Friday, August 30, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Genius or Folly?

Genius or Folly?
Marianne Werner

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

At face value it may seem like folly. But beyond its bizarre incompleteness, its exaggerated surrealistic orchids, and its concrete carcasses of sculpture, is an unimaginable outdoor museum, hidden inconspicuously in a tropical jungle high in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.

Spend hours meandering in dense, seductively growing rainforest foliage; uncover unique flowers beneath enormous hanging leaves; follow staircases to nowhere while gazing up through multiple stories of massive architectural dinosaurs: you will experience nothing short of a triple E ticket at Disneyland, as a friend and I did when we recently visited Las Pozas. Reflecting on the uninhibited awe we both had felt during our wanderings while pausing at the clear, blue-tinted pools of Edward James’ dream-creation, Kate remarked, “Who says he’s not a poet?”

Las Pozas (the pools) is the result of the creative imagination of Edward James combined with the cultural spirit and hard work of indigenous people of Mexico living in the mountainous jungle area that lured him because of its natural beauty and magical ambience. Over the course of several decades, his vision of paradise came to life as huge surreal concrete forms that rose from the rainforest surrounding gorgeous natural pools near the village of Xilitla (He-LEET-la) in the state of Huasteca, north of Vera Cruz. What remains today is evocatively fascinating: incredible sculptures that rise mystically from thick rainforest growth, perhaps one of the most underappreciated architectural feats of modern times.

James was born in 1907 in Scotland to parents whose enormous wealth enabled him to have a lifetime of privilege, and early on he became a lifelong patron of the arts. His own youthful creativity was thwarted by Stephen Spender’s critical review of his collection of poems, The Bones of My Hands. He became particularly enmeshed in the Surrealistic movement that began in the early 1920’s and was a sponsor and supporter of Salvador Dali and René Magritte. However, Avery Danziger, in his 2009 documentary Edward James, Builder of Dreams, states “… he was not a surrealist. Rather it was his life as he lived it that was surreal.”

As fond as he was of the Surrealists, over time James tired of patronage, and he began searching for his own artistic outlet. That search came to fruition when he visited Mexico in the mid-1940’s. During his travels he befriended a young man, Plutarco Gastelum, and the evolving lifelong friendship between the two was to become a driving force behind realization of James’ dream. Under Gastelum’s guidance, James purchased 80+ acres in the Mexican jungle near Xilitla.

The town sits on a green hillside amid a coffee-growing region. James was particularly attracted to the area because of its abundance of orchids. His love of nature made Xilitla an ideal location, and the work he provided over 25 years indebted him to and made him part of the community. James planted thousands of orchids on his land, but a freak snowfall killed most of them in 1962, an event that compelled him even more to continue creating an enduring Eden on earth.

Inspired in part by the surrealistic Watts Towers in Los Angeles, James’ vision began to unfold until his death in 1984. In Mexico, he found what he had been unable to find in Europe: a culture where his unusual, eccentric imagination was embraced and not ridiculed. Myth, magic, and dream, such an integral part of Mexico’s art, were coupled with a strong personal connection James made with master carpenter José Aguilar Hernandez, who built his own works of art in dozens of wooden molds that would be filled with concrete, dried, opened, and their resulting creations displayed in the flora where James’ ideas would come to life. However, until recently, Las Pozas remained safely sleeping in its own obscurity, known only to locals and to the few souls who journeyed to reach James’ surrealistic dream.

That obscurity and Las Pozas’ remoteness are part of its appeal, but reaching our destination was no easy mission. We drove from San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato three hours north of Mexico City, through breathtakingly beautiful country an additional 10-11 hours before reaching Xilitla. Encountering unfamiliar roads, steady rain, infrequently marked directional designations, and eventual darkness, we finally reached the village built on a hillside, arguably speculating about James’ geographical choice for his fantasy. 

Las Pozas is impossible to imagine before you venture inside; it is so enormous in construction and has become so much a part of the jungle that it is reminiscent of ancient Mayan civilizations, a comparison not lost on James. Margaret Hooks, in her book Surreal Eden (2007), references George Collins and Michael Schuyt in their book Fantastic Architecture, in which James speculates how hundreds of years in the future, some people might come upon Las Pozas and “…attempt to determine what civilization had built them.”

Once you pass by the bright orange front door of the multi-leveled skeletal building that welcomes you to Las Pozas, you follow stone walkways and walls green with moss along Avenue of the Snakes. You must envision the structures as they are: concrete bones, without walls, without ceiling, all of them seemingly incomplete, intentionally unfinished. Unfinished buildings are what they first seem to be; in fact, they are immense sculptures, and as such complete in their own unique way. These are sculptures you walk through and on and up–interactive by nature, beckoning you to discover them.

Most walking is up–Las Pozas is angled on hills–and viewing is up since most structures tower above you. One structure has three wall-less levels, and various sets of stairs wind on top of one level. You can wander Avenue of the Orchids, peer into the Secret Garden, look inside the Houses of the Ocelot and of the Flamingos, or rest on the Plaza of the Three Crosses. Discovering Las Pozas remains thrilling as you wander along, and the feeling only intensifies as you sight the next creation emerging from the forest, another unusual vision.

Floral monuments grow out of the various structural floors or from the earth.

Curlicued metal doors open to rainforest jungle. One set of stairs of about 30 steps simply ends on the last step. Concrete bamboo protrudes from giant leaf fronds. Walking around a bend will find you staring at a previously unseen sculpture, obscured by immense foliage. If you climb upon a concrete square structure and peer over the wrought iron fence, you might see water gliding downhill from pool to pool below the waterfall. Each step is an adventure.

What continued to surprise us was that wherever we looked, we would be overcome with amazement. Mostly the structures were secreted within the vegetation so we would be walking along, duck under some enormous trees, walk up some steps, and find ourselves gazing at yet another sculpture. We’d climb over floors and climb up stairs–no use “at your own risk” signs here–and stare at an unfinished creation we hadn’t seen before. This experience repeated itself throughout the afternoon spent at Las Pozas, as most of the 36 identified concrete structures revealed themselves.

I kept returning to one that became my favorite. It had the most color of any other still visible: a 10-12 foot tall concrete orchid in red, blue, green, and yellow, faded, but still with strokes of brilliant color. Originally, many of the sculptures had been painted, but time and water have weather-beaten most shades. But with its dulled colors, this orchid still had allure, so I photographed it in different light at different times. Its image I will never forget.

The rich emerald coloring of the jungle and the pools from the multiple waterfalls also enhance the enchantment of Las Pozas. Waterfalls cascade from the hillside and form a series of seven pools of fresh, clear, water, reflecting a turquoise blue from the light. Built around the largest pool are large designed cement walls, creating different angles for viewing. The swimmable pools add a natural peacefulness to the falling waters and they intersect a tropical jungle, lush with banana palms, odd orchid family flowers, enormous ferns, over-sized dieffenbachia, and multiple varieties of philodendron, some with huge elephant-ear leaves, all richly green.

I tried to imagine the labor it took to make Las Pozas. At its busiest, close to 70 families from Xilitla had someone working on the project. The execution of the dream represented constant, arduous toiling, much of the effort uphill and energy intensive. Work was essentially by hand and over the decades it never actually was completed. But the open, unfinished sensation and the freedom associated with those feelings are part of its magic, amid a kind of jungle-gothic.

