Haunts: the sky that knows no borders

This week’s New York Times Magazine is titled “Saving the World’s Women.” That’s an unfortunate title, made worse by the title of the lead article, “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. Does The New York Times understand the word crusade? Just this month, Blackwater’s founder/owner Erik Prince was reported to think of his company’s mission in Iraq as a holy Christian crusade, “tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe”. It’s The New York Times that broke this news: “C.I.A. Sought Blackwater’s Help to Kill Jihadists”. The Crusades come in many guises, and yet only one form.

“The Women’s Crusade” is nestled in a curious neighborhood of articles. “A New Gender Agenda” offers a fairly adulatory interview with Hillary Clinton, while “Madame President” offers a fairly adulatory interview with Helen Johnson Sirleaf. “A School Bus for Shamsia” tells a personal account of trying to do good for and by girls in rural Afghanistan: “it turns out that giving isn’t always easy.” An article on women’s philanthropy, “The Power of the Purse,” suggests that women giving to women in need actually isn’t all that complicated.  What’s complicated, according to “The Daughter Deficit”, is that in China and in India, “development” has not eradicated prejudice against nor disappointment in the birth of girls. To the contrary, modernity and prosperity have seemingly worsened the situation. And the last story, “Truck-Stop Girls”, is the `human interest’ piece. It combines a U.S.-based international aid worker, a Swazi sex worker, tears, compassion and wisdom. The issue as a whole follows a fairly predictable script, that of liberal concern for the poor women of the world.

Kristoff and WuDunn’s article centers on personal accounts of women’s heroic efforts to organize their own individual resources and those of their communities. These are contextualized by statistics that show how women in developing countries have it hard, especially when compared to the lives of women in economically `advanced’ countries.

The article is framed by “the sky”. Near the beginning, the authors note, “`Women hold up half the sky’, in the words of a Chinese saying.” That sky all but disappears until the very end, the story of Tererai Trent, a young rural Zimbabwean woman who struggled and organized, with the aid of an international agency, and managed to get an education, and is managing now to further her education, in the United States. Here’s how the article ends: “There are many metaphors for the role of foreign assistance. For our part, we like to think of aid as a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own. That is what the assistance to Tererai amounted to: a bit of help where and when it counts most, which often means focusing on women like her. And now Tererai is gliding along freely on her own — truly able to hold up half the sky.”

Individually, these are important and inspirational stories, stories to be shared and celebrated. At the same time, taken together, they are haunted by that sheltering sky.

An incautious or quick reader would think that the sky only exists in `distant places’, such as Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Liberia, Kenya, India, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan. An incautious or quick reader would think that there is no sky to be held up in the United States. That reader would never know that women of color, immigrant and native-born, comprise the fastest growing sector of the prison explosion in the United States. That reader would never know that women of color, immigrant and native-born, constitute the material as well as political body of the domestic service sector, one of the fastest growing in the United States, and, structurally, one of the most prone to abuse and super-exploitation of workers. That reader would never know that women of color have been targeted for violence, by policy makers and legislators, by law enforcement officers and prison staff, by employers and urban renewal `developers’. That reader would never know of the Crusade against women, and especially women of color, that goes on now, in the United States.

Women in the United States, and especially women of color, irrespective of where they were born, also hold up half a sky, also know themselves to be part of “a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution”. The sky that knows no borders, and recognizes no crusaders, sits over all woman, everywhere.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Security of Sex: Legally Bound (and Gagged)

In the good ‘ol US of A, we’ve been seeing some odd juggling around not just civil but human rights under the new administration. President Obama has been under fire for reneging on his campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for offering support of DOMA, though Obama recently issued a statement negating his previous statement. And the good news has been that there has been vigorous debate and even some voting regarding the Matthew Shepard Act.  These three issues are supposed to represent the pinnacle of LGBTQ rights in America: the right to shoot people for my country, the ability to legally enter into a heteronormative institution and the ability to put more people in jail for longer. OK.  These are considered basic civil rights that affect the entire ‘community’.   The problem is that none of these topics actually relate to the needs of the larger LGBTQ community, because is there is no community, no consensus.  The only thing uniform about this community is that there are individuals across every major racial group, ethnicity, gender, sex, religion and class that consider the ability to discriminate and even harm LGBTQ persons a necessary right.  Such universal disempowerment only exists for one other group: women.  Despite this, the larger issues affecting the LGBTQ community of domestic and sexual violence and abuse, unusually high suicide rates, under-education, harassment both generally and by police, discrimination, heteronormativity, etc. are overwhelmed by marriage, military and prison. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the struggle for ‘equality’ looks a little different in South Africa, but only a little. Africa’s largest economy has had full legal equality for LGB persons since the ratification of the post-Apartheid constitution, gender identity and expression or transgender rights are not listed.  Despite having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, South African LGBTQ persons are commonly subject to brutal acts of violence.  And they aren’t the only ones.  In particular, African lesbians in South Africa have been explicitly targeted for gang-rapes.  I’ve talked about this particular situation before, that women and specifically queer women are targeted is no accident.  That these acts are not causing mass outcry or even being consistently investigated is no accident. 

