Monday, December 09, 2013
Madiba, Mahatma and the Limits of Nonviolence
"And if you can't bear the thought of messing up
your nice, clean soul, you'd better give up the
whole idea of life, and become a saint."
~ John Osborne, "Look Back in Anger"
As the paeans for Nelson Mandela rolled in last week, observers might have been forgiven for thinking that it was not a single human being had passed, but rather an astonishing confabulation of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The narrative can be encapsulated thusly: a despicable regime unjustly imprisons a passionate activist for 27 years, who upon his release goes on to lead his nation into peaceful democracy and becomes an avuncular elder statesman, unconditionally loved and respected by all. But this narrative tells us little about who Mandela actually was, and why he acted in the world in the way he did. A brief examination of Mandela's involvement in the ending of non-violence and the initiation of armed struggle in the early 1960s serves to illustrate some of this nuance.
The perpetuation of the saccharine narrative is enabled by, among other things, the cherry-picking of Mandela's own words. One endlessly quoted passage has been the end of Mandela's opening statement at the start of his trial on charges of sabotage, at the Supreme Court of South Africa, on April 20th, 1964:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
This is stirring stuff, and worthy of being engraved into the marble of a monument, but only if you bother to read the preceding 10,000 words. In a far-reaching statement notable for its pellucidity, Mandela lays out the circumstances and philosophy that resulted in armed struggle against the regime.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto [we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC]. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
Without this context, Mandela's lofty concluding paragraph is as cheap as a Hallmark card. It's now clear to the reader exactly the lengths to which Mandela would be willing to go to die for his beliefs – not as a lamb to slaughter, but as a fiery revolutionary. It is difficult to conceive of Gandhi initiating such actions. But why was Mandela prepared at that point to resort to violence?
I am not gratuitously bringing up Gandhi's name. His example is especially instructive, since he lived in South Africa for 21 years, and it was in the course of resistance to discrimination against the Hindu, Muslim and Chinese minorities in that country that he first formulated the idea of satyagraha and non-violent resistance that would prove to be so effective, decades later, in India. And yet, as an exclusive strategy, non-violence failed in South Africa, or at least was found to be ineffective enough that, 50 years after Gandhi's initial experience, ANC leaders like Mandela were forced to conclude that armed resistance was in fact appropriate and necessary.
So why did Gandhi's strategy of nonviolence succeed in India but not in South Africa? In hindsight, we tend to see effective strategies of resistance as almost inevitable, partly thanks to their ennobling nature, but also as a result of the absence of any historical counterfactual. Hannah Arendt, who knew a thing or two about power, wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1969:
In a head-on clash between violence and power the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi's enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization but massacre and submission.
The thought experiment comes across as a bit clumsy – for example, this does not explain why nonviolence was successful in India – but the point is that context matters. In terms of South Africa, we know that the regime had only become more recalcitrant since Gandhi's efforts, which ended with his departure in 1914. There were many differences between it and the Raj, not least of which was the obvious fact that the South African regime was not colonial. South Africa's home population might have felt uneasy about the ongoing tactics, but the consequences of revolution were (at least presented as) nightmarish. Significant profits from resource extraction were also at stake. On the whole, the perception was that, since the whites had nowhere else to go, the screws could only tighten. Throughout the 20th century, virtually until the dissolution of apartheid in the early 1990s, a vast bureaucratic system of control permeated every aspect of South African society and ossified discrimination socially, culturally and spatially, often to absurd effect. (For an excellent perspective on the processes of racial classification, I commend to readers Chapter 6 of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, which delves into a system that at one point saw fit to reclassify one man's race no less than five times).
But it was not the passage of some new law that brought matters to a head. The precipitating event that buried the non-violent approach in South Africa was the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which left 69 dead. It was Sharpeville that catalyzed armed resistance by the ANC, but not in the way that one might think. That is, Sharpeville was not a case of "enough is enough," but at least partially one of internecine institutional struggle. If we take Mandela's words at face value, armed response was formulated as an ANC policy only after it was felt that all other options were exhausted. Certainly, the post-massacre crackdown by the regime saw the banning of political parties resisting the regime. On the other hand, and I believe much more importantly, Mandela undertook this action because he and others had recognized that events had begun outrunning the ANC.
Prior to Sharpeville, the pot had already come to a near boil. The march on the police station there had not been an ANC action, but rather one initiated by the Pan-African Congress, a splinter group that had recently broken off from the ANC. Both the PAC and the ANC had declared campaigns of resistance against the South African pass laws, which controlled people's movement around the country. (Incidentally, these were the same laws that had been the subject of Gandhi's protests, beginning in 1907, but by now were horrifically onerous and brutally enforced). Sharpeville was an action conducted by PAC supporters, and the police overreaction consequently led to the founding of the PAC's armed wing, which went on to target and murder whites as early as 1962.
Given these facts, it is easy to see that the terms of engagement had decisively changed. The PAC and ANC were driven underground, and the PAC had mobilized an armed response to kill whites. This returns us to the discussion of power and violence. At the end of her essay, Arendt writes:
Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals.
Mandela recognized this. The ANC could no longer function as an overt political force. However, it also had to present itself as a more desirable alternative than the PAC. But outrage over Sharpeville set up the distinct danger of all-out black uprising. The ANC had to defuse the situation while continuing to move forward on its goals. It had to remain a relevant force in a landscape that had been altered suddenly and irrevocably. As such, it was decided that the ANC's militant actions would be restricted to sabotage, and under no circumstances would it seek to take lives. By the time of Mandela's arrest, Umkhonto we Sizwe had conducted over 300 operations, almost all of which were against infrastructure and energy installations.
Note that sabotage is precisely what Mandela was charged with in 1964, and that led to his incarceration on Robben Island for the next 27 years. Mandela may have chosen violence, but, in keeping with Arendt's insight, strictly recognized it for its instrumental value, and chose to engage it in the same way that a smoke jumper sets a smaller fire in order to prevent a larger one from advancing. His actions allowed the ANC to remain credible and relevant in the decades that followed – had the conflict continued to degenerate into bloodshed, a full-blown civil war would have been very difficult to prevent.
Could Mandela have exercised a Gandhi-like sense of restraint? It would seem that entities like the PAC were no longer under his control and that the Rubicon had been crossed with the Sharpeville massacre. Historical forces have a way of becoming too overbearing – even Gandhi was powerless in the face of Partition, which he considered his greatest failure. Thus, one of the things that made Mandela the great leader was his ability to maneuver his organization into continuing relevance.
How successful the new ANC policy was in ultimately ending apartheid is an entirely different question, and one that I will leave to the historians. But it does bear mentioning that even this, fairly humane approach to armed struggle, was enough for the United States to declare the ANC a terrorist organization, and, in a somewhat baffling oversight, Mandela himself was not removed from the US terrorist watchlist until 2008, a full 15 years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize and serving as South Africa's first president. As for Gandhi, it is worth mentioning that his ashes were immersed not in the Ganges, as one might think, but in the ocean off the mouth of the Umgeni river, in his beloved South Africa. J.M. Coetzee, in his typically pithy fashion, may as well have been speaking for either when he recently wrote: "he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows."
Monday, November 18, 2013
Black and Blue: Measuring Hate in America
by Katharine Blake McFarland
On Saturday, September 20, 2013, Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh man who wears a turban, was attacked by a group of teenagers in New York City. "Get Osama," they shouted as they grabbed his beard, punched him in the face and kicked him once he fell to the ground. Though Singh ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw, he survived the attack.
More than a year earlier, on a hot day in July, Wade Michael Page walked into Shooters Shop in West Allis, Wisconsin. He picked out a Springfield Armory XDM and three 19-round ammunition magazines, for which he paid $650 in cash. Kevin Nugent, like many gun shop owners, reserves the right not to sell a weapon to anyone who seems agitated or under the influence, and Page, he said, seemed neither. But he was wrong. Eight days after his visit to Shooters Shop, Page interrupted services at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, about thirty minutes southeast of West Allis, by opening fire on Sunday morning worship. He killed six people and wounded three others, and when local police authorities arrived on the scene, he turned the gun on himself.
Page, it turns out, had been a member of the Hammerskins, a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist offshoot born in the late 1980s in Dallas, Texas, responsible for the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses and the brutal murders of nonwhite victims. He was under the influence. The influence of something lethal, addictive, and distorting: indoctrinated hatred. We don't know the precise array of influences motivating the teenagers who attacked Prabhjot Singh. But even considering the reckless folly of youth, their assault against him—a man they did not know, a physician and professor targeted only for his Sikh beard and turban—reverberates down the history of American hate crimes.
Last fall, I attended a workshop offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center on hate groups in the United States. The workshop was part of an educational retreat for law enforcement and corrections officials, and was being held at a remote lodge in northern Ohio on one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, trees ablaze against a deep blue sky that betrays the blackness of space behind it. It was a strangely glorious setting in which to learn about skinheads. The dissonance was unnerving.
The man leading the workshop on hate groups was very muscular, a little shiny and a bit red in the face. Reminiscent of a cartoon bull, he is the kind of man I instinctively hope never to see angry. When I googled him before the presentation nothing turned up, but this anonymity is purposeful. Since the 1980s, SPLC has used the courts to undermine extremist groups, winning large damage awards on behalf of victims. Several hate groups have been bankrupted by these verdicts, rendering SPLC the occasional target of retaliatory plots. Thus, the low Internet profile and somewhat threatening physique of the workshop presenter, whose singular job it is to monitor these groups day in and day out. I found myself wondering about his family—what did his children know about their father's work, what did they think of it, were they safe?
Before the workshop, my knowledge of hate groups was limited, an epistemological deficiency afforded by privilege. I knew about the terror of the Klan in the 1800s, and their resurgence in the 1900s. I had studied, read, and heard firsthand stories of cross burnings and lynchings, sinister echoes of our nation's Original Sin. But my notion of modern-day extremism was based on the occasional unkempt white supremacist, rising up from his subterranean Internet world to buy a town. According to SPLC, the reality is more damning. Here's what I wrote down in my notebook during the workshop:
- There are more than 1000 active hate groups, including Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, and border vigilantes.
- This figure—this 1000+—represents a 67% increase since 2000.
- Since 44th President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813% from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.
- Only 5 – 15% of hate crimes are committed by actual hate groups.
In the margin next to this fourth fact, I scribbled three question marks and the words, how do we measure threat?
When I was six years old, my favorite fairytale was The Princess and the Pea. The Prince's search for a real Princess, a designation determined entirely by her sensitivity to a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, seemed remarkable. As an unduly sensitive child, I marveled at the notion that sensitivity could be the key to a happy ending. In my own life, even in those earliest years, sensitivity seemed only a liability.
But lately I've remembered the story in a different light, for its comment on what lies beneath. The ability of unseen, seemingly insignificant phenomena to affect the surface. A relatively small proportion of all hate crimes are committed by hate group members. But statistical insignificance might not obviate concern because numbers might tell only part of the story. I scarcely slept at all, the Princess said, I'm black and blue all over.
Here is a problem of statistical measurement: in 2008, two professors wrote a white paper that found no significant relationship between hate groups and hate crimes. "Though populated by hateful people," they write, " [hate groups] may be a lot of hateful bluster." But in 2010, Professor Mulholland at Stonehill College conducted a study that found hate crimes to be "18.7 percent more likely to occur in counties with active white supremacist hate group chapters."
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics out this year, victims are less likely to report hate crimes to the police than they were ten years ago, with only 35 percent of all crimes reported. The result is that thousands of hate crimes go uncounted each year. This study also found an increase in the number of violent victimizations (92 percent of all hate crimes are now violent), and an increase in the number of religiously-motivated crimes over the past 10 years.
In a somewhat complicated coincidence, the problem of inaccurate data collection was addressed by Prabhjot Singh in a New York Times op-ed he wrote over a year ago. He called on the FBI to stop categorizing anti-Sikh violence as anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic in their annual reports. He decried the popular assumption that all hate crimes against Sikhs are instances of "mistaken identity," wherein the attacker assumes the victims to be Muslim. A true and fair grievance. But a year and a month later, Singh was victimized in his own neighborhood in Harlem by a group of teenagers yelling, "get Osama."
How do we measure threat?
Just after the shooting at Oak Creek, and months before the workshop on hate groups, I attended an interfaith service at a Sikh Gurdwara to commemorate those killed by Wade Michael Page. Upon entering the Gurdwara, I was instructed to take off my shoes, which I did, and then a young woman handed me a scarf to cover my head. I was escorted to a long, white room, with an aisle down the center—women sitting on the floor to the left, men on the right, and an altar adorned with brightly colored tapestries and cloths at the front. The room was almost full, but I found a spot near the back. The women's headscarves—blood orange, deep blue, and scarlet—burned beautifully against the white walls.
The service opened with a Sikh prayer, and Dr. Butalia, the leader of this Gurdwara, welcomed us all in English. He expressed how much it meant to him and his community to be supported by so many visitors, and he asked all the Christians to stand. I stood up, along with the two Catholic nuns in front of me, and about fifteen others. When we sat down, he asked all the Muslims to stand. When the Muslims sat down, he asked the Jews to stand, then the Hindus, then the Buddhists, then the Baha'i, then the Jains, then the "various people of conscience." With each group that stood, the hard shell formed by the word "stranger" cracked and dissolved. Children ran back and forth across the aisle, holding hands, on important missions from mother to father and back again. Dr. Butalia described his friend, Satwant Kaleka, the leader of the Gurdwara in Oak Creek who died trying to protect his congregation with a butter knife. His voice faltered, "He was a peaceful man." Then we prayed for the man who killed Kaleka. We prayed for Wade Michael Page, naming him "a victim of hatred," and we prayed for his family.
Towards the end of the service, a speaker told us a story that went something like this: a long time ago, there was a king who sought to be the most powerful man in all the land. He went around proving his strength by breaking the branches off trees with his bare hands. A wise man saw him doing this and approached him. "‘Oh, you are very strong,' said the wise man, ‘but now, can you put it back together?' People who destroy are not powerful," the speaker said, "people who unite are powerful."
The earliest definition of the word "victim" dates back to the 15th century and connotes a holy sacrifice. By the following century, the word lost its exclusively sacred associations, and today four definitions are offered:
- a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency;
- a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency;
- a person or animal sacrificed or regarded as sacrificed;
- a living creature sacrificed in religious rites.
A person harmed by injurious agency. A person deceived by her own ignorance. A person sacrificed. It's too much to measure.
And there is no word or concept for "victim" in the Sikh tradition. After he was attacked, Prabhjot Singh's responses embodied the Sikh concept of chardi kala, which translates to "joyous spirit" or "perpetual optimism." He said that if he could talk to his attackers he would "ask them if they had any questions," and "invite them to the Gurdwara where we worship." He was also thoughtful about his one-year-old son: "I can't help but see the kids who assaulted me as somehow linked to him."
Numbers and naming can take us only so far. Sometimes causality defies quantifiable analysis and sometimes the relationship of one thing to another is indirect, cyclical, or statistically unlikely. A restless night, a confusing coincidence. Perhaps the question is not exclusively, or even primarily, one of measurement—the measurement of threat and causation, the correct category and quantity of victims—but a different question entirely:
Can you put it back together? I'm black and blue all over.
Monday, November 11, 2013
"A sphinx in search of a riddle."
~ Truman Capote, on Andy Warhol
About a month ago, following a rather dissatisfying evening, I found myself scurrying to the subway. I was crossing Astor Place in downtown Manhattan when I came across a strange scene. It was about midnight, and parked by the curb on a side street was a rental truck. I was approaching the front of the truck but I could see a small knot of people behind it, and they all seemed rather excited by what was going on. Like any good New Yorker, I'd thought I'd lucked into the chance to buy some nice speakers, 3000-count sheets or some other, umm, severely discounted merchandise. Wallet in hand, I came round the truck and had a gander, and realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
For the interior of the truck had been transformed into a jungle diorama. There were plants and flowers, which looked real, and stony cliffs, which did not. But there was a small waterfall that plashed gently into a pool, and recorded birdsong playing from hidden speakers, as well as the somewhat unnerving sight of insects and butterflies buzzing about the interior. Far in the background were painted a bridge, a sun, a mountain, and a rainbow.
As delighted as I was (because serendipity insists that such a discovery is always partly thanks to me), I still didn't really know what was up. Next to me was an Italian gentleman with an enormous camera, who had just about wet himself with excitement. "It's him! It's him!" he said, giggling like a schoolgirl. "Who?" "Banksy! We've been chasing after this all day." I don't really know what it means to chase after street art but, once Banksy's name had been floated, I realized that I'd stumbled across one of several dozen Easter eggs the reclusive artist had begun laying all over the city for the month of October.
This "residency," in Banksy's own words, is sparely documented on a website thrown up for the occasion, but the site doesn't reflect the kerfuffle caused by those who have come into contact with the works or their interlocutors. Without attempting to define the quality that makes art great, I will humbly suggest that, for the present discussion, it may be that it becomes a mirror in which society has no choice but to view itself. I realize how horrifically unoriginal this is. As a defense, consider that Banksy's anonymity makes this not just inevitable, but desirable. (Banksy's anonymity has led to understandably ripe amounts of speculation – although to say that Damien Hirst is responsible for Banksy is like saying Edward de Vere wrote everything attributed to that other artful dodger, William Shakespeare. Banksy may or may not be one person, but for him to turn out to be Damien Hirst would prove that we are living in a very cruel universe, indeed.)
Such a brutally enforced anonymity means we have already played into his hands. Banksy's work neither asks for permission or forgiveness, and the intrinsically ephemeral nature of street art generates a scarcity economy par excellence. This virtuous circle has continued its widening gyre, as the value of his works now far outstrips those of his contemporaries on the international art market. In turn, this gives Banksy a larger megaphone with which to sound his trickster yawp. In a sense, Banksy is a prime beneficiary of his countryman's dictum, "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."
So when everyone is talking about it, there's a good chance that what's really at stake is not Banksy's art, which at its best has the conceptual bite of an above-average New Yorker cartoon, and at its worst is just dead on arrival (two examples from the recent stint in New York include a kludgy reference to the Twin Towers, and balloon-letter throw-up of his name made from – wait for it – balloons). Nor is there anything very compelling in the yawning of the critics, as exemplified by Jerry Saltz, or the outrage of NYC's teeming graffiti underground, who are understandably upset at the idea of a British Invasion of their turf. Of far greater interest is what happens to the art once it has been put out there – that is, when the city's collective, chaotic decision-making apparatus swings into full force. To wit and in no particular order:
October 10th: Banksy's stencil, implying a beaver's responsibility for a parking sign broken off at its base, is co-opted by locals who promptly begin charging hipster Banksystas for the privilege of ogling said beaver.
Located in East New York, there is an entertaining video clearly demonstrating exactly whose neighborhood you're in. New York may not longer be the hotbed of quick-buck capitalism – that honor surely goes to Lagos, Mumbai, Mexico City and probably a half-dozen other global cities – but these guys could certainly smell an easy dollar. Banksy might not much care either, but he is switched on enough to know that people fight over his art. Putting one-of-a-kind pieces in public places is, in fact, an excellent way to egg on any conflict. Furthermore, put it in a hardscrabble East New York neighborhood and the resentment of certain locals towards white graffiti tourism is bound to bring results.
It's important to contrast this against another recent intervention. As I've already noted, in the case of Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument, hipster art tourism brought people to a South Bronx public housing project – people who would otherwise never venture anywhere near a place such as Forrest Houses. The difference is that Hirschhorn's installation was full of not just contradictions but also compassion and dignity. Banksy is clear about harboring no such interests. In fact, most of his pieces have already been removed: the Sphinx in the picture at the top of this article was trucked away the very same day, although not after nearly causing a fistfight or two. Those pieces not removed wholesale have been painted over by irritated owners, or brutally defaced by local taggers and writers. Only a few lucky ones have been ‘protected' behind Plexiglas.
October 13th: Banksy sets up a stand off Central Park selling authentic stenciled canvases for $60 a pop. The day's take: 8 sales for a total of $420. Note that the market value of these is estimated at about $20,000 each. Bonus points to the woman who haggled the vendor down 50% for two of the pieces.
This was rather sly of Banksy. On the one hand, we can lament how greatness is always under our noses, but it's the social signaling that really calls the shots. This is perhaps better known as the Joshua Bell school of behavioral psychology, where you are confident in your belief that you would have recognized him playing violin in the DC Metro. Recall the egotism that I implied always exists in serendipity. And yet how many thousand people walked by that stand on Central Park? As for me, I excuse myself because I'm rarely on the east side.
On the other hand, we could make a counter-argument around fakes. How could anyone know this was in fact real? This being New York, fakes are sold everywhere, and Banksy is certainly prone to being faked, as it's not hard to fob a stencil. It's really only the signature that counts – or rather being told that that is, in fact, the real signature. And those reassuring us of this provenance are the gallerists, the dealers, the appraisers and insurers and everyone who is in on the take in the art world. Banksy seems to be having a laugh at everyone's expense, actually, and the tourists, that most disposable of all New York street personae, come off not as the savviest, nor redeemed by the simplicity of their faith, but just the luckiest. Let's hope that the three who purchased the canvases all watch the news.
October 29th: A mediocre landscape painting is purchased from a Housing Works charity shop, the long-time AIDS advocacy organization. It is altered and then re-donated to Housing Works. Inserted into the landscape is a Nazi SS officer seated on a bench, admiring the view right along with us.
Jerry Saltz is right to call this "one of the oldest tricks in the modernist book." Recent examples include Star Wars meets Thomas Kinkade and monsters inserted in, yes, thrift store paintings. But to stop there misses the point dramatically. The original painting is decidedly Bob Ross and the intervention is not much better. The title – "The Banality of the Banality of Evil" – does not exactly inspire flights of admiring critical prose. What matters here is the context. On the one hand, the joke seemed to be on Housing Works, since they wound up prominently displaying it in their shop window. But as soon as the word got out, the organization put the hot ticket on its online auction site, and as you can see from the auction page, the bidding closed at $615,000 (have a closer look at the page – you know it's serious when Mr. Bob Dobalina pulls out at $155,000). This would have been one of the largest auction windfalls in Housing Works history, and it's pretty improbable that Banksy didn't know what he was getting up to.
The unifying feature in all of this is the commodification of art and, by implication, all of society. Once they'd figured it out, everyone wanted in. Even Stephen Colbert found himself in a supplicatory mood, although he wound up getting a Hanksy and not a Banksy. But seriously: Banksy, in his feigned show of anonymity and supreme indifference, asks us a rather important question. What kind of a city do we want to live in? The smash-and-grab mentality that Banksy's drive-by New York appearance has left us on tenuous ground. Even the Housing Works auction, a seemingly high note of lèse-majesté with which Banksy could have triumphantly completed his residency, descended into a bit of chaos, as it turned out that the winning bidder didn't have the money everyone assumed he did.
Aside from strewing ephemeral art crumbs around the five boroughs for us to fight over, I'm not sure what the final point of the exercise was. Banksy himself, in an interview with the Village Voice, said there wasn't any:
"There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."
Ok, fine. But as the recent title sequence he did for The Simpsons indicates, it's clear where Banksy's sympathies lie. It's a good old-fashioned street rebellion against authority, whether that authority is corporate or governmental. So the sign-off to his last piece really rankled with me: "Thanks for your patience. It's been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye." Forget the rest of the city – if there is anything that Banksy should be interested in engaging, it's the imminent demolition of 5Pointz, one of the greatest graffiti monuments not only in New York, but in the entire world. Hey guv, thanks for the laughs, but care to throw out a few rat stencils to help defray legal costs?
In any event, after I'd gotten my fill of the Banksy deposited off Astor Place that night, I wondered what would happen to the truck. Obviously, there hadn't been anyone in the cab at the time. I secretly hoped that the truck would just stay there, abandoned, until the generator expired and the city, exasperated, had to cart the truck off to whatever pound is such vehicles' destiny. We could have gotten a better nugget out of Mayor Bloomberg than some anodyne "it may be art, but it should not be permitted" (although one only pines for what Giuliani's reaction would have been, back in the good old days). Making a mess and forcing the authorities to clean up after him – now that would have been a proper Banksy.
Tapping into the Creative Potential of our Elders
by Jalees Rehman
The unprecedented increase in the mean life expectancy during the past centuries and a concomitant drop in the birth rate has resulted in a major demographic shift in most parts of the world. The proportion of fellow humans older than 65 years of age is higher than at any time before in our history. This trend of generalized population ageing will likely continue in developed as well as in developing countries. Population ageing has sadly also given rise to ageism, prejudice against the elderly. In 1950, more than 20% of citizens aged 65 years or older participate used to participate in the labor workforce of the developed world. The percentage now has dropped to below 10%. If the value of a human being is primarily based on their economic productivity – as is so commonly done in societies driven by neoliberal capitalist values – it is easy to see why prejudices against senior citizens are on the rise. They are viewed as non-productive members of society who do not contribute to the economic growth and instead represent an economic burden because they sap up valuable dollars required to treat chronic illnesses associated with old age.
In "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America", the scholar and cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette ties the rise of ageism to unfettered capitalism:
There are larger social forces at work that might make everyone, male or female, white or nonwhite, wary of the future. Under American capitalism, with productivity so fetishized, retirement from paid work can move you into the ranks of the "unproductive" who are bleeding society. One vile interpretation of longevity (that more people living longer produces intolerable medical expense) makes the long-lived a national threat, and another (that very long-lived people lack adequate quality of life) is a direct attack on the progress narratives of those who expect to live to a good old age. Self-esteem in later life, the oxygen of selfhood, is likely to be asphyxiated by the spreading hostile rhetoric about the unnecessary and expendable costs of "aging America".
Instead of recognizing the value of the creative potential, wisdom and experiences that senior citizens can share with their respective communities, we are treating them as if they were merely a financial liability. The rise of neo-liberalism and the monetization of our lives are not unique to the United States and it is likely that such capitalist values are also fueling ageism in other parts of the world. Watching this growing disdain for senior citizens is especially painful for those of us who grew up inspired by our elders and who have respected their intellect and guidance they can offer.
In her book, Gullette also explores the cultural dimension of cognitive decline that occurs with aging and how it contributes to ageism. As our minds age, most of us will experience some degree of cognitive decline such as memory loss, deceleration in our ability to learn or process information. In certain disease states such as Alzheimer's dementia or vascular dementia (usually due to strokes or ‘mini-strokes'), the degree of cognitive impairment can be quite severe. However, as Gullete points out, the dichotomy between dementia and non-dementia is often an oversimplification. Cognitive impairment with aging represents a broad continuum. Not every form of dementia is severe and not every cognitive impairment – whether or not it is directly associated with a diagnosis of dementia – is global. Episodic memory loss in an aging person does not necessarily mean that the person has lost his or her ability to play a musical instrument or write a poem. However, in a climate of ageism, labels such as "dementia" or "cognitive impairment" are sometimes used as a convenient excuse to marginalize and ignore aged fellow humans.
Perhaps I am simply getting older or maybe some of my academic colleagues have placed me on the marketing lists of cognitive impairment snake oil salesmen. My junk mail folder used to be full of emails promising hours of sexual pleasure if I purchased herbal Viagra equivalents. However, in the past months I have received a number of junk emails trying to sell nutritional supplements which can supposedly boost my memory and cognitive skills and restore the intellectual vigor of my youth. As much as I would like strengthen my cognitive skills by popping a few pills, there is no scientific data that supports the efficacy of such treatments. A recent article by Naqvi and colleagues reviewed randomized controlled trials– the ‘gold standard' for testing the efficacy of medical treatments – did not find any definitive scientific data that vitamin supplements or herbs such as Ginkgo can improve cognitive function in the elderly. The emerging consensus is that based on the currently available data, there are two basic interventions which are best suited for improving cognitive function or preventing cognitive decline in older adults: regular physical activity and cognitive training.
Cognitive training is a rather broad approach and can range from enrolling older adults in formal education classes to teaching participants exercises that enhance specific cognitive skills such as improving short-term memory. One of the key issues with studies which investigate the impact of cognitive training in older adults has been the difficulty of narrowing down what aspect of the training is actually beneficial. Is it merely being enrolled in a structured activity or is it the challenging nature of the program which improves cognitive skills? Does it matter what type of education the participants are receiving? The lack of appropriate control groups in some studies has made it difficult to interpret the results.
The recent study "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project" published in the journal Psychological Science by the psychology researcher Denise Park and her colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas is an example of an extremely well-designed study which attempts to tease out the benefits of participating in a structured activity versus receiving formal education and acquiring new skills. The researchers assigned subjects with a mean age of 72 years (259 participants were enrolled, but only 221 subjects completed the whole study) to participate in 14-week program in one of five intervention groups: 1) learning digital photography, 2) learning how to make quilts, 3) learning both digital photography and quilting (half of the time spent in each program), 4) a "social condition" in which the members participated in a social club involving activities such as cooking, playing games, watching movies, reminiscing, going on regular field trips but without the acquisition of any specific new skills or 5) a "placebo condition" in which participants were provided with documentaries, informative magazines, word games and puzzles, classical-music CDs and asked to perform and log at least 15 hours a week of such activities. None of the participants carried a diagnosis of dementia and they were novices to the areas of digital photography or quilting. Upon subsequent review of the activities in each of the five intervention groups, it turned out that each group spent an average of about 16-18 hours per week in the aforementioned activities, without any significant difference between the groups. Lastly, a sixth group of participants was not enrolled in any specific program but merely asked to keep a log of their activities and used as a no-intervention control.
When the researchers assessed the cognitive skills of the participants after the 14-week period, the type of activity they had been enrolled in had a significant impact on their cognition. For example, the participants in the photography class had a much greater degree of improvement in their episodic memory and their visuospatial processing than the placebo condition. On the other hand, cognitive processing speed of the participants increased most in the dual condition group (photography and quilting) as well as the social condition. The general trend was that the groups which placed the highest cognitive demands on the participants and also challenged them to be creative (acquiring digital photography skills, learning to make quilts) showed the greatest improvements.
However, there are key limitations of the study. Since only 221 participants were divided across six groups, each individual group was fairly small. Repeating this study with a larger sample would increase the statistical power of the study and provide more definitive results. Furthermore, the cognitive assessments were performed soon after completion of the 14-week programs. Would the photography group show sustained memory benefits even a year after completion of the 14-week program? Would the participants continue to be engaged in digital photography long after completion of the respective courses?
Despite these limitations, there is an important take-home message of this study: Cognitive skills in older adults can indeed be improved, especially if they are exposed to an unfamiliar terrain and asked to actively acquire new cognitive skills. Merely watching educational documentaries or completing puzzles ("placebo condition") is not enough. This research will likely spark many future studies which will help define the specific mechanisms of how acquiring new skills leads to improved memory function and also studies that perhaps individualize cognitive training. Some older adults may benefit most from learning digital photography, others might benefit from acquiring science skills or participating in creative writing workshops. This research also gives us hope as to how we can break the vicious cycle of ageism in which older citizens are marginalized because of cognitive decline, but this marginalization itself further accelerates their decline. By providing opportunities to channel their creativity, we can improve their cognitive function and ensure that they remain engaged in the community.
There are many examples of people who have defied the odds and broken the glass ceiling of ageism. I felt a special sense of pride when I saw my uncle Jamil's name on the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist for his book The Wandering Falcon: He was nominated for a ‘debut' novel at the age of 78. It is true that the inter-connected tales of the "The Wandering Falcon" were inspired by his work and life in the tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands when he was starting out as a young civil servant and that he completed the first manuscript drafts of these stories in the 1970s. But these stories remained unpublished, squirreled away and biding their time until they would eventually be published nearly four decades later. They would have withered away in this cocooned state, if it hadn't been for his younger brother Javed, who prodded the long-retired Jamil, convincing him to dig up, rework and submit those fascinating tales for publication. Fortunately, my uncle found a literary agent and publisher who were not deterred by his advanced age and recognized the immense value of his writing.
When we help older adults tap into their creative potential, we can engender a new culture of respect for the creativity and intellect of our elders.
- Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Agewise: Fighting the new ageism in America. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Naqvi, Raza et al "Preventing cognitive decline in healthy older adults" CMAJ July 9, 2013 185:881-885.doi: 10.1503/cmaj.121448
- Park, Denise C et al "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults", published online on Nov 8, 2013 in Psychological Science doi:10.1177/0956797613499592
Monday, October 14, 2013
Duct Tape, Plywood and Philosophy
by Misha Lepetic
When all is finished, the people say, "We
did it ourselves."
~ Tao Te Ching, Verse 17
What does philosophy in action look like? Casual thoughts about the discipline may be united by the cliché of the philosopher as a loner. From Archimedes berating a Roman soldier to not "disturb my circles" (which subsequently cost him his head), to Kant's famous provinciality, to Wittgenstein's plunging into the Norwegian winter to work on the Logik, the term "armchair philosopher" might seem to be a tautology. But philosophy – or at least the parts that occupy the intersection of the interesting and the accessible – still concerns itself with the world at large, and our place in it.
New Yorkers got to see a particularly odd example of philosophy in action over the summer when artist Thomas Hirschhorn installed his Gramsci Monument in the central courtyard of a Bronx public housing complex known as Forest Houses. I won't dwell much on Antonio Gramsci himself (see here for a start), but suffice to say he was a man of the people, who died in prison after founding the Italian Communist Party. What is more interesting is how Hirschhorn used Gramsci as a jumping-off point, and where he chose to do it. Completed in 1956, Forest Houses is part and parcel of what anyone would recognize as "the projects" – a scattering of 15 buildings in a towers-in-the-park configuration, populated by nearly 3400 residents, most of whom are minorities and low-income. However, Hirschhorn didn't so much choose the site as it chose him – after visiting 47 public housing projects in the city, Forest Houses was the only one that expressed any interest in his proposal.
The arrival of Hirschhorn and his motley architectural assemblage, which seemed to be made mostly of plywood and duct tape, was met with perplexity by both residents and art critics. As far as the critics go – and hey, someone's got to play the straw man to kick things off, right? – at least one was mightily displeased. Writing in the New York Times, Ken Johnson pooh-poohed Hirschhorn as a "canny conceptualist operator" and opined that the installation would ultimately "be preserved in memory mainly by the high-end art world as just a work by Mr. Hirschhorn, another monument to his monumental ego."
It's difficult for me to comprehend that Johnson and I visited the same place. The first thing to note is the inappropriateness of the term "installation." The Gramsci Monument is much more of an intervention. Of course, architects and urbanists are not immune to the charms of this term, either – any bland pop-up café seems to constitute an "intervention" of the street, the urban fabric or what have you, with "dramatic" being the accompanying adjective of choice. But what made Hirschhorn's work really an intervention was its sheer physicality, its uncompromising presence in the courtyard. The towers-in-the-park paradigm, one of the baleful legacies of modernism, was introduced to the US in large measure by Le Corbusier, whose reputation is currently the subject of a risible attempt at rehabilitation by MoMA. The result is an environment of hard vertical and horizontal masonry lines, scrawny trees and threadbare lawns. As a pedestrian, you walk among 12-story brick sentinels, and the absence of any place that can provide a moment of semi-privacy, one of the key signifiers of successful public space, is palpable. The point – which was much in keeping with Le Corbusier's design ideals – was to get you to where you were going, and as efficiently as possible. "No Loitering," as the signs say.
In other words, it's a space just begging to be broken up, and that's what Hirschhorn did, by designing a series of elevated, single-story bungalows reachable by ramps and stairs, wrapped around the sidewalks of the project's central space. Most importantly, it was ugly. In addition to all the plywood and duct tape (and the utter absence of paint), white bedsheets spray-painted with choice Gramscisms such as "Every Human Being Is An Intellectual" fluttered in the breeze. Tacked all over the plywood were photocopied issues of the Gramsci Monument Newspaper, a broadsheet featuring stories about current residents, visiting notables and deceased philosophers.
This was a real thing, and it invited you in. You could have a vodka tonic or a hot dog at the bar, visit the newspaper or radio station, browse the library or attend a lecture. The experience was not dissimilar to visiting a coral reef – when you swim away from the reef and find yourself looking at a sandy seafloor, it is inevitably barren of life, but come up to another outcropping of coral and there will always be fish swimming around it, almost no matter how small the outcropping. And the amount of life swimming around the Gramsci Monument was rich and vital. Indeed, one felt that one had explicitly been given a license to loiter.
But here is the really important bit, and likely what was lost on Johnson and other dour critics: Hirschhorn had no desire to create a unified, curated experience. For the Monument was replete with contradictions that Hirschhorn, who himself lived in Forest Houses for the duration of the project, seemed either to encourage or just plain ignore. For example, the library, well stocked with Gramsci's writings as well as those of his contemporaries, also had several tables of glossy magazines, implying that there was no judgment about which one you chose to pick up. The computer center next door provided free Internet, and was always filled with children playing video games, not, as Johnson writes, "as far I as could tell, reading up on Gramscian theory." Well, Mr. Critic, maybe when you were ten you were reading Gramsci.
Nor is this to say that Hirschhorn was playing the haughty ironist, either. Refreshingly, the po-mo apotheosis of "high-brow is low-brow is high-brow" was not at all in evidence. This was clear in the library, where the message of collocating Us Weekly and Lenin wasn't a nudge and a wink, but a simple question of, Which would you prefer to read? Further mysteries abounded. Several display cases included period documents and notes in Gramsci's own hand. At first blush, one might think that this would be inadvisable – after all, we're in the projects! I mean, someone might steal a 1930s pamphlet and put it on eBay for a few bucks! But quickly one realizes that this is only the logical thing to do (putting the pamphlets on display, that is). On the one hand, it is redolent of Gramsci's own approach to humanity. On the other hand, it raises the important question of who has the right to be trusted with these items. Correction: it answers the question of who has the right to be trusted with such items.
Granted, it is not as dramatic of a gesture as bringing a Picasso to Ramallah, but even the modesty of the items works to the advantage of the inquiry. However, Hirschhorn pushes the conceit even further. Another series of flimsy Plexiglas display cases held some of Gramsci's prison possessions – a pair of house slippers, a comb, some wooden eating utensils, a wallet. Were these relics of the saint, or proof that he was a human being like the rest of us, who needed to eat, brush his hair, pad around his cell in slippers, and have a place to put spare change? Hirschhorn doesn't say. He doesn't have to – it's up to us.
But by far the most uncompromising feature of the Monument was the free lectures. For starters, itinerant philosopher Marcus Steinweg, with whom Hirschhorn has collaborated in the past, engaged in an act that could only be called "philosophy as performance art:" 77 lectures, delivered daily and without notes, at 5pm, rain or shine. Steinweg pulled no punches, and even granting my familiarity with critical theory and Western philosophical tradition, I certainly got a good workout (you can get a taste of his lecturing style here, although it's not from the Gramsci series). Now, since anyone was welcome to grab a white plastic lawn chair and sit in on the lecture, a natural question might be, Why? What does this "do" for people who might be residents of, umm, "the projects"? And did I already mention that those plastic chairs were ugly? And will someone please tell me to stop putting quotes around words already?
This is what the Gramsci Monument does to you: it makes you ask questions that, once you've gotten them out, seem immediately, hopelessly idiotic. The lectures were there for anyone who wanted to listen to them. If you wanted to ask a question, you could. If you wanted to leave, you could do that, too. But there was no dumbing-down for anyone. People showed up and did what they were good at, took their best shot, and maybe learned something for themselves or from one another. In brief, sentiments that are resonant of the most fervent aspirations we have for the undergraduates of today.
If you find this to be an acceptable proposition, it was only further tested by the Saturday seminar series, where a heavyweight academic would deliver a lecture relating to how Gramsci influenced his or her work. If Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Aronowitz or Simon Critchley are your jam, this was the place to be. The last seminar, which I attended, was delivered by Frank Wilderson. Wilderson is not just a professor, but was one of two African Americans who went to South Africa and fought with – and eventually against – the ANC during apartheid. He actually taught Gramsci to ANC members (now that's philosophy in action). Wilderson's lecture was incendiary in its own right, but what was particularly striking about the event was not so much the content but the audience: in the front row was Bill de Blasio, fresh off his Democratic primary win for the NYC mayor's race. I later got the back-story that it was his son who had heard about the Monument and had wanted to go. Here was someone who could have parlayed his win into a plush Saturday afternoon fundraiser, and instead chose to attend a lecture in the Bronx (although I suppose it's not that surprising). But what I really liked was the fact that de Blasio listened, took notes and never once pulled out a Blackberry or some such. He was just like anyone else. Afterwards we all mingled by the bar and generally had a low-key time.
So much for the celebrity artists, academics and politicians. What about the residents of Forest Houses? Ostensibly, they were Hirschhorn's primary audience. They were the ones who built the Monument, and dismantled it 80-odd days later. They worked the snack bar, staffed the radio and newspaper, and participated in the raffle that gave away the usable bits at the end. Aside from having to put up with a whole mess of mostly white hipsters and art tourists, and kick us out after we'd drank all the vodka at the bar, what did they think of it? Did they think it was worth it? In a word, yes and yes. Perhaps most striking was the way in which people just did their own thing around the installation. They hung out on benches, had arguments, sold jewelry, grilled burgers.
Most often, residents commented on how great it was that the kids could get on the net, or that they could just go downstairs and play without supervision. In fact, during the Wilderson lecture, a group of half a dozen rambunctious boys dragged out a clubhouse made of cardboard and process to completely wreck it. No one thought to shush them, and the sounds of their play provided the most eloquent counterpoint to Wilderson's narrative of slavery and alienation. Contemplating the juxtaposition of the two narratives through the dappled sunlight on a September afternoon, I realized that Hirschhorn had got it right: he was never presumptuous enough to think that The Artist would be the one to strike the balance between such a terrible past and tenuous present. In the wisdom of his "monumental ego," he knew that if he set up the field of play just right, a glimpse of that balance might just manifest itself.
Monday, September 30, 2013
Why the Rodeo Clowns Came
by James McGirk
I live surrounded by retirees in rural Oklahoma. They are spry. They own arsenals of gardening equipment: lawnmower-tractor hybrids that grind through the fibrous local flora with cruel efficiency; they wield wicked contraptions, whirling motorized blades that allow withered men to sculpt hedges into forms of sublime and delectable complexity. Their lawns are soft to touch and inviting and deep emerald green. They host garden parties. They know the mysteries of mulch and sod, their vegetables bulge with vitality and nutritious color, their compost heaps are not heaps at all, they are tarry and primordial, oozing and glowing with health. Their flowers glow. Their insects are harmless flutterers, not the stinging biting buzzing slithering demonic horde that inhabits my yard.
In the spring I chose a manual mower to help maintain my garden. I am no environmentalist nut, but as an ostensible elite urbanite, I wrinkled my nose at the fumes belched by my neighbors’ devices. This was a grave error. My man-powered motor leaves bald patches when I hoist the thing through a rough patch uphill and it accidentally sheers too close, and leaves miniature Mohawks when the sturdier weeds simply dip beneath my blades and spring up behind me unscathed. But I cannot blame the device. This is an operator error. I chose the thing, and I vowed to live with the consequences.
For months I huffed and puffed, hauling the bright orange plastic and metal contraption through the thickets in my yard. I felt close to the land. Its contours became familiar to me: the mysterious dead patch, which I fantasized came from natural gas seeping up from the Cherokee Shelf, five fathoms below; or the pits dug by the previous tenants where I once found a black snake tangled in my spinning blades (coward that I am, I let him crawl away instead of dispatching a merciful death: and lo the next afternoon my elderly neighbor came over to apologize for the shriek I might have heard because the poor thing had taken shelter in her kitchen before her husband—an octogenarian—beheaded it with a rake) and the plunging predator birds and the mysterious mushrooms and the owl feathers and squawking fledglings and tiny tragedies: the robin’s nest spilled on the ground after a titanic storm, her pale blue eggs still intact, the nest like a spun basket, and the mother’s frayed carcass a few feet away. I watched it slowly decay.
The blade on my mower can be adjusted to clip between four inches and one inch. The closer the shave the more effort it takes to cut. Any growth above two inches looks like an overgrown haircut. Sloppy, grubby and neglected. Seedy might be the precise word I want. Could this be a word that entered the vernacular from our centuries of lawn care? Next to the martial precision of our neighbors’ yards our shaggy lawn looked degenerate as the summer dragged on. Though I made a valiant effort to sustain it, I kept having to set my blade higher: one-and-a-half became two became three… and when I returned from a trip even four inch cut couldn’t make a difference I had to call for reinforcements.
Early in the season, lawn care was easy to arrange. People prowled the streets of Tahlequah looking for opportunities to lock down a lucrative contract: a summer of care, 40 dollars U.S. every two weeks. Our nasty yard was a cry for help. Knockers came daily offering help and fistfuls of fliers touting their services. But by September those plucky entrepreneurs had gone. I hunted for lawn care professionals. The Yellow Pages, pinned to the drawing board in the local Laundromat, there was nothing! After a week of searching I finally found a tout in the classified ad section of the local paper: Several decades of experience! Equipment and tools! It seemed sober and professional. I snipped and called the number.
A preoccupied, frail voice responded. He was driving, but said if I would just give him a moment he would take my call. “Let me call you back,” I tried interjecting, but he was adamant we speak. I heard grunts and the moans of zooming traffic seemed to recede. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve got me now. I’m in the parking lot of a bank, let’s talk estimates,” he said, and he told me he would be by. “Okay,” I replied. It’s the only house on the block with grass an elephant could hide in. “A what?” He said. “Never mind,” I replied and recited my address.
He pulled up in a white Ford pickup truck a few hours later. “You James?” He asked me. “Sure am,” I replied. He stepped out of the cab and told me his name. Now, Tahlequah is an awfully small town so I won’t repeat it here. He was shorter than I expected. Older too. I guessed he was about the age of my neighbors—someone who’d retired long ago. He wore a cowboy hat, blue jeans and a bright white shirt button-up shirt. Didn’t notice his boots, but I expect they were tough and leathery too. He wore a beautiful ring. Bright yellow gold on a thick band with what looked like a chunk on onyx as a stone.
We shook hands. Already, I felt ashamed. I could barely breathe in the air it was so hot let alone mow my own lawn. His face was flushed pinkish-red: a distinctly cardiac color. He waved away my offer of a glass of water.
We chatted as we strolled the grounds together. He appraised the lawn. My weeds were no problem at all, and they had to go, and he was happy to trim the edges of our lawn, which was crucial because edges are like shoes: if they’re scruffy it ruins the effect of everything else and are absolutely impossible to trim without one of those whirling edge-trimmers. Not for nothing is a tidy lawn a reflection of an orderly household and a stable income and sober minds within. It takes hard work or cold hard cash to maintain one.
My front lawn is misleading – it looks tidy and easy to maintain but there’s a pretty steep slope and there are thickets of spongy clover-like stuff that resists cutting. He said this was no problem. He was an old hand around these parts, trimmed the yards of massive estates ones with hills that made ours look like mere pimples. I took him around back. We have a narrow gate (someone who lived must have once owned a dog) and I worried about him getting his riding mower in, but waved away my concerns. This was no serious problem, he said, we could just unscrew the fence if it didn’t fit.
I was starting to notice his gait. He had a stiff, painful walk. He noticed me noticing: “just had my hip replaced,” he said. A two thousand pound steer had fallen on him. “Let me rest for a bit.” We leaned against the fence and then he slumped over on his side. “Just have to let it set,” he said. “I’m tough. I’ll be fine.” He asked me where I was from. “New York,” I said. And he told me about how he’d been part of a construction team up there, hired from Louisiana to come up and put power-lines up, but the local union types “had objections.” So “we Cajun boys had to straighten ‘em out with wrenches and pipes.”
Now, if my front yard was the ski-slope equivalent of a red slope (or a single black diamond for our American readers), my backyard was a professionals-only black. There were crannies and pits and the aforementioned snake and I tried to point out all the deep pits where I had fallen and nearly broken my leg. “Are you sure you can do this?” I asked him. He sure was.
I walked him back to his truck. We shook hands, agreed on a price—slightly more than the eager hordes were quoting me earlier this season—and he told me he would be back the next morning at eleven.
It was really hot. Well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and close to a hundred percent humidity (spills wouldn’t dry up on their own, the air felt steamy, the bugs were fizzing like crazy). He showed up an hour early. And unloaded a wide riding mower. He zoomed back and forth, and the front yard seemed to be done in an instant. I chatted with him for a bit – he regaled me with his story about the Cajun boys showing up the Jersey thugs again, and then we attempted to tackle the back. But the riding mower wouldn’t fit through the narrow gate. It was wired together so it couldn’t be unscrewed (at least not without my landlord’s permission). He asked if he could summon a friend with a smaller mower.
“Of course,” I said. “And if it’s too hot you should come back…” he wouldn’t hear of it, and eased himself down in the same shady spot as before and began punching numbers into his phone. His friend arrived in a scruffy blue truck with ancient gas mower in the back; he himself was tall and thin and came dressed head to toe in blue denim the exact worn shade as his truck. The old mower wouldn’t start. The two men discussed strategy. I handed over their money (and a substantial, guilt-induced tip) thinking nothing would get done, and turned to leave for an art exhibit.
“Hey, James!” shouted the ring-wearer, who was lying on his side again. “Did you ever think, coming from New York, you’d have two old rodeo clowns mowing your yard?”
A cold, sick feeling spread through my guts; as did a peculiar feeling of déjà vu.
I needn’t have worried. Though I did when I arrived home that night to find their old gas mower still in my yard and only a quarter of the grass cut (an effect not unlike being interrupted mid shave), three days later my lawn was completely trimmed and the clowns were alive and kicking. It took me a little longer to identify why their interaction felt so uncannily familiar.
It was their air of conspiracy and the compact little world the two rodeo clown friends had made for each other. I had encountered it once before. For a couple of months I worked for a pair of friends who were running a hedge fund. It was a wild idea they were gambling on, one that on paper sounded cynical and deliciously depraved but was really just playing at being soldiers and spies; and this pair of financiers—they even looked like the two rodeo clowns, one was stout and fair the other lean and dark—used the promise of making a pile of money to lure people—myself included—senior executives and former government officials who should have known better into their fantasy. And when it all blew up they were left unscathed. That moment of plotting I witnessed between the two clowns, reminded me of the two financiers plotting before a meeting with Goldman Sachs; and it felt good to see it. Working as a freelance writer in the hinterlands of America can be a lonely business—so even though my garden looked like shit when they left and it took a week of raking to get in order, and even though it was only because the financiers’ secretary felt sorry for me and shamed the pair that I was eventually paid for my work; but it didn’t feel as bad as it could have.
I enjoyed the japes, just wished for once I could have been cut in rather than been played. I’d better go. My lawn is looking haggard again. I’ll have to haul out the mower again.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Poverty in the United States
by Jalees Rehman
The United States Census Bureau recently released the results from its 2012 survey of income, poverty and health insurance in the United States. One of the most disheartening results is the high prevalence of poverty in the United States.
The term "poverty" is of course a relative term. The poverty thresholds in the United States depend on the size of a household and are adjusted each year. Currently, poverty for a single person household is defined as an average monthly income of $995 or less– taking into account all forms of earnings including unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, Social Security, veterans' payments, survivor benefits, pension or retirement income, interest, dividends, alimony, child support as well as other sources. A four-person family consisting of two adults and two children is considered to live in poverty if they have to live on an average monthly income of $1,940 or less. This is still a far cry from the global definition of poverty used by the World Bank, which describes fellow humans who have to survive on an income of less than $1.25 per day (or $38 per month). But the US, a country which considers itself as being among the wealthiest in the world, has to face the fact that 15 percent of its population - 46.5 million people – live in a state of poverty!
We worry about the faltering economies of Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal, but the US Census reminds us that the number of poverty-stricken people in the US is roughly equal to that of the total population of Spain, and more than twice the size of the combined populations of Greece, Portugal and Cyprus.
Poverty does not affect all American communities equally. More than a quarter of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans live in poverty, and sadly, as shown in the graph above, these are also the communities which have experienced the steepest increases in poverty rates in the wake of the recent recession.
The common cliché is that "children are our future", but if this is true, then Americans need to be especially worried about the fact that children have the highest rate of poverty in the US (over 21%) and that there has been no significant improvement in recent years.
Women are also disproportionately affected by US poverty. At every age range assessed by the US Census Bureau, females had higher poverty rates than their male counterparts.
This gender inequality even holds true for single parent families headed by women. While single parent families have higher poverty rates than the families of couples, single women households fare much worse than single men households.
Nearly a third of families headed by single women live in poverty, whereas the poverty rate for single men households is half of that.
The Census Bureau also provided a statistical analysis of the income over the recent decades, adjusting each year's income to the value of $ in 2012. This allows us to analyze how the purchasing power of people in the US has changed during the past 30-45 years.
It becomes apparent that the income disparity between Americans of various ethnic backgrounds has not changed much, and that the disparity has perhaps even worsened in some cases. Non-Hispanic Caucasians, for example, earned 34% more than their fellow Hispanic citizens in the early 1970s. However, the median household income of Hispanic-Americans barely increased (when standardized to US-$ values of 2012) from the 1970s to today, while the income of non-Hispanic Caucasians increased by more than 12%.
The income disparity between men and women has also not budged much during the past decade. The ratio of women's to men's earnings improved substantially and steadily from the 1970s to the 1990s, but it has unfortunately reached a plateau during the past decade, hovering around 77%.
One graph in the Census Bureau report sums up the worsening state of income inequality in the US:
During the past 45 years, the median income (i.e. income of people at the 50th percentile) increased from $42,900 to $51,000 – a rather modest change of about 19%. This means that the American economic middle class today can afford to purchase 19% more than their counterparts in the late 1960s. On the other hand, earners at the 90th percentile (i.e. the top 10%) showed an increase of their income from $90,400 to $146,000 – an increase of more than 60% during the same time period!
The trends of increasing income disparity with the American society, the income disparity between people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, the high poverty rates among women and children are in plain sight in this report. We can only hope that political and business leaders in the US will recognize the dangers that arise from the growing inequality and take the necessary steps to reign in the disparity.
Monday, September 09, 2013
Syria: The case for inaction (and for action?)
by Omar Ali
I was very clear when this crisis started that the US should not launch an overt military strike on Syria. Not for reasons of naïve pacifism (or for more vacuous notions, like the editor of “The Nation” wanting to have her cake and eat it too by demanding that Obama “use the United Nations and tough diplomacy”, LOL), but because I believe the US now lacks the institutional and cultural capacity to successfully carry out such an intervention. That slight qualification (“now”) may not be necessary, but all I mean by it is that irrespective of whether the US once had the ability to quote democracy and human rights while promoting hardcore imperialist interests, it does not have that ability anymore; and it never had and still does not have either the legal authority or the institutional mechanisms or the cultural consensus to act effectively as worldcop. These are, of course, the two most commonly cited reasons for “doing something” in this case. Either we are supposed to be doing it because there are serious imperial/national interests at stake and we have some (right or wrong) notion about how those interests are promoted by this action, or we are doing it because we are the world’s policeman and the police cannot possibly allow a criminal regime to carry out new and unprecedented atrocities using chemical weapons.
I did write a quick piece last week saying that the US lacks the ability to do either with success and that this is especially true in the Middle East (due to the complexity of the region, the importance of oil, and the role the US has played as Israel’s benefactor and supporter). After all the US failed in Iraq by its own standards; and it has done poorly in Afghanistan in spite of holding so many cards there (I firmly believe that it was very much possible for the US to impose a non-Jihadi regime in Afghanistan and to stabilize it, clever sound bites from William Dalrymple type analysts notwithstanding). In short, I argued that leaving aside all arguments about legality and morality (and there are strong legal and moral arguments that can be made against military action), US intervention is not a good idea because it is unlikely to work well (either as imperial action or as worldcop). Not because Obama and Susan Rice are amateurs (though there may be some truth to that), but because the official institutions of the US are systemically incapable of doing such things well, and because the majority of the US public is not ready to take on either role (again, irrespective of whether it was or was not willing in the past).
The official institutions of the United States (the state department, the Pentagon, the inteliigence agencies) are not staffed by mysterious aliens. They are staffed by Americans, educated in American universities, with the strengths and weaknesses of American culture. They (on the whole) neither understand the Middle East too well, nor act according to some uniform and well thought out secret plan. For example, it was not just Bush or Obama who were foiled in Afghanistan; it was thousands of officers and advisers who (frequently with the best of intentions) spent half a trillion and could not achieve what Russia or Pakistan could (and did) achieve in the face of more powerful enemies with just a few billion. Are there good reasons then to think that the same officials will do any better in Syria? And of course when it comes to public opinion, it is obvious that most Americans (not just fringe leftists or rightists) are tired of foreign wars and are unwilling to take on the job of worldcop even if it is legally and morally justified.
But since then, as public opinion and events seem to have swung further against intervention, I have had some second thoughts. Not yet enough to change my mind, but enough to become a little conflicted.And here are some of the reasons why:
- The more I think about it, the more it seems that chemical Weapons SHOULD be a red-line. And even if we accept (debatable) that the US or Israel have used chemical weapons in the past (Agent Orange and white phosphorous being cited by many on the left as examples), this is really not a sufficient argument against acting now and in this case. The fact that murderers were sometimes let go in the past, or that the current cop’s previous incarnations themselves committed some crimes, does not necessarily mean that the current cop should not try and stop new and very shocking crimes from occurring. And the fact that there are situations where the current cop will still not intervene (e.g. against nuclear armed powers, or against Israel if it were to use such weapons, to give two obvious examples) does not mean his deterrent value against many other regimes is zero. There are literally thousands of tons of chemical weapons in the world, many in the hands of regimes like Syria. These are truly indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction and one reason why they have NOT been used extensively already is because these various regimes are deterred by the thought of international sanction, including the possibility of serious coercive action by the United States (a superpower that really does possess the material means to take coercive action). If no action is taken now then more chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future. There are many crimes and atrocities against which a universal or near-universal taboo does not exist yet. But the taboo against chemical weapons is relatively effective. If it goes, then more carnage is very likely. Do keep in mind that the Baathist regime in Syria has committed mass atrocities using conventional weapons in the past (look up Hama) and as Robert Fisk has written, they are not very shy about killing people now either. Raping family members, crushing testicles and so on have all been routinely used for a long time by this regime (as they have been used by many others, including some who are US allies, but also by some supported by Russia and China). There is little reason to think that such a regime will be held back forever by purely humanitarian concerns. If they carried out this attack (and there seems to be a good deal of evidence that they did) then they should be punished (by whomever, in whatever form). If the rebels used them, then they should be punished. If whoever used these weapons is not punished, they are more likely to use such weapons again, and so are other “middle-powers” who have the ability, but until now have lacked the nerve. This does not necessarily mean the US should attack Syria. It may not have the right, it may not be effective and the Assad regime may not even be the culprit. But see next point.
- Saying that something SHOULD be done does require that we know who committed the crime. I personally am increasingly convinced that the Syrian regime did it (or someone in the regime did it, which is the same thing if the regime is not actively trying to catch and punish that someone). But I agree that there is a credibility gap for the US, especially after Iraq. Still, suppose for a moment that it is proven to your satisfaction that the regime did it. Who then should take action? The UN cannot reach consensus on coercive force while Russia (and maybe China) are willing to defend their allies with vetoes (and Russia clearly is willing in this case). And even if the UN were to reach such a consensus, it does not have the coercive ability to do anything against a country that possesses a regular army and an air-force. The US and its NATO allies are practically the only powers that have the ability to enforce such a decision.
- The Syrian civil war started as a protest
movement against the extremely oppressive Baathist regime. The regime’s
willingness to kill protesters in large numbers was what turned it into a civil
war. Especially in the beginning, the civil war was not just a Sunni versus
Alawite-Shia civil war nor was the opposition mainly Salafist-Jihadist. But as
it has dragged on, it has more and more become such a civil war. This is partly
the logic of war and mass violence; lines are drawn and “with us or against us”
choices are forced upon people (on both sides) even if they have to hold their
nose to support their own side. But if this goes on much longer, it will become
a larger regional conflagration and will aggravate Shia versus Sunni problems
even in faraway countries like Pakistan (already many Sunni jihadists from
Pakistan have gone to Syria to fight Shias). So beyond chemical weapons, there
is also an interest in seeing the civil war come to an end and for a
broad-based regime to be established in Syria. Such an outcome is not likely if
the current confrontation ends with an Assad victory. That will only strengthen
the regime and harden the partition of Syria (because even a strengthened
regime is NOT capable of retaking all of Syria).
And it will not happen with regime collapse and rebel victory either. The only way a relatively broad-based compromise regime can be created in Syria is if the regime and the rebels compromise under international supervision. That can happen if the regime faces harsh action and increasing defections and is forced to compromise, while a workable deal is made with Iran and an international peacekeeping force is put in to help protect minorities and to establish a workable Syrian regime again. This dream outcome is very hard to imagine under US auspices (given the tremendous ability of the US to mess up such things, given the short-sighted priorities of some of its regional allies, and given the insecurities of Iran and its allies) but it is impossible to imagine it without US leadership. That is just how things are at this moment in that region. If the civil war will continue, regional powers will get more involved and the Shia-Sunni battle will become much worse (and the mess will extend very far). US credibility is a key to even the remote possibility of a better outcome. Americans may not care too much for this point, but Syrians and their neighbors may need to worry a bit more.
- Maybe, just maybe, the Obama regime does have a plan and they do know what they are doing. Maybe the coming intervention won’t be just a half-assed missile strike that will have all the downsides of military intervention and none of the possible positives. I admit that this seems hard to believe, but I have been wrong before. Maybe I am underestimating the President’s team?
- Finally, the most heretical thought of all: a world without a cop, even a biased and corrupt cop, may not turn out to be a better world if it happens suddenly. Many regional conflicts and international hotspots are (for varied reasons) kept damped down by the world’s largest superpower and its many allies. Many of them are likely to get worse (at least until a new international system can evolve) without the US supervising the playground. Neither Putin nor Xi Jinping strike me as better umpires and the thought that countries like Pakistan and Syria and Israel will all become more peaceful rather than more jittery and violent if the international order breaks down strikes me as a bit unlikely. I am well aware of how this statement is likely to play among my liberal friends: to say something like this is to be orientalist/patriarchal/arrogant/imperialist/racist, but could it be that it may also be true? A world without a cop is a very desirable ideal to work towards; it is not necessarily a good idea if it suddenly happens. Weak states (even very large weak states, dear Indians, I am thinking of you) may need to give that a thought.
- Last but not the least; I do have a soft spot for President Obama. For better or worse (probably for worse) he has put his credibility on the line here. If he doesn’t carry it off, he will massively lose face. That may delight his many opponents (and may be a major motivation for Republican opposition to this mission), but I don’t expect his loss to be Mahatma Gandhi’s gain. I expect his loss to be the gain of people who I find much less desirable, especially on the domestic US front.
Still, these second thoughts are not necessarily a change of mind. They just mean the decision looks harder than it seemed at first sight. While no one in authority is going to depend on my advice for deciding this, I do believe that anyone who comments should either give an option, or freely admit that they just don’t know what option to pick. After some thought, my own pick today (i.e. on Sunday September 8th) remains “don’t do it”. But I am not a liberal interventionist who believes “someone must do something to stop atrocities” but has no workable proposal regarding the coercive authority that will impose these rules? Under what authority? Using what violence? With what checks and balances? I am afraid that the US is the only country with the power to actually impose penalties and create deterrence in this case, but I don’t trust the US to be able to do a good enough job. So I am still voting for “stay out of it”. But I am doing so with the awareness that the consequences of staying out are also unpredictable and potentially dire (especially for those inside the region; I don’t think Americans will suffer too much if the whole place goes up in flames). So while I still think it is best for the US not to get more involved where it does not seem to have a coherent strategy or domestic or international support, I can see that it is not an easy decision. And if it does not seem entirely easy to someone like me, with little or nothing directly at stake, it is probably ten times more difficult for those who are actually in the position of having to decide things. The Onion, as usual, gets it exactly right.
PS: if anyone is interested in reading well informed debate about this issue, then the US-military focused “smallwarsjournal.com” is not a bad place to start. It may also cure some of simplistic notions about the US military and its intelligence and good sense (or lack of the same). For example, if you just want to know what Syria looks like and who lives there, try this thread.
Monday, August 19, 2013
"The whole arrangement is
as cozy and comfortable as the
front basement dining room of a first-class city residence."
~ Scientific American, 1870
Is there anything that is not deserving of disruption by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? Last week the world came to understand that in addition to pretty much everything else, high-speed rail is heading for a makeover. The irrepressible Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, unveiled, in a somewhat anticlimactic press conference, what is essentially a giant pneumatic tube for people. Also known as the Hyperloop, it intends to shoot people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in something like 35 minutes, at a top speed of nearly 800 miles per hour. Remarkably, Musk declared that he has no intention to build the thing; as John Oliver said on the Daily Show, "That's like saying ‘Hey, you know what we should do? Find a vaccine for cancer…Someone get on that! I'm just the ideas man.'" I suppose this is the flipside of what Musk generously termed the "open source" nature of the project. However, the proposal is worth examining both for its implicit attitudes towards what is being designed, and what the real purpose of the Hyperloop might be.
Once Musk had finally opened the kimono, the critics naturally pounced. It's easy to dish on a multi-billion-dollar design proposal that is all of 57 pages, and contains such breezy gems as: "short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment. This is where things get tricky" (p3). Tricky, indeed.
But it's not so much the technology, or Musk's indifference to building it, that is at issue here. Most of this has been developed and is fairly uncontroversial. In fact, the idea of using some combination of air or vacuum to propel people through tubes was successfully prototyped back in the 1870s. Of course, the issue of scale will certainly produce its own set of challenges, but this will arrive in due time. Nor is the cost "where things get tricky," either: even though critics have called out the $6bn price tag as laughably low, since when has an infrastructure project ever been priced realistically?
What is more interesting to me is the way people themselves are considered in the design proposal.
You would think that the experience of traveling this way would be a key consideration. And there are plenty of assumptions, some stated and some not, that provide us with a glimpse of how the designers view their human charges. Here is the proposal's description of passenger accommodations:
The interior of the capsule is specifically designed with passenger safety and comfort in mind. The seats conform well to the body to maintain comfort during the high speed accelerations experienced during travel. Beautiful landscape [sic] will be displayed in the cabin and each passenger will have access their [sic] own personal entertainment system. (p15)
The obvious haste with which this copy was put together isn't very encouraging. But the message is clear: strap in and stay still. There are no bathrooms, since anyone should be able to hold it in for 35 minutes, right? Besides, no one really has any business getting up and walking around while they are traveling at 790 mph.
Not that you could. ‘Capsule' and ‘pod' are excellent descriptors for this vehicle, since the width of its interior is projected to be about 4'6" and its height just a touch over 6' (p15). There is enough room for two seats; the idea of an aisle has been summarily dismissed. Thus it is literally impossible to leave your seat during the entire journey. So what happens when things go wrong? Consider the Hyperloop's take on passenger emergencies:
Therefore in case of emergency, it is likely that the best course of action would be for the capsule to communicate the situation to the station operator and for the capsule to finish the journey in a few minutes where emergency services would be waiting to assist. (p53)
There are a few drawbacks here. Most extremely, anyone going through a heart attack, seizure or something similar doesn't have a very good chance of being alive by the time the capsule pulls into its destination. Even though Musk's designers explicitly mention the presence of first aid kits on board, they don't really say where they are. I am hoping there is one underneath every seat. But more importantly, the construction of the capsule implies that, if you can't help yourself, the only person who stands a chance of helping you is in the adjacent seat. If you're lucky, she or he will be a doctor. Even the very idea of a first aid kit is a bit silly – how many people actually know what's inside one? It's much better to have someone around who actually is trained in first aid, and knows how to use one.
I'm harping on this seemingly minor detail because it is indicative of the larger stance taken in the proposal. Generally, if you give a bunch of engineers a problem, the solution you'll get will be predicated on the assumptions of engineering. The design will seek to reconcile whatever constraints are involved – safety, efficiency, speed, cost, etc. But these reductive frameworks, while powerful, tend to squeeze human preference and behavior to the point that people become another highly engineered aspect of the system.
The hope that people will sit still and behave themselves always turns out, in the long run, to be overly optimistic. And yet, in the Hyperloop concept, this assumption is stretched to its most extreme end. Put another way, it is the very efficiency of the design that pretends to compensate for the mindblowing variety of things that can go wrong once you introduce the human element into any system. The idea is that this thing moves so fast, there's virtually no time in which bad things can happen. This is true until the inconvenient day a capsule rolls into the station with a still-warm body on board. (It would almost make more sense for the Hyperloop to introduce some sort of short-term anesthesia to ensure maximum cooperation from travelers - something I have been hoping the airlines would have sorted out by now.)
So much for certain aspects of the Hyperloop's design principles. Where does it fit within the larger landscape of transportation in California? It's not like entrepreneurs like Musk play spin-the-bottle to figure out what they will next spend their time. And in fact Musk has put together Hyperloop as a direct challenge to California's high-speed rail (HSR) project:
When the California "high speed" rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?
The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving. The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it? (pp1-2)
These are all valid points, and Hyperloop is meant to fill that gap. Musk goes so far as to call it a possible "fifth mode" of transportation (planes, trains, cars and ships being the first four). It's certainly true that, as laid out in the proposal, the Hyperloop is obviously and vastly superior to stodgy bullet train technology. And I have to wonder if the engineer's eye for elegance led him to the $6bn price tag, which is exactly an order of magnitude less that what is envisioned for California's HSR.
Perhaps this is why the Hyperloop has been put forward as a speculative, open source project. It is the private sector playfully pawing at its newfound prey, delivering a lazy but confident threat: if you people don't get your act together, we'll go ahead and build our own thing, which will be twice as cool and cost one-tenth as much. Or perhaps it really is just a bluff.
But for anyone thinking that Hyperloop will help HSR in any way, I have to consider this magical thinking. The example that gets trotted out on occasions like this is the salutary kick in the pants handed to the Human Genome Project (HGP) by Craig Venter's Celera Genomics. Celera used what was at that time an unpopular technique of "shotgun sequencing" to rapidly assemble genetic sequences. This was considered by many scientists to be less accurate than the cloning techniques used by the publicly funded project, but Celera improved the technique enough such that the publicly funded labs were forced to redouble their efforts. The prospect of having Celera publish the human genome before the HGP was simply impossible to countenance. As a result, and in a surprising display of good manners, both HGP and Celera released the first human genome map simultaneously, and three years ahead of the former's schedule.
However, there is a huge difference between sequencing a genome and creating a infrastructure that will span hundreds of miles. In the case of the genome, the competition was over the superiority of technique. The object of the inquiry was always available to be sequenced, and the better technique of targeting that object eventually won. In California, the object and the technique are inseparable. Only one high-speed intercity transport system can even be built – once one is underway there is no reason to begin the other. The initial expenditure is simply too large. But the question is not just what should be built, but where? Consider the two below maps, and try to guess which one represents HSR's proposed route and which shows the Hyperloop's. I'll give you a hint: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have no idea why anyone would want to go to Sacramento.
On the other hand, California's High-Speed Rail Authority may not even need Elon Musk or anyone else to torpedo its viability. It seems to be doing the job quite nicely on its own. In what ought to be a classic case of bad timing, a few days after Musk's announcement
A Sacramento County judge dealt a major blow to California's high-speed rail project Friday, ruling that the agency overseeing the bullet train failed to comply with the financial and environmental promises made to voters when they approved initial funding for the project five years ago.
Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the California High-Speed Rail Authority "abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law" and has failed to identify "sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible."
Judge Kenny refused to entirely halt funding for the project, since it is unclear – for the moment – whether he possesses such discretion. There will be another hearing, although the date has yet to be set. And so we are left with one project that could have graced the pages of Omni and another that is entirely feasible but underfunded to the point of flatlining. It's bad enough if one of these projects doesn't get built, but what does it say about the state of both government and the private sector if neither gets built? Although I have to admit that the Hyperloop is, 5 days into its unveiling, already ahead of the bullet train: someone has already printed a 3D model based on the proposal's drawings. Hyperloop Kickstarter campaign, anyone? Here's "where things get tricky," indeed.
Pakistan 2013: The uncertainty is real
by Omar Ali
The first thing that strikes you on landing in Pakistan after a few years is how much more “modern” it is and how dramatically (and frequently, painfully) it is changing with every passing day. One is reminded that Pakistan is as much a part of “rising Asia” as India, Bangladesh or Thailand and is not all about terrorists, conspiracy theories, Salafist nutjobs or the clash of civilizations. But since more qualified people are writing about the economics of rising Asia, the destruction of the environment, the breakdown of traditional society, the future of the planet, and the meaning of life, I will try not to step too much on their turf. And since there are countless articles (and more than one famous book) detailing the Westernized elite’s view of how the underclass lives and dies in rising Asia, I will not intrude too far on that well-trodden terrain either. Instead, without further ado, here are my personal and entirely anecdotal observations from 3 weeks in Pakistan.
1. The uncertainty is real and deep. Not only are people unsure about what may happen next, they are unsure about how uncertain they are! Someone can start off by saying life will go on, it will probably be more of the same, things will slowly get better but there will be no big sudden transformation. Then, as the conversation proceeds, report that he (or she) is afraid it’s all going to fall apart next year in one big apocalyptic disaster. A few minutes later, the same person confidently assures you that we are about to turn the corner and Pakistan will be the next China (or at least, the next Chinese colony, which is pretty much the same thing). If asked which of these three theories (more of the same, impending disaster or turning the Chinese corner) he thinks is more likely, he seems genuinely surprised to learn that he has just confidently predicted three different outcomes. This seemed like a new trend. Different people used to have different theories about what may come next but now the same person has many different theories and seems equally unsure about all of them. It did cross my mind that maybe this happens everywhere but is just more noticeable here. But the fact remains, it was more noticeable this time than it has ever been in the past.
2. “Real life” economic calculations so consistently trump ideology that one can be excused for starting to believe in the crudest forms of Marxism. Of course, no one I met actually believes in crude Marxism because the people I met were anything but crude. A number of them claimed to be Marxist, but mostly in the latest postcolonial postmodern post-industrial sort of way. Anyway, coming back to “real life” in Pakistan: Islamists and anti-Islamists seem to run very similar (and similarly profitable) schools and colleges all over Pakistan. Friends who were in the Islamic student parties and friends who led their leftist opponents and battled on the streets with club and guns, now run the same private clinics and hospitals and take the same pharmaceutical junkets. Their children go to the same colleges and take the same Cambridge and SAT examinations to go to the same elite institutions of higher education in the developed world (of course, a world that now includes Shanghai and Singapore in addition to New York and London). They start businesses, launch careers and file patents the same way, though the Islamists all say Allah Hafiz and the leftists still resist by saying Khuda Hafiz. In short, capitalism is thriving. But the environment and social harmony are not. The water is literally undrinkable all across Pakistan. No one can drink tap water and avoid typhoid or hepatitis, but even if you only drink genuine Nestle bottled water, your dishes are still washed in tap water, your veggies are grown in raw sewage and your milk may be mixed with it. This probably sounds like typical expat griping, but this was the universal opinion of every doctor I met. Public health is a nightmare and since an unhealthy proportion of public intellectuals is either waiting for Mao or dreaming about the caliphate (see below), no one seems to be able to fix mundane things like water and sewage.
3. But while public health and anything for which the local or state government should be responsible (like water or sewage) is an unholy mess, the urge to give back, to do good and to help others at a personal level is widespread and heart-warming. Not that people weren’t charitable in the good old days, but society was organized differently then and charity tended to stay closer to home. Now society is increasingly organized in modern terms, so the charity is also visible in more modern ways. Imran Khan’s cancer hospital is not the only such institution in Pakistan. There are an amazing number of such initiatives all over the country. Edhi’s decentralized and nation-wide network is by now known (and admired) the world over, but initiatives like the SIUT, the Indus Hospital, the Al-Shifa network of Eye hospitals and countless others are all run on (mostly anonymous) donations and none is close to running out of money. Talk of these “band-aids” is anathema to those still waiting for worldwide revolution, but one cannot come into contact with these institutions without coming away impressed and awed by their dedication and the generosity of the vast pool of donors who support them.
4. While it is hard to meet someone in Pakistan who
is happy with the situation of the arts, it is also possible to overestimate
the impact of Islamist thuggery and
capitalist “commodification”. Things are far from ideal, but not necessarily
hopeless. Everything from Kathak and classical
music classes in Lahore to teenage rock bands in Islamabad to Riaz (practice)
sessions with Fareed Ayaz Qawwal
in Qawwal Gali in Karachi were alive, if not always in the pink of health. Life, it seems, stubbornly refuses to lie down and die. While the moribund Lollywood film industry is still mostly dead, enterprising youngsters are even producing some interesting looking independent movies. It's true that Punjabi culture is in serious trouble and that classical North Indian Islamicate culture is dying out, but 200 million people cannot live without art. Something will survive, and something may even thrive if peace is restored. And , as a friend helpfully pointed out, great tragedies and oppressive regimes can produce some very great art. I wouldn’t look for tragedy and oppression just for that reason, not being that much of an artist at heart, but he did have a point.
5. Young people in particular seem to live in a new world; whether it’s a better world is a question we can argue about, but to me at least, it seemed like the average middle class youngster in Pakistan today is a far more knowledgeable, capable and connected person than we ever were in our miss-spent youth. Gender relations are the most obvious example; right-wing, left-wing and even Salafist, they all seem to be comfortable talking to girls their own age and engaging in normal relations with them. This may not sound like much, but if you are a Pakistani of a certain age, you will know why I bring this up. And its not just gender relations. They know more about the world at large and seem to navigate it much better than we could. But there are no gains without losses, so there are some obvious losses in this area too. While knowledge of “practical” subjects is undoubtedly far greater than it used to be, and while gender relations and international awareness are far more normal and sophisticated than in the past, high culture has not done as well. NONE of the youngsters I met (unrepresentative sample?) could recite more than 5 verses of Urdu poetry. In all likelihood, the number for regional languages (“mother tongues”) is even lower. Nor did they seem to be much into English literature or other aspects of Western high culture. While an interest in Islam is commonplace, it has little in common with what Islam used to mean to generations past. The Persian, Arabic and Urdu tradition that had grown and developed over 800 years in Indian Islamicate culture seems to have entered a very narrow dead-end at partition and is now lost to most young Pakistanis. Ironically, the very effort that was meant to safeguard it (i.e. the creation of Pakistan) seems to have driven a Punjabi-military-bureaucratic stake through its heart. I can hear some friends saying “good riddance” when I say this, but good riddance followed by what? half-baked , ignorant, anti-intellectual salafism from Arabia? or (for a narrow segment of the elite), an even more superficial and moronic collection of “sufi-progressive” crap? And the blessed government of Pakistan has done its part by promoting some concoction called the “ideology of Pakistan” and “the thought of Allama Iqbal”. Its nothing deep or serious, but there IS an opportunity cost. Attention paid to these delusions is attention not paid to more useful things. Still, Allah may be kind and the unusually superficial nature of Pakistani myths may save us from their worst depredations. One can always hope.
6. Violent crime and terrorism were a constant backdrop to everyday life. Of course, life goes on (as it must) and people have stopped noticing or commenting on incidents that are now “routine” (unless they hit someone you know) but the effects of the collapse of law and order and the ongoing civil war are not trivial. At an everyday level the effect of crime is greater than the impact of terrorism, since almost everyone has been robbed at least once and everyone is affected by fake drugs, adulterated food and a million clever scams and frauds (many being run in association with the so-called law-enforcement agencies). And at the macroeconomic level, the impact of everyday crime is probably exceeded by the impact of religious terrorism. Lost investment and the flight of local capital being obvious examples. Incidentally, If you move in the right circles you can also meet people who will tell you that since capitalist development is a bigger evil than underdevelopment, all this violence and crime actually helps Pakistan, since it obstructs further evil development! I am not kidding, though I must note that even in Pakistan, this remains a minority view.
7. Much has been written about why Pakistan is such a center of terrorism (law and order is not uniquely bad in Pakistan; the causes and solutions may have much in common with similarly situated third world countries, it is in terrorism that we have achieved a unique position). I will not rehash all those old arguments in detail today (though there may be a follow up post on exactly that topic) but I will say a couple of words about some half-developed thoughts that passed through my mind as I sat through a number of such discussions:
A. The opportunity cost of fringe left-wing delusions. The elite left in Pakistan is small and inconsequential, but the Westernized elite as a whole gets a disproportionate number of its ideas from the fringes of the Western Left (incidentally, this problem seems even worse in India, so its not just us; hooray!). Perhaps it is natural that after having been colonized by Western powers, we are suspicious of mainstream Western ideas and find it easier to identify with those in the West who claim to be its most determined opponents. But unfortunately the obsessions and priorities of that group are mostly about their own little world (i.e. the world of liberal academia or the world of left-wing political activism in the West). When they talk about the darker nations they are mostly fighting political battles in their own small world, not in the third world itself. And their knowledge of this world is third hand and heavily colored by the views of “native informants” like Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy (whose firm grasp on reality is well known to anyone who has followed their punditry; and who are getting their own theoretical glasses from their ill-informed and sometimes delusional mentors in the West…a vicious circle of ignorance and self-reinforcing delusion!). The end result is that many Pakistanis who are well-educated and are in a position to influence policy and choices, are fighting battles whose terms and whose framework are completely unsuited for their surroundings. They (and their Western sources) are all well-meaning, but that is about the best one can say for them. A few people like that would probably be a good influence on society; too many and you are in trouble. And we are in lots of trouble.
B. “Islam is the solution” delusions suck up far too many of the remaining educated people. By no means all, but still far too many. The argument is simple: that in everyday mundane decisions, people in Pakistan use common sense like anyone else in the world. But their deeper understanding of society and culture is drowning under the endless repetition of meaningless and delusional ideas about “Islam”. Not Islam as it has actually moved and developed in the world for 1400 years, but Islam as a slogan and an excuse to stop thinking. Protected by blasphemy and apostasy laws, this meaningless and hypocritical conversation sucks up far too much brainpower and argument time. The result is an elite that is not just unaware of the unknown unknowns but that also remains unable to pay meaningful attention to the vast ocean of known knowns that the world has accumulated over thousands of years. Now magical thinking is all well and good, and maybe we all need some of it, but to rely on that and NOTHING else of substance, in a country with 200 million people and so many problems, is not healthy.
Last but not the least, our sense of humor is alive and well. With newly elected prime-minister Nawaz Sharif apparently floundering without a coherent national security strategy 2 months after taking office, the following joke was making the rounds: there is a new position in the kama sutra; its called the Nawaz Sharif. You get on top and do nothing.
(prayer for Pakistan, with apologies to those who cannot speak Punjabi)
Monday, August 05, 2013
Destination Oklahoma II: Route 66
by James McGirk
My wife and I live in Oklahoma. But for the past few months it's felt like we haven't really been living here. That's because you need a car to live in Oklahoma, and until recently we didn't have one.
Actually, what you really need to live here is a truck. Maybe not in the cities, but out here, in the foothills of the Ozarks, where the roads flood when the creek overflows its banks, and even traversing a parking lot means tumbling into tooth shattering ruts and axle scraping bumps: you do. Given that my 'job' is being a freelance writer, and my credit is shot to pieces and my income is totally erratic, buying or leasing a new one was out of the question. So that left buying a used truck. And buying a used truck in Oklahoma—especially when you don’t know the first thing about them—is downright scary.
That's because people out here use their trucks. Take my neighbors as an example. There is a family of fishermen (and –women and –children) who live across the street from me, and they have at least a half-dozen trucks and truck-like sport utility vehicles parked in their lawn, and they drive the hell out of them. At the crack of dawn each morning I watch them hook huge boats to the their trailer hitches, and pile huge people inside of their huge trucks, and form a convoy and go wheeling off toward the Illinois River. They return around noon, caked with mud, with a dozen of the neighborhood cats in tow. My neighbor is a nice man, but there was no way I wanted to buy a truck that was used the way he used his.
I wanted a mall crawler. An off-road vehicle that had never been off-road. So I started looking at the auto listings in California, where my folks live. My thesis was this: that a California car would be more gently used and have much lower mileage than its Oklahoma-equivalent (enough to justify flying out there and driving the thing back).
I found one that met our requirements: a 2004 Grand Cherokee Laredo. The seller was selling it on behalf of his son’s fiancée, who was moving to Europe to become a champion cyclist. This was her beloved “Daisy”, according to the ad; Daisy was painted a glossy, sparkly black, had 4x4-wheel drive, and the famously reliable six-cylinder Jeep 4.0 engine, was big enough to fit my wife’s paintings inside of it (or her stretcher bars), had under 100,000 miles on the odometer, had an automatic transmission, and best of all fit, comfortably in our meager budget (which was about $6,000, generously loaned to us by my folks). A comparable car in Oklahoma, according to my hourly scans of Craigslist, was going for about a $1,000 more and had at least another fifty thousand miles on it.
Mind you, I’m a little shell-shocked when it comes to buying used cars. The last time I bought one (a 1995 Mitsubishi Galant) its engine block exploded on the first long trip I ever took, leaving me stranded in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle, and sticking me with a $3000 bill. Not an experience I wanted to repeat.
My dad test drove the car, and took it to a mechanic who said it was fine, and on my okay, bought the thing. And just before I flew out there to pick it up, he passed along a happy piece of news: “Jamie, did I tell we got a discount on the car? The mechanic found a couple of problems with the steering…”
And that wasn't all. On the news, a record-smashing heat wave was forecast, and my route home took me directly through California’s Low Desert—the hottest place in the world. What’s more, I only had enough money to pay for liability insurance, registration and enough gasoline to get home. I didn’t even have enough for Tripe-A membership (which gives you a couple of free tow trips a year). If anything happened, I was doomed. Plus, I could only spend one night on the road (thanks to a coupon for a free night at a Motel 6). I considered postponing the trip, when my dad gave me yet another unwelcome bit of news: the car had New York plates and its registration was about to expire.
New York State license plates have to be returned before ownership can be transferred. So I had to get Daisy back to Oklahoma and get her registered within three days of arriving in California, otherwise I would have to surrender the plates and register the car in California—which would cost 10x as much as it would in the Cherokee Nation (not to mention the fact that Oklahomans harbor a bit of prejudice toward Californians, who for decades dismissed them as “Okies,” and besides, we wanted Cherokee Nation plates!)
Have I mentioned that I am very anxious driver? My wife and I lived in New York before Oklahoma and we rarely drove, and then we drove all of our stuff in a 20’ UHaul half-way across the country. The Grand Cherokee would certainly be expected to handled better than the UHaul, but there was yet another piece of scary news: the National Transportation Board was asking Chrysler to voluntarily recall vintage Grand Cherokees on account of an exploding gas tank (Chrysler decided to fix them with a trailer hitch—in my model year the fix was merely recommend but not mandated.) And then to make even matters worse, the official press representative from the Cherokee Nation weighed in on a New York Times article about reviving the ‘Cherokee’ nameplate, she implied it was a little offensive, and since my wife and I were living in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, I started having second thoughts about my purchase. But really there was no time to think about that.
The Jeep was stashed in my grandmother’s garage (my folks were a little worried the previous owner might try to unscrew the plates and send them back on his own; this was another source of anxiety). I opened the garage. Daisy was indeed a splendid beast, although ‘she’ had a rather stern face and with her blacked-out windows looked quite fierce, so I didn’t think the name ‘Daisy’ really suited her.
My folks were terrified, they’d heard all those news reports about the hellish weather and the exploding gas tank, and have never really trusted my judgment (perhaps for good reason) and despite having lived and worked in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, picture Oklahoma as a twister-ravaged Mongolian moonscape, and couldn’t bear the thought of me driving 1,700 miles across the country by myself in two days, and insisted my mother join me for a milk run, the first leg of my voyage down to Newport Beach, California (about an hour south of Los Angeles, this would also allow me to extend my voyage a third day). I agreed.
We loaded up with supplies and drove inland. The outdoor thermometer crept up, from about 70F by the coast to 80, then 90, and as we swung south it went up to 105. The steering did feel loose, which was not exactly comforting, and at one point I managed to get the 4x4 stuck, and had to read the manual to disengage it. But the radiator gauge stayed put despite the fierce temperature outside. We struggled up The Grapevine, the nickname for the notoriously steep Tejon Pass through the Santa Clara mountains, which divide Central California from Los Angeles, and for awhile I could barely keep up with 18-wheelers grinding their way up in the slow lane. (Later I realized this was my fault – I was supposed to disengage the overdrive button as I climbed, which would downshift the engine from fifth to fourth). I was not confident in the car. But we arrived on schedule, and drove around town visiting our extended family, and I handed the wheel over to my mother; who’d grown up in Newport Beach, and knew the area better than I did. This was a mistake.
Within five minutes she was lost. Then, all of a sudden, after she made particularly a sloppy U-turn, an unmarked Crown Victoria that had slid quietly behind us, lit up with red and blue lights. Thankfully, the Newport Beach Police Department let us go without looking at our tangled registration (or noticing the wine we’d drunk that evening) and we made our way back unscathed, but it was hardly an auspicious omen.
The next morning I drove into the desert alone.
They say that when you walk the Blue Ridge Mountains by yourself, you cycle through every single you have, and achieve a sort of clarity; but of course that route takes two months of walking, and I had plenty to preoccupy myself for two days of driving.
I left at the crack of dawn, before anyone else was up and drove toward the rising sun. The outside thermometer on my dash ticked higher and higher. The distance between gas stations grew. I stopped in a small town and paid $4.23 for gas. I was so disgusted I couldn’t fill the tank just got enough so that I could get to the border with Arizona. But just before the border, in Needles, with an eighth of tank left, I saw what I thought was my last chance at buying gas: $4.67—a near European price for unleaded petrol—and caved and filled my tank. Naturally, literally just around the corner, beyond the border, was a station that sold for petrol for $3.67 a gallon. I drove on, tasting bitter defeat between quaffs of lemon-lime Gatorade.
The outside temperature gauge on my onboard computer ticked even higher, 110 and then 115, and I drove and faster and faster, wanting to get through the notorious Low Desert before my engine exploded or worse. The traffic was heavy, clustering together at nearly a hundred miles per hour (the speed limit was 85, so I wasn’t going that fast). Since that is not really the speed the Jeep was designed for, I kept fighting with the automatic transmission (I’m used to a standard) trying to trick the thing into revving higher so I could drive it even faster. The outside temperature read 118 degrees Fahrenheit and, by now the previously unflappable radiator gauge was creeping up, and then all of a sudden I heard the most horrible ‘thunk’. And a light on my dashboard lit up an ominous orange displaying the words: “transmission overheat.”I pulled into the slow-lane, eased off the accelerator and limped into a gas station. I opened the door. Outside, it was like the updraft from a pizza oven. The asphalt wobbled. Something horrendous was wrong with my new car. Again! And if anything, paying for blown transmission is just about the only thing more expensive than an engine block. I felt utterly defeated.
I called my wife, my voice meek and pathetic, telling her where I was, (where the hell was I?) trying to sound confident, as I flicked through the manual, my heart racing. See, the first time I’d bought a car and blew it up, in a really stupid way I felt like I’d blown my chance at being an American adult; that I’d failed as a driver; and that because I'd failed as a driver I'd failed as an American; and I think that was actually one of the reasons why squirreled myself away in New York City for ten years instead of exploring the massive new continent I’d found myself in when I arrived.
My hands were shaking. The sun was baking me. I felt like an ant trapped under a magnifying glass. I found the page with the warnings. What expensive fate was about to be delivered to me by the automotive gods? The transmission was too hot. To solve the problem all I had to do was let the thing cool down in Neutral for a few minutes. On the same page was a little note explaining how to use the overdrive button. Obviously that was why the thing overheated. I said a hearty goodbye to my wife, telling her “everything will fine,” with confidence this time, and I let the thing cool down for a few more minutes, and then the light disappeared, and I set out on the road again, reinvigorated, albeit at a slightly more reasonable speed.
The interesting part of my story ends there. My route after that more or less followed Route 66, Amarillo, Texas; Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona… (though not in that order!) I saw incredible storms, lighting flashing in the mountains and skinny pillars of dust swirling through the desert, and great expanses of dusty crops, and lots and lots of Oklahoma’s famous red dirt, but after that spooky brush, I was calmer, and weirdly the car felt calmer too, she seemed to respond the way I wanted her to. And I could anticipate what she wanted. It was as if we had learned to respect each other.
Using the overdrive button correctly made climbing hills a cinch, and the car and I made it back to Oklahoma without anymore complaints from the car.
And then a really strange thing happened. As I pulled into my driveway, having seen the entire continent from a car, as a proper American I suppose, I suddenly felt as if I were home—that for the first time ever home was more than just where I lived, it was where I belonged, I was in the right town, in the right state, in the right country, the right continent, and finally I could relax and let my guard down a just little bit.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Edward Snowden and the Price of Zero
"Not philosophers but fret-sawyers and stamp
collectors compose the backbone of society."
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
As the Outlaw Edward Snowden continues to languish in the transit lounge of the Sheremetyovo International Airport, I am struck by the overall nonchalance with which the revelations of comprehensive NSA-sponsored surveillance have been received. Obviously, it is still early days, but for the moment the broad-brush recording of vast amounts of telecommunications and social media information has not spurred any marches on Washington, the Googleplex or anywhere else for that matter. Let's look back on a little history and see why this relaxed attitude might be even more justified than we suspect.
One way to begin is by situating Snowden in his chosen brotherhood of US intelligence whistleblowers. In saying that he has been waiting for someone like Snowden for 40 years, Daniel Ellsberg plays John the Baptist to Snowden's – well, you get it. But Ellsberg's outing of what became the Pentagon Papers and Snowden's NSA reveal are extraordinarily different, not just in terms of the contents, but also in terms of each man's professional status, and the larger social context in which the leaks occurred. As Garance Franke-Ruta wrote on The Atlantic's website, Ellsberg was about as inside as an insider could be, whereas Snowden is the consummate outsider. Ellsberg was himself the author of swathes of the report that was a distillation of everything that the Pentagon needed to know about its own war, whereas Snowden – well, aside from a handful of documents, we still don't really know what he's got on those four laptops, although Glenn Greenwald, Snowden's chosen conduit, just might. Ellsberg knew that the stakes involved a country that was at war and – most crucially – was subjecting its population to a draft, while Snowden's revelations are of a decidedly more ambiguous variety, involving things that we use every day, that seem to be friendly, convenient (if not essential), and free. Finally, Ellsberg remained in the US, as Franke-Ruta puts it, "a powerful insider joining his conscience to an existing upswell in public opinion," while Snowden is stuck playing Victor Navorski, with little chance of Catherine Zeta-Jones showing up in a stewardess outfit any time soon.
There is, however, an interesting thread that makes its way across all of these disparities. I would like to call it a matter of effort, and the difference that effort makes. In fact, I will further argue that the progress of technology has led to a progressive dissipation of the value of effort, and that in turn leads to a proportionate dilution of the stakes that we think we are talking about.
As an example, consider that Ellsberg's decision to leak the Pentagon report on Vietnam first required making a copy of the report itself – there were only 15 copies made in the first place, and Ellsberg's secret labors would produce the 16th. As one might imagine, photocopying technology in 1969 required a bit of work, and Ellsberg had some 7,000 pages to get through. It took him about three months to do this. We don't know about Snowden, but his nearest counterpart, Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame, was "allegedly able to download volumes of material onto discs disguised as Lady Gaga albums and blithely walk past security."
The difference between the two sets of documents can be neatly summed up by the fact that, whereas the entire Pentagon Papers were about 2.5 million words, WikiLeaks was over 300 million. And yet, the Pentagon Papers played a large part in turning the tide against the Vietnam War, while WikiLeaks' impact has been, up until now, fairly limited. Why? Obviously, the two are difficult to compare not just in terms of size, but this doesn't mean that we can't compare them in terms of intent. That is, the former was a careful distillation of 25 years of history of a specific region, and the latter a chunk of America's entire diplomatic output over three years, from the revelatory to the banal but often amusing (if anything, the Manning leak revealed that the State Department has more frustrated novelists than a Williamsburg coffeeshop). But the cables themselves are a disparate portrait of an organization at work – they themselves do not exist, or were collected, to make a specific point. They are raw material, and therefore prefigure the formulation of a particular hypothesis. This does not mean that there are no smoking guns (there are, and sometimes literally), but I must point out the unintended consequences of this kind of unfocused data dump: people are free to dragoon the cables into furthering all sorts of pet agendas, such as the obvious fact that global warming is a hoax.
Snowden's NSA surveillance leak implies an extension of that trend. People have been throwing around all sorts of numbers, but at this point it is impossible to estimate how much has been gathered and what has been stored, let alone the usefulness of it all. Are we talking about hundreds of billions of pieces of information? What's a "piece of information," anyway? Is it bigger or smaller than a breadbox? As a result, the media turns to adjectives that either up the ante ("massive," "unprecedented"), border on totality ("most," "almost all", "nearly every") or approach totality from the other, even more rhetorically effective direction (the dreaded "unknown").
Obviously, not knowing how much data there is in the first place makes it difficult to consider its relevance, at least in the way we can consider the relevance of every single word in the Pentagon Papers. Because with the NSA surveillance scheme, there is no relevance – in its purest form, it is an indifferent dragnet of the entirety of people's daily communications. And as such, it is completely and utterly dilute.
We see here the trajectory of effort: from Ellsberg and the report that he helped birth, once for the Pentagon and thence to the rest of the world, we had supreme effort exerted in both its creation and its subsequent extrusion. With WikiLeaks, we had the wholesale divulgence of the machinery of government; and while its constituent parts are overwhelmingly self-referencing and not constitutive of a point, they are still richly indicative of an organization's process of sense-making. Effort is still exerted here, but it is fractured and indeterminate. Finally, thanks to the holy trinity of information technology – disappearing costs of storage, bandwidth and processing power – the NSA surveillance is of such a scale that there need not be a point to what is being recorded, so long as it is being recorded, and the algorithms will take care of the rest.
It is no coincidence that Manning was a private and Snowden a contractor, while Ellsberg was a mandarin. The effort required to secrete away information artifacts created or captured with less and less effort has itself become rather effortless. And yet, as we slide down this arc, any protest or concern becomes more difficult to discern. Why is this? Does protest also require too much effort, since there is a difference between winding up in some database that one will never know about, versus getting drafted in order to get ambushed in some jungle halfway around the world? Or, ought we better ask, What exactly should we be protesting here, if anything?
No: there are deeper forces at work here. Strangely, within days of Snowden's outing, Amazon's sales of George Orwell's 1984 leapt nearly 7,000%. I have written earlier why it is misleading to look to Orwell as an appropriate description of our current society, since the success of Orwell's kind of totalitarianism is predicated upon the relentless crushing of resistance – which implies that there is such a thing as resistance. In fact, there is no resistance, and commentators like Michel Foucault are much more appropriate to help understand why this is the case. To put it even more pointedly, Foucault would argue that, as knowledge and power further enweave themselves into society, and define us as subjects known to and further constructed by these processes of knowledge and power, there is almost always bound to be less resistance.
Foucault's essay "Governmentality" lays out the historical background for much of this transformation. He contrasts the rise of government as distinct from what we usually consider to be the first modern work of governing, Machiavelli's The Prince. This work represented the prince who "acquires his principality by inheritance or conquest, but in any case he does not form part of it, he remains external to it" (p90). Since the prince was always outside of his territory, Machiavelli's task is to simply show his client the most expeditious ways by which he could retain that territory.
However, socio-economic evolution led to the need for a new sort of justification. By the 17th century, writers on "the art of government" sought a greater continuity with all the other forms of government that kept the wheels on a society – that "a person who wishes to govern the state well must first learn how to govern himself, his goods and his patrimony, after which he will be successful in governing the state" (p91). It is at this point that the idea of ruling ‘for the public good' and not simply for the sake of ruling is introduced. In turn, the common good is achieved once all citizens submit to the law. But where do laws come from? To Foucault, governing "is a question… of employing tactics rather than law, and even of using laws themselves as tactics – to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such and such ends may be achieved" (p95). Laws are really a rubric, and little more.
So instead of the prince being the sun, forever shining upon his principality but also forever apart from it, sovereignty drew its legitimacy from the law, or tactics masquerading as law, and vice versa. A binarism was replaced by a circularity. This proved much more effective, since if the continuity that Foucault describes was to obtain, it would have to encompass all the different forms of government (of self, of family, of workplace and church and city). At the same time, these different forms of government influenced what would become understood as the public good; that is to say, the public good was never an abstract concept to Foucault, rather it was an aggregate of all the ends desired by all the governmental forms mentioned above.
As this process matured, Foucault concludes that the final and ongoing goal of government is the management of the population itself. This came about as a result of the rise of statistics and the ability to view an entire population in statistical form, thereby identifying normality and, especially importantly, abnormality. He notes that "the managing of a population not only concerns the collective mass of phenomena, the level of its aggregate effects, it also implies the management of population in its depths and details" (p102). This is very much in keeping with his overarching themes of knowledge and power, and this is also where we rejoin the current narrative. That is, what government wants is the ability to render us as knowable subjects to the governmental gaze. In the final formulation, nothing is lost: "we need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality on has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security" (p102).
In mentioning security, however, we ought consider the crucial ways in which this is different from Orwell. The NSA programs such as PRISM, etc, have been compared to the – indeed very Orwellian – Stasi machinery of East Germany. Topically there may be similarities, but on a deeper, conceptual level, they could not be more different. Foucault constantly emphasizes this in his writing: the willingness with which we all participate in the processes that, in this case, create us as subjects made visible to the state. Equally important is the willingness with which we forget that we are engaged in this process, and that we accept the results of that process as constituting some kind of truth about ourselves. We are, in the case of the current NSA scheme, all too gladly providing all the information about ourselves that the state could possibly want, and show few signs of unplugging (not that it's all that easy, either). Arguably, one would have to move to a shack in Montana in order to effect such an ambition – which would itself be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
This is the link between the idea of effort that I discussed above, and knowledge and power as manifested by government. We have, through a series of logical and seemingly inevitable transformations, arrived at a state of low stakes. The state needs to expend less effort to surveille us, because we do all the work ourselves, and we do this work in the course of seeming to do something else, that is, living our daily lives. Furthermore, as consumers, our decades of investment in the computing industry have driven down the price of our own surveillance. As a result, the intelligence-IT complex has emerged as the sister paradigm to the military-industrial complex (and this is what we really mean by a security apparatus). And in a supreme irony, the same, utter lack of coercion required to achieve this has made it almost invisible to us, even after it has been revealed to us. It almost makes one wish for a good, old-fashioned draft.
Monday, July 08, 2013
The Great Spy's Dream
by James McGirk
I asked Patrick if there was anything particularly useful he could pass on to me “about the CIA.” “The first thing to remember is that nobody connected to the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”
—Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA.
“The reason why these agencies are coming out of the shadows is that they want to tell their story to the extent that they can,” says Peter Earnest, the founding director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. As to how an intelligence agency should go about telling its story when so much of that story is concealed from the public eye is easy, he says, “you simply don’t tell people the parts that are classified.” The problem with leaving holes in a story, however, particularly one as juicy as that of government espionage, is that those holes create a vacuum and that vacuum fills with rubbish, sinister, exceedingly compelling rubbish that supports an entire ecosystem of strange scavengers. The question is: are these scavengers a bug, a feature, or simply a sideshow to the story being told?
Given that bamboozlement is essentially an operational mandate for an intelligence agency, one wonders whether there might be something else going on. John le Carré called this addictive haze of paranoia the “Great Spy’s Dream.” Writing for the New Yorker in 2008, le Carré reflected on his first clandestine mission, a meeting with a Czechoslovakian double agent that was casually aborted when le Carré’s Browning automatic slipped from his waistband and dropped to the floor of an Austrian bar. Le Carré wonders whether his case officer might have invented the entire operation, “his composure astonished me. Not a word of rebuke.” Le Carré diagnoses a kind of delusional paranoia from the incident, “a condition that in the spook world, rather like a superbug in a hospital, is endemic, hard to detect, and harder still to eradicate.” He sees it contaminating the Iraq Dossier, pushing intelligence officers to produce the slam-dunk evidence for the Iraq War, and all because we, the public, want to believe in our spies, “no matter how many times they trip over their cloaks and leave their daggers on the train.” Yet something is going on out there.
Every American agency that employs someone other than a security guard to carry a gun has an unofficial fan club, with a character that is a funhouse reflection of its parent bureaucracy’s. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the agency that built the Internet and invented stealth technology and god knows what else, attracts futurists with a sinister side, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attracts gun geeks and inveterate smokers, while the U.S. Border Patrol’s various fan clubs are slightly xenophobic and frankly downright hysterical. The web is riddled with chat-rooms, archives and clipping services discussing the minutia of these agencies. They come in all flavors though there is a definite paranoid crunch to most of them. A left-leaning paranoiac interested in intelligence might be drawn to Cryptome.org, a storehouse of sinister government documents that predates Wikileaks, while his or her rightwing counterpart might visit a site like AmericanBorderPatrol.com. Belonging to and participating in these sites must be a sort of wish fulfillment. Particularly since the agencies with the most pull on the imagination belong to America’s intelligence community, especially Central Intelligence or CIA.
There has been an explosion of interest in all things spy-related since the end of the Cold War. Central Intelligence Agency now has an entertainment liaison to field the myriad requests from movie producers and journalists that come in, and there are online discussion boards devoted to every fragment of the clandestine experience, from tradecraft to getting into the agency; and a former Russian spy, Anne Chapman, a pneumatic redheaded femme fatale who was part of a massive – and massively incompetent (or so the FBI would have us believe) – spy network, deported back to Russia after being caught red-handed encoding airport blueprints in computer graphics (a process called steganography) and has since evolved into the sort of politician/pin-up girl hybrid that was previously only possible in hopelessly corrupt but fun-loving places like Italy and the gentler former Soviet satellites. On top of this, or perhaps beneath all of this, the U.S. government seems to be deliberately manipulating the relationship between its clandestine agencies and the general public.
Immediately following the Second World War, according to Tim Weiner in his Legacy of Ashes (2008), as the Communist menace loomed large for the Western world and it became clear to President Eisenhower, particularly after the devastating Korean War, that the United States and Western Europe simply did not have the manpower or resources to hold off an aggressive Soviet or Chinese state for very long and that the only way to remain in the geopolitical catbird seat was to multiply the effect of their existing forces by rapidly escalating America’s nuclear arsenal and its clandestine forces. The former would function as the geopolitical equivalent of porcupine quills, turning the United States into something so prickly to take a bite out of no matter how delicious it may have been, while the latter would allow the United States to outmaneuver its enemies. Occasionally this meant covert undertakings, such as toppling governments (like Guatemala or Iran) and funding modern art exhibitions and multi-megawatt radio stations playing contagiously cool American music, but mostly it meant gathering and analyzing intelligence, knowing an enemy’s moves before it knew them itself, in effect exerting control through narrative.
Though we know now that the Cold War was winding down in the 1980s, for those on its shadowy frontlines a secret war was roiling. According to Tim Weiner, the agency was at its peak strength under Director Robert Gates, with several active agents on the Soviet side who produced excellent intelligence for the American government, and a series of successful clandestine operations -- operations being the more James-Bond-like side of intelligence – had produced real results, American funding and munitions were keeping the Soviets bogged down in Afghanistan and NATO had infiltrated a top secret Russian program that was using the hard currency largesse accumulated during the oil shocks in the 1970s to purchase advanced Western computer technology and industrial equipment. Western intelligence agencies began inserting malicious programming code into electronic components that were being used to remotely control oil pipelines. In 1982 the pressure inside of a remote stretch of pipeline in Siberia was gradually and undetectably increased by Western agents. Nothing showed up on Russian monitors until there was a massive explosion, one large enough to be mistaken for a tactical nuclear weapon.
On the information front, American intelligence agencies were also beginning to score victories – they had found evidence in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia that the Russians were continuing to test biological weapons and threatened to openly confront them. The Russians were determined to strike back. As chronicled in Thomas Boghardt’s amazing “Soviet Bloc Intelligence and its AIDS Disinformation Campaign” (Studies in Intelligence, 2009), the Russians began designating a quarter of their operating budget toward what the director of East Germany’s Department X of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence bureau, Col. Rolf Wagenbreth described as what “Our friends in Moscow call ‘dezinformatsiya,’ our enemies in America call ‘active measures’ and I, dear friends, call ‘my favorite pastime.”
The most effective attempt at hijacking the narrative was a project named OPERATION INFEKTION, which claimed that the HIV virus, the one that causes AIDS, was created in a U.S. government laboratory. It remains an enduring example the destabilizing damage that an intelligence agency can do through narrative alone, particularly one created by knowing its enemy’s weaknesses intimately and striking at a issue. The idea remains a serious problem for social workers and humanitarian agencies to this day. For foreigners the idea that there might be something sinister to the missions of mercy the United States and its allies were conducting, that the syringes they insisted on poking into the arms of their children might contain something other than the miraculous medicines they were being promised, particularly as a virulent sexually transmitted disease was streaking through the presumably populations of Africa, Southeast Asia and America’s presumably undesirable subcultures, while leaving the majority of Westerners unscathed. And it fit in perfectly with the perception of Western culture being morally bankrupt in a sexually voracious way, and technologically advanced to the point of having near-magical power. And after all it was not so long ago that the American government had been busted testing mind-bending drugs on its own citizens and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1930s were not so far away. Naturally the Soviet campaign drew upon all of this.
Thomas Boghardt describes how the Soviets attempted to pin AIDS on the Pentagon, even before the HIV virus was isolated. Their first platform was to accuse the United States of conducting eugenics. Soviet writers cited prior instances of “American perfidity,” that is Freedom of Information Act documents detailing experiments performed on U.S. citizens such as MKULTRA (which tested the hallucinogenic drug LSD on unwitting soldiers and Harvard students, including a young Ted Kaczynski), tests of aerosolized biowarfare systems that sprayed benign bacteria into the San Francisco and New York City subway systems, and they pointed out America’s support of South Africa (then under Apartheid) and noted that AIDS seemed to be radiating out of East Coast cities, such as Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City, cities that not only had large ghettos, but were also conveniently close to nearby biological warfare laboratories. This time the story didn’t quite stick but the next one did.
The Soviets tried again in 1983, using their government propaganda wing to seed a letter in the July 17th issue of a left-wing Indian newspaper called The Patriot. The anonymous letter claimed to have been written by a “prominent American anthropologist” and again cited well established facts about AIDS, described U.S. testing on American citizens then claimed that the U.S. had never abandoned bacteriological weapons research as they had claimed in 1969, claimed that researchers at Fort Detrick created AIDS “by ‘analyzing samples of highly pathogenic viruses in Africa and Latin America,’” and concluded by citing well-known articles warning of the threat AIDS posed to developing nations.
The story languished for several years until it was cited in the KGB paper in 1985 (“Panic in the West or What is Hiding behind the Sensation Surrounding AIDS” in the 30 October 1985 issue of Literaturnya Gazeta). By now the United States had increased pressure on the Soviet Union, accusing them of breaking the Geneva Convention over their continued bio-warfare programs and blocking international AIDS relief. OPERATION INFEKION began again in earnest, this time with the East Germans providing back up support, which included leaking information to an unwitting agent, a highly respected but also highly ideological scientist named Dr. Jakob Segal. Segal latched onto the story and became fixated with the idea of American-made AIDS and spent the rest of his career spreading the idea at international conferences, writing peer-reviewed papers that cited American AIDS as fact and essentially collaring anyone who would listen to him and forcing the idea down their throat. He converted masses of people, including an Austrian author named Johannes Mario Simmel who wrote a best-selling novel (Along with the Clowns came the Tears) spin-off TV miniseries about the Segal’s ideas. According to Boghardt, the KGB called people like this – the uncompensated evangelists of propaganda – subconscious multiplicators that is when they didn’t just refer to them as “useful idiots.”
The damage wrought endures to this day. A 1992 survey found that 15 percent of Americans still believe that Pentagon created AIDS, while a RAND Foundation and Oregon State University poll taken in 2005 found that 50 percent of African Americans “thought AIDS was manmade,” “25 percent believed AIDS was the product of a government laboratory,” and “12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA.” Respectable academics still sometimes debate the veracity of this myth. Accusations eugenics-by-intentional-infection continue to pepper the opinion pages of third world newspapers and first world free papers. Humanitarian and social workers are occasionally killed because of this idea, even though in 2008 the KGB’s replacement admitted it was a hoax (and had walked away from the story as early as 1992).
OPERATION INFEKION was hardly the only disinformation campaign conducted against the CIA, according to Boghardt, among the many Soviet campaigns the agency was accused of committing the Jonestown Massacre and running baby farms in Latin America to supply North Americans with organs for transplant. Though Soviet propaganda had an effect on the public perception of the clandestine community, the very worst damage ever done was self-inflicted.
Boghardt maintains in his article that the CIA conducted no equivalent to the U.S.S.R’s active measures. That said, propaganda is said to come in three flavors: black propaganda is entirely fabricated and includes stories like the laboratory AIDS one; grey propaganda is true but willfully slanted, an example of this might be blaming the recent financial collapse on impoverished, irresponsible subprime mortgage holders. Certainly they have had some agency in the crisis but to leave out the downright predatory behavior of banks, reckless valuations, and speculation gone berserk would be misleading, to say the least. The last category is white, and these are stories that meant to be unvarnished truth. White propaganda is by definition nearly impossible to refute and is by the far the most damaging. There is a reason why the most persistent paranoid conspiracies about the United States government are clustered around its greatest failures. That people believe the U.S. government was behind September 11th, that the CIA was complicit in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, concealing alien technologies, or actively trying to control the minds of American citizens is basically the result of people trying to fill the holes between the idea of omnipotent, mysterious government agencies and the gross arrogance and incompetence behind some of the U.S.’s government’s misreadings of intelligence and poorly conceived clandestine operations, for example the revelation of national security funding on campus in the 1960s by Ramparts magazine, the revelations of domestic espionage and experimentation with LSD by the Church Committee in 1975, and the Pentagon Papers revelations of undeclared wars in Southeast Asia and the Kennedy brothers assassination attempts against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
For a clandestine agency to be effective it must command a sterling reputation both within and outside its organization. “No one else can understand it,” said Colin Thompson who had served in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam [to Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes]. “It’s a mist you dip into and hide behind. You believe have become an elite person in the world of American government, and the agency encourages that belief from the moment you come in. They make you a believer.” The CIA’s perceived invulnerability and prestige goes double for the recruitment of agents. “Contrary to popular jargon, a CIA agent is not the actual employee of the CIA but rather the hapless schlub who has been recruited by a CIA case officer to spy on behalf of the United States, usually in exchange for money,” writes former CIA case officer Lindsay Moran in Blowing My Cover (2005). To commit treason against your motherland an agent has to trust that the agency he or she is doing it for will be able to protect them.
The first half of Moran’s book is a meticulously observed description of the author’s own yearlong training by Central Intelligence. Moran describes how she learned the Recruitment Cycle, “the process of spotting, assessing, developing and enlisting foreign agents.” She learned to diagnose a potential recruit’s vulnerabilities and then “play upon those weaknesses and introduce ways in which ‘our organization’ might help;” and if there were no weaknesses, to “wine and dine him [N.B. she notes earlier that most agents are men], ply him with alcohol and glimpses of the good life [and] if all went well, ultimately… weaken his resolve.” A classic article from Central Intelligence Agency’s electronic archives “More On The Recruitment of Soviets” (Studies in Intelligence, 1965) describes the traits to look out for in greater detail:
“[The] single, simple, self-evident explanation is that the enormous act of defection, of betrayal, treason, is almost invariably the act of a warped, emotionally maladjusted personality. It is compelled by a fear, hatred, a deep sense of grievance, or obsession with revenge far exceeding in intensity these emotions as experienced by normal, reasonably well-integrated and well-adjusted individuals… All [Soviet defectors] in the writer’s experience have manifest some behavioral problem – such as alcoholism, satyriasis, morbid depression, a psychopathic behavior pattern of one type or another, an evasion of adult responsibility – which was adequate evidence for an underlying personality defect decisive in their defection. It is only mild hyperbole to say that no one can consider himself a Soviet operations officer until he has gone through the sordid experience of holding his Soviet “friend’s” head while he vomits five days of drinking into the sink.”
The final stage of Lindsay Moran’s training as a CIA case officer was to travel to a nearby city, usually Richmond or Williamsburg, Virginia where she had to spend hours driving around the city trying to detect and evade surveillance while securing meetings with promising “agents,” who were all retired case officers in the game literally for a free lunch. Moran would wine and dine her quarry, gradually prying from them the crucial details that would allow her to convince the agents to work for the U.S. government. The last stage of the recruitment cycle (for the case officer) is to have the agent sign a receipt after accepting payment, starting a paper trail and committing them to the agency (not to mention adding a not-so-subtle threat of blackmail to the equation). To Moran, the paper trail and the mountains of calcified government bureaucracy devoted to processing it constrains the real work of espionage. In the second half of the book, Moran is dispatched to Eastern Europe where she learns that life as a real spy is that it is nothing at all like the courtly diplomatic parlor games she learned to play in the United States. Instead it is a chaotic and increasingly morally ambiguous mess. There are moments of extreme danger Moran began to question the agency after September 11th, wondering whether the massive resources spent on espionage yet still hopelessly snarled in government bureaucracy might better be spent elsewhere. She eventually quits the agency and becomes a journalist (she had earlier earned an MFA at Columbia University).
September 11th was a public disgrace for the Central Intelligence Agency and was quickly followed by another, even more heinous debacle – the mis-reading and exaggeration of the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was the rationale for going to War in Iraq. In the years that followed, the intelligence community in the United States was reorganized under a central bureaucracy, and the Central Intelligence Agency was bled of funds. At the same time as the agency was coming under attack from the government, there was a flood of entertainment products devoted to intelligence, much of it casting them in a very good light, at least when compared with the depictions of the secret government activity from only a few years prior. An intriguing comparison might be drawn between Chris Carter’s X-Files, which ran from 1993 to 2002 and imagined a sinister shadow government attempting to take over the world on behalf of UFO-borne aliens, another FOX series, 24 which debuted in November 2001 and depicted a far more vulnerable if much more kickass version of the U.S. government. The X-Files began in the wake of the siege of the Branch Dravidians compound at Waco, Texas (February 1993) and Ruby Ridge (1992), a time when suspicion toward the government was peaking. Many wondered why, after the end of Cold War, the U.S. government needed any paramilitary federal agency at all. The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 restored a measure of sympathy. Meanwhile 24, with its ticking clock and frenetic pacing began only a few months after September 11th. The government became a system on the verge of collapse held together by a few courageous rogue agents.
Many branches of the U.S. military employ an entertainment liaison. What these offices do is provide a point person for anyone wanting to make a movie about the U.S. military, offering what some might call a Faustian bargain, providing access to real equipment (like tanks and airplanes) and government facilities in exchange for a chance to edit a script, presumably redacting any especially unflattering depictions of the military. Central Intelligence now employs an entertainment liaison as well. Since the CIA vets any document published by an agent after they retire from the agency, it is quite shocking that Moran’s book contains such a detailed account of her training, particularly given her critiques of the agency’s cloying bureaucracy. Perhaps Moran’s book reflected a new sort of propaganda for the agency, not that she intended it to be propaganda, but that her book told the CIA’s story in a new and particularly compelling way – it was almost like a police procedural, underlining how much expertise and teamwork goes into espionage, even if that meant that the agency might have to swallow an occasional swipe against its bloated administration. After all, those stories about rogue detectives flouting the orders of their blindered chiefs ultimately reinforce the idea of the policeman as a force for order and good.
Since September 11th there seems to have been an increasing appetite for depictions of the procedural side of intelligence, and these have been welcomed by agencies. A somewhat recent review in the declassified version of the CIA’s Intelligence Studies journal actually wondered whether there might some day be a movie that depicts the intense anxiety and pressures associated with the analysis side of intelligence. In a way there is: Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine, which bills itself as the “world’s only independent publication about espionage and intelligence” and a “bridge between officialdom and the public” has been in publication since May 2001 and has a circulation of 100,000. The International Spy Museum was founded the following year.
The International Spy Museum is the second museum devoted to espionage to open in the Washington D.C, and while the International Spy Museum is not affiliated with the government in any official capacity, its connections to the clandestine community run deep. Museum Director Peter Earnest is a former Central Intelligence agent who concluded a 36-year long career in intelligence as Central Intelligence Agency’s public relations director, and the International Spy Museum was funded by Milton Maltz, a broadcasting tycoon who began his career at the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. government’s code-cracking and signals intelligence agency. Like all things espionage-related, Maltz’s funding of the spy museum may seem as benign or sinister as you could possibly wish it to be. On the one hand Maltz’ company, The Malrite Company, is responsible for such benign and friendly entities as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Jupiter theatre, and the Spy Museum is “committed to the apolitical presentation of the history of espionage in order to provide visitors with nonbiased, accurate information…” and the museum seems targeted toward a younger demographic; but the history of espionage in the United States is a strange and brutal subject to whitewash, and since there are former spies on the board of directors, could this be a government agency’s back channel way of manipulating the American public? It might even be a backchannel created with the best of intentions.
It seems extremely unlikely that the Maltz or the International Spy Museum have ulterior motives. But the National Security Agency does have a particularly weird relationship with the public. The NSA has long had a reputation for being the U.S. government’s most secretive agency, and it remains exceedingly secretive, for example, they refused an interview request for this piece, which would not be unusual were it not for a highly confrontational follow-up telephone call to the author. A brusque voice – the imperative “command voice” – demanded to know the author’s name, rank, academic affiliation, and standing in the pantheon of journalists. He was found wanting. Central Intelligence was delighted to answer questions but then delayed and didn’t send responses until long this after the story was due. Yet for all of its clandestine camouflage, the NSA maintains the nation’s only official spy museum, the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Though the National Cryptologic Museum is the only official spy museum open to the public, most agencies do have museums of their own, albeit in restricted areas the public is not allowed to enter, despite owning the collections, which are officially are held in perpetual “public trust”.) The National Cryptologic Museum bills itself as “the National Security Agency's principal gateway to the public.”
The relationship between the public and its agencies is still being negotiated. Even a declassified museum exhibits are a fraught with the leylines of clandestine intrigue and bureaucracy. The two hottest tickets on the museum circuit last year were Cold War space machines. Naturally the cute one attracted the most attention: museums all over the country fought to show the sweet porpoise-nosed Space Shuttle, while the KH-9 Hexagon, a spy satellite that the National Reconnaissance Office declassified last September for its 50th Anniversary celebration went almost unnoticed. The thing was a bristling tube with the approximate dimensions of a subway car. Its gargantuan twin cameras swept back and forth exposing hourglass-shaped panoramas on drums of chemical film. When the drums were full, it disgorged “exploded-buckets” the size of “garbage-cans” into the atmosphere to be snatched by the U.S. Air Force’s 6594th Test Group, i.e. the “Catch a Falling Star” squadron. The photos were known as Exemplar to those who actually saw them, and Cue Ball to those who only knew that such intelligence existed. As America’s aeronautic museums squabbled over the remaining Space Shuttles, the National Reconnaissance Office put Hexagon on display at the Smithsonian Museum. At first they placed the satellite on public display for a single day before replacing it in its crate and presumably whisking it back to a top-secret hangar not unlike the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (That is not entirely true, the satellite was displayed to several air force bases off limits to the public.)
For a government office whose existence was classified for the first 31 years of operation this seems like the equivalent of barking at the moon. What was the point letting the public glimpse the satellite for a single day? There was barely any attention paid in the media, so it couldn’t have been publicity they were after, and if they wanted to keep the project a secret why declassify in the first place? There is a clue on the 6594th Test Group’s website (which contains amazing footage of an aerial recovery). An invitation to the Smithsonian’s exhibit displays an enormous list of contractors. No matter what the awareness of Hexagon was to the public at large, there was still an audience of tens of thousands of people were involved with the project who had been sworn on pain of prison (or even execution) to stay silent about what was an awesome engineering, logistics and analysis achievement. In an investigation for the Washington Post (“Top Secret America”) exposing the vast expansion of the intelligence community since Sept. 11th, Dana Priest calculated that 854,000 people hold top-secret clearance in the United States and that there are “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work[ing] on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence.” It seems possible that the sheer number of these millions of contractors and government employees pressing upon society, whether they’re clamoring for recognition, blabbing to their spouses and friends about their jobs, attempting to recruit new members, may well be flooding the collective unconsciousness with ghostly stories about espionage, and besides, in a culture inundated with data and knowledge of all kinds, what could be more delicious than secrecy? Harry Mathew’s line about CIA is a lie, by the way, unless that is what they want us to think.
Monday, June 24, 2013
by Jalees Rehman
"The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution."
The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA (National Security Agency) is engaged in mass surveillance of private online communications between individuals by obtaining data from "internet corporations" such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft as part of a covert program called PRISM have resulted in widespread outrage and shock. The outrage is understandable, because such forms of surveillance constitute a major invasion of our privacy. The shock, on the other hand, is somewhat puzzling. In the past years, the Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to continue or even expand the surveillance policies of the Bush government. The PATRIOT Act was renewed in 2011 under Obama and government intrusion into our personal lives is justified under the mantle of "national security". We chuckle at the absurdity of obediently removing our shoes at airport security checkpoints and at the irony of having to place Hobbit-size toothpaste tubes into transparent bags for a government that seems to have little respect for transparency. Non-US-citizens who reside in or travel to the United States know that they can be detained by US authorities, but even US citizens who are critical of their government, such as the MacArthur Genius grantee Laura Poitras, are hassled by American authorities. Did anyone really believe that the Obama administration with its devastating track record of murdering hundreds of civilians - including many children – in drone attacks would have moral qualms about using the NSA to spy on individual citizens?
The Stasi analogy
One of the obvious analogies drawn in the aftermath of Snowden's assertions is the comparison between the NSA and the "Stasi", the abbreviated nickname for the "Ministerium für Staatssicherheit" (Department of State Security) in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR). Articles referring to the "United Stasi of America" or the "Modern Day Stasi-State" make references to the massive surveillance apparatus of the East German Stasi, which monitored all forms of communications between citizens of East Germany, from wire-tapping apartments, offices, phones and secretly reading letters. The Stasi "perfected" the invasion of personal spaces – as exemplified in the Oscar-winning movie "The Lives of Others". It is tempting to think of today's NSA monitoring of emails, Facebook posts or other social media interactions as a high-tech version of the Stasi legacy. A movie director may already be working on a screenplay for a movie about Snowden and the NSA called "The Bytes of Others". However, there are some key differences between the surveillance conducted by the Stasi and the PRISM surveillance program of the NSA. The Stasi was a state-run organization which was responsible for amassing the data and creating profiles of the monitored citizens. It did not just rely on regular Stasi employees, but heavily relied on so called IMs – "inoffizielle Mitarbeiter" or "informelle Mitarbeiter" - informal informants. These informal informants were East German citizens who met with designated Stasi officers, reporting on the opinions and actions of their friends, colleagues and relatives and at times aiding the Stasi in promoting state propaganda. In the case of the PRISM program, the amassing of data is conducted by private "internet corporations" such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who then share some of the data with the state. Furthermore, instead of having to rely on informal informants like the Stasi, "internet corporations" simply rely on the users themselves who readily divulge their demographic information, opinions and interests to the corporations.
Corporate erosion of our privacy
It seems strange that the outrage ensuing after the PRISM revelations is primarily directed at the US government and the NSA, but not at the corporations which are invading our privacy. Criticisms of the role that private corporations have played in the PRISM program primarily focus on the fact that these corporations divulged the information to the government, but seem to ignore the fact that corporations such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft continuously invade our privacy and use our data for their own marketing goals or share it with their clients. Centuries of persecution and oppression by governments - monarchs, dictators or democratically elected governments - have sensitized us to privacy invasion by governments, but we seem to have a rather laissez-faire attitude when it comes to corporate invasion of our privacy. In fact, we associate the expressions "corporate espionage" or "corporate surveillance" with corporations spying on each other but not necessarily with them spying on us. If we had found out the US Postal Service kept track of how many letters we send to certain recipients, perhaps even scanned our personal letters for certain keywords and then used this information for its own marketing purposes or sold it to interested parties, most of us would have considered this an egregious violation of our privacy. Yet we know that "internet corporations" such as Google and Facebook routinely practice this form of privacy invasion. In our neoliberal world of unfettered capitalism, the state is increasingly answering to corporate interests while ignoring the concerns of citizens. We have to ask ourselves whether such an eviscerated state is the only threat to our civil liberties, or whether we need be more sensitive to violations of our privacy and liberties by private corporations.
Long before the leak of the PRISM documents, critics such as Evgeny Morozov in "The Net Delusion", Rebecca MacKinnon in "Consent of the Networked" or Robert McChesney in "Digital Disconnect" warned us about the invasion of rivacy by "internet corporations" which are collecting information about us. We do not have to pay to use Google and Facebook, but the reason why these for-profit corporations offer us "free" services is because they use and market the information we unwittingly provide them. This type of information-gathering is probably legal, because when we sign up for accounts, most of us agree to their terms and conditions. Even if new laws or regulations are enacted after the PRISM scandal to limit surveillance, it is likely they will only pertain to how government agencies manage information on individuals or how corporations convey such information to government agencies, but it is unlikely that new laws will limit the information gathering for corporate benefits.
Why is it that we tend to be so lenient towards "internet corporations"? One reason may be the mythopoesis surrounding the "internet". Instead of viewing Silicon Valley executives of "internet corporations" as capitalists who sell our privacy for profit, we envision them as benevolent, entrepreneurial hipsters who eat organic quinoa salads and donate some portion of their profits to philanthropic causes. Some of us may buy into the myth of the egalitarian nature of the "internet". The "internet" is not egalitarian, especially not when it comes to the sharing and marketing of information by corporations. For example, there is a fundamental asymmetry when Facebook collects data on its users but does not feel compelled to reveal exactly how it uses the information. Jeff Jarvis, a vocal supporter of "internet corporations" has already expressed concern that users may start questioning their blind trust in the "internet" as a consequence of the PRISM revelations, skillfully avoiding a discussion of corporate privacy invasion. This strategy of placing all the blame for privacy violations on the government may be the best strategy for corporations. Google's attempt to challenge the US government, asking for permission to disclose any data requests from the NSA, enables Google to portray itself as a knight in shining armor and evade the far more uncomfortable discussion of corporate uses and abuses of amassed data.
Culture of sharedom
Evgeny Morozov's recent book "To Save Everything Click Here" provides an excellent insight into the mythos of the "internet". The physical internet consists of computers, routers and servers that are connected to each other, whereas the mythical "internet" is a cultural icon to which god-like powers are ascribed. Morozov refers to this ideology as "internet-centrism". The ideology of "solutionism", a term borrowed from the world of architecture and urban planning, refers to:
…an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions— the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences— to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.
"Solutionism" and "internet-centrism" can act in concert, creating a virtuous cycle in which the mythical "internet" is seen as a means to provide the ultimate solutions to the problems of humankind. This view of the "internet" and the afore-mentioned neoliberal awe of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs all may contribute to why privacy invasions by internet corporations are forgiven or ignored.
One additional cultural phenomenon that has allowed "internet corporations" to erode our privacy is that of sharedom, the incessant and growing desire to share our opinions and details of our personal lives with a broad audience. Just like "solutionism" or neoliberalism, sharedom is not a product of the "internet", but it has become a major fuel for the mythical "internet". Sharedom is just another word for nothing left to hide. Reality television, for example, is a manifestation of sharedom. The MTV reality TV show "The Real World" was first broadcast in 1992 when the "internet" was still in its embryonic stage. Millions of viewers could watch minute details of the lives of strangers living in a house together. One may view reality TV as a form of mass exhibitionism and mass voyeurism, but as Mark Greif has pointed out, one of the key aspects of reality TV was that it allowed viewers to "judge" the people they were observing. While reality TV only allowed a small group of people – selected from thousands of applicants – to "share" their lives with a broad audience, the "internet" gradually enabled everyone with an online connection to share their lives. We started living in transparent cages - Massive Open Online Cages (MOOCs) - and the "internet" permitted the audience to give instant feedback by passing online "judgments", such as leaving comments on social media posts or blog posts. This culture of sharedom was an unexpected bounty for "internet corporations", because it not only made us less cautious about our privacy but also supplied them with massive amounts of free personal data that could be marketed.
We often hear about the trade-off between privacy and security and the need for an optimal balance, which maximizes the privacy of the individual while maintaining the security of our society. This sounds like a reasonable argument, but it ignores the fact that this is not the only privacy trade-off. Corporations are interested in maximizing their profits and since individual data is a marketable commodity, their interest is to find a balance between maximal profit and maintaining some degree of privacy for users that makes them feel comfortable enough to share personal data that can be marketed. In addition to this trade-off between profits and privacy, the culture of sharedom also creates the trade-off between publicity and privacy. Jill Lepore has recently discussed the challenges of this trade-off in an essay in the New Yorker:
In the twentieth century, the golden age of public relations, publicity, meaning the attention of the press, came to be something that many private citizens sought out and even paid for. This has led, in our own time, to the paradox of an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and with being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection—ciphers of numbers and letters—so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.
Another form of trade-off is that of convenience versus privacy. Using a website such as Amazon to purchase products offers a lot of convenience: It remembers which products we have previously bought, it offers targeted recommendations for new or related products that may be of interest based on our profile, and it even remembers which products we recently browsed. The more we use Amazon, the more accurate their profile of our interests becomes, as evidenced by the accuracy of Amazon's recommendations for new purchases. All we have to offer Amazon in exchange for this convenience is a window into the privacy of our soul.
I remember coming across the expression "Faustian bargain" to describe how we exchange our privacy for the sake of convenience. When Goethe's Faust agreed to serve the devil Mephistopheles in the after-life, he was rewarded with youth and a beautiful lover. We may not approve of Faust's choice, but his deal at least merits some consideration. We currently sacrifice our privacy for the benefit of corporate profits and in exchange receive free shipping, targeted ads and coupons. No youth, no lovers. Our deal does not even rise to the level of a "Faustian bargain".
The recent study "Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook" conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University monitored the public disclosure (information visible to all) and private disclosure (information visible to Facebook friends) of personal data by more than 5,000 Facebook users during the time period 2005-2011. The researchers identified two opposing trends. Over time, Facebook users divulged less and less personal information such as birthdates, favorite books or political information to the public. On the other hand, the researchers also noticed a trend of revealing more personal information to Facebook friends. Apparently, there was a growing awareness of how public disclosures can compromise privacy, but users were also emboldened to reveal more personal information when they deemed their audience to be trustworthy. As the researchers correctly pointed out, these "private disclosures" are always available to Facebook itself, third-party apps and to advertisers, referred to as "silent listeners" by the researchers. This is a key point when it comes to privacy settings on social media websites. Users are able to control how much information is displayed to other individuals and future laws and regulations may protect users by curtailing disclosures to government agencies, but information disclosures to the company that provides the service itself and its corporate clients are often beyond our control.
The poll "Teens, Social Media and Privacy" conducted by the Pew Research Center confirmed this lack of concern about third-party access to personal data in a group of 632 teenagers. Overall, 60% of teenagers said that they were either not at all concerned or not too concerned about third-party access (such as advertisers or third-party apps) to their personal information. Only 9% were very concerned about it. Individual comments made by teenagers in a Pew focus group further underscore this cavalier attitude towards corporate access to personal data:
Male (age 16): "It's mostly just bands and musicians that I ‘like' [on Facebook], but also different companies that I ‘like', whether they're clothing or mostly skateboarding companies. I can see what they're up to, whether they're posting videos or new products... [because] a lot of times you don't hear about it as fast, because I don't feel the need to Google every company that I want to keep up with every day. So with the news feed, it's all right there, and you know exactly."
Male (age 13): "I usually just hit allow on everything [when I get a new app]. Because I feel like it would get more features. And a lot of people allow it, so it's not like they're going to single out my stuff. I don't really feel worried about it."
Value of privacy
The revelations about how the government is using surveillance data obtained by "internet corporations" should prompt a broad debate of how we value privacy, especially because it is difficult to affix a price-tag on this intangible non-commodity. This debate will hopefully lead to greater transparency in regards to how governments access and handle personal information. However, it is important to also raise awareness of the potential abuse of personal information by private corporations. If we truly value our privacy, we need to develop methods that restrict government and corporate access to our personal data. In the process we will have to unravel our myths surrounding internet-centrism, solutionism and sharedom.
Image Credits: Automated envelope sealer used by the Stasi to close opened letters after review of the letter contents (image by Appaloosa - Wikimedia Commons), a Stasi surveillance post (image by Lokilech - Wikimedia Commons)
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
A beginning carpenter of words.
His letter smells of lumber.
His muse still sleeps in rosewood.
Ambitious noise in a literary sawmill.
Apprentices veneering a gullible tongue.
They cut to size the shy plywood of sentences.
A haiku whittled with a plane.
with a splinter lodged in memory.
It is hard to remove
much harder to describe.
Wood shavings fly. The apple cores of angels.
Dust up to the heavens.
by Ewa Lipska
publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow, 2006
Monday, May 27, 2013
Share and Share Alike
"People say New Yorkers can't get along. Not true.
I saw two New Yorkers, complete strangers, sharing a cab.
One guy took the tires and the radio; the other guy took the engine."
~ David Letterman
A few months ago, friends of mine moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The three of them signed a lease on a five-bedroom duplex, with the express purpose of leasing out the remaining two rooms on Airbnb, the service that allows people to rent out extra rooms or apartments on a short-term, informal basis. Since then, they have had a colorful assortment of travelers, tourists, students and businessmen tramp through their place. In return, the additional income has allowed them to live in a much larger and better appointed place than would have been otherwise possible.
The expense of renting an apartment in New York has been the stuff of legend for a long time now, but as this expense continues its inexorable climb, brokering sites such as Airbnb have inspired people, perhaps for the first time, to intentionally re-conceptualize their living space as a business model. In other words, what is generously known as the “sharing economy” is really the monetization of all those bits and pieces – your apartment, your car, your power tools – that used to sit around and just, well, be yours.
And then last week, New York Administrative Law Judge Clive Morrick ruled Airbnb illegal. Is this really a setback to all the annoying shouting about the “sharing economy”? Or is it more of a setback to Silicon Valley’s dogma that there is always another patch of contemporary life that, whether it knows it or not, is in need of disruption?
Actually, let’s first be clear about the ruling, since there has been much breathlessness in the media around this. The so-called “hotel law” violated by the respondent had been passed in 2010. Specifically, the law prohibits the right to charge for a stay of less than 29 days if the person renting out the space is not present. So the law still has plenty of loopholes; Airbnb is by no means "illegal." But it is also worth mentioning that most leases explicitly prohibit any rentals – most New Yorkers don’t need such a “hotel law” to find themselves in violation of their lease (or even condo or coop rules). This of course has not stopped Airbnb from encouraging people to sign up; after all, the company gets roughly 10% per transaction and is currently estimated to be worth around $2.5bn.
However, the ruling does raise an important point about the informality. When one talks of the informal economy, one imagines vast and chaotic open-air markets in Argentina, or hardworking street vendors in Bangkok. The informal also takes the form of vast trading networks, such as the flow of computer equipment into and out of Paraguay, as richly described by Robert Neuwirth in The Stealth of Nations. But informality has always been here in the United States, too, and it is getting bigger and more important.
As James Surowiecki noted in a recent New Yorker piece, approximately $2 trillion dollars of income went unreported to the IRS last year. But what is really impressive is the rate at which off-the-books income is increasing: “in 1992, the I.R.S. estimated that the government was losing $80 billion a year in income-tax revenue. Its estimate for 2006 was $385 billion, almost five times as much” – and that is still probably an underestimate. It is also worth considering that, as the job market has stagnated since the 2008 crash, these numbers can only have continued to increase.
Hence the great attraction in monetizing assets such as the extra room in your apartment. As an exceptionally carefully executed brokering service, Airbnb found its sweet spot by taking the classifieds from Craigslist and bolting on a rating and feedback system pioneered by eBay, the grand-daddy of retail-based brokering sites. Trust and transparency are literally what make this market function. Airbnb will even send over a photographer to make your place’s listing look great – after all, unlike Craigslist, they have real skin in the game. (Of course, this same transparency makes easy pickings for anyone wanting to enforce laws like New York’s). More subtly, it’s worth examining the ideological role the individual is expected to play, as shown in the way Airbnb organizes consumption.
Airbnb breezily promulgates the dogma celebrating the economic empowerment of the individual. In Silicon Valley, this rhetorical stance possesses a distinctly moral force. Has corporate America reneged on your social contract? Let startups like Airbnb allow you to reclaim financial independence by enabling you to leverage what is already yours. Airbnb's CEO, Brian Chesky, cheers: "People providing these services in many ways are entrepreneurs or micro-entrepreneurs. They're more independent, more liberated, a little more economically empowered." It is easy to nod (off) at this, since the default individual is always blameless and normal. Interestingly, this is where New York’s hotel law deserves revisiting.
A friend who is an urban historian noted that the law was originally passed to prevent landlords from doing short-term rentals of their places – Airbnb, having been founded in August 2008, was still in its infancy and was not the object of the hotel law. In other words, the city sought to prevent the use of apartments – or even entire buildings – as wholly unregulated hotels. Landlords were doing an end run around the regulations (and taxation) that comes with signing long-term leases with pain-in-the-ass tenants who are always demanding things like plumbers and exterminators. So it is ironic that landlords have increasingly been the ones who have been taking advantage of Airbnb – for exactly this purpose. Even if it was interested in drawing such a distinction, how could Airbnb differentiate between landlords and “individuals”?
This isn’t to say that the hotel lobby won’t eventually seek to stifle young Turks like Airbnb. Should the hotel industry determine that it is losing significant amounts of revenue to Airbnb and its ilk, it will be sure to strike back. How far off is that day? A 2012 Airbnb study on its economic effect on San Francisco found that travelers spent $12.7m on rent over the course of a single year. While the ostensible reason was to show off to city politicians that $43m was spent by those same travelers on San Francisco businesses, that was $12.7m of foregone revenue to the city’s hotels. The faster this number increases, the more eyebrows it will raise, for both the industries being affected, not to mention the IRS. It would be unsurprising to see the hotel lobby muster the political muscle to truly shut down Airbnb, as the RIAA did with Napster, or it could neutralize the threat the old-fashioned way, like Avis did with ZipCar, and simply buy them outright.
The importance of regulation (or its unintended consequences) as both a decisive factor in the successful incubation of disruptive technologies, and the use of regulation as competitive ammunition, is one that seems curiously unappreciated by connoisseurs of said disruptive technologies. This is again tied to a reliance on the myth of the empowered individual. It seems that the free market – which by their accounting seems to be little more than a very large aggregate of empowered individuals – is the ultimate arbiter of success. That is a simply naïve stance.
As an example, consider one of the most celebrated examples
of the informal economy – Kenya’s M-Pesa service, which allows people to send
money to one another using SMS technology. Founded in 2007, by 2011 15 million
Kenyans (out of 40 million total) had M-Pesa accounts. But the platform had
several distinct advantages from the start. M-Pesa may have begun from a
student software project, but it was never the kind of start-up that Silicon
Valley likes to think is the only thing capable of “disrupting” anything. In
fact, M-Pesa was rolled out in Kenya by Safaricom, already the dominant telecom
provider in the country (Vodacom played much the same role in M-Pesa’s rollout
in neighboring Tanzania). That is, it’s much easier to get 15 million people to
participate in your new product when you can choose
from a pool of 19 million subscribers. The other, perhaps even more
important factor, is the clever approach that Safaricom took – they were able
Kenya’s regulators that M-Pesa shouldn’t be considered a financial
organization. This allowed M-Pesa to proceed building its market share within
the context of an environment nearly unfettered by regulation.
The difference that this makes becomes evident when one considers M-Pesa’s expansion beyond Kenya. In South Africa, which has a more developed regulatory environment, uptake has been roughly an order of magnitude less than projected. However, now that the paperwork imposed on small businesses using mobile money has been conveniently repealed, M-Pesa is getting ready to make a second go of it. Here it certainly helps that M-Pesa is not a scrappy startup, but rather has access to the deep pockets of Safaricom and Vodacom to keep it in the game for the long haul.
Regulation is also regularly used by entrenched interests to protect their market share. Even in its Kenyan stronghold, competitors have used regulation as a means of stifling the competition. In December of 2007, a group of banks compelled the government to audit M-Pesa. The hope was to identify, exploit – or probably just fabricate – any structural weaknesses that might provide the banks with an opportunity to muscle in on M-Pesa’s decisive market share. It didn’t work, but it should still be a salutary lesson for those startups, like Airbnb, who seem to think that the sheer weight of commercial success will somehow magically rearrange the regulatory landscape to accommodate their “disruption”.
One would think that a developing world startup would have far fewer scruples than a US-based company that has attracted millions of dollars of venture funding and a highly visible public profile. But last week’s decision highlighted Airbnb’s equally breezy disregard of regulation, or, even worse, the manner with which it places the onus of understanding and managing risk on the average host. In an email to New York City hosts, the company writes:
As always, we encourage all of our hosts to understand and obey their local laws. But this judge’s decision demonstrates how difficult is [sic] for hosts and even companies like ours to adequately understand laws that were not meant to apply to regular people hosting to make ends meet.
This is tantamount to saying “we don’t understand the laws, and what we do understand we think is wrong or confusing. So just keep on doing what you’re doing.” Serving up another heaping of ideological comfort food, Airbnb conjures the injustices wreaked on the blameless individual: “These are not illegal hotels. These are amazing stories within a core community of hosts and travelers adding to the diverse fabric of New York.”
Nor is New York the only place where Airbnb has encountered regulatory friction. In its hometown of San Francisco, Airbnb has been taken to task by its consistent avoidance of the Transient Occupancy Tax. Steven Jones, writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, recently asked for clarification on this point:
The answer that David Hantman, Airbnb’s global head of public policy, gave this morning was pretty astounding in its hypocritical arrogance. He acknowledged the tax ruling by San Francisco and the company’s lack of compliance, and said the company was waiting for clarification on the various issues related to the questions of the legality of some of the short-term rentals it facilitates before paying its taxes.
In other words, this company is making tens of millions of dollars annually in San Francisco alone on a business model that it developed – one that often runs afoul of local land use and tenant laws, and in violation of people’s leases – and it’s up to city officials to find a solution to this company’s problems before it will pay taxes?!?
Here and in other articles Jones nails the issue. Disruption may be happening here, but at whose expense? Is the sharing economy about hauling its participants in front of a judge while the instigating corporation shirks its taxes? To put it somewhat extremely, in an era where municipalities are declaring bankruptcy left and right, the room you are renting won’t be quite so attractive if the street it's on busts a water main and there’s no one around to fix it.
The truth is that there is a limit to what the informal economy can accomplish. That limit is not found in adaptability or profitability, but rather in whatever always exists beyond the boundaries of any economic entity. Writing in the concluding chapter of The Stealth of Nations, Robert Neuwirth recounts the story of an auto parts market in Lagos that self-organized to the point that they had secured a space and established regular hours, with the market even being closed on Sundays. However:
To get to the market, you have to exit the Badagry Express Road and enter the trade fair compound. And that short trip has become an opportunity for perpetual corruption. Someone has taken over the entry to the compound and turned the access point into a privately controlled tollbooth…It’s a huge frustration and a huge cost, and market leaders say they have no ability to get rid of the fellow who has taken over the bridge (pp217-8).
This is a portrait of the informal economy as surrounded by a lawless vacuum. Similarly, the shareable economy functions the way it does because there are so many other aspects of society and economy that it can rely on. City governments may be annoying when they demand their taxes, but it is these same city governments that keep the trolls off the bridges.
In this sense, the deepest flaw of Airbnb’s approach is not just its poor corporate citizenship, but also its refusal to ask anything more of its individual users than their own, atomistic empowerment (along with a small cut for the company). This is – emphatically – not the job of the site’s users. It is the job of the company, which has invested millions to optimize the behavior of its marketplace participants – that is to say, its website. Without this recognition, the shareable economy is little more than a new way to say “I’m all right, Jack/Keep your hands off of my stack.” Give enough socioeconomic clout to this kind of model, and soon enough you’ll move from a sharing economy to a locust economy.
Why would I think this? Earlier today, I spoke with one of my friends who run l’Auberge Bed-Stuy. I wanted to know whether the ruling had given her pause, and was surprised at her sanguinity: “We’re not worried at all, since there will be an appeal, which will take at least six to eight months. But the best thing that can happen is that other apartments in the neighborhood get spooked and delete their listings – that will mean less competition for us.”
Monday, May 20, 2013
Aftermath: Pakistan Elections 2013
by Omar Ali
The May 11th elections in Pakistan represented the first time that a civilian regime completed its term in office and held elections in which power will be transferred democratically to a new civilian regime. In a country where the security establishment has a long history of throwing out elected regimes and manipulating results, this in itself was an important landmark. For this (and for very little else, unfortunately) we can thank President Zardari and his coalition building skills and stubborn determination.completely outside the national mainstream.
With daily bombings by the Taliban keeping a check on the ANP, PPP and (to some extent) the MQM, and with an insurgency and its frequently vicious suppression going on in Balochistan, traditional campaigning was mostly confined to Punjab. There, an almost millenarian excitement took hold of the middle class in the course of the PTI campaign; This phenomenon was most visible on social media and in the better neighborhoods of urban centers. Meeting each other at coffee spots and snack bars and pushing “like” buttons on each other’s facebook pages, the newly energized middle class supporters of Imran Khan managed to convince themselves that a complete root and branch renovation of Pakistan under brand new leadership was on the cards.
Never mind that Imran Khan’s had not told anyone how the great 90 day transformation would be carried out in terms of actual mechanics and workable solutions. Or that Imran Khan’s actual candidates (in a parliamentary system, constituency politics matters) were a motley collection of turncoats, inexperienced youngsters, Islamists (a good number made their bones in the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, student wing of the Jamat Islami and not known for handling opponents with kidgloves),
NGO stars and not-so-clean real estate manipulators was ignored. Unaware that this excitement had not really reached all voters, these newly politicized young people were taken aback when results did not match expectations and loudly complained about electoral rigging. But there is no indication that there was any nation-wide systematic manipulation by the establishemnt of the sort that has happened regularly in past elections. Small-scale local rigging did take place (and possibly some late-night administrative shenanigans did take place in Punjab once trends became clear) but compared to most past elections, this one was relatively clean in Punjab. Since most PTI voters were not involved in past elections, they don’t have any benchmark with which to compare this election and remain convinced that they were robbed. But given the fact that PMLN has probably won fair and square on most seats and even PTI enthusiasts have little concrete proof of extensive rigging, these protests will fade soon in Punjab.
The same cannot be said of Karachi; there, the MQM has been accused of extrensive ballot-stuffing and other irregularities. While PTI did not make any serious campaign effort in the MQM strongholds, they did put up a strong campaign in NA250, where a lot of the super-elite lives. When the election commission failed to conduct a fair election even in that seat the PTI broke a longstanding Karachi taboo and openly protested against the MQM. MQM chief Altaf Hussain made a threatening speech from London in response and on Saturday a prominent member of the PTI women’s wing was shot dead in an apparent target killing.
While no one has claimed responsibility and the police (as usual) have no leads, Imran Khan made the unusual move of publicly holding Altaf Hussain responsible for this murder. The resulting confrontation between the PTI and the MQM has raised the hopes of all those in the country who think the MQM needs to be cut down to size and its mafia-like hold on Karachi has to be defanged. But that may be easier said than done. More on this later. .
In terms of government formation, the post-election landscape seems more or less clear. PMLN will form governments in Punjab and at the center. PTI will form an islamist-leaning coalition in KP and will get a chance to show what their promises of radical change mean in practice. There will be a weak coalition of doubtful legitimacy in Balochistan, where the army will continue to call the shots. In Sindh, the PPP will form the government and most likely will take MQM along for the sake of peace. But what happens after that? A few guesses from a distant observer:
- The rigging allegations in Punjab will come to nothing. PMLN will rule unchallenged for now. Barring any sudden deterioration in the security situation, they will push ahead with many development projects. They also need to improve law and order and to avoid administrative high-handedness, but given their record, may not do as well in these areas. The inevitable result will be that even if they are able to retain the loyalty of most voters, there will be resentments and complaints that will create openings for opposition parties. PTI and PPP will now have to struggle to define one of them as the main opposition. PTI may look like it has the advantage right now, but PPP is not without strengths. IF it recasts itself as a left-of-center social democratic party and does some creative politicking on behalf of poor people (instead of having Manzoor Wattoo hunt for “electables”) it will not face real competition for that space from the Paknationalist-middle class focus of the PTI. Whether it can actually do so under current leadership is an open question. PTI may settle into the role of main opposition (and therefore have a reasonable chance in the next election) but their problem is their broad but shallow coalition and its millenarian tendencies. While this kind of vague and image-heavy nationalist and religious revivalism can be an advantage in a one-time go for broke effort, this quasi-religious mission is not the best formula for long term electoral success. We will have to wait and see if PTI matures into a real party or remains a one-hit wonder.
- Imran Khan’s provincial government in KP will face the Taliban problem from day one and will be unable to solve it. Some people think the security establishment wanted this regime in KP so that they can better manage their dealings with "good" and "bad" Taliban as the American effort in Afghanistan winds down. But even if they did make such plans, it doesnt mean their plans will lead where they want. They will be unable to control the bad taliban and will be unable to decisively separate the good taliban from them. And if the plan for Afghanistan is for "our taliban" to take over smoothly once the Americans leave, then that too is not going to happen. In the end, the security services will have to fight both the good and the bad taliban on behalf of the Pakistani elite. They may not want to do so, but they will not have a choice in this matter. There may be relative peace for a few months as negotiations proceed, but war will inevitably follow. The Jihadist project is not compatible with globalized capitalist economy and when push comes to shove, the Pakistani elite will pick global capitalism over Jihad. The days when both were on offer from the same American shop are over.
- While the PTI regime in KP will not be able to deliver on its promise of peace, they still have the chance to show some improvement in governance and corruption. That will require Imran Khan to appoint good people (like he did in Shaukat Khanum hospital) and then let them work unencumbered by various crackpot ideas about jirgas, Scandinavian Islam and elected police officials. And it will require smooth cooperation between the Jamat Islami and PTI without accepting all of Jamat’s own collection of crackpot Islamist ideas. These are big challenges, but if PTI can stay away from some of their own impractical or dangerous talking points (they dont have to abandon them in public, just ignore them in practice), then they may deliver improved administration and become a real party with a long-term future.
- Karachi is a migraine for all concerned. First of all, we should be clear that there is no question of PTI “taking on” the MQM in Karachi on its own. PTI has no armed operatives and no mafia-skills. They can collect everyone’s sympathy and still get nowhere. The only way this confrontation tilts towards PTI is if the state is willing to fight MQM on their behalf. But that has issues of its own. The police and judiciary in Karachi is currently politicized, corrupt and ineffective. They will not be able to do this job on their own. This means that if there is a confrontation between the state and MQM, the army and its intelligence agencies will be involved or MQM will win. And the "agency" way of “getting it done” in Pakistan usually involves causing a split in the targeted party (e.g. by engineering a revolt in the party or maybe even getting Altaf Hussain arrested in London in connection with the killing of Imran Farooq ), setting off a turf-war on the streets, and then using extra-judicial executions and disappearances to manage the resulting violence. They have no other script. But these are inherently risky operations and the intelligence agencies have such a long and convoluted history of meddling in Karachi that by now even they dont know who will fight who on whose behalf. Since neither the PMLN nor the army, can afford a risky operation in Karachi while busy fighting Taliban, its probalby not going to happen in the near future. Even if they do try it, it will not be the quick restoration of law and order so desired by many who are currently sick of the MQM. It will be chaotic, it will be violent, and it will not end soon. And given rumors of links with British intelligence and the "international community", Altaf Hussain may not have run out of options yet. So the more likely scenario is that PTI’s more elite followers will be permitted to openly challenge the MQM in some areas (a big change in itself) but there will be no grand operation and no sudden restoration of rule of law in Karachi. IF Nawaz Sharif and the army prove to be miracles of far-sightedness and maturity, then maybe in a few more years MQM will be pushed towards either becoming a more normal political party, or be defanged by careful use of improved law-enforcement in Karachi. All that without alienating Mohajirs as a community or carrying out extensive kill-and-dump operations and crudely executed gang-on-gang manipulations. One can always hope, but there is no quick fix.
- PMLN will try to get off to a smooth start with the army. They are not suicidal and they have matured enough to avoid hasty confrontations. But at the same time, they know they have to get the army under civilian control in the long run. And the army knows that too. IF leadership on both sides is very mature, they can learn to share power as well as real-estate and mining profits. It would be a miracle, but why not pray for miracles? This one is needed more than most in Pakistan. Given the past records of both parties, there are grounds for being pessimistic, but after minimal deliberation, I am going to make an optimistic prediction: I predict that Nawaz Sharif will not face another military coup. There will be strains and stresses, but the civilian government will remain in place and will slowly increase its control over the armed forces.
- Relations with India will improve under Nawaz Sharif. There will be no grand deal to solve all problems but trade and travel (and "optics") will be normalized quickly. Nawaz Sharif understands the economic benefits of normalization and the army is starting to realize that in this war of a thousand cuts with India, we have mostly cut ourselves. There will be resistance and setbacks but progress will continue. People believe the army will re-energize the Kashmir Jihad or launch a new Mumbai-style attack, but I dont think the great powers (including China) are in any such mood. Without their tacit approval, the risks are too high. The PTI, led by chief spokesperson Shireen Mazari, may parrot the traditional paknationalist line on this issue, but as long as Nawaz Sharif is delivering better governance and economic performance, the public will remain unimpressed with “betrayal of Kashmir” and other slogans of the "defense of Pakistan council".
- Nothing much will change in Balochistan. This is sad and undesirable, but that does seem the most likely scenario. The Baloch separatists are too few to actually pull the province out of Pakistani hands by force (unless assisted in a big way by NATO, which doesn’t seem likely to me). At the same time, the army and its agencies operate almost exclusively on the kill-and-dump frequency, with no sign of finesse or any desire to compromise. Transitioning to full civilian rule seems very difficult and will be a Nawaz Sharif miracle if it happens. It probably wont.
- ANP has been mauled in KP, but this does not have to be the end. As the Taliban continue their violent ways and the "play both sides" strategy falls apart, there will be an opening again for a Pakhtoon nationalist progressive voice. Of course, if the Talibs win (which cannot happen unless the Pakistani state has allowed it to happen) this will have to be movement led from abroad for a while, but even in that case, public support for the ANP will only increase with time. They will need to be available to take advantage of that.
All in all, the elections are a step forward. People voted in large numbers, proving once again that the Taliban propaganda against this “heathen system of government” is not getting much traction. The Zardari regime, for all its faults, managed to get Pakistan to this point and deserves appreciation for this achievement. The rigging allegations and various administrative irregularities have dented the image of this election but a more energetic and forceful elections commissioner next time can repair credibility in the heartland without a big problem. Miracles of various sizes (see above) may be needed in Karachi and Balochistan. Miracles will also be needed to bring the war with the Taliban and the war with India to simultaneous closure. If the PMLN can deliver a more capable regime and restore the economy (doable) and some of the miracles happen, we may be in a much happier place by 2018. If not, we may still hope for more of the same. The one thing we cannot afford is a revolution (Islamic, PTI-Paknationalist or Marxist-Leninist..the last is not on the cards but comrades are still around and appreciate the plug). We dodged a bullet this time and with luck we may get away next time as well.
Monday, April 29, 2013
The Folly of Perpetual Victimhood
by Jalees Rehman
I grew up in a culture of guilt. One of the defining characteristics of post-war Germany was the "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", a monstrous German word that describes the attempts to come to terms with the horrors of Nazi-Germany and World War II. How could Germans have abandoned all sense of humanity and decency? Why had millions of German actively or passively engaged in the mass murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and so many other minorities? This Vergangenheitsbewältigung resulted in a deep-rooted sense of collective shame and guilt, one which transcended the generation which had lived through the war and even engulfed Germans born after the war and Germans with immigrant backgrounds, whose families obviously had no historic link to the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany. We did not feel blameworthy in the sense of having to answer for the Nazi crimes, but we did feel that the burden of history had foisted a responsibility on us. We felt that it was our responsibility to be continuously vigilant, watching for any signs or symptoms indicating a recurrence of right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, militarism, nationalism, discrimination or other characteristics of Nazi Germany. Our obsession with collective introspection at times became so excessive that it paralyzed us, such as when we developed a general paranoia of expressing any form of German patriotism, because it might set us on a path to Nazism. Many Germans also had near-hysterical responses to any discussions about genetic engineering, because it evoked haunting memories of Nazi eugenics. But despite these irrational excesses, I think that we Germans greatly benefited from our post-war soul-searching which helped us build a mostly peaceful country – no small feat, considering our past.
Roughly one decade ago, "mirror neurons" were among the hottest items in neuroscience research. These neurons in the brain of an individual were thought to fire upon observing behaviors in other individuals: When I see someone eating a delicious piece of chocolate, my mirror neurons fire and help create a proxy sensation or awareness in my brain that mirror the observed behavior so that I might have some sense of eating the chocolate myself. If this were true, mirror neurons would play a central role in generating a sense of empathy. Newer scientific research has questioned whether "mirror neurons" truly exist, but there is little doubt that our brain has some neurobiological substrate that enables empathy, even if it does not consist of the exact same set of anatomically defined neurons as has been previously suspected. I therefore still like to use the "mirror neurons" metaphor, because it aptly evokes the image of a neurobiological mirror in our mind. I would like to extend that mirror metaphor and also propose that our mind might contain "guilt neurons", which fire when we observe some degree of resemblance between ourselves and perpetrators of crimes. Part of being immersed in the post-war German tradition of collective guilt and soul-searching is that it endowed me with ultra-sensitive hypothetical "guilt neurons". When I hear about a tragedy or crime, I not only feel the natural empathy with the victims, but in a reflex-like manner ask the question whether I bear some degree of responsibility – not blame – for this tragedy and crime and how to best work towards preventing it in the future. This "guilt neuron" activity is strongest when I sense that the perpetrator is a member of an in-group that I also belong to, such as crimes being committed by fathers or husbands, by Germans, by scientists or physicians, by Muslims, by people with a South Asian heritage and so forth.
When Anders Breivik in Norway committed his mass murder in 2011, I felt a very deep sadness, because I could really empathize with the victims and their families. He killed teenagers and young adults attending a youth camp of the Social Democratic party. His victims could have been my children, and a couple of decades ago, I might have attended a similar youth camp in Germany. My guilt neurons were silent – I did not feel much of a responsibility because I had little to nothing in common with the perpetrator. He despised everything that I supported – diversity, feminism, progressive-liberal thought and the environmental movement. But I felt that there were people who ought to have felt some degree of responsibility. His manifesto quoted extensively from far-right bloggers and authors in the United States and in Europe, who seemed to have shared his world-views. Does this mean that everyone promoting anti-immigrant or far-right views in Europe and the US should have been blamed for the deeds this mass killer? Of course not! They did not directly provide him with the weapons and they did not ask him to murder the social democratic youth – but shouldn't one take some responsibility for promoting hateful messages that denigrated immigrants, Muslims and citizens with progressive-liberal thoughts? The responses of the far-right politicians and authors who might have unwittingly influenced Breivik were quite disappointing. Instead of undergoing an introspective analysis, the far right just issued perfunctory condemnations, stating that they would never have endorsed the murders. The politicians and far right bloggers continued to engage in their hateful rhetoric, even tried to seize the opportunity to portray themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The Breivik acts of terror did not seem to have activated the "guilt neurons" of the far right.
The week following the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013 was a very sad week for me. Boston is one of my most favorite cities in the world. It is the first US city that I ever visited. I spent many months there when I was a student in the 1990s. Boston eased me into American culture by cushioning the culture shock that Europeans experience when they first visit the US, mostly because it reminded me a lot of my home town Munich, famously known as the "Weltstadt mit Herz" ("city of the world with a heart)". Like Munich, Boston is wonderfully suited for long city walks. The Bostonians were extremely hospitable and friendly. I remember seeing beautiful sunsets in Boston, spending hours in the wonderful bookstores in Cambridge and Boston and being thrilled by the plethora of universities and their libraries in the Boston area, which seemed like an endless treasure trove of knowledge. I was thus devastated when I saw the tragedy of the bombings unfold – more or less live on the Internet and on Twitter revealing painful descriptions of victims who had lost their limbs at a marathon. I was haunted by the image of the young boy Martin Richard holding up a sign which said "No more hurting people" in 2012 – only to be murdered in the subsequent year at the Boston Marathon bombings. The idea of this beautiful city, normally bustling with activity and creativity, being forced into a lockdown because of some psychopathic killers was heartbreaking.
On Friday morning, I heard the news that the perpetrators had been identified; two Muslim immigrants with Chechen origins. They were brothers, the older one - 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev - had been killed in a shoot-out. The younger one - 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had not yet been captured and an ongoing manhunt was still paralyzing the city of Boston. There were vague reports of "Islamist connections" of the older brother based on his alleged Youtube video playlists. The younger brother was a college student at the University of Massachusetts and had a Twitter account with the handle @J_tsar, from which he had sent his last tweet on April 17, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. His last tweet was a re-tweet of the conservative Muslim cleric, Mufti Ismail Menk: "Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's last self-authored tweet was "I'm a stress free kind of guy", one day after the bombing – both tweets seem rather cynical in the context of someone who had helped inflict so much suffering. His Twitter feed of the past months was a combination of mindless blather, evoking the traditional cliché of the banality of evil, but it also contained a number of tweets which indicated that he saw himself as a Muslim, even quipping about how Muslims at his mosque thought he was a convert to Islam instead of being born a Muslim.
The specific motives of the two brothers were not yet known when the news broke. Did they murder and maim their fellow citizens because they felt it was consistent with or even mandated by their view of Islam? Was it a political statement regarding the war in Chechnya and they just happened to choose innocent civilian targets in Boston because it was easier than planting bombs in Chechnya or Russia? Were they psychopaths seeking notoriety and infamy without any specific religious or political goals? Were they aided by a terrorist organization or acting as individuals?
Multiple Muslim organizations and prominent Muslims strongly condemned the Boston Marathon bombings, expressed their condolences for the victims and made it very clear that such acts of terror were inconsistent with Islam. Muslim organizations routinely issue such statements when Muslims commit acts of terror, but the question remains whether such statements are enough. Since I possess overactive German guilt neurons, I feel that as members of the Muslim community in the US, we have a deeper responsibility to undertake an introspective analysis and explore why US Muslims engage in forms of violence. Some might argue that there is no need for such introspection, since we do not yet whether the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers were in any way linked to Islam. Even apart from the Tsarnaev brothers' motives, US Muslims need to understand that there is an unfortunately high level of tolerating suicide bombings or violence against civilians. A Pew survey conducted in 2011 revealed that 13% of US Muslims thought suicide bombings or violence against civilian targets could be justified to defend Islam (rarely justified: 5%; sometimes justified: 7%; often justified: 1%). The Pew survey compared the results to those obtained from surveying Muslims in Pakistan, of whom only 7% felt that such violence could be justified in the name of Islam. Sadly, this degree of acceptance of suicide bombings or violence against civilians among US Muslims has not budged since 2007. This suggests that there is a disconnect between US Muslim organizations (which categorically condemn all attacks against civilians) and the US Muslim community.
Even though the 13% represent a small minority within the larger US Muslim community, they might be the ones who are most likely to be radicalized and it is thus important to understand what motivates them to endorse suicide bombings and violence against civilians. One hypothesis that can be explored is whether the Muslim self-perception of collective victimhood may contribute to their willingness to endorse violence. During the past 15 years that I have lived in the US, I have noticed that in Friday sermons (khutbahs), discussions, lectures, articles and books, American Muslims often perceive themselves as collective victims. Khutbahs routinely end with prayers for people in need, but in my experience, there is a rather one-sided portrayal of the global Muslim community as victims - khateebs (khateeb = person who gives the Muslim Friday sermon or khutbah) frequently mention the plight of Muslims who are oppressed and persecuted in regions such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir or more recently, Burma. However, there is little mention of prayers for victims in situations where Muslims are the primary perpetrators, such as is the case when Sunni Muslims murder Shia or Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, or when they kill or persecute Christians, Jews or atheists. The buzzword "Islamophobia", which is not really a phobia in the psychiatric sense, is frequently used to depict Muslims as victims. There are many cases of anti-Muslim hate speech and discrimination, but the haphazard use of "Islamophobia" to bludgeon legitimate criticisms of Muslims or Islam is rendering this term useless. An exaggerated "Islamophobia" view of the world also perpetuates the one-sided portrayal of Muslims as victims instead of promoting a more balanced view, one which would also include some discussion of anti-Western hostility that is found among Muslims ("Occidentophobia", incidentally is also not a true "phobia").
Is there any evidence that such a sense of collective victimhood could affect one's moral judgment? A remarkable study conducted by the social psychologists Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe lends credence to this idea. In a paper entitled "Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions" published 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wohl and Branscombe examined the acceptance of Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians by Jewish Canadians. Using a web-based questionnaire, they surveyed Jewish Canadians in two different conditions, one which included showing the participants a website that reminded them of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews and one condition in which participants just saw a neutral website. Importantly, participants who were reminded of the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust (prior to answering the questions) experienced significantly less guilt about Israeli actions against Palestinians. In a different set of experiments, Wohl and Branscombe then asked Americans how they felt about the harm inflicted by American troops on Iraqis. The American participants felt far less guilt regarding the American attacks, when the participants were reminded of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interestingly, they also felt less guilt about the Iraq war when they were reminded of the Pearl Harbor attack. This suggested that it was not a causal link between September 11, 2001 and Iraq that had made them endorse American violence, but merely the sense of collective victimization - independent of whether the perpetrators were the Japanese military or Muslim terrorists.
Considering these data, it might be important to study whether Muslims who are continuously reminded of historical or ongoing collective victimization - being victims of "Islamophobia" or of military actions in Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya - could promote a justification for violent acts, quite similar to the participants studied by Wohl and Branscombe. Conversely, a more balanced and realistic view of history and current affairs which would depict Muslims as both, victims and perpetrators might lower the likelihood of Muslims endorsing violence.
On the Friday after the Boston Marathon bombings, prior to heading to the Friday sermon, I wondered whether the newly disclosed information that the bombers were US based Muslims would help promote a process of soul searching in the American Muslim community. Unfortunately, the twitter feed of one of the most popular English-language Muslim blogs, MuslimMatters.org, known for its überconservative or right-wing ideas, did not suggest that this would occur. Some of its tweets and re-tweets on Friday morning suggested an all-too-familiar reaction of American Muslims. The religion of the Tsarnaev brothers was supposedly not relevant and had no bearing on the attacks; "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime"; "If it wasn't you, then don't feel guilty. Do not take the burden of others upon your shoulders when they are wrongfully placed there"; and there were tweets about how Muslims might need to be vigilant about potential "Islamophobic" backlashes: "Please contact your local CAIR chapter if you experience any type of violence as a result of the tragedy in Boston: cair.com."
The idea that somehow "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime" is puzzling since we routinely look at context of a crime. When Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage, murdering children and terrorizing an elementary school, American society did not just respond with "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime". There was an extensive effort made to re-evaluate gun laws and the mental healthcare system, and there was a general shift in the public opinion on gun control. It may be important to clarify the difference between "blame" and "responsibility". As a society, we should take responsibility to help each other and care for each other, and when we fail to do so, there is no shame in taking responsibility for that failure. That does not necessarily mean that we are all to "blame" for the acts committed by the Tsarnaev brothers or by Adam Lanza. Also, there is no need to expect that only Muslims have a responsibility to act in response to the Tsarnaev crimes. One should explore all the factors that resulted in the tragedy, such as failures of law enforcement to detect the planned plot, addressing how they accessed the weapons and training that enabled them to commit their crimes or whether there had been warning signs that could have alerted family members, friends and colleagues. Muslim soul-searching is just part of the greater soul-searching process that involves society-at-large in response to the tragedy.
As I headed towards our Friday khutbah in Chicago, I wondered whether the khateeb would broach this difficult subject. The first part of the khutbah was about Moses and David, and how these two prophets should be our role models because they exemplified steadfastness in their faith, gratitude and prayer, thanking God even under most difficult circumstances. The second part of the khutbah specifically addressed the Boston bombings. The khateeb strongly condemned the terror attacks, and said that Muslims are never allowed to kill innocent civilians. He then explained the horrors of the Chechnyan war and how Muslims suffered at the hands of the Soviet and Russian military. However, instead of an analysis and introspection addressing how we could help reduce the recurrence of such acts, the khateeb indicated that he wanted to mention one other event in this context. He said that after the Boston attacks, an interfaith service had been planned and that the initially proposed Muslim representative had been vetoed by some members of the Boston community. The objection to this particular choice stemmed from the suggested imam's alleged ties to Islamist groups. A different Muslim representative was then chosen for the Interfaith service. Our khateeb then made a rather bizarre statement in a defiant tone and said that Muslims should choose their own leaders instead of allowing "Zionists" to make decisions for the Muslim community! Rather than look in the mirror and think about potential reasons for why some US Muslims justify violence with religion, Muslims were again being portrayed as victims of alleged "Zionists". The promising first part of the khutbah had focused on Moses and David and emphasized the shared Abrahamic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but the same khutbah had ended with the spreading of unnecessary conspiracy theories and regurgitating the image of the victimized Muslims. I left the khutbah with a heavy heart.
In the subsequent days, I observed how Muslims attempted to downplay the Muslim connection of the Tsarnaev brothers but I also saw how right-wing, anti-Muslim American groups began asking for massive profiling of Muslims merely based on their faith or ethnicity. We need to move beyond the two extremes - the one-sided portrayal by anti-Muslim hate-mongers of Muslims as purely evil perpetrators and the equally one-sided portrayal of Muslims as perpetual victims. We can then achieve a balanced and honest view of the role of Muslims in American society with a realistic and equitable distribution of responsibilities and expectations.
As with most unfathomable crimes, there are probably many factors that come together, there is no one single all-explanatory cause. The vast majority of supporters of far-right ideology do not go on shooting rampages like the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik did. The vast majority of homes containing an arsenal of guns do not give rise to child murderers such as Adam Lanza. The vast majority of Muslims who watch Islamist Youtube videos do not commit terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, we have to carefully analyze the risk factors that lead to the tragedies and work together to reduce the risk of recurrences. I do not want to live in a libertarian heaven with dormant "guilt neurons", where everyone is exclusively responsible for their own actions and where we can expediently shrug off any responsibility for the suffering of fellow humans or for the crimes committed by others. The strength of a society depends on the willingness of its members to engage in introspection and shoulder responsibilities.
Little Brothers, Total Noise and Trickster
"At the end of the day, someone is going to be right."
~Brian Williams, NBC Anchor
Because terrorism in the United States is an (astonishingly) infrequent phenomenon, the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon demands of us to make "sense" of it. But at the same time, it is this infrequency that tempts us to draw grandiose conclusions about What It All Means and How Everything Is Different Now. This species of sensemaking should be considered distinct from, say, the kind that goes on in societies that are frequently targeted. Within the context of Pakistan's 652 bombings in 2012, Rafia Zakaria considers a primary purpose of journalism to be the enactment of "rituals of caring, made so repetitious by the sheer frequency of terror attacks; …in preventing the normalization of violence and senseless evil, they keep a society human." Mercifully, this is not the case here. We probably have the luxury of a few months until the next attack, so let us ponder what the Boston Marathon bombings "want" to tell us.
Were we offered a weary reminder of the racism that always seems to be lurking just below the surface of American society? Indeed. Further proof of Americans' abiding ignorance of geography? Check. A prime opportunity for yet another efflorescence of conspiracy theorists? Yawn. Please tell us something new.
Actually, in the case of Boston, conspiracy theory is a pretty good place to begin. The deepest conceptual failure of conspiracy, as an ontological mode, is its presupposition of a larger, unifying order. Since a benevolent conspiracy is not a conspiracy but really just a miracle – and a conspiracy that is indifferent to us is, by definition, impossible to discern – the fact that conspiracies are also evil is entirely redundant. The goal of identifying (and then wallowing in) a conspiracy, is not so much about the subsequent pursuit of justice, as it is about the reassurance that the world is not chaotic; that however you might detest its presence and seek to escape its influence, there is a deliberate design.
The problem is originary: we are sensemaking creatures. In this light, conspiracy is only our most extreme indulgence of that bedrock behavior. The only thing better than every thing meaning something, is if the meaning of every thing belongs to the same something. But confronted with the immediacy of the Boston bombings, the need to quickly interpret – or, more accurately, create – some kind of meaning is difficult to resist, and technologies, old and new, for better or worse, stood ready to lend a perhaps dubious hand.
Philosopher Rick Roderick, in a 1993 lecture entitled "Habermas and the Fragile Dignity of Humanity" makes a brief, telling aside: "in the late 20th century, we are in a situation where interpretation has never been more difficult." Citing television as an example of an object that resists interpretation, he goes on to assert that:
Orwell was a pie-eyed optimist…Orwell's vision of a horrible future – a boot stomping on a human face forever – is a utopian image because he assumed there would be resistance, and human faces. Both of which may turn out to be false. 1984 is not a book that scares me anymore.
Of course, Orwell's worldview in 1984 was shaped by the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and little else, since tuberculosis had claimed him by 1950. Conflict was mostly militarized, explicit and even formalistic; claims of social control were predicated upon the ongoing existence of such wars. Authority physically manifested itself in the form of Franco and later Stalin – whom Orwell found particularly odious – and the accompanying state security apparatus. Resistance was to be rubbed out mercilessly, through surveillance, interrogation and betrayal not only of individuals, but of language itself. But resistance still existed as an oppositional force.
For Roderick, born the year before Orwell's death, this kind of explicit resistance had been subverted. Consider the advent of television: as a one-way broadcast medium, television was the perfect conduit for the population-wide, normalizing activities of post-war consumer culture: material prosperity, entertainment and advertising. This is what Roderick means when he thinks of television as "closed" to interpretation; it is a fundamentally Foucauldian view. And he was largely right, at least while the near-monopolistic broadcast model remained ascendant. But in the same way Orwell could not have anticipated the utter dissolution of resistance as he conceptualized it, pre-Web commentators ought to be excused for not anticipating the way in which commercial communication technologies created the conditions for the collapse of those very same models.
However, one didn't have to wait for the advent of the Web to see television threatened. Television had already sowed the seeds of its own collapse with the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle. Pioneered by CNN, which launched on June 1, 1980 (you can watch the utterly banal first minutes of CNN's life here), its insatiable appetite for news was not without unintended consequences. Two years prior to Roderick's comments, CNN had had a watershed moment in its coverage of the first Persian Gulf War, when it was the first network to provide a live feed of the pre-invasion air war. Decisionmakers found themselves laboring under the so-called "CNN effect:" the always-on nature of cable news artificially increased the pace of decisionmaking, and put politicians and even the military in a constant, reactive crouch. While the extent of the effect is debatable, 24-hour cable news should nevertheless be seen as a touchstone in the progressive tightening of feedback loops between those reporting and those making the news. This performative action of the former upon the latter – that is, the idea that "we journalists are performing journalism all the time, and therefore you decisionmakers must be performing decisions all the time, too" – has been further exacerbated by the rise of dozens of competitors to CNN. Which, only logically, leads us to ask whether there is enough news to keep up with the demands made by these entities.
The Boston bombings provide one answer. The yelling about How Everything Is Different Now has generally revolved around social media's decisive insertion into this system of loops, and how social media has brought in a third constituency, namely, everyone else (that is, everyone who has a internet access and the savvy to use and exchange information on said social media platforms).
For a good while CNN's coverage of Boston consisted of false leads, idle conjecture or stupefied filler, later provoking this absolute drubbing from Jon Stewart. The networks in general saw their thunder stolen by Twitter, and Reddit and 4Chan mounted their own crowdsourced "investigations". People were tracked down, identified and terrorized through their Facebook pages. A Saudi student, injured by and running away from the blast, was apprehended by a "citizen" and declared virtually guilty by the New York Post and Fox News. An already-missing student fingered by Reddit's "Redditors" – themselves anonymous – fared better only because he had committed suicide in the Providence River sometime prior to the Marathon itself. For its part, the New York Post's pièce de résistance of yellow journalism included a photo allegedly lifted from one of the Reddit pages.
Finally, the Tsarnaev brothers were identified by the FBI not through any state-owned surveillance apparatus but from footage captured by a Lord & Taylor department store's security cameras. It's worth noting that there are only 60 CCTV cameras in Boston that are controlled by the police – for now. It was an army of Little Brothers that did the job instead, with varying degrees of effectiveness, but, it must be emphasized, with no lack of enthusiasm.
But things got even messier. As the manhunt progressed, NPR and many others began retweeting the Boston Police Scanner, to the point where the Boston Police Department politely asked them to stop, in fear of giving away tactical positions. For their part, the BPD were afraid that they had a real psychopath on their hands, since they had retweeted sentiments such as "I will kill you all as you killed my brother" from what turned out to be a fake Twitter account (which, in a bizarre act of faux posterity remains up).
How do we make sense of this mess? As a way forward, I cite James Gleick's clear-headed commentary in New York Magazine, who in turn references David Foster Wallace. If there ever was a keen observer of our culture, it was Wallace. In his guest editor's introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, he intimates a society immersed in an ever-accelerating
…rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that's also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I'm not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that's what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
Total Noise is a total nightmare for Wallace, who was the apotheosis of the close reader. It is represents the sheer impossibility of being able to judge the value of anything, of no longer being able to understand what difference any difference might ultimately make. The limitation of Wallace's perspective is that it doesn't take into account the purposive nature of all that noise. It may, in the aggregate, be noise, but every squawk was created for a reason. Every speck of noise was shot off into the ether of cyberspace on the tiny rocket engine of someone's agenda. Some of these reasons, such as the installation of the Lord & Taylor security camera, were incidental, and others, such as the fake Tsarnaev account, channeled the trickster.
Tricksters are not fools. Both may be Jungian archetypes, but let us be clear on the difference. As Helen Lock writes:
The trickster, however, is not playing. He is not confined to his own sphere of activity, "playing the fool," he is a trickster in the world at large. He actually is immoral (or at least amoral) and blasphemous and rebellious, and his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules. He is the consummate mover of goalposts, constantly redrawing the boundaries of the possible. In fact, the trickster suggests, says Hyde, "a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action" (204). Unlike the fool, the trickster aims to change the rules of the "real" world; he is the lowly outsider who is at the same time powerful enough to transform and reconstitute the inside, or indeed to obliterate the existence of "sides." …The trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality—and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.
In this sense, trickster is present in the creators of fake Twitter accounts, and, no matter how well-intentioned, the witch-hunters of Reddit. And, at the same stroke, the Tsarnaevs themselves squarely occupy this role. They may have not thought through their attack, or rather its aftermath, but they were not, in the Jungian sense, fools. Look at what, all together, they have wrought. Gleick, in his commentary, "found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the F.B.I.'s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call ‘the real world,' it vanished last week."
Of course, the Tsarnaevs' goal was not to rewrite any information landscape but to kill and maim as many people as possible. But as far as individual bits and pieces go, there is very little that is unprecedented. About ten years ago, I was empaneled on grand jury here in New York City, and one of the indictments we handed down was based on incidental security camera footage – exactly the same sort that proved to be the Tsarnaev brothers' undoing. Regarding the thin membrane separating cyberspace from reality, connoisseurs of the Evil Bert meme will recall how Bert wound up alongside Osama bin Laden on posters handed out at a 2001 demonstration in Bangladesh. And Twitter accounts updated by real fugitives while on the run, such as software entrepreneur and accused murderer John McAfee, quickly spawn their own fake counterparts.
Nevertheless, if there is anything new to be gleaned from this, it is the speed with which it is happening. Boston perhaps set a new record for the sheer amount of information generated, of whatever quality. And the media is indeed indispensable to anyone willing to set off a pressure cooker full of nails. As anthropologist Scott Atran writes in Foreign Policy, "their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength. And publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism…Terrorists are directly responsible for violent acts, but only indirectly for the reaction that follows… the media is increasingly less a public service devoted to this task than a competitive business that believes it best succeeds through sensation, which violence privileges."
But even this is a mischaracterization of the kind of media landscape that has established itself. When has media ever solely, or even primarily, been about public service? And now, when barriers to entry to participating in – or simply obfuscating – the media landscape have been all but removed, what phenomena will we witness when the next terrorist attack visits our shores?
Here, then, is a proposed scenario. On the occasion of the next bombing, likely at a public event, there will be some, as-yet undefined critical mass of Google Glass users present (sorry, critics, it's coming), along with whatever competitor products have been released in the meantime. Uploading video and audio in realtime, they will be guided by members of Reddit, InfoWars, Anonymous or some similar happy-go-lucky vigilante network posing as a social media community. They will likely already have personal drones in the air at the event (no need to order online – the availability of personal drones is demonstrated by the accompanying photo, which was taken today at the Barnes and Noble on 86th and Broadway). A manhunt fueled by hashtags, hacked DMV databases, or disabled smart-city traffic light systems will take place. Moving quickly enough, it may outrun not just the media but law enforcement itself. Digitally distributed vigilantism will become the story itself. At worst, we will see the world's first social media-sponsored lynching. (See Patrick Farley's unfinished web-based graphic novel "Spiders," begun around 2002, for a possible future war created by such nicely messy, embryonic growth).
None of these things might come to pass. It is far likelier that what will actually transpire will be stranger still, and much more ambiguous. But one thing is certain: we have come a long way from fearing a society of command-and-control repression (à la Orwell or the conspiracy theorists), or a society of normalized self-policing, which is what Roderick and Foucault envisioned. As a result of our desire to live in a world of which we can make sense, we have created one in which the trickster is ascendant. And the trickster does not play sides.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Pakistan Elections 2013: The view from afar
by Omar Ali
If all goes well, Pakistanis will go to the polls on May 11th to elect a new national assembly and all 4 provincial assemblies. The Pakistan People’s Party was the largest party in the outgoing parliament and under the guidance of President Asif Ali Zardari, successfully held together a disparate coalition regime in the face of multiple challenges to complete its 5 year term of office. Unfortunately, that huge achievement is almost their only major achievement in office. While things were not as absolutely abysmal as portrayed by Pakistan’s anti-PPP middle class (rural areas, for example, are better off economically than they have ever been), they are pretty awful. Chronic electricity shortages (inherited from Musharraf’s Potemkin regime, but still not fixed), galloping inflation, widespread corruption and endless terrorism have tried the patience of even the most devoted PPP supporters and make it difficult for the PPP to run on their record. There are a few bright spots (including a relatively well run welfare scheme called the Benazir income support program) and with Zardari deploying his coalition building magic, it is not a good idea to completely rule them out. Still, they are clearly not the favorites in the coming elections. The middle class excitement (especially in Punjab and KP) is all about Imran Khan, while more serious pundits seem to be betting on Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN. Being out of the country, I have little direct knowledge of what retail politics looks like on the ground; but there is such a thing as a long-distance view and I am going to take that view and try and make some predictions. We will know in 3 weeks how out of touch I really am.
If you do want to look up what is happening on the ground in detail there are several excellent sources available, for example: Saba Imtiaz’s election watch, the Dawn newspaper’s election page (including an interesting motor cycle diary from Tahir Mehdi as he motors across Pakistan), an election page from journalist and public intellectual Raza Rumi and last but not the least, the wonderful young team at fiverupees.com, who don’t have a lot of coverage yet, but do have writers who prefer carefully checked facts and data to mere opinion.
On to predictions:
- No one will win a thumping majority. This one is easy. The early favorite PMLN is strong in Punjab, has a presence in KP (mostly Hazara) and a useful alliance in Baluchistan, but little hope in Sindh. With Punjab alone having 148 out of 271 general seats, they will probably win the most seats in the NA but it still may not add up to a decisive majority.
- PMLN will easily form the next provincial government in Punjab. PPP will still be the second largest party in Punjab. PTI will be third.
- PPP will win most seats in Sindh, but it will lose some seats in the Sindhi heartland where it has had a decisive majority in almost every election. MQM will win its usual Sindh Urban seats. PPP will win Lyari once again in spite of all its mistakes in the last 5 years. By making up with the PAC, Zardari has pulled this rabbit out of the hat after things looked decidedly shaky for the PPP in Lyari. Incidentally, in the process he has also nominated perhaps the most interesting female candidate in this election (who is likely to win her seat).
- Imran Khan’s PTI will win around 10 seats in Punjab. It may do better in KP (but there are only 35 general seats in all of KP, so “better” is not going to be enough at a national level). In Sindh his party has completely abandoned urban Sindh to the MQM and is unlikely to win any seats in rural Sindh (except one that his party vice president Shah Mahmood Qureshi may win as an independent because of the hold of hereditary feudal Pir’s (spiritual leaders) in the area; which is truly ironic since Imran Khan’s main appeal is as a “new” kind of politician and his party’s only hope in Sindh is the most regressive kind of feudal politics). MQM will hold on to its dominant position in urban Sindh.
- The heroic ANP, facing the wrath of the Taliban alone and without any serious protection from the “deep state”, will still manage a few seats in KP. JUI-F (still regarded by many foreign observers as a “pro-Taliban party”, though the reality may be more complicated) will win a few, PTI will win a few, and PMLN will win a few, and so on. PTI supporters are very hopeful of a major sweep in this province, but my long distance ill-informed guess is that while they will win seats, they will not be able to manage a sweep. My reason for saying this is that the province is in many ways the most politically diverse in the country. It consists of many different regions, many ethnicities, many languages and an electorate that is more politically savvy than people give them credit for. It’s true that things are in something of a flux because the province is the epicenter of the jihadist insurgency and there is a serious contradiction between deeply rooted religious loyalties of the general population and the need to engage in a bareknuckle contest against militants who claim to be more loyal to that religion than anyone else. This clash has created serious problems in the mind of the Pakistani middle class everywhere, but perhaps more so in KP than elsewhere. This severe cognitive dissonance is a major factor in creating support for Imran Khan’s blend of Islamic nationalism and Swedish social democracy, but that surge is not going to carry him to the landslide he needs.
- To sum up: no one will win it all. PMLN will be the single biggest party and the much maligned PPP will be second. PTI will get maybe 30 seats. The end result will be a coalition government and this one may not last the full 5 years. This will be more like a transitional election that will set the stage for more mature politics in the next term. And it will do so because Zardari was able to get a civilian regime to complete its term and hopefully, to hold elections and transfer power. If the army can be kept out of direct politics this time it will finally begin to sink in that no savior on horseback is going to magically transform the nation. THIS is all there is. These politics, these parties, these elections, these compromises. That realization may well be the best thing to come out of this election. The elected regime itself (probably PMLN, but if PTI cuts enough into their support, maybe even PPP) will be no great miracle and will not have a very decisive mandate, but its very existence will be step forward.
Many things can go wrong in Pakistan. Many already have. There is likely to be very hard fighting against the Taliban in the years to come. There will be a civil war in Afghanistan that will involve Pakistan one way or the other. There may be new tensions with India. There may be an economic collapse. There may be an unusually serious act of terror in a great power (e.g. the USA, China, an EU country or Russia) that leads to severe consequences for Pakistan. And all of that may happen with a middle class still confused between Jihadist Islam and “Western” democracy. But it is also possible that none of this may happen. That things will drag on for years as various serious contradictions are slowly resolved. In short, there is a fighting chance that these struggles will take place in a Pakistan where the system and its continuity are being taken for granted. That will be a step forward.
Btw, this is how things looked in 2008
Monday, April 01, 2013
…And Thanks For All The Fish
"Fish is as natural in Fulton Market as they are in their own briny
~Harper's Magazine, 1867
Followers of the New York City food scene have recently been galvanized by yet another all-too-predictable brawl between, on the one hand, real estate developers and the city and, on the other, scrappy entrepreneurs bent on preserving another endangered aspect of New York's urban heritage. In this case, the contested site is the Fulton Fish Market, whose fishmongering operations had already decamped to the Bronx back in 2005. Since then, two sizable waterfront buildings have remained astonishingly, unconscionably empty. In the meantime, the New Amsterdam Market, founded by Robert LaValva, has grown its following with increasingly successful seasonal, weekly markets, conducted in the shadow of the old fish market for the last seven years.
Not only has New Amsterdam Market been steadily expanding since its 2005 inception, but LaValva's vision is decidedly more ambitious: to re-occupy the former market buildings and create an urban market as worthy of New York as Reading Terminal Market is of Philadelphia, as La Bocqueria is of Barcelona, or as Les Halles once was of Paris. This unstoppable force has, unsurprisingly, run into the immovable object of what we may call the "city-developer complex."
But in order to understand what it would take to recreate the Fulton Market, it is instructive to look back to its genesis. Markets tend not spring wholly formed from the minds of expert city planners, visionary mayors, or magnanimous philanthropists; nor do they manifest themselves in some sui generis manner from self-organizing associations of merchants. They are messy affairs, constantly contended and never fully secure. What, then, drives the creation – and maintenance – of a successful urban market?
Fulton Market's site on the East River, in retrospect, seemed to be the perfect place for a market. As a tidal strait, the East River was much freer of the ice floes that plagued shipping on the Hudson; it furthermore had the advantage of facing Brooklyn, whose incipient ferry service was about to create New York's first commuting class. But the origins of the market, usually dated to 1822, reach much further back, to 1695, and to a site a few blocks south, known as the Fly Market. As David Allgeyer writes in "The Tip of The Island:"
"Vley Market"…came to be used for a trading center which was developing in the general area known as "Smit's (Smith's) Valley." "Valley" was shortened to "Vley," and eventually "Vley" became corrupted [albeit appropriately] to "Fly." [It] became the main trading center for the townspeople with Long Island farmers. In the late 1700's two pavilions were erected for the merchants [sic] activities during inclement weather. The one at the foot of the slip was a fish market. At the foot of the slip were steps leading down to the water level, where a dock for the Long Island Ferry boarded passengers. Apparently the Ferry to Brooklyn also used the dock [for] some period of time. (pp121-2).
Despite this seemingly sensible evolution, the Fly Market was situated over an open sewer, which made summertime operation difficult; moreover, the vendors wanted to get closer to the docks where the new ferry to Brooklyn had been operating since 1814 – the cartage fee was eating into their profits. Certainly by 1815 the idea had been floated, and by March of 1817 the state legislature had empowered the city to take possession of the land. However, the city dragged its heels until the following incident, as documented in Thomas Farrington De Voe's richly detailed (and delightfully chatty) 1862 compendium The Market Book: Containing a Historical Account of the Public Markets of the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn [etc].:
Early in 1821, a large fire took place in Fulton Street, Front Street, and Crane's Wharf, which destroyed all the wooden buildings on this site. This induced the Mayor to call a meeting of the Board on the 29th of January of that year, for the purpose of deciding the question, "Whether or no a public market shall be erected on this site." The Gazette of that date says: "The late conflagration has exposed to view this beautiful spot of ground, which has so universally been considered as the most eligible of situations for a market, and which has already been actually vested in the Corporation for the purpose of a market." (De Voe, 488ff)
Thus it was thanks to a tabula rasa – of however dubious a provenance – that the Fulton Market had its start. Even then it was a struggle to get the market opened: further cajoling and browbeating of the City Council was needed to persuade it of its duty to erect a public market in an area where the value of real estate was rapidly climbing. In fact, the Council enlisted several lawyers to argue that it was under no obligation to build what it promised on the land that had been so conveniently cleared for it. Nevertheless, Fulton Market opened for business on January 22, 1822.
But in case anyone might think this was an urban market mecca, à la Union Square's now-famous Greenmarket, Robert Greenhalgh Albion, writing in "The Rise of New York Port" (1939), quotes a Glasgow printer as noting that the slips, "being completely out of the current of the stream or tide, are little else than stagnant receptacles of city filth; while the top of the wharves exhibits one continuous mass of clotted nuisance, composed of dust, tea, oil, molasses, &c., where revel countless swarms of offensive flies" (p221).
Business was not without its rambunctious aspects, either: the initial 1822 auction of stalls had been boycotted by the butchers due to the greediness of the council, and when one of their profession crossed the picket line he was unceremoniously seized, thrashed and tossed into the East River (De Voe, p493). Nevertheless, as the city evolved, so did its port, and the supply of fresh fish, oysters and other seafood continued unabated, of which Fulton Market rapidly became the epicenter. Soon enough it had become nearly the largest in the city, second only to Washington Market; as an example of its prodigious supply, by 1867, the anonymous writer for Harper's Magazine featured in the epigraph above was able to report that, thanks to the Market, "with regard to oysters, about 250,000 are daily eaten in New York during the "R" months; about 25,000 per diem during the remaining months of the year."
And yet more overpowering than the smell of fish was the smell of money. The city's foot-dragging in 1821 as it sensed more lucrative revenue opportunities for the land dedicated to the market would be not be the last time such preferences emerged. As Philip Lopate writes in his excellent introduction to Barbara Mensch's book of photographs chronicling the Fish Market's twilight years:
[In] April 4, 1857, a Tribune editorial had argued…that it made more fiscal sense to close the downtown markets and sell the property to realtors:
The ground occupied by Washington Market is estimated to be worth $385,000; Fulton Market, $210,000. A more accurate estimate, at present values, would make the aggregate near a million dollars – certainly as much as that including the wharf and dock rights. The markets are now far away from their customers; dwelling and boarding houses have been generally abandoned in their vicinity, and… the people who still resort to these markets would be more generally accommodated if they were removed a considerable distance uptown; the city would profit largely by selling these sites, and the rush and crowd of Broadway below the park would be sensibly relieved by withdrawing the thousands of carts and wagons which necessarily throng around the present markets (pp9-10).
Aside from being exquisitely prescient of the Fish Market's future, this is illustrative of a larger truth. Cities have traditionally held little concern for the means by which the populace feeds itself. Usually, things are left to just manage themselves, unless there is good money to be made from taxing alcohol and other kinds of conspicuous consumption. It is only when waves of cholera sweep the slums are efforts made to clean up the drinking water supply; similarly, it is only when the streets are clogged with vendors that prevent the effective transaction of "business" (as if the purchase of foodstuffs is not business at all) that permanent spots for markets stand a chance of being created.
During the 1930s, NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia presented one model for doing so: he "made it a mission to eradicate "pushcart evil", calling it "a blemish on the face of the city" that must be removed. He envisioned a brighter, cleaner Lower East Side that erased any vestiges left from its ethnic immigrant past. Under LaGuardia's leadership, new laws forbade any goods from being sold on the street." Instead, he organized several indoor markets around the city, including the Lower East Side's Essex Street Market, and La Marqueta in East Harlem, among six others; four are still standing today, more than seventy years later. However, it also bears mentioning that those vendors who could not afford the indoor fees became unemployed.*
In the meantime, Fulton Fish Market had turned to wholesale as well as retail, thus further cementing its vital position. The trade was so profitable, in fact, that all other, non-seafood vendors had been bought out; the Mob, too, smelled the money sometime in the 1930s and began making its own inroads. But, improbably, the venue remained, with its absurd hours (the best time to get fish was when you'd finished clubbing downtown, around three or four in the morning), even more absurd characters (I dearly enjoyed hanging out with Annie around the time I moved to the City, about 13 years ago), and a general atmosphere of unsurpassed crankiness and camaraderie. It was probably the last place in Manhattan where you could walk up to a couple of guys warming themselves over a trashcan fire and cadge a smoke off of them, and wind up shooting the bull for an hour.
Eventually, with the Disney-fication of South Street Seaport, these practices were squeezed out of existence, one by one. Which leads us to ask, why should something like this have persisted for so long? Philip Lopate proposes a sort-of answer:
Quick to innovate, New York will then conservatively attach itself to a physical status quo, however cumbersome and even ugly, so long as it is reassuringly familiar. Two reasons may be proffered: first, the large immigrant population often prefers casual, under-regulated work environments; second, the town being a famously difficult if exciting place to live, the typical New Yorker does not expect comfort, proudly adjusting to crisis or hassle through a mixture of resilience and resignation (pp1-2).
I wonder, however, if this is still the New York that exists today. Certainly Fulton Fish Market, as I have sketched it above, is gone, and gone forever. Now situated in a state-of-the-art facility in the Bronx, the peanut-gallery/jury of the fishmongers themselves is still out as whether any of this was a good idea. Not that there is any going back. If anything, Bloomberg's New York seems intent on pushing anything unpolished and wholesale into the periphery, if not beyond the city limits. It seems as if the only kind of "urban market" that can open these days in New York is the likes of an overpriced gastro-fantasyland such as Eataly, a place where you will never be in doubt to whom to give your money.
While these are no longer gritty, vaguely intimidating places but shiny, welcoming temples where there is simply no room for someone like Annie, this is not the axe I want to grind here, as tempting as it might be. The more important issue is how this development closely mirrors the larger shift, that cities are now largely perceived by policymakers as sites of consumption, and not of production or interaction. And yet, in all this time the task of feeding the city has not changed one whit.
Which brings us back to the future of New Amsterdam Market. What future would that be? I refer readers to other, more capable commentators on the ins and outs of the recent political process, which, shall we say, is about as sausage-y as sausage-making gets. LaValva's vision is what is compelling: a vibrant regional food hub for farmers and producers; retailers and wholesalers; tourists, restaurants and regular New Yorkers alike. This is not an attempt to reproduce the grungy flair of the original market, but it definitely is not a further step in the ongoing homogenization of New York, and many other cities. It is, if anything, a valiant attempt to reweave the urban and rural fabrics.
But without the overt pressures that drove planners and officials to create markets in the past – whether they were rioting butchers, caroming pushcarts, or other public health hazards, real or imagined – it is difficult to see what inspiration will impel our recalcitrant officials to forego the kind of alliances that have proven so fruitful in the recent past. These days, more than ever, it is a big money game. The kind of money that people cannot really visualize (although films like Battle for Brooklyn and My Brooklyn are a good start, and deserving of a separate post). The kind of money for which people are willing to be very, very patient. Indeed, the developer who a week ago said "If I got $300 a square foot [in commercial tenants' rent], I'd be very happy…we want to charge as much rent as we can..." reminded me of 1821, when, nearly 200 years ago, almost no market came to be built at all. And yet, stranger things came to pass.
*Incidentally, for seven years I lived across the street from a produce shop that was owned by one of Brooklyn's last horse-and-cart vendors. Even for Jimmy's obituary, the Times couldn't resist quoting its earlier (less gentler?) self:
Of course, not everyone looked upon the peddlers kindly. The New York Times wrote (somewhat sneeringly) in 1884: "Is there any satisfaction at all in buying the freshest and greenest vegetables from a lank-haired dirty fingered peddler who probably never saw a fifty-acre farm in his life?" It continued: "They all sell at poor people's prices and get poor people's custom, but they have no more in common with the mob and rabble around the auction wagons of the vendors than they have with a wholesale grocery house in West Broadway."
Monday, March 25, 2013
Pakistan and Its Stories
by Omar Ali
I recently wrote a piece titled “Pakistan, myths and consequences”, in which I argued that Pakistan’s founding myths (whether present at birth or fashioned retroactively) make it unusually difficult to resist those who want to impose various dangerous ideas upon the state in the name of Islam. The argument was not that Pakistan exists in some parallel dimension where economic and political factors that operate in the rest of the world play no role. But rather that the usual problems of twenty-first century post-colonial countries (problems that may prove overwhelming even where Islamism plays no role) are made significantly worse by the imposition upon them of a flawed and dangerous “Paknationalist-Islamic” framework. Without that framework Pakistan would still be a third world country facing immense challenges. But with this framework we are committed to an ideological cul-de-sac that devalues existing cultural strengths and sharpens existing religious problems (including the Shia-Sunni divide and the use of blasphemy laws to persecute minorities). Not only do these creation myths have negative consequences (as partly enumerated in the above-linked article) but they also have very little positive content. There is really no such thing as a specifically Islamic or “Pakistani” blueprint for running a modern state. None. Nada. Nothing. There is no there there. Yet school textbooks, official propaganda and everyday political speech in Pakistan endlessly refer to some imaginary “Islamic model” of administration and statecraft. Since no such model exists, we are condemned to hypocritically mouthing meaningless and destructive Paknationalist and Islamist slogans while simultaneously (and almost surreptitiously) trying to operate modern Western constitutional, legal and economic models.
This argument is anathema to Pakistani nationalists, Islamists and neo-Islamists (e.g. Imran Khan, who believes a truly Islamic state would look something like Sweden without the half-naked women) but it is also uncomfortable for upper class Leftists educated in Western universities. Their objections matter to me because they are my friends and family, so I will try to answer some of them here. These friends have pointed out to me that:
1. India is not much better.
2. The US systematically supported Islamists in Pakistan and pushed for the suppression of leftist and progressive intellectuals for decades.
About the India objection, I believe that objection misses
the point. The Indian subcontinent is all a work in progress. Every nation has
miles to go. We are by far the largest repository of REALLY poor people on planet earth. Indians (defined as anyone
belonging to the wider Indian genetic and civilizational cluster, hence
including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan) are the most numerous
population group on earth (outnumbering the Chinese by hundreds of millions)
and living standards in greater India are barely ahead of “sub-Saharan Africa”
(which admittedly includes South Africa, so the category is rather
heterogeneous and misleading) and social and economic problems are
Culturally too, it is a remarkably heterogeneous and variegated civilization (though still recognizably “Indian”) and the modern Indian state is very far from being a model for anyone. While its founding myth and ideal are positive ideals (multicultural, secular, democratic India) its actual practice is frequently very far from those ideals. But if and when India approaches its ideal, it will have improved. And its ideal draws upon the same vast storehouse of experimentation and theorization to which every other modern country and culture contributes and from which they all draw their lessons. That India is not much better is expected. But it is swimming the same river as everyone else and with time, may swim better. It may even contribute some original ideas of its own to the great (and frequently bloody and unjust) ongoing project of human social organization in the 21st century CE. But what is (ostensibly) being attempted in Pakistan is something different. IF the “ideology of Pakistan” propaganda is taken remotely seriously then something not yet in existence elsewhere is to be created in Pakistan. This will be something religious, Islamic, republican, democratic, socialist, capitalist and fair (all elements may not apply). In principle one must concede the possibility that Pakistan and its leading intellectuals will craft something new, different and better than anything that exists elsewhere in Europe or Asia today. In practice one can take one look at said intellectuals and well, enough said.
The US has indeed played a large (and usually negative) role in Pakistani politics (and continues to play a large role). But while US imperial intervention is a fact of life, it is not (and has never been) omnipotent or omniscient. Many countries have maneuvered from a position of dependency to one of near-independence. Pakistani nationalism and its supposedly Islamic ideal are neither a necessary result of US intervention, nor its best antithesis. The Pakistani bourgeoisie can and should dump both and still figure out how to manage US intervention.
Colonialism I will leave to the post-colonialists. There are limits to what can be discussed on a highly educated liberal blog without getting lost in translation.
Finally, a recent concrete illustration of how the founding myths work to alter the direction of events in Pakistan.
A couple of days ago, prominent journalist (and Islamist Paknationalist) Ansar Abbasi wrote a front page “expose” in the daily “The News”, owned and operated by the supposedly modern and forward looking “Jang Group” (the largest media group in Pakistan). In this article, he announced that the Punjab government (led by the right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League-N; a party that is no stranger to using Islamist and Paknationalist propaganda) had deleted some “Islamic” chapters from the 10th grade Urdu language textbook for 2013. His litany of complaints included the following
The second chapter in the old edition was on ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ written by Dr Ghulam Mustafa Khan. This important chapter highlighted the basis for the creation of Pakistan and endorsed that the country was created in the name of Islam, to make it an Islamic state, has been replaced by a new chapter on ‘Princess of Paristan’ (Paristan ki shahzadi) written by Ashraf Saboohi.
… Poetry of a Indian poet Firaq Gorakhpuri has been included in the text book and the poet is presented as a hero awarded by the Indian and Russian governments.
While the title page of the book contains the picture of Allama Iqbal, it does not contain any poem of the great poet of Islam and Pakistan. Excluding extremely impressive Islamic poetry, the new text book, however starts with a Hamd (praise of Almighty Allah) and Naat (praise of Hazrat Muhammad — PBUH).
Keep in mind that this is a textbook meant for the Urdu language class, not the Islamic studies or Pakistan studies class. One day after the publication of this attack (and its amplification on social media, especially by supporters of Imran Khan) chief minister Shahbaz Sharif ordered the “Islamic chapters” reinstated. It took less than 24 hours for matters to be corrected.
Cricketer and philanthropist Imran Khan has recently become very popular among young people educated through these textbooks. His current policy is to be all things to all people and his manifesto is progressive and liberal and completely skips the topic of Islam and the so-called ideology of Pakistan. While it is unlikely that he will overcome various hurdles and become the leading party in the coming elections, even if his party were to somehow sweep into power it will never be able to resist demands couched in the idiom of Islam and Pakistan. This is because neither he nor his fans have any vocabulary with which they can counter arguments that are obviously in line with orthodox Islam and behind which looms the specter of blasphemy and apostasy. Within their circles, some of these people can and do have conversations about modern Islam and the need to counter “extremism”, but when someone like Ansar Abbasi becomes aggressive, they will have to back down.In fact, their fate is likely to be worse than Shahbaz Sharif's because they want to achieve their modern Scandinavian Islamic state without resort to “dirty politics” or hypocrisy. It is very hard to square that circle with resort to dirty politics and hypocrisy…without them, it is likely to be impossible.
(Listen from the 1:20 mark onwards)
Finally, it is not my claim that there is something essentially barbaric about “Islam” which makes an “Islamic” solution impossible. Islam is what Muslims make of it. It has been made many things in the past and will be made into many things in the future. But intellectual development in orthodox mainstream Sunni Islam has been moribund for centuries. This is partly due to the unusual success of blasphemy and apostasy memes that were meant to protect orthodoxy from criticism but have also made it sterile. I do not think that this is a permanent state of affairs. There are already glimmers of change. Much more will happen as orthodox controls loosen. But the time frame of that renaissance and the immediate needs of the Pakistani state do not coincide. For now, we have to stay away from Islamism or we are going to end up with Munawwar Hassan’s Islam. That’s just how things happen to be at this point in history.
History was old and rusted, it was a machine nobody had plugged in for thousands of years, and here all of a sudden it was being asked for maximum output. Nobody was surprised that there were accidents… (Salman Rushdie, Shame)
The paintings are by Punjabi artist Shahid Mirza.
Monday, February 04, 2013
The Land of Oz
"I never knew I had an inventive talent until phrenology told me
I was a stranger to myself until then."
The question of expertise is a fascinating and vexatious one. Who gets to be an expert? More accurately, who is allowed to be an expert? And what happens when expertise is, for lack of a more polite term, betrayed by one of its own? A recent New Yorker article pillorying Dr. Mehmet Oz provides some interesting lessons in this regard.
Most expertise, it can be reasonably argued, is cultivated and deployed within the context of occupational professions. For the purposes of created a baseline for the following discussion, let’s define a profession as “an organized body of experts who apply esoteric knowledge to particular cases.” This is according to Andrew Abbott, whose The System of Professions (1988) is the current sociological heavyweight when it comes to theorizing about professions.
Abbott contends that, in order to theorize this phenomenon effectively, sociology must look at professions in a holistic manner: prior research, which focused on the structure and function of individual professions, missed the larger point that the success or failure of any given profession was largely contingent upon the results of “interprofessional competition.” That is, when considered in isolation, professions make claims concerning their relevance for addressing social needs through the formation of associations, credentialing, the courting of favourable regulation, and so on. However, when viewed as a larger social phenomenon, it is apparent that these claims are subject to constant contention by other professions. There is, in fact, an ecology of professions.
As an example, while one might consider alcoholism to be an objective phenomenon centered around the over-consumption of drink by an individual, the subjective nature of alcoholism as a social phenomenon has been viewed alternatively as a moral or spiritual problem, a medical disease, a legal matter, and as a mental disorder. Respectively then, the responsibility to treat alcoholics was claimed by the clergy, doctors, lawyers and police, and psychiatrists. What is worth noting is that these professions actively partook in poaching the objective phenomenon at hand from one another. When a particular profession failed to deliver results, an opening was created for another group to take over, thereby adding to its social legitimacy and influence.
Abbott is very precise about what signals the vulnerability of one profession to another. Professions are, in the most generic sense, proficient at diagnosing problems within their domain of expertise, inferring various winning scenarios, and prescribing appropriate treatments. One profession can attempt to claim territory from another if the former fails to control all three of these phases. While accurate diagnoses and measurable, successful treatments are obviously essential, inference is particularly vulnerable. Constituting the profession’s internal work, inference connects diagnosis to treatment, and can be thought of as chains of analysis and decisionmaking, which ought to be neither too short (leading to ‘deprofessionalization,’ or in today’s world, automation via computers) nor too long (implying irreproducibility of results).
Paradoxically, professions that can revisit specific problems for an unspecified number of “second chances” are particularly vulnerable to this kind of competition. Consider the luxury that doctors have when treating a patient with high cholesterol over the course of many visits, versus military strategists, who have only one opportunity to fight a single battle. While the doctor can tinker with various drug regimes, the strategist has only one chance to triumph in a confrontation that is unique and unrepeatable. In this sense, a surfeit of second chances presents any competing profession with subversive opportunities, such as when a patient hears of a new treatment and demands that his doctor prescribe it. Thus a large portion of the profession’s claims to cultural legitimacy may come under threat. As Abbott writes in The System of Professions,
Societies have little time for experts who lack cultural legitimacy, irrespective of their success rates. This issue ultimately undid the homeopaths in their competition with regular medicine, although medicine’s recent narrowing of its legitimation to science and technology has proved dangerous, since late twentieth-century cultural values increasingly conceptualize health as quality of life (p54).
This thought, written 25 years ago, sets the stage nicely for the above-mentioned New Yorker article.
In “The Operator,” Michael Specter profiles Dr. Mehmet Oz, known to fans of Oprah Winfrey as “America’s Doctor,” as riding the wrong side of the tracks of popular medicine by breathlessly entertaining “experts” (read: quacks) and “miracle cures” on Oz’s wildly popular TV show. In turn, Oz defends his self-appointed responsibility, “because the currency that I deal in is trust, and it is trust that has been given to me by Oprah and by Columbia University [where he practices surgery], and by an audience that has watched over six hundred shows.”
Oz maintains that “Western medicine has a firm belief that studying human beings is like studying bacteria in petri dishes. Doctors do not want questions from their patients; it’s easier to tell them what to do than to listen to what they say. But people are on a serpentine path through life, and that is the way it is supposed to be.” In his incarnation as “America’s doctor,” he inhabits precisely the gap that Abbott identified above, where complementary medicine addresses itself in a sympathetic way to the desire patients have for “quality of life.” As such, he combines a charismatic presence with a media-savvy show that impacts the health decisions made by millions of Americans.
While much of his advice is entirely sensible, he also takes the opportunity to promote theories and products that are, at best, lightly supported. This is what Specter cannot countenance: “When he tells his audience, with no credible evidence, that red palm oil may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, is he empowering people? Or is he encouraging them to endanger their health with another ‘miracle’?”
At points, Specter can barely contain his incredulity. “How was it Oz’s ‘biggest opportunity’ to introduce [osteopath Joseph Mercola,] a guest who explicitly rejects the tenets of science? …I was still puzzled. Either data works or it doesn’t…Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”
But is precisely Abbott’s lengthy “chains of inference” and “second chance” opportunities, so characteristic of medical practice, that provide the opening for Oz’s guests to make the claims they do (e.g., that vaccines can cause AIDS). If medicine has given up on its collective bedside manner and retreated behind the chart and microscope, the alternative medical professions will smell the weakness and unhesitatingly pounce. As Oz himself says, “It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder…It’s my fact versus your fact.”
We have seen this movie before. Writing in the American Sociological Review a few years before Abbott published his book, Thomas Gieryn postulated that scientists engage in ideological boundary-making for at least three reasons: when the discipline is attempting to make claims on new territory; when consolidating still-tenuous claims; and when secured territory is under threat, for example by defunding. Gieryn illustrates the second scenario by recounting the power struggle that occurred between anatomists and phrenologists in early 19th-century Edinburgh.
Since its founding earlier in the later 18th century, phrenology had gained great popularity. Nevertheless, the more established scientists saw phrenology as a distinct threat, not least because it promoted itself as a complete science – more complete, in fact, than any other. Phrenologists for example felt capable of reforming prisoners and finding the most suitable employment for them; they promised even a greater understanding of Christianity. This constituted a distinct threat to anatomists, who concerned themselves solely with physiology, and their academic colleagues, the moral philosophers. That the church would not be pleased to see “science” incurring on its own turf was also a not-insignificant factor. But most importantly, it was the upstart discipline’s “democratic ideal of certifying truth by popular opinion [that] challenged the authority of scientific experts.”
The anatomists mounted a campaign to discredit phrenology. Articles appeared in the Edinburgh newspapers attacking it, especially for its religious and political ambitions. William Hamilton, an adversary of the phrenologists, conducted experiments, using the scientific method, to disprove phrenology’s scientific claims, He even asked George Combe, its most ardent proponent, to “produce a single practical anatomist who will consent to stake his reputation on the truth of phrenology…Combe replied that “experts” could not serve as dispassionate judges of phrenology because most had previously expressed their contempt for it” (Giervyn, 798). All in all, the anatomists made short work of phrenology:
George Combe was denied the chair of Logic at Edinburgh University; phrenologists were not allowed to use the lecture halls at the Edinburgh School of Arts; phrenological issues were rarely admitted to the proper forum for scientific debate, the Royal Society of Edinburgh; Combe was not allowed to form a “phrenological section” in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Selected phrenological ideas were incorporated into the legitimate science of physiological psychology without admitting Combe to the scientific community, thus avoiding threats to professional authority.
Here the anatomists’ actions anticipated Abbott’s notion that academia is the most direct route to cultural legitimacy for any profession, including science. More cynically, they were not shy about appropriating what worked for themselves, but stripped of any incriminating ideology.
Oz’s adversaries may take cold comfort from this study, however. The fact that Oz has emerged from within the profession itself brings up the interesting case of what happens when an exemplary representative of a profession “strays” from the jurisdictional claims of his métier and clearly, deliberately invites, as per Abbott, interprofessional competition. Nevertheless, he is, by all accounts, a motivated teacher and scholar who has published hundreds of papers; a fine surgeon who has performed thousands of open-heart procedures; an alpha male thriving in a profession populated only by alpha males. It’s just that his side-gig isn’t building ships in bottles.
By his own admission, Oz is on a crusade to break down the barriers that maintain the hard-won claims that medicine has come to enjoy in this country. For the moment, there is little the profession can do to stop him – in this era of instant media and communication, there is no lecture hall from which to ban him. One need only witness Glenn Beck’s recent post-Fox successes to understand how little exile matters to those whose audience has achieved a critical mass.
Quixotically, in this case, the profession at risk seems to have resigned itself to using journalism as its best available enforcing mechanism – a tactic that, putting it mildly, attaches its own set of problematics. For Michael Specter is himself neither a doctor, nor a scientist, and the New Yorker is not a peer-reviewed journal. This kind of bourgie tut-tutting cannot really touch the plane of popularity on which Oz is operating.
More problematic, however, is the fact that the media is itself guilty of exactly the same kind of breathless glorification of most any kind of science that will sell papers, ad space, personal information, or whatever passes for currency in journalism today. Reporters are expected to produce regular features about our inevitable progress towards freedom from disease or just plain discomfort, so if there is a “study” that affirms something exciting, it will find its way onto the front page of the science section, if not the front page itself. Scientists are in turn all too happy to publicize their findings, however tenuous they may be, since university administrators reward visibility with more funding.
For their part, industry groups are thrilled at the prospect of skyrocketing demand for, say, red palm oil, oatmeal or anything else. If it's a new pharmaceutical, drug companies and doctors are happy to have something new to prescribe. And years later, when follow-up studies refute or negate or trivialize these findings, there is no one to take the call, because that is simply old news, and who wants to hear that we really don’t know much more than we thought we did? Specter may be an angry-yet-noble enforcer for the positivist cause, but his colleagues across the board ought to accept the responsibility for having created a world in which someone like “America’s Doctor” is not just a possibility but an inevitability.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Some notes on the Shia-Sunni conflict
by Omar Ali
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (Karl Marx)
Shia killing in Pakistan started in earnest in the 1980s and proximate causes include the CIA’s Afghan project, the Pakistani state’s use of that project to prepare Jihadi cadres for other uses, the influence of Saudi Arabia and modern Takfiri-Salafist movements, the rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors and so on. Some aspects of this (especially in light of the history of Pakistan) are covered in an article I wrote earlier . Here I want to discuss a little more about the historical background to this conflict. The aim is to provide a brief overview of how this conflict has played out at some points in Islamic history and to argue that if both Shias and Sunnis are to live amicably within the same state, the state needs to be secular. The alternatives are oppression of one sect or endless conflict.
The origins of the Arab empire lie in the first Islamic state established in Medina under the leadership of the prophet Mohammed (this historical narrative has been criticized as being too quick to accept the various histories generated a century or more later in the Ummayad and Abbasid empires; skeptics claim that the early origins of the Ummayad empire and its dominant religion may be very different from what its own mythmakers later claimed. But this is a minority view and is not a concern of this article). The succession to the prophet became a matter of some controversy (primarily on the issue of Ali’s claim to the caliphate) and tensions between prominent companions of the Prophet eventually spilled over into open warfare (the first civil war). This civil war had not yet been finally settled when Ali was assassinated and Muavia, the Ummayad governor of Syria, managed to consolidate his rule over most of the nascent Arab empire. Ali’s elder son Hassan, eventually renounced his claim and settled terms with Muavia, leading to a period of relative peace. But when Muavia died and his son Yazid took over in the Ummayad capital of Damascus, there was a challenge from Ali’s younger son Hussain. This ended with the famous events at Karbala, where Hussain and most male members of his extended famly were brutally killed by a large Umayyad force. Supporters of Ali and opponents of the Ummayads (the two categories were not always synonymous) launched a series of revolts against various Ummayad rulers, including several led by different members of the extended family of Ali (and by extension, by Hashemites; since in tribal Arab terms, this was also a struggle between the Hashemite clan and the Ummayad clan). During this time the supporters of Ali and his family (Shia means partisan, as in partisan of Ali) developed their own version of Islamic history in which Ali was the rightful successor to the prophet and his right was usurped by the first three caliphs. They also developed various notions about the special status of Ali and his family. Yazid and his Ummayad successors were thus (with varying intensity) regarded as illegitimate rulers and various Shia groups formed natural foci of opposition to Ummayad rule.
This Shia resentment became one of the forces co-opted by Abu Abbas As-Saffa in the Abbassid revolt against Ummayad rule; but Shia claims were quickly cast aside once Abbassid rule was established. The Abbassids, in spite of Hashemite origins and their initial use of Shia resentment to mobilize support for their revolt, soon settled on a broadly Sunni identity and much of what we now recognize as classical Sunni Islam was created by scholars working in Abbassid times (sometimes with official sanction, at other times in spite of official persecution). Shias themselves split into various sects with doctrinal differences as well as differences about the line of Imams recognized as authentic, but they all shared some notion of the special status of Ali and his descendants and of the illegitimacy of all or most Ummayad rulers. They also adopted (but in some cases, later toned down or discarded) theological notions that were sometimes very distant from mainstream Sunni Islam.
These early conflicts provided later rulers and revolutionaries with contrasting identities that could be cynically used or sincerely adopted to differentiate themselves from rivals or to revolt against them. These conflicting groups were not always the same as they are today because neither Shia nor Sunni identities were exactly what they are today. e.g. twelver Shias were not always the most prominent Shia sect; In the 10th century, it was the Ismailis who ruled from Egypt as the Fatimid caliphate, and there were several Zaydi Shia Kingdoms when the twelvers were relatively invisible. The twelvers themselves adopted some very harsh public rituals of condemnation of the first three caliphs in early Safavid times that were not standard in previous centuries. But whatever the exact form, there were always recognizably Shia and Sunni groups with distinct historical and religious narratives. These conflicts created rival versions of crucial historical events that became deeply embedded in Islamicate historiography and popular culture. Differences were not always violent and in larger multicultural empires they could be suppressed or subordinated to the needs of statecraft. A syncretic ruler like Akbar (the great Moghul) could appoint a Shia as his chief judge (though not without resistance); but the divisions existed and could be exploited by anyone who wished to conspire against such an appointment. Thus, this particular judge ended up as one of the five martyrs of Shiaism when his rivals got the upper hand in the time of Akbar’s more orthodox successor Jahangir.
Within the core Arab and Persian heartland of Islam, the distinction between Shia and Sunni acquired a rather different edge when the Safavid dynasty conquered Iran and imposed twelver Shiaism as its state religion, distinguishing itself from the Sunni Ottoman empire in the process and making Shia Islam an integral part of Persian identity. Their prolonged clash with the Sunni Ottoman empire included a healthy dose of anti-Sunni polemics, and vice versa. So successful was this fusion of Persian and Shia identities that even when the Safavids were replaced by a Sunni emperor (Nadir Shah) who made an effort to bring Iran back towards Sunni Islam, this effort had very little success.
But Ottoman-Safavid polemics were mild compared to what was brewing in Arabia. The 18th century Islamic reformer Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahab was virulently anti-Shia. Driven not by the pragmatic needs of statecraft but by the logic of a true believer, he insisted that the theological deviations of Shiaism and their historical role as rebels against the authority of the early Islamic empires put them outside the pale of Islam (he had similar views about Sufis and most other Muslims, following the same logic of purity and “one truth, one religion, one law”). His followers mined the propaganda of past conflicts (propaganda that naturally included the creation of holy traditions and archetypal “historic battles”) to create a narrative of Shia-hatred that is unmatched by any other sect of Islam. In the Wahabist version of history, Islam was a united, theologically pure, crystal clear divine project that was supposed to literally conquer the world. Its followers set out on this divinely appointed taks and were going from conquest to conquest until civil war erupted in the reign of the 4th caliph (Hazrat Ali) thanks to the machinations of internal enemies (including the Yemeni Jew Ibn Saba… a story that is vigorously contested by Shias). In this version of history, Shias are not just another sect within Islam. They are the enemy within. At best, they are dupes who are unwittingly serving the interests of infidels; at worst, they are conscious enemies of true Islam who need to be eliminated if Islam is to successfully fight off the infidels and conquer the world.
This narrative was not created denovo by Wahab. A thousand years of Shia and Sunni polemics had left a vast store of opposing propaganda narratives from which Wahab picked out the juiciest parts and gave them a special edge. His followers have since been instrumental in inserting this unusually harsh version of shia-hatred into the broader salafist movement. When Wahab formed an alliance with the Al-Saud family in Arabia, this alliance created the first Saudi state in 1744. Fighters from this state captured Karbala in 1801, destroyed shia shrines and massacred local Shias in large numbers. They then captured Mecca and Medina from the Ottomans, but in doing so they over-reached and their state was destroyed by Mohammed Ali Pasha (Ottoman governor of Egypt). But they rose again and then again to become the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (like most ruling families in history) prioritizes its own rule over any theological niceties, their alliance with Wahabi theologians and the position of Wahabi orthodoxy as the official ideology of the Kingdom has made intense Shia-hatred a feature of Saudi religiosity.
When the Saudis found themselves suddenly rich with oil wealth the state as well as private citizens were eager to promote their version of “true Islam” all over the world. At the level of the state, the ancient conflict between Persians and Arabs was also easily cast in Shia-Sunni terms, especially after the rise of Shia theocracy in Iran. Thus the spread of Salafist ideas in mainstream Sunni discourse was driven by both parties in Saudi Arabia: true believers promoted these ideas because they sincerely believed them to be correct and “Islamically necessary”; cynical statesmen promoted them because they saw them as a convenient tool with which to attack Iran and Iranian influence (the Iranians did the same on their side).
The almost pathological hatred nurtured by Americans and the Shia Iranian theocracy against each other, and the longstanding relationship of the US with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States led to American support (or toleration?) of virulently anti-Shia groups, at least until those groups turned their guns directly on Americans. Some observers would go further and insist that the US and Israel actively support Shia-Sunni conflict and play more than just a permissive role in the process. But irrespective of the truth of such theories, the fact remain that there is a long hisory of conflict and it is very likely that Wahabi-influenced Salafists would promote their lethal brand of Shia-hatred with or without assistance from the CIA, the Saudis (or any other state aiming to become the dominant Arab power in the region) would find it convenient to add a Sunni-Shia edge to their propaganda against the Persian enemy, and Iran would act as a patron of Shia causes, especially where these overlap with the needs of Iranian state policy.
The point of reciting this history (in briefest outline) is that this conflict has deep roots in Islamic history and can be easily exploited, particularly when religion is actively mixed with politics, especially in states that lack deep “secular” foundations and institutions. Conflict is not everywhere inevitable. If states become secular and secular discourse dominates, then the fights will be over other things (there will still be fights, that much is given) and perhaps they will not be as apocalyptic as religious wars can become. Domestically too, a secular state could suppress or bypass such conflicts. It would see competition for power between different groups using different ideologies, but religious civil war is orders of magnitude more horrific than the world of democratic elections and their associated politics; where the bare minimum basis of such electoral politics and associated administrative institutions already exists, as in Pakistan, that system is hugely superior to fighting to the death to establish a theocratic state.
If the state withers away (as it has in Somalia) then there will be no choice. Nature abhors a vacuum, so order will eventually be established by some local armed militias or some sufficiently resourced and motivated outside power. In Islamic countries that will mostly mean armed Islamist militias organized on sectarian lines (fantasies of Western university-based anarchists notwithstanding). With the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of us, and with Chinese imperialists not yet ready for prime-time, its unlikely that outside powers will step in except in the most oil-rich or the least populated regions.
There is another alternative in theory: Instead of a secular state, we could have an “Islamic state” that manages to governs with popular consent and with relatively transparent methods of organizing politics and trasnferring power from one group (or person) to another. For various reasons, I think that is not a real possiblity in this day and age. Some facsimile of a democratic state has been established in Iran by the Shia clergy, but even this (far from satisfactory) system is impossible to conceive in a state that is not overwhelmingly dominated by one sect, where that sect is not Shia, and where that country is not named Iran. The Shia clergy in Iran are the most sophisticated Islamic clergy on the planet (leaving aside tiny sects like the Ismailis). NO Sunni clergy can manage that feat, not even the latest great White hope of Sunni Islamism, the Turkish Islamists. Their state will do well as long as its European-style secularist structure is intact. If they manage to undermine that, they will cook their own goose. Without a detailed argument, this is just a bald assertion, but it seems a very plausible one to me.
Where the state has large Shia AND Sunni populations, or where there is a large non-Muslim minority, modern secular democracy is by far the better alternative. Islamization involves working through the accumulated detritus of 1400 years of Shia versus Sunni polemics. Even if there are no other religions present, any state that wishes to create an authentically “Islamic” system will face the task of generating a fresh and innovative synthesis while having millions of individuals, dozens of parties, and several outside powers avoid the temptation to start a violent confrontation based on existing medieval sects and salafist fantasies. Given the current state of Islamist discourse, this seems so unlikely that its not even worth trying. This is a sweeping judgement. but I am happy to put my money where my mouth is. I am willing to bet that NO Muslim country will be able to create a functioning “Islamic” system, clearly distinct in spirit and substance from current secular models, established without harsh suppression of minorities and irreligious people; and I mean suppression by currently fashionable mainstream standards, not to speak of sky-high academic Left-wing standards.
The peculiar history of this process in Pakistan was discussed in my earlier article, but is worth reiterating as an instructive example. In colonial India, Muslims were focused on their position vis-a-vis the Hindus and the British, so Shia-Sunni rivalries did not take center stage in politics. A Shia led the movement for Pakistan with minimal notice being taken of his Shiaism and many other Shias enthusiastically participated in the ruling elite in the new state (including army chief Mohammed Musa, Presidents Yahya Khan and Asif Zardari and Prime ministers Zulfiqar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto). But problems lay buried deep in the foundations of the new state. Was Pakistan an “Islamic state” or a secular state for Indian Muslims? The “secular state for Muslims”option has its own problems, but the “Islamic state” option is pretty much fatal. This issue did not take center stage right away; the early ruling class was a mix of North Indian Muslim leaguers (superficially Westernized Muslim elite of North India, primarily UP-ite in the early days), Punjabi turncoat politicians, British colonial bureaucrats and mid-level military officers who were suddenly promoted from colonel to general and found themselves in possession of an army and then a state. The short-sighted politicians who created the state were soon eclipsed by wilier bureacrats, who in turn learned the truth of Chairman Mao’s dictum that power grows from the barrel of the gun and lost primacy to semi-literate military officers. But all parties were clueless enough to imagine that the arrangements of the British Raj could be kept going forever, with vaguely defined Pakistani nationalism added on as a unifying cement instead of “loyalty to King and country”. After Hindus and Sikhs had been mostly driven out, and East Pakistan had been “lost”, the new Pakistan seemed quite manageable.
But the tiny shoots planted in the “Objectives resolution” in 1949 and the anti-Ahmediya agitation in 1953 had been nurtured by Islamists in and out of government for many years and started to bear fruit in 1974. Bhutto was pushed into declaring the Ahmedis as non-Muslims by an Islamist agitation; a decision most Shias, secure in their own status as fully Muslim citizens of a Muslim state, probably regarded as perfectly legitimate. But it has not taken forever to find out that “first they came for the Ahmedis” now they are coming for the Shias.
When General Zia took over in 1977 and started Islamizing the state in earnest, the sophisticated scions of the permanent establishment (pucca sahib types like Agha Shahi and General Yaqub) may have regarded General Zia as a country bumpkin, but (perhaps because there were no such instructions from the US embassy?) they never uttered a word of warning. Meanwhile the CIA arrived bearing Jhadist gifts in connection with their Afghan project and the Saudis sponsored jihadist madressas all over Pakistan. The “moderate faction” of the Pakistani army permitted Jihadist militias to operate outside the law because “higher objectives” were in view. The smaller but more clear-sighted, Islamist faction did the same knowing that one day these militias will help to transform Pakistani society itself. Virulent anti-Shia propaganda exploded out of these madressas (some regularly visited by senior state functionaries and openly funded by beloved Saudi donors) alongside the general’s desired Kashmiri Jihad and strategic depth in Central Asia. For the first time, the cry of “kafir kafir shia kafir” became a routine part of the madressa-jihadi landscape. Since this landscape is well away from the world of upper-middle class Pakistanis, the significance of this slogan didn’t really register on Western trained Sunni intellectuals (the most educated of whom are still grappling with imperialism and the “crisis” created by the fall of the Soviet Union). But it has registered in blood on the minds of the Shia community. And unless the state reverses course (which is no longer possible without significant violence), this poison will comprehensively tear the nation apart.
The point of this example is that all this could have been avoided as long as the state was more or less secular, or only pretended to be “Islamic”. But once Islamization was firmly on the agenda, it could not escape the question of “whose Islam”. And in a world where the “truest” Sunni Islam comes from Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam from Iran, that question leads inevitably to violence. A society in which polarization of Shia versus Sunni was historically not as intense as it is in Iraq or Iran, moved closer to the Islamic mainstream and became one of the leading battlegrounds for this clash. In a secular state, all this shia-sunni tension would be a relatively minor police matter (as it is in India). In an “Islamic state” it cannot avoid becoming much more.
PS: The artist is Sabir Nazar (http://sabirnazarpaintings.blogspot.com/). This is his depiction of the martyr Sarmad (http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/S/Sarmad/index.htm)
Monday, January 07, 2013
A Parched Future: Global Land and Water Grabbing
by Jalees Rehman
“This is the bond of water. We know the rites. A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” Frank Herbert - Dune
Land grabbing refers to the large-scale acquisition of comparatively inexpensive agricultural land in foreign countries by foreign governments or corporations. In most cases, the acquired land is located in under-developed countries in Africa, Asia or South America, while the grabbers are investment funds based in Europe, North America and the Middle East. The acquisition can take the form of an outright purchase or a long-term-lease, ranging from 25 to 99 years, that gives the grabbing entity extensive control over the acquired land. Proponents of such large-scale acquisitions have criticized the term “land grabbing’ because it carries the stigma of illegitimacy and conjures up images of colonialism or other forms of unethical land acquisitions that were so common in the not so distant past. They point out that land acquisitions by foreign investors are made in accordance with the local laws and that the investments could create jobs and development opportunities in impoverished countries. However, recent reports suggest that these land acquisitions are indeed “land grabs”. NGOs and not-for profit organizations such as GRAIN, TNI and Oxfam have documented the disastrous consequences of large-scale land acquisitions for the local communities. More often than not, the promised jobs are not created and families that were farming the land for generations are evicted from their ancestral land and lose their livelihood. The money provided to the government by the investors frequently disappears into the coffers of corrupt officials while the evicted farmers receive little or no compensation.
One aspect of land grabbing that has received comparatively little attention is the fact that land grabbing is invariably linked to water grabbing. When the newly acquired land is used for growing crops, it requires some combination of rainwater (referred to as “green water”) and irrigation from freshwater resources (referred to as “blue water”). The amount of required blue water depends on the rainfall in the grabbed land. For example, land that is grabbed in a country with heavy rainfalls, such as Indonesia, may require very little irrigation and tapping of its blue water resources. The link between land grabbing and water grabbing is very obvious in the case of Saudi Arabia, which used to be a major exporter of wheat in the 1990s, when there were few concerns about the country’s water resources. The kingdom provided water at minimal costs to its heavily subsidized farmers, thus resulting in a very inefficient usage of the water. Instead of the global average of using 1,000 tons of water per ton of wheat, Saudi farmers used 3,000 and 6,000 tons of water. Fred Pearce describes the depletion of the Saudi water resources in his book The Land Grabbers:
Saudis thought they had water to waste because, beneath the Arabian sands, lay one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs of water. In the late 1970s, when pumping started, the pores of the sandstone rocks contained around 400 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. The water had percolated underground during the last ice age, when Arabia was wet. So it was not being replaced. It was fossil water— and like Saudi oil, once it is gone it will be gone for good. And that time is now coming. In recent years, the Saudis have been pumping up the underground reserves of water at a rate of 16 million acre-feet a year. Hydrologists estimate that only a fifth of the reserve remains, and it could be gone before the decade is out.
Saudi Arabia responded to this depletion of its water resources by deciding to gradually phase out all wheat production. Instead of growing wheat in Saudi Arabia, it would import wheat from African farmlands that were leased and operated by Saudi investors. This way, the kingdom could conserve its own water resources while using African water resources for the production of the wheat that would be consumed by Saudis.
The recent study “Global land and water grabbing” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013) by Maria Rulli and colleagues examined how land grabbing leads to water grabbing and can deplete the water resources of a country. The basic idea is that when the grabbed land is irrigated, the use of freshwater resources reduces the availability of irrigation water for neighboring farmland areas, i.e. the areas that have not been grabbed. This in turn can cause widespread water stress and affect the ability of other farmers to grow crops, ultimately leading to poverty and social unrest. Land grabbing is often shrouded in secrecy since local governments do not want to be perceived as selling off valuable land to foreigners, but some details regarding the size of the land grab are eventually made public. The associated water needs of the investors that grab the land are even less clear and very little is publicly divulged about how the land grabbing will affect the water availability for other farmers. In the case of Sudan, for example, grabbed land is often located on the fertile banks of the Blue Nile and while large-scale commercial farmland is expanding as part of the foreign investments, local farmers are losing access to land and water and gradually becoming dependent on food aid, even though Sudan is a major exporter of food produced by the large-scale farms.
Using the global land grabbing database of GRAIN and the Land Matrix Database, Rulli and colleagues analyzed the extent of land-grabbing and identify the Democratic Republic of Congo (8.05 million hectares), Indonesia (7.14 million hectares), Philippines (5.17 million hectares), Sudan (4.69 million hectares) and Australia (4.65 million hectares) as the five countries in which the most area of land has been grabbed by foreign investors. The total amount of grabbed land in these five countries is 29.7 million hectares, and accounts for nearly 63% of global land grabbing. To put this in perspective, the size of the United Kingdom is 24.4 million hectares.
The researchers calculated the amount of rainfall (green water) on the grabbed land, which is the minimum amount of water that would be grabbed with the acquisition of the land. However, since the grabbed land is also used for agriculture and many crops require additional freshwater irrigation (blue water), the researchers also determined a range of predicted blue water grabbing for land irrigation. For the low end of the blue water grabbing range, the researchers assumed that the land would be irrigated in the same fashion as other agricultural land in the country. On the higher end of the range, the researchers also calculated how much blue water would be grabbed, if the investors irrigated the land in a manner to maximize the agricultural production of the land. This is not an unreasonable assumption, since foreign investors probably do have the financial resources to maximally irrigate the acquired land in a manner that maximizes the return on their investment.
Rulli and colleagues estimated that global land grabbing is associated with the grabbing of 308 billion m3 of green water (i.e. rain water) and an additional grabbing of blue water that can range from 11 billion m3 (current irrigation practices) to 146 billion m3 (maximal irrigation) per year. Again, to put these numbers in perspective, the average daily household consumption of water in the United Kingdom is 150 liters (0.15 m3) per person. This results in a total annual household consumption of 3.5 billion m3 (0.15 m3 X 365 days X 63,181,775 UK population) of water in the UK. Therefore, the total household water consumption in the UK is a fraction of what would be the predicted blue water usage of the grabbed land, even if one were to use very conservative estimates of required irrigation.
The researchers then also list the top 25 countries in which the investors are based that engage in land and water grabbing. They find that about “60% of the total grabbed water is appropriated, through land grabbing, by the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China, and Israel”. The researchers gloss over the fact that in many cases, land and associated water resources are grabbed by foreign investment groups and not by foreign governments. Just because certain investment funds are based in Singapore, UK or the United Arab Emirates does not mean that these countries are “appropriating” the land or water. In fact, many investment groups that are involved in land grabbing may have multinational investors or investors whose nationality is not disclosed. Nevertheless, there are probably cases in which land and water grabbing are not merely conducted as a form of private investment, but might involve foreign governments. One such example is the above-mentioned case of Saudi Arabia, in which the Saudi government actively encouraged and helped Saudi investors to acquire agricultural land in Africa. While perusing the list of the top 25 countries in which land and water grabbing investors are based, one cannot help but notice that the list contains a number of Middle Eastern countries that are themselves experiencing severe water stress and scarcity, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Israel. Transferring their water burden to Africa by acquiring agricultural land would allow them to preserve their own water resources and may indeed by of strategic value to these countries. However, the precise degree of government involvement in these investment decisions often remains unclear.
The paper by Rulli and colleagues is an important reminder of how land grabbing and water grabbing are entwined and that land grabbing could potentially deplete valuable water resources from under-developed countries, especially in Africa, which accounts for more than half of the globally grabbed land. Even villagers that continue to own and farm their own land adjacent to the large-scale farms on grabbed lands could be affected by new forms of water stress, especially if the foreign investors decide to maximally irrigate the acquired land. There are some key limitations to the study, such as the lack of distinction between private foreign investors or foreign governments that are engaged in land grabbing and the fact that all the calculations of blue water grabbing are based on very broad estimates without solid data on how much blue water is actually consumed by the grabbed lands. These numbers may be very difficult to obtain, but should be the focus of future studies in this area.
After reading this study, I have become far more aware of ongoing land and water grabbing. Excessive commodification of our lives was already criticized by Karl Polanyi in 1944 and now that water is also becoming a “fictitious commodity”, we have to be extremely watchful of its consequences. The extent of land grabbing that has already taken place is quite extensive. An interactive map based on the GRAIN database allows us to visualize the areas in the world that are most affected by land grabbing since 2006 as well as where the foreign investors are located. The map shows that in recent years, Pakistan has emerged as one of the prime targets of land grabbing in Asia, while Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia are major targets of recent land grabbing in Africa. The world economic crisis and the recent food price crisis will likely increase the degree of land grabbing and associated water grabbing. The targets of land grabbing are often countries with fragile economies, widespread poverty and significant malnourishment.
As a global society, we have to ensure that people living in these countries do not suffer as a consequence of land grabbing deals. The recent “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” released by the FAO are an important step in the right direction, because they attempt to provide food security for all, even when large-scale land acquisitions occur. However, they do not specify water access and they are, as the title reveals, “voluntary”. It is not clear who will abide by them. Therefore, we also need a complementary approach in which clients of land grabbing investment funds ask the fund managers to abide by the FAO guidelines and that they maximally ensure food security and water access for the general population in grabbed lands. One specific example is that of the American retirement fund TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund) which is one of the leading retirement providers for people who work in education, research and medicine. Investment in agriculture and land grabbing appears to be a priority for TIAA-CREF, but American educators or academics that use TIAA-CREF as their retirement fund could use their leverage to ensure socially conscientious investments. Even though land and water grabbing are becoming a major concern, the growing awareness of the problem may also result in solutions that limit the negative impact of land and water grabbing.
Image Credits: Wikimedia - Drought by Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia - The Union of Earth and Water by Rubens