Friday, January 30, 2015

Will the Superbowl Domestic Violence Ads Reach Their Goals?

As reported in the Huffington Post, the feminist website UltraViolet requested that Sports Illustrated run a short video which it produced as part of its #GoodellMustGo campaign.  Sports Illustrated agreed.  The video will run this Thursday in anticipation of this Sunday's superbowl.  A discussion on what it means to be a man will follow the video.  The video shows a man in full football gear tackling an unhelmeted woman who is standing on the field.  The video notes that 55 domestic violence complaints have gone unanswered by the National Football League. 

You may view the video here.

During the Superbowl, the NFL will show a more subtle but gripping domestic violence ad.  Based upon an actual 911 call, the viewer hears the conversation as the caller orders a pizza.  The dispatcher twice reminds the caller that she reached 911.  The first statement that the caller makes is her address.  Eventually the dispatcher understands the seriousness of the call.  No violence is shown but camera pans the home which has items turned over.  The subtlety of the ad is effective and may be viewed here

The different focus of the ads is interesting.  The first visualizes the enormous physical power differences between abuser and target.  The assault seems to come out of the blue, a factor often reported by survivors.  What is missing is information that there is a relationship between the player and woman tackled.  Nonetheless, the tackle is a powerful image mimicking the contents of the Ray Rice video and is appropriate, given the organization's goal in convincing the NFL to replace the commissioner. There is no subtlety in this video, as there was no nuance in the Rice video.

The NFL donated the running time for the Superbowl anti-domestic violence ad, as part of its "No More" campaign.  This ad exposes the more common reality of victims'  lives. The chaos of day to day living.  The disrupted household.  The intimidation that occurs through thrown objects or a push, which obviates the need to escalate to the Ray Rice punch in the face.  This ad demonstrates  the complexities of survivors' decision making, which can be a powerful education for viewers .  Both ads depict  different types of abuse, both of which are effective methods of controlling the actions of the target.   Perhaps both ads will be effective in attaining their goals. 




January 30, 2015 in Domestic Violence, Gender, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Human Rights Conference Scams

Once a week, maybe more, I receive an e-mail invitation to participate in a generic-sounding conference, usually in an exotic location.  Often, the conference topics are human rights related -- perhaps focused on worldwide trafficking or child abuse.  

I almost always delete these invitations immediately and think nothing more about them.  I suppose most folks who receive them do the same thing.  

But apparently there's more to this than meets the eye.  What I took to be simply poorly-worded and vague descriptions are actually evidence of a human rights conference scam.

The problem is so pervasive that the Union of International Associations and the International Dance Council (UNESCO) developed a checklist to assist recipients in identifying fraudulent conferences.  The UIA also runs a Fraud Monitor website where it reproduces some of the fraudulent invitations that it has identified.  First on the list?:  An invitation from the fictitious (and redundant) Global Human Right World Organization.  Further down the list, another invitation offering full round-trip airfare to California to participate in a meeting on Global Security and Human Rights.  I remember receiving this one myself!

As the Fraud Monitor explains:  "An increasing number of email scams are using NGOs, International NGOs, development agencies, meetings, international conferences etc as the hook to defraud or cheat unsuspecting recipients. Always use caution when responding to or acting on unsolicited bulk email or paper mail."

How do these scams work?  Here's a description from a Ph.D. student who was taken in by a fraudulent announcement for a climate change conference:  "I'm a Ph.D student at the University of Yaounde I in Cameroon. I received the announcement from a lecturer of my laboratory and submitted an accepted abstract. Later on, the organizers said that I have a scholarship of 1 888 £ and that I should send 350 £ for hotel fees and 500 £ for Mandatory Refundable Security Deposit. Once more again, they ask me to send 450 £ for Health Insurance Certificate and I started to think twice. When I refused to do that, they told me that, I must be in London to get in touch with my money."

According to one observer, after the organizers of these "conferences" have collected a few thousand pounds from unsuspecting graduate students/academics like this one, they shut down their website and move on to the next scam.

Fake human rights conferences are not the only conference scams on the web -- scams of this type are a hazard in many fields.  But human rights language seems to be particularly susceptible to the sorts of vague, aspirational descriptions favored by scammers, and the international scope of human rights allows scammers to target folks across continents.  

So beware.  Read the invitation carefully before assuming that it's the real deal -- one conference scam letter was signed by none other than Angelina Ballerina, a clear tip-off to its phony origins.  Ask questions before handing over any funds.  And if you organize a real conference, come up with a (non-redundant) title that will distinguish your event from a scam conference!


January 29, 2015 in Martha F. Davis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is the FDA Ban on MSM Blood Donations Discriminatory?

With fanfare, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new policy on blood donations from men who have sex with men.  Much to the disappointment of activists seeking to terminate the ban entirely, the new policy replaced a lifetime ban with a limitation on donations from MSM for one year following the last time the male potential donor had sex with a man.

The FDA website includes the following:  Men who have had sex with other men represent approximately 2% of the US population, yet are the population most severely affected by HIV. In 2010, MSM accounted for at least 61% of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and an estimated 77% of diagnosed HIV infections among males were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact. Between 2008 and 2010, the estimated overall incidence of HIV was stable in the U.S. However the incidence in MSM increased 12%, while it decreased in other populations. The largest increase was a 22% increase in MSM aged 13 to 24 years. Since younger individuals are more likely to donate blood, the implications of this increase in incidence need to be further evaluated.

Yet those who oppose the ban point out that the ban assumes that MSM do not take precautions to avoid transmission and wonder if the FDA  isn't promoting the myth that MSM are never in monogomous relations.  Both conditions dramatically reduce the risk of infection according to the FDA.   Testing donated blood for HIV, while not 100% accurate, has an extremely low failure rate in detecting infected blood.  The FDA counters that the ban is not discriminatory because other groups, such as IV drug users and women who have sex with bi-sexual men, are also banned from donation because of their increased risk of HIV infection. 

