Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Buy Our New Book and Help AIDS orphans in South Africa

Sounds like a pathetic excuse to flog a book, no doubt, but if you've any interest at all in bioethics, consider buying this book. It's a pretty cool volume offering reprints of the best papers published in the journals BIOETHICS and DEVELOPING WORLD BIOETHICS. It's a lot of book for a truly low price. The editors support with their royalties phedisang, a South Africa based charity supporting AIDS orphans.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Why are we so obessed with our 'own' children?

A crazy world this is. As I write this, many developing countries struggle with AIDS orphans counting by the millions. Common sense would suggest that it should be easy enough to set many of them up with infertile couples in their own countries or elsewhere in order to bring prospective parents and already parentless kids together. Not so. In developed countries each year billions of $$ are being forked out for IVF procedures, commercial surrogacy and such things. Nobody seems to bat an eyelid about what I would like to think is decadent behaviour by people pre-occupied with their own (somehow) genetically linked children. While Darwin explains quite nicely why many people would be driven to do such things, it is surprising how very few switch their brains on when the breeding hormones kick in, and do the ethically right thing, namely to bring up someone else's child as their own. As if this wasn't bad enough, matters got worse in Canada. In a brave act of political correctness a stop was put to the commodification of women by outlawing commercial surrogacy (ie the rent-a-womb crowd). A Bill called C6 became law in May 2004. It criminalises payments in excess of the surrogate mothers' expenses. Well, I would understand if you felt uneasy about the commodification of people, but if you do, consistency would require of you that you apply the same standards to any other instance where we sell our bodies to someone else for a limited period of time for a specific purposes. After all, that is precisely what surrogate mothers, sex workers, university professors, taxi drivers, soldiers and others do when they sign a job contract. So, may I suggest that Canada's law makers introduce Bill U1. This bill should, in line with Bill C6, legislate any work relation illegal in which anyone sells their bodies for any kind of service for a defined period of time to an employer. That should be a reasonably easy task, and it should permit us to do once and for all away with that disgusting commodification of people. It should also change once and for all the face of modern capitalism as we know it...

Now, you might object that my comparison is pretty unfair, given that there are health risks attached to surrogacy motherhood. A small percentage of women suffer adverse health consequences during pregnancy. Guess, in my defence I can only point out that this is probably true for taxi drivers , university professors and any number of other workers. So why treat surrogacy differently? Well, one argument might be that surrogate mothers might find it difficult to live up to their contractual obligations and surrender the newborn. I don't mean to sound too harsh, but surely that would be their problem... - I mean, once they have been thoroughly informed about the conditions of the deal, and they agreed voluntarily to the proposition,who are we as society to tell them that they must not because we are concerned about their capacity to cope.

However, given nature's call and our pre-occupation with our own genetically linked children, desperate hormonally challenged prospective parents will do almost anything to get their hands on their own off-spring. The decision to drive such breeding minded people into the underground is, mildly put, disastrous. They and the surrogate mothers that they're able to get their hands on will not be legally protected during their transaction. All participants will be subjected to higher levels of stress with a corresponding higher probability for a miscarriage.

Just as importantly, the wealthier of the desperate-to-breed-my-own-kid crowd will simply fly out of Canada and rent a womb elsewhere. Many such wombs belong to impoverished women in developing countries or impoverished women in developed countries. I know of a truly wealthy gay Australian man who flew all the way to Los Angeles to rent a womb (twice) so that he could have (well, buy) his genetically linked kids. The levels of selfishness that this represents is unfathomable to me. Three cheers to the Canadian government for having moved the ugly picture of commercial surrogate motherhood out of sight, and for making such conduct possible. Truly well done - not...

Nobody of those people who fly halfway around the world to rent impoverished women's wombs so they can have their kids produced for them, seems to care about kids like the one you can see on top of this blog entry. What would be so bad about giving such children a loving home instead. Surely the excuse of 'nature calling' isn't good enough to justify what's going on.

Regular readers of this blog will know my favourite little AIDS orphan charity in Southern Africa. Consider supporting them, please, please, please. If you consider flying half-way around the world to rent an impoverished woman's womb so that you can have your own little kid, may I suggest you consider growing up instead?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

McDonalds and Kingston's Sleeping Goats

Oh well, it's weekend again, I hope you will forgive my penchant for a suitably irrelevant posting to celebrate weekend.

I developed the habit of going to The Sleepless Goat, a little local cooperative run, kinda alternative restaurant-bistro-hangout that sells mostly vegetarian food. Their service is not just a little bit slower than that of other places, but you get in return a reasonably nice atmosphere, truly nice food and a chance to grab a local paper someone left behind without having to buy one. So, there you have it, I'm a freeloader when it comes to left-behind newspapers. Anyway, I digress. As I indicated, the service isn't exactly up to scratch in terms of speed or efficiency, but it's outweighed by a number of pluses such as good quality vegetarian food etc. Well, in the Goat they've a habit of not taking orders at the table or supplying you with cutlery. That's all probably suitably alternative (mind you, they take credit cards, so they're not that alternative after all, I suspect). You've to grab cutlery from another counter where sometimes you're able to find cutlery, sometimes you can't. So, today there's nothing when I was hoping to somehow eat the food that I had just paid for at the counter, and that I had dutifully carried to my table. Bit troubled by the idea to eat with my fingers I tried to grab a knife and fork from behind a glass counter where it was piling up quite nicely, all wrapped up in paper napkin as it should be.

And this is the moment where I had a McDonald's like encounter with a member of the cooperative. A stern young woman scolded me for daring to grab cutlery from behind the counter. I wasn't supposed to do so. I whimpered that there's no cutlery on the counter to which she directed me (finger in the air, you get the picture, I suppose). Not one to lose an important fight such as this one, she eventually relinquished a set of dripping wet cutlery (knife, fork, no napkin), but not without telling me again that I wasn't supposed to get the cutlery from the pile that she was guarding against a silly-as-me customer trying to get hold of cutlery. I retreated quietly to my table and ate my food, knowing full-well that my transgression had been substantial, yet the system had prevailed.

