Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Class and The Pursuit of Happyness (Film Review)

I saw Pursuit of Happyness yesterday and found it to be a very emotionally engaging film. This feel-good story features a homeless single father going to extraordinary ends to try to make it big in nearly impossible circumstances.

I was struck by the fairly realistic portrayal of working class life... The precariousness of this existence; those who scrape by are always only one small disaster away from financial ruin. The bone-weariness of constantly overextending oneself. The emotional fallout from all the stress and anxiety, which impacts self-esteem and relationships. The distress at not being able to protect one's kids from the realities of poverty.

I liked that Chris Gardiner's character was at once hero and anti-hero; he is intelligent, loving, and determined. He also doesn't always make the best decisions - in fact he makes some pretty bad mistakes. He is ultimately moral, but does a lot of unethical things (some due to panicking in tight circumstances) such as lying and stiffing others for money they also need.

I've read some reviews which describe this movie as a dramatization of the American Dream, the "meritocracy" that insists everyone can make it if they are upright, smart, and willing to put in the effort. Moralizing class like this leads to blame and judgment: if you don't make it you are lazy, immoral, or stupid and deserve your lot in life.

For me, however, as for this blogger I see the happy ending in the film as very unrealistic. Not everyone can make it in America. Indeed it "shows that for someone starting with nothing in America, it take a ludicrous amount of talent and drive to pull oneself up." For every one rags-to-riches story like this, there are millions of people who go from rags to rags, and many others who go from rags to slightly better. And of course, what little class mobility there is goes both ways.

Getting out of the cycle of homelessness is an incredible struggle, and many of us who have done it were lucky enough not to fall too deeply into that cycle, perhaps to have some help or an unexpected stroke of fortune. Those who think anyone can do it should try finding a job without a permanent address, a phone number, safety, or clean clothes, the need to carry everything on your back, lack of sleep, and a generally scruffy appearance. Hard, but many do it.

Now add a small child, and try to get a stockbroker job. Virtually impossible, and as noted, the extreme jump from total poverty to millionaire is "about the only jump that many black people get to see others of their race make when they’re growing up." Unfortunately there's no exploration of the injustice of the entire structure, or the need for collective action.

So is the film pro-capitalist propaganda or does it portray the realities of poverty? Both, a little. And neither. But it's emotionally satisfying, and ultimately worth watching.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Climate Change and Increasing Terrorism

Global warming could exacerbate the world's rich-poor divide and help to radicalize populations and fan terrorism in the countries worst affected, security and climate experts said on Wednesday.
"Those who are short of food, those who are short of water, those who can't move to countries where it looks as if everything is marvelous are going to be people who are going to adopt desperate measures to try and make their point."
John Mitchell, chief scientist at Britain's Met Office, noted al Qaeda had already listed environmental damage among its litany of grievances against the United States.

"You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries," al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden wrote in a 2002 "letter to the American people."

Read the whole article. Via Grist. Original article at Financial Times.

The consequences of climate change are visited first and worst upon those who have the least to lose, in the Middle East and Africa. Reminds us why all of our movements must work in solidarity.

We need to start healing our environment in the name of peace, women's rights, social justice, and economic justice.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Travel & Blog Break

Going out of town. Won't be blogging for a week or so.

Non-Violent Resistance in Iraq

Although we don't hear about it in the media, there has been, from the beginning of the occupation, active popular non-violent resistance in Iraq, using many different nonviolent tools and techniques including strikes, marches, civil disobedience and other forms of civil resistance.

No thanks to the US occupation. There are at least two things the people of the United States don't seem to know about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. One is the magnitude of the violence being wreaked on the people of Iraq by the U.S. occupation forces (alone or in conjunction with Iraqi troops). The other is the breadth and extent of Iraqi nonviolent resistance to the violence of the occupation.
Nonviolent demonstrations against the occupation have been occurring constantly since the invasion. Some 20,000 gathered in Firdous Square a few days after the infamous pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue to demonstrate against the occupiers. And the same has been true in Fallujah, Najaf, Amara, Kut, Basra Mosul, Irbil - all over Iraq. On August 25, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani arrived in Najaf at the head of a nonviolent force to put an end to the violence there. He succeeded in brokering a deal between the armed Iraqis and the attacking occupation forces. The nonviolent march to Najaf achieved what more than three weeks of relentless ground and aerial attacks by the occupiers could not.