Ryan James Yezak, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and activist, has organized events to protest the policy. "There are a lot of people who still equate being gay with contracting HIV, and look at it as a disease. And if you look at our government and the policies and laws in place, the only one that supports that notion is this FDA policy," he said. While protests tend to focus on the American Red Cross, that organization is on record as opposing the ban.  Susan Stramer, the executive scientific officer with the Red Cross, stated "The question is about what's equitable."

Dr. Louis Katz is chief medical officer for America’s Blood Centers, a nonprofit that provides half of the nation’s blood supply. His group, along with the Red Cross, has called on the FDA to change its policy on gay and bisexual men. "A (then) lifetime deferral is not justified by the science," he said.

"Testing of donated blood has become so accurate that the chance of infected blood being given to a patient is almost nonexistent," Katz said. "Since 1999, when blood centers started using nucleic acid testing to detect HIV, fewer than 10 people have gotten HIV from a blood transfusion.  And we transfuse over 20 million components a year, so do the math. The rates are microscopic." 



January 28, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Where Would You Draw the (District) Line?

by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School

The U.S. prides itself on free and fair elections.  Indeed, the Constitution and federal law guarantee equality in voting: the “one person, one vote” standard was enunciated by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as a means to address vastly skewed voting power resulting from districts with unequal populations.

This simple phrase – “one person, one vote” – belies the complex nature of elections in the United States.  In order to foster the idea that each person’s vote counts in our at large system, federal elections districts drawn “as mathematically equal as possible,” while state and local districts are supposed to be drawn through an “honest and good faith effort” to ensure equal populations. (The ACLU has explained these standards and the underlying case law here).  But, in the majority of states, districting falls to legislators (in others, districting commissions have authority to draw districts).  That means in most jurisdictions, those who are in charge of districting are individuals with a vested interest in maintaining power.  This system is one rife with potential for abuse. 

 Indeed, it has led to rampant gerrymandering.  In general, gerrymandering is the act of altering political boundaries with the intent to impact election outcomes.  Perhaps the most well-known form of gerrymandering is racial.  Indeed, the Voting Rights Act was developed to prevent the dilution of minority votes – yet its protections are unfortunately being chipped away.  Another variation is partisan gerrymandering, i.e., the “practice of dividing a geographical area into electoral districts, often of highly irregular shape, to give one political party an unfair advantage by diluting the opposition’s voting strength.”  This slicing and dicing of districts to protect a particular party or favor a particular candidate is another way that districting curtails truly free and fair elections.

 While much seems at stake, the Supreme Court has been reticent to step in to curtail these practices.  Indeed, last year’s decision in Shelby v. Holder struck down some protections of the Voting Rights Act that address racially discriminatory gerrymandering.  In the arena of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court more or less thrown up its hands over a decade ago.  In 2004, a plurality decision by Justice Scalia opined that there is “no judicially discernible and manageable standards” to adjudicate claims of partisan gerrymandering.  This means that presently there is little recourse for those whose votes, and voices, are marginalized by partisan line drawing. 

 So, what can be done?  Advocates are taking these concerns to the international human rights community to put pressure on the United States to ensure elections are truly representative.  The relevant human rights protections are strongly worded.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to “take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and guarantees a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; [as] expressed in periodic and genuine elections.”  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights echoes these protections and the Race Convention further guarantees the right to vote.

 In its recent review of the United States’ human rights record, the CERD Committee expressed concern about the “obstacles faced by individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples to effectively exercise their right to vote, due inter alia to restrictive voter identification laws, district gerrymandering, and state-level felon disenfranchisement laws.”  The Committee called for federal legislation to address discriminatory impact of voting regulations, voting rights for felons and DC residents and efforts to ensure indigenous peoples can effectively exercise the vote. 

 There are ongoing legislative efforts to address some of these concerns, including passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.  Placing districting power in the hands of independent bodies rather than legislators is another proposal reform.  Another recommendation to address partisan gerrymandering is removing discretion altogether and utilizing computer models to generate district maps.

 Yet, it is unclear whether current legislative reforms or judicial intervention can truly foster compliance with human rights norms within our current winner take all election system (also known as “first past the post”).  More drastic steps may be necessary to ensure the will of the people is the basis of the government and representatives are freely chosen.

 Alternatives to “winner take all” models do exist.  They are employed in countries around the world, as well as in some U.S. jurisdictions.  One is Ranked Choice Voting, or Alternative Voting (AV), which is used in Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, CA and Australia.  Another is Mixed Member Proportional Representation, the means for choosing representatives in Germany, New Zealand and others.   These videos offer an introduction to Alternative Voting and Proportional Representation

 What solutions would you propose?


January 27, 2015 in Advocacy, CERD, Global Human Rights, JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Race, Shadow Reports, Voting | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 26, 2015

More Reflections on Why The Poor Can't Trust Our Institutions

by Brian Howe

Why would you trust authority figures in municipalities where one of the primary functions of the police force appears to be extracting revenue from the poor in the form of onerous fines for petty offenses? 

 As the Washington Post reported:

"There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. All but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, and 81 have their own municipal court. To put that into perspective, consider Jackson County, Mo., which surrounds Kansas City. It is geographically larger than St. Louis County and has about two-thirds the population. Yet Jackson County has just 19 municipalities, and just 15 municipal courts — less than a quarter of municipalities and courts in St. Louis County.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations.  In a white paper released last month, the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash."

The Washington Post story by Radley Balko is fantastically depressing and worth reading in full to get a real idea of the scope of the abuse in St. Louis County.  But of course this  is not a uniquely St. Louis problem as NPR recently reported:

"If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it's your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

But if you don't pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years.

"It's an incredible policy," says John Pawasarat of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It's "a policy of punishing people who can't pay their fines."

The practice — repeated in states across the country — is mostly affecting the poor and creating a spiral of bad consequences.

NPR's recent "Guilty and Charged" investigation found that rising court fines and fees — reaching hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person — often hurt poor people the most.

Systematic abuse of power by authority figures, against anyone, is a human rights issue.  But the most pernicious part of this problem is the fact that these policies are uniquely (and perhaps, intentionally) focused on a subsection of poor and minority communities.  The mistrust these policies foster is also then limited to that same narrow subset, which leaves the problem entirely off the radar for most Americans.  Most Americans will never have to deal with this kind of intentional abuse from authority figures.  That makes it too easy to dismiss this as a minor or overblown problem, and to dismiss the mistrust of authority as an overreaction.  One has to hope that bringing these abuses to light, through reporting like that described above, is a first step in taking a more honest look at the ways in which some parts of our system have earned that mistrust.


