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Personal: Finishing Teaching; A Variation on Seasonal Depression; NYT Pieces that Disturbed Me

Getting to the end of the grading. People did impressively well on the final, which I probably made too hard. I threw out a few questions or gave credit for more than one answer when I saw that the wording was being taken a different way by people, but I'm still impressed. I find that, especially as I graded the last essays, that I've learned more – theologically speaking – from this group of students than from any other that I've taught. Perhaps it was because this was a higher-level course, and so the discourse naturally elevated with these students. But as I said, it was the last set of essays, particularly the ones where I asked them to creatively synthesize the theologies of the Trinity that they read in Julian of Norwich's Showings or Reveleations of Divine Love and Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, Questions 27 and 43, that made me conscious of this. Julian I've taught for years, but I was seeing more new material – both in my reading her with these students and in the students' essays – than I ever expected, so that was a great pleasure.

Today is the day that I hate. While I am super-excited to wrap up this teaching gig and to turn to my dissertation full-time until I complete it, I am always depressed the day the students are all gone. It's just the sheer deadness of the campus: this place is always bustling with life, even occasionally the life of the mind, and when it all suddenly just stops in the space of 24 hours, I can never adjust to it right away. Even if the people central to my social life are still all around, there is also a kind of "incidental socialness," I guess, much less the social pleasure of just working with my own students, that still seems lost. I've come to expect this shift now, and to simply recognize it for the passing thing that it is, but I still feel it as strongly as ever.

Lastly, I include here three New York Times pieces that stood out to me over the last week. One is a spot-on piece by Thomas L. Friedman on one of the aspects in which our current leadership is failing America by focusing on short-term gains or merely the appearance of gain or leadership. The next is a more specific horror story about the unjust – and unconstitutional – detentions being currently conducted by our federal government. The last one I read in Starbucks the other day, an instructive random moment while waiting to hang with Jessica, about corporate spying on American citizens.

Op-Ed Columnist
Who Will Tell the People?

Published: May 4, 2008

Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

They are not only tired of nation-building in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with so little to show for it. They sense something deeper — that we’re just not that strong anymore. We’re borrowing money to shore up our banks from city-states called Dubai and Singapore. Our generals regularly tell us that Iran is subverting our efforts in Iraq, but they do nothing about it because we have no leverage — as long as our forces are pinned down in Baghdad and our economy is pinned to Middle East oil.

Our president’s latest energy initiative was to go to Saudi Arabia and beg King Abdullah to give us a little relief on gasoline prices. I guess there was some justice in that. When you, the president, after 9/11, tell the country to go shopping instead of buckling down to break our addiction to oil, it ends with you, the president, shopping the world for discount gasoline.

We are not as powerful as we used to be because over the past three decades, the Asian values of our parents’ generation — work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means — have given way to subprime values: “You can have the American dream — a house — with no money down and no payments for two years.”

That’s why Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous defense of why he did not originally send more troops to Iraq is the mantra of our times: “You go to war with the army you have.” Hey, you march into the future with the country you have — not the one that you need, not the one you want, not the best you could have.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore ... have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.”

Much nonsense has been written about how Hillary Clinton is “toughening up” Barack Obama so he’ll be tough enough to withstand Republican attacks. Sorry, we don’t need a president who is tough enough to withstand the lies of his opponents. We need a president who is tough enough to tell the truth to the American people. Any one of the candidates can answer the Red Phone at 3 a.m. in the White House bedroom. I’m voting for the one who can talk straight to the American people on national TV — at 8 p.m. — from the White House East Room.

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”

Death by Detention

Correction Appended

A chilling article by Nina Bernstein in The Times on Monday recounted the secrecy, neglect and lack of oversight that are a few of the shameful symptoms of the booming sector of the nation’s prison industry — the detention of undocumented foreigners.

Ms. Bernstein chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea who was imprisoned in New Jersey for overstaying a tourist visa. He fell and fractured his skull in the Elizabeth Detention Center early last year. Though clearly gravely injured, Mr. Bah was shackled and taken to a disciplinary cell. He was left alone — unconscious and occasionally foaming at the mouth — for more than 13 hours. He was eventually taken to the hospital and died after four months in a coma.

Nobody told Mr. Bah’s relatives until five days after his fall. When they finally found him, he was on life support, soon to become one of the 66 immigrants known to have died in federal custody between 2004 and 2007. Mr. Bah’s family still does not know the full story of when or how he suffered his fatal injuries.

It is shameful, though hardly a surprise, that they remain in the dark. There is no public system for tracking deaths in immigration custody, no requirement for independent investigations. Relatives and lawyers who want to unearth details of such tragedies have found the bureaucracy unresponsive and hostile. In the case of Mr. Bah, records were marked “proprietary information — not for distribution” by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that runs the Elizabeth Detention Center and many others under contract with the federal government.

Secrecy and shockingly inadequate medical care are hardly the only problems with immigration detention. Immigrants taken into federal custody enter a world where many of the rights taken for granted by people charged with real crimes do not exist. Detainees have no right to legal representation. Many are unable to defend or explain themselves, or even to understand the charges against them, because they don’t speak English and lack access to lawyers or telephones.

