All posts by johnwagner

About johnwagner

John P. Wagner is the author of Troubled Mission, a memoir about his time in Peru.

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH STUDEBAKERS-PART 1

Studebaker No. 1

When Dad was stationed in Germany after the war, we lived in a German house. I was just a toddler. My brothers then (more would come later, and a sister), Tom and Mike, were infants. I remember a snowy night but we were warm inside. Mom was getting us into our pajamas for bed. Dad and an Army friend were away on a trip. Suddenly, a commotion at the front door. Dad and his friend had returned—with a brand new car, a green Studebaker. (I would later learn it was a Commander, top of the line). Mom bundled us up so we could go outside to appreciate this wonder. I could only have been three or four, but I’ve never gotten over that beautiful Studebaker on the snow-covered ground with its new car smell that night in the cold.

New cars! Is there anything better to symbolize the American Dream for us Baby Boomers coming of age (and even, as above, way before we began to come of age)? Even when we became hippies and protestors, didn’t we all want to be in a new car or, better yet, to own one? Ah, American consumerism. Gotta keep the sales machine alive even as you protest the capitalistic sales machine system! Even though studies show it’s more cost-effective to get a used car, we really want a new, virginal, car. (Speaking of that, we also want to “break it in.” Numerous books have been written on the sexual themes and innuendoes designers and advertisers use to develop and market cars.)

I’m sure Dad drove that Studie all around Germany, often with us in the back seat (no child seats then). But eventually the time came for him to return to the US. He sold the car in Germany, we all got interested in other things, and Dad would go through a lot of other cars.

Those in the know about such things consider Studebaker always ahead of its time. See the delightful blog post by Roger Ebert, “I’ve got the Sweetest Set of Wheels In Town,” about his Studebaker.

Of course, I didn’t know about any of that stuff. I was just a kid. I didn’t even know I liked Studebakers.

US Postwar Imperialism

Now, looking back, I see a deeper issue. Look at the imperialism, our imperialism. Our stated goal after the war was to help Germany’s economy. See Bruce Bartlett’s article, “How the Revival of Postwar Germany Began”
(The New York Times, June 18, 2013). Helping Germany’s economy would mean, among other things, US personnel buying German cars, especially the famous “peoples’ car,” the Volkswagen. The US did help Germany. But, consider….

Dad was no VIP. He was one of thousands of junior officers in Germany after the war. But he was able to buy a US car that had been exported to Germany precisely so that US personnel could buy them. How did that help the German economy? It’s just showing off. The German people were poor, scrabbling for food, trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. And our message was: “Look at the fancy stuff we have and you don’t.” What was going on? Maybe a way to reward our soldiers who lived through the war with a little touch of “home” luxury without considering whether it helped Germany?

A MILLION LITTLE LIES

[I’ll refer to: ”President Trump” as opposed to just “Trump.” I couldn’t stand it when opinion writers refused to call President Obama “President.” I’ll try not to do the same thing to President Trump. He may not have been elected fair and square but he was elected legally. At least until a court says otherwise.]

President Trump’s Lies Begin at the Beginning

The media was concerned about how to report Candidate Trump’s provable lies. Now that he is in office, the media is in a tizzy. Immediately after the inauguration, Team Trump started a fight with the media about the size of attendance at the inaugural. The press immediately disproved President Trump’s statements. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/trump-white-house-briefing-inauguration-crowd-size.html. In response, Counselor-Without-Apparent-Portfolio-Kelleyanne Conway said President Trump is entitled to “alternate facts.” <aref=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/22/kellyanne-conway-says-donald-trumps-team-has-alternate-facts-which-pretty-much-says-it-all/?utm_term=.3229bf88caed”>https://.

Alternate facts? Like, in an alternate universe? Are we living in a comic book world.

And press secretary Sean Spicer claims the Trump Administration is entitled to dispute the facts. http://www.newsmax.com/Headline/US-Trump-The-Latest-Sean-Spicer/2017/01/23/id/769998. You can dispute points of view or theories or arguments. But dispute actual “facts?” Facts are facts because they are undisputable. At the beginning of the Trump administration, it seems facts don’t matter anymore. But facts must matter. A free press should always think facts do matter.

What is a “Lie” Versus a “Misrepresentation” versus a “Falsehood?”

In the Nixon days, when the administration was caught in a lie, the administration would say the statement was “no longer operative.” Not, for heaven’s sake, a “lie.” In the immortal words of Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men (both the book and the movie), a “nondenial denial.” http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/weekinreview/the-nation-the-nondenial-denier.html Most of the media is afraid to call a Trump administration lie a “lie.” (Notable exception: Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. Who, coincidentally, as head of the Democratic National Committee during Watergate, happens to know a lot about Nixonian lies.) Some journalists now consider themselves brave in using the terms “false” or “falsehood.” Journalists were actually debating whether to call some lies “falsehoods” as opposed to “lies.” What is a “falsehood” except a nicer and gentler way of saying “lie.” And if it is a lie, why should journalists be looking for a way to soften it. Isn’t this simply bowing to the new power structure? The New York Times seems to be attempting to avoid the lie-versus-other-name-issue by using footnotes to point out the falsity of Team Trump’s statements.

Should Journalists Fight Every Lie?

For the journalists speaking or interviewed on the SIRIUS radio channel POTUS (“Politics of the United States”) today, the issue seems to be: do you fight over every single lie or intentional misrepresentation, even if the subject is of minor importance or do you “pick your battles” and only make a fuss over the “big” lies? Most of the journalists I heard agreed the danger in reporting every little lie to be, in fact, a lie is that the public will soon tire of the fighting and, later, won’t be responsive when the press reveal a very big lie.

Who Decides?

The first question, of course, is: who decides what is a small lie versus a big lie? Is the President’s insistence that he had “the greatest” inaugural attendance a triviality? Or is it reflective of his insecurity and his need to stand unchallenged on anything he wants to say? If so, isn’t that important? Isn’t that an indication of demagoguery? Are there indeed a million little lies? But let’s assume that question away, keeping it for another day. Today, let’s assume we would all agree on what constitutes a big versus a little lie.

No–The Press Shouldn’t Ignore The “Little” Lies

The majority journalistic opinion seems to be that it just isn’t worth it to make an issue of “every little lie.” I must disagree. Yes, the public may get tired of hearing about “little” lies—perhaps they will occur from Team Trump on a daily basis and the team will say (as they do now) the media is biased against them. Perhaps we’ll accumulate a million little lies in an incredibly short period of time.

In the campaign, the Trump spokespeople repeatedly said that little lies don’t matter. Reminiscent of the Clinton staffers, the Trump people will say—are saying already—we need to “move on.” (Look at Conway saying the people “have already litigated” the issue of whether President Trump should disclose his taxes.

What? we have litigated no such thing. A blatant and by no means “little” lie. But Ms. Conway would have us just move on from the issue of whether President Trump has had numerous serious conflicts of interest from the instant he took office.

