Saturday, July 16, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: On Child Abuse

I’ve been reading reports about the World Trade Organization (WTO) lately, and the real outcomes of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). I’ve also been reading the documents of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA – which also includes the Dominican Republic), and the negotiating documents for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) which includes the U.S., Canada, and over thirty Latin American countries. In the process I did some checking on the doings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. It’s a dreary record of increased global poverty, displacement, hungry children, and children dying of bad water. One UN report on the IMF indicates that 40 the world’s poorest nations that the IMF has been working with since its inception following World War II, are now poorer than they were to begin with. I’ve been checking these sources for a book on agriculture, because the WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA, FTAA, IMF, and World Bank have a huge impact on American farmers and on farmers around the world.

I look at the record, and try for a bit of objectivity in my report, but I am often made sick at heart by what I read. The negotiating documents for CAFTA and NAFTA and the WTO reveal how deliberate our trade negotiators pursue corporate advantage for contributors to U.S. congressional and presidential campaigns. They know their actions will impoverish thousands, and result in hunger, thirst and starvation for little children. Apparently such collateral damage cannot stand in the way of profit.

It’s incongruous to me, but business executives and politicians prate to schools these days about the need for “accountability.” They have not produced an ounce of evidence that accountability is what is wrong with schools, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The schools don’t seem to be performing as they should, so they should be held accountable, or so the rhetoric of blame goes. The definition of accountability, innate in the term’s use, is simply punitive, not in the least constructive. What is puzzling is that at the same time business leaders and politicians hold schools and non-profits accountable, they themselves do everything they can to escape their own accountability, using every political influence and social pressure they can muster to reduce any possible penalties for genuine crimes and illegal activities. Think not? Consider:

May 22, 2003, President Bush signed Executive Order 13303 granting gas and oil companies working in Iraq immunity from all federal statutes and ”for any activities related to Iraqi oil, either in that country or in the United States,” (emphasis mine), according to Ruth Rosen, writing in the August 8, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle. She continues,

It also declared a national emergency as the justification for sweeping aside all federal statutes, including the Alien Tort Claims Act, and appears to provide immunity against contractual disputes, discrimination suits, violations of labor practices, international treaties, environmental disasters and human rights violations. Even more, it doesn’t limit immunity to the production of oil, but also protects individuals, companies and corporations involved in selling and marketing the oil as well.

“In our democracy, no one is above the law,” Rosen reminds us. She also points out that the Executive Order pertained only to oil related industries and did not include those companies restoring communications or public services like water. Yes, I looked up the Executive Order too. You can Google it. Ms. Rosen is right.

So what are we to make of this? And what does this have to do with farming, or with the rest of us, in America? Two things: 1) This is the U.S. Government we all belong to, farmers and school teachers, lawyers and garbage collectors, clergy and postal clerks alike, saying that major contributors to our political campaigns are exempt from obedience to the law and immune to law enforcement. 2) The decree fits the larger pattern of exemptions and concessions made on behalf of transnational corporations in WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA, and FTAA negotiations, all of which affect farmers – and the rest of us -- directly. Consider the loss of small farms at a rate six times faster than they were lost before NAFTA, a rate already intolerably high before we had NAFTA. Or consider the loss of American jobs in the first ten years of NAFTA.

So much of our farm production is based on oil. But does that mean that we allow the industry exemption from the normal legal process that applies to everyone else? Do our farmers have to sit in their tractors knowing that the fuel they are using may be derived from documented but unpenalized child abuse, the oppression of labor (especially women), environmental destruction, and the economic domination of our own labor and farmers, as well as those of foreign nations?

