Monthly Archives: June 2013

America’s Culture of Violence Calls for Attention

Sadly, some topics bear repeated scrutiny. America’s penchant for violence is one of them, so once again, I am driven to write about the prevalence of gun violence, rape and violence in the media – all topics that pundits write about and TV talking heads ponder, while nothing seems to change.

Let’s revisit some facts. More than 84 people are killed by guns daily in this country; annually there are more than 31,000 gun-related fatalities. In 2010 we had more than 8700 murders by firearms; Great Britain had 638. There are over 300 million firearms in America, a country with a population of 311 million. Most disturbingly, the Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2010 more than 2600 children and teens were killed by gun violence. That means more kids here died from guns in one year than all the soldiers in WWI, Vietnam, or the Iraq War. “We are a country drenched in bloodshed,” as Henry A. Giroux wrote on

Current attention focusing on rape and sexual assault in our military has illuminated what some call a culture of rape in America. Tens of millions of women here suffer this heinous form of gender violence, including a large number of young women on college campuses. Last year’s documentary, “The Invisible War,” revealed that at least 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military and that a woman in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, as Francesca Bessey pointed out in an op ed. posted to

Bessey also reported on sexual violence on college campuses across the country where an estimated one in four women is raped or sexually assaulted during the course of her college years. Incarcerated women are also raped in large numbers. According to a report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 80,000 inmates experienced sexual abuse during a twelve-month period prior to the report’s release. That’s four percent of all prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates nationally, figures that include juveniles housed in adult facilities.

Meanwhile, military action and aggression in general are glorified on TV, in video games and in movies. Social media is not far behind. Facebook has come under criticism for allowing postings of rape and domestic violence by advertisers or individuals. A recent open letter to the CEO demanded that pages such as Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny, and Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, be banned along with photos of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged or bleeding.

To be fair, the U.S. is not the only country with gendered violence issues. Recent reports of raped and murdered women reveal horrendous acts of violence in countries as diverse as South Africa, India, Egypt, and Brazil, to name just a few.

But we need to ask ourselves what this is about in our national culture. There’s no doubt that the NRA is a force related to gun violence, but as Henry Giroux points out, “it is only one factor in the culture of symbolic and institutional violence that has such a powerful grip on [us].” The reality is that “violence saturates almost every aspect of North American culture.”

Studies show that by the time an American child is 18 years old, they will have seen about 200,000 acts of violence on television, including over 40,000 real or dramatized murders. The impact of that exposure is deeply troubling. One study conducted in 2000 by the Congressional Public Health Summit found that young children who have witnessed media violence have a much greater chance of exhibiting violent or aggressive behavior. A similar correlation exists when it comes to video games. Another study found that children who watch TV violence excessively around age eight are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts when they are adults.

In a recent op ed. posted to the blog, writer Tom Adams pointed out that the U.S. is the largest arms dealer in the world. We have more violent deaths per capita than any other developed nation and we have the highest incarceration rate of any country. Our homicide rate is by far the highest among industrialized nations. Arguing that “the harsh reality is that the violence that is deeply entrenched in American culture is inextricably tied to our economic and political systems,” Adams, like many others writing about or researching this topic, raises a number of important issues that require further exploration and conversation.

Meanwhile the violence continues, “saturating our social landscape like a highly charged forest fire burning everything in its path,” as Henry Giroux puts it. We are all in the path of that out-of-control inferno. That’s why we must fight it with everything we’ve got until the flames of violence are arrested once and for all, and we are safely out of its grip.

Finding Balance in a Dangerous, High Tech World

We begin learning about balance, if not understanding its significance, at an early age. First we grasp what it takes to sit up, then walk. Not long afterwards we forfeit training wheels without falling off two-wheel bikes. As adolescents, we start learning about the need for caution and moderation. Those hard-won lessons carry us into adulthood. Still, nothing has prepared us for the difficulty of determining where we stand, personally and nationally, on the balance required between an abundance of caution in matters of security and our fundamental right to privacy.

We fear the slippery slope of invasive practices and procedures and worry about the potential for disaster should too much power be vested in the wrong hands. At the same time, we recognize that we live in a newly dangerous world. Acts of terrorism are now part of our reality. Clearly it takes more ingenuity and watchfulness to protect people from hideous acts like that of 9/11 than it ever has. And we know it could happen again.

In an attempt to articulate my own position on the issue of surveillance I’ve been reading commentaries about the rationale for National Security Agency eavesdropping. One reasoned piece by Thomas Friedman appeared in a New York Times column. “I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties,” he wrote. “What I cherish most about America is our open society.” But, he added, “I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11.”

Friedman falls on the side of government surveillance so long as it is “under constant judicial review.” His fear is that “if one more 9/11 scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be much greater” because Americans would be all too ready to forgo privacy to make sure such an attack never happens again. His argument is compelling. “We don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real threats without using big data.”

Still, living in a surveillance state gives many of us chills. As commentator Bill Keller pointed out in another New York Times op ed., “the N.S.A. data-mining is part of something much larger.” He cites the fact that some law enforcement agencies amass DNA databanks “under the radar” and asks, “Do we want police agencies to have complete license to sample our DNA surreptitiously, or to share our most private biological information?” Britain, he says, is employing “wearable, night-vision cop-cams that police use to record…every restive crowd they encounter.” New York City has introduced a Domain Awareness System that connects 3,000 cameras around the city, allowing police to cross-reference databases, a good thing, I suppose, if you’re trying to find stolen cars or suspected terrorists. But “who watches the watchers?” And who is setting the rules for the use of drones in American airspace?

“The danger,” Keller concludes, “is not surveillance per se. We have already decided that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion.” Nor is the danger secrecy, which is already operational in many settings ranging from embassies to hospitals. The danger, according to Keller, “is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom,” especially in a world in which our “system of checks and balances have not kept up with technology.”

Reading opinions like these returns me to my own difficulty in deciding firmly where I stand on the surveillance issue. It’s a classic “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” dilemma. I certainly agree with those arguing that if the government is accessing data, it damn well better be for legitimate reasons of public safety. It also better be legal and well-supervised. And because abuses are hard to detect, vigilance is definitely called for. At the same time, future threats loom large and we must do what we can, within the frameworks of reason, legality, and America’s commitment to civil liberties, to assure that we remain safe from disasters small and large.

Thinking about this, I wonder what the world I inhabit will look like fifty years from now. Will terrorism have been defeated somehow, or will privacy be surrendered in an effort to combat even more unimaginable scenarios than 9/11? Will “1984” seem a ridiculous fantasy in view of what real life has become? What will technology have wrought?

That’s a question writer Jonathan Safran Foer posed at the commencement speech he gave recently at Middlebury College. “With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present,” he told the graduating class. He was speaking about the changes information technology have wrought in our daily lives. Then he said, “It’s not an either/or – being ‘anti-technology’ is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly ‘pro-technology’ – but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.”

Balance. The thing that keeps us upright so that we don’t fall over. The force that seeks caution, and fosters moderation. The one thing that may keep us all safe from excess, no matter where it originates.

Notes from the Field: A Development Project that Actually Works

After twenty years working in international development – a career I relinquished when I realized that taxpayers’ money was largely being spent on failed or redundant projects in countries so corrupt that taxpayers should be outraged – it came as an encouraging surprise to learn of a program that has made a real difference.

The International Fellowships Program (IFP) funded by the Ford Foundation in 2001 has demonstrated that an international scholarship program can help build leadership for social justice, thereby contributing to broader social change at local and national levels. Since its inception, the program has enabled more than 4,300 talented leaders from various parts of the world to pursue advanced degrees at more than 600 universities in nearly 50 countries. The groundbreaking work of IFP enabled its Fellows, who because of ethnicity, geography, gender or physical disability are marginalized in their communities, to bring new knowledge and skills back home. And by removing traditional barriers to educational opportunities such as restrictions on age or fields of study, IFP has opened the door to advanced education for change makers in 22 countries worldwide.
(Today approximately 82 percent of IFP Fellows work in their home countries.)

Some of IFP’s alumni now promote eco-tourism and conservation in China, develop drama therapy programs for youth in Tanzania, prevent early marriage and promote education for girls in Kenya, and advocate for the rights of disabled people in Vietnam, among thousands of other contributions. Vo Thi Hoang Yen is one of them. Having contracted polio as a young child, she “wanted to change the perception that people with disabilities were incapable, helpless and only a burden on society, but I did not know how,” she recalls. “Then IFP came along, bringing me a great opportunity to study abroad, expand my knowledge and realize my dream.” Armed with a master’s degree in community development from the University of Kansas, Yen returned home after completing her graduate studies and founded the Disability Research and Capacity Development Center in Ho Chi Minh City, a groundbreaking NGO and civil society initiative that now plays a national role in shaping disability law and policies in Vietnam.

I learned about IFP because my daughter works there. But the inspiration for this remarkable program came from its founder and executive director Dr. Joan Dassin, 2011 recipient of the Marita Houlihan Prize for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of International Education, and a former Ford Foundation regional director for Latin America. “IFP has conclusively demonstrated that people with direct experience of the problems they want to solve are strongly motivated to improve conditions in the places where they live and work,” she says. “Expanding educational opportunities in a targeted way to the neediest communities has a direct impact on development.”

IFP’s proven model is now being replicated by governments and international agencies in a number of countries, with particular success throughout Latin America. Across the board, IFP alumni are being elected to public office, many hold leadership positions in NGOs and international organizations, and about 40 percent of them are leading changes being made in basic, secondary and higher education.

Contrast the IFP story with the experience of a friend serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African country rife with NGOs and bilateral aid agencies. A nurse, my friend sends stories of life there; her reports of moral lassitude and financial corruption abound.

“Whites put on an air of being super-busy, but they are often just recuperating from hangovers, dozing on Valium or paralyzed by depression. [My counterpart] said I can’t help her with the office work, mainly to gather statistics on how many of which vaccines were given or how many pregnant women tested HIV positive and received treatment because I do not know how to inflate the numbers. The results are what WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, PEPFAR and all the others use to explain to the public their ever growing need for funding.

My friend, having decided that if she can’t be part of the solution she is not going to contribute to the problem, is leaving Peace Corps earlier than planned. That, in my book, is a terrible waste of a good nurse and a heartrending commentary on the state of international “development.”

In contrast, IFP’s measures of success stand up to any development criteria. So, too, do the relevant words of James Kityo, an IFP Fellow from Uganda who earned his master’s degree in health management planning and policy at the University of Leeds in England: “Whenever I see a problem, I start imagining how that problem can become a solution.”