Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch. Many people shared comments and thoughts via Twitter and Google +, thank you very much for engaging. The title of this post has a question mark because I really think of this as a question – can inequality fuel revolutions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Continue reading Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

Things I read you should read too

I’ll admit it, I have a bad habit. When I find a multi-page article on the web that I want to read, I’ll usually send it to my partner with the e-mail subject “Print please.” My mind is rarely settled enough to read over 2,000 words in one go online – I find that I get distracted by e-mail, Twitter, other news stories… The result of this is that we have a growing collection of printed articles, that we collect in a binder, by category (nerdage – I know.)

Some of these are older features, but since they’re not straight-up news items, I think you’ll find them still relevant and interesting. You’ll notice that I tend to read a lot about the American neo-conservative movement. I don’t know why specifically, but I find the personalities of people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin endlessly fascinating. Their mode of thinking is so far removed from mine, I might as well be reading an account of alien life. Anyway, in an age where people have little time or patience for long form journalism and books, I continue to enjoy turning off the computer and delving deeply into one subject. Without further ado, here is a list of things I read you should read too:

Sarah Palin: the Sound and the Fury. From the October 2010 edition of Vanity Fair, an in-depth article which looks at Palin’s modus operandi. You have to hand it to her for being one of the scariest politicians in the United States. This profile is interesting because it looks beyond the “bloopers” and paints a picture of a woman who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it. The journalist had a hard time getting people to talk about her; there is obviously a fear of reprisal.

Small Change, by Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker. This particular article has been making the rounds in the past week or so, so you may have already read it. If you haven’t yet read the whole thing, I really encourage you to. In it, Gladwell talks about “why the revolution won’t be tweeted”, and he contrasts the civil rights movement – its depth, its seriousness, its commitment – to online activism. Having just finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, I thought his choice of examples (the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South) were pertinent. Nevertheless, as much as I agree with Gladwell that creating real change – like the civil rights movement did – requires more (much more) than a few clicks of the mouse, I think he fails to see the point that Twitter, Facebook and other social media are actually advocacy and activism tools. There is no doubt in my mind that nothing will replace the courage of individuals who challenge authorities  and the status quo, but I think you’d be hard pressed to make that point without acknowledging the capacity of social media and web-based tools to support and enhance these activities. Anyway, a great read. (PS. My Canadian friends like to remind me that Gladwell is Canadian, so I’ll just throw that in)

Frat House for Jesus in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker. This is a fascinating piece on the role and influence of a non-denominational “prayer group” which dozens of key American political figures belong to. Did you know that a bunch of conservative law makers lived in a house together on C street in DC? John Ensign, who was the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, got in trouble with his “frat brothers” when he had an extra-marital affair. The Fellowship – the name of this secretive group – is powerful politically, in and outside the United States (the Fellowship apparently organized a secret meeting between the Congolese president Joseph Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame in 2001.) A fascinating piece, which shows just how much American political life is influenced by religious thinking.

Newt Gingrich: the indispensable Republican in the September issue of Esquire. The journalist spent a lot of time speaking with Marianne Gingrich, Newt’s former wife, so the piece is focused on Gingrich’s “last fit of empire building.” The article tries to make it seem like Gingrich is building up his election machine for 2012, but, to me, the article makes him seem like a rather irrelevant old politician. The interview with his former wife makes the piece particularly interesting and (seemingly?) honest.

Being Glenn Beck, in the October 3rd NYT magazine. Let me just say, this man is frightening. He’s clearly had to deal with a lot of personal issues over the years, and this is a man who’s come back from the brink – he might actually have fallen off and climbed back up, which explains his particular brand of “Idontgiveashitwhatpeoplethink.” (“You get to a place where you disgust yourself. Where you realize what a weak, pathetic and despicable person you have become”, Beck tells the journalist) In this epic article, he’s compared to Oprah; “Like Winfrey, Beck talks a great deal about himself and subscribes to the pop-recovery ethic.” Here is one review of the piece in Gawker, but I highly recommend you read it if you’re at all interested in contemporary US politics and trying – like me – to understand the appeal of Beck for American people.

