do you already know what you are getting?

truth reflects reality
but what is reality
& what is then true?
knowledge implies truth
& who can claim to possess knowledge that
is purely true to reflect the real?
– Alex B. Hill (date written unknown)

Whether we all know it or not we are enslaved by a great system, a system that propagates discrimination based on race, division rooted in the ideas of economic class, military control bent on power, and a political will lacking the necessary passion to stand up for what can easily be perceived as right (as opposed to wrong). Right: equal rights for all people of the world, equal opportunity, fair wage and living standards, a smile from a stranger, an atypical helping hand when it may seem uncouth, truth spoken from the mouth of a fellow on the misdeeds of a few who would wield a vast power in the name of many, not denying people their basic needs. Wrong is spewed from the system in many ways, most are unrecognized and more unknown to the general populace than one might think.

I just went to the movies tonight and what was most striking was not the movie itself, but the previews. I nearly forgot that a movie was to follow. There was a new film on beating the US Treasury’s money shredder, one on the fictional assassination of a US presidential double and the preceding systematic cover-up, a film decrying US torture in wartime, the government extending a soldiers’ contracts: Stop Loss. The current climate of things is more than ready for a movement away from destruction and into progress. When I say progress I am not talking about reform, there is no place for reform in the current system. There needs to be change, as in complete, no holds barred flip of the system. People need to be the pinnacle of the equation – people in the sense that every man, woman, and child needs to be ensured that the reality they live with is not also the systematic structure that keeps them in poverty, at war, without proper clothing, or without the ability to pursue a higher dream. Here in the USA, we have the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – why must it only be a pursuit and not a right?

Before this day at the movies, I had another similar excursion. An exciting day to go see the new political thriller just in theaters. Lions for Lambs was one of the best political thriller for our time, now. During World War I, the Prussian troops used to call the English grunt workers, on the frontlines, Lions because of the ferocity with which they worked and fought, these men were Lions for Lambs. The Lambs were the politicians who sat in their plush offices and said to reporters, “we will do whatever it takes to win,” as their men die by the thousands, day by day pouring the fiery passions of their hearts into their work. These men were only to be forgotten by the Man, the politician on the pedestal, the system for which they had risked their very lives to preserve – a construct that had no place for them and never will.

This is the overtone of the most recent political thriller to come out of movie making land. Sadly much of the message was lost to the American public before they had even seen the movie. It has become very common that political thrillers are not appealing to the American public. They don’t like the harsh realities coming to life on the big screen, they don’t like the messages, they don’t like being called out in the theater where they came to enjoy a little bang-bang shoot’em up action. And so in the end Americans do not see these movies and political thrillers, which very well may be later called the greatest films of their times, fall in the box offices to popular whim. I recently read a very poor review of Lions for Lambs in which the student author claimed the film relied too much on political generalities and made the message too confusing. I would say that this was the prime example of the audience being lost to the message. As this student was the target and missed the mark completely.

Warning: Possible spoiler of Lions for Lambs

The film opens, in a hypothetical situation mirroring the present circumstances, with a ‘liberal’ journalist meeting with the new, young, up-and-coming republican political star. They are to spend an hours time getting the ‘truth’ to the American people. The Republican, played by Tom Cruise, tells of a new strategy in Afghanistan to win because “America needs a win.” The typical Republican rhetoric of today played out very well as a representation of the current political situation. As the Republican explains this plan in detail the story cuts to a team of Army Rangers beginning to initiate this new strategy to win in Afghanistan. They tear across the sky in their Chinook helicopter to land and take the high ground in the mountains. Suddenly they are hit by anti-aircraft fire, the gunner is hit and one of the soldiers falls out the back of the helicopter. Another soldier hesitates and then jumps after him. We then cut to a student visiting his political science professor, played by Robert Redford, to talk about how his class involvement and grades have fallen as well as his attendance.

The Republican dishes his empty rhetoric, soldiers fall in a new push in the war on terror, and a student discusses his grades. The professor asks the young man why he has stopped attending his class yet has continued to do so well on his exams. The student hesitates and replies that there are girls, and his frat house obligations, and college social stuff. The professor cries bullshit and asks ominously, “Why have you stopped caring?” when before the student used to spark debates and challenge ideas. The student responds that he is fed up. He is fed up with the shit that is the political system and he can no longer see the point. The professor begins to tell the story of two of his former students who used to give him as much hope as he had now in this fed up young man. They came from a tough area of LA where they grew up fighting just to live another day in the ghettos. Guns, drugs, gangs – when they made it to college on baseball scholarships they did not waste their time and jumped right into the political science course. As a class project they presented on how to solve America’s problems.

