Sunday, May 31, 2009

“Living in the Tropics”

That’s the euphemism Dick Cheney used in 2005 to defend the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on prisoners in Guantanamo.

While Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and even the White House in DC all seem far from my Bay Area life, the Berkeley School of Law is only one block away from my apartment.

And that’s where John Yoo, author of the infamous “Torture Memos,” will resume teaching in the fall.

John Yoo served as an official in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 – basically, he worked as a legal adviser to President Bush. He’s also a UC Berkeley School of Law professor, and received tenure in 1999.

Yoo wrote the “Torture Memos” making it temporarily legal for interrogators at prisons like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to practice what is recognized, by both U.S. and international law, as torture. Things like waterboarding, beating a prisoner’s head against a wall, and depriving prisoners of sleep for up to 11 days. According to Human Rights First, at least 8 inmates died as a result of these practices.

Christopher Edley Jr., the Dean of the Berkeley School of Law, wrote this statement, in which he agrees that Yoo’s decisions were poor. However, he argues that because of academic freedom, Yoo’s tenure as a UC Berkeley professor can not be ended unless he is convicted of a criminal act.

First of all, this is not true. A tenured professor at Berkeley can be fired for “violation of canons of intellectual honesty, such as research misconduct.” This article from the East Bay Express provides examples of Yoo’s conduct that can be interpreted as examples of Yoo creating what he thought the law should be – in other words, examples of Yoo making stuff up and violating intellectual honesty.

Second of all, the same article demonstrates how a case can be made that Yoo violated the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which advises that professors should “at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, and should show respect for the opinions of others."

The Office of Professional Responsibility, part of the Department of Justice, is about to release the results of its five-year investigation on Yoo and two other lawyers. Analysts suggest it is possible that this report will include a recommendation to disbar Yoo and, could potentially lead to a criminal investigation

For a general overview of not only John Yoo’s role, but also the U.S.’s policies towards and treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, check out Torturing Democracy.

As a student at UC Berkeley and a citizen of the U.S., it’s my (our) responsibility to try to understand this stuff while it’s still going on, while our actions or our silences can still make a difference.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I Saw a Hot Guy at Cafe Strada...

and was enjoying the view, when someone in between our tables moved. And in that moment my whole perception of this beautiful stranger changed -- I went from admiring his strong arms to feeling sorry for him and his sickly legs.

He was in a wheelchair.

I started to imagine his story: a man who overcompensated for being disabled by working out a lot, had to slowly navigate his way through Strada's crowded tables, and probably didn't date a lot.

I know nothing about being disabled. Almost all of my ideas about the diverse experiences of disabled peoples are based on ignorance or stereotypes. I'm not sure what I'm going to do to get over this, but finding this video was an interesting start.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

I Used to Make Bows and Arrows in My Backyard

I'd shoot them from one end of the lawn to the other. And I used to play the Indian in Girl Scout Camp games, and hold 'cowboys' hostage with bungee cords wrapped against redwood tree bark.

More recently, as a camp counselor at Skylake, I helped the Indian-themed team put on a war-song skit, painted dozens of faces, and came up with a chant (I steered the group away from "savages, savages, barely even human.") I didn't feel completely comfortable with this last bit, but I never thought of myself as part of "a system of oppression," or anything extreme like that.

As of yesterday, I have changed my mind.

It happened while I was catching up on the Native American poetry section of P4P. When I read Chrystos' poem "Contemplating Racism" (page 52-53,) it finally hit me, meaningfully, that Native peoples are real people -- not a myth to romanticize and act out and forget about the way I have been taught to all my life.

I don't think that most of us today want to be racist or oppressive. We're just reflecting back what we've learned about Native American people. But if this is what you've learned is anything like what I've learned, or like what's portrayed in Sherman Alexie's poem, "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel," then we need to question it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Like Shoving 5 Months of Life through the Eye of a Needle

That’s how it feels when friends ask:
How was Africa?

I know that they’re curious, they care, and they remember where I was. And I have so much to say!

The thing is though, most of the time friends ask in the few minute before a class starts, or while we’re both walking home from a late night meeting, or at a party over loud music and flip cup cheering. So the best I can do, when asked to mentally jerk back three months and some 8,000 miles to my time in Ghana, is to spit out one of three soundbytes:

It was so much fun!
Amazing, challenging, different than I expected.
I felt really white for the first time, more aware of my skin than I ever have before.

‘How was Africa’ - is there better way to put that question?
my friend Monisha asks. Maybe, but I understand why it comes out that way. I just wish I had a better answer.

All too often, all of Africa gets represented as either bloody, poor or starving. And all of that is true. But so much more is true, so much more emerges as true from just one 5-month stint in one city in one country in one region of Africa.

So even if I already answered your “How was Africa?” query once, give me a second chance. Let me try answering your question again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Grandma Must Be Dancing

At least, after listening to her and her friends plot subversive meetings against the conservative El Salvadoran government, I imagine she must be celebrating the end of 20 years of conservative party rule.

El Salvador held its presidential election yesterday.

The two major parties were ARENA and FMLN. ARENA is the right-wing party, which has been in power for the last 4 terms, is associated with the death squads from the 1980s, and was heavily backed by the US during the Cold War. FMLN is the left-wing party, which has been associated with guerrilla movements until a 1992 peace deal, and was originally formed by Marxist rebels.

The FLMN won by a margin of 2.6%.

I don’t know much about politics in El Salvador, but from what I’ve picked up, I’m hopeful about what a new leader and a new party might be able to do.

And, I’m excited to talk to my grandma.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

At least, that’s what I ordered.

It had become a morning ritual that Annemieke, Rebecca and I would get breakfast together (egg sandwiches and tea) at a one-woman stand on campus. This particular morning, I ordered for all of us: “Three teas for here, please.”

A little while later, the lady brought over my cup to the table. I spooned out my tea bag. The other two cups didn’t come, so my friends re-ordered. My tea kept getting darker and more and more bitter tasting. I idly swirled my spoon in the ceramic cup – only to hit upon another tea bag! Aha – the bitter culprit. I spooned it out.

We kept talking.

Until finally - a mouthful of pure bitterness shocked me into realizing that the unimaginable was happening. There was another tea bag!
And then it hit me: I had ordered “three teas."

Ghana 1. Obruni, 0.

Just a Normal Day at the Mall – in Africa

There’s this mall here in Ghana, most people call it ‘Shoprite’ after the big WalMart-esque store that dominates one side of it. A lot international kids see it as a bizarre space, a little piece of America falsely transplanted on African soil, either an oasis of luxury or a sad symbol of globalization. But it’s here. A real space in a real part of Ghana where real Ghanaians work, walk through, and shop.

The presence of this mall begs the question: which is more authentic – the mall that sells Puma bathing suits, cell phones and Nutella, or the stalls that sell the traditional drums, koras and tantabens that most Ghanaians don’t know how to play?

Bet you can guess what I'd say.