If I sound upset, or am too harsh on free trade or transnational corporations, I should tell you why this world trade rhetoric sounds like sheer hypocrisy to me. Here is the connection between child abuse, free trade, schools, and IMF loans: I served for ten years on the board of an agency called The Center for Children and Families. It was committed to eliminating child abuse. The reports we now have to read show that poverty generated by our free trade policies has resulted in a major increase in the use of child labor around the world. 800,000 children ten to sixteen years of age now labor in the tin mines of Bolivia for twelve hours a day, watching their fathers, who have done the same work all their lives sicken early and die at age fifty. Those ten-year olds know what lies in store for them. In Tanzania 1/3 of all children between five and seventeen are in the workforce to help their families provide food. The UN says 4.8 million children worldwide, 4.3 million of them in rural areas in the informal economy, are all working. This child labor is not always directly due to the demands of corporations for labor, but because the poverty created or exacerbated by corporate free trade is so great that parents urge their children to work. Many of the jobs occur in rural areas because that is where the poverty is most severe.

Now I read the free trade record again because CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, is before the U.S. House of Representatives. CAFTA will extend the abuses of NAFTA to new countries who sign on. One has to wonder how it is that our government endorses, supports, lobbies hard and deliberately promulgates policies that they know will abuse children, leave parents and their families destitute or starving, and rob families of food security. They cannot claim not to know what they are doing, or its human cost. Anyone can know, and they have access to more information than you or I, even with the internet.

About 10,800 children die from bad water every day. WorldWatch notes that’s about one every five seconds. Part of every loan made by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank includes articles or “conditionalities” that require the privatization of public services. Water is high on the list. There is some evidence that private corporations from “developed nations” who buy water systems in poor countries occasionally do provide clean water – and much evidence that they seldom do. They also charge so much for it that the poor have no access. How can IMF lenders continue to press for privatization in poor countries, knowing that their policies will cut off water for the poor and result in the death of children? And what about those other million kids who starve?

These corporate decisions about free trade have much to do with our local agriculture because they have to do with hungry and thirsty children, and our agriculture brags that it feeds the world. What we all know is that we do not even feed our own children in this rich nation whose president once let catsup pass as a “vegetable” to save money on the school lunch menu. Approximately 13 million of our U.S. children will do without food security this year, not knowing when they can eat next, or if they will be able to.

Among the abusive parents we encountered on the Child Abuse Board, two percent or less were actually pathological. Those few abused their children deliberately, and suffered no pangs of guilt. They are the kind of folks whose babies showed cigarette burns etched in patterns across their backs. Almost as painful as the burns was the deliberateness with which they were done. The rest of the parents were reluctant abusers who hated what they were doing, and frequently hated themselves as well. Often they had been abused as children. Many of them could be helped. Our little under-funded agency used both lay persons and professionals to make such families safe for children. We had a success ratio of about 85 percent.

But there seems to be no sense of guilt among promoters of free trade about what happens to the world’s children, their hunger, or their thirst, or their deaths. If there were guilt, one has to assume, they would change their policies and escape their pathology.

Most states require that certain professionals – school nurses and doctors, for example – report cases of child abuse to social services or the police. But our Congress and Executive Branch officials welcome such corporate child abusers into their offices as if they were respectable citizens. What makes them so? Their fine clothes? Their knowledge and sophistication about gourmet food and wine? Their campaign contributions? Our lawmakers do not report them to anyone. Instead they accept their advice, and their campaign contributions, and vote to approve policies that spread their abusive practices even more widely.

So I read the reports and don’t have to wonder why I sometimes feel angry or depressed. I know it shows. I also know I should not write this way for general consumption. After all, anger is self-defeating and unpersuasive; it doesn’t make a good case. It’s also pretty subjective and personal. Well, you better believe it’s personal. Free trade undermines my own little efforts to reduce child abuse, and undermines the massive efforts of many totally committed lay people and professionals who exhaust themselves to stop abuse. How can one know these things and not be pained?

We live in a culture and support a government that bows to and even admires corporate power. It treats the corporate lobbyists and negotiators of international trade agreements as if they were admirable and kind to children. The federal administration grants corporate executives – and themselves -- immunity from every consequence of their actions, yet insists that everyone else be held accountable for theirs. They make plain old hypocrisy look like a step in the right direction.

I used to know a clergyman in Montana. Confronted once again with a cowboy who said he wouldn’t come to church “Because it’s just full of hypocrites,” the preacher grinned and replied, “Well, come on over, we’ve always got room for one more.” I toss that out here just as a little self-corrective advice I ought to heed as well as share, remembering my own hypocrisies. Remembering too, that much of the world sees us and our free trade, violence, arms sales, warfare (both military and economic) and torture pretty much the way that old cowboy saw the church.

We now have a partial “World Court” for war crimes. It’s partial only because the U.S. declares our citizens exempt and refuses to sign on. Every war criminal deserves to be punished except ours, we claim. We are long overdue for a “World Court for Economic Crimes,” before which persons responsible for policies that increase poverty and hunger, or widen the gap between rich and poor, or increase environmental damage can be brought to trial. Promoting a policy or striking an agreement, like CAFTA, that will inevitably further widen the gap between the rich and the poor, increasing poverty and hunger and further degrading the environment, would then be punishable by law. Call it accountability if you will. Like the other World Court, it would deserve our full support, rather than our self-exemption.

Monday, July 11, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: Bush Vindictiveness

On a Monday a couple of weeks back, a doctor, this time a pathologist, announced the results of Terry Schiavo’s autopsy. It appears that the previous doctors, the courts, and yes, the husband, were right all along. She could not respond. She was not following anybody with her eyes; she was blind. There was no hope for any recovery of brain function, no sign she had been abused, or that anyone had tried to hasten her death. Fifteen long years of misery and pain and grief for both sides of this bitterly divided family seemed over. It had become a year of misery and pain for the rest of us too, as the Bush brothers got their state and federal governments involved in the case and made a further public display of family dissention and grief. It seemed a huge relief to have it all over for all of us.

The following Friday it all began again. Governor Jeb Bush asked his state prosecutor to look into whether or not there was an unwarranted delay between the time of Mrs. Schiavo’s collapse and her getting medical attention. The vaguest hint of what may or may not be a crime that no one cared about for 15 years was laid before the public, and the government was again in pursuit of the husband just to make sure that he was not vindicated by the autopsy. This week, according to a very small note in the news, the governor called off his reluctant dogs and ended the investigation.

There is ample evidence that high crimes and misdemeanors go without investigation, that corruption at high levels is ignored and sometimes encouraged. But at the family level our governments can now sic the law on the rest of us based on the flimsiest of rationales. The law has thus been reduced and demeaned. It has become just another toy that does not serve us all, but has become a tool in the hands of a mean spirited dynasty.

There is no bottom to the vindictiveness of this Bush family. The governor’s brother has created a federal administration that knows how to intimidate, and to extract its revenge on any who dare raise a question about its policies or its behavior, its deceits and secretiveness, outright lies and persistent distortions. Cross the Bush presidency and you will pay. As Guantanamo and Abu-Graib have demonstrated to the world, you may pay with great pain. Cross the Bush governor and you will pay as well.

George W. ought to be tried for war crimes against people around the globe, yes, absolutely. But both Bushes should also be tried for war crimes against the American people; impeachment is too small to fit the scale of their crimes against democracy, against the poor, against the middle class, against the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Arrest, torture, refusal to allow American citizens access to attorneys or to know the charges against them, to have the books they read monitored and be the cause the of their investigation and arrest – the list could go on of the abuse this administration has wrought without even mentioning harm to the environment and the economy or the hunger of children.

The land of the free is no more. It did not take an army to overthrow us. Greed, abuse of power and authority, and the ignorance of both the perpetrators (who think they know how to use power) and the victims (who have little access to information about what is happening to them) were enough. As soon as the impeachments are finished the war crimes trials should begin.

No, this is not a call to vindictiveness a la the Bush brothers, but necessity’s call to protect us – and the rest of the world -- from further blows and further injustices. It is a hope that we could put some distance between ourselves and an administration that would further dismantle a system of government that, though it has not always served us well, once had some protections built in to keep us from the kind of harm we now have to worry about every day.