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.

The Long, Charming Reach of Racism

Being an EstadoUnidense* in Latin America should not be easy.  Forget Pakistan; there is no region of the world with more legitimate and longstanding grievances against the U.S. than Latin America.  Ecuadorians, for example, could complain about the CIA’s supposed role in the death of President Jaime Roldós in 1981, or, more concretely, the enduring impact of U.S.-imposed structural adjustment and neoliberalism on their country.

Despite all this, though, there hasn’t been a single moment here where I feel uncomfortable saying I’m from the U.S.  Most people don’t seem to have any problem separating people from policy, and realizing that I, personally, was not involved in the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, am not an active part of Plan Colombia, and do not work for the IMF.  It helps, of course, that most people have family in the U.S., and designs on visiting or living there at least at some point during their lives.

Being from Arizona, though, is a different matter.  I haven’t actually lived in Arizona for two years now, and yet my first reflex is still to tell people that’s where I’m from.  As soon as I do, I can see people thinking, “Where have I heard that name before?” A second or two later, their faces tense up, and I quickly add, “Yeah, I’m from Arizona, but I don’t support that terrible immigration law.”

With SB 1070 partially going into effect tomorrow, there has been another wave of media coverage of the law in the last few days.  I have to say, I’m a bit astonished that, here in the Amazon, people are talking about what’s happening in a state that is—even by Red State standards—a backwater (we’re worse than Mississippi in education).  I’ve tried to explain a half-dozen times now why it is that Arizonans seem to dislike Latinos so much: “But we just want to work” is the refrain I get over and over again, or, last night, “What, are we so ugly?”

At first, I wondered what Arizona’s legislators would think if they knew how far this law reached and how deep condemnation of it runs.  If only they knew how strongly world opinion was against them. Then it occurs to me, though: the whole idea of conservativism—and the U.S.  exceptionalism they celebrate—is to be indifferent to the rest of the world.  Other countries think the death penalty is barbaric?  We’ll show them—we’ll execute people, and do it by firing squad at that!  We’re the only developed country without a public health care system?  Damnit, we’ll keep it that way, waste of money and lost lives be damned!  The fact that all of Latin America now thinks Arizonans are a bunch of racists is, by all accounts, a plus: good, maybe now they’ll stay home (and we can pick our own lettuce)!

In many of my conversations, I denounce Arizona’s law, explaining that I—unlike most of my fellow Arizonans—actually pay attentiont t the studies that show immigrants don’t really come to the U.S. to cause crime and steal jobs.  Unaware of the irony in what they saying, not a small number of Ecuadorians have responded to this by explaining to me that, “Well, here immigrants really do cause crime.” Many Ecuadorians, sadly, are also incredibly xenophobic: Cubans and Colombians are to Ecuadorians what Mexicans are to U.S.-ians and Poles are to the British.  It would seem that some of these things are universal and…

Jan Brewer, at least, would be proud.

…wait, what am I getting at?  Maybe the Republicans are right—sometimes it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.  Xenophobia and racism and scapegoating are intrinsically wrong, whether or not the world community gets its act together to consistently denounce it.  And so, I say, fuck you Jan Brewer—fieldwork was already complicated enough before you made it harder.

*There’s no perfect translation, but “American” doesn’t sound quite right as a nationality in Latin America.

Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

Last summer, it was a beard.  This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives.  It didn’t quite work out as expected.  I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems.  I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.

Mock me.

There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer.  For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times.  The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day).  More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa.  It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world.  The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.

This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth.  I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book.  In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying.  Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?

Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.  I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions.  I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish.  Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.

This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level.  I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here.  If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.

I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals.  Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people.  I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture.  It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.”  It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.

In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word.  In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.

* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again?  That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.

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

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

(N)ever Again

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

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

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