January 26, 2015 in Brian Howe | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Season of Discontent: Reflections on the NFL and Domestic Violence

by Roger Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University, guest contributor

The National Football League’s 2014-15 season is nearing its close with the Super Bowl scheduled for February 1. However that game comes out, it will be overshadowed in the history of this season by the League’s halting approach to domestic violence committed by its players. The arch villain – but certainly not the only offender – was Ray Rice, a former running back for the Baltimore Ravens.

Rice’s story has become very well known. Rice brutally attacked his fianceé in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. It became headline news as the League struggled to determine how it should respond to the incident. In retrospect, it seems clear that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not appreciate the public impact of the misconduct. He later admitted that his initial two-game suspension of Rice was an “error.”  

Shortly after Goodell administered the discipline, the full tape of what happened inside that elevator became public.  That disclosure sealed the public debate. The National Football League – a ten billion dollar a year enterprise – would have to regroup. Even the most prosperous business can lose its credibility quickly.

In an effort to stem the bad publicity, Goodell reversed course. He suspended Rice indefinitely and then attempted to reform football’s image. The League had already faced the awful reality that the men who played the game were more than likely to suffer repeated concussions, leading to dementia and other causes of early death. As a result of the Rice incident, the public became aware that some NFL players were prone to commit violent domestic acts.  Goodell finally – some would say belatedly – went on the public record about the evils of domestic violence.  So far, he has appointed several women to the top level of the League’s administration and authorized a television campaign against domestic violence using public service advertisements. Only time will tell whether these cosmetic changes will alter the environment that produced Ray Rice.

The public furor over the events involving Rice has finally abated, but the conditions that bred the dysfunction remain much alive.  In fact, some research has suggested that players suffering severe head injuries become more prone to committing domestic abuse. The policies of the National Football League are now more attuned to the public’s rightful concerns. We know, however, that incidents like Ray Rice’s will not be stopped by public service announcements and six-game suspensions.

Each year the National Football League replenishes itself through the college draft. Each club has the opportunity to evaluate potential talent on the field, but this year it must also judge how potential draftees will behave off the field. Jameis Winston, the quarterback from Florida State University, has allegedly engaged in off-field behavior that should give any club pause before using its top draft choice to add him to the squad. However, few are optimistic that the Rice incident will have any impact on the draft selections.

The National Football League – our favorite sports entertainment by far – is on probation in the public’s mind.  Immense popularity is not eternal. Goodell may have saved the business for now, but future challenges await. 

January 23, 2015 in Domestic Violence, Gender, Women's Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Roe at 42: Don't Mourn, Organize!

It's the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and though the central holding is still standing, it can be hard these days to find anything to celebrate as abortion access shrinks and anti-women policies proliferate.   

But in the immortal words of Joe Hill, "Don't mourn. Organize!"  And a great place to get organized is the 29th annual Hampshire College Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference, April 10-12, 2015, titled "From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom."

Those who have attended in the past will know that the conference is a transformative (and sometimes exhausting) whirlwind of networking, brainstorming, movement building, creative encounters and reflection.  Free for students, last year over 900 people attended.  Seeing hundreds of young people organizing around women's reproductive freedom is a a great antidote to the reproductive-rights-in-the-U.S. blues.

The dynamic woman behind this 29-year-old movement building effort is Marlene Gerber Fried, professor at Hampshire College.  A decorated teacher and prolific writer on reproductive rights issues, Marlene has mentored hundreds of students interested in acting on their reproductive rights convictions. 

So on this 42 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, let's not only commemorate the date, but also celebrate activists like Marlene Fried and the other staff at the Center for Civil Liberties and Public Policy who are working methodically and strategically to connect young people to the movement for women's reproductive justice!

January 22, 2015 in Gender, Martha F. Davis, Women's Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Supreme Court Considers "Judicial Dignity" in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar

The case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, January 20, sits at the convergence of two unique aspects of American jurisprudence – the First Amendment, and judicialelections.  The case was brought by Lanell Williams-Yulee, a candidate in a Florida judicial election, who sent direct mail solicitation letters under her own signature to potential campaign contributors.  Catching wind of this activity, the Florida Bar initiated a disciplinary hearing based on Florida Judicial Canon 7(C), which bars such direct solicitation by judges or judicial candidates (as opposed to indirect solicitation by a campaign committee).  The Florida Bar ultimately fined Ms. Williams-Yulee to the tune of $1800.  But the matter wasn’t yet over.  Ms. Williams-Yulee sued the Florida Bar, charging that Canon 7(C) violated her constitutional first amendment rights.

Judicial elections are rare ducks around the world, viewed with curiosity at best and opprobrium at worst by our international peers who decry the overt politicization of the judiciary that comes with such elections.  And the First Amendment, in its heightened protection of a wide range of speech, ranks second to none in the world.  Indeed, the U.S. often feels it necessary to carve out special exceptions to international human rights norms in order to preserve domestic first amendment rights that go beyond speech protection elsewhere.

To some, then, the answer might be clear.  States have opted for judicial elections, and with that comes a wide scope for speech in the context of a judicial election campaign, including the opportunity to make direct campaign solicitations.   Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts articulated this perspective during the oral argument.  Other Justices, however, were acutely aware of the ways in which such practices can undermine both the reality and appearance of judicial integrity.  Justice Scalia seemed to pooh-pooh the notion of “judicial dignity” as a basis for upholding Florida’s judicial canon, but Justice Ginsburg observed that the American public wants judges who are above the political fray.  Justices Sotomayor and Breyer noted from personal experience that it is virtually impossible for a judge to ask anything of a lawyer without an element of coercion – the lawyers always say “yes” to a judge!  This inherent aspect of direct campaign solicitations in turn undermines the appearance of impartiality that states like Florida seek to preserve.

