Fool Me Twice

I had only been going into New York to hang out with for a month when I featured in my first media story. A Dutch journalist was quite taken with the incongruity of a Princeton University student going through the garbage, and despite my protestations that there were way more knowledgeable people in the group for him to talk to, I wound up featuring in his article. In fact, I was the main character: the first sentence, according to a friend, approximately read, “Alex Barnard is wading through shit on the streets of New York City.”

Most reporters who visited trash tours, though, were way more interested in the others involved in the group—the people who had organized their entire lives around freeganism. I was always in awe of how good the spokespeople for were. Night after night, I saw them turn an aberrant activity like dumpster diving into a common-sense response to waste, and spinning our abhorrence of people in the garbage into a surprisingly relatable critique of capitalism. I’ve been involved in a couple of different social movements now and, when it came to manipulating the media, was good.

Then again, I never actually bothered to look at the stories that were getting published. After all, I figured, I had a front-row seat to freeganism. Whatever the media was showing had to just be a dimmer version of what I was seeing. It’s only been lately, in writing up my book, that I’ve gone back and looked at some of what was published in the halcyon days of 2007 to 2009.

It’s kind of hard to believe that the TV spots and newspaper articles are really about the same people that I spent two years with. There’s the ABC report with the “Psycho” sound effects when Cindy opens a trash bag; the Wall Street Journal Reporter who cuts off Janet’s discussion of waste to say “I’m interested in the eating for free angle”; the blathering quotes from public health officials about food safety and fawning praise on stores donating a trivial amount of food for charity. Sometimes I wonder: were they really there?

There’s something so seductive about the media, especially to anyone who’s used to seeing their views ignored by it. For what it’s worth, sans media attention to freeganism, food waste would never have become the “issue” it is today. And, because of this, there’s a certain persistent faith that if we just do a better job of “slipping in the message”, we’ll fool the corporate behemoths into turning the airwaves into a conduit of anti-capitalist propaganda.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. In a pique of arrogance, I’ve been doing media work again. I was allured by the promise of a long, investigative piece about food waste, of which dumpster diving was only to be a small part. I took the reporters on a dive and to a public re-distribution of food; I talked about over-production and commoditization; I argued that stores threw things out not because they were careless or negligent, but because wasting is profitable in a capitalist system. I told them that the issue wasn’t my lifestyles or my carbon footprint; that I didn’t expect the whole world to start dumpster diving; that I recognized my own privilege that allowed me to engage in the act.

The piece aired a few weeks ago and, as they come, it wasn’t bad. The reporters traveled to a town that mandated food donations; they interviewed distributors, managers, and activists; they played down the safety concerns around food waste. The part where I featured, though, was painful. I declared myself an “activist” against the “system”, but they cut out any explanation of what the system was or how what I was doing might change it. I spouted some platitudes about how great the food in the dumpster was, before launching into an (edited out) explanation of how it got there. As far as anyone watching this is concerned, I was the guy who eats garbage.

Todd Gitlin writes that Students for a Democratic Society activists in the 1960s were alienated from their own representations, media products which “stood outside their ostensible makers…confronting them as an alien force.” I know that guy on TV, but I’m definitely not that stupid.


Here’s an idea that doesn’t get nearly enough consideration in the development community: poor countries are poor because they’re hot.

Okay, I’m not going to try even a half-assed defense of that statement.  I’m pretty sure there’s no shortage of peer-reviewed articles that disprove the climate-development link, and that if I thought for four seconds about this I could come up with some examples of poor cold countries and rich hot ones.  The thing is, though, I am not in much of a mood to write anything intellectual, because it’s too damn hot.

My Dad and I came to Coca on Saturday night.  It’s been great to show him around, and realize how much more of a local I feel than when I first arrived: store owners greet us with “Where have you been?” and the boardwalk’s ice cream salesman offers me free popsicles.  I had aspirations of achieving a few more interviews, too, in my limited time here, but one walk along mainstreet convinces me that such efforts are futile.  In the current heatwave, people are just sort of collapsed on the sidewalk, nursing a beer or huddled around a desultory fan.  When we enter a restaurant, the waiters peer up from the tables onto which they have nearly dissolved, as if to say, “Are you kidding?” No, no interviews today.

In Uganda, about one year ago, a farmer tried to convince me that the real problem in his country, as he put it, was that “It’s too hard to starve here.”  In the tropics, you can just throw some seeds in the ground and, well, something is bound to grow, right?  (Friends studying agricultural development, please see two paragraphs previous before you correct me.)  And maybe there’s something to that; that I now have enough interviews to get by, to squeeze out a 30,000 word thesis, and maybe it isn’t worth flogging myself too much in my last week. I’d rather just find a place in the shade and watch the people as they… well, do nothing, actually.

Maybe Europeans really do control the world because we were cold and hungry, and felt some intense need to share our misery with the rest of the world.  And all they wanted to do was sit around and drink cold chica on a hot day.

Radio Silence

To my shock, there is a vegetarian restaurant here in Coca.  This is very, very good news, as I have reached the point where the prospect of another plate of rice and beans is borderline soul-crushing. And to think, it was all of three blocks away from my hotel this entire time!

It is fitting that I would discover this restaurant yesterday, because today, I am leaving.

I´ve spent the last few days frustratedly trying to find something “exciting” to do this weekend.  I figure that if I´m spending six weeks in the Amazon, I need to come back with a picture of me half eaten by a python or dodging spears.  Yesterday, opportunity struck, in the form of a Huaorani friend who offered to take me into their territory for a few days.  He seems like a nice enough guy, although the lengthy discussion of how, in traditional Huaorani custom, if you do something wrong they will kill you was a bit disconcerting.  Still, I had a George Bush and Vladimir Putin I-looked-into-his-eyes-and-saw-a-good-man moment, and am going to let my trust in humanity get the better of me.

From a research point of view, I am really excited about this opportunity, which I think will be the cherry on top of my thesis.  Everyone seems have to have a strong opinion about the Huaorani: about half say that they still live like savages, and the other half says that they are all rich off of oil company largesse.  I don´t get the impression that many of these people have ever talked to a Huaorani, though, and while my own lack of Huaorani-speaking-skills and limited time means that I won´t be able to accomplish too much, I do think I might be able to add something important to the discussion.

This could be a total scam, of course, and I could spend all day waiting at my hotel for a guide that never comes.  But in the event that he does, this blog will be silent for the next few days.  If I don´t come back by Tuesday, you can look for a body near Shiripuno and Bameno.  A soldier got eaten by a python the other day.  That is all.

A bit AWOL

Aside from the fact that it was a cataclysmically bad movie, one of the only things I can remember about the Matrix II was an extremely dumb line, in which someone said “You never really know someone until you’ve fought them” (or something).  I tend to take a similar attitude towards cities: “You never really know a city until you’ve gotten senselessly and unnecessarily lost in it.”

It’s become something of a long and proud tradition: cities in which I’ve managed to completely lose my bearings and spend some time thinking I’m going to die in a gutter include Davis California, Nan Thailand, Barcelona Spain, and Kampala Uganda (for starters).  You would think that, after all these previous experiences, I would acknowledge that—my training as a Boy Scout aside—I actually have pretty terrible direction sense, and should probably keep a map on me.  But never mind; yesterday, after the Uruguay-Ghana game, I left my school without a map, without a cell-phone, and without the address of the house where I am staying.

I spent the next two hours wandering aimlessly, both on foot and public transit.  I eventually had to re-find the school—itself no easy feat—and swallow my masculinity and get a map.  I made it home alright, but given how rampant crime here is supposed to be—especially against clueless gringos—it’s hard not to think that I got lucky.  Still, it was a good way to get to know a bit of Quito.  Today – having not quite learned my lesson – I embarked on a run, only to find a MASSIVE city park at the top of the mountain.  I think I could stay here a while.

Blast from the Past

Back for one weekend only, by popular demand:

If this was immature when I was 19, what is it now?

Feeling a tad aged on my birthday, and consumed with fear of becoming a bit too predictable (or maybe it was just how temptingly long I had let my hair grow out?), I decided to re-shave a mohawk last weekend.  It was a lovely 48 hours of hair-spray fueled ‘rebellion': I awed a lot of MBA students with my ‘alternativeness’ at our house party, made Graduate group-photo history (forever to be immortalized on the walls of the Middle Common Room), and, as the picture above reflects, scared my housemate to no end.  And I was quickly reminded of how nice it can be to be the center of attention, and how confident I feel when I know everyone has already written me off as a lunatic.

But, alas, as I knew last year when I put Princeton’s ‘mohawk guy’ to rest, it’s a phase of my life whose time has come and gone.  I’ve committed myself that any accolades and recognition I earn from this point forward will belong to me alone, and not be shared with my hair.  Monday, mohawk guy version 2.0 met a grisly end at the hands of a set of 5.99 Boots’ clippers.

It did seem somewhat fitting, though, to finally bring my dear mohawk full circle, from self-conscious rejection of the status quo to, well, self-referential joke.

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Jukebox: A.F.I. – I Wanna Get A Mohawk, But My Mom Won’t Let Me

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