All posts filed under: Human Rights

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Australian Indigenous Activists Call Out White Feminism’s Deadly Blind Spot

In March, three Indigenous women flew to Canberra in an attempt to draw attention to a horror story playing out in their communities. These were Alice Springs Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price, who heads up the Indigenous Research Program at the Centre for Independent Studies; and Cheron and Meesha Long, cousins of 15-year-old Layla Leering, who died in 2017 after apparently being sexually assaulted in the Northern Territory. Layla’s death—along with that of two other girls, Fionica Yarranganlagi James and Keturah Cheralyn Mamarika—has been the subject of a coroner’s inquest, and has brought renewed attention to the threat that Indigenous girls and women face within their own communities. Unfortunately, the scope of that attention has been limited, because the narrative of intra-Indigenous abuse is seen as unfashionable to report. Since reporting my own story of childhood sexual assault, I’ve been closely attuned to the many other survivors who’ve shared their own. I’ve also observed how these stories are variously ignored or signal-boosted according to the political and cultural agenda of journalists and politicians—adding another layer of …

Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property—A Review

A review of On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Biblioasis, 96 pages (May 25th, 2021) The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, “This is mine,” and came across people simple enough to believe him. How many crimes, wars, murders and how much misery and horror the human race might have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch, and cried out to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this charlatan. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth itself belongs to no one!” Even if most sober-minded readers might dismiss Rousseau’s counter-factual history as a symptom of a dangerous utopianism, his critique of private property has fired the imaginations of radical thinkers and activists since before the French Revolution. While Rousseau himself did not believe we could return to a propertyless state as the “solution” to modernity’s problems, his view of history as a “fall” from …

Anti-Asian Discrimination Is Real and an Attack on American Values

There are two truths about Asians in America that go unsaid. The first: Asians are, on average, a model minority in America. I use the phrase “model minority” intentionally because it has become a common and loaded term: sometimes used in the pejorative, sometimes in celebration. The second: anti-Asian discrimination is real and institutional. I use institutional because of calculated policies by major institutions with consequences that disproportionately affect Asians. The sad fact is that the first truth—rather than being celebrated—seems to be causing the second. Let me first acknowledge that “Asian” is a sweeping category. Its breadth means it has averages. It contains a multitude of races, languages, and cultures. I am using it primarily to mean people of South and East Asian descent in America today. I use it only because that’s the best data categorization we have. Asian primarily refers to Chinese, Indian and Filipino that make up ~60 percent of Asians in America. I avoid BIPOC because it is unhelpful on three fronts. It assumes any skin pigmentation is the main …

Starvation and Ethnic Cleansing Stalk Ethiopia

“Forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten,” wrote eminent 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon of the “Aethiopians” as they “slept near a thousand years.” Ethiopia remains the only African country not colonised—its rugged mountainous terrain kept out intruders and helped to preserve one of Africa’s most unique cultures. The country is far more prominent on the global scene these days, in large part due to a terrible famine that seared images of its starving children into the world’s collective consciousness during the 1980s. But more recently, it has attracted attention due to its remarkable economic renaissance. The country was in the ascendant and its tourism industry was champing at the bit. A campaign was launched promoting Ethiopia as the Land of Origins—the cradle of humanity out of which the antecedents of modern humans set off from Africa around 185,000 years ago. But the world’s tendency toward forgetfulness has re-emerged since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military into Tigray, the country’s most northern region, last November. This move has plunged Ethiopia into deepening …

Dictatorship and Responsibility in Hong Kong

Thus, the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left without any possible leaders of resistance. So it was that ‘wisdom’ was instilled, that former ties and friendships were cut off. ~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1985). I Can moral life survive dictatorship? When a government intimidates its subjects; when it sows mistrust among them; when it penalizes virtue and incentivizes servility, how might men and women keep faith with themselves and their fellows? Citizens of democratic states tend to ponder such questions, if at all, with a detached, even theoretical, interest. Dictatorships happened then or, if extant, occur over there. But in the once-free city of Hong Kong such insouciance has vanished. For just over two decades Hong Kong lived the life of an anomaly. When Britain, in July 1997, renounced sovereign rule over Hong Kong, the colony became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the terms of the Sino-British Declaration (1984) and the articles of the Basic Law (adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1990), …

Cuba’s Doomed War on Independent Art

There were seven police officers, all dressed as civilians. They arrived at the improvised Havana music studio on the morning of Monday, September 28th, kicked down the door and found their target—Maykel Castillo Pérez, a well-known Cuban rapper and human rights activist who was in the process of recording a new song. They beat Castillo (better known as El Osorbo), dragged him out of the house, and took him to the Castillo de la Estación de Policía—a colonial-era fortress that serves as the National Revolutionary Police headquarters. There, Osorbo was incarcerated in a tiny cell without being informed of the charges against him or given access to legal counsel. When news of Osorbo’s abduction spread, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Osorbo’s wife, and a handful of other supporters went to the police station to demand the rapper’s release. “We told the officers that we wouldn’t leave until Maykel was freed, even if we had to sleep in jail, too,” Alcántara told me. But officers eventually apprehended these supporters, too, and dispersed them to other …

Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid

“If God were to humiliate a human being,” wrote Imam Ali bin abi Talib in the sixth century, “He would deny him knowledge.” If the woeful state of knowledge in lands beset by authoritarian regimes is any indication, a great number of human beings in our world have been lavishly humiliated, albeit by natural rather than supernatural forces. Nearly 20 years ago, a clique of Arab intellectuals sounded the alarm about this widespread denial of knowledge in their realm, and its many malign effects. The Arab Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Program, vividly illustrated the miserable condition to which Arab societies had been reduced at the dawn of the new millennium. It called attention to the “closed circle” that had long held sway across the region. In the past 1,000 years, the authors declared, Arabs collectively have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. This is a breathtaking fact, notwithstanding a thriving black market for prohibited books that escaped the official tally as well as the habit of …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

China’s Stateless Nations

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to. ~Frances Hui Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality. The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find …