Sort of like how we never hear about nonviolent Palestinian and Israeli resistance.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

These Are the Good Guys?

Gul Haider, a commander of the Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul after the Taliban's collapse, makes no apology for owning a mansion in Shirpur.

"We are praying for the poor people to have houses like us," he said. "But everything belongs to God. God knows better who should be given property and who shouldn't. God gave us this property and we built our houses. We are praying that God will look more favorably on the poor." - The Boston Globe, November 11, 2006

Meanwhile, Children work the streets to support families because they are so desperately poor. The favoured economic activity for children is picking soda cans out of the dump to sell.

Meanwhile parts of Kabul have been changed into a "mini-Paris" for better enjoyment of rich people, warlords, drug-lords, NGOs etc., most of them high ranking government officials.

More photos

How Cities Help Regulate Fear

Why do people in rural areas tend to be more Right-wing than people in urban areas?

First, Rural and Suburban areas promote fear:
In an open city...people of different colors and incomes must negotiate their mutual fate together. In some respects, they learn to value one another more highly, and social networks are expanded. In socially isolated environments [such as gated suburbs], social distance leads to stereotyping and misunderstanding, which in turn leads to fear and even greater distance. A resident in one of our [suburban] focus groups exemplified this dynamic when she told us that she never left her downtown San Francisco office building, even for lunch, for fear of people on the streets. Her building is located on a central street of department stores and offices, populated at lunch hour mainly by businesspeople and shoppers. But because it is a public space where anyone may go, it is too uncontrolled for her comfort, too unpredictable. Unlike her gated suburb, its openness increases the vulnerability she already feels to an unacceptable level.
* * * * * * * * * * *
As one citizen told Constance Perin in her study of community and place in American life: "See, you have to understand the fundamental feeling in the suburbs is fear, let's face it. The basic emotional feeling is fear. Fear of blacks, fear of physical harm, fear of their kids being subjected to drugs, which are identified as a black problem, fear of all the urban ills. They feel [that] by moving to the suburbs they've run away from it, in fact, they haven't, in reality they haven't, but in their own mind's eye they've moved away from the problem." From Blakely & Snyder's Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States via Bicycle Fixation

Not only are residents of vibrant cities usually less fearful of crime, they also tend to be less fearful of the big 'T': Terrorism, despite inhabiting much more likely targets than suburb dwellers:

We do not live behind gated communities and we do not have private security forces. We walk by alleys after dark and we dodge mentally unstable people to get to our subways and to make our bus connections. When you neglect the needy, we are the people that suffer. When the dispossessed and alienated riot, they riot in Newark, Detroit, and Watts. They do not riot in Topeka, Boise, or Crawford, Texas. From On Courage

Second, I think the simplistic cliché that the Left is all about hope, while the Right is all about fear holds a lot of truth. The Right Soothes Fear. The Right offers people the promise of security and order in what can feel like a world gone out of control. Witness McCarthy-era anti-Communist hysteria, which is very similar to the current hysteria over "Islamic terrorism". When facing something frightening, it feels good to have a strong, protective big brother.

Right-wing leaders know this, and they use fear as "a way of getting people to act against their own interests to work up hysteria and to get people to do terrible things to other people, because they’ve been made afraid." - Howard Zinn

Fear is one of our biggest challenges. Also see Can Fear be a Useful Tool for Progressives?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Letter from a U.S. citizen “addressed to the world”

Powerful Words:

There is a large majority of Americans who are terrified by our governments inability to hear our voices. We do not want war. Not with you, not with anyone. We admire your ancient culture and respect your religious beliefs.
While we may scream at the top of our lungs about how we feel, write letters to our officials, protest in the streets, demand accountability for our leaders' actions, our president ignores us and continues his one-man circus act.
Read The Rest

Monday, January 15, 2007

Peace is Possible in Iraq

What would it take to create peace in Iraq? Why not ask Iraqis? That's exactly what a delegation of American citizens did in August 2006. The Iraq Reconciliation Plan is an "aggregation of preconditions for bringing peace to Iraq". In other words, it's not everything, but it's at least a start.

