Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

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This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

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

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

On “Happy Meat”

There are a few questions that seem to get asked at every single animal rights event I’ve ever been to, in spite of their complete inanity.  At the end of any lecture by a vegan philosopher, it’s inevitably that some carnivore with raise their hand and smugly—as if they had come up with an idea so original it would be totally debilitating to the vegan argument—ask, “How do you know plants don’t have feelings too?”  Another inevitable question that makes me feel like throttling someone is “What if we bred animals that want to be eaten?”

Image from "suicidefood.blogspot.com", which you should totally check out.

I am forced to concede, however, that apparently these idiots might actually be on to something, at least with one common query.  According to the Telegraph, Dutch scientists have managed to grow something vaguely resembling meat in a laboratory. At least some animal rights supporters are excited about this development: PETA, in fact, is offering one million dollars to anyone who can get this petri-dish pork onto shelves by 2012.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons to stay skeptical.  The meat in question was cultured using in a solution made out of, well, meat, which rather defeats the entire purpose (they are hoping to come up with a synthetic alternative).  Moreover, the erstwhile pork chop was a bit soggy: there’s a lot of development that will need to take place before it is edible, much less marketable.  Still, in principle, I like the idea: as someone who very much enjoyed the taste of meat in my sixteen years of pre-vegetarian darkness, I suppose I would be willing to eat meat that involved no animal suffering and avoided the environmental externalities of livestock production.

All that said, though, the real reason I am writing this post is, ironically, to state why I think animal rights groups talking about “test-tube” meats is, ultimately, a useless distraction.  Imagine, for a moment, that by some miracle of engineering they managed to produce laboratory meat that was no more expensive than factory farmed meat (unlikely) and tasted the same (double unlikely).  Would this change the present state of animal exploitation in the world?

I submit that it would not.  As it is, eating animal products involves humans putting their most trivial interests—taste, convenience, and habit—over the most fundamental interests of animals—life and the avoidance of suffering.  Purchasers of so-called “humane” animal products only reinforce this calculus, making purchases that, essentially, assert that even when we attempt to consider animal interests, they only merit tiny alterations, like a slight improvement in the method of slaughter, a slightly larger cage (Anyone interested in learning about such “happy meat” should check out Gary Francione’s blog).

My point is, so long as the most inconsequential of human interests are accepted as invalidating any interest of an animal (if we even accept that they have them), then no one is going to bother buying laboratory meat.  There are already a whole host of meat substitutes, but their proliferation has not managed to make the population go vegetarian.  Why would anyone risk eating a genetically engineered steak that might taste a bit funny, when they are able to purchase the real thing guilt-free?

These issues have been on my mind on multiple fronts this week.  In advance of Copenhagen, a few animal rights supporters released a report claiming that a whopping 51% of greenhouse gas equivalents come from livestock (the previous guess, from the U.N., was that animal production accounted for a still-disturbing 18%).  The study’s flaws (there are many which I may write about later) aside, I can’t imagine it will do much good.  The issue of eating meat remains an “exception” issue.  What other human practice—so grossly destructive of our planet and the things that live on it—is considered “off the table” for legislative action?

There are many ways to dance around the issue, to try to create alternatives to meat or put forth environmental or health arguments for vegetarianism.  Ultimately, though, change will only come when we—as individuals, as societies, and as a species—come to grips with the fundamental question: is it right or wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on lesser—but nonetheless sentient—beings?

Everything else is a distraction.

Mzungu!

I am used to being a spectacle. You can’t have a six inch, half-black half-white Mohawk and not expect stares. (Indeed, in retrospect, I am willing to admit that you can’t have a six-inch, half black half-white Mohawk and not want stares, at least to a degree.) Kids tend to be the most unfiltered in their response to anything strange.

