Post-Mubarak Life for the Zabaleen Community

October 17th, 2012

In 2010, Sorensen Fellow and Brandeis alum Madeleine Stix ’12 worked in Manshiett Nasser in Cairo with the Zabaleen, a Coptic Christian community in predominantly Muslim Egypt. A summary of her experience and her insights can be found in her essay “Treasure Amidst Trash: Preserving Community in the World’s Largest Garbage City” in the Brandeis Ethics Center’s publication Shifting Perspectives: Encountering Community in a Changing World. The Zabaleen are the largest community of informal garbage collectors in the world and are the focus of the widely acclaimed film Garbage Dreams, which Madeleine helped to promote during her time serving in Egypt. In her essay, Madeleine describes the origin of the Zabaleen community and the religious and economic discrimination they face in current-day Egypt. Migrating from Upper Egypt to Cairo 70-80 years ago, the Zabaleen used to work as rural pig breeders, but were forced to relocate to the Cairo landfills due to agrarian reforms by Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser that evicted the Zabaleen minority from rural lands.

In 2009, in an effort to “clean up” the Zabaleen landfill slums in Cairo, the Egyptian government enforced the mass slaughter of 300,000 of their pigs, destroying the livelihoods of many waste scavengers. Stix interned with the Spirit of Youth Association, started by local Zabaleen waste scavenger Ezzat Naim Guindy, to help implement a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to introduce the marginalized Zabaleen community into the formal waste system in Egypt. To do this, she helped promote a strategy known as source separation, where the Zabaleen, rather than scavenge the waste in the landfill, actually start separating their waste at the source in waste management facilities to make it easier for them to recycle. The Spirit of Youth Assoc. also established a Recycling School for Boys, where boys bring plastic containers to the school and fill out a form showing how many bottles they’ve retrieved (learning reading, writing, and arithmetic in the process) to aid their work.

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Zabaleen have continued to face adversity and discrimination. Since the Egyptian Revolution, progress on the Gates grant and the recycling project in Egypt has been suspended due to continued religious and socioeconomic discrimination against the Zabaleen community (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail). According to Stix, when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Party was elected President of Egypt earlier this year, he promised to resolve Egypt’s waste management issues through the “Clean Homeland Campaign”, that models a new waste management system based on Turkey’s current system. The question still remains whether the marginalized Zabaleen will be introduced into the formal waste management system and permitted to work at the source of waste collection sites, or whether the reforms will abandon the Zabaleen community and only involve multinational waste management companies. Although the Zabaleen and the Spirit of Youth Association would like to continue their work on their Gates initiative and would like to work alongside the multinational organizations to build an effective organic and non-organic recycling process, few know what to expect for Egypt as a whole, let alone the Zabaleen community, under the new Morsi regime (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail).


“Choosing One’s Commitments to Causes”: A Review of the February 2012 Ethical Inquiry

October 9th, 2012

During the past two weeks, I have attempted to examine, promote, and engage the ethical factors underpinning one’s chosen commitments to causes (as outlined by Leah Igdalsky ’14 in the Ethics Center’s February 2012 Ethical Inquiry). Igdalsky’s Ethical Inquiry attempts to elucidate several rich and complex issues regarding one’s selected path of social justice by juxtaposing and analyzing methods of committing to a cause. The issues discussed include the relative impact of local versus global action, the comparative effects of advocating for one’s own identified group versus demonstrating global justice advocacy, and the relative effectiveness of contributing money versus time to a social justice organization.

As I read the issues presented, several firsthand and secondhand experiences of social justice action came to mind. For instance, the discussion of local versus global justice reminded me of a heated discussion at the Friday night panel in the Millennium Campus Conference in Northeastern (Sept. 16-17, 2012) between Daniel Cordon, Director of Transitional Employment for the nonprofit Haley House Bakery Café in Boston and Maya Cohen, Executive Director of the student-led global health organization GlobeMed. Cordon highlighted the hypocrisy of students seeking to affect global change when they neglected to first face challenges of poverty and inequality in their own backyard. Cohen, in contrast, underscored the fact that dollars go further in developing countries where the need is greater and that solving community issues abroad can help find solutions for local problems at home and vice versa.

