Afghanistan – Plus Ca Change…

[Update: Jonathan Turley reminds us that Muslim fundamentalists are not the only ones throwing acids in the faces of the women who challenge the religio-patriarchal order, Orthodox Jews in Israel have done it as well. It fits, of course, as acid is not only horribly painful but disfigures, that is, destroys what misogynists think women are only good for, beauty as sex appeal… note how one of the young teachers below has internalized this and is repeated mindlessly by the article (19, not married, afraid of being disfigured).]

Via The New York Times,

“No students showed up at Mirwais Mena girls’ school in the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace the morning after it happened.

A day earlier, men on motorcycles attacked 15 girls and teachers with acid.

The men squirted the acid from water bottles onto three groups of students and teachers walking to school Wednesday, principal Mehmood Qaderi said. Some of the girls have burns only on their school uniforms but others will have scars on their faces.

One teenager still cannot open her eyes after being hit in the face with acid.

”Today the school is open, but there are no girls,” Qaderi said Thursday. ”Yesterday, all of the classes were full.” His school has 1,500 students. (…)

Qaderi said he believes there were multiple teams of assailants because the attacks took place at the same time in different neighborhoods. Provincial Police Chief Mati Ullah Khan said three people have been arrested. He would not provide further details because the investigation was not completed.

The country has made a major push to improve access to education for girls since the Taliban ouster. Fewer than 1 million Afghan children — mostly all boys — attended school under Taliban rule. Roughly 6 million Afghan children, including 2 million girls, attend school today.

But many conservative families still keep their girls at home and the acid attacks are a reminder that old biases remain.

”They don’t want us go to school. They don’t like education,” said Susan Ibrahimi, who started teaching at Mirwais Mena four months ago. She and her mother, also a teacher at the school, were wearing burqas on their walk to work when the motorbike stopped next to them.

”They didn’t say anything. They just stopped the motorbike and one of the guys threw acid on us and they went away,” Ibrahimi said in a telephone interview.

The acid ate through the cloth covering Ibrahimi’s face and left burns down her left cheek. The acid also burned her mother’s hand.

”I am worried that I will have scars on my face,” said Ibrahimi, who is 19 years old and not married.

Fifteen people were hit with acid in all, including four teachers, Qaderi said.”

This is not an isolated incident, girls schools have been targeted for such terrorist attacks, because that is what it is: terrorism.

“Arsonists have repeatedly attacked girls’ schools and gunmen killed two students walking outside a girls’ school in central Logar province last year. UNICEF says there were 236 school-related attacks in Afghanistan in 2007. The Afghan government has also accused the Taliban of attacking schools in an attempt to force teenage boys into the Islamic militia.”

It would be nice to see the government be actually proactive in protecting these women and girls from these obviously preditable attacks. Obviously, the assailants are not exactly hiding. Because, apparently, it appears that it is all left up to the courage of the teachers and their students to show up every day under the threat of these horrific acid attacks.

One cannot help but see the similarity in tactic between the Taliban and the anti-choice crowds that gather at clinics to bully women into submission to the patriarchal order. The social representation is the same: a woman’s body is a public image of her moral status as social object. As such, it can be mutilated (as in female genital mutilation), used for the public infliction of social sanctions (acid attacks) or taken over for the reproduction of the patriarchal order (forced pregnancy).

Culturally, there is a whole industry dedicated to the promotion of feminine norms of beauty and fitness, and others to make sure that women conform to these ideal norms of beauty and femininity. All these social practices have to be understood as a continuum of structural gender oppression.

As such, women live more deeply in the surveillance society than men as their actions, behavior, bodily display are all to be publicly interpreted as statements of conformity or deviance (with the corresponding sanctions) to culturally-established norms. In this sense, the terrorism of which they are victim in Afghanistan, and other places, is a strong means of social control, not a deviant act. Let’s call it Institutional Terrorism.

What Brings Families Together? Power Outages and New Technologies

Power outages = people don’t have anything to do with themselves, so, they have sex = mini baby boom nine months later… correlation? Causation? You be the judge, via Le Monde. Here is the story:

In Massdriel, Netherlands, the number of births increased by 44% in September 2008 compared to the same month in 2007. Officials found that puzzling. Then, they remembered the power outage that affected that town for 50 hours, nine months before. In December 2007, an Apache helicopter had accidentally cut power lines that brought power to nine villages of the commune. Guess what happened during these two days of darkness?

