Prof. Joshua Kupetz



Consider this:

Since 1977, the United States State Department has issued an annual global report card called the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The document has long been a thorn in the side of authoritarian governments, including China’s, which responds with a nettled review of its own, called “The Human Rights Record of the United States,” the 2004 version of which was recently released. (It is available in English at http://english.people.com.cn/200503/03/eng20050303_175406.html.)

China’s assessment, unlike the sober State Department tome, is a frank indictment and draws a picture of America that approaches caricature. But that doesn’t mean it won’t buttress the negative image of the United States held by its critics around the world.

Excerpts follow, with the document’s grammatical and other errors intact.

Peter Edidin, The New York Times. Mar 27, 2005.

In the contested weeks following the U.S. Presidential Election of 2000, the Onion ran a front-page article that claimed Fidel Castro had offered to send election observers to the U.S. for help in the recount. On first read, the article seemed to be satire, but in the wake of the 2000 election, the resulting confusion no longer seemed anamolous. That is not to say that the winner was a nefarious conniver who orchestrated the reversal of Florida in the wee hours of the morning; however, the imbalance of power between the electorate and elected was laid bare for all to see, as Supreme Court justices de facto selected the next President of the United States.

While it is easy to look at trouble outside our borders and to criticize those in power, it is hard to cast the light on our own, to look at our country the way others around the world see us: not the mythic “City on the Hill,” but a bully swaddled in platitudes and oversimplified soundbites.

China, itself a notorious violator of human rights, has revealed to the Emperor (and to those who both love and hate him) how very invisible those swaddling garments truly are. But if The New York Times‘ reaction to China’s “The Human Rights Record of the United States” is any indication, that very invisibility eludes our perception.

In the quoted passage above, Edidin frames the excerpts of “The Human Rights Record of the United States” that the Times ran on March 27, 2005. This framing is meant to discredit the document and to restore faith in this country’s most sacred self-misperceptions. Edidin’s mission is self-evident in his prose, so perhaps a quick explication is in order. (Such a gesture is, I think, warranted, especially considering the Times‘ final qualification that preceded the excerpts: “Excerpts follow, with the document’s grammatical and other errors intact.”)

Edidin opposes the two documents (The U.S.’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” (oddly un-quoted in Edidin’s article) and China’s “The Human Rights Record of the United States”) through metaphor. The U.S. report is a “thorn in the side of authoritarian governments,” while the Chinese document is a “nettled review.” Here, the U.S. report is a tool for justice and liberty: A “thorn in the side” suggests a nagging complaint, a beneficial monkeywrench in the works, that engenders positive reforms among “authoritarian governments.”

Phallocentrism (not) aside, Edidin subordinates the Chinese report by describing it as “nettled.” A nettle (noun) is “any of a genus (Urtica of the family Urticaceae, the nettle family) of chiefly coarse herbs armed with stinging hairs,” while nettle (verb) is “1 : to strike or sting with or as if with nettles” and “2 : to arouse to sharp but transitory annoyance or anger.” Thus, the Chinese report becomes a mere “annoyance” adorned with “stinging hairs” that, it would seem, are not as noble, righteous as our own terrible swift thorn.

Edidin continues his misinformation campaign by claiming, “China’s assessment, unlike the sober State Department tome, is a frank indictment and draws a picture of America that approaches caricature.” First, as a writer, one might expect Mr. Edidin to interrogate (or at least to know) the ways in which the U.S. State Department might willfully deploy a “sober tone” in its document in order to enshroud the political document in an air of objectivity and rationality.

Second, with regards to cariacature, apparently Mr. Edidin has been content with the distinction that only “evildoers” oppose U.S. policy—that taxonomy has been used so frequently, one wonders if Stan Lee has been named Presidential speeachwriter. Nor does Edidin seem to bristle at the “You’re either for or against us” dichotomy that smacks of the worst of the Cold War. The U.S. government routinely cariacatures both our friends and enemies toward our own ends.

Such an aggressive framing suggests that this document struck a chord somewhere. While Edidin claims the report is grossly inaccurate, he concedes that it will “buttress the negative image of the United States held by its critics around the world.” It wasn’t so long ago that we openly quesitoned our cultural values, wondered whether we truly were, as a nation, moving in a positive and ethical direction. In the weeks after 9/11, men and women openly wept on television, decrying the values that they had come to hold as inviolably good, the values Al-Qaeda claimed to have attacked on that barbarous day. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we are able to admit outside criticism, to admit that once in awhile we may not be as noble and democratic as we see ourselves, we might end some of the suffering at home, end more of it abroad, and return to building a more perfect union.

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For another analysis of Edidin and the statistics in that “nettled review,” read Dave Lindorff’s article here.

In a current study published on Pacific Northwest Medical Journal’s website, the researcher Joseph Williams summarizes California’s state-wide free-vasectomy program for clinically obese men and calls for the programs adoption throughout the United States of America. While advocacy for free healthcare is certainly commendable, Williams advocates this program not for the power it puts in the hands of its beneficiaries, but for the power it takes from them: the ability to reproduce.

The study, which reads much more closely to an op-ed piece, determines that obesity is pathological, an “epidemic” that should be fought like polio or HIV. Instead of searching for a vacination, instead of criticizing the cultural climate that robs working Americans both of time to prepare homemade meals and of money to purchase healthful foods in place of cheaper, unhealthy fast-food, Williams suggests that clinically obese men should be sterilized, not for their own health or well-being, but for the well-being of progeny. Williams claims, “Children born of obese parents inherit genes predisposed to physiology which supports obesity – thus, eliminating such a gene line from the overall pool would greatly benefit society in the long run.”

What physiology, one might ask, does not support obesity?

Moreover, Williams contends that clinically-obese men in California who opt for a free vasectomy “emphatically understand that they have a low quality of life.” I am not a rhetorician, but it is easy to see the problematic construction of this argument. First, Williams contends that this sterilization is advocated to benefit potential offspring of obese men; the vasectomy will benefit them so greatly, they will not be born. By suggesting that it is better to be unborn than obese, Williams infers that only other physicians and he are of gauging a human’s quality of life. He states, “many patients with serious and persistent disabilities (such as obesity) report that they experience a good or excellent quality-of-life, when to external observers these individuals seem to have a diminished quality of life.” Here, Williams is privileging the third-party’s assessment of the heatlh (whose humanity is clinically abstracted through the taxonomy “patient”), rendering non-medical professionals incompetent at assessing their own health or fitness. He continues, stating that in cases (such as obesity) when the doctor and “patient” disagree on the “patient’s” overall well-being,, “the physician involved must make a determination on their own as to the best interest of the subject.” Here, the “patient” is no longer human at all, but “subject,” a passive object to be tested, labeled, and treated as the medical professional sees fit. Dehumanized, Williams’ subject must be acted upon for his (and society’s) best interests, a notion Williams advances when he suggests making the program mandatory.

Second, Williams wants the reader to believe that men who receive a free vasectomy acknowledge a social genetic benefit for opting out of the gene pool. This is simply wishful thinking. Williams himself provides the evidence for his own refutation, writing “vasectomy is a popular method of birth control (in 1983, figures showed that approximately 10 million men had been sterilized in the U.S. since 1969).” If vasectomy is an already-popular form of birth control, free vasectomies, it stands to reason, would be even more popular. Nowhere does Williams cite a statistic that clearly shows clinically obese men in California choose vasectomy for any reason other than birth control. And the chasm between birth control and controlled birth, at least to an independent citizen, is wide (although, perhaps to a hegemonic power bent on eugenics and racial cleansing, it is not so broad).

Finally, Williams advocates infringing upon men’s right to freeze their sperm for later infertilization.

We all know the story of the 20th century’s most famous ethnic cleanser. He started out dreaming of an improved, purer country. In order to achieve his dreams, he exterminated millions of Jews and people with disabilities before he died by his own hand, a pistol in his mouth. For now, Williams is getting his way in California–Let us hope he does not affect millions before he, too, gets the destiny he earns.

Read the story here.

According to the Tuesday, Feb. 22, LiveScience section of MSNBC.com, the “[U.S.] Military aims for better limb replacement.”

Prompted by the phantom statistic in modern warfare, the disabled soldier, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is setting an aggressive agenda for its prosthetic limb research—the development of “advanced prosthetics that look, feel, and act like the limbs they replace” (Than).

While it is certainly noble for the military to develop methods to “restore some of the lost functionality” to the men and women injured in service, the ultimate goal (”to have a prosthetic device that looks and feels like a real arm, that can respond to the whims and thoughts of its user, and that blends seamlessly with the body”) certainly raises many questions, problematizing the body, especially the U.S. Army’s take on it (Than).

In April of 2004, I sat in a conference room at Emory University. The MLA was holding its first national conference on the topic of Disability Studies, and during the first plenary session, one of the leading scholars mentioned theories of the “cyborg.” It seemed a prognostication of all I hoped the conference would not be: charlatanry, the kind of thing relegated to a distant sideroom at the National Popular Culture Conference. It turns out, the only charlatan in the room was me–I thought I knew something about disabilitly, about being disabled, but I found out I knew very little.

Science and technology has moved at such an alarming rate that “discoveries” are made and made available before we have time to fully evaluate their impact. Prosthetics and other devices are connecting the body with machinery in what is almost a Cartesan nightmare–what was once a metaphor for the body is becoming the body. Or the body is becoming it. Or, when one utilizes a prosthetic limb that “blends seamlessly with the body,” the dividing line is unmarked and unremarkable.

I suppose I have a bias—I am anti-prosthesis, and I have been my whole life. Born with a congenital amputation of my left arm at the elbow, I never took to prosthetics. They got in the way of the things I had learned to do without them. I have a shoebox of them (I was young; they are small) that I still move from home to home, but I treat them as curiosities, artifacts from some other time.

Who can say what I would think if I were to lose an arm after having learned to do things with two hands—Oliver Sacks suggests that a “phantom” limb would make use of a prosthetic easier to learn, would allow the prosthetic to be more “seamless” with my body. And for soldiers returning from combat, this might be a better solution than what is available today.

Regardless, this program begins to raise interesting questions. If a machine is connected to the body and controlled neurologically, in what real ways is it any different from a transplanted organ? How is the person still “human,” and does our sense of humanity change? And how can we eventually keep Skylab from building the Matrix? That last question was a joke, but it was half-hearted.

I suppose, though, worse things could happen: any initiative that inspires a DARPA researcher to say “‘our soldiers [should] be able to play the piano. [...] Not chopsticks, but a classical piece, like Brahms,’” well, they could be training them on far deadlier instruments.

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Than, Ker. “Military aims for better limb replacement.” MSNBC.com. 22 Feb. 2005.

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