Weekend Reading

Spring has sprung, weekend reading is weekend read.

The definition of fetal harm in such cases has been broad: An Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped last year; an Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage; a New Jersey woman who refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section didn’t end up needing the operation, yet was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby. But the vast majority of cases have involved women suspected of using illegal drugs. Those women have been disproportionately young, low-income and African American.

Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered. Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Weekend Reading

I saved these readings for when you really need them.

The system of free writing has created a caste system, with those who can afford to work for free doing so while those who can’t struggling to pay the bills and often giving up.  As with unpaid interns, those who can afford to write for nothing inevitably make it into networks of influence which allow them to continue on to actual paying gigs.  This crucial element, of the link between economic privilege and access (and I don’t just mean rich people), is frequently erased by those who insist that it’s their free writing that eventually landed them well-paying assignments.  But it’s not their free writing and “exposure” that got them their jobs; it’s their ability to survive without having to depend on writing for a livelihood that guaranteed they could continue to write for nothing.

All of this has long-term effects on the overall tenor of writing from the left.  If its writers are mostly those who benefit from the exploitation of free labour, but fail to see how their free writing makes it impossible for the rest of us to actually earn our living from writing, what are the chances that they might actually be able to interrogate the full and insidious force of neoliberalism?

[W]hen Chinua Achebe was alive, and when Chimamanda Adichie was a kind of heir apparent, all was still well for the literary patriarchy: the Great African Writer was a Great African Man, and Adichie’s books were filed just after his on the shelf, metaphorically as well as alphabetically. When she burst on the scene in 2003, she was young, a phenomenal talent with tremendous potential, but because was still just at the beginning of her career, she wasn’t threatening. He was the big man; she was the next generation.

Today, she is the most famous living African writer, and she has had a body of work that would make any writer proud (or envious). Each of her novels is a different kind of big deal…

Adichie’s “bigness” becomes a problem in this context. She has always been an ambitious writer, and it has paid big dividends; she has become a big deal. But as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.

Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.

What.

Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL ['Do What You Love'] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.

Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

Continue reading

Weekend Reading

Well, imagine what it is like to walk by a Birthright poster on this [Tufts University] campus, knowing that you have never, and perhaps will never see the very house your grandparents were expelled from in 1948. Yet, over one fourth of the Tufts population can see that house and they, simply by being Jewish, can eventually own that house, while their Palestinian fellow students cannot.

To us, Birthright is the erasure of our right to our homeland, and it promises our homeland to one in four students at this university. Birthright is marketed as apolitical. Participants are led to believe that it is an innocent trip of camel rides, hiking, clubbing and swimming in the Dead Sea. It offers tourists a chance to “reconnect” with a country to which they have never been, and often times, to which they have no immediate familial ties.

Yet for us, Birthright is not only political; it is violent. That may sound dramatic, but it is our reality. To make Birthright “fun” and “safe” means eradicating an Arab populace. It means erecting illegal walls and vanishing the Occupation. It means exiling our brothers and our sisters to refugee camps, prisons or worse. It is important that students at this university understand the implications of their so-called right.

When a Google bus was surrounded on 9 December, it made the news all over the English-speaking world. Though what the blockaders wanted wasn’t so easily heard. They were attacked as people who don’t like carpools, by people who don’t get that the buses compete with public transport and that their passengers displace economically vulnerable San Franciscans. It’s as though death came riding in on a pale horse and someone said: ‘What? You don’t like horses?’ Many of the displaced then become commuters but they don’t have luxury coaches pulling up in their neighbourhoods to take them to their jobs and schools in San Francisco: they drive, or patch together routes on public transport, or sink into oblivion and exile. So the Google bus and the Apple bus don’t reduce commuting’s impact. They just transfer it to poorer people.

[...]

On the afternoon of 21 January, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency held a meeting to discuss putting in place a pilot programme to study the impact of the buses and limit them to two hundred bus stops in the city. As the San Francisco writer Anisse Gross has pointed out, if you evade your fare on a bus, you get fined $110; if you pull a car in at a bus stop, you get fined $271; if you just pay your fare it’s $2 per person. But if you’re the Google bus you will now pay $1 to use the public bus stop. This pissed off a lot of people at the hearing. Not everyone, though. Google had dispatched some of its employees to testify.

Political Ephemera from Africa

Brief interlude from my thesis-writing to share a couple of links.