Sorry Robert Putnam, we may not bowl together anymore, but according to this BBC report (and an increasing body of research), new technologies may actually bring people closer together:

This report also shows that nuclear families are the structure more likely to be closely connected (as in parents use these gizmos to exercise greater surveillance of their children, even when these are young adults). What this means is not just an increase in the level of contact but also a shift in the qualitative nature of these contacts. So, yes, communal times may have decreased (for a variety of reasons) but contacts are maintained through other means.

As I myself wrote, in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone (2000), political scientist Robert Putnam deplores the loss of American community. For Putnam, the decline in American participation in bowling leagues symbolizes the increasing disconnection between people as they retreat from all sorts of civic and community participation and engage in more isolated activities, such as passive television watching.

Indeed, data regarding membership in associations, political participation, and volunteering show a decline. Putnam deplores such a state of affairs as such community activities were essential to civic-minded socialization where social norms were transmitted.

However, if participation in traditionally household-based activities, such as bowling leagues and PTAs, show a marked decline, other forms of sociability have increased. New communication technologies allow for new and different forms of sociability. For instance, virtual or online communities are on the rise. The best example of rising online communities are Facebook, MySpace or Flickr.  Such communities are different in that they are not household-based but individualized. They provide a different type of socialization than traditional communities.

Virtual or online communities show that far from disappearing, communities are changing. Traditional communities are neighborhood or village-based. In the age of globalization, disappearing borders and unprecedented movements of population around the globe, communities are not disappearing but reconfiguring into geographically dispersed networks.

According to Jeffrey Boase and al (2006), such geographically dispersed communities are facilitated by new electronic communication technologies, such as emails and the Internet. Moreover, research shows that new communications technologies extend our social connections but deepen them as well. People who interact face-to-face also tend to call each on the phone and exchange messages via emails or instant messages or text messages. This phenomenon of using multiple media to communicate is called media multiplexity.

New communication technologies promote what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. Networked individualism refers to the fact that, thanks to the Internet, individuals can get in touch with other individuals for all sorts of purposes. In this sense, online communities do not replace traditional communities but supplement them. People can find information or help or simply create relationships from traditional sources, such as relatives or they can tap into extended networks of other individuals.

In this sense, being socialized into the competent use of new communication technologies becomes an essential skill not only to be able to access the wealth of information available but also to be able to be able to build individual networks of relationships with and (not or) without face-to-face interactions.

In her study of the virtual community Cybertown™, Denise Carter (2004) challenges the notion that virtual communities are only poor and shallow imitation of the “real thing”, face-to-face interaction. First, Cybertown™ is an elaborate virtual environment, not just a chat room or message board. It has more than a million citizens from all over the world earning citycash from jobs. It is designed like any large city in the world, with plaza, cafes, post office and police. The residents live in the suburbs in private homes and they can have (virtual) pets. It is truly a social space where people develop friendships and throw parties at their houses, or go to clubs. Residents usually maintain consistent personae, keeping the same username and avatar (virtual character). Frequently, people who meet and become friends at Cybertown™ end up meeting offline.

For Carter, virtual communities are appealing because they do not rely on traditional kinship bonds (based on blood ties) but allow the development of chosen friendship ties. Friendship is not based on hierarchy. Moreover, where kinship ties are defined by tradition and customs, friendship persists based on the quality of relationships. In Cybertown™, people are specifically looking to build new relationships where gender, race and other ascribed statuses are irrelevant and where the quality of the relationship is the only criterion that matters. Moreover, the fact that many residents are able to sustain such friendship offline suggests that relationships developed online are not shallow but free from cultural and social constraints.

So, is all well and good and safe in the virtual world? Not quite. Another Le Monde article (whose link seems broken right now, I’ll update if necessary) explores how social prejudices may actually be amplified online as anonymous communications may protect individuals from the social disapproval and sanctions they might face in real life for overt expressions of prejudice. This will not be news to anyone hanging around YouTube or anyone who followed the American presidential campaign. There is no doubt that the Democratic primary unleashed an enormous amount of sexism and there is no putting back that nasty genie into the bottle. This has been analyzed expertly elsewhere, especially by Scary Smary Anglachel and over at Corrente, so, I won’t belabor the point.