While judicial elections and the First Amendment are unique to the U.S., the concern for judicial integrity has been something that we share with many others in the world.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on the Rights and Duties of Man, the widely-accepted Bangalore Principles, all emphasize the importance of the appearance of judicial impartiality, and the central relationship of judicial integrity to the rule of law.  During the Williams-Yulee oral argument, Justice Breyer reached back to the Magna Carta to note the fundamental principle that “Justice shall not be sold, nor shall it be denied.”  And the attorney representing the Florida Bar, Barry Richard, admonished the Court that public belief in judicial integrity is “essential to a stable democracy.”  Though the justices did not specifically cite it during the oral argument, the amicus brief filed by the Carter Center -- known worldwide for its election monitoring and anti-corruption efforts -- bore witness to this central fact.

It is notoriously difficult to predict results based on oral argument, but observers in the Court yesterday concurred that it was not clear where five votes would come from to uphold the Judicial Canon – a provision which has analogues in most states.  While the issues in the Williams-Yulee case are quintessentially domestic, the justices would do well to draw on the experiences of other nations that have universally concluded that maintaining the integrity of the judicial system justifies the imposition of special constraints on, and expectations of, judges.       

January 21, 2015 in Martha F. Davis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rhode Island Human Rights Commission: Ensuring Fairness

The Rhode Island Human Rights Commission took positive steps to ensure fairness in housing concern.  

The Providence Journal reported that "Refusing to rent apartments to students, or anyone 18 or older on the basis of age, and failing to allow reasonable changes to accommodate people with disabilities, are common ways landlords can run afoul of federal and state fair housing laws."

Engaging the landlords was an important step taken toward implenting remedies.  The Commisssion's fair housing project director,  Angie Lovegrove, met with Rhode Island realators to explain ways in which landlords have been violating tenants' housing rights and to discuss ways in which landlords can ensure compliance and protect themselves from suit.  

Lovegrove reported the following examples:

"In one case, a landlord was faulted for insisting that a couple leave their one-bedroom apartment, or move into a two-bedroom unit in the same building, because they had a baby after they moved in, Lovegrove said. It is illegal to refuse to rent to people with children, or to demand that people move because they have an infant, she said.

In another case, a condo association refused to allow a disabled person to install, at his own cost, a ramp to make it possible to use a parking space close to his home, Lovegrove said. There was an accessible parking space provided, but it was far from his unit. The association made no attempt to offer alternatives or even discuss the situation."

Lovegrove suggested that landlords be open to active discussions with disabled tenants to see if  a mutaully satisfactory solution can be reached following a tenant's request for accomodation.  She also suggested that the landlords document their discussions and proposed solutions to protect themselves from an unfavorable ruling, should a legal complaint be made.

In addition, Lovegrove addressed a tenant's need for an emotional support animal.  A relatively new issue for landlords, Lovegrove gave important information to the audience on when an accomodation must be given and questions that cannot be asked.  While landlords can request documentation of the need for a support animal, they cannot ask for documentation of the specific underlying diagnosis.

One issue not addressed by Lovegrove, but which is of increasing concern, are tenants who request accomodation for an emotional support animal in a pet-free building without providing adequate documentation that the pet has been properly trained.  "Certification" that a pet is an emotional support animal can be obatined easily on the internet for a modest fee. Relevant laws are in need amendment to require that support animals be trained by professional and certified trainers.  Like any other concern, it no doubt will be addressed when a critical mass of such cases is reached.  

Dialogue is an important tool in advancing human rights.  The Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights took an important step in ensuring compliance by creating a forum for dialogue with those who are ultimately responsible for creating fairness in housing. 



January 20, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ethical Travel Destinations

The Houston Chronicle recently reported 10 travel locations recommended by Ethical Traveler, a Berkeley, California organization that advocates spending our travel dollars to enhance the economies of those countries that treat their people, animals and environment well.

According to the Chronicle, Ethical Traveler’s founder and executive director  Jeff  Greenwald explained the rationale for ethical travel:

"Where we choose to put our footprints has economic and political reverberations that reach far beyond our personal experience. By 'voting with our wings' - choosing our destinations well, and cultivating our roles as citizen diplomats - we promote international goodwill and help change the world for the better.  The report and list are based on tourism destinations that are doing the "most impressive job of promoting human rights, preserving the environment and supporting social welfare - all while creating a lively, community-based tourism industry."

An example of a named ethical travel location for 2015 is Uruguay, described as - 

“Highlights: Eighty percent of the country's energy comes from renewable resources, and Uruguay has put itself "at the forefront of sustainable public transportation in Latin America." It has the most liberal policy for LGBTQ in the region, and leaders made abortion legal, and instituted a 30 percent quota for representation of women in the government. Uruguay received a near perfect score in Freedom's House index of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, and it ranked near the top for press freedoms.

Wild card: Uruguay accepted Syrian refugees and has a program in place to help the refugee families adapt to life in Uruguay.

A big caution:  Some locations are questionable from a human rights perspective.  The “issues to overcome”  statements are so serious that I wonder how the location could be on the ethical list, even if, say, their environmental policies are exemplary.  For  example, see the report for Cape Verde:


Highlights: This West African group of islands off the coast of Senegal is a small country with big changes recently. Cape Verde abolished the death sentence, introduced an ethics code to deal with corruption and has decriminalized homosexuality. Leaders have a number of plans in the works for environmental projects and environmental training for teachers; sustainable development; and for combatting child labor and violence against children.

Attractions: The country is known for gorgeous hikes, crystal beaches, water sports, turtle-watching tours on Boa Vista and the country's highest peak, Mount Fogo.

Issues to overcome: Human trafficking, sex tourism, violence against women and shark fishing (for fins). 

Nonetheless, the list is worth checking out as some locations, such as Uruguay, do not have the cautionary “Issues to Overcome” .   

January 19, 2015 in Economics, Margaret Drew | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Shut Her Up!

In May, Leigh Goodmark wrote on the heightened dangers and barriers faced by women who are abused by  intimate partners who are police officers.   Expanding on Leigh's post, I bring to the discussion the powerful tool that abusers who are police have in diminishing the credibility of their victims.   Have her arrested!

The matter of Boston Police officer Michael Doherty is a case in point.   The case also illustrates how acts of domestic violence can be minimized by police commanders until another violent act or other crime is committed by the abusive partner against someone other than the partner.  The Doherty case was nationally reported with the following facts: 

Earlier this month , Doherty ordered an Uber car to drive him to his house.  This occurred at 3 a.m.  While enroute, Doherty  accused the driver of taking the wrong route and began assaulting the man, physically and also verbally, with racial epithets.  The driver was able to escape the car, whereupon Doherty got out and chased the driver around the car.  Doherty then jumped behind the wheel and took off.  A passerby stopped to help the driver and the two chased after Doherty.  At some point Doherty got out of the Uber car and began assaulting the driver and the other individual.  Doherty fled but turned himself in the following morning. 

Reported locally was the fact that Doherty was subject to a domestic violence protection order.  Two months earlier, his former girlfriend reported that Doherty had dragged her down a flight of stairs and hit her in the face and head.  She reported that this was not the first time that Doherty had attacked her.  But who was arrested in that incident?  The girlfriend. 

Doherty claimed that he was the victim. (A defense he repeated when charged with crimes against the Uber driver.)  But Doherty's fellow officers arrested the victim on Doherty's claim that she was unlawfully in his residence. The arrest was made despite the fact that at the time of arrest the girlfriend had visible injuries on her face including bleeding and a swollen forehead. Kudos to the courageous judge who entered the protection order  after the girlfriend was arrested. 

I wish I could report that this is the first time I have experienced a case where the victim of intimate partner abuse was arrested after being abused by a police officer spouse or partner;  or by a family member or friend of a police officer. The blue loyalty apparently includes shutting victims up by striking first in the arrest process.  This is not a new tactic.  Claiming that the vulnerable are criminals, thereby reducing their credibility, is an age old method of quieting critical voices. 

According to reports, at the time of his arrest resulting from the Uber attack, Doherty was the subject of two open internal affairs investigations and was restrained by a valid protection order.  Were those facts not sufficient to result in Doherty's suspension?  The failure of the police chain of command to act until the now-suspended Doherty was involved in a very public crime raises questions of how much police inflicted abuse will be tolerated until commanders respond. 

The Doherty case has so much that is rich with lessons:  how police frequently arrest victims and routinely use their power to protect colleagues who are abusive toward their partners;  the power of courageous witnesses and public reporting to invoke right action. The interconnectedness of racism, misogyny and abuse. But mostly I am sad.  If the arrest of victims was limited to rare occurrences this post would not have been written.  But arrest of victims is not unusual.  It is a powerful and effective tool in silencing the abused. 

January 16, 2015 in Domestic Violence, Gender, Homelessness, Margaret Drew, Police | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the US Human Rights Movement


By Lauren E. Bartlett


As human rights advocates in the U.S., we have a tremendous opportunity this week.  We have the opportunity to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the human rights in the U.S. movement as a whole.   Many of us have a whole day off with our families to celebrate human rights.  This is a truly incredible opportunity when you think about it.  There are no other federal holidays that come anywhere close to celebrating human rights.  Given this opportunity, how will you celebrate the human rights in the U.S. movement this week?


It is possible that you are helping to plan one of the numerous events and solidarity actions in your area.  You may also be attending a conference or teach-in to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, and national resistance to injustice.  You could also be volunteering with one of the thousands of service projects that are being organized as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service.


There are multiple ways you could also personally celebrate the human rights movement in the U.S. and try to internalize the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.  You could watch the “I have a dream” speech in its entirety.  You could listen to these civil rights protest songs or these songs inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.  You could go see “Selma” and read Gay McDougal’s review posted earlier this week.  You could also follow along as 103-year-old civil rights matriarch Boynton Robinson watches “Selma”.  You could also involve your kids in these activities and talk to them about what inspired you to be a human rights advocate here in the U.S. and why you continue to do the work that you do.


One of my favorite human rights advocates, Hadar Harris, has established an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tradition here in Washington, D.C., that I absolutely love.  She and her sons watch the "I have a dream" speech, then they go visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial.  From there, they walk to the Lincoln Memorial and have birthday cupcakes on the star on the steps which marks the place from where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “I have a dream” speech. 


If you have any annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day traditions or additional ideas for celebration, please share in the comments section.





January 15, 2015 in Advocacy, Lauren Bartlett, Race | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Menstrual Health and Human Rights -- Yes, That's Right


Among the milestones of the past year was the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, 2014.  As a step toward bringing menstrual health out of the shadows, the global day was a great success, triggering blogsop eds and other acknowledgments of the role that the menstrual cycle plays in the lives of women and girls. As Gloria Steinem famously wrote in her spot-on Ms. Magazine essay, "If Men Could Menstruate" the social status of menstruation would be different -- and longer and more would be something to brag about!  But instead, menstruation is an obstacle to girls education and women's employment, and women everywhere understand that their dignity is undermined when menstruation is treated as shameful.  No wonder that Elena Kagan, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, made headlines -- and won fans among female law students -- when one of her first acts as the new Harvard Law School Dean was to acknowledge the reality of menstruating students by providing free tampons in the women's bathrooms.

Now, the Society for Menstrual  Cycle Research has announced a major conference, June 4-6, 2015, in Boston:  Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan.  With human rights activist Loretta Ross as the keynote speaker, a menstrual poetry slam, and an art exhibit, as well as academic papers, the conference promises to be a lively antidote to the usual under-the radar treatment of menstrual issues.  Paper proposals for the conference are due January 16.  The SMCR website provides the following information about the conference:

Join us for a multidisciplinary and global conference to strengthen our research, activism, clinical service, artistic expression, and policy. We are working to achieve empowerment and social justice for women and girls everywhere by heightening menstrual health awareness, education, and services.

Menstrual health is central to women’s ability to lead lives of dignity and well being in every society and every part of the world. Without menstrual health other core rights remain in jeopardy. In fact, the UNDP and UNICEF have highlighted menstruation as “the single most important factor affecting school drop-out among girls” (2007), impeding the educational attainment that would facilitate social empowerment and financial independence around the globe. Yet, menstrual health is rarely respected, protected, or fulfilled as a human right, and has not been recognized or theorized as a reproductive justice issue.

“Stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity, but also of the right to non-discrimination, equality, bodily integrity, health, privacy, and the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment from abuse and violence.”

Dr. Jyoti Sanghera, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

We are now accepting abstracts—of no more than 500 words—describing papers, posters, workshops, panels or creative presentations. Proposals addressing all aspects of the menstrual cycle (physiological, sociocultural, psychological, or cross-cultural)  from menarche to menopause are encouraged, including those that involve research, theory, public policy, health care, and clinical applications, art, and activism. The possibilities are endless. Suggested topics intersect menstrual health and politics at any stage of the lifespan.  Download the submission guidelines and forms here! Deadline is January 16, 2015.  

January 14, 2015 in Health, Women's Rights | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What the Convention Against Torture Can Teach Us About Children's Rights

Chelsea Guffy is a student in CUNY's International Women's Human Rights Clinic.  She is a student of Cindy Soohoo.

Ms. Guffy writes: 

The United States finds itself on the sidelines as the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”). The U.S. is one of only three nations that hasn’t ratified the CRC.  Opponents to the treaty claim that the U.S. doesn’t need to ratify the treaty because our laws sufficiently protect children.  A recent review of the U.S. by the UN Committee Against Torture highlighting the treatment of children in adult jails and prisons, however, proves this assumption to be tragically inaccurate.

 In November, the United States told the U.N. Committee Against Torture that 7,400 children under 18 are currently incarcerated in adult jails and prisons.  As detailed in a report submitted to the Committee by the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School, children incarcerated in adult facilities experience multiple human rights violations. Among the most gut-wrenching consequences of locking children up in adult facilities are staggeringly high levels of physical and sexual abuse.  In a survey conducted by IWHR and the Michigan ACLU, more than a third of children in Michigan prisons reported sexual assault by staff, other prisoners, or both.  A recent DOJ report investigating conditions at New York’s Riker’s Island jail exposed systematic abuse and extremely high levels of staff violence against incarcerated 16-18 years olds. The report noted that correctional officials purposely beat youth "off camera" and that civilian teachers contribute to the culture of violence by “looking the other way” so as to not witness the violence they know is happening.  Because youth are often smaller and more vulnerable and less likely to report abuse, they are at greater risk of being victims of violence in adult facilities. 


In response, the Committee released recommendations that address the most egregious rights violations that occur when children are funneled into a system designed to punish adults. The Committee recommended that the U.S. end life without parole sentences and the use of solitary confinement for children, adopt standards prohibiting the use of tasers on children and separate children from adult prisoners. 


The Committee also recommended that the U.S. implement international minimum standards for juvenile justice and the protection of juveniles deprived of liberty. These standards acknowledge that because of their age and vulnerability, children experience deprivation of liberty acutely.  They emphasize that incarceration should be a last resort and that rehabilitative alternatives should be explored.  When children are incarcerated they are entitled to special protection that includes an absolute prohibition of incarceration with adults but also requires that facilities and staff be appropriate for children.  The standards also recognize that children are still growing and have an incredible capacity for change.  They emphasize the need for educational and other programming as well as the need to help children maintain their contacts with their families and communities.  Simply put the standards recognize that children are not adults and subjecting them to adult criminal punishment violates their rights.


Adopting the international standard minimum rules to safeguard children in conflict with the law would go a long way to end the most egregious abuses in the criminal justice system.  But there are deeper issues at play when a nation’s treatment of its children becomes an issue addressed by the U.N. Committee Against Torture.  If children’s rights were truly embraced by the U.S., children would not be funneled into adult penal systems in the first place where traumatizing acts of violence and deprivation occur.  The treatment of children in conflict with the law in the U.S. reveals deep flaws in our understanding of children’s rights and the retroactive protections afforded by the Committee are insufficient to address the roots of this injustice.


The CRC, however, explicitly articulates that deprivation the liberty of a child should be the last resort and provides measures for protecting the rights of children in detention. The holistic and comprehensive approach to children’s rights embodied by the CRC would require the United States to deeply examine its treatment of children in a way that brings compassion and accountability to the conversation. It’s time for the United States to commit to building a brighter future for our children by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child.



January 13, 2015 in CAT, Children, Cindy Soohoo | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 12, 2015


by Gay McDougall, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Fordham Law School, guest contributor

The recently released film “Selma” attempts a deep-dive inquiry into one of the most pivotal series of events in modern American history.  The movie is both ambitious and focused.  In a little over two hours, it recalls the aspirations, courage and irrational brutality of an era that was so recent but yet nearly forgotten.

I remember. 

Martin Luther King Jr. and his family lived around the corner from my home in the segregated Black neighborhood of Atlanta. Rev. Abernathy’s church was nearby and the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) headquarters was not far away.  The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus boycott and other events that were rippling across our fields of dreams had given us all a sense that freedom was rising.  But white resistance was fierce.  

By 1965, when the events in the film took place, our forces for racial justice had achieved some sizable gains. There was the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the well-publicized desegregation of a number of universities across the South. But can you believe that we were still being blocked from voting?  Throughout the South the reality was that every trick imaginable was used to deny our 14th Amendment right to be full and equal citizens. And it was all backed up by violence. In 1964 three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi while on a project to register African Americans to vote.  

In "Selma," Ava DuVernay directed an account of the fight for voting rights that depicts the many personal and political currents that are always elements of transformative human dramas. While there was only space and time to make quick references to many of those currents, the film does not dumb-down or flatten out the complexities. ML King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) “ high-visibility” approach to making change was compared to SNCC’s preference for long-term community organizing. There was reference to the tensions between King and Malcolm X.  Thank God Diane Nash was finally given her due; many histories of those times leave her and other women leaders out. The Reverends Bevel and Hosea Williams were represented and there was a nod to Andrew Young’s more cautious tendencies.  Tim Roth was marvelous as George Wallace.  Cuba Gooding Jr., playing the lawyer Fred Gray, represented the role played in the events by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and King’s insistence that the measures taken be legal. 

