Archive for the ‘human rights’ Category

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 31, 2008

Just a few days ago, we passed the anniversary of a seminal tragedy. On March 25 1911, a fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. 146 people, mostly young girls, died in fifteen minutes time. Many died in the flames and smoke, unable to exit the building due to very narrow stairs with inward opening doors—some of which were habitually locked during work hours by the owners to prevent theft or absenteeism. Others died as the ill-conceived fire escape buckled under the weight of those trying to scramble down to safety. Still others, often already smoldering and with no other prospects for escape, leapt from the ninth story in hopes of a miraculous survival.

The tragedy was not unpredictable. A sweatshop for manufacturing the “shirtwaist” top so fashionable among women at the time, Triangle was packed with flammable material. Fires were not uncommon in the factories of the day. But neither was it inevitable. Many of the basic fire protection innovations upon which we rely today—firewalls, fireproof doors, even automatic sprinklers—had been available since the 1880s. Enclosed fireproof stairs were developed at the turn of the century. Fire drills were recognized as very successful in preventing panic and catastrophe in the event of a fire. But neither the Triangle Shirtwaist company nor the Asch building in which it was located availed themselves of any of these protections, and some of their standard practices made the situation worse (the aforementioned locked doors).

Why was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company so disinterested in investing in fire protection? Industrial Engineer H.F.J. Porter was an expert in fire safety, and had observed the conditions at the sweatshop. He had recommended some basic changes, but reported being brusquely rebuffed.

“Let em burn up. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway.”

While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the most dramatic urban workplace catastrophe prior to 9/11, it was hardly an isolated incident. Workplace injury and death was rather common in factories of all sorts. With desperate workers plentiful, they simply couldn’t be bothered to concern themselves with such trifles as basic sanitation or safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a catalyst in the history of the U.S. It galvanized the labor movement and gave greater force impetus to women’s suffrage and feminism. Workplace conditions in the U.S. are by and large much better today, but not because corporations and owners have become more enlightened and benign, or because the magical market forces have guided industry to become more safety conscious. Plenty of modern manufacturing businesses have proven themselves more than willing to put the well being of their workers in peril when they can do so (consider loathsome sweatshops of Marianas, enthusiastically protected by Tom Delay when he lead the House Republicans). Domestic labor conditions have improved primarily because of the growth of the vigor of unions in their ability to defend the interests of workers, and because of the willingness of government, motivated by their citizens, to establish standards and regulations for the safety of workers.

It is not uncommon to hear conservatives and libertarians denounce legislated safety standards, government regulatory bodies such as OSHA, and organized labor as interfering with the mechanisms of the market. Yet I’ve heard none of these critics give any sort of satisfactory answer as to how the safety and well-being of employees would be better protected under Chicago school-style free markets. Their best defense is typically that the death and suffering of workers under sweatshop labor is an inevitable, if perhaps sad, cost of economic development. As long as someone is becoming wealthy off the blood shed by workers, and therefore some wealth will eventually trickle down to the surviving labor force, the involuntary sacrifice of the dead and maimed is worthwhile.

I refuse to accept that a society and its economic system cannot prosper without human sacrifice to bloodthirsty gods of the market. All children of God have an intrinsic worth, and their well being deserves protection regardless of any given market conditions. To the extent that the market does not value that worth, it should very much continue to be restricted.


Jim Hightower: Immigrants Come Here Because Globalization Took Their Jobs Back There

February 8, 2008

If all of these Republicans, both nationally and in Utah, want to raise such a ruckus about immigration, maybe they should take a careful look at the roots of the problem. Jim Hightower explains.

The question that policy makers have not faced honestly is this one: Why do these immigrants come? The answer is not that they are pulled by our jobs and government benefits, but that they are pushed by the abject poverty that their families face in Mexico. That might seem like a mere semantic difference, but it’s huge if you’re trying to develop a policy to stop the human flood across our border…
…Because in the last 15 years, Mexico’s longstanding system of sustaining its huge population of poor citizens (including small self-sufficient farms, jobs in state-owned industries and subsidies for such essentials as tortillas) has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks, corporations, government officials and “free market” ideologues. In the name of “modernizing” the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and GE – in cahoots with the plutocrats and oligarchs of Mexico – have laid waste to that country’s grass-roots economy, destroying the already-meager livelihoods of millions.
…In our national imbroglio over Mexican immigration (yes, some illegal migrants come from elsewhere, but more than three-fourths are from Mexico), our “leaders” have set us up to look down at impoverished working people forced to leave their homeland and risk death in order to help their families escape poverty.
…Instead of coming down on them, why not start looking up – up at the executive suites on both sides of the border. Up is where the power is. The moneyed elites in those suites are the profiteering few who have rigged all of our trade and labor policies to knock down workers, farmers and small businesses, not merely in Mexico but in our country as well.
Immigration reform cannot be separated from labor and trade reform. We can’t fix the former without dealing with the other two.
…We must stop the exploitative NAFTAfication of such aspiring economies as Mexico and instead develop genuine grass-roots investment policies that give people there an ability to remain in their homeland. Then we must enforce our own labor laws – from wage and hour rules to the NLRB – so as to empower American workers to enforce their own rights.
…America’s immigration problem is not down on the border, it’s in Washington and on Wall Street.