The bottom line is that is we should resist oversimplified depictions of the way new technologies shape the way we interact, either to deplore the good old days where people REALLY communicated with each other (like any nostalgia, it’s largely reconstructed memory), or to project a socially liberated mode of communication, free from social determinations.

The uses of new communication technologies are still shaped by mechanisms of social stratification (the digital divide) and still allow people to easily project their prejudices as well as extending their social capital in a variety of directions on a global scale.

However, in these global mediascapes (to use Appadurai’s terms), not everyone is included and processes of marginalization and exclusion operate as well. At the same time, these have permitted the emergence of truly global social movements and facilitated the rise of the global imaginaries.

Militarization as Global Urban Policy

This post at Crooks and Liars, relating the use of Blackwater for security operations in the aftermath the exepcted disaster of hurricane Gustav touches upon what I think is an important topic: the militarization of urban centers and the suppression of dissent and disorder in the name of security (Blackwater had also been used in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, with some disturbing consequences).

This trend was also brought forth when Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi decided to deploy 3,000 soldiers in large Italian cities.

This constitutes another layer, the hard power layer (as opposed to the soft layer of extensive networks of video surveillance), of the rise of the surveillance society against targeted populations (immigrants, potential political protesters, etc.).

This is not something limited to the large cities of the core. Such militarization is also present in the world-cities of the periphery, as noted by Raúl Zibechi from the Americas program at the Center for International Policy.

"Urban peripheries in Third World countries have become war zones where states attempt to maintain order based on the establishment of a sort of "sanitary cordon" to keep the poor isolated from "normal" society."

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Bad Times for Tax Cheats

In the book I reviewed yesterday on tax heavens, one of the reasons the authors gave for writing the book in the first place was that this is a topic that never quite absent from the news and never goes out of fashion. Der Spiegel illustrates how true this is.

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Nathalie Menigon, of Action Directe, Gets Paroled

Nathalie Menigon Via Le Monde, Nathalie Menigon, member of the French terrorist group Action Directe, has been paroled. She was serving two life sentences since 1989 with a minimum of 18 years without parole. She actually was already under the statute of "semi-liberte" since 2007 (where an inmate is allowed out during the day to go to work, but has to report to the prison or a halfway house at night and on weekends). The conditions of her parole also include limitations on where and when and for how long she is allowed to travel.

She is also not allowed to discuss her case outside of her legal representation. But she is not allowed to give interviews to the media or to write a book about the events that led to her conviction.

At this point, then, the only member of Action Directe still incarcerated is George Cipriani (his case is to be reviewed in September). Jean-Marc Rouillan (Menigon’s husband and co-founder with her of Action Directe) has been in semi-liberte since 2007 (he has published books and works now at the company that published them). Joelle Aubron was released in 2004 as part of a law that allows for the liberation of very sick inmates. She died in 2006.

Action Directe was the French version of the left-wing groups that engaged in armed actions against representatives of what they perceived to be a repressive state or figures of national capitalism. They parallel the history of groups such the German Baader-Meinhof (RAF) or the Italian Red Brigades. Action Directe is alleged to be responsible for the assassination of George Besse, ex-CEO of the french car manufacturer Renault and of Eurodif, a nuclear power company, as well as the assassination of Engineer General Rene Audran, who was in charge of the French arms sales.

The four members were all arrested in 1987.

Amnesty International had been calling since 2001 for the French government to apply standards of humane incarceration as the four members were detained under various forms of solitary confinement and were showing signs of physical and mental health deterioration. As the letter sent to the French government stated (again, that was seven years ago, things have not improved since, healthwise):

"The reported breakdown in the physical and mental health of at least two of them is widely attributed to the years of isolation to which they have been subjected.

Joëlle Aubron and Nathalie Ménigon were originally held under a specially restrictive high security category, but were transferred in 1999 to a prison where conditions were expected to be normalised. However, their means of social communication, correspondence and visits have reportedly remained subject to special restrictions and they are not able to visit the common areas of the prison.

