Weekend Reading

There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, “Were they justified in shooting?” But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, “Were we justified in sending them?” At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one’s children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can’t be every place.

When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can’t, or won’t, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, “You deal with this.”

Yik Yak users may be all looked over by algorithms of standards and grace, but these are mere thumbs in a cracking dam. Standard social media anti-harassment features make the classic mistake of confusing structural violence for individual bad behavior. This is precisely why community policing on these sorts of apps is a Sisyphean task: Unable to address the underlying structures of oppression, they settle for whack-a-mole reporting features and ultimately rely on toxic communities to regulate their own toxic behavior.

[…]

Just as they believed anonymity was the source of the app’s innovative ability to extract honesty, Yik Yak’s founders… also believed it was the source from which all the problematic behavior flowed. But its voting system, too, plays a critical role. It’s hard to think of voting as a harassment vector because it seems more like a tool for making decisions, not an opportunity to be hateful. In a system where votes determine a post’s ability to command future attention, they serve to manifest and police a community’s discursive norms. But entire communities can be harassers; indeed entire nation-states have been unified by categorical discrimination, promulgating norms grounded in defining others as unclean, dangerous, or otherwise marginal.

Understanding Ebola

The latest issue of African Studies Review includes a commentary from Adia Benton and Kim Yi Dionne titled “International Political Economy and the 2014 West African Ebola Outbreak.” It’s available for download here for the next month, and I think it’s well worth a read.

In the piece, Benton and Dionne outline the domestic and international response to the Ebola outbreak that has caused so much damage in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, but they also place the outbreak is a much wider context, looking at the setting in which this outbreak is taking place and looking at the outbreak in relation to past events. They even lay out the relevance of problems in the region as recent as the Mano River War and structural adjustment and as far back as the slave trade and colonialism. With this background in mind, they state:

[W]e should expect that ordinary people navigating an epidemic would be suspicious of the motives and directives not just of their governments, but also of local agents implementing health interventions on behalf of their governments. It should not be surprising that these suspicions could further antagonism toward governments.

In describing the response to the outbreak, Benton and Dionne provide a survey of attempts and failures from the weak response of a broken healthcare infrastructure to the inaction of the international community – led by a dismissive WHO. What’s really important, though, is their emphasis on how the international community responded to the crisis only when it began to threaten the West itself.

We all saw this when Ebola became huge news as it arrived in hospitals in Dallas and in the streets of Manhattan, and faded out of the news cycle once those threats abated. Discussing the UN’s decision to create an emergency committee to focus on the outbreak, the authors write that “the resolution adopted at the end of the emergency meeting stated that ‘the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security.’ The security paradigm—and particularly one in which threats from West Africa were spreading to the West— therefore colored U.S. and European responses to the ‘crisis.”

Kim Yi Dionne gave a talk at Yale earlier this year in which she talked about and around the issues discussed in this article. One thing she brought up that I found fascinating that isn’t discussed in the article is the role of “culture” in spreading disease. In particular, how many stories cite West African burial practices, belief in witchcraft, or mistrust of outsiders as cultural reasons that Ebola has spread. In relation to this, Dionne referred to the work of Barry Hewlett and Richard Amola, whose report on the Ebola outbreak in northern Uganda in 2000-2001 outlined a very different role for culture to play:

In early October, residents began to realize that this outbreak was more than a regular kind of illness and began to classify it as two gemo (two [illness] gemo [epidemic])…Gemo is a bad spirit (type of jok that comes suddenly and causes a mysterious illness and death in many people within a very short period of time). Gemo reportedly comes like the wind in that it comes rapidly from a particular direction and affects many people, but the wind itself does not necessarily bring it…Once an illness is identified as gemo, a protocol for its prevention and control is implemented that is quite different from the treatment and control of other illnesses.

When an illness has been identified and categorized as a killer epidemic (gemo), the family is advised to do the following: 1) Quarantine or isolate the patient in a house at least 100 m from all other houses, with no visitors allowed. 2) A survivor of the epidemic should feed and care for the patient. If no survivors are available, an elderly woman or man should be the caregiver. 3) Houses with ill patients should be identified with two long poles of elephant grass, one on each side of the door. 4) Villages and households with ill patients should place two long poles with a pole across them to notify those approaching. 5) Everyone should limit their movements, that is, stay within their household and not move between villages. 6) No food from outsiders should be eaten. 7) Pregnant women and children should be especially careful to avoid patients. 8) Harmony should be increased within the household, that is, there should be no harsh words or conflicts within the family. 9) Sexual relations are to be avoided. 10) Dancing is not allowed. 11) Rotten or smoked meat may not be eaten, only eat fresh cattle meat. 12) Once the patient no longer has symptoms, he or she should remain in isolation for one full lunar cycle before moving freely in the village. 13) If the person dies, a person who has survived gemo or has taken care of several sick persons and not become ill, should bury the persons; the burial should take place at the edge of the village.

As they reflect, “From a biomedical perspective, this protocol constitutes a broad-spectrum approach to epidemic control.” The Acholi response to Ebola varies widely from other groups’, but it is a response rooted in both history and culture. There are a lot of facets to epidemics and responses that only emerge with on-the-ground research and observation with local interlocutors. Benton and Dionne’s call for more research into the Ebola outbreak and the response to it is an important one to heed.

Their commentary is just one of a number of academic attempts to understand the Ebola outbreak and call for more investigations and responses. One that I found really informative and interesting was Cultural Anthropology‘s collection on Ebola. Another one is the blog of a development worker in Liberia, Codex Lector (HT Rachel Strohm for this link).