McDonald's is in that sense quite similar. There are rules. One of em is that you must not get their breakfast after a certain point in time (10 or 10:30 am, I guess). Arguably, for health reasons it might be good if one was never able to get any of their 'food', but that's neither here nor there. I recall a story where back in Melbourne I desperately needed a very quick breakfast. I saw behind the counter in the holding place they've got (ie where they keep 'food' hot) that they had two breakfast boxes left. I asked for one of them (I didn't want to wait for any other 'food' due to time constraints). Well, it had been something like a minute or two after their breakfast deadline and I wasn't permitted to purchase the food behind the counter. A counter executive quite comparable to our workers' coop operative made very clear to me that I could look at the breakfast box, but buying one I could not. None of this made any sense either, but there you go, the system prevailed against common sense. And that, quite possibly, is what systems are all about.

I do believe the Sleepless Goat's cooperative member guarding her pile of cutlery against a customer and the McDonald's staff member protecting breakfast 'food' from getting sold a minute or two after an arbitrary deadline had passed, arguably have the same problem with authority that I have (I don't take it seriously, they want to execute what little power they have - bad mix).

The morale of the story, the alternative crowd (my ideological stomping ground, I guess) is not that different from bottom-of-the-ladder staff flipping burgers in a strictly hierarchical organisation such as McDonalds. Just give em a chance ... I did, I learned my lesson, I bickered on my blog about it. End of story.

Make sure you visit the Goat whenever you get into Kingston. I think their salads and deserts are fantastic and so are some of their coffee creations. Just consider bringing your own cutlery etc etc

Friday, July 27, 2007

On mob justice

You might recall this poster on this blog: Racism alive and kicking - why every ethnic group is capable of being racist. Never mind my linguistic lapse as it's rarely ethnic groups that are racist (if ever) but individuals belonging to such groups. Well, give the story another read in case you forgot all about it. Here's an interesting twist that to some extent fits today's header 'On mob justice'. So, here's how I came across the story. While enjoying a pub meal tonight (don't ask, some revolting something or other) I read the same newspaper again that broke the story a couple of days ago. Well, as you will hopefully recall by now, the woman in question's name was/is Aileen Siu. Reportedly she isn't working anylonger for the government agency in question (one wonders whether she's been made a scapegoat as seemingly her conduct only raised concerns in that agency after the public outcry). However, as it happens, there's another Aileen Siu (possibly one of many) who also happens to live in Toronto. The latter Ms Siu had nothing to do with the initial incident, but she keeps (well, seems she kept) a Facebook page about herself, including a picture. Ever since she received a substantial number of letters castigating her in no uncertain terms for the other Ms Siu's actions. Her image was since transplanted on to lots of blogs, combined with a fair amount of harsh criticism for something she actually didn't do to begin with.

Of course, to be fair, those that went after her (usually anonymous, that's part of the beauty of cyberspace, isn't it ...) most likely, if not almost certainly, committed an honest mistake. Mistaken identity problems happen. This is one of them.

Having said that, it seems that those who fell for the wrong Ms Siu (perhaps by googling her name and ending up with the wrong person), should, once the mistake has been pointed out to them, post an addendum to their initial poster with a view to correcting the mistake. I must say, even if it had been the offending Ms Siu, it's unclear what could have been achieved by dumping abusive language, threats and the like on her. Just to give you a flavour of the type of abusive responses the story generated, this was posted on another blog a couple of days ago:

'This woman is a racist whore that needs to get fired! Her comments are ignorant and only highlight the fact that the Ontario Public Service needs oversight from a body like the federal Public Service Commission.'

It's truly unclear what the writer thinks could be achieved by using deliberately derisory language
. Here's the follow-up story in today's Toronto Star.

I owe this link and the encouragement to do this follow-up to a correspondent who wrote this:
Hello, Udo: That O.G. staffer deserved to lose her job. She violated the public trust, and she had to go. However, when punishing someone for something they’ve done wrong, I personally find it important to punish the right person. As you can see here, a bunch of web-based morons just decided to start persecuting this innocent you lady: http://www.thestar.com/News/Ontario/article/240425 Before we go after people and start wrecking their lives, it’s important to get our facts straight. Saying that all people with the same name are alike is just as dumb as saying we all look alike. I’m not saying anything about you, of course. All I’m asking is that you urge your readers to exercise a certain amount of caution, and to pass the word on. So, are any of those morons going to apologize? Should they feel obligated to do so? Should they be charged with anything? Should they be kicked off their networks? What do you think? And what’s your take on this aspect of the story? (Definitely food for another thread.)'

I don't know how many emails of this kind this correspondent circulated, but on searching for 'aileen siu toronto' on google images i was unable to find any image of her for quite a number of search pages. Which makes me wonder whether they have all been removed since the mistake became clear or whether there's more to this. But then, hey, I'm not Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Same old story, creating cohesive societies by promoting faith schools - secterianism in action

Quite incredibly so, from the UK to Canada to Australia and South Africa, in many countries the struggle to build cohesive societies continues. It all ranges from some kind of free-for-all multi-culti to lessons in 'localness' (eg Britishness as proposed a while ago by Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister of the UK). I have supported in the past this idea not because I am a particularly strong nationalist (I'm not sure these days which nation would be 'mine' anyway). However, much is to be said in favour of aiming to ensure that recent migrants into the country at least have a clear understanding of what the basic values of their new country are, how its fundamental institutions function, and they should be taught (compulsorily, if need be) the predominant language of the place they chose to call their new home.

I am a strong supporter of public school education (as in publicly funded schools) precisely because they're any society's best shot at building a cohesive society (at least in the minds of kids going to school). Faith based schools, in that sense, are the last thing one would want to see. In a way, they constitute a form of child abuse as children are ideologically brainwashed while they're most susceptible to such influences. This harsh terminology I owe to Michael Selgelid, a good colleague of mine. He's right though. Everyone is entitled to choose any or no religion for themselves, but to permit proponents of such ideologies free access to children for extended periods of time, by means of their school education, is surely abusive at best. Tony Blair's city academies, for that reason along are terrible news. Surely segregation is fostered as opposed to reduced in societies following this path.