It became readily apparent, however, that criticizing one method in favor of another was an unproductive and unhealthy conversation as both are worthy paths that deserve equal fervor and attention. When I asked Brandeis professor and RESULTS Boston Global Leader Cynthia Tschampl about this dilemma, she gave me this piece of advice (quoting American theologian Frederick Buechner): “vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. One may discover their vocation through a series of “a-ha moments” that expose them to issues (local or global) that inspire them to act. Brandeis Heller School Professor Sarita Bhalotra encountered her “pivotal experience” when she went to medical college in India and was for the first time exposed to the dire conditions in which the majority of India actually lived. These experiences shaped her vocation to study medicine and health policy and teach students about global health care delivery as it relates to social inequities.

In her discussion of in-group help vs. supporting foreign groups, Igdalsky also brings up several valid points. For instance, when she states how helping one’s own group is often beneficial because the individual already is aware of the group’s dynamics and needs, I was reminded of a fellow intern during my global health service trip to Venezuela last year. Because she was Venezuelan herself, she was able to infer local customs and language better than us, giving our otherwise foreign group greater legitimacy in the eyes of the local community. On the other hand, striking a balance between supporting one’s own native or local community and pursuing global justice is a responsibility of the informed global citizen. Professor Tschampl advised me to keep in mind that one’s commitment to local and global actions changes as one’s obligations evolve through life’s various stages. She describes how as long as she was single, she could contribute more than 10 hours a week to groups working against local and global poverty, but as she begins to start a family, she will have to alter her time commitment to these causes and contribute in other ways.

In the section “How to Help? Money vs. Time”, Professor Tschampl agrees somewhat with Igdalsky’s assertion that foreign aid to developing countries can create opportunities for misuse. However, she disagrees with the contention (which cites a 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration called Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed) that the Haitian government should be blamed for its mishandling of the “billions” of dollars in foreign aid prior to the earthquake in 2010. The source cited in the inquiry claims that the presidential election in 2000 won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide had a participation rate of only 5% by registered Haitian voters. However, according to several sources (such as Melinda Miles and Eugene Charles’ book Let Haiti Live and the International Coalition of Independent Observers of the 2000 Haitian election), the participation rate was closer to 60% and the election of Aristide was deemed free and fair.

As a result of skewed U.S. opinion that the election was a fraud, the Bush administration led a crippling embargo on the Haitian government in 2000 that impeded improvements in education, roads, health care and water supplies (according to Tracy Kidder’s 2004 New York Times article “Why Aristide Should Stay”). Concurrent U.S. policies led by Rep. Hyde and Sen. Helms assured that no aid was provided to the government of Haiti, helping to ensure the ineffectiveness of both “aid” and government  (C. Tschampl, via e-mail, Oct. 7, 2012). After reviewing several sources, it becomes clear that the mishandling of aid was the result of U.S. interference at multiple levels rather than the Haitian government’s misuse of the aid.

Another revision was suggested by RESULTS Educational Fund Advocacy Associate Allyson Goldsmith (Brandeis alum ’10), who proposed that the “How to Help” section should also include advocacy and policy change. This issue is implied in the “More Questions” section, but could be elaborated on further as it is often just as important as direct service or money contributions in changing global and local policies and is an important aspect of the Ethics Center’s work. For instance, the Ethics Center launched Advocacy for Policy Change in 2009 along with the Legal Studies Department at Brandeis, giving undergraduate students the tools to advocate for legislative reform. Students such as Ethan Davis ’11 and Mark Garibyan ’11 were given the opportunity to become educated on local issues such as human trafficking in Massachusetts by speaking with advocacy leaders and calling their Congresspeople about passing important bills (page 16 of the Sept. 2011 Student Report) .

Their advocacy efforts undoubtedly made an impact as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick finally signed anti-human trafficking legislation into law in Nov. 2011 (H. 3808, “An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People“). Likewise, global advocacy for legislative policies related to human trafficking is just as important. For instance, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which authorized the State Department to establish global standards for confronting trafficking and slavery, has currently expired and has yet to be renewed by Congress (S. 1301, “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011). This issue deserves equal if not greater attention as many agree that human trafficking is modern day slavery (see Pres. Obama’s speech on 9/25/2012 at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting). All in all, the inquiry brought up many interesting ideas and dilemmas, but could be revised to address the above suggestions.


“American Exceptionalism” or Two Speed Justice

January 20th, 2012

Over the last couple of weeks, outrage has erupted over a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h1540/show). This provision will enable the President to allow for the indefinite detention and torture of Americans suspected of terrorist activity.