Walking the grounds, I kept feeling like I was in a museum. I suspect it feels like a museum to many other visitors, too. For what purpose is a museum, but to enjoy and appreciate art for art’s sake? At Las Pozas, embedded discretely in the jungle, huge, distinctive structures display the essence of “building” sans walls, roof, windows, carpeting, but nonetheless, they are creative sculptural renderings. Set in a tropical Mexican jungle, this otherworldly artistic display is a unique experience, its allure distinctive and enduring, its color fading, yet a romantic flair enclosing each piece of structurally remarkable work.

Edward James wanted to be an artist in his own right and he was, but even he recognized that Las Pozas would be seen as pure madness by some in Europe. But in Mexico he found a culture where anything seemed possible, so these strangely mesmerizing concrete sculptures evolved into a breathtaking feat of architecture that should have made an impressive mark in the international artistic community. Somehow Las Pozas did not achieve that possibility, though my friend Kate saw poetry in the imaginative form of Las Pozas. His poetry simply took a much different shape than Stephen Spender could have foreseen. Certainly the feeling of the poet is embedded in the sculptures. Even in Surreal Eden, Margaret Hooks raises the issue of James’ work being that of genius or folly.

As for that question, Las Pozas enters and inspires you in its own inarticulate way. Visiting there is an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. Genius has its eccentricities, and looking at the elaborate undertaking and astounding outcome of James’ imaginings, unfinished as they may have seemed, I for one, can find no man’s folly.

In fact, I think James knew exactly what he was creating and why. At a museum in El Castillo, the Xilitla home of Plutarco Gastelum where James often stayed, is a poem hanging on the wall that he wrote about his “house” at Las Pozas entitled “This Shell”: “My house grows like the chamber’d nautilus…my house has wings and sometimes in the dead of night she sings…This house is all assuaged and waiting for that sea whose child I am…” Perhaps it was the child-like aspect of James’ surreal imagination that finally found root in Las Pozas, where he created his ingenious slice of the world, an eccentric yet highly personal imagining. Perhaps with its recent re-discovery and support by the foundation, Fondo Xilitla, Las Pozas will re-emerge as a testament to Edward James’ enduring vision. For what we can see today in his unfinished garden of Eden is even more engaging than it was originally.

In the last 35 years it has evolved its own unique identity–a rich green enchantment, a mystical ride, though lacking the glitter, the hype, the technology, and the merriment of Disneyland, a concrete jungle of poetry no less magical.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Nights Such as These

Nights Such as These
Emily Grelle
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

The wind in the eaves,
playing frisbee with my father
counting up, hands clapping
under the impact of the moment
in which the flying disc, like a UFO,
hit home, my plan— it
was to reach 100 without breaking
the count, the value
of which exceeded the thousands
of summer nights hence that I have dreamed
of returning to that season of unseason,
when all I had to offer was handed back to me
with equal fervor, and we were counting on each other
and my mother, on the porch unrivaled
in love, rooting for us like the grass, waving
in the breeze, with wishes full in the heads
of dandelions growing gray to plant our hopes
in fields where they’ll grow bright as suns
and even the blades are gentle enough
to ease the inevitable fall.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Second Time Foster Child

Second Time Foster Child
Toni Hoy
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

A child is bruised and battered. He is hungry and cold, lacking such basic necessities as safety and nurturing. However, all is not lost. Hope lurks around the corner when a loving foster family feels a connection to one such child. The family brings the child home, first as a foster child, and some time after, makes a forever commitment to the child through adoption. Years later, generally at or just before the onset of puberty, the same child is once again facing foster care re-entry. If it was bad enough being a “first time foster child,” it really stinks to be a “second time foster child.”

During the early 90s, state child welfare agencies were taking children away from parents in alarming numbers. Once a child received the foster care sentence, he never seemed to get out, at least until he became an adult. Foster care rolls swelled to the highest levels in history shorty before President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) into law in 1997. How did so many children end up in the foster care system anyway?

The feminist movement, widespread drug abuse, health hazards, and media pressure contributed to increasing foster care rolls. The role of women in society changed drastically during the 1970s. Women spent less time at home and more in the workplace. The crack cocaine epidemic created a population of addicted mothers who were unable to properly care for their children, landing their children in foster care.

The crack cocaine epidemic was followed by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, landing even more children in foster care, as mothers became severely ill or deceased. About the same time, several children “known to the system” died at the hands of their birth parents due to severe neglect and abuse. Across the nation, child protective services caved to media pressure to remove children from their families.

State agencies agreed to “err on the side of the child.” In Illinois, the foster care rolls ballooned to 52,000 state wards, while parents were haphazardly blasted with false allegations.

Teachers and other professionals involved in childcare-related careers lost their jobs over rampant false allegations. In 1994, in an Illinois class action suit, 150,000 parents filed DuPuy v. Samuels, alleging that child protective services were taking too many children away from their parents for too little reason. The landmark case, which settled in favor of the parents, resulted in new rules that expedite hearings for parents and workers in childcare-related fields. Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer referred to it as “…a staggering risk of error…” What were states to do with tens of thousands of children languishing in foster care?

Advocates proposed federal change, demanding safety, permanency, and wellbeing for children in care elements which became the foundation of ASFA. Amongst other things, ASFA offered to pay states to move children out of foster care. States received $4000 per finalized adoption and $6000 for every child that met standards for a “special needs” adoption. ASFA urged parents to resolve their substance abuse, domestic, and financial unrest quickly, by threatening to terminate their parental rights. Under ASFA, states may legally sever familial ties for children who remain in foster care 15 to 22 months. With the premise that prospective adoptive children came with a myriad of trauma-related mental health issues, ASFA also offered assistance for adoptive families. Children moved out of foster care with the aid of Medicaid cards and financial subsidies for their new parents. In 1997, President Clinton passed ASFA into law. With the exception of the birth parents, who often couldn’t comply with systemic demands quickly enough, ASFA worked like a charm. Children moved in droves from foster care to permanent, adoptive homes. Child welfare workers made quick work of ASFA, blasting the public with adoptive media campaigns, hosting adoption parties, and advertising waiting-child profiles.

Child welfare agencies challenged caseworkers by assigning definitive quotas to move children from transience to permanence through adoption. Caseworkers met the challenge by downplaying the children’s mental health concerns, assuring prospective adoptive parents that once the children were placed in loving, permanent homes, the children would certainly be “just fine.”

Once again, Illinois led the way, drastically reducing the 52,000 state wards to 15,500. Department of Children and Family Service Director, Jess McDonald, lined his office walls with adoption awards. State agencies and adoptive families rejoiced while birthparents grieved. Meanwhile the effects of prenatal substance abuse, neglect, and physical abuse lay dormant in the children’s brains, waiting to explode with the onset of puberty.

It wasn’t generally long before adoptive families discovered that something with their new additions was a little “off.” The children were hyperactive. They scrounged for food and displayed odd behaviors. They demanded constant attention, bullied other children, triangulated adults, and destroyed property. Traditional sticker charts and behavior programs failed miserably.

The children ignored limit setting and natural consequences. In the heat of frustration and exhaustion, parents sought professional help. In the early 2000’s, the ASFA generation hit puberty and the odd behaviors increasingly manifested in unsafe and unmanageable behavior.

A plethora of psychiatric evaluations and inkblot tests soon uncovered an alphabet soup of diagnoses including: ADD, ADHD, PTSD, RAD, ODD, OC D, BD, CD, LD, BPD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Many children responded well to medications and/or therapies.

For others, symptoms escalated to self-harm, aggression, and violence. Families were living in a constant state of turmoil. Psychiatric hospitals made attempts at stabilization; however, psychotropic drug treatment is not an exact science. Repeated hospitalizations cycled children through the “psychiatric revolving door” with no answers, edging families to the brink of giving up. Seeking help, adoptive parents returned to the same state agencies who once promised them that in time, the children would be “just fine.”

