Category Archives: politics

Quoted: Audre Lorde

The supposition that one [group] needs the other’s acquiescence in order to exist prevents both from moving together as self-defined persons toward a common goal. This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.

— “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” (1978), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (The Crossing Press, 1984)

This Is Not Education: Abuse of Autistic Students in Pennsylvania

Content warning: This post contains discussions about abuse of people with disabilities, including physical assault and the use of restraints.

Last week, a major civil rights lawsuit was settled in Pennsylvania when seven families agreed to accept five million United States Dollars to resolve a case they filed against a teacher and her superiors, arguing that she abused the students in her care and her superiors did not take adequate steps to address it. It is the largest case of its kind in history in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in US history. The teacher has already served six weeks for reckless endangerment; the question here isn’t whether she abused her students or not, but why the district failed to do anything about it.

These students were in elementary school. They were restrained to chairs using duct tape and bungee cords. The teacher stomped on the insoles of their feet, slapped them, pinched them, and pulled their hair. These nonverbal students apparently weren’t provided with communication tools that they could have used to report to their parents, which meant that the teacher was free to lie about the source of the injuries these children experienced while in her classroom. Horrified aides in the classroom reported it, and the teacher was simply reassigned.

The teacher’s defense was that she didn’t have training or support. This may well have been true. However, if that was the case, she should have recused herself from that classroom. Aides confronted her about her classroom behaviour and she said she ‘didn’t know how to stop.’ I’d say that asking to be taken out of that classroom would have been a pretty fucking good way to stop. If the defense to that is ‘well, it would have ended her teaching career,’ then may I suggest that a person who physically abuses children is not fit to be a teacher? That a person who feels that stomping on the insoles of a child’s feet is an appropriate method of ‘discipline’ is clearly not someone who should be in charge of a classroom?

‘We weren’t sure how a jury would view these facts, especially since children were involved,’ an attorney for the defense said, which is a polite way of saying ‘we are well aware that if this case had gone to trial we probably would have paid more than five million.’ The funds are being put in trust for the children, who, among other things, are in need of therapy.

There have been ‘hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades.’ The House of Representatives actually recently passed a bill addressing this issue, responding to a report from the General Accounting Office documenting abuse of school children across the United States.

The restraint of children with disabilities in school is, unfortunately, not at all notable. It’s a widespread and common practice and I see stories about it in the news practically every week. I’m sure a perusal through the recommended reading archives here would turn up several examples. This doesn’t make it any less vile or wildly inappropriate. I am heartened that legislation has been passed to address the issue, but outlawing abuse isn’t enough, and it’s clear that better training, accountability, and transparency are needed. The reports of those aides shouldn’t have been ignored. That district should not have reassigned the teacher to another classroom.

What is remarkable, and important to note, is that it takes a lot of money to take a case like this to court. Which means that settlements of this kind are only really available to families with at least some money. Even with lawyers willing to volunteer time, taking a case through the courts requires time, energy, the ability to pull supporting materials together, and patience. These things are not options for all families. Especially for parents with disabilities, the barriers to getting to court can be an obstacle so significant that even if they want to fight for their children, they might find it impossible to take a case to court.

Access to justice should not be dictated by social status and economic class, but it often is.

We shouldn’t have to pass laws saying it’s not ok to duct tape children to chairs, but we do.

Kids these days! The “Generation Y” panic, privilege, and erasure

Recently, I read this odd article, penned by Judith Warner, in the New York Times–one in a stream of many that detail how excessively awful the current generation of young people (read: young workers) is at putting its collective nose to the grindstone, sucking it up, and generally not acting like a bunch of brats, or something.

Many of us have heard about, or come into contact with, some of these bright young things. They are heralded — or, more commonly, blasted — as naive, entitled, too optimistic, and over-confident. In many of these articles, their numerous faults are listed: They don’t know how to dress professionally! They expect to march into the workplace of their choice and immediately start making a six figure-salary! They think they are perfect! They want praise all of the time! (Does no one who writes these sorts of articles stop to consider that many human beings want praise when they complete a task to the best of their abilities?) They have tattoos, dyed hair, and iPods! EVERYBODY PANIC, because the American workplace is apparently going to be dragged down by Generation Y’s entitlement, narcissism and laziness! This narrative, however, seems to apply mostly to a very specific subset of the population (and even the picture that accompanies the NYT article reinforces this): young, able-bodied, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated white people.