What standards do exist for the treatment of immigrants in federal custody are only recommendations. A detainee, family member or lawyer who finds a violation has no way to force the government to correct it.

As authorities at the federal and local level continue rounding up illegal immigrants in these harsh days of ever-stricter enforcement, the potential for abuse will continue to grow — largely out of sight. Although immigration law is every bit as complex as tax law — and the consequences for violators more dire — the detention system seems designed to sacrifice thoughtful deliberation and justice to expediency and swift deportation.

Many detainees may have a valid defense — and at any rate have committed only misdemeanors such as overstaying a visa. Yet their cases are handled with a toxic mixture of secrecy and inattention to basic rights. This mistreatment of a vulnerable population, which advocates for immigrants trace to the roundups of Muslims after 9/11 and the subsequent clamor for tougher immigration laws, is hostile to American values and disproportionate to the threat that these immigrants pose.

Congress has failed repeatedly to enact meaningful immigration reform, and the prospects in the next year or so are slim. It can act on this. The government urgently needs to bring the detention system up to basic standards of decency and fairness. That means lifting the veil on detention centers — particularly the private jails and the state prisons and county jails that take detainees under federal contracts — and holding them to the same enforceable standards that apply to prisons. It also means designing a system that is not a vast holding pen for ordinary people who pose no threat to public safety, like the 52-year-old tailor, Boubacar Bah.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 10, 2008
An editorial on Tuesday about the immigration detention system misstated the level of the charge against those who enter the country without authorization. It is a misdemeanor, not an administrative violation.

Op-Ed Contributor
Burger With a Side of Spies

Published: May 7, 2008
Monterey, Calif.

WHILE the Patriot Act has raised fears about government spying on ordinary citizens, the growing threat to civil liberties posed by corporate spying has received much less attention. During the late 1990s, a private security firm spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups, examining activists’ phone records and even sending undercover agents to infiltrate the groups, according to an article in Mother Jones. In 2006 Hewlett-Packard was caught spying on journalists. Last year Wal-Mart apologized for improperly recording conversations with a New York Times reporter.

And now it turns out that the Burger King Corporation, home of the Whopper, hired a private security firm to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a group of idealistic college students trying to improve the lives of migrants in Florida.

The Student/Farmworker Alliance and an affiliated nonprofit, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have for years been urging the fast-food industry to accept some responsibility for the plight of Florida migrants who harvest the tomatoes for its hamburgers and tacos. I am a longtime supporter of their work. The wages of these farm workers, adjusted for inflation, have declined by as much as 70 percent since the late 1970s. And hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrants have been enslaved by labor contractors and forced to work without pay. The McDonald’s Corporation and Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) have agreed to subsidize a modest pay raise for their tomato pickers and work closely with the coalition to eliminate slavery from the fields. Burger King, however, has pursued a different strategy.

In March, a woman named Cara Schaffer contacted the Student/Farmworker Alliance, saying she was a student at Broward Community College. Her eagerness aroused suspicions, but she was allowed to join two of the group’s planning sessions. Internet searches by the alliance revealed that she was not a college student.

Ms. Schaffer is the 25-year-old owner of a private security firm. Her company, Diplomatic Tactical Services, seems like the kind of security firm you’d find in one of Carl Hiaasen’s crime thrillers. Last year Ms. Schaffer was denied a private investigator’s license; she had failed to supply the Florida licensing division with proof of “lawfully gained, verifiable experience or training.” Even more unsettling, one of her former subcontractors, Guillermo Zarabozo, is now facing murder charges in United States District Court in Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a charter fishing boat, then dumping their bodies at sea.

In an interview, a Burger King executive told me that the company had worked with Diplomatic Tactical Services for years on “security-related matters” and had used it to obtain information about the Student/Farmworker Alliance’s plans — in order to prevent acts of violence. “It is both the corporation’s right and duty,” a company spokesman later wrote in an e-mail message to me, “to protect its employees and assets from potential harm.”

But the Student/Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are not dangerous, extremist groups. Both are pacifist, mainstream nonprofits inspired by the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The coalition is supported by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement.

The Bill of Rights was adopted to protect Americans from the abusive power of their government. I’ve come to believe that we now need a similar set of restrictions to defend against irresponsible corporate power. Today companies like Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil have annual revenues larger than the entire budgets of some states, and they employ former agents from the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the Secret Service to do security work. Unlike government agencies, whose surveillance activities are supposed to be conducted according to strict guidelines and court orders, these private firms operate with a remarkable degree of freedom. At the moment, federal laws against the practice of “pretexting” — using a false identity to obtain personal information — apply only to financial and telephone records.

Congressional hearings on corporate espionage would be a good place to start figuring out how to regulate the practice. A Senate inquiry during the 1930s prompted companies to disband their private armies and stop spying on labor unions. Burger King’s use of an unlicensed private investigator to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance may have been illegal under Florida law. John Chidsey, the chief executive of Burger King, knew about the use of Diplomatic Tactical Services. Mr. Chidsey should get a chance to raise his right hand and tell members of Congress why he thinks this sort of behavior is acceptable.

Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation” and “Reefer Madness.”
Tags: america, class-theology through the centuries, julian of norwich, legal, marquette, new york times, personal, political, students, teaching, thomas aquinas, trinity

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