The United States of course is no better we just have a legal term for these types of acts. Individuals who commit these ‘hate crimes’ are often portrayed as either marginal and extreme or victims themselves of an awkward circumstance, in South Africa they are generally faceless groups of males, assumedly black.  Such portrayals justify larger apathy and inaction by removing these acts from the larger debate. When violence against LGBTQ persons is mentioned as being part of larger systemic prejudices, it is usually to say that violence is caused by laws against LGBTQ persons, that it will wane once there is full legal equality.   It is the same argument that has been used for women for more than a century.  Yet, the elephant in the room is the fact that South Africa has those legal rights that the mainstream American LGBTQ organizations are hung up on and not only are LGBTQ persons in South Africa not equal, they are the subjects of intense discrimination and violence.  Full legal equality, whatever that means, will not magically create a society of equals because the issue is only in part about laws.  It’s like giving someone painkillers and saying it will cure cancer.  No amount of legal progressivism will undo the damage of a country’s President making a mockery of rape and being elected despite it.  It is primarily about power and how disempowered groups are balkanized and ranked creating a system in which low class African males in Johannesburg and minority males in California gain power through the gang-rape of lesbians. 

Reliance on law, regardless of whether or not the laws are good, has not accounted for a lack of willingness to enforce.  The U.S. is established as the imprisonment capital of the world and South Africa is playing catch up.  If a state emphasizes that criminalization and long sentences equal justice but refuses to actually prosecute or even investigate acts of violence against LGBT persons, of color and women especially, then that government not only seems to condone these actions but sends the message these are just actions.  They are public services.  It’s the same message that both the Apartheid and Jim Crowe governments sent in their heydays.  Yet, now the messages are masked by so called legal progresses. The moral of the story remains the same as it has always been, ‘no one’ cares if you are poor, black, queer and/or female, no matter where you are. 

Megan Foster, themeg09@gmail.com 

Haunts: the rule of lawless

The United States immigrant detention system has been called a gulag. The California state prison system has been called a golden gulag. Millions of women, children, men inhabit severely overcrowded, ferociously under-resourced, rigorously unmonitored and opaque `centers’. This gulag has been likened to sites of bare life where national sovereignty is articulated by the power and capacity to kill and to reduce life to physical survival, and less. These descriptions are accurate, but they miss something. It turns out that the U.S. immigration detention system is just the most recent articulation of the rule of lawless.

The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law. In fact, when the rule of law looks in the mirror, it’s the lawless it sees, and then quickly names as dangerous other. This became clear this past week, when the Obama administration announced its intention to overhaul the immigrant detention system.

National Public Radio reported, “The Obama administration is planning to overhaul the nation’s immigrant detention system.” According to The New York Times, “The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a `truly civil detention system.’” The Austin American-Statesman called it a larger and then, the next day, a broader “overhaul of the nation’s immigration detention system”.

Everyone cried overhaul. Overhaul, to change significantly, abruptly, swiftly, with force or violence.

The first site of this supposed overhaul is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, in Taylor, Texas, a notorious private prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, and just down the road from Austin.

Hutto came to public attention over the past few years for its abysmal treatment of children and women. The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission and others weighed in and waged mighty campaigns. Now, children will no longer be sent to Hutto. In fact, `families’ will no longer be sent to Hutto. They’re going to the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

But Hutto will stay open, as an all-women’s immigration detention center. Michelle Chen, of RaceWire, wrote a terrific piece, “New Direction for Detention?”, that explains in great detail what Hutto means for women, what immigrant detention has meant for women. It’s been terrible, and there’s no reason to think it will improve.

At the same time, and here’s where the rule of lawless kicks in, many think the only way to overhaul the system would be to actually overhaul the system. NPR reporter Michelle Brand interviewed NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling on the overhaul. Zwerdling reminded Brand that immigrant detainees are “civil detainees”. They are charged with having broken civil, or administrative, laws, “like overstaying a visa”, but are housed with “regular criminals”, and so are treated accordingly: beaten, overcrowded. Many die for lack of medical care. Treated like prisoners in the U.S. system. Ask California, under order to release 43,000 prisoners. The difference is that the immigrants are, again, civil. As Zwerdling explained, “government officials have told me that 90 percent of the immigrants they detain never have a lawyer. So they can’t really even challenge their own detention.”

Why don’t they have lawyers? Because constitutionally, they don’t exist.

“Zwerdling: ` lawyers say the best way to make sure the jails treat immigrants humanely is to pass a law that requires it. Period.’

Brand: ` So, wait, there’s no law that says treat detainees humanely?’

Zwerdling: ` No, absolutely not. The detention standards are legally just guidelines, you know, so nobody can actually force the government and the jails to obey them.

And now some members of Congress have introduced bills that would turn those standards into law. And I asked the Homeland Security spokesman today, will you support that? And he said, no. And I said, why? And he did not give me an answer.’”