Yes, there is a danger of public apathy or burnout. It’s a danger we must accept. Yes, people may get tired of hearing that President Trump lied about this or lied about that. But that’s the job of a strong and free press—to hold the government accountable.

How Not To Ask a Question: The Capehart-Lynch Interview Relating to the Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch Meeting and to the FBI’s Hillary Clinton Investigation

I’m assuming we all saw the recent interview of Loretta Lynch by a fawning and laughing Jonathan Capehart regarding the recent visit between Lynch and former President Bill Clinton on Lynch’s airplane in Phoenix. The problem was Capehart: didn’t frame his questions with precision, didn’t carefully listen to the answers and follow up on obvious gaps, and let General Lynch change the subject throughout the interview.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I can’t stand Trump for the obvious reasons and I believe Hillary Clinton has (alas, successfully) played the public for fools with her continuing and outlandish evasiveness (“What, wipe the server, like with a cloth?”) and perhaps outright lies both now and throughout her public life. My point here is simply to look at how Capehart, perhaps in full good faith, presented himself as getting to the bottom of the matter but in reality left holes big enough to drive a truck through. What new facts did he elicit? None that I can see.

“What Were You Thinking?”

First, he deserves credit by trying to go to the heart of matter right off the bat but he did so in the manner of a late-night TV comedian, letting us, the audience, er, public, know he really was on her side but had to raise the issue. Then he asked her two questions at the same time (“What were you thinking?” “What happened?”), allowing her to say anything she wanted and it would be unclear what question she was answering. Ably, General Lynch went into a monologue about how “that” (what, precisely?) was the question and then redefined the so-called question into one she wanted to answer, what her role was and would be in the Clinton investigation. She totally evaded Capehart’s questions and Capehart made no attempt to follow up.
• What was she thinking? She didn’t answer this at all.
• What did happen? Likewise, she completely evaded this question.

“What Did Happen?”

Think this through with me. How does anyone, even a former president of the United States, simply appear in the cabin office of the plane carrying the Attorney General? Someone on Clinton’s staff had to call someone on Lynch’s staff? What was said by each? What was conveyed to Lynch? What did she say? What was she thinking? Even if we accept the (implausible) implication of the Hillary campaign that there was no phone call but Bill just somehow appeared at the airplane, at least at that point someone had to advise Lynch and she had to say something. Again, What did she say? What was she thinking? She did say she wouldn’t do it again but how many people have said that to federal prosecutors only to be shot down with, “You’re only sorry you got caught” and no sympathy.

“Primarily Social”

In other statements, Lynch had said the meeting was primarily social—chitchat about grandchildren, travels, the usual sort of discussion one might expect between the nation’s top law enforcer to whom the FBI reports and the ultra-prominent husband of a politician under active investigation by that very FBI. OK, let’s accept that the meeting was primarily chitchat and that, at the time, she saw nothing wrong with having it. Still, primarily. Thus, she admitted part of the meeting was much more than social chitchat. What was that part of the meeting about?

“That’s The Question”

Not only did Capehart not even try to keep the focus on his questions, he gushed in Lynch’s praise of him for asking “the” question while she came nowhere near answering it and he then allowed her to take off on how she took her work seriously and was “pained” that her meeting had “cast a shadow over how people are going to view that work”—whatever that was supposed to mean. That certainly sounds pious but means absolutely nothing.

“I Fully Expect to Accept Their Recommendations”

Lynch said that the team of career FBI agents and Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors would make findings and recommendations to her and that she “fully expected” to accept the recommendations. Later, she said that she had already decided “Findings” are the government’s conclusions as to the facts and “recommendations” are what the government should do about those facts, specifically if it will indict someone and if so, whom? A certain HRC perchance? Capehart never pressed General Lynch on precisely what she was saying. Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision of the facts, the findings? Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision on the recommendations? Or was she signaling that she didn’t “expect” to be involved in a decision on the recommendations but that, well, you know, anything could happen. Capehart completely failed to “spot” this issue, as they say regarding law school exams, let alone get a specific answer from the Attorney General.
General Lynch certainly tried to create the impression, and succeeded in doing so, that she would not be involved in either the findings or the recommendations. But she did not precisely say that. There’s plenty of wiggle room for her to backtrack later.

Recusal?

Finally, many commentators have explained that the DOJ has very specific rules requiring “recusal”—completely bowing out of a case, including not making decisions on either findings or recommendations—if a DOJ official has personal dealings with the subject of an investigation, or a family member of the subject of an investigation. If General Lynch really was saying she would accept the findings and recommendations of the FBI and DOJ, then why would she not recuse herself? Capehart again never spotted this issue, let alone pushed General Lynch to deal with it.
All in all, I think we’re back where we started before the now famous interview.

Meeting Sonny Liston

The recent death of Muhammed Ali reminds me of the time I met Sonny Liston. In 1962, when I was in the tenth grade at Aurora, CO, High School, and my brother Tom was in the ninth grade at nearby North Junior High, Sonny Liston, the ferocious prizefighter who had won the heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson some time earlier, moved to east Denver, not far from our apartment at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora. His recent fight against Patterson was over so quickly there’d been many allegations of a fix. But there were also many claims that his right hand was so strong, it could kill a man and Patterson was lucky to have escaped with his life.

Dad was stationed at Fitzsimons (now closed) and we lived in base housing. I don’t know why Tom and I were talking about Liston other than that he was in the news. Dad was the boxing fan, not Tom or me. A story in one of the papers (those were the days of a morning newspaper and a competing afternoon paper) had his address—-he was in a fancy part of east Denver, not that far from us. I’d recently received my driver’s license and, if Dad was in the right mood, was sometimes allowed to drive our black and Colonial Creme (not yellow! Colonial Creme) Chevy station wagon.

The summer before, one day when Tom and I were looking for something to do, we said to each other, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to the Governor” and we rode eight miles each way on our bikes to do so. We didn’t meet the Governor but we did meet the Lieutenant Governor, who showed us the new license plates that would come out in a year. Now in that same spirit, one evening one of us said, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to Sonny Liston.” And so we did. It was one of my first times driving at night but at least there were streetlights in east Denver. Somehow I found the address. We could see well enough to see Liston’s house was plush, near Monaco Parkway where the rich people lived. I parked the car and we walked up to the door. Two young white teenagers walking right to the front door of the African American heavyweight champion of the world. We weren’t even smart enough to be nervous. I rang the bell. We could hear voices and the door opened.

“Yes?” barked a large black man. Was this him, was this the fearsome fighter? I couldn’t be sure.

“Uh, good evening sir. We wondered if Sonny Liston was home.”

“Whaddya want with him?”

Good question. What did we want with him? What the hell were we doing there? It was clear now we were interrupting either dinner or a party.

“Um, we’d like to shake his hand and say ‘hi.’ And we’d like his autograph.” That was the best I could come up with.

“Wait a minute.”

Uh oh, was he going to get a gun to shoot us? Suddenly the doorway was full, one man was blocking out all the light.

“Yes?”

Now there was no question. This was him. “Hi. Are you Sonny Liston?”

“Yes.”

“How do you do sir?” I stammered. We were being the super respectful Army kids we’d been taught to be. “We live on Fitzsimons, a few miles from here. Our dad is in the Army. We just wanted to say ‘hi’ and ‘congratulations’ and could we have your autograph please?”

“OK. Hi. Did you bring a paper and pen?”

Oops. We hadn’t thought of that. “Uh, no sir. I’m sorry.” Now what? Maybe we had something back in the car but I wasn’t sure and that would only prolong what was now a clearly bad idea. We started to turn around.

“Wait a minute.” The great man took pity on us. He went back to his dinner group and returned in a few minutes with a pad of paper and a pencil.

Here we were, two scrawny white teenagers standing in fear of the great man we’d come to see. Sonny’s giant hand swallowed up the pencil. He put his face close to the paper and began writing his name very slowly. He doesn’t know how to write! I thought. Suddenly everything changed. This burly giant labored over signing his name like a child just learning to write. Instead of being afraid, I felt protective and angry-—this poor guy, look how everyone had taken advantage of him because he was big and tough and a great fighter. No one had ever cared enough about him to make sure he got a good education, I thought. Finally, he finished and handed the torn-off slip of paper to us. He graciously offered his huge hand, that instrument of death, to each of us to shake and was careful not to shake our hands too hard.

Since then, I’ve had to endure many super-strong handshakes, some even painful, and it seems they always came from guys desperately trying to prove something, not guys who’d already shown their abilities.

DID PRESIDENT OBAMA HELP HUMAN RIGHTS BY GOING TO CUBA?

Both sides of the argument make strong points. By going to Cuba he helps normalize relations, which can lead to the ability of the US to have more influence on Cuba. On the other hand, by going to Cuba he does give some legitimacy to the Castro regime, with its horrific record on human rights. What to do do? As a former law professor would often say, pretending to pull out his few remaining hairs, “Gawd these are tough issues!”

Yes, I think President Obama was right. To paraphrase the president’s line, if you’re doing something for 50 years and it still isn’t working, what makes you think continuing that policy will accomplish anything? At least going to Cuba is “giving peace a chance,” even if does lend legitimacy to Raul Castro and company for the short term.

I’m assuming Fidel is near death. And Raul is no spring chicken. There will be replacements in the next few years. Yes, those replacements will have been previously selected and are unlikely to be advocating any changes in Cuba’s human rights policies. But they will be new people in new circumstances and US policies may be able to affect them, even it is in the unfortunate (for this question) Spanish phrase, “poco a poco,” little by little.

And look at what actually happened. Raul Castro said, “show me the names!” Unfortunately the reporters weren’t prepared for that. But they’ll be back. And lists of names will be widely publicized. And the Cuban people saw President speak for human rights right in Raul’s face. Raul Castro isn’t going to release human rights prisoners, or change government tactics, immediately. But the duplicity of his stance will be obvious and will inexorably become a topic of conversation in Cuba, a conversation heaping more sarcasm and disgust on the regime.

I salute President Obama while recognizing human rights workers, and all of us, must keep up the pressure on Cuba.

On Leaving Law To Do Human Rights Work in Peru: The “Red Shoes” Interview

Elsewhere on this website, you’ll find a link to my interview with Jennifer J. Rose, who runs the “Red Shoes Are Better Than Bacon” blog. It turns out that Jennifer is also a former lawyer, which explains many of her perceptive questions about leaving, and coming back to, the practice of law. She also had other perceptive questions about the book. Jennifer’s name seemed familiar and I learned that she was the editor of a legal journal I read when I was practicing law. Small world. And now she herself has left the practice of law and she’s living in Mexico! I thought you might be interested in seeing the interview here.

1. It would be too easy to reflect on how law school prepared you to do human rights work as a missioner. How did practicing law prepare you for this experience?

You’re right—law practice, as opposed to law school, was what really prepared me for human rights work. But the answer goes back to law school. At first, I had no desire to be a practicing lawyer. Before law school, I’d been a social worker and mental health administrator and saw myself getting a law degree and then going to a policy role in either a state government or the federal government, such as a Department of Mental Health. But when I took Evidence in law school, our excellent professor really made everything come alive. He kept saying: “You’re the lawyer. How are you going to make your case?” The more he focused on the practicalities of being an advocate, the more I began thinking, Hey, I really like this stuff. I want to be a trial lawyer.

Then, when I actually was a lawyer, I was always struggling with that same question—how am I going to prove up my case? I learned to focus on the building blocks of case preparation and the many traps for the unwary. It so happened I had some early controversial cases. One was pro bono for a whistleblower who was fired by a city government after challenging the unfair way a city was running its parole and probations programs. I could see very quickly the case wouldn’t be won on “legal” reasons—I had to make the commissioners mad about what the administrator had done to my client after the extraordinary things she had done for the city. Later, I heard an experienced litigator say it more precisely: “You have to build up enough facts to piss off a judge!” All of that led to my focus on developing a case based on real-life outrage (or at least real life understanding) but, of course, with solid legal theory behind it.

In the big case in my book, against Victor, our agency’s Peruvian attorney, I couldn’t be an attorney for Victor as I wasn’t licensed to practice law in Peru. But that didn’t bother me because I knew we had to build a public relations case that would put pressure on the local and national prosecutors who were going after Victor. I focused on working with human rights organizations around the world, explaining why the case was an effort to stop legitimate human rights legal advocacy and asking the organizations to pressure the Peruvian government to drop its case. At the same time, I had to be careful not to have the organizations go too far. The Peruvian president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, basically had declared himself dictator and had rammed through his hand-picked Congress a wildly overbroad “assisting and abetting terrorism” law. The law was blatantly unconstitutional in the opinion of all the Peruvian lawyers I knew who’d studied it. Yet I knew that if the human rights agencies argued that point, it would just make the prosecutors defensive and might make them feel they had to go forward to show they weren’t anti-Fujimori. So I asked them to focus on the specific facts in the case that made the prosecution improper and not on the numerous defects of the new anti-terrorism law.

2. You went back to practicing law, first with legal aid, and then back to BigLaw, representing hospitals and health care providers, pursuing Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement appeals, performing internal fraud and abuse investigations, and representing professionals whose licenses were at risk. What did your sojourn in human rights bring to what some might call going over to the Dark Side?

Let me tell you a little about my background. I was never a careerist determined to work at a big law firm, say like the take-no-prisoners firms shown in the movies The Verdict and A Civil Action. There really are litigators who just want to strap on the jackboots and fight it out, regardless of the issues, but that’s not me. I just happened to stumble into a niche in which I could represent clients—in this case hospitals and health care professionals—against the overwhelming might of the federal and state governments. And I found I could be successful. In my case that went to the US Supreme Court, there were two of us attorneys for the hospital against more than twenty different attorneys for the US government! My dad always told me—“You always root for the underdog,” not as a compliment, and it’s true. I always wanted to fight against injustice and that has been the defining characteristic of my career.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, I actually would have liked to be a trial attorney for the Justice Department as long as I wouldn’t have to work on politically objectionable (to me) cases and if I could’ve made enough money to pay off my student debts. But you don’t get to choose your cases and I couldn’t have afforded it unless I lived somewhere with several roommates, which by then I was too old for. I wanted to develop solid legal skills and I went with the firm that offered the best training program. Yes, it was a big-name firm but here were all these newly minted attorneys coming in buying their new BMWs and renting fancy apartments while I was driving a ten year old VW beetle and renting a modest apartment. I paid my debts and saved for a down payment for a house, which took many years. But I was proud that I never sold out. I never represented employers against employees (or anybody against “the little guy”), I never represented the tobacco companies (and my firm had numerous opportunities for advancement if you did that) and I never represented causes I didn’t believe in. If I thought a case was morally wrong, I either bowed out or, later when I was a partner, actually told the client why I couldn’t do what they wanted, losing an important client along the way. I was lucky in that no one ever pressured me to work for a client or cause I objected to.

After my human rights work in Peru, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my former specialization—because I had no “book of business” to deliver to a firm—and I did work for legal aid, which I generally enjoyed. But there were lots of internal politics and bureaucratic hassles. It just so happened that a former client tracked me down and asked me to represent his hospital system in disputes with the government. That brought me back into private practice (a mid-size firm, not really BigLaw) but not at all to the Dark Side. I’m not a right-winger but I do have strong feelings about the government abusing its authority. I even had to explain to a bureaucrat once why he couldn’t just do anything he wanted and why de had to follow “due process of law.” I had to explain that was an important part of our Constitution. His bosses had never explained that!

As you’ll see in my book, I couldn’t really get that many human rights cases in Peru because the agency administrator never really wanted me to come to her agency, even though our Peruvian attorney really supported me. That never was an issue in private practice. The big issue in private practice is, how much money did you bring in the door, not even, how good a lawyer are you. I don’t defend that at all. I think the private practice of law has lost its moorings and it really isn’t a profession (or, as they said in the old days, a “learned profession”) any more. But going back into private practice was so freeing, so exhilarating after all the internal problems at my human rights agency and then at legal aid. I could just concentrate on my cases and clients and I loved doing that, although I quickly reverted back to my workaholic ways.

3. You battled The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Let’s not talk about how all of these experiences made you a better person. What did these experiences do to make you a better and more effective lawyer?

In Peru, I used my legal skills in non-courtroom settings, which forced me to combine legal skills with human relations skills. Before going to Peru, for numerous years I was immersed in the world of law, as a law student, as a clerk for a judge, and as a practicing lawyer. I tried to keep myself grounded by doing pro bono work, by getting involved in politics, and by still being a Grateful Dead fan. But little by little you become immersed in the world of law and most of your friends are in that world also. When I joined a mission program to do human rights work, I learned by accident that people who didn’t even know me were threatened by me because I was “a lawyer”—spoken like it was a dirty word. What? Threatened by little ol me? That had never occurred to me.

I’ve always had sort of an inferiority complex. As a lawyer I can be tough and aggressive. But when it’s “just me,” I tend to be shy and retiring. When I saw there was this reaction against me, this unknown person, I became even more shy and retiring, just to make sure that no one was threatened by me. In hindsight this may have been ineffective by keeping people from getting to know me, the real me. So after all these battles you mention, when I came back I tried to make a point of not being threatening to people but at the same time of trying to reveal myself more. I also tried to engage more with my law firm, joining committees, that type of thing. Marketing is a big thing with private firms and I think my focus on being more engaging may have helped me be more effective in marketing.

Strictly in terms of legal cases, I have to say my Peru experience didn’t help that much as I wasn’t “practicing law” there. But I knew that going in, so it didn’t come as a surprise. The big thing I noticed back in practice was that opposing attorneys seemed so personally hostile, as opposed to the professionalism I’d usually encountered before. Maybe that hostility was there before and I just never noticed it, as fish don’t notice the water. Or maybe it was a sign of changing times. But after a while it became so annoying, dealing with rudeness, sarcasm, especially, but not always, among younger lawyers. What was really frustrating was seeing attorneys lie and cheat, which I hadn’t seen before. Not saying it never happened but I just had never seen it. I tend to attribute this to the increasing focus by firms solely on “billable hours” as opposed to professional skills, leading to a lack of standards, a lack of ethics, and a “get away with whatever you can” mentality.

4. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who has hit the 10-year mark who hasn’t wanted to get out, if only for a respite. Those I’ve known who’ve gone off to do volunteer work seem to drop off the face of the earth. What advice do you have for those contemplating following in your footsteps?

That’s a big one. There are so many different angles. First, there are lots of practical considerations, especially money. You’ll have to build up a nest egg to cover your US expenses that don’t stop when you go overseas. (If you own a house, for example, as I did). And then you’ll need money for your re-entry time—which might be long—between when you come back and when you get a job. As well as extra expenses that your small personal allowance from your volunteer organization probably won’t cover. For example, I wanted to send out a newsletter and had to dig into my savings for the related expenses. (Actually, now in internet days, that would be a lot easier.)

Examine your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed motives—I think we all do—but it’s important to be aware of them. Do you really need to live overseas or can you find other things to do living in the US, where you know the situation and the language? There are so many little things that may become big things because we just don’t understand the culture.

Specifically for lawyers, we know what “due diligence” means—checking things out in detail. Inquire, in detail, about everything. The training program. What happens if you’re assigned somewhere you don’t want to go, or that doesn’t want you. Even in nonprofit and religious organizations, there can be many turf battles and you may unexpectedly be put right in the middle of someone’s turf.

Again for lawyers, question people in the organization very specifically on whether the organization has had lawyers before, how many, what did they do, and, as discussed above, whether people might be threatened just by someone being a lawyer. And, of course, not stop there. Try to contact former volunteers, especially lawyers and see if they’ll talk candidly about their experiences.

For non-lawyers, I have the same advice except, of course, not focusing on lawyers who have been volunteers. In an ideal world, I’d encourage asking for a specific written description of what the organization envisions as your job duties and negotiating that description to be as specific as possible. Realistically, however, most human rights or other organizations that use volunteers will be reluctant to give such a description. Most of the time, they just don’t know. So, the bottom line is what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” Do your due diligence as well as you can, knowing that what happens later may turn out to be a crapshoot. That, after all, is the way of all life.

Finally, be open to the unexpected. Maybe you’ll decide to live there permanently. Unexpected opportunities may arise. Or maybe you’ll decide this just isn’t for you. Who knows? Again, isn’t that the way of all life?

5. You’ve obviously transitioned from human rights back to life as a practicing, now retired, lawyer in Sacramento. What stumbling blocks did you encounter upon your return? What would you have done differently?

Re-entry is a major problem. First, you have reverse culture shock. This can be far more severe than you might think it will because you don’t realize how your attitudes and thinking have been affected until you actually get back. In my case, I had to get some medical problems cleared up so that actually ended up being a good thing because it gave me the time and space to re-acculturate. Also, I used the time to send out lots of resumes.

I knew it would be hard to find a job on my return and it was. Private firms wouldn’t have been interested because I didn’t have a book of business to deliver. I wanted to work for a human rights agency but those jobs are extremely scarce and everything seems to depend on having connections, which I didn’t have. The Peruvian attorney I’d worked with wrote a glowing letter of reference but he didn’t have any US connections. And the higher ups in my religious organization didn’t have any human rights connections and also many of the leaders had changed and many didn’t even know the work I did. When I was a humble human rights worker, I wasn’t shouting, “look at this, look at that,” regarding my accomplishments and it didn’t dawn on me until too late that when I got back to the States, it would’ve greatly helped to have a person in the program with some human rights connections who could act as an advocate for me. In hindsight, I could have tried to establish a re-entry plan early on and to push the organization for some early guarantees that they would help me when it came time to leave. But, again, probably most organizations won’t be willing to make commitments like that.

I had several months of unemployment, sending my resume to legal aid clinics all over the US. I was just about ready to give up and consider going back to school in social work to update my credentials but, even then, with all the changes I’d made, I feared no social work agency might want me. Luckily, I just happened to get a job offer with legal aid in Sacramento of all places.

I’m not sure what I’d have done differently—maybe if I knew how hard it would be to come back, I never would have left—but my advice to others (lawyers or nonlawyers) is to realize this will be a serious problem and to explore future job possibilities as an ongoing activity rather than wait until you come back.

6. You lived at the poverty level while in Bolivia and Peru. Would your lot have been more bearable, would you have been more effective, if you’d raised your standard of living to, say, middle class.

Definitely not! First, it was important to me for the spirituality changes I was trying to make. I write in the book of what the director of our language school called the “stripping effect” of a new language, a new culture, and a new, much lower, standard of living. I experienced that stripping effect in many ways and I think it really helped me grow as a person. Also, if I would have done this, it would have marginated me from the rest of the volunteers in my religious community. They already saw me as “different” because I was a lawyer and if I’d lived a more middle class lifestyle (from my own money), they would just have seen that as putting on airs. Nor would it have made me more effective in my work.

I could have used some help in finding a place to live, but I was able to afford a decent place, nothing fancy. I really had no need of a car as buses and vans were convenient.

I did think of buying a laptop, they were just coming out then, but I decided to buy a portable manual typewriter—almost the exact same kind as I’d used in college over 30 years earlier!—precisely for the purpose of staying within a poverty lifestyle. In hindsight, a laptop would have made many reports and newsletters much easier and that is one thing I’d do differently. But otherwise, I found living poorly to free me in many ways.

7. It was really about the women, wasn’t it? In your book, there emerge two strong and very different women who drew you in, guiding your experience—Stephanie and Bella. Stephanie pushed you into volunteering, and Bella got you through the experience. Would you have survived long enough to write this book and be where you are today were it not for Stephanie and Bella?

Very perceptive! Yes, Stephanie and Bella are wonderful women. Alas, as you know from the book, Stephanie died even before I went to Peru. It wasn’t that she pushed me into volunteering, it was that her example made me want to volunteer. I just can’t say enough about her. And, spoiler alert, Bella became the great love of my life. She is so wonderful and it’s such fun to see her now as a grandmother! I was also profoundly influenced by María Elena Moyano, who I write about in the book. She was a strong leader in Peru who was horrifically assassinated for defying the Shining Path and organizing women. (Alas, there’s also a strong nun in the book who, let’s say, is about the exact opposite of Stephanie.)

There are also some men in the book who really influenced me: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton (as heroic, mythical figures I’d read about) and Larry Castagnola, an activist priest in Sacramento who became a good friend and—another spoiler alert—later married Bella and me!

No, I don’t think I would have volunteered without the example of Stephanie and yes, Bella definitely got me through the many turbulent episodes in the book. We had some dramatic ups and downs but it all ended wonderfully.

One thing I write about in the book are the many class and hierarchical issues in the religious world between priests (all male, of course) and women (both nuns and lays). Even putting aside the issue of women priests (when will the Church wake up?), women are always assigned subordinate roles to priests, even when women are really developing and implementing important projects. Unfortunately, this leads to separateness and hostility. The nuns live in their own world and have little interaction with priests or male lays. The women lays are more integrated with the male lays but many of them have become quite hostile, and who can blame them? This was probably the biggest surprise to me—the serious tensions between men and women in my very own religious organization.

8. Who should read your book?

I wrote Troubled Mission for any readers who’ve ever thought of changing their lives, of throwing everything overboard and starting over. I wanted to put the reader in my shoes: what made me even think about such an idea and then, step by step, inexorably, what happened. I tried to show the reality of being a lay volunteer in a religious organization, the good and the bad, including my many imperfections, my “dark nights of the soul,” and the many strange situations I got myself into.

Readers interested in living in a country besieged by terrorism will, I think, be absorbed by what happened in Peru, the horrific violence as well as a democracy that turned into a dictatorship before my very eyes. And readers who wonder how people can survive the worst conditions of barbarity and totalitarianism will see and feel the real issues that bring out character, or not.

Readers who savor words and enjoy complications should read this book, as opposed to readers who want to rush to find out “who done it” and nothing more. Above all, readers seeking to appreciate the human spirit should read this book.

The Longer Interview: On My Book and On Writing

At the blog, “A Literary Vacation,” aliteraryvacationinterview.blogspot.com, there’s an edited interview with me about Troubled Mission and about writing. I thought you might be interested in the longer, unedited, version, which follows. (Somehow, the second part of the interview got into bold-face type. I’ve tried to get rid of that but haven’t figured out hhow to yet. I hope it’s not too distracting.

Q. To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.

A. Troubled Mission is my true—and I hope inspirational—story of what it’s like to try to change your life in very fundamental ways, dealing with the important “big issues” of life we all face: love, spirituality, and what is the essence of who we are, in my case my desire to do human rights work. I try to place the reader directly in my shoes and see directly through my eyes: what I wanted to do, the problems I encountered, how I tried to overcome those problems, and also the desperate situation of Peru during the time I was there, the violence from both the terrorists and the Peruvian government, the repression, poverty, and disease, and somehow despite all that the incredible character and resilience of the Peruvian people. I use a “flat” chronological style, showing what happened, in order to draw the reader in as opposed to trying to paint a picture essentially forcing my conclusions on the reader.

The first question, of course, is why would a successful, middle-aged attorney want to give up a comfortable life style in the US—I lived, and still do, in Sacramento, California—to live in reduced circumstances in Peru, to seek to develop a deeper spirituality, and to work for human rights in what could be a very dangerous situation. I show how this wasn’t an impulsive act just to seek adventure nor was it based on the feeling that there was something wrong with my life. Rather, the desire came as a result of becoming immersed in the Peruvian society as the result of an intensive study tour. Also, I describe how I met Bella, the woman who would change my life, a vibrant Peruvian teacher. While I easily could have tried to develop a relationship with her while continuing to be a lawyer in the US, I am candid that she certainly was a factor in my decision.

Then I show the reality. What’s it like to join a mission order, especially when I wasn’t a terribly religious person to begin with. I make it clear I wasn’t a saint—I was unmarried and very open to relationships with women—and I didn’t want to proselytize or try to get people to go to church. What’s the training program like, what was the mixture of other candidates to be missioners? What were some of the conflicts and issues that arose, as well as some of the deeply moving experiences? What was it like to go to language school where I was the odd man out—one of the few lay people and the only one from my religious order? And how did I stumble into the heart of the drug capital of the world and what was it like there. Then what was it like in Peru, including the big differences between life in Lima, a big city in many ways like any in the US but with much worse problems, and life in the rural altiplano, the high altitude area dominated by indigenous races and belief systems centered around the earth and reciprocity?

Now I get into the “what happened,” not as a history but as an involved observer who at times simply could not believe what was happening. The brutal terrorist assassinations. The horrific government overreactions. The strong popular, meaning “of the people,” organizations. The president overnight becoming a dictator! What is it like to see that? To see a censored newspaper? To see troops attacking lawfully elected senators. To hear a popular radio announcer, host of a nationwide interview program, say, “I’d like to continue my program but there are soldiers in the studio who won’t let me?” Imagine. We have serious problems but we’ve never had anything like that in the US.

Finally, there were two situations in which I was heavily involved. In one, terrorists attacked Alta Perla, a nearby town, killing police and civilians, and I was one of a group of church workers asked to be of assistance. The director of my human rights agency made it clear she didn’t want me to go, although she wouldn’t stop me. Then the Army tried to keep us out of the town. Here I was, in conflict not only with the terrorists but with the Army and even my own agency director. It was there I came to grips with the visceral reality of violent death, in helping to prepare for burial the ravaged body of Dioncia, a pregnant campesina woman. I also describe the effect of the attack on the town and the townspeople.

Then there was the world of working in a human rights agency in a foreign country. The conflicts within organizations and between organizations. The worlds of religious organizations, and of human rights organizations, aren’t at a higher plane of values than other organizations—they have turf wars, political battles, and interpersonal conflicts just like all other organizations. Also, there are vital issues of the role of women versus the role of men, in a variety of circumstances.

Suddenly, for the first time ever, the Peruvian government tried to prosecute a Peruvian human right attorney for doing lawful human rights work, for doing his job. That attorney just happened to be our attorney, Victor, who by now had become my friend. I rushed into an intense campaign to fight for him and the book describes the details of that fight, which would become a landmark case in Peru.

My goal is to have the reader keenly feel these experiences along with me, feel the reality of living in Peru in this situation, all the while feeling my struggle with the ups and downs of a relationship with Bella, and feeling my struggle to achieve a life of more spirituality.

Q. There are a lot of heavy, shocking themes running through the book, made all the more terrifying for the reader given that this is your true story. Do you ever sit back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I survived that?” Are there any particular moments or memories that still haunt you today?

Yeah, there were so many things that could have gone wrong in a hurry I do wonder how I survived. One thing is that, as a tall gringo, I tended to stand out in any setting, even public transportation. Street crime was very bad during that time and I’m still amazed I wasn’t mugged or worse. I never felt targeted by either the military or the terrorists but then I suppose if you were targeted you wouldn’t be aware of it. I tried to always be alert, even to the point of walking down the middle of the street if there were suspicious characters around.

Many memories haunt me, especially the terrorist attack at Alta Perla and helping prepare Dioncia’s body for burial. Her body had been horribly torn apart by the terrorist bombs. I’d never seen such a horribly mutilated body and it was all I could do to keep myself together. I later had PTSD type reactions and for a long time I wondered if I could be intimate with a woman without seeing in my mind her body ripped open and all of her internal organs visible and gouged out. Eventually, I did become able to compartmentalize that and I am able to appreciate the beauty of all people I deal with, including a satisfying intimacy with my wife. In a way, maybe that horrible incident has even helped me—to really and vividly understand, not just intellectually, which I already knew, that everything can be over, or horribly changed, in an instant and all that we really have is our spirit, our essence.

Q. I’m not as aware now of all the many political, social, and spiritual conflicts going on in Peru, but it does seem that there might be some similarities with issues (even if not as extreme) we are facing here in America. Are there any similarities you particularly notice?

Yes indeed. Sometimes I feel like shouting: “Don’t you see what this,” the particular incident, “will lead to?” I realize terrorism and illegal immigration are problems but the current push by some is a dangerous overreaction. And often we don’t even recognize the problem.

In many ways, our society is already in a police state and most of us don’t realize it, or don’t realize how serious it can be. When traveling, I saw once how the Border Patrol literally takes control of US cities near the border, in this case, Douglas, Arizona. Many dismiss the NSA and other electronic surveillance as something that, “doesn’t affect me if I haven’t done anything wrong.” That is SO short sighted and fails to realize all the real problems of a total surveillance state. And the recent “reforms” of the NSA aren’t real reforms at all.

I see in the current support for certain politicians the same attitudes I saw in Peru—“the problems are so bad we have to do something and so what if we violate the Constitution.” Often we forget how important it is to have the rule of law and how that, often—not always—distinguishes us for the better from other countries. One example is that we don’t realize how close we are to censorship, especially self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the governmental. To be trite, we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water!

Every day in the news there are more examples.

Q. With all the themes running through Troubled Mission, is there any point or points that you most hope readers take away from the reading?

There are three main themes weaving through the book: First, seeking and testing love, is it for real, can we trust each other, are we fully compatible? Second, fighting for spirituality. And I mean a fight. We have to dig into our real self, our essence, our spirit, and to do that means digging through the layers of the exterior self that we put on to mask our insecurities from others and from ourselves. Finally, there is the fight for human rights, in this case the fight to prevent the Peruvian government from imprisoning a Peruvian attorney who did nothing wrong—he did his job as a human rights attorney and he did it lawfully. The consequences could be dire and the story is very up and down.

For all of these themes, what I want the reader to take away is that we must confront the issues head-on. The first two themes are timeless and relate to the human condition, any time any where. The human rights theme is more location-specific and time-specific. Most of us, thankfully, won’t be involved in a human rights struggle. But we will be involved in struggles for love, for spirituality. And we will be involved in struggles relating to what we choose to do with our lives.

In a real way, the book is inspirational. The reader can see how these themes are inter-related and how we need deep honesty and authenticity to confront these challenges.

Q. What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

I wish I could say I’m one of these writers who gets up at 4 a.m. and writes for several hours in peace and quiet. Unfortunately, even when I get up at my usual time, say, between 7 and 8, I just don’t feel like writing. After breakfast, I might keep reading whatever book I was reading the night before or even work on the stack of bills always on my desk. Even on good days, I usually don’t start writing before 10 or 11 in the morning.