Nathalie Ménigon married Jean-Marc Rouillan in 1999, but has been unable to see him. She is suffering from serious cardio-vascular problems and depression, and is reported to have recently had two heart attacks. She is also reported to be paralysed on her left side and to be suffering from speech problems. Georges Cipriani, held at Ensisheim (Haut-Rhin) and for a time at a psychiatric hospital, is reported to have gradually lost his sanity and to no longer be aware that he is being held in prison at all. Prison guards have expressed concern about his condition."

The French government never addressed these concerns. French prisons are hellholes from another age that should put any democracy to shame.

The Surveillance Society Goes Global

Via the Guardian, the surveillance society is going global:

"A comprehensive transatlantic pact clearing the way for the unprecedented supply of private data on European citizens to the American authorities is to be promoted by France in support of the US-driven campaign to combat terrorism and transnational crime.

The French government is expected to use its six-month presidency of the EU, starting tomorrow, to build on 18 months of confidential negotiations between Washington and Brussels aimed at clearing the complex legal obstacles to the exchange of personal information with the Americans.

The controversial proposed pact, a "framework agreement" on common data protection principles, is likely to enable the Americans to access the credit card histories, banking details and travel habits of Europeans, although senior officials in Brussels deny US reports that the Americans will also be able to snoop on the internet browsing records of Europeans."

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike President Sarkozy and his administration?
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Global Studies Association Conference Notes – Part 3 – Transnationalism

GSA

This third part of my report from the GSA conference (part 1 and part 2 ) was truly the best, from my point of view, because it featured a speech by one of my favorite sociologists (if not THE favorite), William Robinson, of UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of what I consider the authoritative social theory book on globalization: A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World.

In his presentation, Robinson contrasted his approach to globalization as qualitatively different phenomenon (transnationalism) as opposed to the school of thought he labeled "new imperialism." Robinson’s view of globalization involves specific features:

  • the rise of truly transnational capital with integration of all countries into that system;
  • the rise of the transnational state (TNS) where class power is exercised through networks and by the transnational capitalist class (TCC – especially its political / executive component);
  • the development of new relations of power and inequalities on a global scale
  • the increased power of the transnational corporation (TNC)

So, for the maths-oriented among us: Globalization = TNS + TNC + TCC = true transnationalism.

What we are seeing then, for Robinson, is a reconfiguration of the power of the nation-state as agent of the TNCs, TCC and TNS. The nation-state does not disappear but is displaced in influence. It is one level of power that transnational agents use for their own purposes, for instance, when countries that are members of the EU use their national institutions to implement transnational directives coming from above (the EU level) or when countries again use national institutions to enforce WTO rulings.

This system, though, is in crisis on several levels:

  • social polarization on a global scale
  • overaccumulation and unloading of surplus
  • legitimacy
  • social control
  • legitimacy
  • sustainability

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Honor Killings (Again) in Germany

Via Der Spiegel (who has done an incredible job in bringing this issue to light repeatedly):

"Ahmad O. stabbed his sister more than 20 times because the 16-year-old girl didn’t live her life according to his values. Women’s rights advocate Seyran Ates is now calling for German society to intensify its efforts to stop honor killings. "A girl isn’t a whore if she goes out," she says.

Morsal O. was 16, a young girl with joie de vivre. She laughed a lot and she was a go-getter. She was a good student, had ambition and a lot ahead of her in life. But she was murdered on Friday, May 9. Her 23-year-old brother Ahmad, with the help of a cousin, lured her to a parking lot near a subway station in the German port city of Hamburg under a false pretense and stabbed her 20 times with a knife.

If Morsal had known she would be coming face to face with her brother, she probably wouldn’t have gone that evening. The two hadn’t been on talking terms for quite some time, and Ahmed had threatened his sister repeatedly. Just before her murder, Morsal had sought refuge from her family, who moved to Germany from Afghanistan 13 years ago, at a number of city social facilities, most recently living for more than a year in a youth safe house. But she never succeeded in entirely breaking off contact with her family."

But the family thinks that the brother killer her out of love. I guess for some patriarchal communities, love = entitlement to harassment, threats, assault and ultimately murder, and Ahmad had done all of them against his sister. And because Morsal was resistant to her parents’ authority (unusual, for a teenager, I know!), it was her brother’s job to monitor her closely and he outsourced the job to his extended family.