Despite just a few months ago having strolled into an Princeton alumni reception wearing a full suit and full Mohawk, though, I can confidently say that I have never felt like as much of a spectacle as I feel in rural Uganda. It’s one thing when, in Kampala, people shout “Hey, Mzungu” (basically, “Hey white guy”) at you. It’s another thing entirely when you’re in a tiny, isolated village, and a kid walking home from school, spots you, and sprints to find his schoolmates, who return in a mass of about twenty, which hide behind a row of bushes and watch you for an entire hour. Or when you walk beside a school in session and absolute pandemonium breaks out as children pour outside the doors, unfazed by now hapless teachers. If the previous scenarios sound implausible, I have pictures to prove that both happened today, but I won’t post them thanks to the nagging voice of an anthropology professor cautioning me about “reinforcing discourses of European Paternalism.”

There are a million and one things I could write about my experience with race thus far in Uganda. But given that it’s 1:24 a.m. and I have to wake up in 5 hours for another 12 hour day, I’ll stick with just a few observations about the kids. As my experiences with having a Mohawk have taught me, children tend to be relatively unfiltered in their responses to the world around them. Their reactions are, in a sense, pure, unencumbered by cultural niceties and societal expectations.

It’s interesting to me, then, that they are so obsessed by race. The modern, enlightened conception is that race – aside from meaningless biological variations like skin color – is a social construction that only has significance because history has given it significance. And yet, these kids – few of whom have ever left their parish or seen more than a handful of white people – still latch onto skin color as a something meaningful. They don’t know about the respective histories of whites and blacks, European colonizers and African subjects, and I doubt an eight year old has much ability to contemplate the senseless lottery of birth that left me rich and him poor. All they notice is that I’m different. It’s a lot to contemplate, and to a degree, it’s a hard thing to stomach.

There is one other thing about the kids that intrigues me. They always say, “Mzungu bye.” Never “Mzungu hi.” Some sounds are easier for Ugandans to make than others (as opposed to a Mzungu trying to make Lugandan sounds, all of which are impossible), so perhaps that explains it. But I wonder if “Mzungu bye” reflects the limited experiences the children have had with white people. Maybe they say “bye” because all the whites that come by – myself included – rocket in, deliver some survey or some development project and rocket away, never to return.

The Project, Part III: Games!

Let’s play a game. It’s called the ULTIMATUM GAME.
(Cue sinister music – but don’t get too excited).

You have one-hundred dollars to divide between yourself and another person. You can divide it however you’d like. However, the other player will have a chance to accept or reject your offer. If they accept it, both of you get the proposed division. If they reject it, both of you get nothing. Make a decision, but don’t screw up!

Imagine playing this game (and a few other variants, such as the “Dictator Game” in which the second player doesn’t have a chance to reject your offer, and a “Punishment Game” where a third player can take away some of your money if they think you made an unfair offer) a few thousand times with farmers in rural Uganda, and you have a fairly good sense of what I’ll be doing for the next six weeks. Sounds kind of boring, right?

Maybe. I’ve spent the last few days writing elaborate protocols to ensure that illiterate farmers internalize each and every rule of the game without being pushed into one decision or another. That’s a little bit boring. But the concept of these games are actually pretty interesting. Simple bargaining games like these can tell researchers quite a bit about cultural norms of fairness and reciprocity and personal values of altruism and vengeance.

Think way back to the division you made two paragraphs ago. If you’re like most people, you probably chose something close to a fifty-fifty division. You probably figured an even division was fair, and that if you had chosen something unfair, the other player would reject it and you both go home empty-handed. But that’s not actually a rational decision. The smart split is to give the other person 1 cent (or about twenty Ugandan shillings!) and keep $99.99 for yourself. Think about it: if the other person is at all self-interested, they ought to realize that something is better than nothing, and so they will accept any offer that isn’t zero. And since people are rational about these sort of things, you should be able to predict the other person’s response to your offer and know to give them as little as possible.

The irony, of course, is that almost no one (barring a few economic grad students, maybe) behaves in the way the previous paragraph describes. And yet, the idea embodied in that game strategy – that human beings are competitive, selfish, and calculating – holds incredible sway in our society. It’s not just that assumptions of rationality are fundamentally still dominant in mainstream economic theory. Claims about human nature resting on this idea of selfishness are essentially a trump card in any argument about the shape human society must take. Why will there always be inequality? Why will there always be competition? Why can a society never be based in cooperation? Because it’s our nature! Because we’ve evolved that way!

The games we’re playing are pretty simple. In the short term, we’re only trying to understand how Ugandan producer-organization executives make decisions about buying, selling, and sharing. But our research will contribute to a growing body of literature that suggests a radically different picture of human nature, based in empirical study of societies that are – owing to their “less developed” state – at least ostensibly more reflective of the way human beings really are supposed to live.

If I could only find a game that will show it’s in human nature to be a vegetarian, I’d really be in business. More on Uganda – and, if you’re good, some pictures – tomorrow.

Summer in the ‘hood

So, last summer, I lived in the ghetto, and I wrote this about the experience:

I’ve been waffling back and forth for the last couple of weeks about whether or not the term “ghetto” is appropriate. The moniker is certainly racialized and loaded enough that I use it cautiously. That said, to call my neighborhood anything else would probably be disingenuous and would, in a sense, demean the hardships that its inhabitants face every day. Our neighborhood has shitty streets, drug dealers, a recent wave of muggings, and boarded up shops. And, it’s almost entirely black.

Being quite possibly the only white person on my block gives me lots of opportunities to experience race. As a sociology major, I think about race all the time, but letting race filter meaningfully into interactions is not something I actively try to do. In fact, I try not to notice that I look completely different from everyone around me in the subway station or the grocery store. I tell myself over and over it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, it does.

In high school, I convinced myself – based on the approximately zero interactions I had with people of other races – that race was just a proxy for social class. All of the problems of blacks and Hispanics, I figured, must be no different from those of poor whites. I figured that actual discrimination was gone, but that its legacy meant that minorities were poorer. My view didn’t let white people of the hook, but it certainly simplified things, and I think this is the view that Obama—whether for political expediency or out of genuine belief—wants us to take. Sure, there are still problems running along the color line, but for the most part, our country is ‘post-racial’ and simply needs to deal with its past legacy of discrimination.

Walking through our neighborhood, however, would likely give a different viewpoint. A quick stroll down Bedford Avenue plays out like a theater of enacted stereotypes. The twin specters of drugs and welfare that define public perception of ‘the ghetto’ are visible everywhere. Every store sells beer – and takes food stamps. Walk around past ten and you’ll see every manner of stoned, tripping, or drunk person imaginable. People sit on stoops, and stores sell fried chicken. There seem to be plenty of unemployed people. Someone even stole my detergent from the Laundromat with me two feet away. Like I said, it’s a ghetto.

Thanks to three years of sociology, though, I could quickly offer an explanation for everything. Unemployment? Well, let me tell you about de-industrialization and globalization. Dirty streets? Who would take pride in a neighborhood they were forced into through red-lining, block-busting, and other forms of covert segregation. Unwed mothers? Everyone knows that happens because young women need ways to validate their adulthood in the absence of job prospects or a functioning education system. Welfare queens? You know that only pays $324 a month, right? No one is choosing that sort of existence.

For me, it has all been a little self-congratulatory. I’d tell people I lived in Bedford Stuyvesant, fish for the standard “Oh, isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” response, and then calmly chastise them for thinking an area is unsafe just because it’s largely black. I prided myself on ‘proving’ everyone wrong by not rushing home at night. I catalogued in my mind every example of someone in our area being nice to me, thus showing that ‘they,’ the residents at large, generalized into a single, black group, were also nice.

I’m gradually realizing, though, that even my ‘enlightened’ sociologists’ perspective is off the mark. Stereotyping is wrong in both directions because it demeans the individual. I’m reminded of an anecdote – I may be mis-adapting it – in which a good hearted liberal asked a black person if they preferred to be called “black” or “African American.” The response was “I prefer to be called a person.” While I may perceive everything that happens in our neighborhood as the result of structure, I think few of my neighbors would view themselves purely as victims, and to suggest they are is to disempower them even futher.

I could stop there, but I feel like musing a little longer, even if it means I come to no firm denouement. A few weekends ago our neighborhood held a “block party” for Madison Street, where we live. Jordan and I decided that the loud rap, barbeques, and bouncy tents weren’t for us, so we stayed inside until about 10 p.m. Then, we went for a walk, which closed with the two of us sitting on our stoop outside for a few minutes. Shortly thereafter, our neighbor Rick, a Jamaican migrant, came over and offered us food. We weren’t interested initially, but he was persistent. Suddenly, we were meeting all of the neighbors and having beers shoved into our hands. People were so friendly and seemed to be enjoying each others’ company so much that I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that my neighborhood at home would never, ever do something like this.

More interesting, though, was the response we got when we told people that we were subletting from Becca and Andy – that is, the previous white couple on the block (I suppose I just referred to Jordan and myself as a “couple”). No one knew who they were. Becca and Andy had lived here for years and never come out, never introduced themselves. Our block recently did a beautification campaign and won a big award. Becca and Andy’s place is pretty much the only one on our street whose front yard still has no flowers.

All of this has taken me down a notch in terms of my own sense of enlightenment. It has also clued me in to one of the biggest perils of sociology. Even if we can find statistical trends and empirical realities that allow us to ‘accurately’ describe a community of people, people may very well still resist that labeling. People are, in the end, individual people and to try to explain a single person-in all his or her complexity-with a single variable like race is bound to fail.

Climbing the Meritocracy

There’s something ironic about receiving Walter Kirn’s new book, Lost in the Meritocracy, as a graduation present. Obviously the well-wisher who bought it for me figured I would be interested in reading what people are saying about Princeton, but it certainly doesn’t make graduating seem like much of a cause for celebration. The book—written by a disgruntled (though, extremely successful) Princeton graduate—makes the case that any Ivy League “education” is anything but. Just as the Class of ’09 devoured The Rule of Four before arriving on campus, to learn how to get into Princeton’s Steam Tunnels and gain admission to one of its eating clubs, many of us are now reading Kirn’s book to figure out if the diplomas we just received are, in fact, worthless.

Lost in the Meritocracy is easy to dismiss. As the Daily Princetonian points out, Kirn’s experiences at Princeton are a tad bit unconventional. (They include, among other things, doing coke with Truman Capote, torching his roommates’ furniture, and an Honor Code violation). Despite being an outsider to much of Princeton myself, I found little in the book that actually resonated with me.


The one part of the book that really caught me was a line on the back cover: “In America, percentile is destiny.” Percentile has more-or-less been my obsession at least since I started thinking about college. High school saw me graduating at the top of a class of nineteen. Percentile: 95th. Getting into Princeton probably put me in the top 1%, at least as far as SATs and GPAs are concerned. Princeton, of course, is not the summit of the percentile mountain; instead, freshman year is more like a momentary plateau before the ascent becomes steeper. It’s not enough to just go to Princeton; you need to be in the top quintile, get honors, or otherwise distinguish yourself.

It occurred to me how truly hopeless the percentile climb is this year when I was applying for fellowships. When I interviewed for the Rhodes, I was blown away by how frankly unsuccessful the former scholars on the committee were. Sure, they weren’t living off of food stamps, but it was a bit surprising to see how many Rhodes Scholars there were working as assistant professors at state colleges or doing tax law. A few weeks later, when I actually won the Sachs, I was admonished that it wasn’t enough to be a Sachs Scholar—I had to be one of the “good” ones. (Apparently, as I was told, some of the previous winners have been “disappointments.”)

I suppose it all comes down to numbers. There are thirty-two Rhodes Scholars a year, which means that there are over a thousand living Rhodes alums. Kirn claims that winning a Rhodes is “reaching the top of the pyramid” in society, and yet, it’s implausible that each of those thousand scholars went on to great things. The sheer size of the top few percentiles feels overwhelming. It hits me every time I go to the library, and stare at the thousands of books that have been written on every single topic imaginable.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve realized that originality and distinction cannot be achieved by relentlessly climbing the percentile ladder. No matter what awards I won at Princeton or work to get at Oxford, there will always be someone else at every level of the hierarchy. When I won the Pyne, a good friend warned me against the feeling that “this is my pinnacle” and that I will never achieve at that level again. Personally, though, I’m content for that to be true, and to go into the future having conceded that, at least in the percentile game, I’m not going to reach the top.