This erases, or conveniently ignores, a hell of a lot of folks who are not young, abled, middle/upper-middle class, and white. It erases young workers who may not have had the “expected” educational opportunities (such as college), or who had to take more than the expected four years to finish their degree, or who did not finish school. It erases people whose parents or family members may not have been quite so “involved” in their education, or in their lives at all. Of course, it also erases young people with disabilities — both those who cannot work, and those who want to work but who may be bumping up against various narratives such as that of the “entitled” Generation Y kid. Some of us have psychological issues or disabilities that put us completely at odds with the “overly-confident” and “entitled” stereotype that apparently befits the current generation — because we cannot stop worrying despite the fact that we are supposed to be totally optimistic and confident all of the time, always thinking that the roads leading to our perfect job will be lined with rainbows, fluffy bunnies, and gold.

Some of us have physical disabilities, chronic pain, or chronic illnesses that prevent us from working 40-hour weeks (or more); asking for accommodations or disclosing our condition(s), we fear, may make us look “entitled,” or like we do not want to put in the time necessary to work our way up — even if this is not the case. The fact is that many people, and many young people, with disabilities are already at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the labor market and making a living. Not only are many people with disabilities, at least in the U.S., more likely to face lengthy stretches of unemployment and/or live in poverty regardless of age, but many face additional hostility, discrimination, and unreasonable demands, both in the workplace and from society at large because of their disabilities.

While I am not saying that these over-entitled Generation Y-ers don’t exist (I’ve had run-ins with quite a few of them, myself), I am struck by the fact that the narrative surrounding them is so dependent upon erasing or ignoring certain people whose bodies and experiences do not fit the “expected” attitudes about labor that have been traditionally upheld by American culture. Many of these attitudes, furthermore, rely heavily on binaries that reinforce who “counts” and who does not: You either work full-time, or you’re lazy. You’re willing to be mistreated in the workplace and do whatever it takes “for the job,” or you’re a wimp. Suck it up, or go home. If you’re not making enough money to live on or are poor, you just aren’t working hard enough. If you ask for “accommodations,” you’re asking for too much — just do your job! You have to work hard to “make it,” and if you don’t work hard enough, it’s your fault. If you don’t like your job or face daily mistreatment, you can always quit and find another one, right? But if you can’t, it’s your fault, and why did you quit that job, anyway? These attitudes surrounding work affect people with disabilities in a wide variety of age groups and generational cohorts, and this is a crucial part of why they are so important to critically question and examine.

The message for Generation Y, in general, may be “Get over yourself,” but the message for those who do not fit the characteristics of the “average” Generation Y worker is more severe — and ultimately more dire.

[Cross-posted at ham blog]

Where About Us But Without Us Leads

On 1 June 2010, E. Fuller Torrey MD wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times, “Make Kendra’s Law Permanent.” Dr Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit group whose sole purpose is to lobby states for the passage of so-called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) laws like Kendra’s Law in New York and Laura’s Law in California. The New York law is named after Kendra Webdale, who was killed by Andrew Goldstein in 1999.

Dr Torrey and TAC will tell you Mr Goldstein had untreated schizophrenia. They’ll tell you people like him are dangerous, they’ll tell you people like Mr Goldstein are often so sick they don’t understand they’re ill and need treatment, and they’ll tell you they know best. They won’t tell you that Mr Goldstein had been seeking treatment desperately and been turned away repeatedly.1 Continue reading Where About Us But Without Us Leads

Call to Action: Tell Parliament to Stop Discrimination against people with disabilities who immigrate to Canada

An awesome way to guarantee that you will not be allowed to immigrate to most countries – even if you otherwise completely qualify – is to have a disability, or have a disabled immediate family member.

Despite the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly guaranteeing that laws in Canada cannot be written to discriminate against people with “mental or physical disabilities” (Section 15 of the Charter), Canada’s Immigration Act allows someone who otherwise passes all of Canada’s immigration requirements to be denied immigration because they “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services”.

What has this meant in practice? Well, in 2009 Chris Mason, an immigrant from the UK who was injured on the job while working legally in Canada, was deported back to the UK because of his disability. In 2010, Ricardo Companioni was initially denied immigration to Canada from the US because of his HIV-positive status, but managed to argue in Federal court that he and his partner would pay for their drug treatments and thus not be part of Canada’s care system – a solution that is not available to many people. In May, the Barlagne family lost their appeal to be allowed to stay in Canada, as their youngest daughter has Cerebral Palsy. The reasoning was that the court did not believe the Barlagnes would be able to pay for their daughter’s care.

