Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Poetry and Politics

This letter was sent by prizewinning poet Sharon Olds to Ms Bush

Laura Bush First Lady, The White House

Dear Mrs. Bush,

I am writing to let you know why I am not able to accept your kind invitation to give a presentation at the National Book Festival on September 24, or to attend your dinner at the Library of Congress or the breakfast at the White House.

In one way, it's a very appealing invitation. The idea of speaking at a festival attended by 85,000 people is inspiring! The possibility of finding new readers is exciting for a poet in personal terms, and in terms of the desire that poetry serve its constituents--all of us who need the pleasure, and the inner and outer news, it delivers.

And the concept of a community of readers and writers has long been dear to my heart. As a professor of creative writing in the graduate school of a major university, I have had the chance to be a part of some magnificent outreach writing workshops in which our students have become teachers. Over the years, they have taught in a variety of settings: a women's prison, several New York City public high schools, an oncology ward for children.

Our initial program, at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely physically challenged, has been running now for twenty years, creating along the way lasting friendships between young MFA candidates and their students--long-term residents at the hospital who, in their humor, courage and wisdom, become our teachers.

When you have witnessed someone nonspeaking and almost nonmoving spell out, with a toe, on a big plastic alphabet chart, letter by letter, his new poem, you have experienced, close up, the passion and essentialness of writing.

When you have held up a small cardboard alphabet card for a writer who is completely nonspeaking and nonmoving (except for the eyes), and pointed first to the A, then the B, then C, then D, until you get to the first letter of the first word of the first line of the poem she has been composing in her head all week, and she lifts her eyes when that letter is touched to say yes, you feel with a fresh immediacy the human drive for creation, self-expression, accuracy, honesty and wit--and the importance of writing, which celebrates the value of each person's unique story and song.

So the prospect of a festival of books seemed wonderful to me. I thought of the opportunity to talk about how to start up an outreach program. I thought of the chance to sell some books, sign some books and meet some of the citizens of Washington, DC. I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country--with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain--did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism--the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness--as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing--against this undeclared and devastating war.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.



Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Action Alert from the WCUSP Campaign

The Women Challenge US Policy: Building Peace on Justice in the Middle East (WCUSP) campaign of US WILPF encourages you to read the action alert from the Arab American Institute regarding the racist billboard campaign of the Coalition for Secure Driver's License and either write your own letters or use their online action center to express your outrage.

Friday, December 09, 2005

International Human Rights Day at the UN

Yesterday's panel discussion at the UN entitled "The Protection and Promotion of Human Rights of Persons with Mental Disabilities" was both ambitious and disappointing.

Mental health care in most of the world is either wholly absent or consists entirely of incarceration where women and children especially suffer from conditions even worse than those inflicted on criminal and political prisoners. Stigma —unjustified debasement of people with mental illness— leads to neglect, abuse, isolation, rejection, exclusion, degradation and exploitation of the individuals, shame to families and demoralization of society in general, since fully one-fourth of all people suffer from a psychiatric disorder during their lifetime.

It is not simply lack of funds that accounts for most of the neglect and abuse of people with mental disabilities. The world allocates only one percent of its healthcare budget to psychiatric problems, although mental health accounts for 10–12% of the global burden of disease according to the UN's World Health Organization (WHO). Many countries have no special policy for mental health, or no policy for children's mental health.

The bottleneck here may be ignorance on the part of policy makers and leaders, failure to recognize the economic and social impact mental illness and not knowing how effective available treatments can be.

Craig G. Mokhiber, Deputy Director of the New York Office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke of applying the existing mechanisms for promoting human rights to tackling this problem. The human rights approach asserts that proper assistance for mental health is not a matter of charity but an obligation on governments to enact laws, set standards, monitor and report, and be accountable for meeting goals. Human rights is a matter not only of restraint from abuse but also of protection, assistance and fulfillment of these obligations.

Lance A. Gable, Senior Fellow of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities described the work of the WHO/Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights that he directs and its work with the Pan-American Health Organization [PAHO]. Activities include:

  • Training workshops for governments and NGOs
  • Formulation of disability policies and laws in accord with human rights laws and principles
  • Strengthening of national mechanisms for monitoring (including use of ombudspersons)
  • Empowering patients and families to advocate for mental health issues
  • Planning ways to train judges, police and prison staff in dealing with mental health issues

After the meeting I spoke with the Chairmen of the NGO Committee on Mental Health about Women and Violence and its effect on women's mental health. I thought it might make a good "side meeting" at the CSW.

I do think these issues overlap with WILPF's agenda at the CSW.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dr. Sami Al-Arian Acquitted on 8 Charges!

The WCUSP campaign issued an action alert regarding Dr. Al-Arian's case on November 11, 2005. We are pleased to report that Dr. Al-Arian was aquitted on 8 charges, although the jury was deadlocked on 9 other charges.

At this point, Dr. Al-Arian remains in custody. His family has requested that bail be allowed. Dr. Al-Arian could be re-tried for the nine charges the jury was deadlocked on. The US government could also try to deport him.

I am very happy to report that none of the defendants in Dr. Al-Arian's trial were convicted of any crimes. We will continue to watch this case closely, since justice will not be served until Dr. Al-Arian can return to his life with his family in Florida.

More info: "Al-Arian acquitted on 8 terror counts: Trial tests power of Patriot Act after 9-11," by Pedro Ruz Gutierrez from the Orlando Sentinel, posted by NY Newsday

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Remembering Dorothy Detzer

Ron Schuler blogged on Thursday in memory of WILPF leader Dorothy Detzer.

I am glad he was able to find our blog and sent me an email with a link to his post. If anyone else blogs about WILPF, please let me know by sending an email to socialupheaval@gmail.com.

The Swarthmore Peace Collection has many of Ms. Detzer's papers. Their website includes a brief biography of Ms. Detzer, along with a list of material available.