Tag Archive | politics

Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the language of NGOs

I just finished reading “Decolonizing the Mind,” a short book from perhaps Kenya’s greatest living writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi is an interesting figure. Born into a peasant Kikuyu family in the fabricated colonial village of Kamiriithu in Central Province, he managed to take advantage of new educational opportunities during the colonial period and attended Makere University in Uganda and eventually Leeds in the UK. He returned to Kenya and eventually became Chairman of University of Nairobi’s Literature Department.

Though highly critical of colonialism, having been in the heart of the worst of Kenya’s experience with it, he was even more critical of Kenya’s post-colonial trajectory. He started a political theater in his hometown and was eventually jailed under the dictator Daniel Arap Moi.

In “Decolonizing the Mind,” Thiongo seeks to dissociate Kenya’s literature from that of the colonialists. He seeks to create a new African literature, by and for Africans. He would eventually abandon writing in English, choosing instead to write works in his native Gikuyu. Despite Thiongo’s call for an African literature, his European pedigree can’t be denied. He is Brechtian in both rhetoric and action. Hs politics are wholly Marxist and it can even be noted that his medium itself (the novel) is decidedly un-African. Moreover, despite his clear hostility to Europe and the United States, it is interesting the he would be jailed by his own countrymen and then would receive asylum and employment from the US.

I found his ideas of language, however, quite interesting. The colonialists, like the Americans, worked to debase indigenous cultural practices to further an imperialist agenda. Locals were weakened through the apparent dominance of English as a language for communication and business, and the language itself was presented in such a way that social hierarchies were reinforced.

This phenomenon continues to this day. Children are taught from an early age, to greet white people on the street with a scripted “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” The formal distance between the stilted Kenyan English spoken in Palirament and the guttural Sheng spoken on the streets of Nairobi is hardly an accident. English the language of oppression, control and government exploitation, and Sheng the language of resistance.

Given my recent experiences at Governmental and NGO meetings, however, what strikes me is how language continues to be used as a tool of control, but hat this vocabulary has been internalized by Kenyans themselves. I grit my teeth now when I head the term “capacity building,” which basically implies that people lack the capacity to help themselves without the good graces of NGOs and governmental organizations. It implies that people are helpless without the assistance of formal authoritarian structures. This is, of course, untrue (though one has to allow for the possibility that people often do things that run counter to their long term self-interest).

People may argue that the term is innocuous, but in my experience “capacity building” is often used in place of “training.” To me, words matter, and where “capacity building” carries with it the implications that there is an inherent defect to be rectified, training implies that the capability exists, but the knowledge not yet there. To put this in perspective, I don’t think that anyone would call any of my academic degrees to have been an exercise in “capacity building.” I can’t help but think that white people are trained, while black people are “capacity built.”

Worse yet is “gender empowerment,” which implies that women weren’t sufficiently capable of managing their own affairs prior to the arrival of some dubious microloan project. Again, in my experience, women all of the world are sufficiently empowered. It’s the men who need to be de-powered. The term is condescending and fails to appropriately recognize the inherent capabilities of individuals while at the same time avoids challenging the paternalistic structures which created economic disparities reprehensible practices like FGM, the buying and selling of women and the inability for women to hold men accountable for violence. In essence, the term blames the victim.

Both “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” reinforce the weakness of the individual and offer that the poor of Africa’s only hope lie in international organizations and their own authoritarian though wholly inept governments. It’s worth noting that the strategy is very similar to that of Christianity, which requires followers to believe themselves powerless and to blame for whatever awful fate has befallen them.

Sadly, both of these terms have worked themselves so deeply into the consciousness of people in SSA, that questioning their validity is futile, which is exactly the nightmare that Thiong’o writes of in “Decolonizing the Mind”. Pointing out that “training” is a more appropriate term than “capacity building” to locals will be met with black stares.

Does malaria facilitate the development of exploitative agricultural estates? Interview with Dr. Luis Chavez

905237_334159403372948_183902807_oMy friend Luis just published a paper in PlosOne on land consolidation or the formation of “latifundia” in Spain. Latifundia were large agricultural estates owned by the Romans, often dependent on slave labor, the growth of which has been implicated in Rome’s fall.

Luis creates a mathematical model to describe the formation of these large estates. He then tests the hypothesis that malaria transmission exacerbated the situation, by forcing land owners to sell cheaply to opportunistic land owners in less malarious areas.

Luis, an ecologist who works on issues of disease transmission (and all around great guy), is somewhat unique in the world of quantitative sciences. He took a few minutes to talk to me so that you can see why.

Who are you and what’s your background?

If you ask the japanese they might say: O gata no hen na gaijinsan. As to my academic background, I studied biology/parasitology as an undergraduate, then mathematical ecology for a M.Sc. and then was granted a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology (note: at the University of Michigan).

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in the humanities, especially history since it gives the best vantage point to understand the present. I grew up in a household where mixing things/topics was usual. Both my father and grandfather went to grad school, something unusual in Latin America, and since i was child lunch time talk was heavy on the side of human rights and solidarity, science and the need for change. When Nelson Mandela died i remembered that a lovely family activity during my childhood was going to a cultural/educational event in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the South African people to end the apartheid.

For lay people, what’s the paper about and what motivated you to explore it?

The paper presents a mathematical model that can explain the formation of latifundia (large estates) when the profitability of land varies across landowners in a landscape. The model is also used to show that when such differences are not present latifundia still can emerge if there are differences in the risk of acquiring an infectious diseases. I built the model based on historical records to show that both patterns have been observed in societies as different as “latin” Europe (Italy and Spain) and China.

What’s a “latifundium” in Spain? I dug around a bit and could find some things about Rome and Latin America, but not so much about Spain. Why choose Spain?

A latifundium is a large estate, which requires the labor of people that do not own the land. I chose Spain because a essay by Chantal Beauchamp presented a couple of striking maps showing that places where malaria was common were those where Latifundia were common during the 1930s (Fig. 2): http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ahess_0395-2649_1988_num_43_1_283483

The pattern of association between malaria and latifundia was not new, but only Beauchamp had data amenable for a quantitative analysis.

Are you trying to say that malaria helped enable capitalist land appropriation?

It might be the case. The hypothesis that malaria helped to enable land appropriation was put forward by the great italian malariologist, Angelo Celli. He has a book on the topic [reference 8 in the paper, available at the UMICH SPH library]. Celli was probably the most advanced malaria epidemiologist at the turn of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, he and other italians [most notably Grassi] were blackbolded in the Anglo-Saxon world because they threatened the ego of Ronald Ross by saying malaria was not just due to a parasite transmitted by the bite of a mosquito [a biological fact that, nevertheless, they independently showed and published in Italian]. If you are interested just check the oldest records for malaria in the Nature archives.

Though issues of land tenure are very different in the US (given that we killed all the natives and stole it all), we did have some big and awful land plantations in the South along with a serious malaria problem. Might we also try to apply this to the United States, and, if so, how?

I think it might have helped to the consolidation of large estates in the south. Interestingly in the Midwest you never had the latifundia observed in the south, but you had malaria in Michigan (the midwest) at some point (See Humphreys M. 2001. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University Press.).

Nevertheless, in the south due, for example, to Jim Crow laws there might have been a differential risk of malaria infection not observed in the Midwest. However, i found no data to go beyond speculation, well other that in the Canal Zone the Jim Crow housing organization showed the differential malaria risk: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/529265

I find these quantitative approaches to historical problems fascinating (I also started work on a paper on malaria in post-conflict Angola, maybe I should publish it). Do you think applying these methods to history as informative to present day problems? If so, how?

I think so, history probably gives the best vantage point to understand the present (Rendering history a tinker damn’s is a good strategy to sell things no matter if they are useful or even safe, Henry Ford was clear about this). In theory failures can be highly educational, something the model suggests is that equity in land tenure is an unstable equilibrium that could only be maintained by an external policy as the Chinese did before the An Lushan rebellion, and that any kind of unfair land redistribution could only be expected to not work (latifundia will be eventually formed), as observed over and over in most Latin American nations.

The mix of methods is rather novel. However, in the discipline focused and partitioned environment of academia, do you find that its hard to get an audience for this kind of work? Is there a future in it?

I can tell you this stuff is only suitable for publication on the Arxiv.org or PLoS One/ Springer Plus, if you want it to be peer reviewed and you don’t sign your paper with an address in Princeton or Oxford. I think the audience does not belong in any department, though scholars working on the diverse fields of ecology, health, sociology, maths, economics and even history might find it interesting. I think there is some future, there is the emerging field of cliodynamics that looks at historical dynamics and there is even a journal for cliodynamics where they, every once on a while, publish good food for thought like this paper: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1ks0g7dr#page-1

I thought my data was not dynamical enough, so I didn’t try there.

This work is heavily political. Do you think there is a place for politics in science?

I think everything gets embedded in politics. Otherwise there would have been no shutdown in the CDC and other US government agencies few months ago, etc. I don’t think my work is more or less political than a risk factor analysis for lung cancer and smoking. I think i might be blackbolded by some of the references I cited, but to understand Capitalism even the Catholic Church is studying Marx [Funny the leading scholar is the Munich Bishop, whose last name is Marx]:

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/06/01/cardinal-marx-urges-europe-to-move-beyond-capitalism/

Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria

rwandan-genocideIn 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.

America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.

The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.

Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.

While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.

Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.

Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.

People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.

In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.

I was incredibly encouraged to see Nick Kristoff’s brave series of posts on Syria, despite the vitriol that came from his readership.

I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.

While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.

Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.

Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:

What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.

September 11, 2001: I just don’t get it.

I don’t get 9/11. That’s not to say I don’t understand much of the events that led up to it, the how and why it happened. I simply don’t understand the sentimental patriotic uproar that followed.

I was in New York City on September 10, 2001. We were playing a show in Brooklyn that night. Like all my visits to New York, I made a point of visiting my good friend from Mississippi, John. We were driving into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the World Trade Center. We started talking about the attempted bombing in 1993 which had intended to blow the foundation out of one tower, knocking it into the other. We both remarked that the towers must be indestructible.

The show ended up going late, we considered staying in Brooklyn, but at the last minute I decided to make the drive back to Providence and go to my awful job the next day. I got two hours of sleep, went to work and found out that the towers were, in fact, destructible.

The reaction on the east coast was nothing short of reprehensible. Mass mobilization of military units into downtown Providence to protect the Raytheon headquarters downtown. Drunken fools chanting “USA” harassing people who appeared “Arab.” The televised arrest of a Sikh man from the Commuter Rail for having a turban and carrying a “deadly weapon.”

The worst, though, was watching the shock on people’s faces as though their own homes had been attacked. For New Yorkers, this reaction would be entirely justified. Outside of New York, I’m not sure why the reaction would be anything other than concern. This same reaction among the so-called counter culture types was also very surprising. Call me shallow.

My passport is blue and it’s quite convenient for travel and wage earning. I believe in the US as a political ideology (constitutional representative democracy) and am quite proud to be an American because we do lots of cool and good things. Though I’m empathetic with the victims, it’s hard for me to get teary eyed at the thought of an attack by an international terrorist group known to be searching for big targets.

Americans weren’t fazed when the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies were attacked in 1998, perhaps because few Americans died. The majority of the victims (Kenyans) were guilty of nothing more than earning a pay check and were sadly caught in America’s international problems.

Mostly, Americans, who viewed 9/11 as an act of war, are oblivious to the ongoing economic war against the poor and marginalized that occurs within their own borders every single day.

In contrast to vile, socialist enclaves such as a Canada, the age of death of an American is directly correlated with his or her annual income. Minorities die earlier. Indigenous peoples are among the unhealthiest in the entire country. Our decentralized and localized education “system” ensures that the poor have few opportunities for advancement. The slow death of the union insures that wages are low and benefits non-existent.

Though the two issues (9/11 and the US’s structural issues) are unrelated (and this post is way off in space), I would ask those reflecting sadly on 9/11, take the time to reflect on what needs to be fixed in the United States. If there is a tear to be shed, it’s for more than 3,000 people who fell victim to a international band of murderous thugs who profited politically from the act. It’s for the millions who fall victim every day to a multitude of equally dangerous and self-interested groups.

Syria

Syrian blogger Edi

Syrian blogger Edi

I’ve been long hesitant to make my views on Syria known. I am still hesitant and my reluctance to say anything on the subject has been extremely troubling.

It seems that there is room for only one view on Syria, just as there was only room for one view on Iraq in 2003. Social media, I believe, has exacerbated the herd like nature of political views. The NSA need not work to create to create a uniform citizenry, the citizenry are quite adept at doing it to themselves. In contrast to 2008, though, the political tables have in some ways been turned.

I won’t say much about any of it, mostly since I have little time to respond to the one or two comments that will inevitably come. I am, however, drawn to a young Syrian blogger (tweeter?) named Edi, whose pictures (two of them) I post here. The situation clearly isn’t as simple as America believes.

I fear that America (and particularly the American left, who have it horribly wrong this time) is vastly underestimating the long term, worldwide consequences of American inaction in Syria.

That is all I will say on the matter (not that my opinion counts for anything).

From Edi's Twitter feed.

From Edi’s Twitter feed.

Climbing on Things and Other Evolutionary Pursuits

KenyaRunnerI had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.

Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.

We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.

All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.

Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.

The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.

Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.

Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.

We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.

I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.

Japan’ Military: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

The NYT did an interesting article this morning on Japan’s recent increase in defense expenditures. I’m never sure where I stand on the issue of Japan’s military (not that I have a say). One the one hand, a stronger Japanese military would help solidify Japan’s position and a major global player, and put a formal end to it’s stupid, weak-kneed political isolation.

It would no longer be able to hide behind the skirt of the United States, a situation that complicates domestic and international policy. Japan’s military, one of the largest and most well equipped in the world, largely operates in the shadows, on paper, surrendering military policy to the United States. This complicates international policy by disincentivising Japan from taking a global leadership role and tends to exacerbate isolationist behavior at home. The influential words of Peter Parker’s venerated uncle may ring true.

On the other, Japan has to respond to credible threats from China and North Korea and can’t wait on the Americans to protect them. This is dangerous for us. Even a small skirmish would require the immediate response of the Americans, which could result in a global war.

On the other, other hand, giving Japanese right wingers the proper tools of war would be disastrous. I have zero confidence in American right wingers. My confidence in Japanese right wingers falls into the negative zone. Though Japan, in general, is a very pacifistic country, its extreme elements are so deeply backward as to be irresponsible.

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