Category Archives: Topics

What to do…

This economic trend we have seen of late is in no way surprising with regard to the data presented in the articles. I think the Occupy Wall Street movement had a good message and could have had a lot of impact if it was not organized via twitter. The growing disparity in wealth is a huge problem in this country, highlighted by the economic recession that started in 2008. This coupled with the recent capitalistic practice of moving production overseas, where production is less expensive and regulation is not as strict. Companies are taking good paying, reliable jobs elseware, leaving people without a job, and with few options. This is not just the plight of the factory worker; whole divisions of large companies have been laid off. Much of the despair in Poughkeepsie was caused when IBM downsized drastically; with less money flowing into the county, there was less leisure money to spend in the city, turning a pedestrian Main Street into what it is today.

The US News article brings up a very good point about higher education. It is more and more expensive, making scholarships more and more competitive, and dashing the dreams of higher education for many kids. Though I am highly appreciative to the 60% of Vassar students who are not on financial aid, making it possible for me to attend this school, I feel this underlines the problem. If so few have so much, what is left for the rest of us?

Income Inequality and Education in the US

The United States is ranked 44th out of 86 countries on income inequality. This is well below the ranks of other major countries in Europe such as Germany and France (Fisher, 2013). Income inequality in the United States has direct effects on areas such as education and public health, causing it to lag behind other major industrialized nations in these areas as well.

Math and Science scores of the US on the international stage fall well below leaders in Hong Kong and Singapore. However, this statistic is rooted in deep regional, racial, and most importantly socioeconomic issues (Zakaria, 2011). There is de facto segregation in the United States by neighborhood due to the disparity in income between social classes. Middle and upper class families often live in suburban neighborhoods quite separately from the poor and ethnically diverse families in urban areas. School and community resources differ by social class, and therefor differ also by race and ethnicity (Berliner, 2005). There is a major gap in resources provided to students in low socioeconomic neighborhoods compared to those with well-funded education systems. These resources range from textbooks to availability and modernity of science labs. In analyzing a 2003 PISA study on subject scores internationally, Berliner notes that if educational opportunities available to white students in our public schools were made available to all our students, the US would have been the 7th high scoring nation in mathematics, 2nd highest scoring nation in reading, and the 4th highest scoring nation in science (Berliner, 2005). Income inequality then creates a cycle where students, often people of color, receive sub par education and are unable to attain high paying jobs and fail to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

The affect of income inequality in education has major ties to health and the lack of affordable health care in the United States. Vision is a simple example. Two different vision screening tests, one among the urban poor in Boston and one among the urban poor in New York have found that 50% of the children tested had some easily correctable vision deficiency. Most of these cases were not followed up on or corrected and the lack of corrected vision has a major effect on educational performance. Another health issue affecting education in low socioeconomic neighborhoods is that of asthma. Families cannot afford to provide regular doctor visits for preventative care of asthma attacks. Since low-income families are more likely to live in urban areas with high air pollution, asthma is more present and students are forced to miss school. Hospital rates for asthma attacks are high in these areas and it puts a strain on the health care system (Berliner, 2005). Missing days of school would have a direct effect on the academic performance of these students. Not to mention, the strain on the health care system takes money away from communities that could be allotted to improving the education of that area.

Zakaria talks a lot about America’s competition with nations increasing in economic power. How would it be possible for the United States to compete for technologic advancements against nations far exceeding our student’s performance in math and science? Education has an enormous capability of maintaining our standings on the world stage by producing efficient and educated workers to succeed and participate in a globalized economy. It will be crucial for the future success of the United States to decrease the soaring rates of income inequality in order to positively impact education and health in the future.

 

(Edit: The Berliner article if anybody is interested. Some really interesting statistics.)

http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=12106)

Education as our saving grace?