Sara Dorman, at the University of Edinburgh, has been collecting political ephemera in Africa for a long time. She recently started a Flickr page, The Material Culture of Politics in Africa, which might be worth a perusal. There are a lot of photos of ephemera from election season in a handful of countries.

Browsing the collection at this site, it reminded me of the African Political Ephemera and Realia Project over at the University of Oregon. The project includes everything from bags to mugs in addition to the usual posters, leaflets, and clothing items – all of it political. These databases are great collections of political material from across the continent.

Weekend Reading

February was a bad month for weekend readings, but March is off to a solid start (but no promises!) Here are some readings for you from throughout the shortest month of 2014. Read and be merry:

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.

[W]hat parents and educators so often labeled as peer pressure was actually the disease-like spread of ideas. It’s a degree of symbolic freedom and movement that made adults uncomfortable. The truly horrible things that happen to teenage lives are more the result of socioeconomic reality (gang violence), the failure of the mental health state (drugs, alcohol, shooting up the school), the horrific patriarchy of larger adult society (rape), or the all-around idiotic idea of the “school” as we construct it than they ever are the sole province of a teens en masse fearing social rejection.

The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust.  We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it.

A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law – ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

The blog has lain dormant this month, but it’s because I’ve been keeping rather busy. While the site has hibernated in the cold, I’ve been working on coursework and the thesis, and preparing for another talk as part of the African Studies Brown Bag series. If you’re in the New Haven area, I hope you’ll swing by. The talk will cover the come-home messaging programs in the LRA conflict, looking at how they “work” and how they differ from each other, with some exploratory talk about the transference of reconciliation across communities. See below for more details:

Come Home Messaging: Radio and Forgiveness in Uganda and Congo

Wednesday, February 26 | Luce Hall 202 | 12:00pm

In response to intense violence that included conscription of civilians into rebel ranks and atrocities on a mass scale, some civilians in northern Uganda have tried to end the war through reconciliation in the form of forgiveness, amnesty, and peace negotiations. One means of promoting these ideas has been various types of radio messages. This talk will focus on radio messages that encourage abducted rebels to surrender and come home and will look at how the radio messages – and notions of reconciliation – have traveled across borders.

Rumor and Distrust in the Congo

 “rumors explain; they naturalize the unnatural.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote, from Louise White’s Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, a lot as I work on my thesis. Rumor is a thing that exists around the world, and in many societies rumors play particular functions such as signaling group inclusion, fomenting opposition, etc. After conducting fieldwork briefly in northeastern Congo, I realized that rumors were going to comprise a part of my thesis.

“If there is no LRA, there is no MONUSCO,” one Congolese local government official told me as we sat under a giant hut with his friends and advisers. It wasn’t the first time that I had heard accusations that MONUSCO was either supporting the LRA or at the very least permitting the LRA to continue its dangerous actions in the region. I knew that dissatisfaction of MONUSCO was high across eastern and northeastern Congo, I hadn’t expected accusations that they supported human rights abusing rebels.

Right now, the role of rumor and distrust will be just a subheading in my broader Congo chapter, and so far it’s an underdeveloped one. I’m really interested in digging deeper into the role of rumor, a literature which has a surprising amount of depth thanks to anthropologists. I’m sure I’ll write about this some more, but for now some preliminary thoughts.

Max Gluckman has written [pdf] that rumors are exclusionary acts, and that they act within a network. People who know rumors are the in-group, those who do not are the out-, and rumors serve to make that distinction more clear. In this vain, others have stated that the content of rumors is not important, that the act of spreading and hearing rumor is what is vital precisely because of this cohesive function. This may or may not be the case in the Congo – after all, people freely talked to me about these rumors, but it may or may not have been a part of an inclusion process. I think the content is vital in this instance, however, because the rumors are about a topic with dire consequences, and because the rumors are believed.

When one man told me that he had seen a UN vehicle pull over just outside of Dungu and a band of LRA fighters got out and disappeared into the jungle, he was telling me a story he had told many times. It had happened in 2010, he surely had more interactions with peacekeepers since then, but this story was the first thing out of his mouth as we talked about perception of MONUSCO. This story was wrapped up in anecdotes that the UN was arming LRA, that they were refusing to accept surrendering LRA, that they benefited from the LRA’s presence financially.

Going back to Luise White’s quote at the top of this post, I think it goes really well with what Kristof Titeca has argued, which is that many Congolese create rumors as a means of understanding the rapid escalation of conflict in their community. He said this briefly at a panel I attended, and this notion helped me organize what I’ve been trying to understand as I look at the numerous rumors that I encountered while in the DRC.