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Why Am I Not Surprised? Burger King Edition

CIW

From the Independent,

“Activists have outed a corporate dirty tricks operation tied to Burger King aimed at discrediting efforts to improve the often horrific conditions of migrant workers in Florida’s tomato fields.

It emerged yesterday that a top Burger King official is being investigated for using his young daughter’s online alias to make derogatory comments about the farm worker group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is asking the fast food chain to raise tomato pickers’ pay by a cent for every pound picked.

Burger King’s vice president Steven Grover was fingered as the source of venomous online attacks on student activists. “Senior management of the company had no knowledge of Grover’s postings,” Burger King spokeswoman Denise Wilson said. “We are conducting an internal investigation, and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”

The farm workers coalition discovered that abusive emails and comments under the names “activist2008″ actually originated at the Miami headquarters of Burger King. The e-mail Internet protocol addresses are the same as Burger King’s.”

Hmm… using your daughter’s online account to accuse activists of being in it for the money, now, that’s courageous and brave. Here is the hilarious (and pathetic) part though:

“Mr Grover has not commented on the episode, but Burger King said “comments attributed to Steve Grover do not reflect Burger King’s desire to find a way to assure decent wages and modern working conditions for the tomato harvesters.””

Well, of course it does not. but that’s not all. Apparently, a security firm has been discovered trying to infiltrate a students’ group supporting the rights of migrant workers. The firm was paid by corporate spies.

“The attempted infiltration of the activists by paid corporate spies was noticed when Cara Shaffer, who described herself as a college student said she wanted to start an activist group at a Virginia university. The activists quickly discovered that she actually heads a company named Diplomatic Tactical Services. She now refuses to discuss her attempted involvement with the farmworker group. A Burger King spokesperson said he “knows nothing about any Burger King effort to spy” on the student group.”

Man, so many coincidences and things happening that BK knows nothing about! Of course, there are no such things as coincidences in such matters. These incidents are coming to light as the US Senate is investigating working conditions of migrant workers, especially tomato pickers, whose wages have not increased since 1978. Many work in quasi-slavery and they get regularly harassed, beaten, abused and intimidated. And many are held in debt bondage, which is the most common contemporary form of slavery.

“Detective Frost said the conditions of some workers in Florida were equivalent as human trafficking. The large tomato producers shield themselves from prosecution by hiring subcontractors, who are responsible for human trafficking, he testified.”

Subcontracting has become the habitual alibi for corporations who don’t want to be bothered with working conditions, fair wages and environmental regulations. If something bad happens, they can always blame the subcontractor and claim no knowledge. Subcontracting provides (more or less) plausible deniability.

The tomato growers, unsurprisingly deny all that. To listen to them, one would think that everything is peachy. However, I would bet that BK is not the only one engaging in such dirty tricks.

And just to piss off the big bad corporations, just click on the logo above and read on these workers conditions and what can be done.

Movie Review – The Counterfeiters

The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters is a German film directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. The tells the story of Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a master counterfeiter at the height of his career in 1936 Berlin. Sorowitsch enjoys the proceeds of his crimes: money, women, champaign Champagne. He has no interest in the plight of his fellow Jews and is not bothered by the ordinary anti-semitism displayed by ordinary Germans. He even states that the Jews get persecuted because they don’t know how to adapt.

Then, his luck runs out. He gets busted by Superintendent Friedrich Herzog. He gets deported to the Austrian concentration camp of Mauthausen, famous for his deadly quarry(I have visited it, I have seen the barrack and I walked down to the quarry, still to this day, it is oppressive). Sally does what he does best: adapt. His drawing / painting talents flatter the arrogance of his guards and he gets privileges (mostly food) for his portraits of the guards, officers and their families. Then, he and other men with specific talents are transferred to Sachsenhausen camp where Herzog is running “Operation Bernhard” (see this book for the actual story), a massive counterfeiting operation designed to flood the British economy with fake Sterling Pounds and later do the same with fake dollars to the American economy.

The team of counterfeiters is made of Jews, all related to the financial and printing trade. In return for the use of their skills for the benefit of the Reich, they are well fed, get to shower once a week, get to rest during the weekend and get to sleep in beds with sheets. And they are segregated from the rest of the camp so that they don’t get bothered by what goes on on the outside of their closed compound.