It violates the fundamental right of Habeas corpus and will preclude American citizens from having a fair trial. Evidently, this bill encroaches upon the values that we hold as inalienable rights and that make up the grandeur of our country.

Unfortunately, these practices sound far too familiar. Our government already resorts to such procedures. The National Defense Authorization Act will, in fact, extend the undemocratic measures practiced between the walls of Guantanamo Bay to American citizens.

There is a clear double standard in our conception of justice. Whereas we consider it unfortunate that alleged criminals born beyond our borders are not given the benefit of the doubt, a defense, or the basic respect for human dignity- it is inconceivable for our own citizens to be subjected to such a horrific treatment. So why are we more comfortable with the assault of non-US citizens? Is this sentiment motivated by what is commonly dismissed as self-interest? Or does it stem from a belief in American exceptionalism? The indignation of Americans, on all sides of the political spectrum, faced with the idea of being potentially directly implicated in this existing ritual, is revealing of the American belief that American citizenship is a de facto qualification for the reception of fundamental rights. Americans seem to feel entitled to democracy.

We argue that we have been passed down a quasi-sacred set of rules by our founding fathers, and, by association, are guaranteed a certain amount of rights.

But what makes America, and what makes its laws so “exceptional”? Constitutional rights seem to have little strength, and even further, little legitimacy, if we do not consider them to be universally applicable. A human right can’t be exclusive to a specific people. The Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” loses all meaning if it solely serves to justify the equality of citizens amongst one nation. In this sense, our democracy can’t be viewed as legitimate unless we adopt an outward-looking conception of justice. Our sense of entitlement is crippling democracy, and our belief in American exceptionalism is undermining our foundations entirely.

Our sense of entitlement further stresses the importance of rights at the detriment of that of our duties. We expect much from government and do very little to make it representative. Voter turnout in the United States is embarrassingly low. For example, in 2008, the United States was proud to point to a pale voter turnout of 63%, viewing the engagement of a small majority of its population as an accomplishment.

Our sense of entitlement blinds us from our obligation to the rest of the world. It is also robbing us of our participatory role of citizens, leading to the dismemberment of the democracy we claim so dearly. To live in a truly democratic country, and to help build a world that we can proudly refer to as “just”, we must remember that we are not entitled to democracy. Democracy embodies universal principles that must be applied to all. Democracy is hard work, but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Sasha Beder-Schenker


Ethics in Business

December 14th, 2011

For just over a decade now, Enron has been a symbol of corruption, greed, and everything wrong in the American political and business sphere. In October, the Brandeis campus had the opportunity to learn more about how this giant corporation fell to its knees when Sherron Watkins visited to discuss her experience blowing the whistle.

Watkins spent much of her day here discussing ethics in business with classes at the InternationalBusinessSchool. Her whistle-blowing event, targeted towards students in the journalism program, focused on her personal experience with the Enron scandal. https://www.facebook.com/events/150553681707738/

One of the most poignant points she made over the course of the night was that unethical behavior is not gone from American business culture. It is, however, much harder to identify. Enron cooked the books in the late 90s and early 2000s, and scammed the stock market with false projections. Once this was out in the open, no one could deny that this was unacceptable behavior.

Watkins personally shared an experience she has had in recent years to provide contrast; asked to speak at an event, a company flew her entire family in, and provided them with a free week-long stay at the hotel. Watkins spoke for twenty minutes and that was the entirety of her participation. It’s difficult to say something is unethical when benefiting directly from it, but today this is standard practice. Sherron Watkins herself struggled with her own feelings on receiving such perks, and so did her audience.

Ethics are hard enough to define, putting them in the context of running a business leaves a lot of leeway, and in the past decade we’ve seen a lot of attempts to both cheat the system and find a good balance. Despite the evolving system, Watkins had solid ideas for change.

Consistently, she discussed her frustration with a law that former President Clinton passed in an attempt to curb excessive salaries. Essentially, the law limited executives from receiving more than $1 million as pay unless specified performance goals were met. Businesses found a loophole for this stipulation quickly: through stock options. As Watkins explained it, in order to match the previous salary the executive was making, the company would provide the equivalent amount in stock. Due to the unpredictable nature of the market, however, in order to match that difference in salary, more than the defined amount of stock would have to be offered. For instance, if an executive had previously made $4 million per year, he would now need to be provided with $3 million in stock options. To ensure that the options actually resulted in $3 million, the executive would need to be provided with more like $7 million in options.