The LRA arrived in the DRC in 2005, and were followed almost immediately by an increase in FARDC and MONUSCO presence (and a couple of a years later, UPDF operations as well). The sudden appearance and increase of armed actors makes little to no sense to most Congolese – the LRA have no reason to be here, FARDC prey on the population, MONUSCO is ineffective in protecting civilians, the UPDF have a history of exploiting war. None of these actors are doing anything beneficial, and yet they’re there. Titeca’s argument that rumor helps make sense of that is a compelling one. While the LRA do abduct and attack, the FARDC do abuse civilians, and the UPDF did exploit resources, MONUSCO hasn’t really protected people enough. And so Congolese are faced with explaining the presence of the peacekeepers in the sprawling headquarters building, and maybe that results in believing in the UN’s collusion with the other armed actors.

I’m working on unpacking all of this as I move forwards. I am still in the shallow end of the literature on rumor, but hope to wade deeper in the near future as well. If you know of things I should be reading, I’d love tips as well. With luck, I’ll write more about this aspect of my work as I trod through the thesis-writing phase.

Edit (2/6): This post has been updated to mention Kristof Titeca’s work on the subject, which helped me make sense of my findings and drove me to think through the role of rumor and distrust in the region.

Who is Funding African Studies Research?

Aili Mari Tripp, political scientist and former president of the African Studies Association, has drafted a report on funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. In the report she sheds on the recent changes that international (and specifically African) research support has encountered as sources of funding shift. She starts by looking at the nearly nonexistent support for international research by private foundations (which used to provide large amounts of support) and the drastic reduction in funding from the federal government. Title VI and Fulbright-Hayes were both cut nearly in half, which has and will continue to completely reshape area studies as a field. Tripp quotes one report that found that cuts in 2011 led to

 a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages.  It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Indeed, most are either unable to unwilling to. When I looked into Yale’s African Studies program it was made clear that federal budget cuts played a central role in the program’s downsizing, but that the university was also either failing to step in or was proactively tightening belts in anticipation of more cuts (or in the interest of shuttling money towards other focuses). But that’s just one case – across the country international and area studies are shrinking at an alarming rate as they lose financial and academic support. As current ASA President James A. Pritchett, anthropologist at Michigan State and director of that school’s African Studies Center, has said that funding cuts are “are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.”

The biggest shift we’re seeing today as Department of Education funds dry up is the arrival of State and Defense Departments’ renewed (and fairly robust) interest in international and area studies. Things like the Critical Languages program and the Minerva Project aim to train scholars to do work that supports and reinforces U.S. goals abroad. Although Tripp says some Africa-focused scholars involved with Minerva say that they feel independent in their work, I know Southeast Asia-focused work at Arizona State was centered on Muslim discourse and identifying “good” Muslims in the region to spread moderate Islam over extremism (yes, I’m simplifying).

This shift isn’t an accident. DoE’s Title VI foreign language funding is being reduced while DoD’s language programs and institutes get bigger and bigger.  As Pritchett says, “The Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California receives nearly $345 million annually, over four times the funding provided to the 125 Title VI Centers combined.” Study of the world around us is becoming increasingly directed by the military, and this is something scholars should be aware or and worried about.

It’s important to note (and Tripp gives it a passing mention) that the ASA has long stood against DoD funding, passing several resolutions against it in the past.  These resolutions were passed specifically to reject U.S. policy in Africa, which supported apartheid and oppressed revolutionaries in decolonization struggles at the time. Today, U.S. policy in Africa centers on counter-terrorism efforts that have resulted in militarization and Islamophobia across the continent. I wrote a little about that African Studies’ refusal to work with the military here, but I think David Wiley’s recent work [gated, ASR] addresses the biggest worry:

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP [National Security Education Program].

The other increase in funding is from the State Department, concentrated mostly on aid and development or the promotion of democracy and human rights. These also come with lots of baggage, although probably less so than military funding.

The bright side of the story is Tripp’s focus on private foundation funding for African higher education through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and collaborations with universities. This is much-needed, greatly impacting news for higher education across Africa.

Both Tripp’s and Pritchett’s posts are worth reading in full. The takeaway is that area studies in general is losing big. Both of them offer ways forwards, engaging with Africa directly, departing from government support in favor of foundation or corporation support, etc. The key will be to continue forwards with a heightened consciousness. There are a lot of ways forwards, we just need to ensure that we navigate properly as Africanists.