And, yes, the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to present the Voting Rights Bill to Congress in advance of his anti-poverty initiatives has been criticized by some as not reflecting accurately his high level of support for civil rights.

But what was more important to me, personally, was that when the camera focused closely on the face of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s 82 year old grandfather after his grandson—both of whom were active participants in the Selma protest–was murdered by a State Trooper, I saw a reflection of my father’s face and that of so many Black men of that era that I had known.  These were men who had been denied every dream they had ever had.  They knew pain, deep as wells.  And they were still standing.  DuVernay got that right.  Her story was about these people.  So, any slight to LBJ’s reputation can be corrected later by history.  

January 12, 2015 in Advocacy, Race, Voting | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Update on the SDGs and Human Rights


By Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute


Back in October, I wrote about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, or SGDs, which will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)adopted in 2000 by the UN to alleviate global poverty.  As I mentioned, expiration of the MDGs in 2015 has generated a healthy discussion within the human rights community about what a more universal and holistic set of goals to eradicate poverty might look like, with some human rights groups developing a human rights “litmus test” for the post-2015 SDGs.  Last month saw an important and promising development on the road to a human rights-based approach to the SDGs.

On December 4, with the state-level negotiations over the final SDGs well underway (the final version of the SDGs is expected in September 2015), the UN Secretary General released a Synthesis Report, “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” which is intended to serve as a road map for the final negotiations.  In it, the Secretary General makes clear that the SDGs are premised on the understanding of universality, thus applicable to both developing and developed countries, including the United States.  In addition, unlike previous preliminary SDG documents, the Synthesis Report makes explicit reference throughout to human rights, clearly articulating the SDGs through a human rights framework and including human rights as a central component of the SDGs.  The Report notes that “the agenda itself mirrors the broader international human rights framework.”  Human rights concepts are implicit throughout the Synthesis Report, as well. The Report calls for the essential participation of civil society, transparency, and the accountability of all actors (including the private sector).  The previous Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals Proposal, which was intended as a starting point for the state-level discussions on the SDGs, set forth 17 goals for sustainable development.  The Synthesis Report seeks to maintain these 17 goals, but rearranges and incorporates them into six integrated “essential elements” for achieving the SDGs: dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people.

There is still a great deal to be worked out in the final document, including what form an accountability mechanism might take.  The report calls for “strong, inclusive public mechanisms at all levels for reporting, monitoring progress, learning lessons, and ensuring mutual accountability,” and suggests accountability mechanisms at the national, regional and international level, as well as thematic reviews.   The Universal Periodic Review might serve as a model for an SDG accountability mechanism, perhaps through the U.N. High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  In addition, or alternatively, as some human rights groups have suggested, existing human rights mechanisms might be strengthened to take into account the new global development goals.   The Synthesis Report itself suggests that some review might take place through the existing human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty body reviews, with the participation of civil society. 

Another important piece of the puzzle is how the final SDGs will be measured, including how they will articulate the relevant targets and indicators.  The Synthesis Report indicates that at least some of this will take place at the national level. 

Despite these unanswered questions, the Synthesis Report suggests a strong foundation for building human rights into the global development discussion, and offers promise for US human rights advocates who may seek to engage the SDGs in their advocacy on economic justice and poverty-related issues in the United States.  Stay tuned for further developments.


January 9, 2015 in Risa Kaufman, Universal Periodic Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Teaching Detroit

Teachers everywhere look for vivid and multifaceted case studies to drive their lessons home.  Tragic as the situation is for residents of Detroit, the events of the past year -- the city's bankruptcy, the municipal water shut off, the UN Special Rapporteurs' efforts to intervene, the local organizing on the ground -- provide an excellent case study for teaching about the human right to water in particular and the status of economic and social rights in the U.S. more generally.

There is plenty of reading material that can be assigned as background for this case study, including the series of letters submitted to the UN Special Rapporteurs, the resulting UN statements, and the reports on the bankruptcy court's bench ruling rejecting a human rights analysis. 

For teachers who want to provide additional context while adding some visuals, a new series of two reports on RT America (Russian television) are particularly noteworthy.  The RT series Breaking the Set, hosted by alternative journalist Abby Martin, has just posted two 30-minute segments focused on Detroit.  In the first segment, titled Extinguishing the Homeless and Shutting Off Human Rights, Martin goes on the scene in Detroit to interview residents about the impact of the water cut-offs, including an extensive discussion with Beulah Walker, a leader of the Detroit Water Brigade.  The second segment, titled Bankrupcy Dictatorship and Foreclosed Futures, includes a fascinating driving tour of Detroit's fragile neighborhoods and abandoned factories, and in-depth interviews of two Detroit activists -- Rev. D. Alexander Bullock and Michele Oberholtzer -- who are working to address fundamental inequalities in the city.  In both segments, Martin asks repeatedly about the human rights frame, pressing the activists on how such a frame might be meaningful in the Detroit context.  The answers are telling and provide provocative fodder for classroom discussion about whether and how human rights matter in the U.S.

Martin closes the second segment by expressing a strong point of view about the national, state and municipal priorities which have allowed Detroit to sink into bankruptcy.  A teacher might decide to turn the tape off before that point to allow students to reach their own conclusions.  But whether or not you make it to the end, these segments provide many moments that will stimulate discussion and reflection.        

January 8, 2015 in Economics, Martha F. Davis, Teaching, Water | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why Should the Poor Trust Our Institutions?

By Brian Howe

When I started working at Legal Aid and later at the Innocence Project, I understood that the communities weserved harbored some mistrust for authority figures.  At least, I understood it on an intellectual level, as a descriptive fact about the communities and the people who lived there. The more people I get to know, the more clients and witnesses I meet--the more I pay attention to what is actually happening here-- the more I really do start to understand and feel this mistrust on a deeper level.  Why would you trust your money to a bank, when that bank just sold you subprime refinancing loan with predatory terms-- not because you couldn't qualify for a better loan, but as part of an intentional scheme to rip equity away from low-income black neighborhoods?  

 A recent New York times article described the scheme to manipulate low income people of color into "qualifying" for sub-prime loans. 
"Wells Fargo, Ms. Jacobson said in an interview, saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages. Another loan officer stated in an affidavit filed last week that employees had referred to blacks as “mud people” and to subprime lending as “ghetto loans.”