Iraq Reconciliation Plan: Ten Points
1. End the occupation of Iraq.
2. Create a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops that is synchronized with the implementation of the Iraq reconciliation plan.
3. Disband the militias created after the occupation.
4. Revise Bremer's Orders and allow the Iraqis to rebuild their army.
5. Rewrite the Iraqi Constitution.
6. Keep Iraq as one state and do not partition into multiple states.
7. Begin the promised reconstruction of Iraq. Employ Iraqis and not foreign workers or contractors.
8. Acknowledge Iraqis' right to resist the U.S. occupation, negotiate with the resistance, and give amnesty to Iraqis resisting the occupation.
9. Investigate all the crimes that were committed by the new Iraqi Government and by the occupation forces in Iraq.
10. Make a fair distribution of oil income and natural resources.

More information here and here.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Empathy and Power

The powerful are less able to understand the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of others, according to the December 2006 issue of Psychological Science, as reported in Science Daily.
...possessing power itself serves as an impediment to understanding the perspectives of others. Through several studies, the researchers assessed the effect of power on perspective taking, adjusting to another's perspective, and interpreting the emotions of others.

This is not exactly surprising. For example, critical psychologists have noticed that many stereotypically "female" traits or skills, such as empathy, caregiving, nonviolence, and nurturing, are due to power differentials rather than biology. In other words, groups in subordinate social positions learn these skills for survival. I think it has something to do with being able to read those who hold more power; for example, anticipating their needs could lead to better rewards.

The abstract of the study reports:
Four experiments and a correlational study explored the relationship between power and perspective taking. In Experiment 1, participants primed with high power were more likely than those primed with low power to draw an E on their forehead in a self-oriented direction, demonstrating less of an inclination to spontaneously adopt another person's visual perspective. In Experiments 2a and 2b, high-power participants were less likely than low-power participants to take into account that other people did not possess their privileged knowledge, a result suggesting that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others' perspectives. In Experiment 3, high-power participants were less accurate than control participants in determining other people's emotion expressions; these results suggest a power-induced impediment to experiencing empathy. An additional study found a negative relationship between individual difference measures of power and perspective taking. Across these studies, power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel. (emphasis mine)

Other interesting related links:
What can the Stanford prison and Milgram experiments tell us about abuses at Abu Ghraib and Creating Gender Role Behavior: Demonstrating the Impact of Power Differentials

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

When Did "Suspecting" Become Justification for Killing?

Recent U.S. airstrikes in Somalia have been rationalized as targeting "suspected operatives of Al Qaeda". Since when is the U.S. Military the judge and jury as well as the executioner?
...the world has become used to what is called “targeted assassinations” -- in Gaza by Israel, in Afghanistan by NATO, and in Iraq, as well. But let us be clear that all such attacks are illegal under international law. No one has been identified and tried and sentenced. Invariably, lots of innocent people die in such attacks, sometimes scores, as happened recently in Pakistan. So these are illegal attacks. (From Democracy Now)

Such an act would never be acceptable within the U.S. We in the Western world are so used to legal protection and due process of law that we'd instantly feel the stirring of injustice and there would be a huge outcry. Can you even imagine? Try a thought experiment. Imagine if the police went around willy-nilly, killing those they suspected of crimes (and killing a few random innocent people in the process)? Any attempt at justification by referring to "suspected criminals" would be ludicrous.

So why is it considered an acceptible justification for killing in Somalia? Innocent civilians (although we don't know how many yet) have been killed by the airstrikes, in addition to the suspects. Again, why is this considered ok?

The only thing I can think of is that American life is seen as somehow more valuable than Somali life. I think that should be expanded, actually; each Western (especially white) person's life is seen as more valuable than each non-white, third-world life.

To underscore this, think about the discrepancy between the American deaths and Iraqi deaths in the current Iraq war. Depending on the estimate there have been something between 17 and 217 TIMES the number of Iraqi deaths compared to U.S. deaths. Even worse, though is the fact that we don't even know how many Iraqis have died. The message it sends? "We don't care."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Children of Men and the Dystopian Present

The Pentagon views the foreign slum city of tomorrow as a dystopian nightmare and the bloody battlespace to be feared and controlled in the coming decades. (More)

This weekend I saw the movie Children of Men. Any time I see films set in a dystopian future, I am struck by how much they reflect the past and even the present.

The scene in Children of Men that occurs in the refugee camp displays the type of urban warfare that has been a fixture of countless recent conflicts, such as in Iraq. It is very much the same as the urban warfare scenes in Blood Diamond, another recent film. Based on real events, and set in the past, (Sierra Leone's Civil War of the 90's) what we see happening is far worse than anything the most imaginative speculative fiction writer could conceive of.

Obviously the creators of dystopian future worlds such as in Children of Men get their inspiration from history and even the evening news, so the similarities shouldn't be surprising. Perhaps these movies allow us privileged folk who live in relative peace and prosperity to begin to visualize how terrible war and related atrocities actually are. These films succeed in communicating with wide audiences, and reach us a gut level in a way that newspaper articles often don't.

Urban warfare is inevitable in our increasingly unequal world, as evidenced by what happens in vast third-world slums around the world. As quoted in this excellent article, Mike Davis wrote in Planet of Slums:
...the 'feral, failed cities' of the Third World --especially their slum outskirts -- will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century." Pentagon war-fighting doctrine, he notes, "is being reshaped accordingly to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor."

True safety cannot be created by armoured cars, gated communities, and private security guards.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Somalia - Another Resource War Dressed up as a "Clash of Civilizations"

Throughout history, "wars of religion" have served to obscure the economic and strategic interests behind the conquest and invasion of foreign lands. "Wars of religion" were invariably fought with a view to securing control over trading routes and natural resources.

The current war on Islam, commonly referred to as the "war on terror", is a resource war; the most important resource is of course oil. The justification for this war requires heavy-handed demonization of Muslims.
The oil lies in Muslim lands. Vilification of the enemy is part and parcel of Eurasia energy geopolitics. It is a direct function of the geographic distribution of the World's oil and gas reserves. If the oil were in countries occupied predominantly by Buddhists or Hindus, one would expect that US foreign policy would be directed against Buddhists and Hindus, who would also be the object of vilification. (The rest)

We see this playing out in Somalia right now. Somalia is part of an ongoing resource conflict in the Horn of Africa but it is discussed in the MSM solely inside the frame of the supposed "clash of civilizations". The Bush spokespeople have characterized the conflict in Somalia as a religious war between the "Christian Ethiopians" and the Somali "Islamists" - and this explanation has had little challenge. According to International Christian Concern (ICC), Somalia is one of the top 10 persecutors of Christians. Good thing the US is propping up gangsters - at least they aren't Muslim.

But it is more about territory than terror: Time To Rescue Somalia's Resources From The Somalis.
... nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia's pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into chaos in January, 1991. (more)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mexico: Mazahuas Choose Jail over Going Without Water

Although they live near a gigantic water distribution system, the indigenous Mazahuas lack access to water and live in deep poverty. Since Dec. 11, when they shut off the valves of one of the system's plants in protest, Mazahua women have kept up the vigil -- and warn that it could turn radical.
Read the Inter Press Service interview with one of the protesters. Some background on Mexico City's water problems here and here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

My Top Posts of 2006

Some things are important enough to be repeated... or maybe I'm just feeling lazy today. In any case, here are some of my top posts of 2006. They were chosen based on comments, traffic, links, and votes.

December 21, 2006
Bright Sparks of Light, on the Longest, Darkest Night. Me being optimistic. Good to know it happens at least once a year.

November 29, 2006
Who Are the 400 Poorest? Well, after all, it's a good question!

November 16, 2006
Microcredit and Women Empowerment This year's hot topic in development

October 29, 2006
Non-Violent resistance in Israel and the Occupied territories Because violence begets more violence, but there are always courageous people working for peace

October 22, 2006
"Environmentalists need to get on the Social Justice Bus" No, I'm no hippy, but I can clearly see it's all connected.

October 05, 2006
Connecting Movements = Solidarity Two environmentalists walk into a Take Back the Night March... Just kidding. It isn't a joke. Women's rights movements really are related to environmental movements.

September 21, 2006
"War, War, Rumours of War" From Afghanistan to Iran to Bob Marley to Bonobos... why can't we all just get along?

September 15, 2006
"Gaza is a Jail. Nobody is allowed to leave. We are all starving now" This post is mostly just a quote from a piece on Common Dreams, but it got so many votes, I thought I should include it

August 16, 2006
UK "Terror Plot" too Convenient Why airport security doesn't let you bring bottled water through

March 16, 2006
Why Do People Vote Right-wing? In order to change minds and hearts, we need first to understand them.

March 08, 2006
International Women's Day We're not quite where we hoped to be, but women have come a long way.

February 09, 2006
Pseudo-Scientific Hate Propaganda and "Women Drivers" In which women are scientifically proven to be poor drivers and homeosexuals are found to eat human feces and die young.

January 19, 2006
Canadian Election Strategies for Progressives Looks like we'll be needing this in 2007