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?