In The Post-American World, I felt that Zakaria tried to talk about everything and in so doing, ended up talking about nothing. Obviously, trying to tackle a topic as wide as the current state of America and the world would not be handled well by anyone, but most people would not attempt to. I found myself skimming over frivolous facts that seemed to fill every paragraph most of the time, and I believe Zakaria could have made similar points in a much more succinct fashion.

That being said, Zakaria did raise many interesting issues, despite a complete lack of citation for most of the information he presented. I found his section on the influence of American education on the world, and vice-versa, to be intriguing. As someone interested in the American education system, it was interesting to view our system in a more international lens. Most of my studies focus on the American system and its influence within our country, without thinking much on its influence on the outside world.

Zakaria claims that “higher education is America’s best industry” (209) which is a big claim to make. He cites(or really references without citation) research which says that the United States has 7 or 8 of the world’s top ten universities. This data does not specify whether or not colleges as well, or just universities in a stricter sense. Since Zakaria provides no citations, I remain blissfully unaware, but I’m not sure if it would influence the outcomes at all. Regardless, the statistics are impressive. The United States has realized exactly how to make higher education work, in which case I agree with Zakaria that it remains the one field which we still hold complete dominance of, for now.

However, it is absolutely hilarious that we boast about having the best higher education system in the world, and yet our lower schools are some of the worst. Somehow, we managed to harness the ideals of teaching adults, but forgot those same ideals when creating the lower schools. Since lower schools have been around for much longer, the newer higher education institutions were able to learn from example and implement the methods which truly work: teaching to think, not to memorize. You would think this principle would have been applied to all our schools at this point though, but you would be completely wrong. For some reason, our lower schools are moving completely backwards, and a teaching-to-the-test approach becomes increasingly more dominant. This is terrifying.

Zakaria discusses his views as a student from a non-American school, which were interesting because he praised the American universities so highly, then immediately made fun of Americans for being so bad at math and science in the lower schools. The countries that he then praises for being competent in math and science are mostly the asian countries which fully harness the idea of teaching to a test and only to a test. To them, students doing well on every test is the only thing that matters in their life-long journey of becoming something. Therefore, these countries do incredibly well in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study which is used to decide which countries have the best educational systems.

I had a huge problem with the idea of something called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study being used as an indicator of which schools were best. I might be wrong, but I don’t see any way that this study could even begin to actually understand how “good” a country’s schools are. However, I am not surprised that this study is used for the purposes of worldwide comparison. If you look anywhere in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with math and science, while the humanities and social sciences are being pushed from the public eye. Even looking at Vassar, which would probably be considered an example of America’s top universities by Zakaria, moves towards a more heavily dominated math and science campus, as we are all constantly reminded of with the construction everywhere.

Zakaria claims that America’s educational system is perhaps our saving grace in this day and age because we teach our students to think and not to memorize, but if you actually pay attention to our schools, we are moving closer to the systems which only teach to the test. Zakaria problematizes these systems greatly in comparison with the way American students are able to think freely and voice their own opinions, but the world’s structure as a whole forces even the most liberal of us to engage more with the maths and sciences and less with humanities. The idea that all the world’s schools are compared based off of their TEST SCORES in MATH and SCIENCE blows my mind. If people recognize the power in teaching students to think, which they clearly do when stating America has the top universities, then why why why why why does the world push everyone to outperform each other on tests? I feel that at this point enough people have problematized standardized tests that we should be moving away from them, but every day we seem increasingly more caught up in their ties.

 

Zakaria and Huntington

Like some of my classmates, I found The Post-American World to be rife with oversimplifications and hollow reasoning, especially for a book with such grand ambition. Fareed Zakaria’s populist stylistic and writing choices were definitely a lot more detectable, almost distracting, after having spent the semester reading mostly academic texts. Despite these deficiencies I actually think that Zakaria presents his argument effectively, and that the general audience that his book is targeting will probably be in agreement with his claims—that any threats to U.S. global hegemony are overstated, American power remains strong, but we must be able to cooperate with rising powers like China and India, and so on.