That, in a nutshell, is the rule of law. If no law says your category must be treated humanely, you have no legal, juridical protection. Period. And you will not get an answer from members of State about that. More accurately, radical silence shall be your answer.

According to Michelle Brané, Director of the Detention and Asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, when it comes to immigrants, “Our current laws are unforgiving and unrealistic.” Yes, but our current system of non-laws is lethal.

This legal system is one of negation. Everywhere, this negation, this system of absence-of-law, this reliance on written law as the only means of preventing abuse and atrocity, as the only means of `protection’, this is the rule of lawless. The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law, and it targets women. Don’t send women to Hutto. Shut it down.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: the babies’ give-and-take

Hillary Clinton visits Angola this week. The caregivers of Angola, the United States, and the world haunt her mission as they haunt this age.

Isn’t it curious that those who care for others can be called caretakers or caregivers? A caregiver is “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.; a carer”. A caretaker is “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything”. This explains why caregivers are mostly women, underpaid or not paid at all, who look after others in need: children, the sick, the elderly, you, me. This explains why there are caretaker governments and why there are no caregiver governments or States.

In Ireland, a caretaker is “a person put in charge of a farm from which the tenant has been evicted”. Angola is evicting thousands of people right now. 3000 family households were just bulldozed on the outskirts of Lusaka, to make way for gated condominium `communities’ and shopping malls: “”They arrived at around 3am,” explained Rosa, a pregnant mother of five who has lived for three years in the area of two neighbouring informal settlements known as Baghdad and Iraq. “First came the police, and then the machines and they just started to knock down the houses. There was no warning, we had no choice but to leave because of all the police so we just grabbed what we could and then watched as they pulled down our homes,” said the 29-year-old.”

What happens to Rosa and her five children, what happens to that future child of hers, if it survives its birth? What happens to Rosa, now homeless, when she goes into childbirth? The maternal mortality roulette is now firmly stacked against her. And what happens then to the five or six kids?

Maki knows. Maki is a fictional character in “Porcupine”, the title story of Jane Bennett’s collection, Porcupine. Maki is Black, Zimbabwean, lesbian, a writer and student living in South Africa, and she knows: “The statistics have been stable for centuries; the babies of the caretakers died with much more frequency than those in the caretakers’ care. It’s not a riddle.”

Rosa and her children, the women, men, children of Baghdad and Iraq, in the southlands of Lusaka, they must just die. If that’s economic and social progress, if their eviction and death is part of community formation, then Angola is a proper Caretaker State.

And Angola is not alone. We are living in a Caretaker Era, on a globe of evictions in the name of progress, in a world of caretakers’ children dying. The statistics have been stable.

Take the United States, a wealthy country. With all its wealth, the United States health care system is “one of the worst of all the industrialized nations.” In 2000, the World Health Organization stopped ranking national health care systems, because the data, they said, became too complex. In their 2000 assessment, of 191 nation states, the United States ranked 37th, and this despite spending a higher portion of its gross domestic product on health than any other country.

So, what happens to the Rosa’s of the United States? What happens to their children?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development Health Data 2009 report, “Most OECD countries have enjoyed large gains in life expectancy over the past decades.  In the United States, life expectancy at birth increased by 8.2 years between 1960 and 2006, which is less than the increase of almost 15 years in Japan, or 9.4 years in Canada. In 2006, life expectancy in the United States stood at 78.1 years, almost one year below the OECD average of 79.0 years….Infant mortality rates in the United States have fallen greatly over the past few decades, but not as much as in most other OECD countries.  It stood at 6.7 deaths per 1 000 live births in 2006, above the OECD average of 4.9.”

If Rosa is a caregiver in the United States, she’s an underpaid woman of color. She’s Black, Latina, Native American, Asian. What happens to Rosa, to her children, to her next child, if she’s, say, Black?  Black infants in the United States are more than twice as likely as white infants to die in the first year of life. In New York City, infant mortality rates were 3 times higher for black infants than for white infants in 2001. Neonatal deaths, that is, deaths that occur within 28 days after delivery, account for nearly two thirds of all infant deaths. Similar to the racial disparities in infant mortality rates, black neonates are more than twice as likely to die, compared with white neonates.”

These deaths are called amenable mortality. That means they are considered amenable to health care. That means, they could have been prevented. They could be prevented. They can be prevented. In the United States, the worst industrialized nation in reducing amenable mortality, Rosa’s death will be another `amenable mortality’. That of her children as well.

Prior to the recession, in the United States, women were foregoing health care, which is like saying that caregivers have been foregoing living in gated communities and shopping at upscale malls. Around the world, women are `foregoing’ needed health care. Rosa is, her five children are, her impending sixth child is. They are foregoing housing, health care, education, water, food. Whether Rosa lives in Angola or in the United States is irrelevant. She is meant to die, her children are meant to die. The statistics have been stable for centuries. It’s not a riddle.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com