“We just went right after them,” said Ms. Jacobson, who is white and said she was once the bank’s top-producing subprime loan officer nationally. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”"

The NAACP along wih others filed suit against over twelve banks charging systematic racial discrimination.

Multiple cases against mortgage banks for this practice-- including cases brought by the US Justice Department-- have since been settled. 

This  egregious abuse of power to manipulate the poor into contributing to the wealth of  businesses violates the human rights of vulnerable U.S. citizens.  At the same time, we appreciate responsible reporting that brings these abuses to light. 

January 7, 2015 in Brian Howe, Economics, Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Watershed: Women Find Their Voices in 2014

I came across an interesting article that appeared in The Guardian recently.  The writer, Rebecca Solnit opines on the many ways that in 2014 women were able to voice their perspectives on  violence against them.  The theme of the article is that women are shifting blame where it belongs, to their attackers.  For too long women have failed to speak out or report sexual assaults against them because they carried shame. Something caused a shift this year.  Many long silenced survivors were able to speak publicly of their experiences.  Women publicly accusing Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them is one example, and others speaking of the crimes committed against them by Canadian radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi is another.  As this blog has reported on several occassions, women are fighting back on street harassment.  Click on the authors' names to read the posts by Martha Davis,  Lesley Wexler and Leigh Goodmark

Solnit writes the best account I have read in explaining the performance art of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who carried her mattress through campus following a sexual assault against her that occurred in her dorm room.  

The author goes on to review recent history in documenting events where women have been either ignored or silenced following reports of violence against them. She criticizes the media for turning gender violence events into something else and thus detracting from reporting of the real story, violence against women.  Solnits article focuses on the positive change that happened during the past year that shifted the focus back where it belonged, on the perpetrators of the criminal acts committed against the women who spoke out.

The heart of Sofit's reporting is her exploration of what she calls the "earthquake" that changed women's responses from barely audible to the strong voices heard this year. Finally women's voices are debunking stereotypes that for so long have kept victimized women silent.  The challenge now is to keep our voices strong.

The full article may be read here.

January 6, 2015 in Domestic Violence, Gender, Margaret Drew, Women's Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Whiplash: Viewing Torture Through a Movie Lens

by Lesley Wexler

     One of 2014's best movies might be viewed as a meditation on torture. While a literal viewing of Whiplash concerns itself with the relationship between a jazz drummer and his mentor, one might read it more broadly as part of the contemporary debate over torture. Whiplash asks the viewer to consider when, if ever, successful but abusive methods are morally justified. Should society judge the process at least partially by the end result?

     By way of background (and some spoilers), a quick synopsis follows. In order to get the best performances out of his already exceptional students, conductor Terence Fletcher engages in physical and emotional abuse. While the conductor's behavior might not quite reach the legal definition of torture, slapping, throwing chairs, employing sleep deprivation, and harassing students with regards to family, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, and sexual preferences is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. And yet it seems to work. Fletcher’s cruelty propels student Andrew Neiman into a career making performance. Given the eye contact between the two that closes the movie, both Andrew and Terence seem to agree that such a spirited and technically accomplished performance wouldn’t have happened in the absence of extreme emotional abuse. Fletcher also claims credit for Sean Casey, a former student that played for several years in Wynton Marsalis’ band. While the movie is cut like a thriller, focusing the viewer on whether Fletcher will extract the desired performance, it does not shy away from the emotional toll that Fletcher's method exacts. Andrew obsesses over winning Fletcher's approval and in so doing, isolates himself emotionally, practices until he bleeds, and experiences a serious mental break. Sean presents an even more extreme case, hanging himself after several years of a highly acclaimed jazz career.

    Does creating great performances and great artists justify abusive methods? Substitute "extracting information" for "creating art" and the same debate rages on in the national security context. Of course, Fletcher's students' ability to opt out is a significant difference. But leaving aside consent issues, both settings invite the empirical question of whether abusive methods can uniquely motivate desired behavior and the moral question of whether society should limit successful methods. Moreover, the debate in both settings often relies on the exceptional or extraordinary case. While we might disdain these methods generally, is torture justified for the ticking time bomb or is abusive teaching justified to produce the greatest artists? And advocates often seem to rely on the empirical presupposition that if a little cruelty produces desired results, then ratcheting up the cruelty will work even better.

     In pondering these questions, Whiplash's main characters conclude that extreme cruelty works. Both Fletcher and Neiman view the defining moment in Charlie Parker's career as occurring when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker for losing the beat during a early performance. Without that event, Charlie Parker never would have become Bird. And thus, in Fletcher's mind, if a single thrown cymbal motivates, then more violent methods will motivate more. Even after Fletcher learns of his former student's suicide, he doesn't change his approach. He explains to Neiman that his goal was never to produce good students, but to create truly great ones. And the movie concludes with Fletcher inducing a potentially career ending humiliation that spurs Neiman on to a Bird like performance. By ending on this note, the movie forces the viewer to confront the moral question directly. While for Fletcher and perhaps Neiman as well, the ends justify the means, the movie quietly raises other points of view. To Neiman's father, nothing, including a brilliant performance, could justify his son's treatment. And Sean Casey's grieving parents seek to prevent Fletcher from pushing other students as he pushed their son. They prompt an investigation that results in the conservatory condemning and firing Fletcher.

    Whiplash focuses on the moral limits on the relationship between cruelty and performance. It is most decidedly not a movie about law, justice, or retribution. None of the characters seek Fletcher's punishment through criminal or civil litigation. Neiman's father and Sean Casey's family only want Fletcher removed from power. This too may mirror much of the public debate over torture. While lawyers care deeply about the illegality of torture, most lay people seem to view the moral and empirical questions as the decisive ones. Similarly, while many lawyers may favor punishment for torturers, the heart of the public debate seems to be forward looking in deciding what behavior to allow rather than backward looking in deciding what behavior to punish. Whiplash provides a compelling and highly entertaining context through which to return to these questions.

January 5, 2015 in Lesley Wexler | Permalink | Comments (0)