None of these stories are unique. Even when the Bill was being debated in Parliament, Members were bringing up concerns about how the “excessive demand clause” would affect people whose families had disabilities. In 2000, when Wendy Lill, a Member of Parliament, asked:

We have a charter of rights which talks about each Canadian being entitled to equality under the law. The Will to Act Task Force, which was established several years ago, talked about equality of citizenship for persons with disabilities.

Clause 34 talks about how a foreign national or other permanent resident would be inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services. This is the only clause in the bill which seems to me would in any way relate to a person with a disability making an application to come to Canada.

I would like to know if a family with a child who has a disability such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy would be accepted in this country. [emphasis added]

She was assured by the then-in-power Liberals that:

I think it is internationally accepted, in the Geneva convention and other statutes, that the best interests of the child can indeed be defined. In the case of a disabled child, I believe that the intent is to prevent abuse. The abuse might be that the only reason for someone wanting to come to Canada would be to seek free health care of some type.

However, in the case of family reunification, if we are talking about bringing a new family to Canada, if a child has a disability, frankly, I am absolutely confident, having met the men and women who work in citizenship and immigration, that we would take all of that into account and we would not allow it to stand in the way. [emphasis added]

I’m very happy for the no-longer-in-power Liberals that they were certain situations like the Barlagnes would never happen in Totally-Awesome-To-People-With-Disabilities Canada, but since we live in this Canada, I think their optimism was misguided. As has been amply demonstrated by reality.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has recently written yet-another-letter urging the Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, to review the “excessive demand clause”. You can read the letter in full at their website.

I have adapted their letter to send to Mr Kenney, as well as my MP, and provide that letter for my fellow Canadians to adapt or use in any way they see fit.

This is a discriminatory policy. People with disabilities and their families are not drains on the Canadian economy. We are people, and we should not be denied equal rights because of our disabilities.

My letter is below:
Continue reading Call to Action: Tell Parliament to Stop Discrimination against people with disabilities who immigrate to Canada

What Is Justice? Incarceration of Mentally Ill Youth in the United States

The University of California, Berkeley recently released a report discussing the incarceration of youth with mental illness. Mental Health Issues in California’s Juvenile Justice System (.pdf) examines juvenile detention in California and the ways that it is falling woefully short in terms of providing adequate mental health services to incarcerated juveniles. Unsurprisingly, it is getting very limited attention in the media because it contains a trifecta of things society doesn’t want to address: rising incarceration rates, youth, and mental illness.

We cannot examine this study without considering the larger context of juvenile incarceration in the United States as a whole. The US incarcerates more youth than any other country in the world, in a prison-industrial complex that happens to be a major moneymaker for thousands of private prisons run with minimal accountability. The ‘justice’ system in the United States is deeply flawed, with stark racial and class disparities, including for incarcerated youth. Numerous regions claim to be ‘tough on youth crime’ and as with other ‘tough on crime’ initiatives, nonwhite juveniles are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned. White juveniles, when they do enter the legal system, are offered far more alternatives.

‘Tough on youth crime’ results in life in prison for teens. Like other residents of the prison system, incarcerated youth are at risk for sexual assault, rape, and physical violence. They lack access to adequate health care. Despite the fact that we have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide health services to the people we incarcerate ‘for the public good,’ prisoners are routinely denied access to their medications (content warning, this prisoner died of complications from an eating disorder), life saving medical treatments, and even the most basic of health care.

Juveniles are held in overcrowded prison environments that expose them to the risk of violence, infectious disease, and stress-related mental illness. Thanks to prison crowding and ‘tough on crime’ laws, some juveniles end up being held in adult facilities. Youths housed with adults are at increased risk of assault. They are also more likely to attempt suicide. Our prisons, for the most part, are no place for human beings, no matter what those human beings may have done, and the disparities in our justice system mean that there is no guarantee that we are incarcerating the right person for the crime.

We have too many juveniles in prison. The justice system in the United States imprisons too many people in general, with few explorations of alternatives to incarceration. ‘Justice’ plays out along racial and class boundaries and this is impossible to ignore. We cannot talk about the problems with prisoner care without talking about why and how people are incarcerated in the first place, and exploring the social attitudes that play a huge role in the construction of our justice system.

There are several problems going on with the incarceration of mentally ill youth. The first is that because community support services are limited, many youth who do not belong in prison at all are being incarcerated for ‘behaviour problems.’ Mentally ill children are not provided with support and end up being institutionalised on involuntary psychiatric holds, while their parents are told that if they want help, they should call the police (content warning, problematic framing). As a society, the United States is using the juvenile justice system as a mental health treatment program.

Who is least likely to have access to services, support, and the funds to provide adequate mental health treatment? People in poverty and nonwhite folks. Parents with disabilities caring for their mentally ill children. A vicious cycle is created where people with nowhere to turn go to the option of last resort and it ends with youth in prison because they are mentally ill. Not because they have committed crimes. Because they have mental illnesses (h/t MsFeasance for this link!). The Berkeley report shows, though, that once those youth arrive in prison, they are not provided with the mental health services that they need.

Incarcerated mentally ill youth often do not receive mental health treatment in prison. Screening of incarcerated youth is inadequate and spotty. Diagnoses are missed or disputed. Youth who have diagnoses aren’t provided with medications, therapy, and other treatments. Other youth are psychiatrised and subjected to abusive ‘treatment.’ Meanwhile, California is slashing its budget and although prison spending is one of the few areas of the budget that is increasing, that spending isn’t improving health care in prisons. It’s going to the construction of new facilities and into the pockets of prison administrators and private companies that make prison contracting a big business.

The report puts forward a number of suggestions for improving mental health services within the prison system, including establishing diversion programs to provide juvenile offenders with community-based treatment options. It also recommends taking some steps to keep mentally ill youth out of prison in the first place, by improving support and outreach so that the prison system stops being used as a dumping ground. In order to get mentally ill youth out of prisons, we need to change our attitudes as a society about mental illness and about incarceration; jails and prisons need to stop being regarded as holding facilities for people who are socially undesirable.

Lack of access to treatment and services for incarcerated youth is a symptom of a larger problem. It’s a symptom of the way mental illness in general is addressed by our society, of how we think about funding and budgeting priorities, of how we think about youth themselves.

Recommended Reading for June 1, 2010

fiction_theory (LJ): The internet IS real life

The problem with impeaching someone’s anti-racism based on attendance at a specific march or even public rallies and protests in general is that it assumes that a) attending such events is a more real, valid, and important means of expressing anti-racism than any other means, specifically online and b) that attendance is a feasible option for everyone.

Marching at a rally or attending a protest is all well and good, but it’s not something that is an option for everyone. It’s quite ablist to ask such a question as though the privilege of being able to attend excludes the antiracist work of those who use other venues.

Mattilda at Nobody Passes: Closer

Somewhere between sleep and awake, a new day and last night and tomorrow, like they’re all in a circle around me but I’m somewhere in bed where I can almost read the sentences except they blur away from me, and I keep thinking maybe sleep, maybe this is more sleep except I don’t know if I want more sleep.

thefourthvine (DW): [Meta]: The Audience

I will not bring up my disability, because I don’t talk about it here, except to say that if that part of me appears in a story, it will be as either a clever gimmick (and a chance for a main character to grow as a person) or a sob story (and a chance for a main character to grow as a person). (No, there will never be a main character just like me. Most of the time I think that’s normal, and then I look at, say, SF and think standard-issue straight white guys must have a whole different experience on this issue. How weird would it be, to have basically all mainstream media written for you like that?)

Ian Sample (at The Guardian online): Bone marrow transplants cure mental illness — in mice

The team, led by a Nobel prizewinning geneticist, found that experimental transplants in mice cured them of a disorder in which they groom themselves so excessively they develop bare patches of skin. The condition is similar to a disorder in which people pull their hair out, called trichotillomania.

lustwithwings at sexgenderbody: Do I Owe Everything I am to The Internet?

Despite their lack of a body, my friends are still quite active in the world of Social Networking which acts on the physical world in much the same way things on our mind do. The contents of the Internet affect the physical world through many of the same processes as the contents of a mind, yet the contents of the Internet as a public mind can affect many more minds, and many more bodies than a private mind.

Ableist Word Profile: Crazy (to describe political viewpoints or positions)

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

We just ran an ableist word profile on the word “crazy,” written by the lovely guest poster RMJ, who discussed how the term is used in a variety of contexts and situations. This follow up is sparked by what I’ve seen as a recent resurgence here in the United States in use of the term in a political context, to describe or characterize an individual with a particular set of political views. Every time I see it, it grates on me, and I thought it was worth a focused discussion here at FWD.

Before I begin, I should make clear that I personally identify as “crazy” sometimes. Not always, but when the depression gets overwhelming and I can tell my thoughts are getting tangled, or especially when I’m in the grips of a manic episode. (More accurately, I identify as a “crazy bitch,” but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve also been consistently described by others as “crazy,” in contexts ranging from affectionate to outright hostile and dismissive. So when I see this term tossed around in the media, it feels personal to me.

And it’s been tossed around a whole lot lately, largely by traditionally liberal or progressive media outlets. I first started seeing it show up at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog that combines “breaking news, investigative reporting and smart analysis.” Marshall doesn’t mention it on the site, but it also contains a big heaping spoonful of ableism with that political analysis. Here are some recent examples:

This is just a sampling of the posts with headlines including the term “crazy” and is not at all comprehensive. Even within this sample, we can see that the term is used to describe viewpoints with which TPM does not agree (like revising history textbooks or arguing, like Gaffney, that the Pentagon logo indicates a secret plan to subject the United States to Shariah law) and thinks are biased, bigoted, racist, or otherwise offensive (such as the protests about Obama speaking to schoolchildren or the racial laws in Arizona).  None of the posts, though, engage or critique those viewpoints or speakers in a substantive way – simply describing them as “crazy” is seen as self-evident and no further discussion is needed to demonstrate these views or people should be excluded from reasonable political discussion.

There’s been an even more recent explosion of use of the term to describe Rand Paul and Paul’s views, after he won a Republican congressional primary in Kentucky.1 Paul favors the free market and freedom of private business, to the extent that he seems to believe that anti-discrimination laws are an unreasonable restriction on businesses. Now I am no fan of Mr. Paul – and wrote about my problems with him previously on FWD – but that doesn’t mean I approve of political cartoons like this:

A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.
A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.

To my mind, characterizing Rand as “mad” or “crazy” and not saying anything further is a lazy way to dismiss him and his ideology without actually having to engage with it. There is a lot to say about Rand’s ideas: how prioritizing private business over human rights preserves existing institutional structures that will continue to perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppression if not checked by a larger force like the government; how the line between private and public realms is a lot fuzzier and less distinct than Paul implies it to be; that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP’s seemingly inadequate safety protections and near complete inability to effectively respond are strong indications that business will prioritize profits over public goods like environmental safety; how an attitude of business before anything else will influence Rand’s views on everything from the minimum wage to immigration policy to climate control to internet neutrality. Those are all important discussions to have, discussions where we can’t assume that everyone in the audience will come down on the same side, but calling him “crazy” or “mad” and leaving it at that elides all of those complicated issues. Even more strongly, it implies that those discussions are not even worth having because it is so evident that the views or person being dismissed are wrong and absurd and laughable.

In Newsweek, Conor Friesdorf made an interesting observation about the policies and people who are dismissed as “crazy”:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

What I conclude from that is that the media doesn’t consistently use “crazy” and other ableist terms to refer to absurd policies or those that lack rational support, but instead reserves those terms for people outside of mainstream politics. Which in turn implies that the term is used primarily to further marginalize and dismiss people who don’t fit expectations of what a politician is or what are common or popular political arguments. To me, this is even more evidence that the implicit subtext of terming a person or policy “crazy” is “shut up and go away, or start blending in better.” Which, again, is exactly the message leveled at people with mental illness when they’re called “crazy” or “loony” or “unhinged” or any number of synonyms.

This selective usage is even more reason the term “crazy” shouldn’t be used in the political context – partly because it’s a lazy out for commentators who refuse to engage with the actual policy issues or political ideas being proposed on a substantive level, and partly because it fiercely underlines and reinforces marginalization and dismissal of people with mental illness. It reminds me that when people call me “crazy,” what they really mean is “stop existing in my consciousness – either disappear or become normal.” To see progressive writers and organizations rely on the marginalization of people with mental illness to score easy points against unpopular politicians is upsetting not only because of their perpetuation of ableism, but also because it puts me in the extremely uncomfortable position of defending people like Palin and Paul against this kind of criticism.

  1. An earlier version of this post had stated, in error, that Dr Paul won the Republican congressional primary in Virginia. Thanks, Katie, for the catch.

Crude Violations: Oil, Human Rights, and Environmental Devastation in Nigeria

abby jean posted a link this morning on her Tumblr, putting the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in perspective. While this oil disaster is attracting a great deal of attention in the United States right now thanks to BP’s foot-dragging and prevarications, there isn’t much coverage in the United States on the situation in Nigeria, and there hasn’t been, and there isn’t likely to be. Nigeria holds an estimated three percent of global oil reserves, in the form of highly desirable light sweet crude. As a result, it’s been heavily exploited. Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is not keeping pace with the rate of drilling, however, and as a result, the equivalent of an Exxon-Valdez1 is spilled every year in Nigeria.

The situation in Nigeria is a complicated one. In a nutshell, the government nationalised large portions of the oil reserves once it realised their value. Oil wealth quickly became concentrated in the hands of Nigeria’s most powerful as a result of corruption2, and this angered ethnic minorities such as the Ogoni and Ijaw, who argue that their lands have been taken from them and polluted and they are seeing none of the benefits. These groups began protesting, protesting turned to violence, and, recently, a negotiated amnesty fell apart.

Nigeria is heavily dependent on oil. 95% of the country’s export earnings are from the sale of oil. So are 85% of government revenues. There are some very high stakes here. People talk about ‘oil economies’ and in the case of Nigeria, this is literal. The heavy reliance on oil turns into big profits for officials in the right places, as well as the numerous heavy players in the oil industry who are involved in Nigeria.

Helpfully, most of the news articles I see on Nigeria focus on the potential problems the United States might expect if oil production in Nigeria is cut as a result of violence. Because, clearly, this is the most important priority; who cares about the environment, who cares about poverty, who cares about state-sponsored violence, who cares about our complicity. Let’s focus on whether or not we will be able to import adequate supplies of oil from Nigeria. In 2009, the US military invested $310 million United States Dollars in ‘security’ in oil-rich regions of Africa. To ‘protect our interests.’

It is Nigeria’s most vulnerable who pay the high price for the oil industry in Nigeria. Many communities in regions where oil is drilled are living in poverty. Infrastructure like roads, clinics, electricity, and schools is thin on the ground. Meanwhile, pollution ruins crops and destroys fish stocks. Communities wait for days for oil personnel to respond when leaks occur. Sometimes, leaks develop and impoverished people swarm the section of broken pipe to collect oil. There are explosions and deaths. Respiratory diseases and malnutrition occur at extremely high rates in  oil-affected communities.

Reprisals for outspoken communities can be swift and devastating. Communities suspected of harboring militants are burned to the ground. Oil companies are also involved. Attempts to run critical ad campaigns in the mainstream media have been rebuffed; the ‘Shame Shell’ Campaign, for example, was recently refused by the Financial Times. Consequently, many people are not aware of the situation in Nigeria, let alone their own involvement; citizens in nations with high oil consumption, like the United States, don’t realise the not-so-hidden costs of the petrol they use to fill their cars.

Nigeria ranks 158 on the Human Development Index. When oil was initially discovered in Nigeria, there were hopes that it could be turned into a model nation where profits from oil were distributed throughout the population and everyone benefited from the country’s oil reserves. This is not what happened. Instead, Nigeria has been saddled with environmental pollution, an increasing poverty rate, violence, and extremely high political corruption even as it, on the surface, rakes in substantial profits every year. Those profits stay firmly at the top of the social and political power structure, though, instead of providing real benefits to communities.

Oil, some Nigerians say, is a curse.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP, a company with a lengthy history of environmental and human rights violations, claims that it will be paying for the costs of the Deepwater Horizon incident. The media is filled with haunting images. Oiled birds. Slicks of oil on the water. Dead sea turtles washing up on beaches. Nigeria, where sustained environmental damage has been occurring for decades, is a nonentity for the US media unless it comes to grim warnings that ‘ethnic violence’ might disrupt our oil supplies.

Human rights are a social justice issue. Environmental devastation is a social justice issue. Exploitation of oil reserves, by extension, is a social justice issue because of the astoundingly abusive and corrupt practices heavily tied in with the oil industry. You should know about what is happening in Nigeria and many other oil-rich nations, where the most vulnerable are hung out to dry while the most powerful profit.

And you should be angry about it.

  1. This 1989 oil spill in the Prince William Sound in Alaska resulted in the release of 250,000 barrels of oil. It became a cause celebre of the environmental movement, and much to the infuriation of Exxon, it’s often used as a unit of measurement for oil spills to put things into context for the public.
  2. It is estimated that as much as 70% of oil revenues is ‘lost.’

Slam After Slam For People With Disabilities in California’s New Budget

Does this headline read like deja vu to you? With the global recession is coming a wave of devastating budget cuts for people with disabilities as governments struggle to address funding shortages. Lauredhel just covered the major cuts in Australia’s new budget that impacted people with disabilities, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California recently unveiled a revised budget for California that was nothing short of breathtaking. And not in a good way.

A few highlights:

  • 60% of state funding for local mental health problems is being eliminated.
  • CalWorks, California’s welfare-to-work program, is being severely cut and it’s targeted for a ‘trigger cut,’ meaning that it will be eliminated if California is unable to meet revenue goals.
  • 142,000 low income children are going to be without state-subsidized day care.
  • In-Home Support Services (IHSS), which provides community-based care to people with disabilities and the elderly, is being slashed by one third (it was originally rumoured that it would be targeted for elimination) and it is also slated for a trigger cut. This is going to force many people living independently right now into institutions in addition to eliminating thousands of jobs.
  • The California Food Assistance Program is being eliminated.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for elderly and disabled people is being slashed; the payments provided are already absurdly low.
  • One billion dollars in cuts to health care programs are being proposed.
  • Adult Day Health Care is being eliminated.
  • Programs that provide health services to recent immigrants are being eliminated.
  • Eligibility for some social services is being cut; people at 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) who are receiving assistance now will not be receiving it as a result of these cuts, which reduce eligibility to 200% of the FPL. (Just for reference, here are the current poverty guidelines.)
  • Vision benefits are being eliminated from the Healthy Families program.
  • More trigger cuts for homeless youth.
  • ‘Federally optional’ Medi-Cal benefits (physical therapy and medical supplies, for example) are targeted with trigger cuts.

These cuts disproportionately impact some of California’s most vulnerable. Low income families, children, and people with disabilities. The people who are most in need right now are the first to be eliminated from the California budget. I think that says a lot about the priorities in this state. The governor claims that the state ‘no longer has low-hanging fruits’ to suggest that this decision was difficult. I disagree. There were other options.

Over at Calitics, Robert Cruickshank summed things up pretty neatly:

Arnold Schwarzenegger said “the budget should be a reflection of California’s values.” If that’s the case, then California’s values are protecting the wealthy and the large corporations from having to contribute anything to this society while making old people and children suffer. Arnold’s California is a place where if you aren’t wealthy, you don’t deserve to have health, food, or any other form of economic security.

Today’s May Revise should be seen then as the bill for protecting the rich and the large corporations. $19 billion in cuts, particularly to health care for the kids and the elderly, and to the CalWORKS program that helps reduce child poverty, would not be proposed if Arnold Schwarzenegger valued their lives and their economic security. (‘What It’ll Cost California To Protect The Rich‘)

This budget is nothing short of horrific. Really, that’s the only word I can come up with to describe it. It’s taken me this long to write about it because every time I sit down to do so, I question my belief in a just world. And I question my belief in California, a place I have spent most of my life in. This budget runs contrary to everything I believe in, and it’s a pretty stark refutation of what conservatives are fond of calling ‘San Francisco values.’

Those who think that California is a bastion of liberalism, may I present Exhibit A?

The government is very eager to not increase taxes, a pledge it appears to be sticking with in this budget. This means that as the state faces a catastrophic shortfall brought about by decades of fiscal mismanagement, the only way to try and address the problem is to eviscerate the budget.

Meanwhile, prison spending is on the rise because California is incredibly incarceration happy, while the Governor also proposes shifting responsibility for caring for prisoners to local communities, ignoring the fact that they are ill equipped (financially and facilities-wise) to do so. Our prison system is already crowded, support for disabled and chronically ill prisoners is already inadequate, and we propose making conditions in California prisons even worse while slashing community budgets, education, and social services?

These cuts are wrong, not just because they are painful in the short term, but because they will have far-reaching repercussions for California. Growing up in a recession can shape the direction of the rest of your life. Some Californians are literally not going to survive this. Others will find their opportunities and choices limited into the future. They will make less money. They will be less likely to go to college, especially when one combines slashes to education with ever-skyrocketing costs of college attendance.  As abby jean pointed out recently, poverty has health impacts and what California is doing right now is expanding the lower classes and perpetuating poverty.

The Governor’s Revised Budget is not just an offense to human decency. It’s also wrong for California.

Further Reading: