What #occupywallst could learn from the Chilean student protests

(Victor Ruiz Caballero / Reuters) Demonstrators are hit by a jet of water released from a riot police vehicle during a rally against the public state education system in Santiago, Oct. 13, 2011.

I’ve been following the Chilean student protests for the past several months (despite the lack of US coverage, see more below) and I’ve been really impressed by how well the students there articulate the relationship between their struggles and the failure of the global economic system as a whole. It’s something that #occupywallst and the other #occupy movements springing up around the US have so far failed to do.

The first in the world to implement neoliberal policies, Chile instituted tuition fees in the previously free public universities and cut nearly all funding to public primary and secondary schools under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973. Today’s Chilean university students are buried in a mountain of debt, much like American students, but theirs is from both university loans and secondary school loans (which are at times even more expensive than university). Camila Vallejo (president of the Universidad de Chile student body and one of the leaders of the movement) and others have called student debt out as a repressive strategy that forces students to buy into the neoliberal capitalist system rather than challenging it.

This is, of course, the same logic that situates student debt at the center of #occupywallst (along with a great many other issues). Naomi Klein hints at this in an interview with Democracy Now! but she’s missing just how interlinked these movements are. The Chilean students (and now their teachers, parents, etc.) are protesting the same thing as the #occupywallst-ers: the ravaging effects of a neoliberal capitalist system that values a dollar more than a human life.

There’s a reason why the mainstream American media has largely ignored the Chilean protests; we Americans have too much in common with Chileans to not draw parallels between the politico-economic crisis here and the one there. We just might get inspired.


Ark Music and the sexualization of little girls

My morning started out pleasantly enough…and then I saw this.

So, aside from the fact that this is a horrific song (“Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday/Today it is Friday, Friday/We we we so excited….” really?!) this is a perfect example of the sexualization of young girls. According to Ms. Black’s Ark Music page, she’s 13 years old. So why are her friends driving and throwing house parties? And the sequin dress that she’s dressed in around 1:40 is pretty darn short.

But this could be an anomaly. Apart from the fact that Ark Music focuses on turning tween girls into pop sensations. Here’s their “star of the month,” Abby Victor.

I know this whole sexualization of little girls things has been going on for a long time but really?! Can we take a moment to call Ark out on this?

Gaga and the politics of Queer

**NOTE:  none of the below comments are intended in any way as anti-queer or anti-freedom-of-sexual-expression**

Gaga, Gaga, Gaga…. *shakes head*

I’ve been trying to give Gaga the benefit of the doubt. I love her music and I think she’s a brilliant artist. But the subliminal messages she (or whoever’s coming up with the video’s) are driving me crazy. In spite of Gaga’s professed support for the LGBTQ movement, she’s not really adding anything (constructive) to the conversation. Sure, the lyrics of “Born this Way” are pretty clearly pro-queer, but her whole schpiel about “Mother Monster” and pure evil is a little…confusing? misleading? And I find it problematic that her “race within the human race, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgement, but boundless freedom” is all just blonde Gaga-look-alikes. My artist roommate reminds me that that’s because they’re all Gaga but….really? Are we actually so post-racial that we can just depict everyone as a member of the Aryan race?

But whatever…if it were one video I’d shut my mouth and enjoy it. But it’s not just one video. In “Telephone,” we learned that queers are mass-murderers. In “Alejandro” we learned that queers are cross-dressing “sexual deviants” (and maybe anti-christs?). And now we’re all born of “Mother Monster”? Thanks, but no thanks Gaga. I don’t want your love or your ally-status and I sure as hell don’t wanna be friends. Let’s talk when you stop sensationalizing queerness and reinforcing what the right wing already thinks.

ESL and the Right to Health

Last night, I taught English class for the first time. When I was in high school, I had tutored math and science, but this is a completely different ball game. I have to write my own lesson plans rather than rely on the homework assigned by another person and there’s no textbook to flip through if I forget something (or don’t know how to explain something). My students are (probably) all older than me (a few of them didn’t make it to class yesterday, and one man seems to be about my age), and some of them have been in this country longer than I’ve been alive. But they are all driven by a ferocious desire to learn—every single one thanked me for teaching after class had finished. I didn’t know how to respond.

One of my students is a woman who’s been here for over twenty years, and yet has learned very little English. After class, she pulled me aside. “My husband speaks English very well,” she told me in Spanish. “He used to work, but now…” she trailed off, gesticulating to a man seated in a wheelchair in the other room. “I used to just stay around the house, but now I have to learn English.”

Her husband appears to be quadriplegic. In class, as we took turns telling brief life stories to practice different tenses, he told us “I used to be a painter. One day I will try to walk again. Right now, I am sitting in this chair.” Simple sentences, and perhaps mis-ordered, but powerful nonetheless. I remember feeling infinitely grateful that he had revealed this truth to me in the context of an English class, where I could praise his use of three tenses and move on to the next person, rather than grapple with his thoughts and feelings about his disability and my fundamental incomprehension as an able-bodied person.

