WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

WTF Friday, 5/30/2014

Today’s WTF Friday comes to us from India, which has had yet another high-profile rape and murder. (If this keeps up, we’re going to have to introduce an “India: Land of Rape and Elephants” tag for the blog.)

The event itself was horrific: Two young girls from the Dalit caste, sisters aged 14 and 15, were found hanging from mango trees in a forest after being raped near Badaun, Uttar Pradesh.  But the circumstances surrounding the crime are what elevate it to true WTF status.

Circumstance the first: Police Involvement. Allegedly, one police constable was directly involved in the crime, while others at the local police station refused to lodge a report or investigate, even though the girls’ father reported the attack shortly after the girls were taken.  NOT GREAT, guys.

Circumstance the second: Rape as Retribution. The Times of India reported that the girls’ rape and murder may have been intended as retribution against their community, for daring to protest previous rapes committed by the same higher-caste assailants. The newspaper compared the violence to “the medieval times when feudal lords committed gory crimes to reaffirm their hold over the commoners.”  Hard to disagree.

Circumstance the third: Ugh, Politicians. Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, mocked journalists for daring to ask questions about the attack. “Aren’t you safe? You’re not facing any danger, are you?” he reportedly replied to journalists in Lucknow. “Then why are you worried? What’s it to you?”  Which makes sense, of course, because journalists usually only report on issues that are, at that moment, posing a direct danger to them personally.* Way to show sensitivity and leadership during a time of crisis, dude.

WTF?

*On the other hand, if reporters did follow that rule, there might be more material like this discussion of whether Osama Bin Laden posed a threat to reporter Jim Rutenberg’s dog, (“[i]t was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased “chatter in the system” about chow chows in general”), which remains my favorite thing ever published by the Washington Post. So that’s something to consider.

WTF Friday, 5/23/2014

Ah, Britain.

That clammy island nation has given me so much: my husband, my first deep-fried Mars Bar, an unexpected quantity of master’s degrees. (Even, for a time, a job scaring tourists into unconsciousness. Youth!) But even though the UK and I are besties, I can’t give it a pass on this week’s bit of WTF-ery.

You see, it has come to my attention that UKIP gained more than 150 council seats in the local UK elections this week. According to the BBC, polls project that they would have taken 17% in a national election, if it were held today. That seems quite excessive.

“Why,” you ask, “what is a UKIP“?

That would be the UK Independence party, whose political platform is composed largely of xenophobic fear-mongering about “migrants” coming to the UK. Some highlights from their recent political escapades:

  • That time when UKIP distributed a flyer claiming that the EU was going to allow “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK,” a surprising claim given that the most recent World Bank statistics peg those countries’ entire populations at 7.3 million and 20.08 million, respectively. (In case you’re wondering, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to Britain has not, in fact, turned out to be more than the total combined citizenry of both nations.)
  • That time when their party leader, Nigel Farage, told the Guardian that British people should “be wary of Romanians moving into their streets,” because of the immigrants’ “culture of criminality.”
  • That time when the UKIP MP candidate for Leicester South explained that he thought Islam was “morally flawed and degenerate,” and that “the increase of Islam in the UK is going to be a problem for the welfare state.”
  • That time when the UKIP candidate for East Sussex claimed that “The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist jews and financed by the bankers to make the general public all over the world to feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.”

Oh, okay then.

Seriously, British local-elections voters, WTF?

Towards a Unified Theory of Celebrity Activism (With Bonus Advice For Scarlett Johansson)

In the course of thinking far too much about celebrity activism, I have come to the conclusion that the most successful celebrity-activism projects are those in which stars pick their causes the same way that they pick their scripts.

Think about it: George Clooney’s work with The Enough Project might as well be the humanitarian remake of Ocean’s 11, with Prendergast as Brad Pitt, Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle. UN Goodwill Ambassadorships are the charitable equivalent of Oscar bait, projecting gravitas and award-worthiness, so is it any wonder that Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts have signed on? And Ben Affleck is primarily interested in projects that he can direct and star in, so it’s fitting that he struck out on his own to found the Eastern Congo Initiative.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stars pick their film projects because they suit their skills and personalities, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick their charities the same way. Indeed, an actor’s star power will be most helpful if the cause ties comfortably into the narrative of the star’s films, red-carpet appearance, love life, and vacations. (Angelina Jolie is the undisputed master of this, having now come full circle to make a film drawing on her advocacy work, instead of the other way around.) Things go less well when a celeb chooses a cause that is out of step with her actual interests (think Madonna’s ill-fated adventures in Malawi) or is famous for something that just doesn’t translate comfortably into a humanitarian cause (it didn’t take long for the subtext of Downton-era British imperialism to become the text of Elizabeth McGovern’s disastrous trip to Sierra Leone with World Vision).

Perhaps that’s a silver lining for Scarlett Johansson, who has been sacked as an Oxfam Global Ambassador after accepting a gig as a paid spokesperson for the controversial SodaStream. Oxfam is the equivalent of a quirky British rom-com. If it were a film, it would be Love Actually, or perhaps The Girl In the Cafe (And by “would be,” I of course mean “literally was,” given that the former featured Alan Rickman working in an anti-poverty organization that might as well have been called Londfam, the latter was – honest to god – a love story set amongst attempts to convince the G8 to alleviate African poverty.) Scarlett Johansson, it goes without saying, would have no business being in either of those movies.

So – assuming that her embrace of Sodastream has not rendered her a permanent pariah, ScarJo should choose a new NGO partner whose work fits more closely with her other projects. Her sweet spot is the sophisticated indie drama, and her most career-making roles – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Her – are muses, characters who inspire those around them, rather than the character the story is about. (I would argue that Lost in Translation fits that same theory, but with a more meta twist, as it is a movie about how Sophia Coppola’s own experiences inspired her to make Lost in Translation, with Johansson in the Coppola role – Johansson’s fictional past Coppola as muse to the present real Coppola.) If she follows the theory I set out above, then her next charitable collaboration should tap into that same narrative.

My suggestion is PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression around the world. Making the world safer for writers to tell their stories is a solidly Scarlett Johansson role, and it could lend further gravitas to her status as the thinking man’s manic pixie dream girl. She should wait for the Sodastream thing to die down (or, you know, just stop shilling for a product that takes advantage of an undemocratic and oppressive occupation), and then have her people call PEN’s people.

If Scarlett’s lucky, maybe some day Sophia Coppola will make a movie about how Scarlett’s selfless work saved a young Chinese dissident from prison, and then inspired him to write his Nobel-prize-winning novel about space robots who collect animals’ dreams and redistribute them to humans.

That movie would probably star Zoe Kazan, though.

Activism Wednesday: Pussy Riot, Part 2

While I don’t intend Activist Wednesday to be all Pussy Riot, all the time, I think we can all agree that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s performance on the Colbert Report last night deserves to be featured on this blog.

Highlights include their views on leadership (“We have different ideas about a bright future, and we don’t want a shirtless man on a horse leading us into that future”); their ability to control their narrative (when Colbert joked that he was going to edit out any critical comments about Putin, they replied, without missing a beat, that they were making their own tape of the interview – and good luck confiscating it, because “we have two years of experience hiding things from searches”), and their thoughts on their own release from prison (“we don’t think it was a very successful PR stunt. Maybe Putin made a mistake, and should just throw us back in jail”).

Watch for yourself. Part One:

Part Two:

Activist(s) of the Week: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Today’s Activists of the Week are Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the recently-freed members of Pussy Riot who now advocate for prison reform in Russia.

Nature of activism: Currently focused on prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia, previously various protests in support of freedom of expression and civil and political rights

Activism highlights:

Participated in the 2007 “fuck for the heir Puppy bear” public-sex protest at the State Biology Museum in Moscow, while heavily pregnant (Tolokonnikova). As part of Pussy Riot, staged guerilla performances of punk protest songs, including the “punk prayer” performance in February 2012 that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Since their release, has advocated for prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia.

Notable Sacrifices: Imprisonment in Russian labor camps, where the living was decidedly not easy:

“Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.

Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only — it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.”

Got a nomination for the Activist of the Week? Email me!

Activist of the Week: Alaa Abd Al-Fattah

Happy Martin Luther King week! (Yes, it’s a week. I make the rules ’round these parts. Shush your face.)

Rather than focus on King himself, though, it seems more relevant for this blog to honor his legacy by recognizing the sacrifices being made by activists around the world today. Like King, they have suffered physical danger, imprisonment, and separation from their families in service of their goal. Unlike him, however, they are still struggling, still in danger, and still in a position to benefit from our support and attention.

So, this post is the first in an ongoing series highlighting the work and sacrifices of individual activists. (And not in a “I sacrificed my summer vacation to work with poor brown children” kind of way – whites in shining armor need not apply.) Enjoy.

This week’s activist is Egypt’s Alaa Abd El Fattah.
Photo of Alaa Using His Laptop
Congratulations, Alaa! I would send you some Lucky Charms or a certificate suitable for framing, but we’re pretty sure that it would be confiscated by your jailers.

Nature of Activism: Support for political freedom and civil rights in Egypt.

Activism Highlights: Contributed to freedom of expression in Egypt by founding the Omraneya blog aggregator. Participated in protests against all Egyptian governments that have been in power during his lifetime: the Mubarak regime, (most notably during the climactic Tahrir protests in February 2011), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (“SCAF”) which replaced Mubarak, the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government which succeeded SCAF, and the current military regime which took power last summer.

Notable Sacrifices: He has been arrested and imprisoned three times: by Mubarak in 2006, (45 days in jail); by SCAF in 2011 (56 days in jail, during which he missed the birth of his son), and by the current military government (55 days and counting, he is still in prison).

Degree of Success Thus Far: Mixed. On the one hand, the Mubarak regime was overthrown, and eventually replaced by a democratically-elected government. On the other hand, that elected government proved somewhat less than awesome, and was itself overthrown by a popular uprising. The military-led government that replaced it has not exactly embraced democratic ideals.

Alaa’s friends on his work, and its value:

From Jillian York:

“I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state. Those who are bold, those who do not relent, will always threaten the terrified and ultimately weak state which must, to survive, squash its opponents like flies. But Alaa will not allow himself to be crushed like that, I know.

There is little more I can say that hasn’t been or wouldn’t be better said by Egyptians, those who fought these battles on the street while I merely watched, an observer with a few good friends on the ground. But the one thing I know is that we must not give up. Alaa hasn’t, and we cannot.”

From Alia Mossalam:

“Alaa is in jail because he openly speaks against injustice. He is as open in his opposition to the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood as he was of the crimes of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, as he is with the new regime. As a result he has been tried by every regime, from Mubarak to the current military state.

[…]

There is no bigger threat to despotism than hope. And Alaa inspires hope wherever he goes, because he believes justice is an achievable reality, and because he believes in the rule of law, despite those who oppress us in its name. Alaa is dangerous because his ideas and enthusiasm are contagious. Where would we be if we all had hope? How could a system that breads futility, survive us?

In an article he wrote months ago, Alaa described the excessive arming of civilians (in popular committees) as well as security forces as “khan’ misahit hub al-hayah” (a stifling of the capacity to love life). The term has stuck with me since, because somehow, in the ugliness of battle, we tend to forget that the root of this struggle is the love of life.
If I were to articulate why it is that Alaa would risk so much, what it is he is resisting with all his might, it would be exactly that — he is resisting the stifling of our scope to love and to live.”

More thoughts on Alaa from his friends can be found here, here, and here – all are well worth a read.

A Partial List of People Against Whom I Am Currently Waging a “Sex Strike.”

“And lurking in Waldman’s novel, as in many portraits of the dating scene (ahem, Lena Dunham, ahem), is a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name — or that can be spoken of only in half-jest, as when the novelist Benjamin Kunkel told Traister that the solution was “some sort of a sexual strike against just such men.”

Because Kunkel is right: One obvious solution to the Nathaniel P. problem is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them.”

- From “The Daughter Theory”, Ross Douthat, published in the New York Times on December 14th, 2013

Ross Douthat has revealed women’s secret superpower: the ability to get people to do whatever we want by simply not sleeping with them.  Now that the secret’s out, I have decided to go public with my own “sexual strikes,” in order to ensure that I get credit for their eventual success.

That’s right, folks.  Although it may appear to the casual observer that I have been in a committed monogamous relationship for the last 13 years and ten days, I have in fact just been engaged in a very comprehensive organized campaign of sexual protest.

Targets include, but are not limited to:

  1. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: No sex with me until chemical weapons renounced and destroyed, violence targeting civilians ended, and government successfully transitioned to a representative democracy with robust civil liberties protections.
    • Success of strike thus far: Partial. Assad showed some initial responsiveness to the strike when he agreed to abandon the use of chemical weapons, but very little progress has been made since then. I am steadfast in my resolve: I absolutely, categorically refuse to have sex with President Al-Assad until all of my demands are met.
  2. U.S. Director of National Security James R. Clapper: No sex with me until the NSA ends its program of massive computer-based surveillance of Americans, and also stops lying to Congress about it.
    • Success of strike thus far: Limited. On July 1, 2013, Clapper apologized for his “clearly erroneous” answers to questions posed by Senator Ron Wyden in a March Senate hearing, and claimed to have “forgotten” about the Patriot Act. An apology for lying that pretty clearly contains new lies only strengthens my resolve to continue this strike. I therefore continue to not have even a tiny bit of sex with Retired General Clapper.
  3. Goddess of Commercially-Successful Pop Music Beyoncé Knowles: No sex with me until she releases a new album in 2013.

Readers, feel free to share news of your own strikes in the comments.  (And Bey, call me.)

A Field Guide to the North American Responsibility Troll

I would like to thank Emily Yoffe for her article The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted, in which she spends more than 2,700 words explaining young women’s “responsibility” when it comes to preventing their own rapes. Not because I like it – it’s infuriating – but because it serves as a perfect example of a particularly insidious form of concern trolling. Let’s call this sub-species of troll, who criticizes women’s behavior in the guise of being concerned for their well-being, a “responsibility troll.”

The responsibility troll has a problem: he or she has a lot of thoughts about the way Women Ought to Behave, but knows that it’s socially unacceptable to insist directly on double standards for men and women. Luckily, however, our society is totally fine with restricting women’s lives if it’s for their own good (or, sometimes, for their children’s). Problem solved!

The responsibility troll won’t say that it’s not ladylike for women to drink the way men do – but she wants you to be aware that studies show that women who get drunk are more likely to get raped. The responsibility troll knows you think your right to choose is important, but he feels you ought to know that studies show that women who have abortions end up sad ladies who are full of regret. The responsibility troll doesn’t tell women that they should prioritize their babies over their careers – but does feel a need to point out that studies show that exclusive breast-feeding is best for the infant. Studies show, you know. The responsibility troll loves studies.

Responsibility trolls mimic the markings of genuinely helpful friends, so it can be difficult to distinguish them on first glance. However, if you know the signs, you’ll be able to easily spot these trolls in the wild.

1. It’s not your fault you do dumb things.  You can’t be expected to know any better.  (Because you’re dumb and the responsibility troll hasn’t told you what to do yet.)

The responsibility troll can rarely resist insulting the people he or she is supposedly trying to help. Emily Yoffe, for instance, refers to college women as “naïve” and “inexperienced,” repeatedly references their lack of “responsibility,” and suggests that they won’t know intoxication increases their vulnerability to sexual assault unless they are specifically trained on that subject – preferably via a program that includes older students describing the horror of their own assaults. Genuinely concerned friends won’t start from the assumption that you’re a moron, so if this happens to you, you’re probably dealing with a responsibility troll.

2. Double Standards = Double the Fun!

The responsibility troll loves double standards. Except, he or she will hasten to point out, they aren’t really double standards – it’s just that women should address woman problems, and men should address man problems. See? Fair!

Getting raped, for instance – that’s a woman problem if ever there was one. (You would never know, from listening to a responsibility troll, that men can be raped too.) That’s why Yoffe tells her daughter to remember that “it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself” from sexual assault.

Being falsely accused of rape, on the other hand, is a man problem.  Yoffe tells her hypothetical son that “it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.” (No mention of anything the imaginary lad might do to prevent rape, such as intervening if he sees an acquaintance trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman. That would be asking a man to solve a woman problem, and therefore unjust.)  Personal responsibility!

3. It’s not that it’s your fault, it’s just that you have to take responsibility for your choices, and if you had made different choices, this would never have happened.

The responsibility troll can’t imagine any effective way to solve woman problems except via improvements in women’s behavior. It’s all about “personal responsibility,” remember? That’s why, to a responsibility troll, the victim’s intoxication is the most relevant part of this particular story:

“As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

That’s right: this perpetrator was apparently a known sexual predator. The rapes this man had committed in the past had not led to his ostracization from their social group, so he was still around, trolling for victims. This victim’s friends, who were sober enough to realize what was going on at the time and remember it later, failed to intervene when they saw this known rapist leading away their inebriated companion. And yet Yoffe focuses on the victim’s behavior. Personal responsibility!

To the responsibility troll, the solution is always more personal responsibility – preferably on the part of women. Later in her article, Yoffe spends several paragraphs bewailing the non-rape-related dangers that binge drinking poses to students of both sexes, but then brightly offers a solution: “If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest – and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle – I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.” (Emphasis mine, because of wow.) Apparently, it’s not even worth considering asking men to act differently until women’s behavior is perfect – at which point we should just cross our fingers that the runoff of from all that feminine rectitude will have magical dude-improving powers.

Readers attempting to spot a responsibility troll in the wild will do well to remember that no one who actually cares about you will suggest that you rely on “trickle-down” anything. Such statements are a sign that you’ve fallen into the clutches of either a responsibility troll, or a Reaganite Republican. Either way, it’s time to make your escape.

4. Pat Riarchy? Didn’t he play first base for the Yankees?

The responsibility troll is very, very uncomfortable examining any role that patriarchy, racism, or other such societal-level issues might play in the problem at hand – or the degree to which his or her trolling might be reinforcing those same harmful norms. The responsibility troll will make the obligatory references to societal obligations in order to defend herself against snarky bloggers like yours truly, but they’ll be tossed off in a cursory fashion, and usually followed immediately by the word “but.”

For instance: “[o]f course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent.”

“Built-in complications?” Wonder what those could be.

The source Yoffe cites – a guide to prosecuting alcohol-facilitate rape issued by the National District Attorneys’ Association – contains an extensive discussion of the ways in which social disapproval of women’s drinking makes it difficult to prosecute rapists. For instance, “jurors may view a voluntarily intoxicated victim with skepticism or dislike, and may assume that she put herself in danger with her behavior.” (Apparently responsibility trolls serve on juries, too.)

Articles like Yoffe’s bolster those harmful beliefs, but she doesn’t engage with them.  Instead, she compares the difficulties of prosecuting rape-by-intoxication cases – in which the victim’s intoxication must be proven – to the relative simplicity of prosecuting DUIs, in which the perpetrator’s drunkenness is at issue. By doing so, she manages not only to subtly equate being the victim of rape to being the perpetrator of a DUI, but also to completely miss the fact that her own source says that such judgmental attitudes are one of the reasons why alcohol-facilitated assaults are so difficult to prosecute in the first place.

5. Who cares about the facts? Personal responsibility!

The claims made by the study-spouting responsibility troll are often at some variance from the facts on the ground.  For instance, as Yoffe’s colleague Amanda Hess pointed out in her excellent response to Yoffe’s article, statistics suggest rates of rape and female binge drinking are actually negatively correlated with each other: the Justice Department’s national crime victimization study shows that there has been a precipitous fall in the number of rapes per capita since 1979, while rates of binge drinking among women spiked in the 1990s and have remained steady ever since.*  And it’s also quite odd that Yoffe responded to claims that a 14-year-old high school student was assaulted by her teenaged schoolmate by criticizing the choices of … college students?  It’s almost as if the responsibility troll is just looking for any excuse to make a trollish point.

All joking aside, though, this kind of thing does real harm.  It shames victims.  It supports norms that demand that women choose between their freedom and their safety.  And it distracts from strategies that might actually lower the incidence of sexual assault.  It needs to stop.

* The pedantic nerd in me notes that I have not examined the methodology of those two studies, and so can’t say if it’s reasonable to match their results against each other in this way.  That being said, I haven’t seen any evidence that the correlation goes the other way, as Yoffe seems to be claiming.