Their solution made a lot of sense. They noted how good we are with deployment abroad with US troops stationed across the world, but in America there is very little ‘deployment.’ They proposed that the Junior year of High School not involve the formal classroom setting at all. Juniors would be placed in either a Peace Corps type program, AmeriCorps program, or an ROTC program. They followed up this plan by noting the great and terrible disparities in America in literacy, access to opportunity, and potential in life. Drawing from their tough experiences as young people from the ghettos they saw this as an incredible way to get people involved. I have to admit that when they talked about this program in the film I could not help but think how amazing it would be if this were an actual program. Another student asks them, “You both talk a big game, but how serious are you?” They then place their military enrollment dispatches on the overhead. They are headed for the Army. They figured what good is it to talk and not be involved in something if you want to make change.

Cut back to Afghanistan. The soldier who fell out of the helicopter is unconscious and the other has a broken leg trapped in the snow. These soldiers are the two students that the professor talked so highly. Alone, trapped on the top of an enemy infested mountain the two former students, now soldiers, await their fate as the enemy closes in on their position. At the same time the Army is sending in rescue missions to help them, the Republican is getting the bad news that this new plan is failing, and the student meeting with his professor is wondering what he is supposed to do. Airstrikes to drive back the Taliban fighters fails and the two soldiers are shot dead just as help is on the way, the reporter refuses to write the politically charged article on the Afghanistan plan to boost the Republican party presidential hopeful, and the professor says to his student, “What if I give you a straight B, no plus no minus for the rest of the semester. If you don’t show up, don’t do your reading, and don’t turn anything in. A straight B.” The student doesn’t know what to say, but time is up and it is another person’s turn to have a meeting.

Back at his frat house the student is asked by another frat brother what the meeting was for. He responds that it was a meeting about class and grades. He is then asked, “do you already know what you are getting?” End of movie. The high schoolers behind me couldn’t believe it as many who have reviewed this film couldn’t. “A terrible end to a terrible movie,” said one. “I don’t even get it,” said another. That is the point! The film is much deeper than the usual hollywood hit. There is more to it than typical partisan political arguments and explosions with soldiers. This is a call for involvement, political action, doing something! We can no longer just sit by and watch things happen and complain about them later. Do we already know what we are getting? More importantly are you fine with that, are you satisfied? The end of the film noted how politicians bank on the apathy of the general public. They count on our ignorance of the situation. Great minds die in unnecessary combat, others get fed-up studying politics, and still others refuse to be manipulated by politics to give them good press – but for some reason that has become their job. All I can ask is “where are we going?”

All this has made me think and this post has been sitting in my draft box for a long while. “Why have I stopped caring?” Why should I care when everything is so arbitrary and falsely constructed in a terribly flawed system! Why should I waste my time and effort “playing the game” when all it does is mislead and fulfill my thirst with the nothingness. A higher education, while it is a great privilege, is wrought with discrepencies and lies. I needed the opportunities and intellectual challenges (outside of class), but in the end it will mean nothing if I do nothing. I hate the system and the system hates me. I will be judged as a failure by the system and doors will be closed. I am already judged as a failure – my grade point, my dislike of the institution, and my perhaps ‘radical’ and challenging ideas. I know that a degree can be seen as a way to be judged as less of a failure, but what is the point anymore? (Don’t worry, I am not a nihilist) I know that in many regards I have been very successful, but those are all discounted (no matter how great) by my performance in school, by my calls against the current system, by my lack of respect for those ensnared by the system. I am called a “naive” white boy ‘saving’ the African continent. I am called a “naive” radical – speaking that my professors are full of unthought (in the sense that they regurgitate ideas rooted in the terrible foundations of the system). I am called a failure lacking purpose and knowledge of how things work in reality, but it is a false, constructed reality actualized by the few. I have learned so much from my friends, personal quests for understanding, and engagements with student organizations in thoughtful discussions. I am here, at college, because of societal structure and expectations. I am here because this is what I am supposed to be doing.

Back again to Lions for Lambs. Do you already know what you are getting? Do you understand what you are already getting and are you satisfied? Is it enough to be able to say that I at least tried? For me that is not good enough. To be able to say I changed it, I destroyed it, I made it right is good enough. I am told that, “sometimes you have to play the game.” In no way, shape, or form will I play this game. I do not care to be recognized in this game. I will not don the jersey of this system to sit on the bench to watch the game from the sidelines. The system counts on our collective apathy, but that can easily be changed. Apathy is what fuels this game. An apathy that leads to a game of destruction, discrimination, and death. I already know what I will get if I continue to follow this system without thinking and acting for myself. I know the planned structural violence that plays out day to day – and I am not satisfied. Are you? What will you do?

Now playing: J-Live – Satisfied
via FoxyTunes

the continuous scramble for africa

From the so called great scramble to the new scramble, I believe that there never really is any difference or change in scrambling. The imperialist tendencies and actions towards Africa have been concentrated in one continuous scramble – for resources: land, people, minerals, diamonds, timber, markets, etc. A continuous scramble and a systematic exploitation and looting of the African continent. Globalization and the global political economy are generally not looked at through the African perspective. While I can hardly offer that perspective, I work to understand.

For a long while many people, non-Africans, Europeans and African alike have understood the systematic destruction of Africa. Quoted in an article in Alternatives: A book written by Walter Rodney in the 1970s was titled “how Europe underdeveloped Africa” and Karl Marx noted in his Critique of the Political Economy that the “hunt for black skins” signaled the dawn of capitalism. It seems the African continent may have been doomed from the birth of the capitalist dream.

The Scramble for Africa began long before the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the African cake was divided by European powers for land claims and resources (slave trade). The scramble, however, did not end after that conference. The European powers were not appeased with just staking claim to the land. Oppressive and brutal remained in control and increased their thirst for more, and more. The Alternatives article notes that there now exists NEPAD, the WTO, EU, AGOA, EPA, and I think you could place any international agreement that places the wants of those in power over the long exploited African people.

The article also notes the increase and spread of the Chinese influence in African markets seeking to gain access to fossil fuels and resources. There is now considerable critique into the effects and practices of the Chinese (I have been part of this). However, this makes the practices of the EU and the USA almost completely fall from the picture. Well the Chinese may be pursuing extremely detrimental practices in Africa they cannot be left as the scapegoat for why Africa is “under-developed,” exploited and robbed of resources to spur growth. The European powers and the USA need to be exposed and the ills of their actions need to be dissected and understood as well. These “historically-structurally disadvantaged societies” need leaders who will place the interests of their country-people above their own advancement. A lot needs to happen if the scramble is to end, but that requires a recognition to the problem and a plan to empower local communities. Resources do not have to be the downfall of a country. As long as the resources are used properly and agreements are in place so that the benefit reaches the people resource can be a positive. It is my opinion that African countries need to adopt a near protectionist policy in regards to socio-economic matters if the scramble and following exploit is to stop.

China is pouring money into Africa for “development” flooding markets and building infrastructure with money that will flow right back into China, the US is militarizing the continent at a frightening rate (nothing new) to “fight terrorism” and gain access to resources in their “triangle of interest,” Brazil, India, Russia, and countless other countries are positioning themselves to yet again eat from the African cake. This competition can work as a positive for Africa, but only as long as the minority of elites need to recognize the great need of their people.

america and the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time and our children’s?

HIV/AIDS – Part I:

A silent call from a distant land
Crying for a helping hand, so
How long will it go on?
Ignorance and vanity
Supercede humanity, so
How long will it go on?
I want to know, how long will it go on?

We can’t wait any longer
They’re crying out, doesn’t it matter
We can’t wait any longer
No, no. Too long in a slumber
Shake it up, wake it up now.
We can’t wait any longer. No, no.

Another child is laid to rest
Another day of hopelessness, so
How long will it go on?
And every day we’re on the fence brings
Another fatal consequence, so
How long will it go on?
I want to know, how long will it go on?

Yuko awezayo kusikia kilio chetu? (Can somebody hear us crying out?)
Twaomba msaada wenu (Somebody help us)
Aweko mwenye kttoka (Somebody save us)
Aweko mwenye kutupa uhuru (Somebody free us)

From all that I have done and all that I have read the one thing that creeps into my mind every time the issues are talked about are invisible people, exploited people, dying people I cannot help but have the above song, “We Can’t Wait Any Longer,” run through my head (Michael W. Smith, 2004). The most important theme that the HIV/AIDS pandemic highlights, I believe, is the theme, plain and simple, that people are dying! People are dying! I think Smith speaks to the crisis well in his song and this important theme is what will eventually save lives and prevent the HIV/AIDS pandemic by inspiring people to act. The HIV/AIDS crisis is not just another growing problem prevalent in Africa, it is not just a media game of growing numbers, it is not just another cause to shirk and say someone else will take care of it. This pandemic is a cause that affects us all whether we live in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. The major theme of why people are left to die is what I will focus on, which will draw on America’s actions, structural violence, the impact of the disease, and, most importantly, indifference. Bringing people together in activism should be our biggest concern now if we are to change the course of history.

America, as Greg Behrman writes, has slept through the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time. How can America, the supposed greatest nation, remove itself from such a world-altering event – which is still taking place? It took some time to actually determine what the HIV/AIDS disease was and what it does, but even after discovering, the response was a hand waggle at best. You cannot get to know someone just by waving to them. You have to stop, talk, and listen – three things that America neglected to do. At the meeting on the Potomac, four years after the CDC discovered the disease, the President of the US publicly acknowledged that AIDS even existed. Four years! How can that be! Four years, by today’s numbers (still not accurate) is 12 million people! 12 million dead people! Two years ago the World Health Organization (WHO) was supposed to accomplish their plan of 3 by 5 (to get at least 3 million people on ARVs by 2005). That initiative failed, but why – indifference, lack of support, lack of passion. These themes keep coming back over and over. “It is difficult to see what is happening, harder to measure, easiest to deny.” (Barnett & Whiteside, 5) This great indifference is all too evident in politics. Politicians and policy makers and the media are all too concerned with the past and can’t look to the immediate present. HIV/AIDS is a huge issue of the present, but it has been too often in the media and newspapers and they now go for the more exciting, flash-bang issues of everyday life. People are dying, but the media needs people to read their papers and politicians need to look good in office to get re-elected for another term without controversy.

Authors, Barnett and Whiteside, point out that the US could have stepped up and emerged as an international leader at the 1987 International AIDS conference, but instead later that year Bush (Sr.) adopted a policy to keep all people infected with HIV/AIDS from entering the US. This action goes beyond indifference and speaks to the great ignorance that America and the world had and has about HIV/AIDS. This was not the first time that the US failed to take critical action. In the second presidential debate in 2000, Bush (current) was asked about the role of the US intervening on the continent of Africa to prevent humanitarian catastrophe. His response, “Africa is important. . . but there’s got to be priorities.” (Behrman, 246) Priorities! How about saving lives, how about preventing death – is that not a priority for the US political system? In 2002 the pandemic reached the mainstream media in full force. Behrman quotes an opening editorial by Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post,

“[…] sometimes the obvious needs stating, because it is taken for granted and then quietly ignored. A century from now, when historians write about our era, one question will dwarf all others, and it won’t be about finance or politics or even terrorism. The question will be, simply, how could our rich and civilized society allow a known and beatable enemy to kill millions of people” (297)

This quote sums up the ultimate American attitude of indifference. We were too caught up in politics and money and terrorism to even see the murder standing at our doorstep. The US as Behrman says, slept through the AIDS pandemic. His words and quote have a great impact on how we, as Americans, should view our response and caring nature. The AIDS crisis really asks the painful question of how “we” value other human beings. Are human beings of no importance unless they are advancing or helping to advance our country or position? Are human beings just numbers? 130 people die each day in Ugandan IDP camps, 3800 people die each month in the violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 3 million people die each year from AIDS – are we just supposed to take those numbers in their pure numerical value or should we delve deeper into the true impact of those numbers?

This brings about another underlying theme, the impact of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. Each number has the face of a person, out of those three million people is a life, a life just like yours or mine, a life just as valuable and precious, a life so intricately linked to a family, a community, a city, a country, a world. AIDS was not just a health problem, it was a catastrophe that touches on every dimension of national and international society. (Behrman 173) This story is based on true events:

A father, seeking work in the transport industry since work is scarce in his villag in Africa, dies after contracting HIV/AIDS from a sex worker at a truck stop. He leaves behind a family with 6 children. After HIV/AIDS was contracted, the first child born afterwards most likely died from in vitro infection. That family is now without a “breadwinner” and provider (in the typical patriarchal system). With the father gone, the mother will have to find a way to make an income for the family to survive. The children may not be able to attend school anymore, most likely only a few were going to school to start, because they are now needed to work or cut costs. Now the children are helping work at home and the mother is trying to find work so that the family can get the basic things they need to survive. Many women faced in this situation of extreme poverty can find only sex work to earn money. This increases the chances of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS, if she was not already infected from her husband. The mother, now having the added responsibility of generating income, will very likely contract HIV/AIDS from her work, if that happens then it is only a matter of time until she will succumb to AIDS. Due to her impoverished situation and lack of income, receiving treatment is not an option. Now her 6 children have watched their father die and now they have lost their primary care giver – their mother. Children now are out on their own, without a family structure, trying to survive, can we even imagine?