This, Watkins emphasized, has led to the giant gap between the rich and poor today, as all of the stock options have been utilized to make much more than the executive would have been able to previously. Repealing this law is a key to closing the income gap, and will also lead to a more ethical society where the potential to make money is not the paramount thought of the heads of our most important corporations.

Contrary to the most accepted definition of “whistle-blower”, Sherron Watkins did not choose to go to the press. She went to her boss to report what she saw to be an injustice, and she knows now that the only reason she was not taken down by the company was that they did not have enough time to ruin her.

As she discusses the fall of Enron with a decade of perspective behind her, she recognizes the struggle that still exists to create and maintain a truly ethical business model. As the generation responsible for taking over, I ask to all of you: what do you think an ethical business is? And what practices are needed for such a model?


Why I Occupy, and Why I Do Not.

November 28th, 2011

“We. Are. The Nine-Dee-Nine Percent!”

Protestors chant down the streets of the Financial District, walking in lock step and shadow with Boston’s rich history of revolution.

People of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds are holding signs and holding hands. Anarchists, Libertarians, Socialists, Tea Partiers, and Progressives march together. The lines are blurred and then erased. They are marching together. They are marching together.

They are marching together?

Are they marching together?

This was my first march with Occupy Boston in early October. At first, I was a bit uncomfortable marching because I did not know what the movement was really about. Why should I march for the sake of marching? Because I am here? Because I made the effort to get to Dewey Square? Should I should just go with the flow? I did. Too much thinking and not enough acting. My decision to march helped set the tone for my relationship with the movement—fluctuating between hopeful and doubtful, into it and over it. While marching, I faded into the group. I observed the march with a strange apathy while in the midst of hundreds of passionate protestors.

My friend made a sign for me. I didn’t hold it up at first. It was safely by my side. But as the march continued, the spirit sort of overtook me. My self-consciousness melted away as I began to understand the meaning of “solidarity.” It is the ideal that no matter the circumstances, no matter what happens, everyone is in it together. The definition is easy, but to actually witness it and be “in solidarity” is not. For what sake, I am still not entirely sure, but I felt like I was a part of something bigger and more important than myself. I felt like I was making a difference. Cue inspirational music!

This seems like an awfully dramatic way to frame this experience, but the movement is pretty incredible when you consider its size and scope. Putting opinions of the Occupy Movement aside, the energy generated from the gatherers of Dewey Square is contagious, and I admit, almost intoxicating at first. To see all these people working together for the sake of working together is somehow reaffirming. Reaffirming of what exactly? I do not really know. No, I do not know at all. The best way I can describe my feelings towards the Occupy Movement are hopeful.

I was even hopeful at the end of the march when I decided to leave. A few students started to chant “Burn the FED,” and that is where I drew the line. The movement is not perfect, and solidarity is difficult to maintain. Inevitably, there will be problems that arise, but the movement is still in infancy. This becomes more and more evident as time passes by. Many criticisms revolving around the Occupy Movement claim that because there is no universal, concrete goal (or communist agenda?!), then the occupations are not valid or warranted. Many people I have spoken to at Dewey Square will tell you that this does not detract from the movement—it is what gives it shape. Other people say that because the Occupy movement is so extreme, they cannot fully support it.

Look to the poignant John Oliver clip from the Daily show. About a month ago, Oliver went out into Zuccotti Park and the surrounding areas of Occupy Wall Street to find the oddest and strangest of occupiers for interviewing. It is funny to see the elaborately decorated man with the confederate flag, and the man with the Viking hat (commonly used in stereotypical depictions of the “fat lady” in operas, with the two blonde braids and iron helmet with two tusks protruding from the sides like some sort of hardcore antennae).

It is funny to see people that are a little bit off and the people that are quite a bit off, but the segment accurately depicts certain aspects, be they positive or negative, of the Occupy Movement. After the humorous part of John Oliver’s segment, he interviewed seemingly “normal,” middle aged men and women. They claim to support the movement and claim their place in the 99% with pride, but they do not necessarily want to participate in the occupations. It seems too extreme at times, almost counterproductive. Why not call your representatives? Why not create a petition? Why not start a campaign? Because it does not seem to be working. Because people are tired of waiting.

