Natural Disasters

I have been following the news from Chile mostly from an inability to look away.  This morning, the official number of displaced persons went up a half-million just in the time it took me to refresh the New York Times homepage.  There are times when I wish I were the type who prays, since then I would have something better to do than comb human tragedy for teachable moments.

But I cannot resist.  I wonder, for example, if Pat Buchanan is going to blame this quake on Chile having made a pact with Satan.  I’m curious: will American religious zealots try to smuggle some Chilean not-orphans into Argentina?  Are media images from Chile going to show us only helpless children and dangerous, looting men, with nothing in between?  And is Oxford mega-academic Paul Collier going to call for reconstruction in Chile to be led by an outside dictatorship with Bill Clinton at the helm?  I can’t say I’ll be holding my breath.

A magnitude 8.8 terramoto in Chile kills hundreds; a magnitude 7.0 quake in Haiti kills hundreds of thousands.  And we still actually call these things natural disasters?

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Jukebox: Propagandhi – Natural Disasters

In Defense of Clowning (as a development strategy, that is)

No really, this is development in action.

No really, this is development in action.

Make no mistake.  We do not study development at Oxford in order to help people.  The job of development studies scholars is to attack and dismantle the well-intentioned ideas of others who (naively) actually think they can help people.

This week, in my history and politics course, we discussed Mahmood Mamdami’s Saviours and Survivors, which presents a really disquieting portrait of the “Save Darfur” movement.  He argues—fairly convincingly—that the glitzy media campaigns that became nearly ubiquitous in 2005-2006 manipulated reports of killing in Sudan, greatly exaggerating the scale of the violence in order to gain support for a Western military intervention which, had it happened, would have been disastrous.  Reading this was particularly disturbing for me given my (limited) involvement in the Save Darfur campaign.  I distinctly remember standing on the Washington Mall during a rally my freshman year of college, my eyes tearing as I felt my impotence in light of a genocide I knew was occurring halfway across the globe.  As I now know, the real crisis in Darfur had ended two years prior, and there had never been a genocide at all.  What a sucker, right?  But now I know to be more critical (cynical?).

While Mamdami had to do years of research to write his anti-Save Darfur hit piece, sometimes taking down the well-intentioned do-gooders of the world is like shooting fish in a barrel.  The development blogosphere is currently having a field day with Clowns Without Borders.  CWB is much like Doctors Without Borders, except that instead of bringing doctors into ravaged areas, it provides, well, clowns.  CWB is currently raising money to airlift badly needed clowns into Haitian refugee camps.  You probably don’t need a PhD to figure out what they’re saying about these transnational clowns.  Given the pressing material needs of Haiti, it is a little hard to imagine that supporting clowns is a good use of anyone’s resources.  As one blogger swipes:

Children there may not have homes, nor a functioning government, clean water, electricity, hospitals or schools, but at least they’ll have quality clown-based entertainment.

Academics serve an important role in keeping non-governmental organizations and charities honest.  They point out that campaigns like INSPI(RED) are more about buying Starbucks coffee than helping cure AIDS in Africa, or that WAVES for Development—an NGO that claims to empower third world youth through surfing—serves primarily to give rich white kids an excuse to surf with a clean conscience.  I think it’s telling, though, that the same bloggers that complain incessantly about how projects like Clowns Without Borders ignore pressing issues like health and jobs also moan about how mainstream development projects are overly focused on just providing for peoples’ material needs.  As they point out, humans are complex, multifaceted beings, and a ‘good life’ requires more than just food and shelter.

In this context, I’m not sure Clowns Without Borders is all that bad of an idea.  Regardless of how much money we pump into Haiti, schools are not going to be re-built overnight, and jobs are not going to instantly reappear.  In the meantime, there are a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do and little to look forward to.  In Uganda, I was amazed at how appreciative farmers were of the chance to play our little sociological ‘games’—simply because chances for intellectual stimulation were few and far between in their lives.  Even in the worst of circumstances, peoples’ desires include community, intellectual engagement, and – I would argue – humor.  There is something to be said for finding ways to let kids—even kids living in desperate situations—laugh, play, and be silly.  Having spent all week reading about child soldiers in Africa (for a paper I’m writing), I am acutely aware that the alternative to letting kids just be kids can be kids prematurely turning into adults, in the worst sense of the term.

Would I ever give money to Clowns Without Borders?  Probably not.  But I do hope that—despite the dogmatic skepticism of an academic education—I can keep an open mind.  My Mom always used to admonish me and my brother that we could complain about it being too hot out or too cold outside, but not both.  I can think of a few development bloggers who should heed this advice.  Yes, it’s our job to bitch—but we have to do so constructively and consistently, and use criticism as a way to direct action, rather than just convince everyone to do nothing for fear of doing something wrong.  If you deconstruct everything, you are left with nothing.

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Jukebox: World Inferno / Friendship Society – All the World’s a Stage (Dive)

Frauds and Peaks

I don’t want to believe that my life is ever going to “peak,” and I especially don’t want to believe that it “peaked” one year ago today.

I should state upfront, as a disclaimer, that this is a very self-involved post.  Talking about an award I received a year ago is a bit pathetic, but since Princeton’s campus newspaper still seems to be talking about it, I’m going to consider it fair game.

Last year, when my parents decided to notify our friends, family, and my high school about my receipt of Princeton’s Pyne Prize, I received an e-mail from an extremely wise former history teacher.  He told me not to obsess over whether I could ever ‘out-do’ myself again, and that I shouldn’t worry that some award in college was going to be the pinnacle of my existence.  At the time, I wasn’t too worried.  I was extremely happy with where I was: after a few years of drifting, I had found a community in which I felt like I could be myself, carved out an activist niche in which I felt like I was making real progress, and even come upon an academic project about which I was truly passionate.  What’s more, I had Oxford to get excited about.  It seemed like my trajectory could be only upwards.

Of course, there were always detractors.  I unfortunately lack the mental fortitude not to read online comments, so I knew that some segment of the campus population though I was a complete fraud, and that I received the award only because I had a Mohawk and the university wanted an ‘alternative-looking’ face to put on the homepage.  When I looked at the achievements of my co-recipient, Andy Chen, I couldn’t help but think there was some validity to these claims.  Still, though, I felt confident that – even if there was some truth to what they were saying – I had laid the groundwork to prove them wrong.   At some point in the future, I would show the world that I was deserving because I can have an impact.

One year on, it’s tough not to think that the ‘haters’ were right.  This year’s winner—Conner Diemand-Yaumen, the infinitely likeable Student Government president—has done an astonishing amount to improve Princeton.  By contrast, the few projects I worked on—the Animal Welfare Society and come to mind—have more-or-less fallen apart.  It’s not looking backwards that bothers me, though, but looking forwards.  Last week, I got back my first actual grade from Oxford, and it was joltingly mediocre.  It was almost a metaphor for how I feel here: average, faceless, and small, an insignificant part of a giant academic machine.

I suppose I could try to replicate what I did at Princeton: shave a Mohawk and try to earn a reputation as a campus crazy-man.  Aside from the fact that this would almost certainly not work at a huge university like Oxford, though, I just don’t want to follow that path anymore.  I want to earn my stripes, to show that I really can have an impact in tangible ways.  I’m getting involved with all sorts of causes here—the Vegetarian Society, Food Justice, Anti-War Action, to name a few—but I’m realizing how few organizational or inter-personal skills I actually have as an activist.  It’s a lot easier to project an identity as a ‘change-maker’ than to actually be one.

To end on a higher note, I will just say that last year, this weekend was a ‘peak’ – it was a high point of the phase of my life where people would give me an easy pat on the back and endless positive reinforcement just for being who I am.  While I’m not sure when and where they will come, though, I think my real accomplishments are still in front of me.

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Jukebox: Bomb the Music Industry! – You Still Believe in Me?

The Face of Terrorism (Oxford and elsewhere)

Be afraid.

Long before I came to Oxford, I had heard about Oxford’s notorious animal rights activists.  They epitomized the absolute extreme to which the movement had come: “they” broke into labs, harassed professors, and even committed acts of bombing and arson.  While there were many reason why my interviews for the Rhodes and Marshall were disasters, I certainly knew things were heading downhill when I was asked whether I planned to become one of “them”.  The same question dogged me in the months before I came here: “You’re not going to be part of ‘those’ groups, are you?”

Students at Oxford are, somewhat unsurprisingly, even more hostile towards “them.”  Numerous people have told me how much they hate it that they have to walk past protesters on the way to work, or how inappropriate they think it is that “they” show up to events like Oxford’s graduation, calling for a boycott of the university so long as it continues its massive support for animal testing.  This term, I’ve been working to help found a student vegan society, but “they” are still a problem.  At our meetings, newcomers always want to know: “You’re not like ‘them’ are you?  You’re not going to use ‘those’ tactics?”

Protect and serve.

This Thursday, I finally saw “them” – or perhaps I should say, “her.”  I was bicycling through the science section of campus and there they were – banners put up by SPEAK, the anti-vivisection group generally thought to be behind actions like the burning-down of University College’s boathouse.  I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed.  Next to large banners condemning Oxford and mourning the death of a monkey named Felix, there were a few late-middle aged women, standing silently in the rain, holding signs.  There were at least twice as many police there, I can only assume preventing them from breaking into those violent, dangerous actions that we all know they engage in after dark.

Sometime during the Bush Administration, animal rights protesters like these were labeled the United States’ “number one” domestic terror threat.  The Obama administration has continued the trend, pandering to the right wing by promising to vigorously prosecute animal rights “terrorists,” like four people in Austin who had the audacity to chalk a sidewalk.  The United Kingdom, too, has jumped on the bandwagon: after Britain declared it had become the “Afghanistan of Animal Rights terrorism,” the government began a major campaign of infiltrating and monitoring activist groups.  All this policing effort seems to suggest that animal rights radicals – like those at Oxford – are a real threat.

There’s just one problem with this narrative, though: animal activists have never managed to kill anyone (although a few animal activists have been killed.)  Yes, pro-AR radicals have caused some (relatively minimal) property damage, and even a few injuries.  The principles of the Animal Liberation Front – the group most often associated with animal rights terrorism – are telling: point four of five is “To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human.”  As far as I can tell, they’ve done a reasonably good job of adhering to these principles: in 1500 animal rights actions monitored by the British police, only seven resulted in injuries.  Whatever your views on property destruction, I am struck by what a distant departure these actions are from what I classically envision “terrorism” to be: the use of violence against non-combatant persons to intimidate a civilian population for political reasons.

It’s impossible for me not to draw a comparison to the recent “incident” in Austin, Texas, where an anti-government crazy named Joe Stack flew a plane into an Internal Revenue Service building, killing himself and one employee while injuring a dozen others.  A few friends have forwarded me his manifesto, and expressed to me how much ‘sense’ it seems to make.  Indeed, while the Tea Party is celebrating Stack as an American hero, even some allies on the left seem to be convinced that Stack must not be all that bad of a guy because he denounced Congress’ failure to pass health care reform. I find this completely infuriating.  Make no mistake – the only difference between Joe Stack and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 at a similar federal building, is that Stack didn’t succeed.  And yet, the consensus seems to be that what Stack did wasn’t terrorism.

I am left wondering: what does it say when breaking into a lab to save rabbits is terrorism, but flying a plane in a building in order to kill people trying to make an living (albeit off of a system you oppose) is not?  When I wake up to a New York Times front page reporting murdered abortion doctors, massacred Afghani civilians, a mass movement calling for revolutionary violence against the Obama administration, and a political class that seems concerned about none of these things, I find myself thinking: what the world could use is a few more little old ladies, standing in the pouring rain, choosing to make a statement while most would rather be inside making money or caring for their own affairs, simply because they are worried about some mice in a lab.

If “they” are terrorists, then I can only hope someday I will be labeled a terrorist too.

The face of terrorism at Oxford.

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Jukebox: Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name

The Other “Fancy Dress”

Look at the back center for an alternative vision of political correctness.

Worcester’s college bar is well decorated.  This is not a good thing, because usually when I go there I wind up awkwardly staring at the walls rather than talking to people.  The pictures of the “Worcester College dart’s team / drinking legends” are always entertaining, as are the pictures of each year’s “beer boat”—senior rowers who don’t have time to practice prior to races (but make time to drink).  My personal favorite, though, are the yearly photos of the second year class in “fancy dress,” which is Britglish for “costume.”  In 2008, students came as Oompa Loompas, ladybugs, bananas, Legos, Marmite jars, a box of Crayons, the Ghostbusters, the Mario Brothers, and the Jamaican bobsled team (complete with blackface, naturally—“PC” is not in the lexicon here).

Pacman showed up later.

Oxford undergraduates definitely love costumes.  Although the city of Oxford is best known by tourists for bearded professors bustling around in billowing robes, on any given night, a pedestrian is more likely to encounter twelve drunk Charlie Chaplin doppelgangers or an army of penguins.  In Michaelmas, it was announced that the theme for my first “crew date” with my rowing team was “tight and bright.”  I showed up in a pink button down shirt, only to discover the entire rest of my team in neon spandex with matching tank-tops and headbands.  People go similarly all-out for “bops” put on the Junior Common Room.  I was in the college bar with a few grad student friends last term when all of the sudden the space was invaded by eighteen-year-olds wearing leopard-print body suits and safari-hats wielding elaborate cardboard chainsaws.

Why did the 4th generation iPod cross the road?

All of this, though, pales in comparison to the no-effort-spared costumes I saw this weekend.  It was Midway, a Worcester-only celebration for second year students that happens on the fourth week of the middle term of the year (get it?*).  Tragically, I arrived too late to see the group photo, but I did manage to get a flavor for the costumes as they wandered off: there were Star Wars stormtroopers, trolls (as in, the horrible 1980s dolls with colored hair), pterodactyls, PacMan and friends, several generations of iPods, all of the important X-Men, and Kiss.  Sketchy as I felt—by merit of being a graduate student, of course—I couldn’t help but snap a few surreptitious photos.  Afterward, I wandered back to the college bar, where the Teletubbies and some other assorted students were watching Scotland play Wales in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament.  I learned a fair bit about how rugby is played (it’s quite entertaining), and also that the English hate the Welsh more than the Scots, which was somewhat surprising.

Pterodactyl: a certain subset of readers should find this very funny.

My afternoon spend with the “undies” (as my graduate-student idol Tom from the Princeton Band calls them) made me realize how little I actually know about what it means to be an undergraduate at Oxford.  I have no idea what it’s like to attend a tutorial, and I have not a clue what they are talking about when they say they have a “tute sheet” due the next day (actually, I can’t even work through my friends’ accents half of the time).  There are moments when I think the undergraduates here work a lot harder than American undergrads, and then I hear tales of Sunday-night clubbing expeditions and I am not as sure.   At other times, when I think about the absurd traditions each Oxford college has accumulated, I am convinced that students here are simply a lot cleverer than we are—and then I think of the Princeton band making a double entendre on erectile dysfunction and early decision at Columbia.  I’m lucky to be rowing, because otherwise I would never hear about collection exams and kakui club, but still—just eight months after getting my diploma—the difference seems almost unfathomable.

Somehow, PBS never featured the teletubbies' drinking habits.

In the end, all I really know about them is that most of them hate Wales, and they all love fancy dress.  And they’re awesome.

* Hint 1: Most Oxford degrees take three years.  Hint 2: There are three terms per year.  Hint 3: There are eight weeks to a term.

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Jukebox: David Matyas – Hook’s Last Laugh

Giving Well

The ideas in this post were mostly bouncing around in my head at Christmastime, but with today being the one month anniversary of the quake in Haiti—and having just attended a panel on the international community’s response to said disaster—these things seemed suddenly relevant again.

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The first proper summer job I had was working for the Defense Department (yes, really) on an Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I emerged from seven weeks in a windowless basement office watching home-star runner cartoons with over $1,000 in my bank account.  At the time, this seemed like an inexhaustible quantity of money.  I spent it on such stupid things as Rayban Sunglasses.  Naturally, I emptied my account by November (and managed to step on and break my sunglasses).

A few summers later, I once again found myself with some extra dollars (the intervening summer didn’t count, since I worked for minimum wage and spent most of my money on driving to work).  This time, though, I decided to do something more useful with my (semi)hard-earned cash: give it away.  My parents are incredibly inspiring philanthropists, and have set a really powerful example for me with their generosity.  Alongside that, though, they taught me to be aware that giving is a privilege that we were lucky to have.  Although I didn’t have much, by student standards I knew I was hugely privileged, so I fired off a few checks, and all around felt good about myself.

Fast forward to this Christmas.  2009 was a lucky year for me, thanks to my scholarships, putting me in a more comfortable position than I will be at any time in the foreseeable future.  Some combination of moral obligation and the looming specter of the taxman turned my thoughts back to philanthropy.  The problem is, now I know things.  I know, for example, that that check I sent to PETA a few years ago probably funded a mildly sexist and hugely ineffective publicity stunt, or that a huge portion of the money I gave to Amnesty International was eaten up by administrative costs.  I resolve that, this time, I would make myself better informed.

Studying development, I figured I would donate to some group working in the Third World.  Figuring out to whom to give, though, is an absolute nightmare.  The range of advice and charity rating sites out there is practically infinite.  Should I follow the advice of Give Well, which promises charity-rating based on rigorous, objective criteria–or should I ignore them because their raters are economists with no development experience who seem to care more about ‘cost-effectiveness’ than the rights of poor people?  Or should I pay attention to the dozens of different features Good Intentions Are Not Enough insist I identify before I give?  Perhaps better I just listen to the blogs that suggest that – all in all – giving probably does more harm than good, so we probably shouldn’t do it.

I eventually settled on Partners in Health, a Boston-based charity that sets up free health clinics in developing countries and couples physical healing with social empowerment and political advocacy.  I could, of course, still think of a load of problems with it (thank you developing studies): health NGOs make national governments think they don’t need to provide health care (distinctly a bad outcome), and Partners in Health’s guiding philosophy is one that is in some cases utopian and, therefore, not maximally effective.  In the end, I gave–but I didn’t feel good about it.

The recent earthquake in Haiti, which (as I learned today) killed 2.5% of the country’s population (imagine 9 million Americans dead), has put giving back in the news.  A lot of the aid to Haiti has been kind of stupid, which seems to confirm the cynicism of the blogs I cited above (while Partners in Health had 5,000 staff on the ground in Haiti before the earthquake, Red Cross had three – but Red Cross has received $160 million more in donations.)  I went to today’s panel on the International response to the quake expecting to hear a lot of Western self-flagellation about uncoordinated, unproductive, and ultimately, harmful aid.  I was surprised when they said that, despite problems, international largess had helped make things a lot better than they would have been otherwise.  It was a huge relief – a confirmation that I didn’t just give because I felt I had to, but because it actually might make something better.

This has been a long and circuitous post, so I will just offer some closing thoughts.  The new buzzwords of philanthropy are accountability and obligation.  This is a good thing: people do have a moral obligation to do more for the underprivileged than they currently do, and also have a responsibility to do so in a manner that is well-informed.  This has to be balanced, though.  We have to be careful about ignoring basic human emotions: that is to say, people want to do good and feel good about doing it.  Otherwise they just buy sunglasses.

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Jukebox: Ani Difranco – In and Out

Bright Young Things

The Alex of two years ago is ashamed.

Before I came here, I expected my time at Oxford to be marked by exploring medieval cobblestone streets, rowing on the Thames in the wee hours of the morning, listening to 12th century church bells ringing through the winter fog, meeting with long-bearded professors in offices crammed with moldy volumes, and, of course, ridiculously posh black tie parties.  Some of the things I expected to happen here have come to pass; others have not.  I would say, on balance, Oxford has not been quite as absurd as I had been told to expect – it is, after all, mostly, a modern functioning university.  Still, it has its moments.

Last night, we celebrated the twenty-something-ist (Grad students, it seems, are really sensitive about their age, because being in your mid-twenties makes you SO OLD) birthday of my housemate Nicola.  Among her many amazing qualities, Nicola is my go-to person for answering any question along the lines of ‘What do really, really English people do for X?’  She is adamant that Britain is not in Europe, can face any challenge so long as she has tea, and totally hates Gordon Brown.  Her birthday, naturally, did not disappoint: it was a black tie affair, with a jazz quartet, inside Merton College.

There’s something ironic about the fact that I went though four years of formals at Princeton and never once wore a tux – out of some sort of pseudo-rebellion – and now relish the chance to put on a dinner jacket, go to the poshest event I could ever conceive of, and bask in the Oxford student body’s collective upper-crust leanings.  When in Rome, right?

PIRATES; or, irrational enthusiasm about ongoing tragedy in Somalia

In general, I try to make sure that most of the posts I write for my blog have at least least some “value-added” behind them.  That is, if I’m not reporting on things I’ve done in my life, I at least try to provide my own original spin on things happening elsewhere.  Tonight, though, I’m breaking this rule: as my life has become progressively consumed by schoolwork, material to write about is becoming scarcer, unless I simply choose to regurgitate interesting things I’ve learned.  That said, there are moments when the intellectual culture at Oxford is so positively exhilarating and vibrant that it feels selfish not to share, so here goes.

Somali pirates: not quite as sexy...

On Monday, I went to a seminar… on pirates.  Somali pirates, to be specific.  I feel slightly guilty for being so enthusiastic about the tragedy that is Somali piracy, especially since if they weren’t labeled pirates, but instead “desperate people with boats taking hostages so they can feed their families,” no one would care about them.  That said, the crammed seminar room suggested that I was not the only person intrinsically enthused by the notion of a sociological seminar on piracy.  And while, deep down, I knew I was mostly there just to hear “cool” stories about pirates, I wound up hearing some mind-blowing results, based on a statistical survey of over 1,000 attacks in the last ten years.  (You can find the actual paper here.)

The first conclusion these researchers came to—and you’re not going to believe this if you follow media accounts of Somali piracy—is that the entire phenomenon is almost entirely non-violent.  The system of piracy has fallen into a shockingly benign choreography.  When pirates “attack” merchant vessels, the crew almost never resists, and if they do—say, by throwing some mattress overboard (yes, really)—the pirates usually just go away, leaving their rocket launchers and assault rifles unused.  The hostages they do take are typically kept in a nice neighborhood of Eyd (okay, nice for Somalia).  In fact, there’s an entire street of restaurants that offer Western food, specifically for them.  Insurance companies almost always pay the ransom, and the pirates inevitably release the hostages and cargo one they are paid (case in point: a group of pirates took a Ukranian tanker with dozens of Russian tanks on it… and then gave them all back when the ransom was paid).  Currently, the media in the U.K. is going nuts over a British couple whose yacht was hijacked and appear to have no way of paying their ransom.  100 days later, though, they still haven’t been harmed.

... and probably not as dangerous...

When pirates are caught in the act by naval forces, they are generally tried in Western nations, serve a few years in prison, and are then granted asylum.  Given that most Western countries now have large Somali diasporas, getting caught isn’t a particularly bad deal.  Indeed, the most violent component of the entire piracy system is the Western naval intervention, which has managed to blow a lot of fisherman out of the water because—apparently—black people in small boats with fishing poles look too much like black people in small boats with AK-47s.

As the researchers suggested, this non-violent equilibrium could be easily disrupted.  Policy makers, bowing to our collective fear of a resurgence of Blackbeard the pirate, have been kicking around the idea of encouraging insurance companies to stop paying ransoms, trying pirates in Kenya rather than the West (somewhat less appealing from the pirates’ point of view), and blasting more of them out of the water.  All of these things are, of course, only likely to make the pirates more desperate, and thus more like the bloodthirsty curs we (incorrectly) think they are.

After demolishing an hope of success for the right-wing get-tough solution to piracy, the researchers decided to turn their academic guns on the bleeding-heart liberal proposals.  At this point in the presentaiton,  I’m pretty sure that the entire audience of left-leaning sociologists was thinking, “Everyone knows you stop piracy not on the sea but on land, by building a more just Somalia.”  Unfortunately, not so.  When you think about it, piracy actually requires a degree of technological sophistication and infrastructure, both of which are rare in Somalia.  Pirates need telecommunications to negotiate ransoms, trade links to the outside world to buy arms and bring in fuel, and a stable enough society to prevent their hostages from being kidnapped and killed.  As it turns out, then, according to the research, those parts of Somalia that have the least conflict have the most pirates.

... but perhaps not as easily defeated.

In the short term, any intervention to strengthen local governments or provide aid to Somalia would only make piracy easier and more appealing.  Pirates bring badly needed money into communities, and because they predate on outsiders, there is almost no incentive for locals to turn against them.  Pirates make around $10,000 a year.  While we like to believe that, someday, all countries can achieve a decent standard of living, it’s pretty clear that, given that Somalia’s per capita income is $291, the day where piracy is no longer financially appealing is pretty far off, whatever we do.

Monday was an object lesson in why sociology is both fantastically intellectual broadening and, with respect to real policies, frustratingly useless.  I left with my preconceptions shattered—but with absolutely no sense of any solution.  And while the researchers suggested that maybe piracy just isn’t that bad, my gut tells me that people having to resort to piracy to survive—as cool as it seems to the part of my brain that still wishes I were Peter Pan—is not a good thing.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – Sink or Swim

(N)ever Again

This post comes a week late.  On January 27th, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by allied forces.  Tonight, Oxford’s Chabad House held a commemorative event for the 65th anniversary.  Before I can return to my (now much less important-seeming) work, there are some thoughts I simply have to put to paper (but, if you want to read something actually worthwhile, I recommend this piece )

I, like others, am apprehensive about the passing of the generation that experienced Auschwitz.  There is something deeply disturbing to me about the idea that to Holocaust will turn into another sad tale for the history books, rather than the sort of immediate and visceral evil that left me sobbing in the back of a crowded lecture hall tonight.  The speaker was Denis Avey, a British POW who smuggled himself into Auschwitz because he wanted to see it himself, for fear that none of the inmates inside would live to tell the world about what happened there (you can—and probably should—read about him here).  At 91, his fury at what he saw is clearly undiminished, and he was refreshing in his unwillingness to offer any feel-good stories for the crowd.

I do sometimes wonder why I put myself through this, why I force myself to hear it all, to sit through lectures and films and seminars that only make me realize my own insignificance in the face of humanity’s crushing capacity for evil.  I suppose it’s to remind myself that the BNP, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are not individuals espousing legitimate viewpoints but vile movements to be stopped; that to draw a Hitler mustache on a poster of Obama (or Bush) is to show a willful and dangerous ignorance of true evil; and that to blame the Jew, the gay, the black, the Arab, “the other” is to align ourselves with the absolute worst tendencies of human nature.


Every January, I draw up a wildly optimistic set of goals for the New Year.  I gave up on New Years resolutions a long time ago; at this point, I just come up with a long list of tasks to which I can apply myself.  Two weeks into my second term at Oxford, I’m already laughing at myself for thinking that this semester I could:

-         Identify a thesis topic and begin doing preliminary research.

-         Attend more open lectures and seminars.

-         Publish my Princeton senior thesis either as a book or a journal.

-         Help get the Oxford Vegetarian Society off the ground.

-         Volunteer twice a week for the Oxford Food Justice program.

-         Start taking Spanish classes again.

All lofty goals, of course, but time consuming.  I didn’t even bother writing down my proposed ways of finding time to get all this stuff done, but in a quick brainstorm I came up with:

-         Spend less time losing and searching for my keys / wallet / library card (which, to be fair, does eat up a lot of time).

-         Something involving less time on facebook.

I did give these aspirations a fighting chance.  I have been working myself much harder the last two weeks than I did at any point in Michaelmas term.  Still, I think it’s time to concede defeat.  While I’ve always somewhat aspired to be a work-a-holic productivity machine, endlessly devoted to the causes that I care about, I’ve never succeeded, and I don’t know why I would now.  I work hard, but I’ve also always had outlets for non-productivity, ranging from crazy roommates to the band.

So far, this semester has been a bit of a drag, precisely because I’m avoiding this reality.  But this weekend felt like a turning point.  Against my better judgment, on Saturday night, I decided to abandon my desperate attempts to devise a thesis topic and go out for a pint with Marc, a hopefully-soon-to-be-friend from Switzerland, with whom I chatted about everything ranging from radical Islam to punk rock.  On Sunday, I went to my first “away” regatta with my crew team.  I had no idea where we were going (Dorney?), but it turned out to be the Eton College Boat House.  Given that Eton is the stomping ground of royals (and James Bond!) I had high expectations, but was rather blown away by a boat house four times the size of my high school, attached to a 2,000 meter artificial lake.  Our race was totally rubbish—owing to water levels on the Thames, we had never been on the water as a crew before—and the temperature was well below the threshold for utter misery.  But I couldn’t stop smiling: here I was, in England, rowing with a bunch of British undergrads in Eton of all places—and to think, I could be in a library.

I feel slightly guilty about a mid-term revising of my priorities.  At the same time, though, some very smart people decided to give me a lot of money to be here, and they’d probably want me to be happy.

At this point, my to-do list for the term looks a bit more like this:

-         Continue playing bass in a band put together by some M.Phil friends (tentatively called “The Nandinis” after our most terrifying professor)

-         Go to all the ridiculous crew events, so I can meet some English people and learn how to dress like a “chav.”

-         Get inside all 39 of Oxford’s colleges—and take pictures of their best gargoyles.

-         Play more Mario Kart and bad punk rock with Marc.

-         Finally make it down to London to explore Camden Town, the punk movement’s own version of Mecca.

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Jukebox: Defiance, Ohio – The List