Monday, September 21, 2009

News and Human Rights 7: Honduras Constitutional Crisis

I'm not sure any editorializing is really necessary in this story, so all the moralizing and big picture messages I usually paste all over these articles will probably be absent from this one. This is all pretty cut and dry stuff, and mostly I think it's useful because I get to jump on my high horse and tell you that there are things going on in Honduras and that Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift is not what you should be paying attention to when you consider current events.
I think that maybe I should name my high horse. What do you think a good name would be for a horse that you use to jump on and get real preachy and bleeding heart liberal about everything? Maybe Kanye West.
Yeah, it's gonna be Kanye West.
Alright, so Honduras.
Not the most politically stable place, historically. That kind of goes without saying, since Central America in general has been pretty rocky since, like, 1500. Mostly this has to do with white people coming across the ocean (as do so very many of our world's current political problems) and within the last thirty years or so, America has done its fair share of damage down there, as was discussed in the Chomsky blog. If you didn't read the Chomsky blog, just suffice it to say that America looks out for America's interests, not for the interests of brown people in foreign countries. So if it's a choice between a democratic socialist government that's already in place and working perfectly fine or a military coup that will ensure staggering human rights violations and the destruction of democracy itself, America won't get caught up in moral baggage. It will choose the financially sound decision, and coups are good for business. At least that has been my impression of the region's history, correct me if I'm wrong.
I would like to stress at this point that the most recent political upheaval in Honduras was not US backed, thankfully. Obama commented that the coup was illegal and that it would set a dangerous precedent in the world if we were to revert back to a time when coups were the standard for political transformation. As usual I both agree and hope he means what he says.
Here's the story about the Honduran Constitutional Crisis of 2009:
Honduras, by nature, is slightly suspicious of dictators. They haven't had a real good relationship with them in the past and they just don't want anything to do with them anymore. For this reason the presidential term in Honduras, according to the constitution, is only one term and only four years. I'm not a political science major so I can't say with any knowledge whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But that's the whole trick to government, everybody thinks everyone else is doing it wrong. Here's a good joke I know in that same vein:
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.

Anyways, Manuel Zemalya is the current president of Honduras, and earlier this year he called for a preliminary poll to be held on June 28 to see if the people of Honduras would be interested in adding a fourth ballot to the general elections that are scheduled to be held in November. What he said, exactly, is this: "Are you in accord that in the general elections of November 2009 there be included a fourth ballot in which the people decide whether to convoke a National Constituent Assembly?" What he means by "National Constituent Assembly," is that there would be an opportunity to revise and rework the nation's constitution.
Remember what I said about Hondurans being suspicious of dictators? Well, this suspicion led many to believe that Zemalya was basically trying to sneak into the constitution before the end of his term and extend the length of his presidency. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, "Opponents of Zemalya believe he was pushing the limits of democracy with his drive to extend the single four-year term of presidents to allow re-election."
See, I wouldn't call that pushing the limits of democracy. First of all, Zemalya and many others have observed that it would be impossible for Zemalya to run for re-election because the re-election is to be held on the same day as the ballot for the Constituent Assembly. Any political effects that the constitutional revision would allow for would come into play after Zemalya was technically out of office.
What I do think is pushing the limits of democracy is for the military to organize a couple hundred soldiers, storm the presidential palace, put a gun to the head of a democratically elected president, and deport him to El Salvador simply because he suggested an opinion poll in order to find out who would like to take another look at the constitution. Either pushing the limits of democracy, or, as Obama put it, committing a crime. And that is exactly what happened in Honduras on June 28, the day the opinion poll was to be taken.

Since the military has seized control of Honduras, police and military brutality is unsurprisingly on the rise. Amnesty International has reported hundreds of instances of students and civilians being brutalized by the police, beaten with batons while in the midst of peaceful marches and protests. Women have been especially vulnerable to these attacks and women as old as 59 years old have been beaten with batons during peaceful resistance. Many have been detained but released without charges. Curfews and check points have also been put into affect and are largely arbitrary, it would seem. To me, these look like great way to control for the sake of control.
As I read about these things, I can't help imagine how badly it would suck to live in a place where one morning you might wake up and your entire life has been flipped upside down because of a military coup. I don't think any of us can really understand what that would be like.
"Shit, did you hear? This morning Obama got marched out of the White House with a gun to his head and they sent him to Canada. Now the military's in charge, there's check points all over the roads, and everybody who thinks that this isn't such a good idea is getting their asses handed to them with the business end of a baton."
Sounds like a science fiction movie, but it's reality for millions and millions of people all over the world.
Oops, there's that moralizing stuff again. Sorry about that.