My parents (who comfortably fall into this age group) follow and support Occupy Boston with a keen eye, but have never stepped foot in Dewey Square. To even begin to understand the occupations, you must see it for yourself. “We are the 99%. You are the 99%” they scream. “We are the 99%” we scream. Going to Dewey square can change your perspective of the entire Occupy movement. I was impressed by the General Assemblies and the marches, by the food systems and health systems, free libraries and teach-ins, speakers and drum-circles; it seemed like a fun little commune dream of my eighth grade hippie phase.

But it turned out to be more than just that. The system set in place at Dewey Square is not perfect, but it gets the job done. It sends a message of more than dissatisfaction. In my nineteen years of life, which I understand is quite a long time to live, I have never seen anything like this before. My friends and I optimistically say that this is the first real social revolution in America since the Civil Rights movement, and we are excited to be a part of it. But we in no way understand what we are part of.

From where I stand now, I support the health of the movement. Police brutality changes everything, from the movement’s character, to range of supporters, to how the camps operate. It is inexcusable. Everyone understands that police officers are just people doing their jobs, but they are crossing dangerous boundaries with their discipline methods. This is America, right? People have the right to peaceful protest. This sounds a bit naive and perhaps idealistic, but Americans pride themselves on their free speech. Peaceful protest should not warrant violent counter-protest. The brutality uncovers the problems our system that protestors are attempting to fix.

It is difficult to write about my views on the Occupy movement because they change from day to day, from newspaper article to conversation. This does not mean that I am fickle or flaky—it only means that because the Occupy movement has not formed an identity of its own, I cannot commit to a formal opinion.

This frustrates many people I speak to, and frustrates myself.

In one of my favorite essays entitled Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” In other words, it is counter-productive to “stick to your guns” when you no longer believe in them. I was afraid to commit to an opinion because I knew that it would not hold true for me day after day. It is important to realize, with the Occupy Movement as an example, that it is okay to change your mind if you take ownership of it. You must take responsibility.

This is not a cop-out. This is not a cop-out because I can be more honest with a changing opinion for a changing time. I am not worried about making a grand statement on the movement, especially in this blog post. Take what you will from this, though. This is a changing, breathing, growing movement! It is important not to write it off because it says something about our society, whether we like it or not.


Our Welfare State

June 24th, 2011

Beneva Davies

America: Country of Opportunity, Land of Success, and Home of the Great.  Conversely, this is the place where, one in every eight people is now suffering from poverty (Greenberg, Mark, Indivar Dutta-Gupta, and Elisa Minoff. “From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half.” Center for American Progress (2007). Print). That is to say, one in eight is now fighting hunger, fighting homelessness, fighting the desperate call of crime, fighting to survive; make no mistake, this is the life of poverty.  Though America is home to some of the wealthiest people on the planet it also has the greatest income inequality amongst developing nations, with the top 1% possessing nearly a third of the country’s net wealth (Johnston, David Cay. “Income Gap Is Widening, Data Shows – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 29 Mar. 2007. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/business/29tax.html?ex=1332820800 ). Most Americans, approximately 58.5%, will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75(Johnston, David Cay). For the world’s super power and largest national economy this is a staggering statistic.  Something must be done. However, in a country built on the basis of individuality and meritocracy how much of this burden lies on the government? Our nation’s president once said, “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists—to protect them and to promote their common welfare—all else is lost” (Barack Obama). But the question still remains, where do we draw the line between lending a hand and giving a hand out?

The truth is that I’ve seen both sides of the argument.  What are your views on America’s welfare system? Here are a couple of websites I checked out that all gave me interesting insight. For the conservative view, check out: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=37077 . For the less conservative view, check out the link above for Johnston, David Cay. With the 2012 elections creeping around the corner, it’s time to start evaluating, once again, where we stand.

 


The Politics Perspective on Peacebuilding

April 24th, 2011

Anna Khandros

I occasionally find it difficult to balance what I learn in my Politics major classes with what I learn in my Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies minor classes. Just try taking “Problems of National Security” after “War and Possibilities of Peace,” or “The Arts of Building Peace” alongside “Managing Ethnic Conflict” – all excellent courses taught by brilliant professors and experts in their fields – and you’ll understand the dilemma of simultaneously studying both peace and policy, of trying to understand both bottom-up grassroots movements and top-down government strategies.  Although the on-the-ground approaches to conflict resolution and reconciliation in each field can and do often supplement each other, the relevant academic theories often contradict each other.