Buttars is at it again…

February 6, 2008

While battling illegal immigration is the trendy fight for the Utah Republican party, it is almost reassuring to see that some continuing to tilt with one of the tried and true straw men of conservatism: homosexuals.

Chris Buttars, tireless champion of Utah’s sodomy ban and sponsor of Utah constitutional amendment 3 (in which government interferes with freedom of conscience by enforcing a particular definition of marriage), has introduced legislation with the specific intent of preventing SLC mayor Becker’s proposed Domestic Partnership Registry.

Why, Senator Buttars? Why must you persist in abusing your power to enforce your moral code on others, even at the expense local government (something Republicans are supposed to defend)? The reality is that many people in our communities who live in committed relationships and rely on one another for economic support. While the nature of those relationships may not be sanctioned by the religion to which Senator Buttars and I belong, there is no reason that government should not recognize the reality of those relationships.

Thankfully, Becker and the SLC council are determined to take this stand. Hopefully the Utah legislature has enough people of conscience to protect the self-determination of local governments and freedom of conscience.

PS: The Voice of Utah makes a shrewd point about the dishonesty of Buttars and the other sponsors of Amendment 3 as it relates to the Domestic Partnership Registry.

Candlelight Vigil for Immigrant Rights

February 4, 2008

It appears that illegal immigration is the hot topic for the legislature this year…or at least, the topic in which the Republican majority is being most egregiously outrageous. Not only do we have the two actions I’ve mentioned (hb 237 and Greg Curtis’ Oxbow scheme), but also HB 239, which Jeremy aptly reviewed. Technically all of these actions are targeted at illegal rather than any immigrants. But in practice, given the extremely restrictive and biased nature of current national immigration law, it does not appear to be a good time to be a “stranger” in our lovely Deseret.

So it warms my heart to see that University of Utah students want to make a statement about this anti-immigrant furor at the capitol. They have organized a candelight vigil at the Capitol Plaza Feb 5 (tomorrow) at 3:00. They are calling for anyone to join them. I’m planning on it. Join me in helping make it a great turnout in support of compassion and of immigrant rights.

Candlelight Vigil for Immigrant Rights flier

Camp Oxbow

February 1, 2008

As part of their ongoing struggle to pulverize their straw man du jour, the Utah Republican Party has found yet another method of defeating the “plague” (presidential candidate Romney’s less-than-charitable description) of illegal immigration.

Greg Curtis wants to use Oxbow jail for the detention of illegal immigrants.

Presumably because concentration camps have proven a great idea in the past.

Nice to see Curtis thinking inside the box.

Tortured Logic

December 13, 2007

Tony Blankley believes that the U.S. needs to foster goodwill between our nation and the moderate Muslims of the Middle-East. A brilliant suggestion. And for this reason, according to his commentary for NPR’s All Things Considered, he is thrilled that the tapes of CIA torture were destroyed.

Might I suggest that the best method of developing relations with a given group of people is to deal with them respectfully, honestly, and humanely? In case you were wondering, the use of torture fits in none of those three categories. The concept of trying to maintain friendly relationships by hiding deliberate immoral behavior is disingenuous—as well as morally bankrupt.

What’s really disturbing about this?

Tony is one of the less outrageous conservative advocates.

Helping the Homeless in Salt Lake County

November 20, 2007

Its sad to see how widespread is the sort of bias which I described a couple weeks ago. Despite the mandate to lift the wretched from their terrible circumstances, so we would rather push them aside. Just yesterday, KCPW reported that many citizens in West Valley were displeased that the county was breaking ground on a housing project for homeless seniors.

Ironically, the Housing First initiative has proven a remarkably effective method by which to help people move past homelessness. Having a home provides an anchor in the lives of the otherwise homeless, a sense of stability. With a more stable emotional state, these people are better able to respond to treatment and deal with the issues that have hindered them (whether that be substance abuse, emotional trauma, or mental illness), and get on the path to becoming contributing members of society (hear more about Housing First from KCPW and this NPR special investigative series). If these citizens of West Valley were to embrace this opportunity to serve the less fortunate among us, they would actually be minimizing any risk which the homeless people might pose. I’m glad that ground was broken, and that the project is going forth.