Which state agency should serve this population of severely traumatized youth, who needs intensive in-home, community-based, or residential services? Is it the state agency in charge of education, mental health, or child and family services? In many states, lack of synergy between agencies directs parents in an endless round robin without answers. Hospitals and therapists discourage parents from bringing their children home, due to the safety risk to other family members. Taking such a drastic step automatically defaults “the case that nobody wants” to the child welfare serving agency. Child welfare agencies respond to hotline calls of child psychiatric lockouts with “the Devil’s Deal.” Illinois reports an alarming 104 psychiatric lockouts in 2010. To put it in perspective, that is about two per week and more than one per county.

As mandated reporters, hospitals are required to report incidences of suspected abuse, neglect, or abandonment to a state child abuse hotline, placing them in the quandary of reporting the very parents they seek to aid and protect. A hotline call generates a child abuse investigation against the family that is unable to attain intensive in-home, community based, or residential services.

The child protection investigator walks through the motions of a procedural Catch 22. Bring the child home and be charged with child endangerment for failing to protect your other children, or leave him at the hospital and be charged with neglect. The politically acceptable term for this unethical dilemma is “custody relinquishment for mental healthcare” a.k.a., legally forcing parents to trade custody for treatment, a.k.a., “the Devil’s Deal.” Legal charges send parents to juvenile court, in hopes of getting neglect charges amended to “no fault dependency” as well as to administrative law court to get their names removed from the state central register of indicated child abusers. Worse, some states additionally file felony charges against the adoptive parents, threatening them with jail time for failing to rectify a situation in which every state agency has staunchly refused to offer help. In still other states, parents are charged outrageous amounts of mandated child support over threats of jail time. To add insult to injury, birth parents who caused the brain disorders get off scot-free.

If all that were not bad enough, the case proceeds through juvenile court under “the child abuse lens.”

Juvenile justice systems are typically equipped and designed for cases of neglect, abuse, and dependency. What is a judge to do with a case that lands in his courtroom for which there is no applicable law?

They use existing laws, tweaking and twisting them, trying to make them fit a situation for which they were never intended. Judges, Guardian Ad Litems (GAL), child welfare workers, and CASA volunteers lump no fault dependency cases right in with the rest of the child neglecters and abusers. Such cases are viewed under “the child abuse lens,” subjecting good parents with sick children to be continually investigated, interrogated, separated, and humiliated through a court process that was never intended to serve them.

Processing no fault dependency cases in the same manner as child abuse cases inhibits therapeutic progress for children, while oppressing parents. Large percentages of these children have Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) due to infant or child neglect. Bonding and attachment therapy is in order for these children a therapy which, when effectively done, creates a stronger bond between the child and his parents or primary caregivers. The child’s basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, warmth, and nurturing were not met in early stages of development.

He learns very early that since no one is present to control his environment, he must control it himself. He develops a lack of trust in adult caregivers along with an unhealthy, weak bond with his parents. Bonding and attachment therapy seeks to rebuild the parent/child relationship with strong bonds and healthy relationships, which provide the child with vital trust.

The child learns to rely on others, and is more apt to give up his need to control his environment. When his needs are met, he feels safe and secure, and the violent and aggressive explosions cease. However, “the Devil’s Deal” works contrary to appropriate treatment when it pits child v. parents in a court of law and assigns ents), creating a “systemic wedge” between child and parent. With so many others filling the role of parent, there is no room for the parent to fulfill his parental responsibilities. Thus, while the therapists seek to strengthen the bonds between children and parents, in order to heal the child from pre-adoptive trauma, the system is simultaneously driving them apart, stalling therapeutic progress.

No longer does the educational meeting invitation arrive in the parent’s mailbox. Rather, it is re-directed to the child welfare educational surrogate, who has little information on the child’s education or the fact that the parents are not to blame for a system which failed their child. In plain sight of child and parent, the educational surrogate not only makes decisions in lieu of the parent, but also signs on the signature line marked for parents. The GAL makes legal decisions for the child without input from parents.

The caseworker makes the rest of the decisions and the judge monitors them all. With so many individuals and organizations acting as the parents, there is really no room for the parents to parent. As a result of constantly being viewed under “the child abuse lens,” parents’ credibility is lost in the mix. Their input is largely overlooked and promptly dismissed, resulting in chronic oppression.

Parents are emotionally beaten down in the process. Over constant threats of negative reports to the court, threats of losing their other children, and threats of complete termination of parental rights, parents are forced into silence and submission. While it all sounds unethical, it is perfectly legal. Or is it? What happened to all those provisions that the federal government strategically placed into ASFA to address severe mental health conditions due to pre-adoptive trauma? Would a few hundred dollars per month of adoptive subsidy provide the level of services such a child needs? In a word, no. Rarely do health insurance plans cover costly, intensive in-home or community based services, which are recommended by therapists. Residential services can cost upwards of $150,000 per year with zero dollars of available funding to assist parents. These are the issues that force the hand of “the Devil’s Deal.” What about that Medicaid card? Most states advise parents that it does not cover intensive services, once again steering them toward “the Devil’s Deal.” Some states advise parents that the current state laws supersede federal law. Parents once again face a dreaded dead end. However, let’s take a closer look at what the Medicaid law says in regards to treatment that is “medically necessary.”

Medicaid contains a provision called the Early, Periodic, Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) which states, in part “if a practitioner of the healing arts deems that a treatment is medically necessary to correct or ameliorate a condition, the state must provide it, whether or not it is covered under any other state plan. If they cannot provide it, they must arrange for it. The time period for arranging it is six months…” Since nearly all children adopted through a subsidized adoption have Medicaid, their treatment is covered as required by federal law. Passing state law which contradicts or supersedes federal law is unequivocally illegal. How do states continue to get away with denying treatment?

The answer is that the same parents who naively bought into the idea that the children would be “just fine” also bought a bill of goods that incorrectly stated that treatment under the EPSDT provision of Medicaid is not covered. Not enough parents have challenged the states’ failure to apply the law in federal courts. The temporary solution is a parent-led federal lawsuit against the state Medicaid agency. The permanent solution is to amend ASFA by inserting the EPSDT wording directly into ASFA, making clear that states may not deny treatment that children are legally entitled to under federal law–the same federal law that awarded them the promise of ASFA–safety, well-being, and yes, permanency.

Because of failure to comply with the EPSDT provision of Medicaid, the federal government awards permanency to children through adoption and stands idly by as the states take the child’s permanency away from them. Children face compounded issues of abandonment and adoptive families grieve, while states gain the benefit of drawing down federal funding for treatment.

Historically speaking from a social perspective, the pendulum sails large numbers of children into foster care, swinging them back into adoptive homes and finally flips them all the way around, forcing them back into foster care, rendering them “second time foster children,” just to repeat the cycle all over again. Adoptive families made the commitment to children’s permanency. The federal government provided two vehicles to assure children that “permanency” is truly permanent–EPSDT and ASFA.

Now, if we could just get the state agencies to obey the law.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Mary Nash-Pyott

A Moment with Mary Nash-Pyott
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

February’s featured photographer, Mary Nash-Pyott discusses her photography in motion. She shares with us her keen eye for the serene and the sacred.

Empirical: Hi Mary. We first became acquainted with your work through a regular contributor to Empirical, Randall Auxier. We’re glad he brought you to our attention. How did you get started in photography?

