Bleach

The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce.  Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby the fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the state like a great sorrow.

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all.  Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.  The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be.  How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?  And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit…

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…

And in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath…”

- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Everywhere you go, it’s the same story. Homeless recyclers in San Francisco who eke out a living by redeeming aluminum cans claim they’re being stopped and cited for rooting through the garbage. Food Not Bombs claims that more and more stores that once furnished the ingredients for free, collaboratively prepared, vegan meals are installing trash compactors. An itinerant Hungarian diver I spoke to recently told me, “No matter where you go, it’s getting harder.” Capitalism is reclaiming its waste.

On the surface, it seems absurd that anyone would bother to guard their garbage. But, in various guises, it’s happening. I’ve seen it particularly acutely in New York. First, employees at the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street started harassing divers outside the store and threatening trespassing tickets. The hot food bar on the Lower East Side no longer let the freegans come in and take what they were about to pitch. And then the D’Agostino’s on 38th and 35th started rushing their garbage out to the curb just a few seconds before the sanitation truck arrived.

Still, I always thought the tales about stores pouring bleach on their food were apocryphal. That was, until this Saturday. I opened up a dumpster legendary for an unfathomable smorgasbord of pre-packaged foods only to discover that every yogurt, every pack of meat, every loaf of bread, every plastic container of fair-trade vegan organic quinoa salad, had been methodically and meticulously slashed open. And, in the deep wounds that marred every item of the otherwise unblemished food, there was the unmistakable smell of bleach.

I should say at this point that I’m ambivalent about whether I should be a dumpster-diver. Although my current income is low (hovering around $0/month), I still have the sense that—as someone with means—I should be “voting with my dollar” for some positive alternatives. Food doesn’t grow in dumpsters, and for local, vegan, organic food to become affordable and available, people like me need to support it. The fact that I sometimes listen to my iPod on the walks home from my dives makes me inconsistent; the fact that I occasionally buy food from the same stores I’m diving just makes me a hypocrite.

When I’m diving, though, I meet people who really seem to need the food. For some, dumpster diving gives them a sense of autonomy and self-reliance they could never get from food stamps. Others, I’m fairly sure, would just go hungry were it not for the stores’ surplus. On Saturday, I gazed at the yogurt graveyard alongside an elderly couple: they were, not incidentally, the ones willing to brave the health risks and eat the bleached food.

My last post was a long tirade against supermarkets, so why not pile on a little more criticism. Stores usually claim that the reason they don’t donate food is that it’s too time consuming and expensive (they’d probably proffer the same excuse for why what they do donate is sometimes inedible crap). But individually slashing hundreds of yogurts takes longer than putting them in a box for the food bank. Stores aren’t trying to save time or money; they’re trying to ensure that food remains a commodity that we can only have access to if we buy it.

Pouring bleach on the garbage is another striking admission of guilt. I’ve been told to my face by supermarket managers that they donate “everything that’s still safe for people to eat” to charity. The corollary is that anything in their dumpsters must be spoiled, rotten, and dangerous. But if this were true, there’d be no need to pour bleach on it: why add poison to poison? The reason dumpsters have to be locked is not to protect us: it’s to protect the proverbial bottom line, by convincing us to buy what we could once get for free.

As for the rest, well, if not cake, let them eat bleach.

Bears Don’t Eat Onions

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.

I think I felt the stupidest when I gave out the gluten-free Wonton Wraps. Admittedly, there are a lot of times at my job where I’ve wondered, “Is anyone going to eat this?” I certainly want to believe that someone is going to be happily surprised by the wave of pomegranates we’ve been packing, and as a vegan, I can’t help but be excited when we put seitan in our boxes. Nonetheless, with studies showing that around 50% of Emergency Food Boxes wind up in the trash—owing to a mismatch between what clients want and what they get, and our reluctance to trust poor people to choose for themselves—it’s hard to be optimistic.