Above all, I’m most interested in exploring the relationship between Zakaria and his supposed mentor, Samuel Huntington. Notably, The Post-American World adopts the same “West versus the Rest” framework that Huntington had used for dissecting world power, and there are plenty of other echoes of “Uncle Sam” (my new moniker) in Zakaria’s work. Considering that Zakaria was a student of Huntington’s at Harvard, I found this quote from Chapter 5 particularly telling:

“When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization—whether in math or poetry—it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” (2008:193)

This quote became even more fascinating upon my discovery of Zakaria’s sentimental eulogy in Foreign Policy magazine after Huntington’s death. In this piece, Zakaria pays homage to one of the American educators who helped him develop these critical faculties and “teach him to think.” Some nuggets of wisdom from Uncle Sam include:

“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.

“…Well you know, Fareed, my view has always been that you put your best work out, you let people attack you, and then you move on. You can spend your whole life getting caught up in letters to the editor, and ‘I didn’t say this and I didn’t say that,’ but it’s pointless. The best thing you can do is write the next book which will cause disagreements among people.”

Additionally, Zakaria notes in his tribute how Huntington was a man of principle; he evidently demonstrated this in one case when he was asked, as the chair of the Olin Institute, to encourage more minority students to apply to the group’s fellowships. Huntington’s response? “You know, I really can’t go along with that. I feel very awkward sending special invitations to people based on their descriptive qualities, so you’ll have to tell the dean I won’t do it.”

Indeed, the same man who carved out a world order based on certain civilizations’ ascribed capabilities and limits—and then “invited” those inferior cultures to either join the West or fail—apparently feels uncomfortable making decisions based on individual’s “descriptive qualities.”

Oh, Uncle Sam. It’s seems as though the education that Zakaria attained was less “learning how to think,” and more of an exercise in conforming to the ideology of American exceptionalism. And as an immigrant from India, Zakaria’s ascent to the elite circles of American life have likely been contingent upon his embrace of these hegemonic principles–which in fact do more damage to the Global South and concentrate American power. Is this what “human rights imperialism” looks like?

Call of Duty

The Road to Guantanamo made one thing very clear; when it comes to terrorism, there is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty.
The experiences of the the prisoners, from capture, to transport, to torture, to release, detailed an incredible incoherence in intelligence opperations. The guards and interrogators took the forms not of protectors, but of perpetrators. Throwing insults amidst injury, The Road to Guantanoma showed armed service members to be desensitized, highly masculine, and rigid. Methods of interrogation were stale, given, knowing. The lack of hope felt by the detainees was palpaple amidst the brute action and unapologetic torture.
But I was not surprised. Not disgusted, but disgruntled. That this is what I have come to expect. This is what I have known. Which makes me think… if my protectors are perpetrators, if my heros are villains… how does that inform my experience of safety?
How does this silent acceptance of terror affect America’s conscious self? Our covert operations and anti-terror efforts come from a culture that values violence, but furthermore from a culture whose safety has often been secured through violence. Genocide, slavery, conquest, apartheid. Violence has helped secure hegemonic rights. But Violence is also used to ease psychological pains… or perhaps exacerabte them.
The other day, some friends of mine were playing Call of Duty. Previously, they’d been playing Grand Theft Auto; hit up a strip club, punched out some gangsters, ran over a hooker, shot down a helicopter. As the tone shifted from city scape to war zone, I closed my eyes and curled under a blanket. As the room shook with the sounds of machine guns and roadside bombs, I laughed at how safe I was. How safe I felt. The sounds didn’t even bother me. But they did scare me.
Just like the looks on my friends faces; their mouths relaxed, their eyes focused, their legs open. “Fuck you dude! You fucking terrorist! Die, asshole!”
And all I could feel was the fleece wrapped round my face and the bed beneath my back.