Mary: It happened in fits and spurts. My adopted father is a successful photographer, now retired, but active in experimenting and astrophotography. But my early experiences with cameras were disappointing. The ones I could afford were the little instant cameras for snapshots of the family. I was intrigued but had little control over the process. When I could finally step up into an SLR , I selected the Canon Rebel, and began shooting 35 mm. I was able to get some fairly nice shots, enough to wet my thirst, but I was unable to master the camera. This is mostly because I am inherently disorganized. Finally, in 2007, as I entered midlife, I received a Canon Powershot A530, and silly as it sounds, went nuts with it. I finally had the instant feedback I needed, and I fell in love. I quickly ran into the limitations of that camera, but I challenged myself to never shoot in any setting but manual, and no flash except when absolutely necessary.

Empirical: Do you think the advancement of camera technology has made the field better or worse? Most young photographers today don’t have to challenge themselves the way you did.

Mary: My goal in using manual was to learn the relationships between the adjustments until I could manipulate them intuitively and without looking at the camera. But now I am seeing excellent quality pictures taken even by cellphones! It’s a lovely development that places a delicious creativity in the hands of anyone with a thirst for it. I like to press myself to learn. And I trained my hand to make the adjustments and shoot without needing to look through the viewfinder, and coupled this with my pilot training to scan my environment while driving.

Empirical: Driving and photographing at the same time?

Mary: My family expressed concerns about that, but I felt more aware of the road than I ever had been plugged into music, the audiobooks, or even talking to a passenger, which I found so much more distracting. I attribute the fact that I am still alive to mindfulness practice and good procedural discipline, plus learning to play the guitar as a youth. I discovered as I played in the dark and in secret that my fingers have eyes, and I can trust them to learn the way. Plus keeping my eyes on the road! I am proud to say I’ve never had an accident, though I did push the edge of the envelope a few times.

Empirical: Did you ever come too close to pushing the envelope all the way?

Mary: Yes, but not as often as you’d think! I am what may be described as a sedate driver: I rarely exceed the speed limit and continually scan the environment as well as my mirrors and gauges, drawing heavily from my pilot training. But yes, at times I would get too excited about a shot and might swerve or slow down abruptly in traffic, which would provide the feedback I needed to bring me back to reality, causing me to re center and reconsider my priorities. I think that was the hardest part, to learn to not take a shot when it may cause an accident.

Empirical: Was there a certain point that you began to take photography more seriously … that is, to see yourself as a photographer?

Mary: I can’t say that I truly see myself as a photographer even now! I see myself as helplessly pursuing something that sets me on fire. I’ve thought of going professional now that I am between jobs, or maybe careers (though that hasn’t been decided yet). But I do not in my mind even approach the stunning works I see others produce who know their stuff and have the frequent-flyer miles and equipment to prove it. My dream is to wander the wilds of both nature and civilization, and to compile a publication of my journeys at home, while I prepare for the next jaunt and save for that next tank of gas.

Empirical: Any wilds in particular you wish to wander first?

Mary: Goodness! Where to start? I dream of spending a couple of weeks in the Appalachians, and maybe walk a section of the trail around Asheville, NC. New Orleans is calling to me as well. And I have an opportunity to visit a ranch in British Columbia. The west always beckons, too. I love the Rockies, the high plains, and deserts. The low humidity causes colors to snap, rather than the haziness that is almost always present here in Illinois. It seems you can’t take a bad picture!

Empirical: Do you like any particular kinds of shots over others?

Mary: I love surprise, so wildlife is fun. I have only recently begun stealing candid shots of people, but that makes me feel like a thief, so I generally approach and ask if they want a copy. I truly don’t know how other photographers overcome that social compunction!

Empirical: Not knowing how is one thing–is there a desire to overcome it?

Mary: Absolutely! I do not want to go to my grave with compunctions that I do not choose for myself. And I fiercely love the stories I see in the lines of the face, in the glint of the eye and the poetry of movement. I have learned that faces are like wildflowers in the wind: if you hold still and wait, you can capture them in a slivered moment between expressions, which for singers can make or break a shot.

Empirical: What kind of equipment do you like to use now?

Mary: I’m currently using a Canon T3 with a kit lens and my trusty XSi with its 55x250 telephoto zoom. I am experimenting with ways to keep these stable on my body as I move. These are pretty tough cameras, and take a lot of abuse, believe me! But I do try to minimize the battering. But my needs inform my designs, and slowly I develop the ways and means to both wander freely and keep my cameras intact.

Empirical: You believe the camera has given you the finest education you can buy. What has it taught you about yourself ?

Mary: I married my husband and moved to our 15 acres and a sturdy farmhouse in rural southern Illinois in 1986, where we raised two beautiful, exceptionally talented, and fiercely independent daughters who are now up and out on their own. Our property abuts what was once a major Indian trading post prior to white settlement, just north of the breathtaking Shawnee Forest. The forest tumbles 60 miles south to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. I have grown to revere that rugged terrain, and walk the Trail of Tears, where the natives of the south were cruelly shunted toward their barren reservations to the west. There is almost a hush in those towering hardwoods, which rise like a cathedral over the bloody footprints and buried corpses of a once-proud people.

Empirical: Do you do some other kind of work other than photography?

Mary: I was forced to graduate in 1996 with a Master’s degree in social work, and began a career in mental health counseling, which draws heavily on my psychology minor. I practiced individual psychotherapy until I left my position in May of 2011 due to deteriorating conditions in the state systems and working seven-day weeks for more years than I care to remember. The camera is what saved my life.

Empirical: Where are you from originally?

Mary: I was born in Bellingham, Washington, but moved to southern California when I was very young. I grew up running the cliffs of Del Mar, just north of San Diego. It was there I developed that love of adventure and surprise as I ran the trails and clambered the beautiful red rocks like a little barefoot goat, drinking from puddles and heading home when the coyotes howled. It was a time of great freedom and expansion for a very lucky little girl. I will always be grateful for an amazing childhood, and will never forget the moment I returned to see those beautiful cliffs of my homeland covered with condos. It is a grief I still bear.

Empirical: Does that memory move you to partake in your adventures today?

Mary: Seeing the condos shocked me into recognizing that the world can shift at any time from beneath me. It stole something from me, something deeper than I could name. And while the adult in me understood the practicalities of expanding populations and the booms and busts of commerce, the child in me held even more fiercely to the memories of running wild, and the magical world revealing itself all around me.

Empirical: Thank you very much for sharing your photos and story with us, Mary.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: In the Shade of a Cave

In the Shade of a Cave
Wally Swist
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empircal