As of today, Zemalya is claiming to be back in Honduras while the government and a UN spokeswoman assure the rest of the world that this is not the case. The US has a lot of stuff going on right now, it's true, but our government needs to put more pressure on the Honduran military to allow its rightfully elected president to return to office for the remainder of his term, and to let democracy continue from there on out. For now, the situations goes unresolved.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and Einstein's Dreams

While these books don't have much to do with each other, they are sort of similar in their bizarreness, their shortness, and their short chapters. Also, I read both of them in the same week, so I would feel like I was cheating if I spaced them out for two separate entries.

First, I think I should digress and talk a little about how I came to have these books in the first place. As you may or may not have heard, a few weeks ago my girlfriend Lindsay and I were on our way to New York City for the end-of-summer-road-trip of a lifetime. First to NYC, where we were to stay overnight in Time's Square and see the nightlife, then on to Atlantic City and the ocean, followed by Philadelphia, and finally to Washington D.C. Instead, we ended up stranded on the Ohio turnpike when a piston misfired through the motor of Lindsay's Saturn, leaving a softball-sized hole in its wake. We found ourselves in downtown Sandusky where the hotels are overpriced, the recommended dining is The Weenie Hut (we ate their twice) and by the grace of god there happens to be a Borders. After a wrecked car and a trashed plan to see the East Coast, I wasn't in the mood for the likes of David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest, over 1,000 pages long.) I wanted something short, something easy to read and easy to get a lot of good stuff out of in a short period of time. While it's usually hard to find even one book like this, I managed to find two.

God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian is really classic Vonnegut. By this I mean the tone is perfect, the chapters are short, every page is brilliant and nothing happens the way you expect it to. This 76 page book is a collection of radio broadcasts that Vonnegut did in Texas some years back, claiming to be in the company of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian, while in a state-of-the-art maximum security prison in Texas, supposedly induced a number of near-death experiences for Vonnegut, at which time Vonnegut was able to go up to Heaven (just outside the pearly gates, as entering would mean his actual death) and interview whoever happened to be around that day.
What's best about this book is not the interviews themselves, for, in typically Vonnegut fashion, very little attention is paid to what the book is actually supposed to be about. Instead the reader gets a lot of Vonnegut's musings on death, for instance, that there is no hell. In this book, Adolf Hitler is shown to be strolling around outside the gates, and he confides in Vonnegut that he wishes some likeness of himself would be erected (I think) in the UN headquarters in New York with a German engraving that would be the equivalent to "Excuse me," or "Beg Your Pardon," in English.
We also find out that angels are the souls of babies who have died and whose souls are raised in heaven. In this book, as always, I enjoyed Vonnegut's undying optimism and humanism. Everyone goes to heaven, how nice is that? Vonnegut's epitaph is at its most appropriate in this book: "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman was second on my reading list, and it too was filled with three-page chapters and a lot of interesting stuff. This book is all about mis-imagining, or maybe re-imagining, time. The book is supposed to take place in the dreams of Albert Einstein while, in his mid-twenties, he was working in a patent office in Germany and at the same time coming up with his theory of relativity. The dreams in question take up about 90% of the book, and each one is an exploration of the daily lives of parallel universes (it would seem) where time exists completely differently from the way we experience it. In one reality time is a loop and all actions are repeated over and over again into infinity. In another it has been discovered that time moves slower for people further from the earth, so all houses are built on stilts up in the mountains. Likewise, another dream shows all buildings on wheels because it has been discovered that time move slower for people in motion. In one dream, time is not a reality, time is a sense like sight or taste. However, some people are born with a type of time-blindness and are out of the flow of time altogether.
What was most interesting for me about this book is that you begin with kind of easy observations about differences in time (that time might be a loop) and end with increasingly personalized and complex imaginings of time. Time becomes more and more relative to the people experiencing it as the books goes on, which while not the exact meaning of relativity, is genius nonetheless.

These are both books you can read in an afternoon and they are jam-packed with interesting ideas. They are good for the same reason poetry is good. Sometimes it's nice to swim in a sea of language, characters, plot and metaphors for hundreds of pages. But sometimes it's nice to read a book cover to cover in one sitting and soak it in as a whole right then and there. I like the idea that a couple of hours can alter your perception of the world around you if you've got a good enough book in your hands.

Friday, September 4, 2009

College For Free 7: The United States School System

This blog is about due for a rant, and this is as good a topic as any. In fact, this may be the best topic.