On March 23, Dr. Deborah Langstaff visited my PAX 250 course, and, in some remarkable way, touched upon all of these things that I’ve been thinking. After she read and sang her translations of poems by the German-Jewish poet Hilde Domin, and played original accompanying music, she answered questions. Somebody asked her to discuss her personal and professional journey.

Dr. Langstaff spoke of being young and wanting to change the world, and the thought process through which her idealism turned into realism. She also asked a question that I’ve often tried to answer, and that everyone involved in both politics and peacebuilding should at least consider: Why do you want to help?

Why do so many of us want to help, to develop, to intervene, to mediate, to negotiate? To shed our outsider stigma and become insiders to dangerous situations? Is it for those we are helping or for ourselves?

Dr. Langstaff also discussed the struggle to obtain funding for genuinely well-intentioned projects. All those of us struggling to choose between accepting unpaid internships with remarkable non-profits and pursing financial independence can relate. How many of us have ever wanted to scream, “Why is it so hard to help?!”

Finally, Dr. Langstaff spoke about our ability to leave a situation whenever we want, and that that’s what differentiates those who try to help from those who may or may not need help. Third parties can leave whenever they want and local citizens can’t. This reminded me of studying abroad in Beirut, and Lebanese citizens constantly reminding me that I only love Lebanon so much because I can move on whenever I want.

Back to balancing peacebuilding and politics. On April 1-3, I attended a workshop sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life’s Peacebuilding and the Arts Program.  The workshop, entitled “Peacebuilding and the Arts: Core Concepts and Principles,” was designed for students, administrators, practitioners, and policymakers in the fields of the arts, cultural work, and conflict management.  Although the workshop largely reiterated what students in the Arts of Building Peace course learn, I gained a great deal by talking to people who apply what I learn in class in their personal and professional lives. Interestingly, the week of the event, in my Managing Ethnic Conflict course, we discussed techniques for mitigating violent conflict. These included power-sharing, devolution, and partition – all political approaches. The workshop added to my understanding of community approaches to ending conflict, but also to healing and reconciliation after fighting has ended.

On April 12, the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program premiered its documentary, Acting Together on the World Stage. Extremely well researched and presented, the documentary tells of theater bringing people together and helping communities non-violently resist oppressive governments and heal after conflicts. It highlighted productions in various parts of the world, including Argentina, Australia, Cambodia, and Serbia. The documentary is unbelievably touching and inspirational, and I happened to watch it at the perfect time – right when my Politics classes were making me doubt that we can ever really ever end violent ethnic and religious conflict.

If the study of politics sometimes makes me pessimistic, the study of peacebuilding, whether through policy or community-based work, usually makes me optimistic. Turns out that partition – separating groups of people into enclaves through government policy, largely to counter the security dilemma – is not as effective as reconciliation through the arts – bring people into common spaces so they see that they have nothing to fear.

So my struggle will continue, as I lie somewhere in between wanting to create policies that address security and wanting to facilitate reconciliation that addresses relationships.


Defined Terms (should) lead to Definitive Action

April 11th, 2011

Kate Alexander

This past year, the international judicial community has made huge strides in combatting terrorism and aggression of nations by finally agreeing to definitions for these terms. The difficulty and significance of nations agreeing to definitions for terrorism and aggression should not be underestimated.

These definitions, in no uncertain terms, were agreed upon by states from a variety of cultural, political and economic backgrounds, and bind the conduct of their states to definitions they agreed upon. These definitions will create more opportunities for nations to be held accountable for crimes that fall within the agreed-upon definition of these terms. I applaud the diplomats involved.

 

So, what are these definitions? Let’s take a look!

  1. Aggression, which was defined at the Rome Conference in July 2010 that reviewed the work of the International Criminal Court, is the following: the use of armed force by one State against another State without the justification of self-defense or authorization by the Security Council. The definition of the act of aggression, as well as the actions qualifying as acts of aggression contained in the amendments (for example invasion by armed forces, bombardment and blockade), are influenced by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) of 14 December 1974.

 

  1. Terrorism, which was defined clearly for the first time in a recent decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is: the perpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act; (ii) the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it; (iii) when the act involves a transnational element.

 

To be fair, definitions have not always worked in the past. Genocide is the clear example, they don’t always provide an impetus for action (Sudan) or the word becomes so associated with necessary action that there is an extreme avoidance of using the word despite the fact that it is the only term to describe a given situation (Rwanda).

