On ‘Embracing the Infidel’

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey WestEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West by Behzad Yaghmaian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rather fitting that I finished this book on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day. And, it’s rather fitting that I read this book, now as the furor over migrants to my own country reaches a fever pitch.

In Embracing the Infidel, Behzad Yaghmaian allows us to walk in the shoes of those very much unlike ourselves. At least very much unlike myself. I do not have to be an asylum seeker or refugee to understand the desperation involved in fleeing one’s home, legally or clandestinely.

But, this rather heartbreaking book allows us to understand not just the reasons individuals risk their lives and their children’s to cross imaginary lines. It allows us to understand just how difficult it is to do so legally and safely, if not altogether impossible those conditions for migrating are for some.

Most of the individual life histories presented here focus on those fleeing various forms of violence—both mental and physical, state-sponsored and familial in origin. And, even when they attempt to follow laws, both local and international, the migrants described herein face additional forms of abuse and violence in the countries to which they seek peace and freedom.

Himself an immigrant, Yaghmaian compassionately and intimately allows each of those he meets on his two-year journey across Europe to shape their own narratives. From their reasons for leaving their homes to their progress (or inability to progress) across various lines drawn on maps by powerful men to the few who have reached ‘the West and what once promised a quiet life in peace, each of these individuals’ stories are important. They are crucial to understanding the migrant ‘crisis’ that dominates headlines and political discussions. They offer a narrative missed by those declaring their support or outrage at various policies.

Despite being published more than ten years ago, we’re still plagued by many of the same issues and the same inertia when it comes to finding solutions to conflicts or granting legal status to those in seemingly hopeless situations. No answers are provided here; but, that’s not the purpose of this book. If anything, this book provides a lesson in empathy, one we could all use a bit more of to my mind.

It’s worthwhile to understand that so many around the globe are currently living as refugees. 68 500 000 million of them in fact. Each of them deserves a chance to be heard. Each of them is important.

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Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
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On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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Kids these days…

I am astounded by the bravery and logic of kids today. I am also shamed by them.

We, the adults, have largely failed them. As we have argued and shouted into our own echo chambers, disregarding any voice of dissension, we’ve polarised ourselves into wider and and more disparate perspectives. The results have been stalemates and inaction.

We’ve forced kids to take stands for their own rights and own safety because we, the adults, have behaved like children. We have risked their lives and their safety, and have not allowed them, the kids, the simple luxury of being kids.

Today, these same kids will be marching for their own lives, not just in the US but across the globe in nearly 820 cities. And, many of us adults will be following their lead.

It shouldn’t take a Parkland or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine, let alone atrocities and scenes of carnage like that in Las Vegas, to spur action. In fact, little action other than shouting back and forth has taken place, at least at the adult table.

That is, until the kids started making noise. And, asking questions. And, speaking up and organising. Maybe they should be in charge?

A friend posted a screen shot of a letter sent out to the parents of a school in some average place in the US alerting them to a possible ‘threat’ at the school. Her daughter opted to stay home the next day, and quite rightly was extremely upset by what might happen. Another friend’s four-year-old, when telling his parents about his day, recounted an ‘active shooter drill’ at their daycare facility just after Parkland. Four years old. Let that sink in for a moment. What were you telling your parents about your day when you were four?

These are but two instances of hundreds from amongst my network in the US. And, these do not include the many posts from teacher friends not just afraid for their students, but for themselves. Every. Damn. Day.

Personally, I don’t like guns, and decided long ago that they would not be a part of my life and would not be allowed in my home. That is my choice and my right. I now live in a country with fairly strict gun control laws, and I feel safer for it. As civilians, I do not think we need to have access to things like AR-15s, nor do I think anyone should be able to buy as many bullets as they want. Again, these are my personal opinions. Would I like to see a world without guns? Very much so. Do I think that is at a reasonable possibility or position? Nope.

Regardless of my personal beliefs opinions, we must talk about policy options and allow research to understand why so many die in massive shootings in the US. We must find common ground and consensus to move beyond where we stand now. To my mind, kids these days are providing the adults with a path towards action.

Today, as I sit behind my desk adulting working, I am also applauding all those marching. I stand with you all, particularly with you kids these days. I’d prefer you enjoy the silliness of just being kids. But, I’m incredibly glad and proud that you are taking the lead. May we all follow your lead. (And, please remember to register and vote!)

SchoolSupplies_Poster_ShaneSmith(1)

On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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Solidarity

I’m of the mind that educational institutions should be palaces — and those who educate should be paid more than just about any other profession. To me, investing in education, particularly through public support to universities and research institutions, helps all of us within and across societies. When we know how to process information and distinguish fact from fiction, we can discuss issues which affect us all through informed debate, and shift our thinking as new information and evidence comes available.

Society at large in my mind should reward the many, many, many individuals who ceaselessly and unrelentingly dedicate their lives to educating others. It simply makes sense to me, as an individual, as a member of society and as an extended member of the University of Helsinki staff and faculty.

As further cuts to education and research are discussed and pushed forward as sound policy, I am appalled. I may not be a member of a particular union at the university; but I unequivocally support the unions and their members as they strike today. All those who work at and with the university to make it one of the best in the world deserve better. This collective of amazing, talented and indefatigably dedicated individuals should certainly be valued rather than continuously and rather callously put under increasing pressure to do more with stagnant (if not falling) wages and with the added understanding that their jobs and vocations may be but fleetingly secure.

Academic life is no joke. Nor is it particularly lucrative for the vast majority of us who have chosen it. And, most academics do not expect outrageously generous salaries or benefits. However, most of us understand that continual cuts result in increasing burdens on the entire system. Certainly, as employees, we suffer. But, more importantly, those seeking an education and knowledge suffer more.

If I were a member of one of the university unions, I would be striking today. Proudly. And resolutely.

Solidarity, my comrades! Your worth is immeasurable!

Solidarity-fist

On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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