Then, of course, comes the moral dilemma at the heart of the film. Sorowitsch adapts: he agrees to supervise the production of fake Sterling pounds. His rationale is to make the best of a bad situation. At least, he thinks, he’ll survive the war. On the other hand, another inmate, Adolf Burger, who left his wife behind in Auschwitz, is determined to sabotage the effort. He is willing to die for it, he is willing to sacrifice the whole barrack for it. Sorowitsch is more on the Adam Smith side: his selfishness is helping them all. Between these two positions, the other inmates represent all the moral shades of grey.

Sorowitsch is not an entirely bad guy. He befriends a young Russian artist, Kolya, who’s lost in the concentration hell and suffers from TB. But ultimately, he plans on surviving this. That is his main motivation, even if it means tolerating dreadful humiliations from the camp guards and occasional reminder from Herzog that he’s nothing but a Jew who can be killed at any time. Everything else is secondary.

It is indeed an interesting choice to make him the main character because he is not a (morally) attractive guy. Certainly, Adolf Burger is more heroic and attractive (good looks help too). Before being deported, Burger, a printer, and his wife printed anti-Nazi flyers. What matters to him is the truth and loyalty to the other prisoners (the ones outside the compound, forced to participate in the “shoe-testing”… watch the film and you’ll figure out what that is). And he refuses to help the prolong the war by funding the Nazis.

Ultimately, both men survive. But yet again, Sorowitsch adapts and manages to make it out of Sachsenhausen with piles of fake dollars they had finally managed to produce (but not enough for any economic impact). You have to watch the film to see what he does with the money and whether his life strategy is ultimately a satisfying one.

It’s a great film.

Book Review – The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides And Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect

SLoS

I have been amazed (in a bad sense) by the story of the raid by the State of Texas on the Fundamentalist Mormon compound in El Dorado and the removal of 460 children. It is indeed incredible that such practices are allowed to persist in the 21st century United States.

When it comes to religious fundamentalist movements and other reactionary and fascist groups, there is no better source on the Internet than the blog Orcinus (David Neiwert’s blog, with co-author Sara Robinson). In this cas, Sara Robinson got the thankless task of reporting on this and in this post (which is well worth a read), she recommended Daphne Bramham‘s book, The Secret Life of Saints – Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect. I fully trust Sara’s judgment, so, I got the book and, boy, it was quite a read.

If you don’t know anything about the Fundamentalist Mormon, this is the book you want to get the full historical and social context of a sect that has tentacles in Utah, Arizona, Texas, Idaho, South Dakota and British Colombia in Canada. Even though the title indicates a focus on the Canadian side of the sect (Bramham is a journalist for the Vancouver Sun and she has a blog there as well), the book includes a lot on the American branch of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FDLS, which has been in the news so much recently).

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Sexism in All Shapes and Forms – Malaysia Edition

I guess I’ll never run out of sexist posts (and I didn’t even blog the Democratic primary! for no other reason than other people do that better than I could). So, Malaysia it is and it’s a two-fer, first, this lovely item (to file under the general hypocrisy that Islam is not sexist and veiling women is for their protection):

“Women’s groups in Malaysia have reacted angrily to proposed government restrictions on women travelling abroad on their own. State media say the plan would require women to obtain written consent from their families or employers. The Malaysian foreign minister said the move would prevent single women being used by gangs to smuggle drugs.”

See? It’s not repressive at all. It’s just to protect single women. Because the proper and safe state for a woman is to be married and under the protection of her husband. Now, of course, the damn women’s groups have criticized the proposal as oppressive and regressive. They also argue, foolishly, that women can make their own decisions. Obviously, these groups hate women. [/snark]

If that weren’t enough, we get the second item from the BBC as well, it is both sad and encouraging:

“A religious court in Malaysia has allowed a Muslim convert to leave the Islamic faith, in what is being hailed as a landmark ruling. Penang’s Sharia court ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah was free to return to Buddhism, following the collapse of her marriage to a Muslim man. It was decided she had not had proper counselling during her conversion. Malaysians are rarely allowed to renounce the faith – those who do can be prosecuted under stringent laws. Religious rights are a sensitive issue in Malaysia – which is 60% Muslim.”

