Book Clubs v. Jail Sentences

What would happen if instead of serving a jail sentence, a person convicted of a crime could attend a book club? Leah Price recently published an essay, "Read a Book, Get Out of Jail," in the New York Times about Changing Lives Through Literature, a program formed in 1991 in Massachusetts and now used in eight other states in which convicted felons and other offenders attend bimonthly, mandatory seminars led by literature professors.

The essay brings up a number of interesting issues surrounding the program. For instance, Price talks about how the book club has historically been a white, middle-to-upper class pastime, and how this program redefines those demographics. She also talks about the idea of literature-as-escape. Traditionally, reading has been associated only metaphorically with escape from confinement. In this program, literature becomes a vehicle of escape literally.

While the positive aspects of such a program can't be overstated, one can't help but think of the (Foucauldian) irony in this situation: how elements of the education system can so easily be interchanged with elements of the prison system.



200 Years of Change

We missed it by a week or so, but Darwin's 200th birthday was on February 12th, and there have been numerous events on university campuses across the U.S. over the course of the month. This image just got passed on from some anthropology friends, and we couldn't resist sharing it. 
While we're at it, check out these interesting articles from the TimesOnline (UK) about the Vatican declaring the work of Darwin to be compatible with Christian faith. And be sure to check out the video on the page as well which explains why and how Darwin has remained relevant and influential for so many years.
Click on the title to read...

Tomatoes and Slavery in South Florida

These days in the U.S., there is at least a general knowledge of migrant farmworkers, who, although often illegal immigrants, harvest much of the bounty of Big Agriculture. Most don't realize that the utilization of these workers serves to keep food prices artificially low at the grocery store. Even fewer know about the horrid conditions that most of these workers endure so that food for the masses remains inexpensive. The conditions are not just bad, they are often modern day examples of slavery
An excellent article in Gourmet Magazine (online) details the conditions of farmworkers in Immokalee - a small town in South Florida. A glance at the city statistics reveals something of the situation: 
"Immokalee’s population is 70 percent Latino. Per capita income is only $8,500 a year. One third of the families in this city of nearly 25,000 live below the poverty line. Over one third of the children drop out before graduating from high school."
While the Latino label is a faulty product of the U.S. census bureau, the point is clear (many farm workers are classified as Latino, but are actually from a number of indigenous groups throughout Guatemala, Mexico, and elsewhere in Central America) - affluence is something less than common in this small Floridian town. What is not revealed by the statistics is that Immokalee is the home of U.S. tomato production: 
Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.” When asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, “It is not an assumption. It is a fact.”
This is really an unbelievable story - continue reading here>>>

Giroux: Criminalizing Youth

Last week, a lawsuit involving the corruption of two northeast Pennsylvania judges made national headlines. The suit alleges that the two judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks to incarcerate juveniles convicted of petty crimes to private detention centers.

Professor and critic Henry Giroux sees the case as symptomatic of a larger cultural malaise, one that specifically affects youth marginalized by class and race. In his article "Locked Out and Locked Up: Youth Missing in Action from Obama's Stimulus Plan," Giroux criticizes the "thunderous silence on the part of many critics and academics regarding the ongoing insecurity and injustice experienced by young people in this country, which is now being intensified as a result of the state's increasing resort to repression and punitive social policies." The idea of a "post-racial Obama era," Giroux says, is "meaningless" as long as race- and class-based prejudices and objectification through consumerism continue to dictate the lives of young people in the United States.

Giroux includes the following statistics from the Children's Defense Fund Annual Report from 2007:
  • Almost 13 million children in America live in poverty - 5.5 million in extreme poverty.
  • 4.2 million children under the age of five live in poverty.
  • 35.3 percent of black children, 28.0 percent of Latino children and 10.8 percent of white, non-Latino children live in poverty.
  • There are 9.4 million uninsured children in America.
  • Latino children are three times as likely, and black children are 70 percent more likely, to be uninsured than white children.
  • Only 11 percent of black, 15 percent of Latino and 41 percent of white eighth graders perform at grade level in math.
  • Each year 800,000 children spend time in foster care.
  • On any given night, 200,000 children are homeless - one out every four of the homeless population.
  • Every 36 seconds a child is abused or neglected - almost 900,000 children each year.
  • Black males ages 15-19 are about eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims.
  • Although they represent 39 percent of the US juvenile population, minority youth represent 60 percent of committed juveniles.
  • A black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance.
  • Black juveniles are about four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated. Black youths are almost five times as likely and Latino youths about twice as likely to be incarcerated as white youths of drug offenses.
  • The current decline in the economy and quality of life, and the racialized criminal justice system, argues Giroux, is only worsening the situation of marginalized children in the US.