Three days a week I have to drive across town for my physical therapy and workout program in the afternoon. On these days, I don’t assign myself any writing goals. That’s also when I try to schedule my routine appointments. Two days a week I try to keep clear just for writing. Not that I always succeed. On these days I do have a goal of getting at least a thousand words down on paper, actually, in the “cloud” nowadays. I’m not fussy about this. I don’t require that they be polished sentences at all. If I get a thousand words and know that I’ll have to cut the majority of them I still feel I’ve accomplished my goal. Then I have the freedom to just keep writing as much as I can after that, knowing that’s it’s all “free money’ in a way, it’s all gravy. Sometimes this is where I hit my stride and I really feel I’m writing creatively and “in the zone.”

Now those are “original writing” days. I also spend countless days editing and revising, often far more than I did writing the first draft. I probably edit and revise more than some other authors because of my prior legal career. Editing and revising is just a way of life that’s been burned into me. Also, I tend to get much more accomplished on these days because I have a text in front of me. I may change it all around but at least I have a jumping-off point. It’s not like staring at a blank page.

For relaxation, I may watch a movie or something else on TV. I’m not a big fan of TV but I’m not a saint—I can get sucked into shows, especially dramatic series. I must have watched The Sopranos and The Wire ten times and if a TV channel repeats them now for the nth time, I’d probably get sucked in again and watch it all over again. I’m also a news junkie, especially during election season. When I’m watching a program or a movie on TV, I always have a pen and notebook nearby and I often write notes to myself for future use. Not notes from what I’m watching but just thoughts that occur to me. Finally, I always like to read something page-turning before going to sleep. I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon’s series on intrigues of the post-World War II world and they’re great for night time reading.

I shouldn’t admit it but I’m kind of a hermit and a homebody. Also, I’m at an age where I’ve had “the talk” with my dermatologist and I have to stay out of the sun as much as possible. On some weekends we have get-togethers with my extended family—two step-daughters, one step-son, and my five grandkids, and some friends. I’m generally not big on going out to eat just to try out a new restaurant. And my days of going out to bars are long over.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I discovered the Grateful Dead late, after law school, and I’m still a hard-core Deadhead. And paradoxically I’ve become an opera buff, particularly the operas of Richard Wagner. No, it’s not because we have the same last name and no, I don’t think we’re related. I’ll now think nothing of traveling to Europe for one of his cycles of The Ring, a series of four connected operas. It gets to be an expensive hobby!

Q. Are you a big fan of using social media to promote your writing or to interact with readers? How do you prefer to promote your writing?

My publicist is going to hate me for saying this but I’m a real troglodyte with social media. I do have a web site, http.//johnpwagner.com, but I’m not nearly as active on it as I should be. The reason is I feel my first priority is to work on whatever book I’m writing (I’m now in the middle of my second book and plan at least two more after that–“if God wishes” as they say in Spanish). After doing that all day I don’t have much interest or energy for going back to the computer. I need to get some more blog posts out there and I promise I’ll try to do that. As for the rest of it, I don’t know how to and I don’t really care to spend my time on Facebook or Twitter or Snap Chat or whatever else is available. I’d love to but I just don’t have the time. Now that I’m retired, I realize I only have so much time left and I want to focus on my writing. I’ve gotten to be an ol’ curmudgeon who wants to write and hope that reviews on Amazon and elsewhere will help an audience find me. I know, I know, this is so old school. At least I’m not using pencil and paper!

Q. Finally, I’ve noticed that many writers are also big readers. Have you read anything worth reading recently?

Yes, I’m a voracious reader, a habit I picked up from my mom. I have a wide range of interests. Some of my all-time faves are: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22; all the books of John LeCarré, who I think is unfairly stereotyped as a “spy novelist” and actually is one of the greatest writers of his time, period; everything by the wild and crazy inventor of “gonzo,” Hunter S. Thompson; the poems of Paul Celan and Sharon Doubiago, who are completely different from each other but amazing poets; the works, depressing as they are, of French writer Michel Houellebecq; and what to me is the all time classic of how life can completely change, minute-by-minute, step by step, Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Some interesting books I’ve been reading, or re-reading lately include: Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space, a true masterpiece dealing with memory and history; Michael Ignatieff’s political memoir, Fire and Ashes, which really pushes beyond the usual politician’s pat answers and struggles for a deep honesty; and Hilary Mantel’s unheralded A Change of Climate, which appeals to me much more than her recent best-selling bloody historical novels, which I haven’t read. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon who may be the “new” John Le Carré for me. I also like the World War II novels of Alan Furst.

Recently I stumbled onto Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took The Car, which is actually considered YA literature. It’s very well written, hilarious, and profoundly insightful on coming of age issues in contemporary Germany. Finally, at this exact moment I’m re-reading one of my favorite books of various analytical pieces on Elvis Presley, Kevin Quain’s The Elvis Reader. There are so many more books I like, and new books I want to read, I could go on and on.

Tell The Truth About Human Rights

Recently several human rights groups have documented that the US State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. 1 Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to Reuters, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.

I’m not an expert on the countries involved or on the State Department reports involved, but I write to say it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.

Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.
Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports—or, for that matter, any human rights reports—is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved: the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the US is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, has promised that the US will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the US is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the US’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples, according to Reuters, are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.

But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being fudged, they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the US TIP reports are known not to be credible.

The so-called “realists,” who say the US should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries does involve US interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the US. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.

In addition, most of us in the US have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to US authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the US but of course I couldn’t practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do, but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney. “If you are in a meeting with us and the military,” he said, “the very fact that you’re a North American” human rights worker “might have a restraining effect on” the military. “Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.” Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.

In the case of Cuba, the US has the goals of ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But we should not achieve these goals by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record—and not say we may do so because it’s human rights record has “improved.”

In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the US wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I’m not sure I support the TPP. I admit I just don’t know enough about it. But even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting—and denouncing—its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.

Notes:

  1. Annie Kelly, “US Human Trafficking Report Under Fire as Cuba and Malaysia are Upgraded, The Guardian (July 27 2015, 10.24 EDT) http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/27/us-human-trafficking-in-persons-report-under-fire-cuba-malaysia-upgraded; Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick, “Special Report—US State Department Watered Down Human Trafficking Report,” Reuters, (Aug. 3, 2015, 21:19 CET) http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/04/us-usa-humantrafficking-disputes-special-idUSKCN0Q821Y20150804.

WHY NO PROTESTS AGAINST GEICO “TORTURE” AD?

I can’t believe there are no protests against the currently running Geico Insurance TV “torture” ad, which treats torture as normal, as acceptable business as usual. We don’t see torture because the theme of the ad is that all workers, even torturers, will play instead of “work” when the boss isn’t around. But the ad clearly treats torture as something acceptable. As such, it is an outrage.

The Ad Itself

In a medieval torture chamber, we see the boss of a group of tough-looking supposed torturers. The torturers have a prisoner tied to a large table. The boss asks what progress they are making with the prisoner and the torturers reply that the prisoner will soon tell them everything. They display vicious-looking weapons. But once the boss and his flunkies leave, the torturers turn the table over and we see the table is actually a ping-pong table, with the prisoner tied in the middle as a net. The theme of the ad is that goofing off at work, even work as torturing, is “what you do” and somehow you should decide to switch to Geico if you want to save money.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Torturers who goof off. How funny!

What’s Going On In The Ad?

Forget whether Geico is a good insurance company or whether you’ll really save the amount Geico claims you’ll save. I have no idea and no opinion.

What’s happening in our society when a major company decides it will be good for business to have a commercial portraying torture as normal, as a usual and customary part of society, as something to be accepted? Sure, we don’t really see torture in the ad. I can imagine the ad managers pitching the ad to Geico said something like, “See, when we say, ‘it’s what you do,’ why this even applies to people we usually don’t have a high opinion of. Who could be worse than torturers. So, this is satire, get it? The ad says even the worst people will goof off when their boss isn’t around because ‘it’s what you do’ and we want people to think getting Geico insurance ‘is what you do.’”

But the hidden message is, had the scene with the boss had the ad gone on a few seconds more with the boss present, the torturers would indeed have started torturing their prisoner. After all, that was their job. And doing your job is “what you do” when the boss is present.

Suppose we change the scene to Dachau or Auschwitz. The boss comes by and the workers say, “Yes, we’re definitely making progress with the prisoners.” Then the boss leaves and the workers take Jews off an incoming train to be spectators while they play soccer. No mistreatment of anybody. The workers are goofing off. Still so funny? How long could this go on before the workers decided they’d better get some work done and get going with their job of funneling the Jews into the “shower” rooms? Sure, we wouldn’t actually see any Jews being killed but wouldn’t that be the implied premise of the ad.

Not only does the Geico ad treat torture as a normal and acceptable part of society but it comes at a time in our country when we are engaged in a major and consequential debate about what actions our country, a democratic republic with a constitution that explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” may engage in against “suspected terrorists.” I write this shortly after the first, raucous, Republican debate of 2016, in which more than one candidate made it clear they believed the country could do anything the military wanted to against suspected terrorists. We are supposed to be a country of “rule of law,” but no candidate raised our Constitution (or anything else) as a protection against torture.

In my opinion, the ad is clearly not neutral on this issue—it expresses no moral disapproval whatsoever. The ad comes down squarely on the side of the argument that human rights are irrelevant—“we should do whatever the military decides is necessary to suspected terrorists.” And who is a “suspected terrorist?” It’s always vague and it’s usually people we don’t like.

Why No Protests?

Is this what our society has come to? Making fun of prisoners being tortured? Suppose we brought Abu Ghraib into the scenario. “Hey, let’s goof off from putting the prisoners in humiliating sexual positions and threatening them with dogs for a little while once the boss leaves.” Still funny?

I searched on Google and could find no protests of this ad. I can’t believe it. Well, I protest. Shame on you Geico!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARGARET JUNTWAIT: A FAN’S TRIBUTE

I recently opened the latest issue of Opera News and was shocked to read that Margaret Juntwait had died. What? She was in the prime of her life (58). How could that have happened? (Alas, it happened because of ovarian cancer, which we must find a way to cure.)

I felt like I literally “heard” Margaret grow up on the radio—doing the Saturday morning (at least for those of us in California it began in the morning) Live From the Met broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2004. At first, I was not enthralled. When she took over from Peter Allen, it seemed to me she was just reading a script. I found it a little uncomfortable to listen to. But then an amazing transformation began. After the first season or so, little by little, week by week, she seemed to develop her own voice. I’m sure she still had a script, or at least an outline, but more and more it sounded like she was sitting there, in a wonderful seat at the Met, talking with (not, “to”) us, her listener friends, not pontificating but helping us notice interesting aspects of that week’s opera. Just sharing her thoughts, no big deal.

It got to the point where her voice and her comments seemed completely fluid, knowledgeable, and spontaneous. Luckily, as time went on, I had cars that came with SIRIUS radio and I was able to hear her Met broadcasts on some weekday evenings, while driving home from work, in addition to the regular Saturday performances. That was always an extra treat. Over time, she seemed to be a friend sharing her knowledgeable thoughts in an amiable, relaxed manner.

At the same time as Margaret was “growing up” (to me at least) on the radio, I had become a fan of Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring Cycle” and had begun traveling in the US and Europe for opera in general and especially to see various Ring performances. In early 2013, I was in Frankfurt, where it was bitter cold, attending that city’s opera company’s innovative Ring production. During one of the intermissions, I found myself in the food area next to a vivacious and interesting woman. We began chatting about the production. We each first made it clear we were married so there was no hidden agenda—it was just a wonderful conversation about Wagner in general, the Frankfurt production, and a bit about our lives. We conversed about a range of issues and finally we talked about what we each did. From her knowledge of opera, I expected her to say she had some affiliation with an opera or arts association but I was blown away when she told me her name. Here she was, “the” Margaret Juntwait, whom I felt I gotten to know via the radio, talking with me. I almost fell over. And not only was I talking with her but she seemed to be enjoying our talk and learning about my work (healthcare law) as well as hearing my unlettered opinions! I expected that, at any moment, someone from the Met would come and take her to meet someone more interesting but it never happened.

Although vivacious and beautiful, she was not arrogant or patronizing. She was so friendly and so approachable. She told me she was here with her husband and her Met team and, when I asked, she told me a bit about her work-a-day world preparing her shows. She was nothing like the divas I’ve heard about or the “operaistas” I’ve met in various Wagner Societies who let you know they’re doing you a favor by even saying “hello.” To the contrary, Margaret seemed a friendly, knowledgeable, expert interested in talking about anything: yes, opera of course, but also life in general. I became tongue-tied as soon as she said her name but she quickly had me talking again, asking about my work and my family. Of course she was a professional interviewer by now, but at no time did I feel that she was “doing her interview thing” to get through a long intermission with this guy she happened to get stuck next to.

I told her how I thought she’d developed more and more confidence each year and how I so looked forward to each show. And I couldn’t believe that she actually seemed interested in whatever I was babbling about. Maybe she was just being nice. But I remember how she seemed so genuine, friendly, and down-to-earth.

After that, sometimes when I heard her on the radio, I thought: I should send her an email about how I liked this or that show, and why. (Not that I had her email address.) But I never did, thinking, oh, sure, she was nice to me during an intermission but she wouldn’t be interested in hearing from the likes of me about her show. Or, I thought, she’d think I wanted something. Maybe so but who knows? I’m glad I had those few moments with her. I’m glad I told her how much I’d come to appreciate her shows. But I’m sorry I never sent her an email now and again when I felt something she said had truly moved me. I didn’t want to be a bother but maybe she would have liked to know how her work affected at least this fan.

It’s cliché but it’s true: death don’t have no mercy. Soon the Met will be starting a new season. Margaret Juntwait should be there, helping all of us appreciate it better. But she won’t. I’ll treasure the few minutes I had with her.