By contrast, the bears get a be a bit pickier. Our food bank donates its organic waste—the stuff that doesn’t make it into the boxes—to BearArizona, a for-profit Bearamusement Park. Bears aren’t particularly choosy, but the staff of BearArizona made it clear to me early on during my work that bears really did not like onions. And so no onions are put onto the BearArizona pallet. Recently, though, they—the employees, not the bears—have complained about the low quality of the food we’re giving them: apparently some of it is too rotten even for the animals.

It’s not really our fault, though. Every day, our truck comes back with the latest surplus from Flagstaff’s supermarkets. I am, of course, glad that so many of them donate, but the carelessness with which the donations are made can be frustrating. Often, we find boxes full of apple cores, rinds, and peels or long-expired, rotten milk. Both myself and the other employee who works in the refrigerator are neurotic anti-wasters, but even we can’t conceive of how much of it could ever be eaten. We weigh donations before they are sorted, however, so stores get a tax deduction even for “food” there’s no way anyone is going to eat. We almost certainly gave New Frontiers a write-off for those WonTon Wraps, for instance, even thought I’d bet my left arm they are currently spewing methane in a landfill.

And so, to summarize, for-profit corporations donate some food and some garbage to a non-profit, but they count all of it as donated food, getting a tax-write off. The government claims it doesn’t get enough money from taxes, so it is cutting food stamps, which drives people to come to said non-profit food bank. The non-profit takes charitable donations in cash from good-hearted people and then pays its employees to sort out the supermarket’s garbage, which is then given to a for-profit wildlife park, which pays nothing for the service.

There are many perversities in the emergency food system, but I’ll elaborate on just one. There is a fundamental disconnect between what gets donated and what people actually need and want. Some of the stores producing and donating the most surplus are the highest-end ones. I don’t think this is coincidence: it’s a consequence of the bewildering array of options they offer, catering to every conceivable dietary niche (that includes veganism) with a range of specialty products that are so high-margin they can afford to discard a portion of them so as never to miss a potential sale. But the people who come to the food bank by-and-large aren’t gluten free and don’t want soy mayonnaise. They are feeding big families with limited resources, and want familiar—which means, affordable—food that they know how to use.

I’ve been writing on the long-delayed “freegan book” again, and sifting through some of the recent reports and policy proposals to deal with food waste that have emerged. Almost all of them see increasing donations to groups like the food bank as a crucial part of solving the problem. But when we fill emergency food boxes with dragon fruit and tempeh burgers, are we actually reducing waste by doing this or just pushing it further downstream? And when someone throws out those Wonton Wraps, should we blame the poor for their profligacy, or the company which produced something no one wanted in the first place?

Arrested

Yesterday, I was beaten, arrested, and jailed for participating in an act of civil disobedience against the privatization of education and criminalization of dissent in California.

I’ve spent the last day trying to process what happened, and writing this is an attempt to get it out of my mind and on to paper (having spent last night on a cement floor, I could use some mental solace).  There’s nothing exceptional about my experience, and yet, even knowing that, I write this grappling with a feeling of voicelessness and powerlessness that I have never before experienced.  I know that, once you start talking about “police brutality” and “police states”, you enter into a group of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that most Americans dismiss out of hand.  I can’t control that portrayal, but for whatever reason, I need to talk about what happened, even if I can’t figure out why it has affected me so much.

We set up “Occupy Cal” in an attempt to open up our university to groups that had been excluded from it, to create a safe space to debate and discuss the future of public education, and to exercise our first amendment right to free assembly. We all knew that what we were doing was in violation of university policy—which views encampments as, somehow, on par with graffiti and building occupations insofar as they disrupt classes and harm university property—and that in doing so we risked arrest.  But, having passed a resolution explicitly declaring our encampment peaceful and non-violent, we expected those arrests to follow the rules of engagement that have defined civil disobedience since the Civil Rights era.  Cal has had occupations before – protesting against apartheid, for example – and while the university didn’t like them, it ultimately tolerated them as a means of democratic dissent.