Since the time we are entered into the system, we're told that next year things will get harder. School may not be that serious right now, but next year it will be harder. In second grade I was told I had to learn cursive because next year I wouldn't be allowed to turn in anything written in print. In third grade we were told we couldn't talk during the tests because if we did that sort of stuff next year our teacher would simply take it away and rip it up. Sure, slacking off in middle school seems fun, but once you get to high school it's a no nonsense, all business, fucking bloodbath of discipline and homework. Alright, so high school's not that hard, but college is no laughing matter. You at least have to pretend to try in college. I mean, it's college for God's sake. It must be hard, right?
Truth: School never gets harder.

I once saw an episode of Doug in which Skeeter told our hero that once they got to middle school, everything would change for worse. Specifically, I remember a theory about the tests being so hard that they wouldn't even have questions written on them. The students would be expected to write their answers unprompted on a blank piece of paper and, ultimately, fail. But of course, when they actually arrived and began their classes, they found that it wasn't so bad after all, nor was it very different from elementary school, and everyone went about their business as usual.
This is an absolutely perfect description of my experience in the public school system.

I think the fatal flaw in our school system is the same fatal flaw that exists everywhere else: Money. When you turn such a fundamental system as education (or health care for that matter, but I'll get to that some other time) into a business, it is doomed for failure. This is a long-standing problem, but No Child Left Behind really wrecked shit, let me tell you. The crime of No Child Left Behind is that it relies on standardized testing, which has very little to do with actual intelligence. Intelligence is better measured through creativity and inquisitiveness, not the ability to blindly memorize facts for the duration of an hour-long test.
Here's the ugly truth of the matter: some kids need to be left behind. Not left behind in the big picture, I mean left behind a grade. If a student isn't performing up to par with the rest of his peer group, if he isn't grasping basic concepts, if he hasn't shown mastery of the subjects needed to complete that level of education, he should be: a) shown special attention if these short-comings are not his fault or b) be held back if it is the student's unwillingness to learn that is slowing his progress. It seems to me that a vicious snow-balling phenomenon begins very early on in the education process, a phenomenon among teachers called "Not My Problem."
I'm not sure when this process starts, at what grade level a child shows up ill-equipped to deal with the most rudimentary tasks of education and the teacher simply shrugs it off, but I know it happens. Students that aren't performing at an acceptable level are pushed through the system with C's and D's, failing to comprehend the value of education and, in fact, feeling alienated from subject matter that they should have been helped with instead of scraping by in. Scraping by is not really acceptable anywhere, ever, so why is it acceptable when building the foundations of an educated society? I really, really wish I knew.
This is how we end up with a generation of people who do not understand the very most basic things about the English language, even when it is the only language they know how to read, write and speak. This is how we end with a generation of people who can't do multiplication in their heads and who don't have any awareness of the true nature of the world. The system dictates that the students must perform well in order for the school to receive funding. But the students aren't doing well, because all the teachers know that it is far too late to sit down with a high school student and explain the difference between "to," "too," and "two." So what do these teachers and school systems do? They lower the standards until the bare-minimum becomes acceptable work.

Let me say something that sounds like bragging but is actually regret: I did very well in school. I have never failed a class in my life. I was the English Laureate of my high school. I graduated college in 4 years with Magna Cum Laude honors and a 3.7 GPA. And, to be honest, I have never tried very hard at school. In fact, for the most part, I didn't try at all. The quality of basic public education has become so sub-par that a college essay written with fantastic grammar, spelling and vocabulary will receive an A every time REGARDLESS of content.

Why is this in the College For Free section? Because this is something that I've always known but didn't start to depress me until I came to college. In elementary school I thought middle school would be hard, and it wasn't. The same went for my transition for high school. In college, I really thought that the lie would be real this time, that I would be challenged, that I would be pushed, that the classes would be hard and my classmates would be smart and the material would be worth getting out of bed for. Sadly, that was not the case. As I sat in lecture halls surrounded by disinterested students checking their facebooks and playing games online, I realized that college is actually just high school part 2. A college degree has become so expected in our country that the standards have necessarily been lowered to greet all those high school graduates who, from day one, have been pushed through the system while teachers stood back and said "not my problem."

My conspiracy theorist side says that this all makes perfect sense, because it's really easy to govern a population that is more interested in celebrity gossip than the tyrannical abuse of power exhibited across the globe by their own country. It's very easy to control a group of people who can't even spell the word "government." When you don't teach empathy or world history or colonization as part of the K-12 agenda, it takes no effort at all to convince an entire nation of people that Muslims (all of them) hate our freedom. Man, the only thing that would make people easier to control would be to make them poor. You can't very well question the government when you're trying to feed your family and keep your house. You just don't have time.
But that's ridiculous, right?
I don't know. Nothing is certain, ever. It's turtles all the way down, didn't you know that?