We hike halfway up Mount Toby to where the gorge drops
off and takes the thin stream of Roaring Brook down
toward the culvert beneath train tracks to Cranberry Pond
I explain that the water is normally roaring every spring
from the snowmelt; however, not having much of a winter
has affected the watersheds. I illustrate that usually
the force of the brook hammers the stones, that the sound
mixes with the ionization of the water rising above the cliffs,
so that you can see, hear, and smell the torrent all at once.
In giving Bob a guided tour of the flora bordering the trail
this mid-April, I find the Quaker Ladies grouped in blue
and white clusters at the bottom, in the scrub meadow that
overlooks the pond. Farther up where I warn him
that here is where the trail begins to become steep, I spot
one nodding purple trillium, then point out the others
blazing their own trail up the slope. He aims the camera
to shoot his photographs of what he describes
as their flowers looking downward, and I explain that is why
part of their name includes the word nodding. He blurts out
how he was an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge,
one of four soldiers out of a platoon of forty who survived
the surging stormtroopers. I point to the bright yellow
discs of inflorescence of coltsfoot flourishing beside
a trickle of a stream cutting its way through the black mud.
There! I exclaim, and identify the four-lobed lush purple
flowers of hepatica, whose royal hues can be easily missed
due to their diminutive size among leaf litter. I speak
with an intended ebullient clarity that I hope he remembers
when we find the clearing beneath the mossy cliffs halfway
up the mountain, speckled white with the luscious
blossoming of bloodroot. I inform him that there is only
a two-week window of our seeing this perennial in the wild,
of which he shows his rapt appreciation by taking one
photograph after another. Do you see that one, I say, placing
one of his hands in one of mine, as I draw a straight line
to where one bloodroot flower grows in the shade of a cave
in the cliffs. Oh, I see, he answers, then continues:
Yesterday I couldn’t feel my hands and feet from the trench foot I got
in the battle. They only gave us thin gloves, so we could fire our rifles.
My feet froze, since the boots they gave us were not much,
and the socks were too goddamn thin! We look at each other,
with mutual understanding beneath green cliffs, whose
natural architecture we both admire, among blossoms
of bloodroot that star the entire vertical rise in the sunlight.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: In Search of a Good Teacher

In Search of a Good Teacher
Jaime O'Neill
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

“The teacher is like the candle which lights others in consuming itself.”
—Giovanni Ruffini

“I am not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as of you.”
–George Bernard Shaw

Not long ago, I stopped at a local bakery for coffee and a bit of pastry, accompanied by my wife and visiting daughters. A woman ahead of me in line said hello, and though I recognized her face, I couldn’t place her.

“Do you know where you know me from?” I asked.

“I took English from you,” she answered.

That comment is always a little fraught with tension because, when I can’t remember a former student, there’s a possibility that person left my class with bad feelings caused by a bad grade. Sometimes, they just didn’t like me, or they hated the fact they were required to take the course I taught, and they blamed me for that requirement.

Over the years, whenever I was at a party where people were making small talk by asking one another what they did for a living, I had grown sheepish about admitting that I taught English because, more often than not, the reply was, “Oh, I hated English when I was in school,” followed by the confession that they weren’t good at it, though they rushed to assure me that they had excelled at other subjects.

In other words, they fell back into the role of being students again, and casting me as the teacher, a person to whom they had to make excuses.

The woman in line at the bakery was kind enough to tell me how much my course had meant to her, and I made the awkwardly appreciative noises one makes at such a time. And, as we talked, I gradually began to remember her, albeit a bit dimly. She was that rare student in community college, one of those who always turns up for class, is always prepared, always does the work. Most probably, her assessment of my skills as a teacher owed as much to her dedication to her studies as anything I did or didn’t do in that class she took from me. Good students are often likely to give the teacher credit for things they did themselves, and poor students are more likely to blame teachers for the things they, themselves, did not do. They would have studied harder if the teacher had been more interesting, or they would have been more conscientious if the teacher had somehow convinced them that this stuff mattered.

I spent most of my working life as a teacher, sharing what I’d learned about language and literature from those who had taught me. I took several dozen classes in order to acquire the degrees that allowed me to presume I had something worth hearing to students who signed up for the courses I taught. By rough estimate, there were 320 of those courses, taught over a span of four decades spent in classrooms at four different colleges. Figuring a low-ball average enrollment of 20 students per class, that figures out to well over 6000 students, nearly all of whom have evaporated from memory. Similarly, the teachers who taught me are mostly forgotten. Those professors who still hold a place in my recollections are a mere handful of truly exceptional people–both exceptionally bad and exceptionally good. The good teachers served as role models for what I should do when I began my own teaching career, and the bad teachers lingered in memory to remind me of what I should avoid doing.

The exceptionally bad were conspicuously lazy, determinedly dull, or utterly unmotivated, dead to all enthusiasm for students or for the subjects they taught. If there had ever been fire in these people, it was lost by the time I sat before them in classes I was required to take, or had signed up for because the material seemed interesting until I learned it was being taught by people who no longer found it interesting themselves.

I sometimes wonder how many students sampled certain subjects and then rejected entire disciplines simply because of one bad teacher who turned what might have been a lifelong passion into an abandoned intellectual exploration.

Fortunately, the truly bad teachers were few, but then so were the truly great teachers. 

My experience on both sides of the lectern has brought me to the conclusion that 10% of teachers are simply awful, 10% are truly inspiring, and the rest can be found somewhere along a sliding scale between those two poles. Those in that broad middle are varying degrees of serviceable, people who can convey information, organize material, administer tests, and evaluate student performance. But few of them are likely to be remembered by former students, and even fewer have the capacity to reawaken curiosity and the keen desire to learn that is so often squelched by the dull routine found in far too many classrooms fronted by sausage grinder teachers who crank out students from whom the natural desire to learn has been successfully extracted. Uninspired and uninspiring teachers inadvertently teach students  that serving the system supercedes substance.

They teach students how to play the game, subordinating learning to racking up points awarded for complying with whatever systems of measurement the teacher or the school have contrived to evaluate student performance.

Rather immodestly, I count myself among the “good” teachers, though I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that self-assessment. But, if I wasn’t as good a teacher as I’d like to think I was, it surely wasn’t for lack of trying. The job consumed me, woke me up nights, made me toss and turn with worries or with ideas for things I wanted to try. Like parenting, teaching can always be improved upon, and each new semester provided the opportunity to finally get it “right,” an elusive and perhaps unachievable goal. If there was a single student I felt I hadn’t reached, or a day when I couldn’t seem to capture their interest, those failures took up residence in the back of my mind, often overpowering whatever successes I may have had. Though it will seem immodest to say so, I think that the nagging sensitivity to the prospect of failure is one of the primary reasons I can call myself a good teacher. I’ve known more than a few colleagues who seemed not to care too much about whether they succeeded or failed at the task of actual teaching, an attitude of indifference that ensured their status as not very good teachers.

Throughout my long classroom career, it was common for students to ask me to recommend other teachers I thought were especially good. Most of the time, I evaded the question, telling them how difficult it was for teachers to assess one other. After all, we were seldom, if ever, in one another’s classes. Someone who seemed interesting in casual conversation in the faculty lounge or at a staff party might turn out to be a martinet or a malingerer in the classroom, one of those who shirk their responsibilities by dividing students into little learning circles and then letting the blind lead the blind while he or she circulates among them like a supervisor on an assembly line.

These are the people who eschew the word “teacher,” redefining themselves as “facilitators” as a way of doing less. There’s lots of stuff offered as rationalization for this approach, anodynes for whatever bouts of bad conscience might afflict teachers who have found this way of evading the time and effort of classroom prep, or the energy required to bring off an engaging lecture or maintain the thread of an engaged classroom discussion. Because it decreases the demands of actual teaching, the “collaborative learning” approach is persistently peddled at teacher conferences, and it’s a pill that goes down easy, eagerly swallowed by those who really don’t like teaching all that much.

Many, maybe most, of the people who make their way into ranks of education management are teachers who didn’t make a good “fit” in the classroom, people who beat a hasty retreat from contact with students in favor of better paid jobs overseeing their former colleagues. In their new roles, they hire consultants, form committees, draft mission statements, attend conferences, count various varieties of beans, and issue occasional documents defining just what constitutes good teaching. At the highest levels of ambition, these former teachers scrambled out of schools entirely, making their way to political appointments, or garnering national attention by proposing “reforms” that nearly always boiled down to less power for teachers, and more “accountability,” which always meant defined “outcomes” that could be charted on graphs. Perhaps the only real purpose those graphs served was to make the case for effective management because, when the “outcomes” spiked upwards, that was always a cause for administrative self-congratulation.