In Ontario the conservatives, fishing for the religious vote, promised to provide taxpayer's funds to faith based schools should the provincial voters elect them to office. Of course, this is in breach of a very important principle of modern democracy, that of the separation of state and church(es). Recent internet polls in Canada suggest that those against such measures are in the high 70% bracket, but the question is how reliable such polls are.

One of my colleagues, Professor James Miller, published this response to the conservative's proposal:

'John Tory deserves credit for tackling the problem of religious education in our public school system. But what our children desperately need is not religious education but rather education about religion. They need to become literate in the world's religions, and more aware of the beliefs, values and practices that shape contemporary Canada. To do so requires presenting these religions in a neutral light, something the public system, not religious schools, can best guarantee.' (Toronto Star)

Miller is right, of course. What is interesting is that precisely this rationale has been implemented in South Africa. Former education minister Kader Asmal (at one point a professor of education at Edinburgh University, no less) has introduced religious education in the standard curriculum of all public schools. Kids are not herded there thru the type of religious 'education' that I was subjected to in a Catholic primary school back in Germany (Catholic priest, yep, middle-aged guy in colourful dress, confession and singalongs included), rather they're informed about the history and content of the major religions. The result is that all children in the country end up having a better understanding of both their own religion as well as their friends' religion. They also are so enabled to make up their own mind as to which religion (or none) to adopt. In a liberal democracy providing public school education that is where the matter should end.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tour de Doping

These three folks to the left (winners of the 2003 Tour de Doping) are all suspected to utilise doping as a means to win the Tour de Doping. So they did (win..), in 2003.

Ok, admittedly, I am bored. Who cares really about doping in sports these days? I assume most of us take for granted that many of those at the top know how to create a competitive advantage over rivals, including a doping-based advantage. I sometimes wonder whether we'd all be better off if we permitted doping (at least with regard to substances that are legally available for human consumption) and required those who use such substances come clean about it. Would save us all a lot of hassles and the athletes and their team management a lot of drama. The currently ongoing drama around the Tour de Doping (aka Tour de France) seems all somewhat unnecessary. If this wasn't the cut-throat business that it is, none of this would likely have happened. Of course, one appropriate response to such conduct would be not watch the Tour de France. Eventually collapsing ratings and income would bring those folks back down to earth, and likely eliminate the worst offending conduct. Goodness, I might be wrong, but really I am unconcerned about doping that isn't hazardous to the athletes' health. To me such bodily improvements are not, in principle, different to athletes wearing particular windcanal tested types of clothes or to athletes having their bikes fitted with particular types of tyres. I guess regulated use is preferrable to the current status quo.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Racism alive and kicking - why every ethnic group is capable of being racist

This is Evon Reid, a political science studies graduate from the University of Toronto. Evon shot to unexpected (probably international) fame because a government employee responsible for managing a recruitment process (and his job application) referred to him as a 'ghetto dude'. The Toronto Star newspaper reports the story today. Here's a brief excerpt:

'Evon Reid couldn't believe his eyes yesterday morning when he opened an email from the Ontario government's cabinet office where he'd applied for a position. "This is the ghetto dude that I spoke to before," said the email to the University of Toronto honours student from the very person handling his job application.
... Ghetto dude? It means I'm black. It's very insulting," Reid told the Star yesterday. "It's still pretty shocking to me." As he sees it, the email explains why he hasn't gotten a followup interview for a job as a media analyst. He applied July 3 but missed a July 10 call from Aileen Siu in the cabinet office. Although he called her back and sent followup emails, there was no response. Until yesterday's email. "Based on my resumé I deserved to be called, but I was not worthy of being called back once they heard my mother's voice and my voice," said Reid, 22. "She has a Jamaican accent and it's about the way I talk. There's a nuance." ...

The email was never intended for Reid, according to Siu, who learned she had sent it to him only when the Star telephoned yesterday. An acting team leader in cabinet office hiring, she said she was "multi-tasking" Thursday when she hit the wrong button and copied Reid on an email she was sending to a job-search colleague. "It wasn't directed at Evon at all. That was internal ... It didn't have anything to do with any of the applicants," said Siu, 26, and a recent U of T political science graduate. She insisted the email didn't refer to anyone "outside my circle of friends."
Siu acknowledged the term is negative but said, "I don't even know what nationality he is, right?" She added she's of Asian descent and doesn't want anyone to think she makes racially based judgments.'

There we have it... a truly neat example of somebody one would think would have reached the bottom of the pit that she's dug herself into, but then she musters all her strengths and continues digging even deeper. First Ms Siu is pointing out to us that he wasn't meant to see the message and that it was directed at someone else in her office. Obviously, one should be concerned about the culture in her work environment, because seemingly such language and conduct must be considered acceptable there. Perhaps talking in suitably derogatory socially charged terminology about job applicants is one of the hallmarks in this government office.

Secondly she proposes that she couldn't make racially based judgments because she is of Asian descent. I have heard all of that before, in South Africa. Many 'black' folks, while talking in the most racially charged terminology about 'white' folks, insisted that they couldn't possibly be racists by virtue of their ethnicity. In fact, seeing the history of that country, one shouldn't be too surprised about such conduct. Also, lest someone charges me with being biased, in that country, I also heard 'whites' making racist comments about 'blacks', folks of East Asian descent would make nasty comments about both of the just mentioned groups, and so did folks that go under the label of 'coloured' in South Africa. My main point is that ethnicity (minority or otherwise) does not in its own right prevent racist conduct. Just think of continuing conflicts between African American and South Korean migrants in the USA... - So, Ms Siu's remarks are not only ill-considered, they also make one wonder about the quality of a political science degree at the University of Toronto. Surely one would expect graduates of such a programmes to be aware of such issues.

As a post scriptum: A few of the comments I received since I posted this comment, naturally anonymised.

'Thank you for sharing your solid view on the shocking attitude that exists
within Queen's Park. Since I am not a highly educated person I tend to keep
fairly basic in my thinking, as it serves me well. It struck me that Aileen
Siu would not have made that comment, unless she sincerely believed that it
was the type of grammar her 'job search colleague' enjoyed.'

'I just read your BLOG I totally agree with you. As a black Canadian male I see it all the time with my friends and society in general. Stereotyping other racist and nationalities it sickens me that someone young would have thoughts like this, if it was someone older you can at least use age or a generational gap as part of their ignorance.'

Friday, July 20, 2007

Figures ...

World Population: 6730104557 [6.7 billion]
Iphones sold: 700000 [700thousand]
Google Iphone entries: 108000000 [108 million]

Hype works...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Treatment access activists accuse governments of missing targets

A report released today by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition provides evidence that promises by G8 governments with regard to meeting certain HIV treatment access targets in the developing world by 2010 will be missed on current speed. The activist group charges that on 'the current rate of growth ... the world will fall short of even the most modest interpretation of the purposefully ambiguous new G8 treatment target and a full five million people short of achieving global universal access by 2010.' Check out their complete report here. Of course, while the group is absolutely correct in its harsh criticism, one should remain concerned about the continuing high profile of AIDS at the cost of other diseases affecting similarly large numbers of people in the developing world. An ethical response to this challenge would surely demand that diseases are prioritised based on the number of people affected and life-years lost (if the necessary resourcing is not taking place). It's no good, to my mind, that the activist group shouting loudest will be able to generate more resources for its constituents (or constituent disease) than diseases the victims of have no proper activist base capable of generating the necessary public pressure in terms of subsequent funding provided. None of this would necessarily mean that HIV/AIDS funding should be reduced, but HIV/AIDS funding should be proportionate to the probable life years lost in case no disease fighting resources are provided. Proportionate meaning that diseases causing a comparable number of life years lost/preserved than AIDS should be resourced equitably.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Support Artists for a New South Africa

Dear reader,

here's a call for support from Artists for a new South Africa. I am reproducing it here on request. It's a lengthy posting...

Artists for a New South Africa

ANSA's American Express Members Project

has been voted into the Top 25!

With the help of ANSA's amazing supporters, our project
6841 - Help African Children Orphaned by AIDS

was selected out of 7000 projects and is in the running to win up to $5 million.

We only have 5 days to make it to the Top 5.

This voting round runs from Tuesday, July 17 at 12:00 am EST

through Sunday, July 22 at 12:50 pm EST



Thank you to everyone who took action, voted, and spread the word. You helped ANSA make it through two elimination rounds. Your outreach efforts also generated a big increase in our website traffic, sign-ups, and online contributions. There are now two rounds left to go and we really need your help to make it to the top.

We made it into the Top 25 in 9th place with 1,383 votes. So we are really going to have to step up the action to make it to the Top 5.

Each AmEx cardholder can vote once in each round


If you have an AmEx card, you can vote now whether or not you voted before.

If you have more than one AmEx card, you can register and vote once in each round for each card.

ANSA is running against major national organizations with huge staffs, budgets, and databases. But we have a chance if you help get the word out far and wide. Our project is the only one that is focused on orphans, AIDS, or South Africa.

We need your help to spread the word.

Forward this email to your family, friends, and colleagues.

Post it on your website, blog, myspace page or facebook profile.

There are currently 15 million AIDS orphans around the world. South Africa has more AIDS orphans and more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world. ANSA's It Takes a Village program is a cost-effective way to provide essential services to South African AIDS orphans. It costs less than 50 cents a day to provide loving care, food, clothing, school fees, counseling, social services, legal aid, and other help, while building community capacity to provide these services. For more information, read below, visit www.ansafrica.org, or to watch a video on ANSA, log onto www.youtube.com/user/ArtistsNewSAfrica.

The final elimination round - Top 5 to Winning Project - will run from Tuesday, July 24 until Sunday, August 5 at 11:59 pm EST. Whatever happens, we will have raised more awareness and galvanized more support for South Africa's AIDS orphans.

Thank you,

Artists for a New South Africa

2999 Overland Avenue, Suite 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
phone 310.204.1748

Here's what you do if you're an American Express card holder:
Go to www.membersproject.com

If you're already registered for the Members Project, click "Log in Now."

If you're not registered but you manage your AmEx account online,

click "Log in Now" and then click "Create a Login"

If you're not registered and don't manage your AmEx account online, click "Register Now." (Just for doing that, AmEx will donate an additional dollar to the winning project).

Once you're logged in, go to "Search Projects" and enter ANSA's project ID number: 6841 Vote for Help African Children Orphaned by AIDS.

If you need help, call the ANSA office at 310-204-1748 and we will talk you through the process.


There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans in South Africa, more than any other nation in the world. This vast crisis cannot be solved by traditional methods. Our groundbreaking, collaborative project empowers communities to care for the orphans in their midst and prevents more AIDS deaths through education and treatment access. It meets urgent needs of orphans including food, clothing, medicine, and counseling, while developing sustainable solutions for each orphan family through legal and social services, scholarships, food gardens, water projects, respite care, etc.

This program was developed by Americans working with leading African AIDS and child welfare experts and is implemented by local organizations and community members. The pilot program has operated successfully for 3 years in 3 communities, served over 5,000 orphans, and built permanent capacity within each community to care for their orphaned children. Help bring this proven program to other children and communities in desperate need.

Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA) brought together a taskforce of leading African doctors, AIDS activists and experts in child welfare, community development and public health to create a sustainable solution to the growing orphan crisis. Together, we developed It Takes a Village (ITV), a comprehensive program that meets the physical, emotional, social and intellectual needs of parentless children.

For under 50 cents a day, ITV provides essential services to orphans in child-run households, where the eldest is raising younger siblings, orphans taken in by relatives with scant resources, and those living on the streets. ITV strengthens communities, trains and employs local residents, supports economic self-help projects, and gets parents tested and treated for HIV/AIDS so they can live to raise their children. Orphans are cared for by committed adults from their own community, who understand their culture and challenges. This cost-effective program can be replicated to serve millions of orphans in South Africa and other hard-hit African nations. ITV is funded and overseen by ANSA, managed by the AIDS Foundation of South Africa and implemented by effective, local partner organizations.

ANSA is a U.S. nonprofit working in Africa and America to combat HIV/AIDS, assist and empower AIDS orphans and at-risk youth, and advance human rights and democracy. ANSA makes a substantial difference by: developing innovative, collaborative programs; providing grants and resources to effective local organizations; and increasing public awareness and participation

Founded in 1989 to support South Africa's quest for freedom and democracy, ANSA has
-Raised $9 million for African Programs
-Shipped 70 tons of medical supplies and books to poor communities
-Educated millions across Africa and the U.S. about HIV/AIDS and voting rights

ANSA's founders, board members, advisors, and core supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Alfre Woodard, Carlos Santana & Deborah Santana, Samuel L. Jackson & LaTanya Richardson, Gillian Anderson, Danny Glover, CCH Pounder, Jackson Browne, Blair Underwood, Alexandra Paul, Jurnee Smollett, Cicely Tyson, Jonathan Butler, Johnny Clegg, Roma Maffia, Gloria Reuben, George Lopez, Jasmine Guy, Noah Gray-Cabey, Robert Guillaume, and many more. For more information visit www.youtube.com/user/ArtistsNewSAfrica or www.ansafrica.org

Monday, July 16, 2007

Language, Reality and Political Correctness

I got to be honest. I am not a linguist and this posting might well be out of my intellectual / professional depth. I take the idea of political correctness not as a swear word but as something desireable. Political correctness, as I understand it, simply means in the context of language that I should (must?) not denigrate usual suspect types folks (ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, women, and so on and so forth) by means of language. So, I wouldn't call a black person a 'nigger' or a gay person a 'faggot' because these terms are rightly considered offensive. In a civilised society we should not call each other names like that. One thing that always puzzled me about this is, where one should reasonably draw the line on this. Is it acceptable to call heterosexual folks 'breeders' or 'potential breeders'? Or is that just as unacceptable as calling gay folks 'perverts'?
Here's an interesting piece from South Africa. Lupi Ngcayisa, a black radio DJ referred to blacks in some context as 'kaffirs'. Well, 'kaffir' is a racist slur used (so wiki sez) most often by white South Africans to describe black people or people with darker skin colour. Kaffir is also used by Jamaican Indians to describe African Caribbeans in a derogatory manner. It's clear then that 'kaffir' is historically a racist swear word. This probably is a good reason for not using such terminology. South Africa's Human Rights Commission, if the just mentioned article is to be believed, has issued a list of words that are unacceptable in post-apartheid South Africa.
So far so good. Here's the twist. I'm sure most of us, at one point or other, will have heard African Americans referring to other black people as 'niggers'. Similarly, gay people have chosen a long time ago to use swear words deployed against them and change their meanings by giving positive connotations to them. So, you'd find in Germany gay folks referring to each other as 'schwul' or 'warmer bruder'. This terminology until just a few decades ago would have been considered derogatory and people described as 'schwul' would have taken offense. This is not so any longer. German gay people have succeeded in transforming the meaning of 'schwul' into something positive, into something affirmative. In fact, it is politically correct these days in Germany to refer to gay people (well, certainly gay men) as 'schwul'.
There's interesting questions arising from this: If particular terminology is considered derogatory, and racist, should we really deploy legislation to outlaw the use of such language? If we do, should we make exceptions for people from designated groups who might wish to refer to themselves in such language (probably with a view toward changing the meanings of the terminology in question). If we did that, should we review the utilisation of particular terminology in regular intervals so that we're able to accommodate changes in the meanings of such words? Who is 'we? And how should such changes of meaning come about if we may not to use such words to begin with? Aren't we putting an artificial hold on how certain terms of popular language are allowed to evolve?
In any case, this is what happened recently in South Africa. A black guy was censored for using racist terminology to describe people of his ethnic group. If a gay person like myself referred to himself as a 'pervert' (as I have done, jokingly, often) should he/she be equally censored?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The weekend's good news: Starbucks closes store in Forbidden City

Starbucks, purveyors of unusually bitter coffee, were eventually made to close close their store in the Forbidden City in the PR of China. The Forbidden City was built in mid 1400 and was home to many of China's rulers, until 1911. Well, since the fall of the Chinese version of communism in the republic, just like in Russia, some kind of rampant, more or less unrestraint capitalism has taken hold in the country. The result has been that many historic sites were swamped with commercial outlets from McDonald's to Starbucks and similar outlets. Critics have argued, probably rightly so, that these outlets (well, too many of them in any case) destroy the nature of these sites and destroy much of the atmosphere with their bright neon signs, and such things. After a long campaign by some of China;s most high profile media personalities, about half a million signatures were collected, asking Starbucks to pack their coffee bags and get out. And that's what the company did.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thabo Mbeki - South Africa's flat-earther in chief on HIV and AIDS

Here's a link to a most interesting on-line article on the history of the current South African President, Thabo Mbeki's denial that HIV causes AIDS. Really worth the read! There's also some reasonably entertaining bickering about his autobiographer Ronald Suresh Roberts, a sycophant if there ever was one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Good news on the iphone front

check it out...


Some good news on the euthanasia front

Dr Michael Munro is a Consultant neonatologist in the UK. He administered a muscle relaxant drug to two dying children to relieve their distress. Munro used about 23 times the recommended dosage, leading to the suggestion that he actually committed an act of euthanasia. I have no doubt that this is precisely what he did. It is also beyond doubt that he did what he did with the children's best interest at heart. Surely, there is no point in keeping a dying baby alive while he or she suffers tremendously. If that is so, arguably there can't be much wrong with hastening the death of such a dying human being in order to end what is arguably a life that is not worth living.

Well, interestingly, the UK's statutory doctors' body, the GMC, concluded that the doctor's treatment was 'tantamount to euthanasia', and also, at the same time, that the doctor's fitness to practise was not affected by his actions. I think it is quite significant that the GMC has decided that this course of action was in the best interest of the children, and that the doctor's actions did not constitute sanctionable professional misconduct.

Here are some more details about the case from a story which appeared on the BBC News website.

'Consultant neonatologist Michael Munro, 41, gave 23 times the normal dose of a muscle relaxant at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital, medical watchdogs were told. ... Dr Munro was working in the neonatal unit of Aberdeen Maternity Hospital on 5 December, 2005, when a child - known only as Baby X - was born more than three months premature. The panel heard that the child suffered a brain haemorrhage and the decision was taken to withdraw treatment after its condition worsened. On 20 December, the baby's breathing tube was removed and doctors began a course of morphine to ease the child's suffering. As Baby X became weak it began to struggle to breathe. A normal consequence of treatment withdrawal, the condition is known as agonal gasping. Dr Munro told Baby X's parents he could give the child a drug but "it was on the verge of what society finds acceptable", the hearing was told. He then injected the child with 2,000mg of the drug which, he admits, hastened the death of Baby X. ... Despite telling investigators he had never before administered Pancuronium, the inquiry discovered he had injected a second child with the muscle relaxant six months earlier. Outlining the case for the GMC, Andrew Long said: "Dr Munro administered a muscle relaxant drug called Pancuronium to both babies which stopped them breathing and hastened their death. ... The GMC assert it was all of these things and tantamount to a form of euthanasia even though death was inevitable. The hearing heard both sets of parents "fully supported the doctor's actions and were grateful to him". '

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Racism and Pseudo-Islamophobia

Two unrelated news items I came across during the last few days. First of all, in Glasgow, since two slightly inept medical doctors crashed a four wheel drive into a glass door at Glasgow's International Airport, the police reports some 25 or so physical attacks on people perceived to be Muslim. This included even an attack on a local news agent (someone without medical degree crashed a car into the news agents' corner shop and managed to burn it to the ground). So, while this mindless kind of activity goes probably best under the label of Islamophobia, it's actually worse than that, because its victims were picked on based on their looks (you can't really deduce someone's religious persuasion from their ethnicity or even their beards). So, in a way, old-fashioned racism seems to have found a new outlet. Here's an intelligent take on this particular issue and the Scottish political ruling class' response to this issue.

Then, a report was published about Africa-Caribbean's living in London. Those interviewed suggested that racism in the capital had got quite a bit worse than it was just a few years ago. Here's an excerpt with some of the figures form the report, taken from The Guardian website:

'Of the 600 people questioned, 94% said there is continuing racism in the UK today, and the feeling was most acute among those of Caribbean backgrounds, 96% of whom felt advances have not gone far enough. More than a third felt that racism in the UK today is actually worse than three or four years ago - a galling statistic when one considers that most live in London, whose diversity helped win it the right to stage the 2012 Olympics - and 60% said black people fare worse than other racial minorities.Those questioned bemoaned their failure to be promoted at work and the effects of institutional racism, with 80% citing inequalities in the criminal-justice system. It's pretty gloomy stuff.'

This is significant for two reasons: one obviously is that life in a mega city such as London should be less difficult for Black people then, say Yorkshire's country side. There's plenty of other Black people, there are also plenty of support programmes, and, generally speaking, big city folks tend to be more open-minded than country town folks. This is, of course, an unacceptably broad generalisation, but no doubt, there's some truth in this. The other reason for why this survey is significant, because it suggests that despite historically unprecedented resources for programmes assisting minority ethnic folks, life hasn't got much better for far too many.

On the other hand, it should not surprise too much, that in a society where after more than 10 years of New Labour the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider, ethnic minority people (at least of Afro-Caribbean descent) have not done particularly well.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

L'Oreal - the ugly face of the French beauty conglomerate

The French beauty product company L'Oreal was fined a day or two ago in a French court for racist hiring practices at one of its subsidiaries (Garnier France). The background is that the company, when hiring faces for an advertising campaign targetting the French market, made clear to their head hunting outfit that it expected no less than only white faces to represent 'beauty' in its campaign. The court issued a fine of between 30,000 and 300,000 Euros (my sources couldn't find as consensus on the last digit), and, more significantly perhaps, a 3 months suspended jail sentence for a staff member of the head hunting agency.

It goes without saying that L'Oreal categorically reject the racism charge. It rejected it so much so that it has reportedly (in a different development) decided to continue selling skin bleaching agents to dark(er) skinned Philippina and Philippino. The company promises that its product 'White Perfect' will produce a 'glow within'. I can imagine that people reading this will glow with anger about such health hazards (and so add a slightly reddish blemish to their skin colour variations).

QED, L'Oreal definitely is not a racist organisation. Quite to the contrary, by aiming to make us all look pink with its 'White Perfect' product it shows that really it is a great equalising force. I am just being sarcastic, of course.

There is something terribly sad about Indian and Mexican soap operas' lead characters being usually white or nearly white, while the roles of cleamers, criminals and so on and so forth remain reserved for the darker actors. The same is true of 'White Perfect'.

I guess the only sensible answer to such an issue is to outlaw the sale of 'White Perfect' and similar products and to prescribe ethnicity specific representativeness in things like soap operas. End of story. We have been waiting for voluntarily sensible behaviours, and they just didn't happen. The French court was right to punish those involved. The country must have learned something from the race riots it recently endured.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Are academic boycotts always wrong? UCU vs Israel's universities

I was just about to head home when I came across a news item on Queen's University's website. The university's Principal, Karen Hitchcock, issued today a spirited defense of academic freedom and a withering attack on the British University and College Union's decision to call for debate on a petition calling for a boycott of Israel's universities because of the country's treatment of Palestinians over the years.

People who know me reasonably well, or read this blog regularly, will know that I do not shy away from saying what I think needs to be said, even if that occasionally puts people off. So, let me begin by saying that I genuinely do not know whether a boycott of Israel's universities would be a good or a bad thing. There are some good arguments in favour of a boycott and there are some good reasons against such a strategy. Martha Nussbaum puts a strong case against the boycott forward in Dissent magazine. Stephen Rose makes a strong case in favour of the boycott.

As a journal editor I found myself a few months back at the receiving end of criticism from an Israel based colleague who requested that the journal state unequivocally that it does not support any boycott of academics working in Israel. I refused at the time, because it all seemed nothing other than grandstanding and pointless arm twisting to me. None of the two journals that I am associated with as an Editor has considered or is considering boycotting submissions from authors situated in Israel. The same is true for any other country on this planet. We have published recently, in fact, a paper from a Sudanese academic. Arguably the government of Sudan is involved in genocidal mass murder (due to lack of oil nobody really cares much about this unfolding tragedy). Should we have boycotted the academic submission an author from Sudan put together (likely with great difficulty!)? We didn't. It did not seem sensible to do so. The author and his/her institution had nothing to do with the actions of their government, so why should we punish him/her? And what would change if we did (or, what would have changed?).

It seems to me that this is the really interesting question. Let's start with the basics then: those who have proposed in the past academic boycotts did so for at least one of two reasons. The first reason usually deployed was that universities were an integral part of an unjust system (eg many, but not all 'white' designated universities in South Africa discriminated against 'black' students in terms of admissions, teaching etc), and they ought to be punished for that. The second reason was that a gradual isolation of unjust regimes (such as that in South Africa) would weaken them and so contribute to their eventual fall. It is for the latter reason that more often than not sport organisations are the first to be called upon to boycott particular countries (sport boycotts are clearly seen to be more harmful to an unjust country's image than academic boycotts...).

Is there evidence that such image damaging activities work? The answer to this is unequivocally that this is the case. Even straightforward dictatorships (which Israel is not) try to maintain the veneer of a legitimate state/government upholding justice, law and order and so on and so forth. This is true even for pariah states such as Zimbabwe with its pseudo elections. One of the reasons for why amnesty international's campaigns are so successful is precisely because they aim at the crumbling veneer of civility of barbaric regimes.

This is then where the debate about academic boycotts should really be situated. I have been told by South African academics (who were opposed to the apartheid state - mind you, while they were reasonably safely ensconded in quite privileged, well-paid academic posts) that the apartheid government suffered tremendously under the various international boycotts and that it truly zapped the regime's morale. In its own right the boycotts would not have taken out the apartheid state, but the undoubtedly played a crucial supporting role.

So, the ethical question we need to ask is, of course, whether upholding academic freedom (by not supporting academic boycotts) is always the right thing to do. My answer to this question, based on the experiences made by organisations such as amnesty international and also based on the history of the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is that it is sometimes morally required to boycott unjust regimes. Such boycotts have been shown to work in the past, and therefore social utility (a desireable social outcome) can be achieved by participating in academic, sports and other boycotts. The position that boycotts are always wrong can probably only be sustained by assuming that academic freedom is of infinite (social?) value. I have trouble seeing how this could be justified/demonstrated.

Queen's University's Principal might well be right in suggesting that an academic boycott of academic institutions in Israel is the wrong thing to do. The trouble is that more needs to be said by way of justification than 'academic freedom' to sustain this point of view. Academic cooperation and collaboration in my humble opinion, areprima facie worthy of protection, but not always, and certainly not at all cost. What is required is a careful balancing of the costs and benefits of engaging in an academic boycott.

There's another issue I have with the Principal's statement. If academic debate and academic freedom are so important to her, how come she wants to preempt the currently ongoing UCU debate by pressuring the union publicly with statements such as her press release?

Let me conclude, perhaps, by quoting South African educator and University of Cape Town academic Prof Neville Alexander. He concluded a paper reflecting on the academic boycott with these eminently sensible words: "I have no doubt that when a state deliberately and systematically abuses human rights, a case can be made for academic boycott as part of an ensemble of punitive strategies to compel the state to right the situation. But sanctions and boycotts are always two-edged weapons. They should never be instituted without careful consideration of the likely effect on those whom they are supposed to help. Due attention should be given to the probable effects of a successful campaign so that the boycott does not become the proverbial cure worse than the disease."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sorting out HIV/AIDS denialists

For those of you who have never heard of a small but all the louder band of scientists and activists who deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS, you might find this paper\ interesting that I published in the Journal of medical ethics a few years ago. I was surprised to read today in Toronto's Globe and Mail a piece by Mark Wainberg who is director of McGill university's AIDS Centre and John Moore, a medical professor at Cornell University's medical school. They argue essentially that we should prohibit HIV dissidents from campaigning among the lay public for their warped views on HIV/AIDS. They argue that these dissidents' views are akin to scientists telling teenagers in school cafeterias that smoking is healthy. Very much in line with the arguments I advanced years ago in the Journal of medical ethics. Check it out!

Here's their commentary:

AIDS and the dangers of denial


July 4, 2007 at 12:46 AM EDT

Imagine the scenario: The cafeteria at your child's high school is frequented by a few individuals telling your children that it's fine to smoke. They make passionate exhortations that statistics linking cigarettes to cancer, stroke and heart disease are flawed, because many people have smoked regularly without ever suffering ill effects. They say lung cancer is twice as common in women as it was two generations ago because of other causes, such as exposure to jet fuel fumes, a super-poison unleashed by rogue former KGB agents or a shadowy oil-driven cabal. They tell your child that the link between cigarette smoking and cancer is a hoax perpetrated by personal injury lawyers.

What would you do? Would you contact the school board or the police department and ask that these crackpots be removed from the premises? Or would you defend freedom of speech as an important right that must be preserved under all circumstances, even if it might provoke reckless behaviour and even death?

We live in an time when information is available and disseminated to society, including our children, in myriad ways. In the absence of an effective filter to protect the vulnerable, disinformation can kill. And while we spend billions of dollars worldwide in public service announcements educating our children about the perils of drug use and unsafe sex, we do little or nothing to counter the bewildering chorus of voices arguing that HIV, a virus that has killed more than 25 million people around the world in the course of a single generation, is utterly harmless.

