Category Archives: human rights

Here’s a question

Do you know which year marital rape became illegal in every state of the U.S.? How about the year when the last US state ratified the 19th amendment (not including Alaska and Hawaii)?

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man’s inhumanity to man

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, considered the largest and deadliest of the extermination camps established by the Nazis during WWII. There aren’t hard numbers, but an estimated 1 million people died at the camp (950,000 of the 1.2 million Jewish people sent there; the rest comprising Romany, Polish, and Soviet POWs). Most of us know the general history and horror of WWII, but we really only get a simplistic and somewhat sanitized view. Even when you visit the Holocaust memorials around the world (such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC) to bear witness to the atrocities that were committed, there is still a gulf between what happened “back then” and today.

Auschwitz wasn’t the only concentration camp; some were also extermination camps, and others were work camps. Nazi doctors experimented on prisoners in horrific ways in the name of “science” (or more accurately, simply barbarism, as there is not a lot of consensus that the experiments done hold any sort of scientific validity, aside from being completely immoral, unethical, and horrendous).

But seventy years is not a long time. Less than a lifetime, really, especially for someone who lives in North America or Western Europe. A mere blip in human history. But still we seem to relegate what happened in WWII to some distant past, feeling secure in our knowledge that something like that could never happen again.

Of course, it has happened again. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, only to name a few. Some are still ongoing: Syria. NE Nigeria. South Sudan. And these only name the large-scale conflicts that descended into genocide. Even while WWII was happening, and the Nazis were promulgating their theories about racial superiority, the US was in the middle of its own eugenics programs: sterilizing women with mental illnesses or living in poverty. The Tuskegee Airmen. Guatemala.

It’s easy enough to say “Never Again”. But one need only look at the plight of the Romany in Europe, the school-to-prison pipeline in the US, and the not-too-distant legacy of state-sponsored violence in Latin America today to wonder: did we really mean it? “The World’s most unfulfilled promise” is one way to look at it.

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the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others.   In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that.   Do you know what palm oil is?  Most people don’t.  But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form.  It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course.   It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins.  It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers. 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone?  Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods…. and not much in the way of nutritional value.   Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees. 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo.   As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful.   You see palm fruit lying on the ground.  Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  But no undergrowth.  No birds. No monkeys.  No elephants.  In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant. 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery.  Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks?  Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons.   But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

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