And, in these realms, way leads on to way, ever farther from students and classrooms, ever closer to the abstractions and numbing clichés that constitute the talk of educrats who take as their model the captains of business and industry, and who come to think themselves entitled to comparable pay.

So it is that we have a system of higher education in California, for instance, where university presidents and chancellors command salaries larger than the one earned by the President of the United States, where tuition costs rise along with those administrative paychecks because, we’re told, talent this rare cannot be purchased for less.

And, as these corporatized academic CEOs proliferate, so does the view that education should emulate the business model. As that view gains dominance in “the ed. biz,” the less measurable “outcomes” continue to make themselves plain as we grant degrees to people who cannot find jobs, or who leave their colleges weighed down by levels of indebtedness that will blight the very futures they’d hoped to brighten by seeking advanced degrees in the first place. That doesn’t matter much because the system is still churning out “product,” granting degrees to ever more students.

The fact that the broader system doesn’t know what to do with all that product is of little concern to the people who run the colleges and universities, but maintenance of their pay and perks surely does, and lots of their time seems to be spent schmoozing with their trustees and boards to keep that notion firmly in place that without people like them in charge, the system just might not be so good, and that people like them need to be paid handsomely or they’ll take their balls and go home. And they’ve got some pretty big balls, no matter their gender, because they make these claims in a job market where nearly everyone else is taking hits, and in the face of lots of criticism of just how well their leadership is serving either students or the society that pays their salaries.

If the ratio of good teachers to not-so-good teachers isn’t as high as everyone would like, we might begin by looking at the people who are creating the environment for teaching, and defining just what teachers are supposed to do.

Over the course of four decades spent in classrooms, I’ve known lots of people like Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC school system. Rhee has gained mega media attention as the latest savior of American education. She’s made the cover of Newsweek, won accolades from Oprah (a kind of secular sainthood), and she was the heroine of Waiting for Superman, a well-intended documentary that played upon the audience’s legitimate sympathies for DC area students trying to win a lottery to get into better schools, and out of the bad schools they’re in. Rhee has emerged as the Joe Arpaio of ed. reform, anointed by the media as a tough-talking woman who cares only about students, and who is willing to take  on lazy, incompetent, and indifferent teachers in order to better serve them.

Which is all well and good, I suppose.

Who wouldn’t support that narrative, especially in the current climate, where unions–especially public employees unions–are so consistently vilified and scapegoated for woes we are suffering? Who is not against lazy and/or incompetent teachers? And who is not in favor of giving young people the very best possible education we can provide? Who wouldn’t oppose unions, portrayed by Rhee and the opportunistic politicians who praise her, as special interest advocates for less work, more pay, and bad instruction? After all, in the popular script Rhee reads from, unions do little beyond gouging taxpayers and protecting the jobs of bad teachers.

Americans are suckers for bad narratives, any tale that neatly compacts our problems into a fable featuring heroes, villains, and victims. Ronald Reagan got lots of traction laying the blame for government deficits at the door of “welfare queens” while masterfully overlooking the engorged defense budget. And the debate over health care was muddied by bogus stories of death panels that imperiled “grandma.” Similarly, Michelle Rhee’s rise to prominence has been buoyed by the story she’s telling, one in which she is cast as the brave heroine, willing to take on the bad guys who, unlike her, are not putting students first.

Throughout my own decades of “putting students first”–reading millions of their words, correcting their mistakes in writing, listening to their excuses as well as their legitimate woes, struggling to find ways to engage their interest and keep their attention, attempting to build their confidence, worrying about their attendance, fretting over grades, and sharing what I knew about writing–I also taught classes in literature. When I started teaching, I believed in the power of stories and, after all those years in the classroom, I believe in that power even more. Stories can convey understandings in transformative ways, allowing those who read or hear them to see things in clearer perspective, more refined nuance, and greater depth. But stories can also be used to sentimentalize, oversimplify, or perpetuate misconceptions and lies.

Even big lies.

Each of the years I worked as a teacher began with a series of mandatory meetings in which administrators much like Rhee would tell assembled faculty members their business, providing lectures for people who dealt with students every day delivered by people who’d decided that dealing with students every day was just not their cup of tea. It always galled me to be told to value students by people who didn’t share my experience in valuing them daily. That gall rises in a similar fashion when I turn on cable news to see Michelle Rhee talking about how so many teachers are sub-mediocre, and the standards for teaching so low that “anyone with a pulse” is welcomed to our ranks.

As it happens, my youngest daughter is a middle school teacher in Sacramento. On some nights, while my daughter is grading papers, doing classroom prep, or an assortment of other duties, Michelle Rhee can be found at a Kings’ game, squired there by her hubby, the mayor. While Rhee gains accolades for her willingness to denigrate hardworking teachers, my daughter, and most of her colleagues, volunteer time and money to make up for the budget cuts that chip away at their ability to put students first. These teachers do that work while incurring and enduring the kind of disrespect nourished by ambitious and self-serving people like Michelle Rhee.

Education needs reform. I’ve never known a time when that wasn’t so. But, generation after generation, the calls for reform lead to scatterbrained and scattergun “programs” touted in thousands of conferences for “educators,” forums to which teachers are seldom invited. Led by bureaucrats who mostly stand apart from the process of teaching and learning, these confabs bring up ideas that get discussed, briefly implemented, then discarded in favor of the next new orthodoxy. The leadership circles of the ed. biz promote fads that boost careers, but in the trenches where the teachers are called upon to enact the latest notions and also, incidentally, deal with the myriad personal demands of actual students, the struggle to teach young people is engaged and successes are routinely achieved. That work gets done, often in spite of the burdens imposed by educrats who keep reinventing wheels and finding substitutes for the passion that motivates real teachers and facilitates real learning.

Though Michelle Rhee has a few words of criticism for the often bloated and overpaid administrators who oversee the educational enterprise, her primary message is to blame the troops, not the generals. There’s not much new in that story, though it draws an appreciative audience every time it gets told. It’s difficult to see, however, ways in which insulting generalizations glibly offered by storytellers like Michelle Rhee are going to create legions of better teachers. Sweeping indictments of teachers don’t make the task easier for the people who occupy the ranks of a profession people like Michelle Rhee fled from long ago.

Back in the 1980s, I was asked to serve on a panel of “educators” assembled by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, headed up that agency at that time, and she’d selected me to serve on that panel not because she had any idea at all about my qualities as a teacher, but because something I’d written about education had attracted her attention. That’s usually how it goes whenever educrats assemble panels, whether at the national level, or at the local campus. Administrators gather little posses of the like-minded from their own ranks, add a token teacher or two, people selected either for their qualities as toadies, or because they’ve earned some recognition that usually has little or nothing to do with what they do when they’re with students, and then they have some chats and collect some data based on an agenda set by the “chair,” who then has the results written up in a report never really meant to be read by anyone. 

These circle jerk confabs always involve lots of studies of studies, lots of “breakout sessions,” and more jargon and cant phrases than you’re likely to hear anyplace this side of the Pentagon. Jargon is almost always dehumanizing, and the language used to discuss education is no exception; the phrases are mechanistic and abstract, borrowed from the worst bins of sociology. This specialized language betrays a mechanized and largely dehumanized approach to learning. It’s also mostly stupid in the way that jargon always tends to be stupid, replacing clear and concrete ideas with numbingly pretentious abstractions designed, it seems, to make what is obvious seem more profound and/or scientific. Go to a meeting or a conference of “educators,” and you’re going to hear words and phrases as soul depleting as these: criterion check, differentiated instruction, constructivism, extrinsic motivation, formative evaluation, standards-based teaching, summative evaluation, verbal-linguistic intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, manipulatives, attitudinal assessment, and cooperative learning.

This sort of language issues from the graduate-level courses in education teachers or would-be teachers are usually required to take in order to earn credentials. Few people in their right minds would take such content-free courses by choice, of course, but administrator wannabes flock to them, nonetheless. Perhaps you’ve heard that old joke that makes the claim that PhD stands for “piled higher and deeper.” When it comes to education as an academic discipline, that ain’t no joke.

So, if you’re looking for what defines good teaching, the last place you’re likely to find such a definition is where good teaching goes to die.

When I was a junior in high school, my English class was assigned to read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s early 20th century novel about working conditions in the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants that galvanized public opinions in ways that ultimately lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. We also read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, and poetry by Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Shakespeare. This was not an honor’s class, I hasten to add. If it had been, I wouldn’t have been in it because both my grades and my attitude precluded my presence in such a class. I also read the James Joyce story, “The Dead,” that year, as beautiful a piece of prose as I would ever come across in the half century that was to follow. Miss Luebbing, the woman who taught that class, instilled in me a love of reading that would reward me through all of my days after high school, an invaluable gift. Would I have developed the habit of reading had it not been for the stroke of luck that put me in a room with such a teacher? Perhaps. But I know far too many people whose curiosity or love of reading were killed off at the hands of bad teachers to take away any credit away from Ms. Luebbing for the joys I’ve since found between the pages of books.

In the years since I sat in her classroom, I’ve taught college-level English to a couple generations of high school graduates. With each succeeding year, I’ve seen fewer and fewer of them who enter college having read anything as challenging–or as interesting–as that old Upton Sinclair novel, let alone Shakespeare or James Joyce. Many of my students over those years told me that they’d never been required to read a novel throughout their high school years, and some of them bragged of having gotten their diploma without ever having cracked a book at all.

I took a look at Emerson’s essays as I was getting ready to write this little piece, and I also dipped back into The Jungle for a few pages, and I know from experience that the sort of vocabulary found in those texts would confound most college students these days, in part because what they have been asked to read has generally been dumbed down with readability formulas that expunge any vocabulary that is likely to be unfamiliar. And, because it has been expunged from what students are asked to read, it remains unfamiliar.

I’m certain that back when Miss Luebbing was exposing her students to the thoughts of a man then thought to be one of America’s thinkers, much of that vocabulary I encountered was unfamiliar to me, too. But, as I did the work that learning requires, some of those unfamiliar words adhered to me, enlarged my ability to understand things, and broadened by capacity for further learning.

There are, I have no doubt, teachers like Ms. Luebbing in schools across America, though people as inspiring as she was will always be exceptional. But everything I read, see, or hear from students convinces me that it is more difficult than ever for the really exceptional teachers to challenge students in the way Ms. Luebbing challenged–and changed–me.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Circle and the Pyramid

The Circle and the Pyramid
Lorna Davis
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

It seems that empires always leave a stain,
A toxic pattern in the conquered soil,
A ruddy mix of tears and blood and toil,
Impervious to a thousand years of rain.
The hearts of human leaders once were true;
Their duty, to secure the people’s needs.
But empire’s logic grips the ground like weeds:
The many just exist to serve the few.
Where freedom’s eagle rests upon her seal,
The pyramid inside the circle reigns
And slowly works to cancel freedom’s gains
With quiet laws that help the mighty steal.
Our promise lies in leaving none behind;
The circle needs each part to be complete.
The pyramid just lifts up the elite
To ride the trudging ranks of humankind.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Why Human Rights Matter

Why Human Rights Matter
Emanuel Stoakes
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

When, on occasion, I get challenged about why I bother with human rights, I’m usually surprised. The questioner must, I am often tempted to reply, be happy for me to come over to their house that night with an armed gang and torture them, and follow that by kidnapping them without trial for an indefinite period, only to be protected under law because I’m friends with the attorney general? (This is all hypothetical, of course.) When I sink to such an artless rejoinder, no one ever says “Yes” and means it. While I concede that the above may be a fatuously extreme thing to say, it raises meaningful points. If we want to be free from unimaginable suffering and injustice ourselves, then we surely have to accept in principle that all human beings should be free from it. It is this notion (the universalist principle, one which runs counter to the intellectual constructs that have so long supported the conceits and whims of power) that is found immovably at the heart of the philosophy of human rights.

Of course, this concept is nothing new. It is so ancient as to be an almost archetypal principle. In this sense, the human rights movement is a meeting place of apparently irreconcilable streams of thought, in that it echoes values common to intellectual movements both modern and ancient–for example, the enlightenment and the Abrahamic religions.

What’s more, it posits an equality of worth for all human beings that political systems devised to empower the poor, such as Communism, failed to grant in practice. Indeed, in some cases, the human rights movement has achieved what the various left-leaning political revolutions have always aspired to bring about: radically positive transformation in the lives of the most needy. Moreover, such advances did not come at the cost of individual freedoms or through the agency of an intrusive and corrupt government, as in many ostensibly socialist societies.

A case in point occurred in India in 2001, when a group of campaigners managed to secure school meals for 50 million children, many of whom suffered from extreme malnourishment. This was achieved through public interest litigation in which the indivisible right to food was invoked. This legally-mandated system already looks set to reach out to a further 50 million children–and is continuing to expand its reach. It is easily the biggest program of its kind in the world.

The central text of the rights movement, the Universal Declaration of 1948 asserts that certain fundamental entitlements are granted to all global citizens, without distinction. This was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The principles it contains were timely and momentous: they prefigured the end of American segregation, the break-up of apartheid and the final collapse of European colonialism. The Declaration, and the codification of the values it upholds, represented a landmark moment in the modern era, one that has helped to form the world that we inhabit now with laws and protections we take for granted. Its span covers all the essential human requirements for life and dignity ranging from freedom from slavery to the right to food.

The declaration also calls for “an international order in which human rights can be fully realized”–something that, to this writer at least, sadly remains an aspiration for the global community, the world being as it is. This is something to which I will return.

Above all else, the great beating heart of the human rights cause is its affirmation of the importance of humanity, its ability to transcend normally incommensurable differences without alienating anyone; and doing so by appealing to that most definitively human of our instincts–our ability to feel compassion for our fellow human beings.

The principles upheld are free from the prescriptions, meta-narratives and/or dictations of any belief or exclusionary creed. Rather, the defining features of human rights law and the values it seeks to honor are drawn from the common cultural treasury of our species: in it we see echoes of the Ubuntu philosophy from Africa, the ancient Manu Smriti traditions from ancient India, the central teachings of the Abrahamic religions and the liberal humanist ideals of the European Enlightenment.

Thus, the human rights outlook encompasses a remarkably flexible, inclusive “consensus narrative.” In this way it is politically and culturally neutral. Because of this, people of humane impulse from all backgrounds have joined the international justice movement, and can find common cause in seeking the implementation of the laws associated with it.

There’s plenty of ground to be made. The human rights project is a work in progress. If we just look at recent years, incidents that occurred during the Global War on Terror, the Sudanese and Sri Lankan civil wars, even the treatment of Bradley Manning by the US are considered serious offenses that remain unpunished.

Despite the fact that some of those considered responsible for the alleged crimes have not been held to account, many human rights abusers live in fear of being sent to The Hague in the future. We can thank the HR community for having brought this far.

