition that were made in 2012 including abolition in the state of Connecticut.

Maryland may be next, and Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) is on the case, linking Maryland's progress on marriage equality and immigration reform to death penalty abolition for the hat trick,
On the heels of an election that affirmed the Free State's desire for equal opportunities and protections under the law for everyone, we see a path to another victory for fairness and justice. It's time for Maryland to abolish the death penalty.
Maryland is on the cusp of putting an end to this failed experiment in orchestrated killing. Like the coalition that crossed faith, political, racial and economic boundaries to pass the Dream Act and marriage equality, a similarly strong alliance is emerging to end the death penalty and to replace it with a conviction of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
By willfully taking human life, the state imitates the worst of human impulses. Extinguishing a light, however dim, is never a path to greater illumination. Ending this unworkable, immoral, failed aspect of our justice system is the right thing to do. And now is the right time to do it. Maryland, let your light shine.
Urge your friends in Maryland to take action here.

Californians can study this new infographic from the California Innocence Project and reserve the dates for CIP's Innocence March this spring,
On April 27, 2013, the California Innocence Project will march from San Diego to Sacramento with clemency petitions for 10 of our clients who are innocent yet remain incarcerated. We invite you to join us at any of the 3 public walking days, or the rallies we will host along the way. Please read our client’s stories and come out to march with us!
Keep on walkin'!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nafisi, Wilkinson on Guns

I don't think it would be much of a surprise to learn that many of the authors we read would support President Obama's new initiatives for gun safety or Amnesty International's campaign to pass the Arms Trade Treaty, but you might be surprised to learn that Azar Nafisi's (Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Bookscall to reopen the debate on the seccond amendment is prompted not by her early life in Iran but by her son's experiences as a student at Virgina Tech during the massacre there.
I could not help reminding myself that our children had survived a war and a revolution only to be so near death in a small friendly town called Blacksburg. In Iran the only people with guns, the only ones we were afraid of, belonged to the regime. Over the 18 years I spent in the Islamic Republic, I was filled with anxiety about the Revolutionary Guards raiding our schools, universities, malls, movie houses, restaurants, and coffee shops. Never in those years did I or anyone I knew worry about ordinary people going on killing sprees.
Also worth reading, Alec Wilkinson (The Protest SingerA Violent Act) who briefly held a job in law enforcement probes the psychology of the weapon in a New Yorker post, The Dark Presence of Guns,
I don’t think there is any mystery to understanding the passionate feelings people have for guns. Nobody really believes it’s about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. What argument can meet this, I am not sure...
Take action to stop the spread of small arms to human rights abusers around the globe here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hector Tobar on Inaugural Poetry and Prose

Were you inspired by Monday's inaugural ceremony? One of our favorite authors, Hector Tobar (The Barbarian Nurseriestook a look at the craft of speechwriting prior to the event,
An important speech usually begins as a writing project. And what separates a good inauguration speech from a great speech is, more often than not, a lot of writer's elbow grease. Speechwriting, to paraphrase your old English teacher, is speech rewriting.
And then he debriefed yesterday with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin on the poetry and prose of the day, including Richard Blanco's poem "One Today". Watch: Inauguration 2013: How was Obama's speech?
               - all of us -
facing the stars
hope - a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it - together.
Are you ready for a little collective mapping? Here's a look at what Amnesty International would like to see on President Obama's second term agenda. And here's an action you can take today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

MLK Boulevard: A Concrete Dream: Keep the conversation going

I was going to post this video yesterday but was still floating on the Inaugural cloud of optimism. Now that we're back in the real world, have a look at this thought-provoking documentary, MLK Boulevard: A Concrete Dream, now streaming on Hulu. Director Marco Williams travels the country visiting streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and asks whether this is a good way to honor the civil rights leader's legacy. I also enjoyed William's previous film, Two Towns of Jasper. Two great films to keep the MLK Day conversation going...


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Our January Author: Tina Rosenberg

January is definitely the right month to be reading Tina Rosenberg's Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. It's the time of year when you're open to a little self-help and behavior modification advice. So here we have the latest thinking about how to be better, more effective activists.

In the video above, the author gives a good introduction to the book and the Q&A that follows will be interesting to those who have already read the book. Join the Club has it's own website where you can explore additional applications of the book's ideas.  Rosenberg also writes for the New York Times 'Fixes' blog and she provides links to articles there. A complete listing of her reporting for the Times is available here.  The Diane Rehm Show also has an audio interview with transcript and here's an excerpt from YES! Magazine on the technique's use during the Arab Spring,
Farrell: How did you see a social cure at work in Egypt? 
Rosenberg: First of all, obviously a lot of the tactics that CANVAS [the group that formed out of Serbia’s Otpor and which has trained many activists around the world] used were at work in Egypt—not necessary the social cure ones, but the more strategic ones, such as being nice to the police, et cetera. I think those are very important, but the social cure was evident in the way people felt about themselves during the revolution. Going into Tahrir Square, being surrounded by this wave of massive goodwill and the feeling that you’re a hero, that you’re daring, and that you’re doing something important. I think that was absolutely crucial in Egypt, and that’s the social cure.
When reading this book, you can't help but think of all sorts of social ills you want to see vanquished by flash mobs of enthusiastic, creative young (or young-at-heart) people. Were you thinking about climate change? Gun culture? Closing Guantanamo? Passing VAWA? Here's a little inspiration for you from Amnesty France:

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Write 4 Rights: Still Time to Wish Gao Zhisheng Happy New Year!