We were wrong to think the same would happen for us.  Our encampment was torn down at 4:00 p.m., but we set up again.  At 9:30 p.m., the police issued an order to disperse.  We stayed, linking arms and chanting “Peaceful protest!”  The police advanced up to the crowd and started stabbing and beating people with batons.  Most of them were riot cops from other jurisdictions; a professor who has been here thirty years assures me that this level of militarization of police (there were officers with shotguns and rubber-bullet guns) is unprecedented.  Although the labels “violent” and “non-violent” get bandied around to the extent that they have virtually lost any meaning in public discourse, I have never seen protesters remain so defiantly peaceful in the face of such brutality.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether privatizing Cal is a good thing; no one should disagree that what this video shows is unconscionable.  I trust you to make your own decisions about who here was “violent” and who was not.

I was in front, near the side of the encampment.  A female officer walked up to me and started stabbing me in the ribs with her baton as I screamed at her that I was peaceful and not resisting her in any way.  She ordered me to back up.  This was impossible since there were lines of people behind me, and, perceiving me as refusing to comply with her orders, she continued stabbing me.  I buckled over, letting go of the people around me, because at this point I realized that only by being arrested would the beating stop.  I threw my hands up into peace signs and shouted that I wanted to be arrested non-violently.  I was not afforded that option.  I was dragged through the officers despite my attempts to comply with the officers out of my own volition.  I put my hands behind my back, but they threw me to the ground anyway.  I turned to ask what the charges were and an officer punched me back to the ground.  (If you think I’m pulling this out of my ass, watch this video at 1:40)

They cuffed me and dragged me into Sproul Hall, where they were holding around thirty of us.  An officer came and asked me my name, and I told it to her.  She then started firing off questions, and I politely told her that before I did that, I wanted to know my rights at this point in the process and when I would be able to speak to a lawyer.  She responded, “You have no rights”, to which I responded “That’s impossible.”  In one of many disturbing moments of the night, she informed me that I was wrong – and wrote me down as a non-cooperative arrestee.   That simple request will earn me extra harsh treatment in the student disciplinary process, she assured me.  Throughout the night, we were referred to as “bodies” not “people.”  I was never Mirandized.

In a sense, at this point, the worst was over.  The thirty of us supported one another, comforted one another, and inspired one another.  We were driven to a county jail in Oakland, where they booked us—threatening that because our crimes were “violent” we could not be released until an Arraignment on Monday.  In a holding cell that reeked of urine, we swapped stories, sang songs ranging from Buffalo Springfield to the Backstreet Boys, and shared a sense of camaraderie that could never be imagined in another setting.  If we were afraid, we weren’t showing it: indeed, I would love to have had the defiant moral clarity of some of my eighteen-year-old comrades.

In the end, the entire process was a sham.  I called my parents collect at 3 a.m. ($4.85 a minute—just to screw the poor a little bit more) telling them they needed to put together $20,000 in bail.  And then, right afterward, a kind officer told me that they were sure that our charges of “resisting arrest” and “participating in a riot” had no chance in court, and so they were going to cite and release us.  They took their sweet time in getting us out, but when we were again free, some of our union brothers and sisters were waiting for us with food, hugs, and their own first arrest stories.  It’s strange to have experienced such wild oscillation between human decency and human cruelty, to interact both with officers who were thoughtful and considerate and those who were mindlessly violent.

On the grand spectrum of police encounters, I’ve gotten off easy.  My injuries are confined to a cracked rib and bruised psyche.  I am an enormously privileged person in that I can get arrested and know that it will not ruin my life or manifestly affect my academic career.  I have received solidarity and comfort from friends all over the country and professors in the department I barely know.  I have not for one moment doubted that my actions were in the right, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of; this is a source of strength that holds me together.  And yet I have spent all day on the verge of crying.

I feel profoundly disempowered by what happened yesterday, in a way that has only become apparent once I left the solidarity of my fellow arrestees.  I feel violated because I no longer am safe in my own body, knowing that I can be stabbed and manhandled and the individuals responsible will face no consequences.  I feel humiliated because some of the people I have talked to seem to think that what happened last night demands no response, which suggests the worthlessness of my suffering and my cause.  I feel small because I see myself arrayed against the implacable forces of an administration bent on spinning my actions into the framework of violent, radicals seeking to disrupt life for good, law-abiding students.  I feel stupid because many of the illusions I grew up with about the rules of engagement in our political system are crumbling before me, leaving me no avenue through which to channel my anger about what has happened to me.

- – - – -

I’d rather end on a practical note.  I hope anyone reading this will consider writing Chancellor Birgeneau, who ordered the attacks, to tell him that you—as a citizen of Berkeley / California / Earth—do not approve.  We always chant “The whole world is watching” when police start attacking us.  It’d be nice to know that it’s true.

On the Need for a Huaorani A.L.F.

I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them.  Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya?  And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?

For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own.  There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living.  When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens.  For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.

This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory.  One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach.  Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks.  When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling.  I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent.  We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right?  (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)

The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it.  When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him.  A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face.  I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit.  Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore.  Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge.  Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.

For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani.  Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs.  Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away.  I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults.  For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving.  Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around.  Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long.  For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.

And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty.  For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs.  This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly.  In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent.  Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.

Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.”  There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.

But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Blood on All Hands

Q: How do I know Yasuní National Park is the most biodiverse place in the planet?
A: Because on Saturday mornings, that diversity is on sale in Pompeya.

I´m not quite sure what I was expecting to discover this Saturday, but I certainly didn´t plan on finding anything as disturbing as I did.  One of my interviewees told me that if I really wanted to know what was happening in Yasuní, I needed to go to the market town of Pompeya, just early enough to catch the first boats coming in from the Rio Napo.  I asked around and found a few biologists who travel there every weekend, and at 5:00 a.m., off I went.

The route itself was an interesting one.  In 2005, petroleum companies built the Ecuadorian equivalent of a superhighway straight into the heart of Yasuní National Park.  We had to show our papers to use it: access is 100% controlled by the private companies, and the rumor is that even park guards need to ask permission in advance.  As part of their strategy for winning over the local population, the companies also provide subsidized transportation to surrounding indigenous communities. 

The result is that, for the first time in their history, the Huaorani are able to take their traditional subsistence hunting and commercialize it, with disastrous results.  The “market” is an informal affair; there are no stalls or tiendas, just a handful of trucks waiting around for boats to come in.  At around 7:00 a.m., the hunters start to arrive.  Occassionally they bring the entire animal, hooves jutting out of blood-drenched burlap bags or a tail hanging limply from plastic wrap.  Other times, it´s just a leg or a torso.  The Huaorani look out of place: uncomfortable wearing clothes, much less haggling over prices.  It´s clear they don´t know how to play the game; one woman selling an armadillo asks for $50 – an absurdly high price – and then gets 50 cents – a complete rip off.   It doesn´t seem like a huge quantity of meat – I see probably 20 to 30 animals change hands – but the biologists assure me that, thanks to overexploitation, there are now entire tracts of the park without picari or guanta.

There is, of course, a certain amount of guilt I feel as a Westerner watching this unfold.  The entire market is propelled by idiot tourists who want to eat “jungle meat.”  Even as a vegetarian, though, I don´t feel much better: you, me, and everyone we know are implicated in the whole affair to, insofar as we live off of petroleum.  It´s oil that destroyed these peoples´ traditional livelihood, oil that drove them to put their forest on the auction block, oil that introduced them to new “needs” and “necessities” that makes money an unavoidable part of their lives.

For all this blame that falls on Western shoulders, though, it´s hard for me not to get mad at the hunters themselves.  I suppose there´s nothing particularly cruel about hunting a tapir using a spear or a blowgun, as hard as it is for me to stomach.  The live animals, though, are another matter.  When I saw the first bag twitching, my heart sank: the market is not just a place for the trafficking of meat, but also for live animals, to be pets or zoological spectacles or, occassionally, to be slaughtered later.  The animals don´t understand what´s going on, but you can see it in their eyes – from monkeys to tortoises – that they know that this is not where they belong.

And to what end, all of this?  The real driving impetus behind all of this comes not in bloody burlap bags, but in twelve packs.  The money paid out for the meet stays in indigenous hands for only a few minutes, before it is turned over to beer wholesalers.  Beer is being moved in unfathomable quantities: every boat coming in from downriver unloads crates and crates of empty bottles, and leaves with them filled.  We estimate that 12,000 bottles are purchased in one morning – that´s $12,000, every week, for communities without schools, without health centers, without jobs.

Don´t get me wrong: I support the right of poor people to drink beer, and feel like I have no right to frown on people engaging in activities of which I myself partake just because they were born poorer than I.  But the whole situation was so massively fucked up that I can´t even figure out who it is, exactly, that I want to be mad at, who I want to throttle.  The saddest for me was a Huaorani boy with a baby Armadillo.  He and his friends clearly delighted in tormenting it, whipping it around by the tail, stomping on it, throwing it against the wall.  Eventually the parents walk over, but not to interrupt – just to join in. 

I am reminded that people who are recipients of a lifelong ass-kicking rarely respond by turning against their oppressors.  We hope that the downtrodden will band together and fight against the neoliberals, against the petroleros, against the central government.  But they don´t.  Instead, they look for someone or something weaker to kick.  After a while, the Armadillo stops struggling.  It gives up, resigned to whatever it has coming.  What can you do, after all, in the face of wanton and uninvited cruelty?  I think both of us are wondering the same thing.

The Revolution Will Involve Mostly Retired People

Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day.  So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).

It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism.  Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side.  In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power.  After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right?  Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).

The protest, though, was a disaster.  The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers.  While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by.  We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left.  Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.

I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change.  At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting.  But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are.  Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered.  Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards.  18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.

The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain.  Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite.  The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform.  My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”

They are, of course, half-right.  The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia.  Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution.  I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse.  Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away?  Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent?  And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.

Who knows if I’m right?  Maybe protesting really is a waste of time.  I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.

- – - – -

Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There

Ordinary Men

I forced myself to sit through the recently released–contrary to the wishes of the Pentagon–video of a U.S. helicopter gunning down a handful of Iraqi civilians in 2007.  It’s pretty gruesome and disturbing (“Ha ha I hit him,” “Look at those dead bastards,” “Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids to a battle [in reference to two kids riding in a car attempting to remove the wounded who were shot]“), but probably should be required viewing for, well, everyone - though, in particular, American voters.

As usual, my initial response was some unfocused outrage, aimlessly diffused through angry and thoughtless postings on facebook and twitter.  Even more typically, though, a few more hours of reflection blurs the categories of good and evil and leaves me simply puzzled about what it is that allows two soldiers to calmly gun down twelve un-threatening civilians and then laugh about it before, during, and after.

I always feel guilty about bringing my academic training in to try to make sense of tragedy–it sometimes feel like theory can do nothing more than cheapen reality–but since that is how I make sense of this often inexplicable world, I’ll do it anyway.  And while it is perilous to compare anything to the Nazis, there is a long-running debate in sociology about the way ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust that I can’t help but think is interesting in this context.

One side of the debate is articulated by Daniel Goldhagen, who in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners argues that the vast majority of Germans were enthusiastic and proactive killers of Jews because of deeply internalized anti-Semitism embedded in German culture.  The other perspective comes from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which instead emphasizes the importance of context; the way otherwise normal people can be tipped into violence by certain situations and certain pressures.  While Browning has no illusions about the right and wrong of what Germans did, his book does talk about the “grey zone” in which decisions like these take place, a “murky world of mixed motives, conflicting emotions and priorities, reluctant choices, and self-serving opportunism and accommodation wedded to self-deception and denial, a world that is all too human and all too universal.”

Browning often gets criticized for being an apologist – for, in a sense, being weak on Nazi foot soldiers by placing some blame on environment and contingency.  I felt the appeal of this kind of criticism today: I wanted to blame those killings of Iraqi civilians on jingoism and militarism, on stupid testosterone-crazed twenty-two year olds fed a diet of video-games and Republican vitriol who went to the Middle East to shoot A-rabs.  But then I realize how, just as killers de-humanize victims, we ourselves de-humanize the killers, when we build up walls of difference between us and them that give us the comfort of knowing “Well, I’m not like them – and so I would never do that.”

I think back to the eight year old who spent his afternoons re-enacting the civil war in the backyard, or the ten year old who watched World War II clips on the History Channel for hours on end, or the fourteen year old who spent hours shooting virtual terrorists on a computer screen and I realize that, with just a few random twists and different choices, I could be sitting in a cock-pit.  And, in that context, would I pull the trigger?  The very fact that I am human is, at moments, positively terrifying, because those twenty-somethings in the cockpit really are just like me.

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Jukebox: Propagandhi – Ordinary People Do Fucked Up Things When Fucked Up Things Become Ordinary

Un-civilized, Un-democratic, Un-relativist

Have you heard the news?  Uganda is no longer a civilized nation!

At least, that’s the take of the Washington Post, which (rightly) denounced a bill in front of Uganda’s parliament that would give a life sentence to “serial” homosexuals, imprison people who “aid and abet” homosexuality, and require citizens to report homosexual activity to the police as putting the country “beyond the pale of civilized nations.”

There are many easy points to make about this bill, all of which I considered including in an earlier, much longer, rant-tastic version of this post.  I could, for example, poke fun at the Ugandan pastor playing gay porn to his congregation, or join The Post in attacking Uganda’s backward and un-enlightened ways.  I might also point out the degree of hypocrisy in our collective outrage, given both the treatment of gays in our country and that the U.S. gives $23 billion in foreign aid and trade concessions to 24 countries that ban homosexuality each year (according to some quick research on the US Statistics Bureau website).  The easiest way to score lefty outrage points is to blame this bill on a group of American evangelicals, who last year delivered seminars on the threat of homosexuality to Uganda.  (Now, these same individuals are feigning surprise that some Ugandans actually took them seriously and followed their bigotry to its logical conclusion.)

While blaming this situation on American right-wing nut-jobs is convenient, though, it’s probably dishonest.  A poll taken in 2007 suggested that 95% of Ugandans support criminalization and see homosexuality as a serious threat to their society—a statistic with jibes with my own experience talking to Ugandans while I was there.  Sadly, history suggests people are fully able to come to homophobia and discrimination on their own.  I think we Westerners are giving ourselves too much credit by claiming that the entire situation is caused by a few outsiders giving seminars, and not from deep-seated human tendencies to exclusion and scapegoating that plague literally any society.

All of this has me thinking about the role of democracy and participation in development.  Self-determination and relativism are widely celebrated in the development community as the remedy to the cultural imperialism of past interventions by the West in Africa.  Ugandan leaders have tapped into this same discourse of democracy as they have defended themselves against Western pressure to shelve the anti-homosexuality bill.  Uganda is far from a democratic nation, but there are still plenty of reasons to think that this bill is, in some perverted sense, the will of the people.

I guess, for me, this is an unpleasant reminder that, as much as I like the idea of letting people set their own priorities, sometimes people set priorities for themselves that are really stupid.  As problematic as it is for me to say this, I simply can’t bring myself to be relativistic on an issue like this, all my training aside.  I am unabashed in condemning homophobia in my own country and even in some others (like the U.K.), so why should I be scared to do so in Uganda?  If I do so, am I just another imperialist imposing my Western version of morality?  And if I lack the moral clarity to pass judgment on something as basic as this, should I really be in the business of trying to ‘develop’ places anyway?

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Jukebox: Tiger Army – Sea of Fire

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

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