Weekend Reading

From the moment the New York Times took it up as a cause, the Kitty Genovese story has counterposed police rectitude against community violence, cowardice, and confusion. Genovese’s murder is a parable in which the absent cops are the heroes and her neighbors eclipse even her killer in their culpability for the crime. Subsequent debates over the story’s meaning have centered almost exclusively on that claim of culpability, and on the question of to what extent those neighbors can or should be exonerated.

But Genovese herself lived in fear of police persecution, both at work and in her personal life. At least one witness to the crime, a friend of Kitty’s, also had good reason to be wary of law enforcement. And once the cops did engage with the case, they failed spectacularly to provide the kind of assistance the legend assumes they stood poised to offer that night. The Genovese story isn’t just a story of individual moral culpability, it’s also a story about malign and corrupt institutions and the corrosive effects those institutions have on our lives, and one of the real services Cook’s new book provides is the restoration of those effects to the broader narrative of the case.

Universities trade on our hopes, and on the fact that we have spent many years developing skills so specialized that few really want them, to offer increasingly insecure careers to young scholars. Although a fortunate few make smooth transitions onto the tenure track, many are lost in a phase of lecturing, adjuncting, or even unemployment. To those of us on the outside, the current academic employment system resembles a two-tier contract in which we are punished simply for having made the poor decision to graduate in the middle of a recession. Compensation for our labor is unprofessional, and we and our families are expected to bear this as a sign of commitment to disciplines and institutions that reserve the right never to commit to us.

I could perhaps hang on for another round: after all, I’m in for 9 years, what difference is 10? But I know also that each time I apply, I lose a little bit of something I’m afraid I’ll never recover. Depression has been the predictable price of failure in the past few years, and I know that it has sometimes robbed me of the experiencing the joy of having young children. It has certainly made me a less patient husband and father. Next year would be my fifth on the job market, in one way or another. Not so very long ago, I might have earned tenure with as much as I’ve done. Now I’ll spend the next months praying for the chance to move my family across the country for a one- or two-year position.

I wonder if I should work so hard to stay. My older son is the same age as my Ph.D., and he’s grown from a blob to a little person who can tell you about the moons of Jupiter. Is it time to trade my hopes for his? To give up on the work of my adult life, and just find a way to give my family some security? If I could do it all again, it would be madness to say that I would take the same path. But now, another year will pass, with no promise of success. And I wonder, channeling John Kerry but with lower moral stakes: how do you ask a year to be the last one to die for a mistake?

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

US Ramps Up Counter-LRA Operations

Last night, news came out that the Obama administration is doubling down on the efforts to help hunt down the top commanders of the LRA. According to the Washington Post:

At least four CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refueling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Forces and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes.

For those who’ve been following this for a long time, 100 special force advisers were sent to Uganda in 2011 to help track down the LRA. This recent news is a huge increase in troop commitment and in other material.

So far, the U.S. presence there has helped implement safe reporting sites and coordinate defection messaging efforts, including dropping fliers and flying helicopters with speakers to encourage LRA rebels to surrender. The presence has also helped bolster the Ugandan security sector and further militarized central Africa, though it may have had an effect in monitoring UPDF abuses.

The Ospreys are on loan from a base in Djibouti, where they have been under Centcom control. Africom is borrowing them for counter-LRA efforts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were there on standby in a region where more and more problems are arising. The Ospreys were already active in the region, attempting to respond when South Sudan descended into chaos in December.

The buried lede is that Kony and the LRA aren’t the only (or maybe not even the main) reason to send troops to Uganda:

The LRA poses no threat to the United States, but the administration sees assistance to the A.U. mission as a useful way to build military and political partnerships with African governments in a region where al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are rapidly expanding, as well as to demonstrate adherence to human rights principles.

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?’