An endless war

 

Jeremy Scahill said it correctly when he said the world is a battlefield, it seems these days that we are fighting a war that never ends but simply shifts to the next target that fits the WAR ON TERROR model. The United States government has taken a hands on all or nothing approach to the wars on terror in Iraq, and Afghanistan, from 2001 until now the amount of violence and force used by the military has only increased. But is this violence only perpetuating anti-american sentiments? Something I will never understand about the military and it’s decisions is why kill the masses on suspicion of terrorism when that only stirs the pot and creates more violence to deal with in the future.

I really have little knowledge on this subject but common sense tells me that the United States government is simply fueling the fire with the decision to use drones, night raids, and illegal detention against the people of Afghanistan. As more and more innocent people are killed and families destroyed the feelings toward American forces changes, people rally and suddenly an entire population is against US forces and we’ve created a bigger situation than was ever necessary. Scahill speaks to this issue several times, The decision of the US government to “waste a lot of very good assets going after midlevel guys who don’t threaten the United States” simply “engenders more hostility”. And by creating more hostile extremists the US has further and further to fight before it’s War on Terror can end. 

My question is why were the decisions made if the outcome was to create a larger problem. And I could speculate as to how government power and US imperialism play key roles in this, as well as the superiority complex the US seems to have created in relation to the worlds problems and threats. Since 2001 when the United States felt it’s first real outside threat and the war on terror began, our military tactics have become increasingly devastating and invasive as the US tries to assert it’s dominance over all those who harbor anti-american sentiments. Imperialism is the current dominant trait of the United States with regards to the war on terror, the government and the country are threatened and the military is instantly invading countries left and right looking for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. We are military based country so I guess it makes sense that we would react military first.

War has never been my strong point but I do understand literature, so maybe putting it in Utopic terms would make things easier for me to comprehend, similar to George Orwell’s 1984 at some point we enter a war that never ends but simply shifts from one enemy to another, from Eastasia to eurasia and back with the coercion and deception of the government pulling the wool over the publics eyes to the true nature of the war and the violence that occurs. Even the secret prisons and torture of domestic and foreign terrorists relate, and if 1984 is where we are headed with this war on terror then I don’t want to know what’s coming next.

 

 

Human Rights Imperialism in The Road to Guantanamo? Just kidding.

While human rights were definitely a factor in The Road to Guantanamo, I would argue that human rights were anything but forced upon people, rather they were taken away from Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif and the rest of the detainees at every turn.  In lieu of the discussion surrounding Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of “human rights imperialism,” and the resistance to it, in his article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” watching The Road to Guantanamo was horrifying, and seemingly backwards.  If “human rights imperialism” is defined as the blatant denial of human rights, then yes, Huntington’s point is most definitely reinforced by the film, however, that definition should best be revised, because then it’s only natural for resistance to this form of “imperialism” to be present.  Therefore, with respect to this complete absence of “human rights imperialism” in the film, let alone any indication of any access to basic human rights, I think the incredibly punitive stance society often takes with respect to prisoners is so incredibly pervasive in our culture that, specifically with the war on terror, the idea that someone is “innocent until proven guilty,” has been completely ignored.  Instead, as reflected in the film, there is such a strong inclination to assume people are inherently guilty until proven innocent, or unaffiliated, and in the meantime, those people are deserving of the punishment and torture that the imprisoners see fit at the slight chance that their ungrounded assumption of guilt is correct.

For instance, in “CIA Secret Prisons Exposed – The Disappeared: Are They Dead? Are They Alive? Ask Congress. Ask the President,” Nat Hentoff addresses how “as long as ‘the war on terror continues’…’detainees’ have vanished from the face of the earth,” because they are being held in secret CIA prisons (Hentoff, 1).  As seen in the film, being held in these types of prisons, specifically Guantanamo Bay, results in detainees being subject to abuse, constant and relentless questioning, manipulation, isolation, discrimination, and condescension.  Just at the surface level, detainees were denied access to their human rights of, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” the article that, “No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  While the attention to these three human rights is in no way all encompassing of all the violations that took place, the detainment of these prisoners was grounded in the detainees’ choices to exercise and practice the latter of these human rights.