Recent victories underline such progress.

As mentioned before, not long ago, Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was sentenced (effectively for the rest of his natural life) for his part in what presiding Judge Richard Lussick described as “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.” Among the many terrible acts believed to have been perpetrated by his soldiers, perhaps the most abominable was the practice of cutting fetuses from the wombs of pregnant women for sport. Rape, maimings, and torture were widespread under his reign of terror.

To the countless victims of the Sierra Leonese civil war, seeing Taylor sentenced was no small matter. What’s more, his arrest and prosecution still stands as a powerful reminder that those who commit crimes against humanity can be made to pay. That’s no small victory for justice. Likewise, several of the big players in the Bosnian genocide have now also been caught and had their day in the dock.

However, it must not be forgotten that great exceptions to the proper adoption of the regime of global justice endure. At the time of writing, several pertinent cases of justice–evasion have passed through the news.

I will first attend to the most striking of such examples. Late last year, the BBC leaked an internal UN report on the international body’s failures during the finale of the Sri Lankan civil war. It makes for a terrifying read, particularly given that it has been estimated that tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed during that time, allegedly by indiscriminate shell fire issuing from government forces.

The UN, it transpires, as Frances Harrison–the BBC’s former Sri Lanka correspondent–put it, had received “unconfirmed reports of 50,000 casualties in a war off limits to journalists” in the late stages of the conflict but did not raise the alarm. This came about, according to the report, because of “a culture of trade-offs” whereby UN workers played softball with Sri Lanka in order to try to influence their behavior in an attempt to improve the situation for the victims.

However, this tactic did not work–and moreover, the numbers of those reportedly killed was so high that it is scandalous that the UN did not speak out. According to Harrison, senior figures received briefings by staff “which showed that almost all the civilian casualties recorded by the UN had reportedly been killed by Government fire” but still did not inform the world about such horrors. To compound the appalling character of the alleged crimes, the fatalities reported were concentrated in “no fire zones” that had been unilaterally declared by the government as a place of refuge for civilians.

Perhaps the strongest complaint about the conditions of the civilians stuck in the “no fire zones” came from the International Committee of the Red Cross who, at the time, stated that an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe” was taking place for the ethnic Tamil civilians there who were deprived of medicine and food–and under fire. Other NGOs would later describe Sri Lanka’s war effort a little under four years ago as having been “an assault on the entire regime of international law”–during which time disregard for human life was so brazen that hospitals got hit repeatedly–in one case, 35 times according to Human Rights Watch.

To this day, no one has been punished for the credibly alleged war crimes that reportedly took place, despite increasing international pressure being brought to bear on Colombo. One of the reasons for this has been the aggressive resistance shown by the government of Sri Lanka to call for an international inquiry undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations.

The government did commission its own internal inquiry, which failed to address many of the worst allegations against it, and which–predictably–exonerated the government. Amnesty International wrote of the probe that it was “fundamentally flawed and provides no accountability for atrocities.” This outcome was itself entirely predictable. An American diplomat expressed in one Wikileaks-released cable “There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.”

“In Sri Lanka this is further complicated,” she continues, “by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership.”

The slow-moving carriage of international justice is easily set off course by sitting governments. While misbehaving politicians maintain their grip on power, it is hard to bring to them to an international court without causing unrest in their native country–or invoking a host of sovereignty issues. Unauthorized military action to remove a criminal regime is itself a crime, and trying to do this legally (as in the case of Assad in Syria) is a torturous process, often impeded by division at the UN Security Council.

This being as it is, war crimes suspects are much more vulnerable when they have left power.

This was the case with Charles Taylor, who, despite all his best efforts, was forced to face up to his crimes after leaving office, albeit a decade later. Likewise, Radovan Karadzic was indicted in absentia by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for his role in crimes that he committed during the Bosnian war. He is currently being held in the UN’s detention center in Scheveningen in The Netherlands, after having been in hiding for decades; in 2008, Karadzic was identified and arrested in Belgrade. Despite having cultivated a long beard, living under the assumed name D.D. David and posing as a “quantum energy healer” in Vienna and Serbia, Karadzic has finally been brought before a court.

Despite such encouraging achievements, there are major obstacles to the universalist principle being applied without exception among the world’s nations where it comes to human rights, especially those associated with the conduct of armies in times of war.

The existing global power structures effectively mean that the world’s elite powers, in particular those that hold the veto on the United Nations Security Council, cannot be held accountable for offenses. The train of justice cannot move up road-blocked channels.

Russia is one example. The United States and Britain are others. When Russia crushed Grozny in 1999 in response to the invasion of Dagestan by Islamist Mujahadeen, a wide range of grave war crimes were credibly alleged to have taken place. Even long after the assault ended, Grozny was described by the UN as “the most destroyed city on earth.” Journalists reported appalling abuses. Mass graves were found. Rights groups criticized “blatant and sustained violations of international humanitarian law” committed by both sides.

Yet the military and political elite in Russia remained unaccountable, given the country’s status in the world. External criticisms could be endured. And domestically, too, because many Russians supported the action, which meant that popular uproar was not a threat; this worked well, as Moscow had achieved her strategic goals and installed a pliant suzerain. The cost-benefit analysis in pure, cynical political terms equated to net gains. By comparison, behaving ethically or proportionately once Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened was not a priority.

Likewise, the questionable conduct of British and American troops in Fallujah in 2004 during the Iraq war attracted floods of criticism but is unlikely to result in any consequences for the military command that oversaw it.

That is not to say that coalition troops planned to go in and behave criminally–it is just that the retaking of Fallujah was probably considered a significant enough strategic goal that a full-scale assault on the city was considered necessary, as in Grozny.

Due to the ferocity of the invasion, however, hell-on-earth was visited upon Iraq’s “City of Mosques.” The city was devastated by an attack that was designed to send a clear message to those forces that opposed the invading party.

This appears to be reflected in the testimony of those who served there. One Iraq veteran told me that “Right before we entered the city, I remember our company commander saying something like ‘all the civilians have left, so be as violent as you need to be to go home in one piece.’ I’m not sure at which level in the chain of command they were genuinely misinformed and at which level they were deliberately lying. Until I was in Fallujah and saw civilians with my own eyes, I believed what my command had told me.”

As the fighting got more intensive, cruel expedients were allegedly deployed. According to the same source, units in Fallujah “used a tactic called reconnaissance-by-fire, which is when you fire into a building to see if anyone is inside. There might have been civilians inside, but the point of reconnaissance-by-fire is that you don’t know what you’re firing at. We used tanks to fire into houses that had resistance fighters inside, and sometimes we used bulldozers to flatten the house on top of them."

“I watched a unit to our right flank flatten an entire neighborhood, one house after another, without checking to see if anyone was inside these houses,” he added. Without going into the full range of legal complications associated with the invasion of Iraq, or the sort of possible offenses described latterly by the source, if Russia leaders cannot be held to account because of the nation’s relative stature in world affairs–how much less so is this the case for the political elites in the US?

Indeed the unlikelihood of an American, or indeed any high-profile western politician, being sent to the Hague underlines the chief criticisms leveled at the international justice system as it currently is. So far, the International Criminal Court has focused overwhelmingly on hosting cases against Africans. Such facts, sadly, remain an enduring testimony to the limitations of the system. Some, like legal expert Chris Mahony, have argued that, in the realm of international justice “the world’s great powers . . . decide who is prosecuted, and who is not.”

This desperately needs to change–yet these are flaws which can be traced to government policies and the realities of the world’s international order–not the designs of the human rights movement.

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