The sad thing is that Malaysia uses Sharia law, a reactionary body of religious law. The encouraging thing is the ruling in itself. But I really like the BBC’s last sentence here. It turns euphemization into an art form: look, Malaysia is a religious country where Sharia law applies, meaning, widespread sexism and religious privilege as well as stratification.

The ruling itself looks very much like the Muslim version of the Catholic annulment: she’s allowed to leave Islam because she never really was a Muslim in the first place. Had she received more counseling and guidance (my translation: more indoctrination), she’d be stuck with that religion.

World Press Freedom Day – Freedom of the Press as Precondition to Development

Via the UN News Center,

“Marking the annual World Press Freedom Day, top United Nations officials have stressed the role of a secure and independent media, and access to information, in empowering individuals and advancing development. (…) Mr. Ban stressed that a free, secure and independent media is one of the foundations of peace and democracy. Attacks on freedom of the press are attacks against international law, humanity, and freedom itself – everything the UN stands for, he said.”

The UN Secretary General also noticed the fact that journalists have been more and more targeted by combatants in current conflicts (and Iraq, with the case of Bilal Hussein, to name only one, certainly is a perfect illustration of that trend) along with the failures to investigate crimes against journalists.

The theme for this year’s WPF Day is “Access to Information and the Empowerment of People”, so, it is no surprise that UNESCO would be involved as well.

““This empowerment supports participatory democracy by giving citizens the capacity to engage in public debate and to hold governments and others accountable,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. Access to information is primordial to the exercise of the basic human right of freedom of expression, Mr. Matsuura added. To be free, the media need to have access to information. Such access is also indispensable in fighting corruption, which has been defined as the primary obstacle to development.”

And I guess this is as close as you can get to a dressing-down of several governments, from Louise Arbour, High Commissioner on Human Rights,

“The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights marked the Day by noting that harassment and secrecy laws are weakening press freedom. “It is a sad fact that many governments across the world persist in undermining the freedom of the press to report facts and opinions and, by extension, the right of people in general to be informed about events and policies that are shaping our world,” Louise Arbour said. Ms. Arbour noted that governments are becoming more secretive and offering propaganda disguised as objective information – especially when alleged security-related issues are on the table.”

However, freedom of the press on paper looks really nice. However, in practice, things can get a lot messier. As the years of Bush administration and the current electoral campaign have shown is that the so-called free US media has become part of a corporate and political elite (or a power elite, as classical sociologist C.W. Mills would say) with a political agenda of its own (NOT reporting and informing). See the complicity of the Telecoms companies in domestic surveillance.

Also, what has been made blatantly clear is that the US media stands alongside the political structures of power not as a watchdog but as a member of the Village. Do not expect accountability from there. If I had thought that the progressive blogosphere would step up and play the role of watchdog where the traditional media failed to do so, I have been severely disillusioned.

So, when we think of a free press as a press free from censorship and governmental pressure, we should also remember that pressure can come from other powerful sources: the corporate world, powerful interest groups, or the military establishment. It should also be mentioned that media actors represent a specific slide of the social class structure that places their interest firmly up on the social ladder, as such, they carry specific social class biases that should not be ignored.

Another great cartoon by Michel Cambon, with permission.

WPF2

May 3rd – World Press Freedom Day

Let’s celebrate it, with permissions for all materials (cartoons from Michel Cambon):

“May 3 Background

In dozens of countries around the world, journalists, editors and publishers are murdered, assaulted, detained and harassed simply for telling the truth. Their publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down for daring to voice opinions contrary to those of their governments.

World Press Freedom Day exists to recognise the sacrifices made in the struggle for freedom of the press and to put pressure on governments that continue to deny their citizens this basic human right. The 3 May message is that journalists everywhere must be granted the right to report freely and without fear.

The date marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of principles drawn up by African journalists in 1991, calling for a free, independent and pluralistic media on that continent and throughout the world. The Declaration afirms that a free press is essential to the existence of democracy and a fundamental human goal. The Declaration is a milestone in the struggle for a free press in all regions of the world.