Yet, with the intention of preventing any further terrorist attacks within the United States, the need to treat prisoners so punitively certainly played out.  The men in the film were assumed to be guilty, were questioned, and were punished for telling truths that reflected their innocence.  They were often manipulated into admitting to false guilt in order to escape the tortuous pattern.  They were denied social interactions, physical activity, and were often held in solitary confinement for long periods of time, something that the United Nations describes as “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” (Hentoff, 2).  However, like the majority of detainees, Shafiq, Ruhel, and Asif were cleared of all “charges,” essentially making the three years of punishment and detainment useless for those administering it, but making those three years painful and unwarranted for those who should have never been detained in the first place.

The Road to Guantanamo definitely forced the question of the effectiveness of the detainment of those suspicious of terrorist activity, as well as the effectiveness of punishment as a means of proving guilt, when in many cases that guilt was never there.  As a result, since it is clear that punitive measures were ineffective in this system, why is it that the United States’ prison system is still so heavily centered around punishment?  Is there a way to cater the system for rehabilitation effectively?

And while it can be argued that there was good intention behind, “[searching] for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying,” how does that intention justify, in any right, the blatant denial of multiple human rights and the “cruel and inhuman treatment” detainees were subject to (Risen, 1 & Hentoff, 2)?

The West and the Rest

In “The Clash of Civilizations,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington maps out a geopolitical paradigm that is as disturbing as it is destructive. Huntington’s work imagines a new post-Cold War world order, one which pits civilizations against one another in a struggle for power, and one which centers the United States as an exemplar of supreme virtue. Huntington paints broad strokes of ignorance in ascribing certain values and capabilities to entire cultures and–surprise–Western civilization triumphs within Huntington’s crooked hierarchy. On page 40 of the text, Huntington writes,

“Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce a reaction against ‘human rights imperialism’ and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures.”

This line of thinking constitutes the framework for what Huntington subsequently calls the “West versus the Rest,” an axis of world politics that essentially demands conformity to Western culture from non-Western civilizations.

“The Clash of Civilizations” was a frustrating reading especially after going through the Gordon and Kaplan pieces, which each offer stark empirical evidence of the heinous practices carried out by the United States government–policies that, in Gordon’s words, are “closer to the government’s own definition of a rogue state than it is to a model democracy.” (2006:44) Over the last ten years or so during the so-called War on Terror, the United States government violated international law and sovereignty, committed countless human rights abuses, and purveyed over immense destruction around the world. Yet, the values that Huntington bestows to the West only involve democratic principles, human rights, liberty and equality, etc. This reasoning that the United States is a Good Power, on a mission to protect world order and that any violence that accompanies this mission is subsidiary, has been employed to dehumanize non-Western civilizations and rationalize war against them.

As I was reading, my mind went to an interview I had seen with Jose Rodriguez, a former director of the National Clandestine Service which authorized the torture of detainees:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC9PP94f4OQ

This video offers a really illuminating look at Rodriguez’ worldview, which could comfortably fall into the Huntington paradigm. In his justification for authorizing torture, Rodriguez explains (in rather patriarchal language) that the United States were compelled to “put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” because it was a matter of protecting American lives. American exceptionalism is the ideology underpinning this justification, because it allows our government to absolve itself from blame for executing these crimes. As Gordon points out, “American exceptionalism – the assertion that the US is an inherently more democratic, egalitarian and just society than all others – has always been a lie. The current Bush government has indeed formulated a policy of exceptionalism, claiming the right of the US, as a sovereign God-given Christian nation, to exempt itself from the same laws that govern the conduct of other nations.” (44)

The West is the entity committing these atrocities, often at the expense of the “Rest” of the world; but since, as Huntington’s writing shows, the West can wipe away these incidents and project a pristine image of standing up for democratic principles, the West never has to be held accountable for its wrongdoings. Instead, the flawed “Rest” must accommodate to the West’s standards.

Imprisonment and Mistreatment

This week’s keyword “War” by Susan Jeffords contrasts war’s explicit definition as armed conflict between two parties to a late twentieth century definition that includes more than direct military encounters. These statements introduce the idea that in a modern world, war transcends traditional boundaries to encompass a wider range of interactions between conflicting parties (Jeffords, p 236). Gordon’s description of United States prisons in dealing with anti-American terrorists in his “Abu Ghraib: imprisonment and the war on terror” presents the prison system as a facet of war in a modern political climate.

The article describes security housing units (SHU), where prisoners are subjected to excessive force and abuse. These forms of abuse include forced cell extractions, electronic stun devices, chemical sprays, total isolation, and sensory deprivation/overload. (Gordon, p 50). These practices are inhumane and are human rights violations. “While these practices violate both the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights and UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, the US does not recognize these standards (Gordon, p 50).” The United States fails to recognize international standards for the treatment of prisoners. Why is it that the United States feels justified in maintaining abusive policies in the treatment of prisoners?

Gordon poses the answer of this question to be the United States belief in its own exceptionalism. “Bush government has indeed formulated a policy of exceptionalism, claiming the right of the US, as a sovereign God-given Christian nation, to exempt itself from the same laws that govern conduct of other nations” (Gordon, p 44). The US justifies the abusive practices in prisons as protection of their nation. However, reported abuses in prisons are often cruel and unusual and ought to be viewed as unacceptable practices to preserve national security. The leaked pictures of prisoners in Abu Ghraib include images of prisoners completely naked being threatened by dogs, piled on one another, and handcuffed in contorted positions. There is limited justification in these practices as necessary for preserving national security and must be viewed as the voluntary dehumanization of these prisoners.

It does not appear that the incidents of mistreatment of prisoners are the exception to the rule. The article presents the case of Corporal Charles A. Graner, Jr who had been fired from a position at Fayette County Prison after being accused of routinely beating and humiliating prisoners. In May 2003, Graner was called to duty and served in a supervisory position at Abu Ghraib because of his experience as a prison guard (Gordon, p 48). The hiring of Graner after reported abuses of prisoners in the United States can be logically concluded as a deliberate choice by the United States to not only preserve inhumane practices but to actively seek out prison guards willing to practice these abuses on foreign captives.

The development of prisons by the United States government has increased to an estimated eighty-nine military prisons as well as the presence of secret prisons. Extensive methods are used to preserve the secretive practices surrounding these prisons and expulsion and discredit are the consequences of exposing these practices (Gordon, p 43). If it is not in the goals of the United States to modify these practices and the US continues to disobey international law, there appears to be a bleak outlook in the just treatment of terrorist prisoners in the future.

Democracy and Religion

In my “Unsettling America” class we recently discussed Democracy and Religion, and I think it is pertinent here after the “Democracy” section by Fred Moten in Keywords.  While Moten touches more on what constitutes a democracy, and the Democrats from a political party aspect, religion is still relevant to democracy.

Religion and democracy relate as religion facilitates the cultivation of liberty and democracy in America.  In a democracy, to an extent courtesy of religion, all are considered equal. Religions effect everyone being equal, as all should be deemed equal, especially according to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Without religion, people may be immoral and have minimal incentive to adhere to laws.  People follow rules through the guidance of religion.  Without this religion, people essentially could “run wild,” without regards to anyone or anything.  Religion had an effect on laws, especially regarding civil rights and religion.  To call the Civil Rights Movement a religious revival would be an injustice, as the movement was too big to have any one label on it.  But, to say it had nothing to do with religion, would be naive.  All people, no matter there race, ethnicity, or creed are created equally, and the Civil Rights Movement tried to establish just that.

Liberty and democracy are about freedom and free-thought.  Religion promotes both of these, even if, for the free-thought, that it was likely first conceived through notions and concepts of religion.  One would be remiss to not mention just how intertwined Religion and democracy truly are.