I know of one employee of the Salt Lake Public Library who was homeless several years ago. He was a regular at the library as he tried to stay warm or find shelter. But instead of being turned out as some reprobate, he was embraced by the library staff. When a custodial position came open, he was offered employment and a library staff mentor. With the encouragement and support of the staff, he developed into an excellent employee, has become full-time, has long term housing, and has become a “normal” member of society.

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is one in which we consider the many blessings we enjoy, including the relative material abundance we enjoy. Many in society also spend a little time thinking about those who enjoy less, and help participate in food drives and other worthy causes to help those who want. I wonder if we can do more; if we can think about, participate in, and support long term solutions to the problems of poverty, hunger, and suffering. After all, “love thy neighbor” should be more than a couple cans of food on during a specific holiday season. It is about comforting and supporting our brothers and sisters, even the homeless ones, throughout the year.

Support HR 3835

November 7, 2007

Among the many dirty deeds done (dirt cheap, no less) by our federal government this current century was the passing of the Military Commissions Act (PL 109-366) in 2006. Restricting habeas corpus rights, the law permits the administration to forgo some of our most cherished rights in persecuting—I mean prosecuting those who the administration chooses to regard as “unlawful enemy combatants.”

Many have rightly criticized the act as incompatible with the U.S. Constitution and our proclaimed protection of human rights. Others note with suspicion that the act reduces the accountability of government employees (ie, intelligence and military employees) in their conduct towards those presumed unlawful enemy combatants, and extends the discretion of the executive branch far more than has proved wise with any administration, the current one least of all.

A remedy may fortunately be on the horizon. Ron Paul has proposed HR 3835.

This legislation seeks to restore the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers to prevent abuse of Americans by their government. This proposed legislation would repeal the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and re-establish the traditional practice that military commissions may be used to try war crimes in places of active hostility where a rapid trial is necessary to preserve evidence or prevent chaos…the legislation would prohibit the use of secret evidence to designate an individual or organization with a United States presence to be a foreign terrorist or foreign terrorist organization (“Statement Introducing the American Freedom Agenda Act of 2007,” Ron Paul, 10/15/2007).

A very worthy goal. We need legislation like this to restore our credibility on the world stage, and to re-establish some ethical standards in our defense policies.

Strange that for all the Democratic criticism of the administration’s foreign and defense policies, it is a Republican who is the sole sponsor of this bill. A sad statement on the supposedly opposing party.

As the bill is being sponsored by a dedicated Republican, surely Rob Bishop, Chris Cannon, and even the largely conservative Jim Matheson would be willing to support HR 3835.

Whoever your Representative, let them know that you want them to stand with Paul in passing this bill.

Intolerance in Zion

November 6, 2007

When I hired on at the Salt Lake City Public Library, I was hired for the morning schedule. But my department has been short handed lately, and I have been more than willing to help out covering some evenings. It is a different feel at the library at night, a little different crowd which haunts the shelves in the evenings. Its been kind of refreshing becoming familiar with a different batch of regulars.

Last night, as I was wandering the floor and picking up books left on the tables and chairs, I was approached by an unfamiliar face. He politely introduced himself, and with concern pointed over to another patron.

“That man over there,” he insisted, “is making a racket. I can’t concentrate.” I recognized the culprit as one of our eccentric regulars, a plain looking man in perhaps his late fifties. I’d always thought he looked vaguely familiar, but never bothered to determine from where. He frequents the library in the evenings, perpetually mumbling to himself as he pulls seemingly random books from the stacks. Occasionally he gets agitated and becomes a little loud. When that happens, we discreetly calm him down, and he never presents a problem. Last night his ramblings had been within a volume acceptable by our library’s standards.

When I expressed this to the concerned patron, he became indignant. “You aren’t going to do anything about him?” He demanded incredulously. He wasn’t interested in moving to another of the couple hundred seats around the library. He just wanted the offender removed. When I confirmed that I indeed would not take action, he demanded my name so that he could report me. “This is outrageous! I’m leaving and never coming back here again. This is why the taxpayers, whose taxes pay your salary, get upset; the library is becoming a refuge for crazies and the homeless.”

I told him I was sorry he felt that way, and that he was more than welcome to share his concerns with administration.

As I went about my responsibilities, I couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange. The more I thought, the more exasperated I became. This isn’t the first time I’d seen the library criticized for tolerating the “crazies and homeless.” Those crazies and homeless are people too, citizens and fellow brothers and sisters. They may have problems more visible than the “average” person, but that doesn’t mean their problems justify ostracism. They too deserve to be accepted as human beings. Conservatives like to talk about being self-reliant; how are these people supposed to become self-reliant and lift themselves up if they are banned from the very places where they can learn? The arrogance, the gall of this person to insist that simply because this person wasn’t “normal” that he had no right to community resources, such as a library!

When I returned to the reference desk, I related the experience to my coworker. Once again, I got an incredulous response.

“He wanted us to throw Kim out?”