At a time when human rights and democratic development hang in the balance in so many countries, no one can be complacent. 3 May is the day on which the media can remind governments and the public of the importance of freedom of the press and of how the global battle to attain it, continues.”

WPF1

Putting Children in DNA Databases

In Western societies, we tend to alternate between two conceptions of children: the fetishization of innocence to be protected from everything (and I mean, every freakin’ thing) on the one hand, and as a wild population to be tamed by all means necessary (including medication and all sorts of therapies) and to be treated with suspicion on the other. Here comes the latest brilliant idea, via the Guardian,

“Primary school children should be eligible for the DNA database if they exhibit behaviour indicating they may become criminals in later life, according to Britain’s most senior police forensics expert. Gary Pugh, director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard and the new DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said a debate was needed on how far Britain should go in identifying potential offenders, given that some experts believe it is possible to identify future offending traits in children as young as five.”

And that guy is Britain “most senior police forensics expert”? So, I guess Freudian “biology is destiny” is making a big comeback. And of course, while I was sleeping, it’s been firmly established that DNA = 100% predictive of behavior. Gosh, it is so stupid I don’t even know where to start. Fortunately, Mr Pugh’s opinion is not necessarily shared.

First problem, as mentioned, the predictive power of DNA. There is no guarantee that we might be able to identify in the DNA exactly what causes deviant or criminal behavior. First, criminal behavior is culturally and socially relative. Also, biological explanations for crimes have always turned out to be junk (remember testorerone theories… old criminology textbooks are full of these… all debunked). Of course, any use of the slippery slope argument without evidence should be considered with suspicion. Here again, the same lousy reasoning is used that tends to be applied to the “gateway drug theory”… smoke pot and you’ll end up using harder drugs.

Second problem, how do we select which categories of behavior will warrant the listing in the DNA database? Who decides? What if these behavioral definitions change over time? Who will have access to the databases? Can such a listing be contested by parents or teachers? Who identifies these behaviors in the first place?

Third problem, one raised in the 1960s by sociologist Howard Becker in his classical study Outsiders: the question of labeling process and consequences. Mr Pugh fits perfectly the definition of a moral entrepreneur. But we know that labeling has deep and long-term social consequences for individuals at the receiving end of the label. Or to use another prominent sociologist, this raises the question of stigma. What kind of limitations to social participation will labeled individuals have to face?

But, when one reads Mr Pugh’s reasoning, only one conclusion can be reached:

“Society needed an open, mature discussion on how best to tackle crime before it took place. There are currently 4.5 million genetic samples on the UK database – the largest in Europe – but police believe more are required to reduce crime further. ‘The number of unsolved crimes says we are not sampling enough of the right people,’ Pugh told The Observer. However, he said the notion of universal sampling – everyone being forced to give their genetic samples to the database – is currently prohibited by cost and logistics.”

Mr Pugh is a fascist. Oh, and beware of self-righteous and self-important individuals enjoining us to have a “mature” discussion… usually that applies to mainstreaming nonsense such as creationism, holocaust denialism and various conspiracy theories. And of course, Mr Pugh does not understand the concept of privacy or the simple idea that there is no such thing as biological determinism that would justify extending further the reach of the surveillance society.

Predictably, and thankfully, civil liberty groups are up in arms against this.

“Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, denounced any plan to target youngsters. ‘Whichever bright spark at Acpo thought this one up should go back to the business of policing or the pastime of science fiction novels,’ she said. (…)

Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers’ Association, said most teachers and parents would find the suggestion an ‘anathema’ and potentially very dangerous. ‘It could be seen as a step towards a police state,’ he said. ‘It is condemning them at a very young age to something they have not yet done. They may have the potential to do something, but we all have the potential to do things. To label children at that stage and put them on a register is going too far.'”

This being said, the British have already accepted significant element of the surveillance society, including ubiquitous surveillance cameras along with already existing DNA databases and counter-terrorism measures such as the monitoring of movements through commuter cards.

“Last week it emerged that the number of 10 to 18-year-olds placed on the DNA database after being arrested will have reached around 1.5 million this time next year. Since 2004 police have had the power to take DNA samples from anyone over the age of 10 who is arrested, regardless of whether they are later charged, convicted, or found to be innocent.”

Disturbing… and of course, that last bit takes care of the idea that if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear.