Living in Darkness, and Loving It

It occurs to me that I’ve written my last, well, who knows how many posts on various political topics. Anyone who knows me probably isn’t too surprised about this. To some extent, writing (and complaining) is my way of dealing with a world that, quite frankly, scares me. It’s hard to stay positive when I wake up to news of bombings in Pakistan and then spend the day reading about the intractability of poverty.

Moping, though, doesn’t solve anything, and it would be both disingenuous to myself and ungrateful to the people who sent me here not to admit that I am really, truly, loving life.

It’s hard to articulate why I’m having such a good time, because my life is so incredibly boring, which I suppose is part of what I love about it. In some effort to become a real live adult, I’ve started breaking myself of my late-to-bed-late-to-rise college hours, and begun waking up at a normal hour. Despite the fact that the clocks just went back (celebrated on campus by Merton College’s infamous “Time Ceremony”, which involves walking backwards and drinking port in sub-fusc for an hour from 2 a.m. to … 2 a.m., I guess), this means waking up in darkness. For the eight full hours of daylight, I’m either sitting in a seminar room discussing dependency theory or sitting in my room reading. By the time I’m ready to take a break from working—or get out of class—it’s dark again.

Exhibit 1: This is the high point the sun reached today.  Sid Vicious, my cactus, is not pleased.

Exhibit A: This is the highest point the sun reached today. Sid Vicious, my cactus, is not happy.

Exhibit B: Oxford at 5:30 p.m.

Exhibit B: Oxford at 5:20 p.m.

This all might be kind of depressing, except that there are some very fun things that happen in the dark here.* I’ve joined the rowing team, which requires getting up at 6 a.m. for practices. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, though (or maybe I’m just crazy). For one thing, I haven’t watched many sunrises in a long while, and seeing the sun peeking through the morning fog over Christ Church meadow from the Isis and Thames rivers is pretty cool. More than that, though, I love that Oxford has given me a chance to get back into doing team sports; walking down to the boat house in the morning—and seeing literally hundreds of other students doing it—highlights what a quintessentially Oxonian tradition it is. I’m also running cross country, which practices at 5:15 p.m. (i.e. in complete darkness). Running amid gothic spires and ancient churches at night, though, isn’t so bad, and neither is starting to feel properly in shape for the first time in four years.

Last night, I went on my first proper “crew date,” which is the somewhat less illustrious underside of the Oxford rowing tradition. Crew dates usually occur when one gender of crew from one college goes to dinner with the opposite gender from another, but this one was just the Worcester group. All crew dates take place at Jamal’s, a low-grade curry place that received 0 stars from the Oxfordshire Board of Health, because it is more-or-less the only restaurant left in Oxford that will host them. It took me about five seconds to figure out why. The theme was “tight and bright,” which meant that everyone (bar me) was wearing pink tights, orange tank tops, and head bands. Dinner consisted of a rapid series of drinking games, which involved throwing pennies in other peoples drinks and “fining” people for certain things (“Everyone who has noshed another rower has to drink”). By the end of the night, about half the crew was on the floor, and our hosts at Jamal’s encouraged us to leave even before we had fully paid the tab. I explain this story not just to horrify my mother but to, rather obliquely, highlight another reason why I love life in grad school. I realize that I’m only four years out from being an undergraduate, but I nonetheless feel a sense of detachment that lets me sit back and laugh and feel no pressure to join in.

I’m trying to think of other reasons why life is so glorious, but I’m drawing a blank on anything remotely legitimate. There’s the farmer’s market near my house on Wednesdays—populated with doddering old English ladies buying beets and cabbage—and whipping up disastrous vegan confections in my kitchen. There’s also discovering 17th century pubs and sitting down for a pint with old friends from the P.U.B. and new friends from my department. And I can’t forget about all the chances to learn about another culture, whether it’s in being told how proper English-speakers say “wrench” (it’s “spanner”) or learning that health care everywhere—not just America—is a bit of a disaster. I could go on, about graces said in Latin and people wearing kilts or the thick country accents of the porters, but I think you already get the picture.

I’m sure tomorrow morning the front page of the New York Times will get me hopping mad again. But I will still be in Oxford, and while maybe I don’t deserve this, I still might as well enjoy it.

* Not necessary what you’re thinking.

Why Lefties Can’t Even Make Holocaust Deniers Look Bad

As a general rule, political developments in other countries that don’t directly involve the U.S.. have to be a pretty big deal to get coverage. The recent elections in Germany, or the passage of the new Lisbon Treaty in the E.U., passed by as a blip. The flip side is that, when stuff does get covered, I can be pretty sure it’s big news. When the riots in Uganda made papers in the states, I knew that, whatever it was that was happening, it was major. While the bar is not nearly as high for news from Great Britain, the fact that the appearance of Nick Griffin—leader of the U.K.’s hard-right British National Party—on the BBC’s Question Time made the New York Times speaks volumes about what a significant event it was.

Nick Griffin: wanker extraordinaire

You know he's bad because he has a Hitler mustache.

By way of background, the BNP is a neo-Nazi, white supremacist party that has, recently, rebranded itself. In the recent European elections, the BNP won two seats in the European parliament largely by tapping into concerns about immigration and the economic displacement it (supposedly) entails. While the xenophobic rhetoric and appeals to jingoism might make the BNP sound like your average Republican congressman or Lou Dobbs, make no mistake: these guys are scary(er). Nick Griffin is, to borrow a favorite (but probably not harsh enough) Britishism, a total wanker: see him denying the holocaust here or appearing alongside KKK leaders here. Obviously, no one from the BNP should be elected to serve as dog-catcher. Nonetheless, the rules of the BBC are such that any party that has ministers in parliament merits an invitation to Question Time, a political talk-show of sorts. Still, when the BBC invited Griffin, a lot of groups were (understandably) quite irate. And, despite thousands of protesters outside, last week Griffin managed to appear and even got to answer a question or two.

I was hoping to watch the program with some real live British people, but since getting a bunch of college students in the U.K. to watch Question Time is roughly as cool as inviting your friends over to listen to NPR, I wound up watching it alone the next morning. The inevitable apathy of twenty-somethings aside, the appearance is still the talk of Britain: I heard the Development staff discussing it over tea, Provost Smethers brought it up over dinner, and Nick Griffin was a major sub-topic of Saturday’s demonstration. I don’t have much to say about the actual show. Griffin’s performance combined truly inane blathering (he claimed that he couldn’t explain his views on the Holocaust because he might be arrested… in France) and insane xenophobia (he called Islam “vicious and wicked”) with some nonetheless appealing rhetoric about “British jobs for British people” and the senselessness of Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, everyone watching will see what they want to see: either a slimy bigot being exposed for the monster he is, or a political maverick being unfairly silenced by the left-wing media. You can watch a highlight’s reel here, and decide for yourself.

From my perspective, the “questions” from the audience were more telling than the answers, which were fairly predictable. The most memorable ones were when one gentleman called Griffin “disgusting” and another informed him that he would like to fund-raise to buy him and his BNP supporters a ticket to the (very white) South Pole.  Neither really asked a question, and so Griffin didn’t get to respond.  Both polemics were met with triumphant applause, but, frankly, I find this kind of approach to “taking down” people with abhorrent beliefs to be very frustrating.

My junior year, the campus Republicans hosted the “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” which brought in David Horowitz, an extreme neo-conservative. The auditorium was packed—but mostly with left-wing students, eager to assail Horowitz’s ill-informed and prejudiced views on Palestine, the “oppression” of white straight men in America, and the evils of Islam. When the speaker called for questions, we lined up, and student after student tried either to lecture Horowitz on Israeli history, scream at him that he is a bigot, or ask a vague quasi-question (i.e. “why are you so racist?!?!?!”) In every case, Horowitz “won,” either because suddenly he looked like a victim, because an open question left him a chance to recite one of his generic lines, or because, having the microphone, he always got to have the last word.

It’s possible that the detachment from racial issues I get from being a white male was what let me bite my tongue (both of the gentlemen I referred to in the previous paragraph as delivering tirades were non-white). When it came my turn, I asked Horowitz how I and my fellow white male upper-middle class Princetonians were specifically being oppressed, as he had claimed. He sputtered for a few seconds, and finally offered the example of the Duke Lacrosse team prosecution (yes, really). That was it. A year-and-a-half later, I met the former head of the Muslim Student’s Association, and she still remembered me as the guy who made Horowitz look bad. It wasn’t exactly a stunning victory for truth and justice, but it worked better than the alternatives.

The rants directed at Nick Griffin were probably very cathartic, and maybe that was the purpose. But as a political tactic, they were misguided. Far better would have been to ask him pointed, specific questions. So, Nick, how many Jews do you think died in the Holocaust? How exactly do you plan to deport 10% of Britain’s population? What exactly leads you to believe the KKK is a “non-violent” organization? If your party isn’t racist, how come your constitution explicitly precludes membership for blacks? I can’t help but compare the ambivalently reviewed performance of Nick Griffin to the unambiguous destruction of Sarah Palin by Katie Couric, who did nothing more than politely ask for details. Right wing ideas—ranging from the (much more benign) tragically uniformed beliefs of Palin to the virulence of Griffin—are compelling in the abstract, but break down under scrutiny.

As a somewhat related aside, there is an argument I’ve heard in the last few days that challenging and debating the ideas of groups like the BNP does no good. As someone pointed out to me, the BNP has gained 3,000 members in the last week, confirming that when you give these people a legitimate platform, it helps them. This is true. But I think we have to confront the underlying reasons why groups like BNP are gaining support—namely, economic disenfranchisement and the poverty of ideas on the left to deal with it—rather than hope that by silencing them they will go away.  We can only smash the BNP head on.

(And yes, I realize that posting this after my previous post – which was a rant – is a bit hypocritical.  Our emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, and I certainly undertand why a black or Asian person would rather just rant at someone, for the same reason that occassionally a vegan would rather smear him or herself in fake blood and yell at people than engage in a real debate.)

Bolshevik Bingo and a Walking Tour of Historic London

I realize that I am now on my third post about yesterday’s protest, which seems a bit excessive. But really, my life here provides fairly little exciting writing material—I read a lot of books—so when something dramatic happens, my mind starts racing. I have to put thoughts on (electronic) paper before I can go back to focusing on a fourth book of ethnographic research methods.

I’ve been to enough mass political rallies to be familiar with their inevitable script. The organizers pass out signs, and we march around, all the while yelling a lot of semi-clever call-response cheers. We end our trek at some major landmark—in this case, Trafalgar Square—and listen to an array of journalists, pundits, second-rate (but socially conscious!) musicians, and minor politicians deliver nearly-identical speeches about how big the crowd is and the unstoppable nature of people-power. We all feel inspired. Then we go home.

It's pretty fun (though it probably shouldn't be)

It's pretty fun (though it probably shouldn't be)

A glimpse into my likely future.

A glimpse into my likely future.

The nuances of being in a foreign country, as always, make things that seem stale in America exciting to me. “Socialism” is not quite the dirty word in Britain as it is in the states, evidenced by the ridiculous smorgasbord of political “parties” represented at the rally. There was the Socialist Worker’s Party, which has critical differences from the British Socialist Party. And no one would dare compare them to the Revolutionary Communist Party, which in turn had what I am sure are very significant ideological differences from the Communist Party Union of Marxist Leninists.

Bolshevik Bingo!  Collect 'Em All!

Bolshevik Bingo! Collect 'Em All!

Please tell me you aren't actually here to show your love for North Korea.

Please tell me you aren't actually here to show your love for North Korea.

Personally, I can’t help but find it a bit amusing: someone actually asked me whether I saw myself as an orthodox Trotskyite or a neo-Trotskyite. At the same time, though, I came the rally with Oxford’s socialist group, not because I’ve been reading up on my Mao but because their group focuses on a wide array of issues that I care about. Frankly, after working on things like environmentalism and animal rights for a few years, it’s refreshing to hear people talking about wages, unions, and economic empowerment (even if it means I also have to listen to an occasional excurses on dialectics of material production).

And, of course, everything just seemed much cooler because, well, I was at an anti-war protest in London England. The route of our march was straight through the historical heart of the city, and the juxtaposition of an anti-war rally and monuments celebrating the great military victories of the empire was, to me, interesting.

I liked this juxtaposition.

I liked this contrast.

Don't worry: the rest of the day, it was raining.

Don't worry: the rest of the day, it was raining.

The warm sense of community I felt from being among the activists, and my enjoyment at my exotic surroundings, was still not enough to make me forget that what we were doing was a tragic response to a tragic situation. During the rally, we chanted about how taking out the troops would “free” Afghanistan and would “stop the killing”; but, to be honest, I have no illusions that this would actually be the case. Withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a horrible thing, that I am sure would sentence millions of people to languishing under a theocratic and oppressive regime. Still, though, I grew up hearing my parents memories of the Vietnam era, and so I realize that sometimes the worst case scenario is unavoidable, and all you can do is acknowledge reality and save as many lives as you can. And that, sadly, is why I marched.

A sad picture to end on.

A sad picture to end on.

The (Near) Death of an Activist

Last April was probably the period where I was the most politically radical—and optimistic—I’ll ever be. By the time I handed in my thesis, it was pretty evident that I had drank the proverbial freegan kool-aid. I genuinely believed the freegans, by working to create sustainable, egalitarian, local anarchist communities, were on to something that might actually work. It didn’t hurt that capitalism was in disarray, a fact that even the mainstream population seemed to have noticed, prompting us to elect a new President who was, for a bit, genuinely exciting to me.

As tends to be the case with high points, things went downhill from there. While what follows may seem like a series of unconnected anecdotes, each has played a part in making me much more pessimistic about the world and my capacity to impact it. In May, the animal rights group I helped to start invited Keith McHenry, the founder of Food Not Bombs, to speak. I was hoping for the event to be something of a “capstone” for my activism at Princeton, and spent hours and hours flyering and chalking campus to promote what I thought would be a rousing speech by an inspirational radical figure.

In the end, practically no one came to see him. The sad part, though, is that the low turnout was a relief. McHenry—the man who coined the term “freegan” and started a movement that now has thousands of chapters around the world—was delusional and ill-informed. What was intended to be a triumphant finale turned out to be just one more poorly executed event, one among many in two years of campaigning in which I, on reflection, had accomplished pretty much nothing.

My next (un)related anecdote came during the summer, when progressives erupted in an orgy of self-congratulation about “people power” in response to the mass demonstrations against the stolen elections in Iran. My friends changed their facebook profile pictures to solid green and set their twitter locations to “Tehran,” and acted like this was genuine political action. What really bothered me, though, was when the repression started, and we realized that even in a globalized post-modern world text-messages and blogging are no match for guns and batons, we quickly forgot about it. Iran’s “Green Revolution” receded from memory as quickly as the hijacked “Yellow Revolution” in Ukraine or the failed “Saffron Revolution” in Myanmar. The balance of my summer was spent in Uganda, where we—as “development” researchers—used our time and resources to show the failures of a well-intentioned project. Then we departed, leaving behind a few dollars and no solutions. Aside from my qualms about the project itself, Uganda was tough for me, not just because the country is desperately poor but because it was quite evident that the things I advocate for and believe in were not solutions to their problems. Uganda doesn’t need autonomous sustainable communities based on principles of mutual aid: it needs factories and businesses.

I came back from Uganda to the U.S., where it seemed like we had collectively gone insane. Providing health care for poor people, suddenly, was “communism” and “fascism” all at once. What was most distressing, though, was that the Democrats—despite winning the election in a clear fashion—couldn’t bring themselves to even pass a “reform” that was, at best, a half-way measure. I wasn’t particularly surprised, but I realized that the response of most of my peers to this failure, who had pinned their hopes on Obama to save it all, would be disillusionment and complacency. Electing Obama should have been a starting point of a new movement for change; instead, I’ve quickly realized it was the end point, the moment at which we collectively decided that we had been saved and could go back to our normal lives.

And, to really bring things full circle, the freegans also went a bit mad. Freegan.info—the group I studied—had always been dysfunctional. But, partly because I thought the group had some real visionaries, and partly because I felt some obligation to give back to them for all the help they gave me with my thesis, I agreed in May to take over some administrative duties for the group. It was pretty boring stuff: moderating some e-mail lists and handling some media requests. And yet, somehow, my execution of these jobs convinced one member of the group that I was, in fact, a government agent attempting to dismantle freegan.info from the inside. Sometimes the biggest lies are the hardest to disprove; in this case, I didn’t bother trying, and just walked away.

Sometime in September, I came to the decision that I was going to take it easy with activism when I got to Oxford. My political activities have, frankly, been a bit aimless and disjointed, and while I won some awards partially for being an activist, I’m well aware of how little I’ve accomplished. My other consideration was the fact that, somehow, I tend to wind up in charge of any group I join, and for my own sanity, I didn’t want to helm yet another struggling organization. The Oxford activities fair seemed to vindicate my decision: the guy at the workers’ rights table told me I lacked proper “class consciousness,” and, beyond that, there was hardly a single other leftist groups. Oxford seemed to be somewhat more apathetic and conservative than Princeton, which means that getting involved here would be akin to sentencing myself to two more years of beating my head against a brick wall.

- – -

And yet, for all this, today I found myself in London, surrounded by a throng of fellow students, holding aloft a Socialist Worker’s Party banner that had been thrust into my hands (“What party?!?!”). Madeline, one of the freegans, once described her return to activism after a (much longer) hiatus as akin to “having lived underwater and then sticking up my head and breathing.” It’s an apt description, so I will leave it at that.

Me taking a break from activism.

Me taking a break from activism.

The Feel-Good Witch Hunt

With all the talk in the last few days about British neo-Nazis it was—in a weird sense—fulfilling to actually meet one.

Mid-way through today’s anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, someone in the back of the crowd began shouting “rubbish” in response to a speaker assailing the War in Afghanistan as an imperialist and racist ploy. I turned around to see a fat, beefy middle-aged skinhead wearing all black waving the backwards peace sign—the British equivalent of flipping someone off—towards the crowd. A few participants in the protest were clustering around him. I sensed that something was brewing, and, obeying my interests both as an activist and a social scientist, I weaved towards them through the crowd.

By the time I got there, there was already a small mob forming around the skinhead. All of them were young, radical looking-folk, wearing black hoodies and keffiyehs; the demographics made me think I was back at a freegan event or a critical mass bike ride in New York. Someone starting shouting “Nazi scum, off our streets!” and we all joined in. Sensing that his time was up—but definitely not appearing scared—the skinhead started casually walking off, joined by another nearly-identical compatriot. Even though they quickly left the square, about fifty of us followed, reciting a litany of reasonably clever anti-Nazi chants. The fact that everyone seemed to know the words made me think that these kinds of confrontations are not particularly uncommon here.

Things started to get a little bit tenser. A few in our group started throwing bottles and rubbish at the skinheads. A handful of police started surrounding the two men, which of course only led the anti-fascists to escalate, which in turn summoned more police. By the time we had gone a few blocks, there were probably twenty police encircling the skinheads, who were now backed up against a wall. The skinheads were silent, but looked smug, while we were screaming our heads off. I’m not entirely sure what precipitated it (as if they needed a reason), but a few police pulled out their truncheons and started whacking the protesters nearby.

A police van pulled up. The officers formed a cordon around the two men and shuttled them through the crowd. They got in the van and drove off. We paraded back to the rally, cheering “Who beat the Nazis? We beat the Nazis!” and “Smash the BNP [British National Party]!”

A few things occur to me as I reflect on what is, I think, my first ever encounter with a Nazi. The first is that I have no idea whether or not the two men were actually Nazis (or BNP members, or fascists, for that matter). And I doubt anyone in our crowd did either. Perhaps someone in our ad hoc posse had seen this guy before, or heard him say something that indicated his true colors. But as far as I—and I assume most of us—knew, he was just someone who happened to disagree with the speaker’s claim that the Afghanistan War is “pointless” and responsible for the deaths of “thousands of innocent Afghanis” (which are, to be fair, quite contentious claims). And yet, despite our ignorance, when someone started chanting “Nazi,” we joined in.

Secondly, our confrontation likely only strengthened the worldviews of both parties. In the eyes of us lefty radicals, we confirmed that there are Nazis everywhere and as such we have to be both vigilant and militant. Moreover, we witnessed with our very own eyes the true sympathies of the police, as they protected a fascist from getting his rightful comeuppance. As for the putative Nazis, I’m sure that the experience only confirmed that they—patriotic white males—are now a persecuted minority in their own country.

My final observation is that, at least at the time, chasing Nazis felt great. For five minutes, we had a scapegoat. Deep down, we all knew that the problems of the war—and the world—have many causes and many dimensions. But right then, we could point and chant “Nazis fuck off” and tell ourselves that this one random bloke was responsible for all the combined ills of the world. He was the embodiment of racism and fascism, homophobia and xenophobia. And so, when we “beat” him, we won a glorious metaphorical victory for peace, justice, and tolerance. It was cathartic.

Witch hunting is fun. So is having someone to blame. But I can’t help but think that’s the exact mentality that led the Nazis to kill six million innocent people.

Geography Lessons

I may have mentioned it before, but I’ll repeat it: I love my living situation.  I stay in a four story townhouse on a street right outside the college, and I have a reasonably sized room on the ground floor (that’s “zero floor” in British).  Thanks to the generosity of the previous Sachs Scholar, I have a kitchen so well outfitted an outside observer might have thought I had just been married and received some excellent wedding gifts (A new goal for my time here is to figure out what all the appliances  I inherited actually do).  While having a kitchen and living off-college might suggest that I have inched ever so slightly towards living in the real world, our house does have a maid or “scout” who comes in daily, both to empty our trash and remind us that we live in la-la land.

It doesn’t hurt that my house compares quite favorably to most of the other housing I’ve heard about here.  The dark side of Oxford’s fabulous antiquity is that many of the dorms are fairly decrepit.  While it’s lovely to eat dinner in a grand and ancient dining hall, it’s less pleasant to sleep inside quarters built for ascetic 13th century monks, as some Worcester students do.  My favorite part of 19 Richmond Road, though, is my roommates.  Aside from dragging me out of my room at just the right times, they are also, being from three different countries (U.K., U.S., and Germany) and studying four different subjects (Environmental Policy, Chemistry, Indian History, and Business), perpetually interesting people to talk to.

Our best conversations come around dinner time, when we congregate in the kitchen.  Our gastronomic efforts run the gamut from my elaborate but poorly executed vegan cooking to Nicola’s endlessly recurring pasta to Christoph’s rather stereotypically bachelor-esque meals of bread and cheese.  This evening, our multi-cultural multi-culinary party turned to into a debate.  Christoph, playing perfectly the part of the pro-European Union German, was arguing with Nicola, a consummately English euro-skeptic, about the new Lisbon treaty, which would, among other things, create a new President of Europe.  When Christoph challenged Nicola over her opposition by asking, “So are you against Europe?” she offered a reply that surprised me: “No.  But England isn’t part of Europe.”

This is not England.  Its also not in Europe.

This is not England. It's also not in Europe.

The United Kingdom?  Not part of Europe?  Maybe this is my naïve American-ness shining through, but the possibility that England would not be part of “The Continent” had never previously occurred to me.  But as I have quickly realized here, these kind of geographical nuances matter when you are here.  As I am constantly reminded, the British Isles are not equal the United Kingdom, which is a different entity than Great Britain, which is in turn only partially composed of England and only partly occupied by English.

It’s curious to me how distance—both literal and cultural—makes generalization, i.e. “It’s all part of Europe,” seem so obvious while closeness makes this kind of lumping absurd.  To offer a more direct example, someone here, upon our introduction, actually asked me, “Are you North American?”  I almost laughed.  I have never, ever, ever heard someone from the U.S., Canada, or Latin America self-identify by continent.  And yet to at least some people in jolly old England (Britain?) we’re all sort of the same.  (This really offends Canadians, while Americans seem to shrug, as if assuming that we’ll eventually take over Canada anyway.)  While as a social scientist I’m used to thinking everything is socially constructed, it’s rather amazing that even the seven continent we learned about in grade school do not necessarily have fixed or objective boundaries.

Being in the U.K. isn’t providing the kind of life-rocking experience that Uganda did, but it is stretching my worldview bit by bit.  And it’s nice that this can happen in a place where there’s hot water and electricity.

A Manifesto of Sorts, Part II

Circumstances (that is, reading) always intervene, and so I failed to post my principles before classes actually started. Still, though, my first few courses—which were fascinating—made me think I am wise to commit to some view of development before too long, and I become jaded, cynical, or (worst of all) realistic.

Two incidents seem to confirm some of the problems in the field which I wrote about previously. The first was during our “Core” class, when the head of the department (a “Professor” rather than a “Dr”, which is a big distinction here) delivered a brilliant summary of two-hundred years of development thinking in ninety minutes. Near the end, Ramin—an extremely blunt and brilliant Iranian student who almost made a D.Phil cry by ripping into his research methodology—started arguing with Professor Fitzgerald. The topic of the argument wasn’t particularly interesting, as at this point most of the students asking questions are doing so only to prove that they are smart enough to be in the program. At one point, though, Fitzgerald asked him, “Why are you here? To learn about the way things are or the way they should be?” He seemed to imply that the correct answer was to be here to learn about the way things are. But isn’t the whole purpose of development to bring the way things are more in line with the way they should be? Or are we really only here to document and catalog the sorry state of the bottom billions?

The second incident occurred during our Research Methods course (which is substantially less dull that it sounds). We were going through the ideal steps of a research project, and one M.Phil student asked the instructor (a Dr this time!) whether there should be a final step to the process: sharing our results with the people we study. It’s a sensical suggestion: putting research into the hands of those most able to use it. There is ultimately something that strikes me as unethical about “development” scholars studying impoverished communities, publishing their results in scientific journals, and never transmitting any of the information they gathered back to their subjects. The instructor’s response to the suggestion, however, was that sharing useful conclusions is “a good idea” but not part of the formal process. The interchange was remarkably close to one I had this summer in Uganda, when I asked my employers if they ever planned to use the results of their “development” study to further the aims of, well, development. Their response was, at best, equivocal.

As I’ve mulled these experiences over, I’ve settled on a few little maxims to use to remind myself of what it is I’m supposed to be doing here.

1. Everything is urgent. Oxford is the original location of the “ivory tower” of academia (it’s on the south side of campus), and I’ve already realized that the “Oxford Bubble” can seem as impenetrable as the one surrounding Princeton. Still, I don’t want to forget that just over a month ago, I was in rural Uganda, interacting with villagers suffering from AIDS and malnutrition whose prospects for social and economic mobility were nil.

Development is, in the end, very urgent business, not just because it is morally compelling but because problems of global inequality and environmental degradation, with which development is closely intertwined, are growing to the point where the West will eventually no longer be able to ignore them. While rushing programs has led to many misguided interventions, development cannot adopt the deadline-free, infinite time frame approach of much of the rest of academia.

2. Think big. My previous research has been ethnographic, and as a result I think I have a pretty good sense of the importance of locally grounded, small-scale research. Huge quantitative studies making sweeping generalizations, in my view, tend to erase individual agency and ignore human variation. Still, I think that acknowledging this limitation is very different from consigning development to make only trivial claims and piecemeal proposals. Human beings have accomplished such absurd feats—we’ve walked on the moon and blown up tens of thousands of people in one go—that it seems overly pessimistic to aspire to nothing more than achieving a small reduction in the number of starving people. If we propose only small ideas, we have no chance of achieving big goals. With development, I’d rather shoot for the moon and miss than spend my whole life developing “Research Driven Interventions” that involve more evaluation than intervention.

3. Stay positive. This summer, I had a conversation with an anthropologist friend, who explained to me the various ways that Western attempts to help Sudan—such as the “Save Darfur” rallies that failed to rock the nation a few years ago—lacked a nuanced understanding of the region and, as such, were unlikely to accomplish anything. She was probably right. Still, it was a bit disappointing when I asked her, “What should we do?” and she responded, basically, “Nothing.”

Academics are trained to be critical. We read articles in order to find holes, mistakes, and assumptions. We treat development projects the same way we treat texts: we try to show how they are misguided and identify where and why they are failing. What has dawned on me, though, is that critiquing things is actually really easy: I barely know anything about development and I can still read a popular development text and explain why it is bullocks. The real challenge is to actually come up with new ideas. I have an increasing respect for people who propose things and then are willing to weather the inevitable attacks that accrue to anyone who chooses to actually stand for something.

I hope that person is me.