    Read Giroux's entire article at

    A Paradigm Shift in the "War on Drugs"

    The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy recently issued a report titled "Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift." As the title suggests, the committee, made up by the former presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and 14 others, denounced the "drug war" as a failed endeavor that focuses on the wrong objectives.

    Laura Carlsen from Americas MexicoBlog gives an overview and some analysis of the report, as well as thoughts on Obama's actions.

    The goal of the commission report is to build a united Latin American platform on drug policy. When asked if they thought they could accomplish that by the time the Vienna conference is slated to reach an agreement on a new 10-year UN policy, Commission members noted that only the Colombian government has explicitly balked at the proposed paradigm shift.

    But it also targets its message to the U.S. government, which in the past has tried to impose the drug war model on its Latin American allies:

    "[The U.S.] policy of massive incarceration of drug users, questionable both in terms of respect for human rights and its efficiency, is hardly applicable to Latin America, given the penal system's overpopulation and material conditions. This repressive policy also facilitates consumer extortion and police corruption. The United States allocates a much larger proportion of resources to eradication and interdiction as well as to maintaining its legal and penal system than to investments in health, prevention, treatment and the rehabilitation of drug users."

    The Commission's message coming at this time reflects the hope that the Obama administration will have a more open attitude toward re-evaluating the failed policies.
    Read the entire report here.
    And read Carlsen's article here.

    Image: Coca Leaves in Bolivia,

    Food or Sex?

    I just came across this interesting piece from Mary Eberstadt in the Hoover Institution Policy Review. It basically asks "what happens, when for the first time in history, adult human beings are free to have all the food and sex they want?" She begins to get at this question through examining this basic tenet:  
    As consumers of both sex and food, today’s people in the advanced societies are freer to pursue and consume both than almost all the human beings who came before us; and our culture has evolved in interesting ways to exhibit both those trends.
    In the end, Eberstadt explains that in the past (in the U.S.), sex was governed by moral laws, and food was governed by taste. She describes a fundamental shift - or reversal - that has occurred in today's society in which morality now guides or governs our food choices, while sex and sexuality has become a matter of taste. It's an interesting analysis with some surprising insight into the human condition in the contemporary United States. 

    The New Trifecta: Gardens, Race, and Class

    We recently came across this interesting speech about community gardens presented at Duke University on January 19th by Tom Philpott. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the focal point, Philpott brought out many other current issues facing economically and racially marginalized people in the United States. He addresses both structural, class-based problems and the problem with U.S.-brand individualism.

    Of particular note are the following passages:
    In our society, there's a strong focus on individual solutions to the problems I'm laying out here. Commentators focus on personal choice; we are urged to "transform our food system one bite at a time" by exercising our consumer power to buy fresh, local, sustainably raised food.

    But the choices we have are limited by structural forces. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their food choices, but if we're really going to throw off the dead hand of industrial food, we need to transform the conditions under which people make their food choices. ...

    Now, if I argue that an emphasis on personal virtue is inadequate, I can't claim that creating structural change is easy. The forces I've laid out here -- wage stagnation, corporate consolidation, farm subsidies, monoculture agriculture -- are vast. They're well designed to make individuals feel impotent.

    And that's where community gardening comes in. Community gardening is an individual act that puts people into direct contact with their neighbors -- inviting people to interact, make decisions by consensus, hash out differences. And by collectively transforming urban land into a resource for growing fresh, healthy food, community gardeners are creating small-scale, on-the-ground solutions to the large-scale and abstract problems I've laid out here.
    Read the entire speech at
    Image: Neighborhoods Garden Assoc.

    Scram Sam: No More Monroeism

    Earlier this week, Foreign Policy in Focus posted an interesting article arguing for the abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine policies. Brenner and Landau begin by chronicling the problematic history of "Monroeism" and then explore its different meanings in the United States and Latin America.
    President Barack Obama could swiftly improve U.S. relations with Latin America by announcing the death of the Monroe Doctrine and then presiding over its funeral. Such a statement would cost him little domestically, and win him praise and appreciation throughout Latin America and much of the world.

    Most Americans don't know the details of this 185-year-old policy and could care less about it. Latin Americans, in contrast, not only can describe the Monroe Doctrine, but they revile it. In effect, it has become nothing more than hollow rhetoric that offends the very people it purports to defend.

    Continue Reading>>>

    Image: U of TX