I don’t know what kind of healthcare this man and his wife have access to. Obviously they have something, because this man was conversing with us despite having severed his spinal cord. But his wheelchair is manual, not electric, which means he is incapable of going anywhere unless someone pushes him. He will require extensive (and in this country, expensive) rehabilitation if he is ever to walk again. His health has powerful ramifications for that of his family as well. His wife is learning English in order to find  work to cope economically with the loss of the primary household provider and any bills incurred by her husband’s accident. An event like this could drive a family into poverty even without a private, free-market healthcare system (never mind the impact of poor English comprehension and usage in either the healthcare or work setting). Viewing health as human right demands that we provide care for this man and his family, regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of how long his rehabilitation takes, and regardless of their status in this country (I don’t know if they are here legally or not).

But this case also demands that we set parameters for rehabilitation of disabled patients. Does health care as a human right require that we provide basic treatment so that he is “functional” in a wheelchair, or does it require the most advanced treatment we can provide, holding his goal—to someday walk again—as our mandated end of treatment? Part of me says that providing the best possible treatment isn’t feasible. But part of me says that to do anything other than that would automatically set up divisions between people, and force us to value one disabled person over another so as to decide who gets cutting edge treatment. And that fundamentally undermines any claims of the intrinsic human rights-ness of health.


Thoughts on Paul Farmer

Disclaimer: I just submitted this as my weekly post to the discussion board a global health ethics class that I’m taking at Duke University…so forgive me if you’ve already seen it there. This post is a follow-up to the previous (and much more coherent) piece about reading Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader, which I do highly recommend. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these issues, or any others (including whether you liked the book!!).


Paul Farmer is very clear about where he stands: health is a human right, and both physicians and states are morally obligated to do all within their power to combat illness and disease, even if it will bankrupt them in the process (although he argues that it will not). However, some would argue that Farmer is overstepping the boundaries of what constitutes ethical behavior by pushing us from “treating others as we would want to be treated” to “treating others as they want to be treated”—that is, a shift from merely leaving others to their own affairs to actively getting involved to do something for/with others. Part of the danger then with Farmer’s argument is how far do we take this—was the 2003 invasion of Iraq ethical because we were ostensibly “protecting the rights of citizens”? Is there an ethical obligation to get involved militarily in North Korea? Does this include ignoring national sovereignty in the interest of best serving the people of a country (who constitutes “the people”?)? Is there a point where this type of interventionism becomes paternalistic and just a 21st century version of “the White Man’s Burden”?

Furthermore, Farmer is highly critical of medical ethics boards, which he argues overlook basic moral tenets. The examples he cites certainly make this seem the case. But if so, how did/do we allow researchers to become so removed from the humanity of their “guinea pigs” that these types of things happen? I would argue that the proverbial “Ivory Tower” is not filled with sociopaths, so then how do we explain the disconnect? Is it the structure of grant proposals and journal articles—e.g. the conventional formality of such writings force a dehumanization of the subject in order to facilitate a sufficiently scholarly write-up and discussion? But more importantly, once we identify the problematic structures that convert academia into a “human rights violator” (defining “human rights” broadly, as Farmer does) how do we address them in a way that keeps academia effective (I struggle to say impartial here because I personally have yet to see a truly impartial piece of scholarship)?


Learning to Unlearn

After receiving (or perhaps more aptly, earning) a rather unflattering 4,5 out of 7 on my first paper for Gabriel Salazar (my 20th century Chilean history professor) I went to go talk to the big man himself about what my mistakes had been. To preface all this, let’s just say I was really nervous about talking to the contemporary Chilean history expert. But he was incredibly sympathetic and willing to talk about the problems with the paper.

The main problem was a the simplicity of the piece, which he kindly attributed to the language barrier (and my supposed inability to express my complex thoughts) rather than to stupidity or inside-the-box thinking on my part. He counseled me to worry less about reading all the sources and to focus more on analysis and developing my own ideas about the texts I’ve read.

I didn’t hit me until about fifteen minutes later on the bus ride home that I realized that he was basically telling me the same thing my fantastic AP United States History teacher, Mr. Robinson, told me every month in my book reports (for sophomore year at least…I would like to think I had figured it out by junior year): stop hiding behind the authors and write what you think.

By the time I graduated high school, I was writing somewhat original pieces and at least attempting to think outside of the box. But, sorry to say, when I arrived at college my creativity wasn’t always received as well and I, like most undergrads, was crushed under the weight of an educational system that insists on clearly(and distinctly) defining the roles of professor and student as “entity that generates knowledge” and “receptacle for said knowledge”. Much as I complained and railed against the system, I unwittingly conformed and started playing by the rules. Which begs the same question that I posed to myself in the last post, perhaps this time with a slightly darker perspective: would I really be willing to fight for an ideal if my life were on the line or would I fold under the pressure?

The beauty of this history class is that Salazar is granting me the opportunity to reclaim my lost intellectual freedom and to relearn how to stand on my own two ideological feet and challenge what the “experts” say (and more importantly, to develop my own theories about the material I’m being presented with). In short, to unlearn what’s been drilled into me for the past two years. Here’s to hoping I don’t blow it.