The HIV/AIDS crisis has the face of a woman says Stephen Lewis. That statement is all too true. Women are the most affected, most vulnerable, and most impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Women are, for one, more biologically vulnerable, they are bound by traditional and societal practices, they are forced to sell their bodies when their poverty becomes too much, all this on top of caring for a family and having the responsibility of providing food, clothes, and health. Stephen Lewis’ statement should more accurately read ‘the HIV/AIDS crisis has the face of a dying woman.’ Why must one family have to witness so much death? Just in this one family story there have already been three deaths and now six orphaned children fending for themselves in one of the harshest environments to survive. That environment is of a developing country. The family forms one root of a community and now that community is weakened by so much loss. The orphaned children will be left to fend for themselves since the it will be too much of a burden on their own families. Largely those infected with HIV/AIDS are members of the workforce (age 15-49) and when the workforce is disappearing due to AIDS, the economic impact is severe. The economic impact starts at the family, then the village community, and eventually that impact reaches the national level. How is a community to dig itself out of the already present poverty with a rampant disease coursing through and killing its people? As Barnett and Whiteside write:

“Where people lack material resources and do not have access to institutions and organizations beyond their limited and poor locality, they cannot be expected to take on extra costs and responsibilities in the absence of outside support. The great challenge for those who would assist communities, households, clusters and ultimately individuals to deal with the awful consequences of the AIDS epidemic is to face realities – to develop interventions and methods of support that recognize these realities, which can be effective at the local level and can take full account of the forces of globalization which will otherwise only exacerbate the already established processes of poverty and exclusion.” (195)

This quote is the key to what we all can do to intervene in the AIDS pandemic. Although it does tell us directly what a single individual can do, it should help us to remember reality when we do intervene or urge others to intervene. It does not tell us how to act, but why. We must intervene for the sole reason of the reality of the pandemic – people are dying! The main reason that people are dying is because of the all too prevalent structural violence. This also speaks to the earlier posed questions of: What kind of people are we? And How do we value human beings? Paul Farmer brings clarity to the thoughts of all these authors in speaking about structural violence.

“But the experience of suffering, it’s often noted, is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs. In fact, the suffering of the world’s poor intrudes only rarely into the consciousness of the affluent, even when our affluence may be shown to have direct relation to their suffering.” (31)

How can we be so indifferent? How can our government know and not act? How can people die without a name, without a face, without so much as a moment of silence. The world marches on. We know that we are privileged here in the US, and we must know that we are satisfied by the exploitation of the poor. Our affluence is a product, not a privilege of our circumstance. How can we not realize that with our affluence we can change the world? Farmer throughout his book suggests that we can. Suffering cannot be compared, it cannot be measured, and it cannot be put into one image. At the root of suffering is structural violence, a violence that does not necessarily involve physical means. It is a violence that is perpetuated by the government and imposed institutions of the world. The effects of structural violence are all too evident in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The lack of basic health care, the lack of basic rights to live, and the lack of affluence all contribute to the structure of violence present in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Another important theme that is tied in with structural violence is that of human rights in regards to health. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Farmer, 213)

There is one thing that I cannot stop thinking. Everything looks good on paper, but in reality, as Barnett and Whiteside remind us, we need to see the actual situation. In reality this declaration is not upheld and I cannot help but wonder how many of the countries who signed the declaration can actually provide these promises to its people. I am sure most cannot due to the violence of structure. Farmer says:

“Social inequalities based on race or ethnicity, gender, religious creed, and – above all – social class are the motor force behind most human rights violations. In other words, violence against individuals is usually embedded in entrenched structural violence.” (219)

By saying this Farmer means that people are affected by the relationship between structural violence and human rights. People are dying because the social classes do not line up with the basic human rights of health and right to life. We need to not only realize this relationship, but also come up with a positive intervention. Farmer presents his ideas with the term ‘pragmatic solidarity.’ By pragmatic solidarity he means that our plan needs to involve a rapid response using our tools and resources to remedy the inequality in health care and human rights.

People are dying! However I don’t think you need someone to tell you the reality. The message and knowledge needs to be out first before we can even begin to know where to start. Indifference, impact, and structural violence are all prevalent themes that explain why people are dying. How long will this crisis go on? How long will the indifference linger? How much longer will it be before structural violence is remedied? How many more people will die? We can’t wait any longer and neither can those most affected by HIV/AIDS. Can someone hear their cries before another so needlessly dies? I for one will be listening and acting.