People who argue that HIV does not cause AIDS have formed clubs, published newsletters and freely disseminated terribly harmful information on this subject through the Internet and other widely available channels. Attempts to shut down these sites or to prevent the dissemination of denialist literature are routinely dismissed on the grounds that dissenters have a right to express their views and that the public interest is better served by the defence of freedom of expression.

The latter sentiment appears in a letter to us — researchers on the front lines of the global AIDS crisis — from the provost and vice-president of a well-known U.S. university, after we complained that one of his faculty members had written a book based on an HIV-AIDS denialist position. The university should have shown leadership on the issue and dismissed the faculty member from her position, rather than hiding under the cloak of academic freedom.

We submit that the same standards of public health enforcement should apply to HIV-AIDS as to cigarette smoking and to other organisms, such as tuberculosis, that cause epidemic infectious disease.

We have long accepted that free societies do have an obligation to impose restrictions on freedom of speech in the interest of public safety. Among other jurisprudence, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined in Schenck v. United States (1919) that the right to free speech does not permit one to falsely yell "fire" in a crowded movie theatre because of the injuries and deaths that would ensue as people stampeded toward the exits.

HIV denialism is lethal. It is responsible for the infections of at least several hundreds of thousands more people around the world than would have otherwise been infected and died. South African President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, HIV denialists until last year, were among those in Africa whose refusal to be content with mere ostrich-like obliviousness, whose insistence on propagating flagrant disinformation about the disease, amounted to an arguably criminal abrogation of leadership.

Last summer, when political pressure generated by the International AIDS Conference in Toronto caused them to finally reverse their position, a scientific presentation there estimated that the number of HIV-infected people in South Africa was approximately 25 per cent higher than otherwise because of that country's policies.

The reasons for AIDS denial are probably as varied as the deniers themselves, but they're clearly not all motivated by political expediency. In the United States, the daughter of an HIV-infected woman named Christine Maggiore died of AIDS two years ago because she was not treated with anti-HIV drugs. The mother's reasoning was that the drugs could not possibly have done any good, since they act against a virus that has nothing to do with AIDS. In Canada, a similar case resulted in the custody of two HIV-infected children being transferred to foster parents who ensured that proper care was received. Those children have thrived.

In a recent case in Australia, a man was charged with transmitting HIV to several sexual contacts. He had been fully aware of his HIV-positive status, but argued that it had not been conclusively proven that HIV was the cause of AIDS. The defence based its case in part on information found on the websites of members of HIV denialist movements. The man was convicted, but is now appealing, and a spate of similar cases are pending in North America and elsewhere.

Our lawmakers need to enact legislation to put appropriate limits on such irresponsible expression and to counter the ongoing damage perpetrated by denialists. The scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS is no less incontrovertible than the evidence that cigarette smoking causes cancer and heart disease. At a time when progress in HIV-AIDS drug treatments and life expectancy is informing an alarming new complacency in our children, policy-makers should defer to proven scientific fact and stop the transmission of deadly lies.

Dr. Mark Wainberg is director of the McGill University AIDS Centre at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. He was co-chairman of the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August, 2006. Dr. John Moore is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York.

Monday, July 02, 2007

On multiculti - something not overly reflective

I have just travelled from the UK to Canada. Both places brag about the success of their respective brands of liberal multiculti. Interesting other parallel: both places discuss what it means to be Canadian and British, respectively. Mind you, this is a particularly popular debate also in Down Under. Just check out the cartoon on the top left from THE AGE newspaper, Melbourne's broadsheet.

They also discuss (more vigorously in the UK than in Canada) whether multiculti as we know it might have been a failure in some respects, namely in so far as it permitted migrants to withdraw into their own linguistic, cultural and religious ghettos, with all the known consequences of the radicalisation of young Muslims in the UK, the continuing inability of second and third generation Turks in Germany to speak German and so on and so forth. In Canada and South Africa there is growing concern that respect for Islamic culture might have led to a laissez fair attitude toward the abuse of Muslim girls and women (as in: that's acceptable in their culture, so we won't interfere).

I attended in Glasgow a week or two ago an event organised by the British Council. It celebrated Refugee Week (an important annual event in the UK, and a good one at that!) with a book launch. The book consisted of short essays written by migrants. All in English. Comes an African migrant who works professionally with migrants in Scotland and goes on and on and on that the book wasn't published in the various migrants' mother tongues. So very politically correct and so very idiotic at the same time. My partner, who happens to be Mexican and a native Spanish speaker, couldn't believe what he was hearing. After all, virtually nobody in the UK would have been able to read any of this mother tongue stuff, so what's the point of such an exercise (an expensive one that that)? I could see though, why someone who makes a living from supporting migrants would not be too keen to actually enable them to live their own lives by means of facilitating English language classes for them, for instance... after all the more they remain stuck in their linguistic and cultural ghetto the more there will be demand for the support industry that is feeding him. A good counter example perhaps is a Burundian friend of mine. He came to the UK a couple of years ago with (according to his account) 30 GBP in his pocket. He worked day and night in menial jobs to support himself, learned English as quickly as he could, and importantly socialised with the local Scots as well as other Burundians. Eventually he found his first full-time job, and enrolled in a part-time college degree course at the same time. By now, due to hard work and smart choices aimed at becoming a self-sustaining member of the British society as opposed to a member of some idealised African ghetto within British society, he managed to get himself a reasonable well paid professional job in London. A few weeks back he became a British citizen.

The UK came up with something quite sensible, I think. It asks non-EU migrants who wants to remain indefinitely in the UK to take a 'Life in the UK' test. While one can bicker about some of the questions, at the end of the exercise most migrants will know the basics about how the country operates and what its values are. Not a bad thing - mind you, most young Brits would probably fail the test...

As someone who has lived most of his adult life outside his country of birth (admittedly not as a refugee but as a probably somewhat privileged academic), I am quite convinced that - the usually rightly maligned - conservatives both in Canada and in the UK are onto something with their rejection of special dispensations for cultures that do not take women's civil rights seriously, and with their demand that migrants learn the local language ASAP if they wish to stick around. How can one possibly live together if one doesn't even understand each other!

Getting off my soap box just now, promised :). Thanks for tuning in anyway!