An Army of One, in the September 2010 issue of GQ. This one is the story of whacky Gary Faulkner, the American man who took it upon himself to hunt down Bin Laden (or “Binny Boy”, as Faulkner likes to call him) in the mountains of Eastern Pakistan. His story is pathetic, in the true sense of the term. The delusional, possibly insane, Faulkner has been on a mission for the past five or six years to find Bin Laden. At times, it seems he’s just frighteningly crazy – his dreams told him he needed to reach Pakistan “without touching the ground”, so his first couple of attempts to go to Pakistan (from the US, mind you) involved twenty-foot boats he was planning on taking all the way across the Pacific and Indian oceans, to Pakistan, presumably. Another time, he tried to use a hand-glider (really.)  His whole story is so fascinating – and sometimes hilarious. I think one of my favorite nuggets from Faulkner’s story is the notion that once he found “Binny Boy”, Faulkner would be able to share Ben Laden’s dialysis machine. Apparently, both of them are diabetic.

– Finally, I highly recommend you check out “My relentless pursuit of the guy who robbed me“, in Salon. A very different story than the ones I link to above, this is about a woman whose purse gets stolen, and she manages to track down the thief through a combination of online and offline sleuthing. It’s well-written and the writer has such fire in her belly, you just root for her throughout, cheering her on as she perseveres. She seems awesome, and I just started following her on Twitter.

I also read several really good books recently, that I hope I’ll have time to really review at some point soon. But if you’re in need of reading material for your commute, I highly recommend the following: Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder (who wrote Mountains beyond Mountains), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (she’s married to Jonathan Safran Foer, and it shows), Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African soldier by Alexandra Fuller. And I’m currently reading Diary of a Bad Year, by JM Coetzee, which is shaping up to be an excellent read.

Have you read anything particularly interesting recently?

Into the zombie underworld

You may have noticed that zombies (along with vampires) have made a resurgence in pop culture, and it seems like everyone has something to say about them: even economist Tyler Cowen and political analyst Dan Drezner found a way to write about zombies.

Don't care

Personally, I find these stories annoying and irrelevant. Why? Because zombies aren’t real, and I don’t care about the mathematics of a zombie attack or the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. At the risk of sounding like a grinch, I’ll add that zombie parades and zombie walks are also things that fall under the general “I couldn’t care less” category.

However, when I saw on Facebook that Joel Kaiser, an aid worker in Haiti, recommended a piece entitled Into the zombie underworld, saying it was “One of the absolute best articles I’ve read on Haiti. Well worth the read…”, my curiosity was piqued.

Into the zombie underworld is – bar none – one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve read in a long, long time. The prose is superb and very tight, and that in spite of the 8,000+ words. I really don’t want to give it away, because it reads like a thriller or mystery, but I was left believing in the existence of zombies, which, frankly was not a likely outcome, as suggested above. A couple of excerpts:

“Every zombie is made only with the official approbation of the secret society; lacking these documents, the zombie is illicit. (These documents do exist: I was later able to examine a zombie laissez-passer.) Nadathe had no documents.”

“Zombification is not the only punishment the secret societies can inflict, but in rural Haiti it is the ultimate sanction, more dramatic even than death. The fear of zombification, Davis argues, is absolutely central to the social system of rural Haiti.”

This piece is a must-read – not only for the zombie angle – but also for the nuanced and intricate portrayal of Haitian society.

This & that

– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts…

Continue reading This & that

Better or Worse

Via @willtownes, this interesting graphic (click for enlarged view)

Well, yes, sure there are signs of improvement globally: reduction in child mortality, improvements in water and sanitation, etc. But I’m not sure that the good balances the bad here. While I find their graph for conflicts a little simplistic (define “conflict” please?), the not-so-great record on the environment, displacement and conflict is pretty worrying. What’s the point of decreasing child mortality if we’re headed in a potentially catastrophic direction with these other  issues?

Climate change, environmental destruction, conflict, displacement – trends that affect us globally and will most definitely have consequences on people in the developing and the developed world. Child survival, maternal mortality, and hunger won’t matter if we don’t have a planet to live on.

[ end of your apocalyptic interlude ]

The War on Common Sense

This is incredibly sad. Muslim clerics in Kenya have agreed to campaign against the use of condoms as a means to prevent HIV infection. Over here, the author asks if it’s a war “on common sense”.

“A lot of money is being wasted to poison our community … a huge amount of money is spent on buying condoms, buying immorality,” Sheikh Mohamud Ali, of Garissa district, told IRIN/PlusNews.

The leaders agreed to actively preach against the use and public promotion of condoms as a strategy to contain the pandemic and prevent pregnancy. They also agreed to oppose the distribution of condoms in villages and educational institutions across the northeast […]

The leaders expressed their view that the best way for the youth to avoid HIV was through the observance of Islamic teachings such as fasting, regular prayer and shunning extramarital affairs. They advised men to avoid looking at women, who should dress modestly […]

“After all, we have heard in the past that the Western world is using the condom to eliminate Africans, and Muslims in particular.”


Well, that’s great, isn’t it? More religious leaders who are actively against the use of life saving contraception. Luckily for them, the rate of infection is low in their region (1.4%, compared to 5.1 nation wide). But still, can we afford to back track like this? It’s also extremely unfortunate as people
can pick up on this and assume that this is the position taken by Muslims – which is untrue. In West Africa, some progressive religious leaders are harnessing their influence to have a positive social impact. Meanwhile, there are stories pouring out of the continent on a daily basis about preachers and pastors who condemn HIV/AIDS and infected patients.

In other, completely unrelated news, I read this story about “$2.99 gas

Chrysler’s new incentive program that guarantees consumers who buy one of their new cars or trucks won’t pay more than $2.99 a gallon at the pump for the first three years they own the vehicle.


Random incredibly large SUV

And the author proceeds to tell us that he thinks it’s a “brilliant idea”. I just wrote about how Americans (and Westerners in general) have hard time getting to terms with the fact that their lifestyle and habits will have to – at the very least – be modified. The fact that Chrysler offers this (probably following massively expensive market studies) is very telling – to me, it represents people clinging on to an obsolete way of life. Isn’t it time to move away from cheap gas, precisely because it perpetuates a very unsustainable life style?

The Chrysler offer is going to appeal to people who refuse to face the facts – that the era of cheap gas is over, or nearly over (even if it happens in 20 years, that is not a very long time to contend with). Am I the only one who finds this incredibly near-sighted??

"World of $10$-a-gallon gas and $20 Big Macs?"

Hanoi – August 2006

The authors of this LA Times piece are not particularly worried about the increase of the global population and the availability of commodities.

Currently in the U.S., we consume the energy equivalent of six gallons of gas per person per day. Some rich countries manage on much less. The Danes, for example — whose public policy mandates expensive energy — use the equivalent of only three gallons of gas per person. The Danes are not suffering much from their missing three gallons a day. Reducing food consumption in our high-consumption society is equally easy: a bit more bread, a bit less steak. Given that we can easily reduce consumption when costs go up, a permanent doubling of the prices of food and energy would reduce income by less than 6%. At current rates of economic growth, incomes would recover from such a shock in less than three years. After that, onward on our march to ever greater prosperity.

However, I was just discussing yesterday how it seems unlikely that people will forgo certain privileges – refusing to let go of some degree of wealth. Even though, of course, a lot of people make individual efforts to reduce their impact on the environment (including me), I just don’t see Americans eating “a bit more bread, a bit less steak” without some serious resistance. In a sense, that means going “backwards”, and since we’ve decided to construe progress as a line along which you move, it will be hard to convince people that foregoing certain habits (using the A/C to make your house as cold as a refrigerator; driving SUVs in big cities, etc.) are neither modern, nor sustainable – but if you’ve ever watched FOX News, you’ll realize that a lot of people are not ready to make these individual changes.

Ultimately, however, the goal of these changes is to ensure that we maintain our current way of life. Someone said “For everything to stay the same, everything must change” (Thanks, C., for that quote) In conjunction to the fact that the richest people in the world are intent on preserving their way of life, the “global South” is busy trying to become rich(er). We must ask ourselves what the goal of development is: ultimately, is development the creation of new consumer markets? People who dedicate their lives to buying things and making the money to buy them? If that’s the case, then can this planet really handle a few more billion consumers? (I know this is a bleak view, but I’m feeling pessimistic today)

Will there always be – no matter what – a “bottom billion”? Is the existence of a global very poor class of people a necessity? Or will we (and this planet) really be able to provide for a multi-billion middle class? If you construe growth as a zero-sum game in a world of finite possibilities, then it becomes clear that the richest will ultimately have to be less wealthy for the poor to gain – however, that seems a bit simplistic, since global wealth IS increasing. Nonetheless, we have to wonder if we can continue to see growth and wealth grow exponentially:

Two things allowed growth to occur from 1750 to 2000 with declining commodity prices. First, only a small fraction of the world grew rapidly…. The West was alone in its voracious appetite for raw materials and energy. Second, fossil fuels cheaply substituted for land in agriculture by increasing crop yields…. What will happen depends on the race between technological improvement and growing demand…. [N]o one can predict which force will win.

Can supply AND demand grow forever without leading us to self-destruction? I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking quote (original in French)

Le développement suppose l’apparition d’un monde nouveau, et non le grossissement quantitatif de ce qui existe déjà

Development supposes the emergence of a new world, and not the quantitative expansion of what already exists

(Jean-Marie Albertini, Mécanismes du Sous-Développement et Développements, 1981)