This “disruptive” patron was none other than Kim Peek—the Rain Man.

I wonder What might this man have done had he been told that this was no homeless schmuck, but a brilliant (if challenged) man who has travelled the world? That he might be labeled by some as a “crazie,” but that he was still a functional member of society who posed no threat to anyone—on the contrary, who was seen by not a few as an inspirational figure? Would he still want him tossed, or might he show Kim a little compassion and empathy? Too bad we will probably never find out, that this man will not have his prejudices challenged.

How sad that so many in society are so willing to judge and exclude others. If they act strangely, they must be homeless or crazy. If they are poor, they must be lazy or immoral. If they have an addiction or suffer emotional illness, they are obviously weak-willed and corrupted. We don’t want that around our families or communities. Banish them, so they don’t inconvenience us with their existence.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what the Savior would do. I remember him gladly accepting, even seeking out, the outsiders, the poor and disenfranchised. He did not seek to further disenfranchise others. Perhaps if we sought to empathize with and serve these purported “crazies and homeless, as He did, we could work the same sort of miracles among them as did He. At the very least, we could ease a lot of suffering and pain.

I’m glad to be working for an institution that consciously chooses to pursue a policy of liberal acceptance and inclusiveness. It just makes me love my job that much more.

Torture is Neither Moral nor Practical

October 5, 2007

Amazing. After being a dormant issue for the last year, the issue of torture has raised its ugly head again. Not only did we have the ignominious news that James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen joined Jay Bybee as LDS members who contributed to the policy of torture and shamed our faith. We now have a report from The New York Times that at the very same time that Congress was writing a law banning such practices, the Justice Department under newly confirmed Alberto Gonzalez surreptitiously issued a statement endorsing the use of torture in CIA interrogations.

While contemptible, the news is hardly surprising. As I outlined in my original post on torture, the administration’s disavowals of torture following the news of Abu Ghraib were insincere—and it was then White House counsel Gonzalez who had rationalized away the Geneva Conventions on behalf of the administration. When Congress passed the (anti)torture bill, the President brazenly added a signing statement virtually announcing his intention to continue to utilize torture.

While I’ve discussed the fact that there is absolutely no justification for the use of torture from a LDS or Christian perspective, there are plenty of people around the nation who have defended the practice on theoretical pragmatic grounds. If it will save lives, what’s a few broken fingers on an (possible) terrorist? Idealist ethics are meaningless while the cliche time bomb is ticking—or so they claim. They find it acceptable to compromise principle for expediency.

Very well: lets examine the practicality of torture. Can we foil terrorist plots by torturing suspected terrorists, eliminate their cells by coercing confessions of suspected terrorists through “enhanced” interrogation? Most evidence suggests not—Jack Bauer’s astounding success excepted.

It has become widely accepted in the criminal justice field that harsh interrogation techniques are more likely to result in false confessions than meaningful information, as in the case of Michael Crowe, and of dozens of wrongfully convicted suspects in Chicago under police commander Jon Burge. When faced with physical or mental torture, the victim typically provides what he feels his interrogators want to hear, rather than truth. It seems foolish to believe that torture could be more effective in a military setting than in criminal investigations.

Experts commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board seem to have seconded that conclusion. They determined that the “enhanced” interrogation techniques used in the administration’s so-called War on Terror are “outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable.” West Point dean and Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan and FBI interrogation expert Navarro both insist that torture is simply not effective, especially when dealing with radical Muslims.

In other words, to excuse torture techniques on practical security grounds is ignorant and misguided. This administration has, consistent with their usual M.O, chosen a course of action which is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. They are willing to sell the nation’s virtue for fool’s gold. Torture is less likely to result in valuable data, has eroded world opinion, and provides yet another point of contention for terrorist recruiters to use against our nation. Hardly pragmatic.

The only practical aspect of the administration’s de facto acceptance of torture is the political aspect. It appeals to their neoconservative political base: that segment of our population which prefers to see this conflict as an existential threat, a showdown against evil in which we must pull no punches to triumph. This constituency is drawn to the tough talk of this president and the strong stand against terrorists which the “enhanced” interrogation represents.

That sort of pragmatism is one which our nation can do without.

This does not mean that there interrogation itself is futile. Hanns Joachim Scharff interrogated quite effectively in WWII. The most successful of the German army’s interrogators, Scharff was so highly respected for his skill that he was invited speak to U.S. military officials after the war. His tools? Patience, respect, and dignity. By creating an environment in which his “victims” felt safe and relaxed, and by engaging in long, friendly conversations, he was able to accumulate a great deal of operable information. The rapport-building techniques he modeled and discussed provide the framework for F.B.I. interrogation methods to this day.

And just think, we wouldn’t have to betray our principles in support of those proven tactics. Too bad this administration and their enablers (especially the LDS ones) didn’t consider that.