Another look back at 2012 with photos by Esteemed Reader Stevi of last year's successful 'Write 4 Rights' letter-writing marathon. We were especially pleased that this year's collection of actions included our Prisoner of Conscience, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. You can still take action on behalf of Gao and the other worthy cases-- info is here.

Interestingly, according to Radio Free Asia, it looks like Chinese activist and Sakharov Prize winner Hu Jia, who lives in Beijing, launched his own 'Write 4 Rights' style-campaign,
"Christmas is nearly here, and we should send a card to our brother who is imprisoned far away in the desert," Hu wrote, in a Tweet that was widely retweeted among the online activist community. 
"Even if Gao never gets to see them, the prison guards will, and that will increase their respect for lawyer Gao," he wrote. 
"This could lead to an improvement in his prison conditions," Hu said. "I have experienced this sort of thing myself." 
"I was jailed between 2008 and 2011, and people sent me cards at Chinese New Year and on my birthday, including cards drawn by my kid," he said. "They all expressed real feeling, and ... for a while, the electrified fences all melted away."
I am so impressed that Hu Jia is taking this action-- I would think at no small personal risk. All the more reason for those of us who can do this simple thing with no thought of retaliation, should get writing. There's still plenty of time to send Gao a greeting for the Chinese New Year.

Just a reminder that additional pictures of Rights Readers and Amnesty International-Pasadena activities past and present can be found here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2012 Year in Review: 12 Great Human Rights Reads

Rights Readers had a terrific reading/discussion year in 2012, I think one of our best.  Here are the books we read and enjoyed together:

In January we read Andrew X. Pham's
The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, the 'prequel' to the author's wonderful memoir Catfish and Mandalawhich we read a few years ago. Eaves tells the story of Pham's father, from the French occupation through WWII and the Vietnam War, in powerful, elegant prose.

We read Susan Choi's novel of paranoia in the age of terrorism, A Person of Interest, in February. I enjoyed her description of academic life in a Midwestern college town, and although her tendency to overwrite slows the book down, I was very invested in the characters by the end and the story had enough 'thriller' in it to propel me forward, eager to get to the satisfying conclusion.

In March, we read A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya. The real pay-off for reading about this brave pioneer for women's rights in Afghanistan was learning that she was the namesake and personal hero for the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai who was nearly killed this fall for advocating for education for girls like herself. We look forward to reading Malala's books some day.

We read Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife in April. This impressive debut novel set in the aftermath of the Balkan conflict combines history and folktale in a narrative quest for recovery and healing. I'll be interested to see what this young author does next.

In May, we set sail with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis' The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World to explore human diversity in remote corners of the globe. Drawing inspiration from such endangered cultures as the seafaring navigators of Polynesia renewed our commitment to language diversity and cultural preservation.

We read Ursula Hegi's novel set on the cusp of World War II, Children and Firein June. This was the first time I read Hegi and it won't be the last. Many of the issues the characters in this novel grapple with--propaganda, reproductive health, the roles of teachers and parents as moral guides-- were especially resonant in this election year.

In July we read Avi Steinberg's memoir about working in a prison library, Running the Books.  We loved the author's humorous insights into prison culture and wise reflections on the value of reading and writing. I managed to spread the love for this book to a second book group. Don't be afraid to suggest it to yours!

As usual, in August we took a break from more serious human rights fare and read The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall. If you enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe, you should give Indian detective Vish Puri a try.

The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness by Jordan Goodman, our September selection is a hard book to recommend. The subject, British diplomat Roger Casement's efforts to expose abuses in the South American rubber industry, is fascinating (as is Casement's entire life), but the delivery here is just too dull for the casual reader. If you've read Mario Vargas Llhosa's The Dream of the Celt (which I still want to get to), or you're writing a term paper on the history of corporate accountabilty this would be a good book to consult. Otherwise, I'd hold out for a biopic.

I haven't done a formal poll to find out what our favorite book was this year, but I'd put money on Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries winning any popularity contest. And that's not just because the author kindly graced us with his presence at our discussion! This book hit all the marks for us with themes like race, class, immigration, parenting and the politics of urban landscaping in a highly readable package. And yes of course, we love a good L.A. story!

In November, we read Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. This very personal look at the lives of ordinary East Germans shocked us with how little we knew about the aftermath of reunification and the impunity granted to the secret police. Highly recommended.

Finally, this December, we have read Scenes from Village Life by Israeli novelist Amos Oz. This novel-in-stories spins unsettling tales about what's happening below the surface of a small Israeli town-- a great way to move past the familiar headlines from the Middle East and engage in a new way.

Keep an eye on the blog for news of our great 2013 picks. From what I have read of our up-coming books so far, we will have another great year.

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