The benefit of these terms, however, is that it gives those who draft international covenants, conventions, treaties, and all the rest of that documentation, a clear framework for addressing key issues in international law and politics.

 


Responsible Music

April 6th, 2011

Yuan Yao

A recent discussion in my English class raised an interesting debate about the ethics of songs. Specifically, when it comes to songs, who is responsible for how melodies affect the body and mind—the artist, or the listener?

The origins of our discussion stemmed from an analysis of medieval texts on music and its effects on the body and soul. The medieval understanding of the body relied on a balance of the four classical humors and the assumption that the soul is an inseparable part of the body that lives in the heart. Music, sound, and voice were already understood to be vibrations in the air. Sound was thought to originate from a rhythmic striking of the soul upon the windpipe, thus producing vibrations in the air. It was believed that through music, a musician could translate the vibrations of her own soul to those of the listener. As the vibrations for the musician’s soul touched that of the listener, the listener’s soul would synchronize to the harmony produced by the musician’s soul.

Now, obviously we’ve come a long ways from a medieval understanding of the human body and soul. But if we take a look at how modern understanding of song, I don’t think we’ll find a clear difference. Perhaps we’ve abstracted the almost mechanical representation of emotional transformation predominant in medieval times, but we still hold to the basic tenet that a musician produces her work through an expression of her emotions. For a listener to give audience to a musician’s song requires the listener to relinquish his own reality to experience that of the musician’s. In this way, the musician extends control over the listener and dictates the emotions that the listener experiences.

I can think of multiple examples of how this is still true today. You would never try to put an agitate baby to bed by playing military marches or rock and roll. The obvious choice is a soft lullaby because we know the melodies in lullabies conducive to a calm emotional state. But even beyond that, music can affect our body as well. You will never hear a nightclub playing lullabies because they know that the best songs to get their patrons dancing are pop and electronic songs with an easily discernable beat. Even in our day and age, we cannot escape the medieval observation that music influences our mind and body.

Keeping these ideas in mind, how do we determine where the responsibility of music lies? With the power to influence countless listeners and a measure of control over song creation, should the responsibility fall to the musician? There has always been a debate about the violent and suggestive lyrics of modern hip-hop. How do we reconcile what we know about the power of music with the production of controversial songs? Perhaps the responsibility of music should fall to the listener; the musician is merely expressing her thoughts and emotions in song, shouldn’t the burden of interpretation fall to the listener in a way analogous to how a viewer would scrutinize over a piece of art in a museum gallery?


Find Your Fire

April 6th, 2011

Beneva Davies

It was St Ignatius of Loyola who said, “Ite Incendite Omnia,” a literal translation is “Go, set everything ablaze.” This was St Ignatius’ order to his followers- to spread their knowledge like fire and change those who they happened to encounter.  As a constant witness to it, I can say with ease that there is something so fundamentally recognizable about Brandeis students–fire. There’s a fire, a passion, a certain strive in us all; we are the warriors of change. My interest in justice, human rights, ethics and public life is probably not rare to this campus, but the following is the memory of how I came to find my fire.

After the tragedy of 9/11, like many people, my family fled to their religion. As we arrived at church on Sunday morning it was packed and there was a certain feeling of not just unbearable grief but ironically deep community—as is usually the case, sorrow had brought us all together. The sermon was to have the message of hope, community and courage in the face of overwhelming pain and fear. Half way through the closing remarks the priest said “Lord, for those evil men who run around screaming and praying to their false idol Allah, show them the errors of their ways and protect us all from their savage behavior.” As the church echoed with amens, my father quickly pulled my family out enraged.

At the time I was confused of the implications of that priest’s words. I didn’t understand the anger that had suddenly possessed my father to pull us out of a crowded church mid-prayer. As we drove home he tried to articulate to the little, unaware, eleven-year-old girl I was then, what exactly the problem was. He explained that the priest had blamed all Muslims for an attack of a few, that had the priest done his research before spreading hateful words, he would have known that “Allah” is just the translation of the word “God,” and lastly he seriously pointed out how Muslims in this country would now suffer the consequences of not only association with this terrorism but the ignorance of those who hated blindly. He told me that I should never stand for or accept the mistreatment or blind hatefulness of other people, because as human beings they grieve and feel pain as I do. He repeated the golden rule, as he always had: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Only this time it meant so much more. I was young, but my father walking out taught me to always stand up. That is the day I caught my fire; the birth of my interest in justice, human rights, ethics and public life.


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