Weekend Reading

These links are 99 9/10% pure. Don’t ask about the .1%

Al-Shabaab fighters can’t reach the United States, but they can reach Kenya, with which it shares a border. Kenyans shopping in a mall or attending university run the risk of being victimized too. That is the point which Al-Shabaab makes implicitly and explicitly with each attack. If their people can be killed, then the citizens of an occupying nation can be killed too.

Once again we see painful and heart rending images of victims and grieving families. The corporate media tells Americans little if anything about Somalia’s road to ruin which the United States directed. They don’t reveal the American violence directed at Somalis or present images of starving people or bodies left by war and drone strikes.

In the American mind Al-Shabaab is just another group of crazed foreigners who have bizarre grievances. In fact their grievances are justly held and if there were true justice in this world the United States and its puppets would not only have to leave that country but make restitution as well.

These days, Crystal Sugar hires or subcontracts 2,200 seasonal workers, 1,700 of them for only two to four weeks in October. The short season poses a different sort of hiring challenge and draws, as one might expect, a different sort of laborer. I would meet three kinds: unemployed and underemployed locals; retirees, bored or lacking pensions, who drove RVs from one temporary job to another; and travelers, like the ones I knew from Rock Creek. It was an odd assembly, a carnival of exiles, and it struck me that this was the new proletariat, unfaithful but adaptable and eternally adrift. If the American dream had not abandoned my fellow workers, they had abandoned it. They would not buy houses. They would not open bank accounts. They would move on to the next job, and the next, because the nation needed its hoboes.

Weekend Reading

Spring has sprung, reading has rung:

[Of] the more than 50,000 homicides in California from 1991 to 2002. As one would expect, teenagers perpetrated more of the homicides than other age groups—but only when he did not control for poverty. When he did control for poverty, teenagers committed more crimes than other age groups only in high-poverty areas. In the areas where teenagers had as much money as other middle-aged people, they tended to commit fewer violent crimes. And in the areas where middle-aged people had as little money as other teenagers, those middle-aged people tended to commit just as many violent crimes.

In other words, financially secure teens act as responsibly as stereotypical middle-aged people; and poor middle-aged people act as recklessly as stereotypical teens. The financial situations of the would-be perpetrators had a lot bigger impact than what age they were at the time. And that impact was huge: The homicide rate among the poorest teenagers Males looked at was 18 times higher than it was among the wealthiest.

Weekend Reading

Celebrate the beginning of spring, fall, and/or new years with these reads:

In the spring of 1997, the adjuncts of nine colleges and universities in New Jersey received their ballots in the mail. We voted, returned the ballots, and waited for the count. The vote was successful and we were unionized. Despite initial resistance from administrators—the special interests—it seemed an easy fight.

Nearly two decades have passed since that vote. The union I voted for still exists and it still protects its members. But other things have changed. Teachers unions are under siege across the republic as the push to further privatize education gains momentum in legislatures and courts (a push that is largely funded, of course, with public money). Adjunct labor has been further divided in many ways, with new classes of positions cropping up at various schools, our right to collective bargaining challenged or denied at every step; we are all sharing the same employment insecurity courtesy of semester-to-semester, year-to-year, or provisional multi-year contracts. There are more of us now, twice as many as then, far too many—a surplus, a logjam, a largely expendable work force of intellectual laborers. To the world outside, we are “professors.”

The Durability of Museveni’s Uganda

Over at the Monkey Cage, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz have a post on how democratic institutions increase the durability of authoritarian regimes. It’s an interesting summary of their recent research, which finds that democratic institutions such as elections actually delay true democratization, allowing authoritarian regimes to remain in power longer under the guise of democracy.

While their findings are not exactly surprising to anybody who has worked in such a country, the extent to which they’ve investigated this issue has provided a really thorough survey of regimes:

From 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has increased to 20 years…

The figure also shows that rising authoritarian durability has tracked closely with the spread of democratic institutions (elections, legislatures, and parties), suggesting authoritarian leaders have learned to leverage these institutions to enhance their staying power. From 1951 to 1989, an autocracy with multiple parties and a legislature lasted about six years longer in office than one without them (11 years versus five years, on average). Incorporating regular elections (at least once every six years) extended a regime’s life by another year (to 12 years). This power prolonging effect has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War period. Dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature now last 14 years longer than those without (19 years versus five years, on average). Regularly holding elections further extends their tenures to 22 years.

Furthermore, they argue that democratic institutions aren’t just a part of semi-authoritarian states, but that it’s actually a means of keeping states authoritarian. The whole post is worth a read, and presumably the article is too (it’s gated, here). Now, pardon the case study:

Reading the post, I was reminded of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, they established a no-party government with facets of direct democracy that appealed to peasants across south-central Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has navigated numerous changes to the government and continued to stay in power – part of that strategy has been increasing democratization of the government. (What follows is a real quick summary of a final paper I wrote for a class on political parties a couple of years ago).

The original direct-democracy model of the Resistance Council system sought to provide the people of Uganda with a more democratic and participatory form of government than what they experienced under Amin or Obote. This later became institutionalized as the “Movement” system – a nonpartisan (but in reality one-party) elected government – almost a decade after the NRM came to power.

As calls for multi-party democracy increased, Museveni chose to give in on this issue in 2002, but only in return for the repeal of presidential term limits, allowing the NRM to appear to be opening up the country to multipartyism while simultaneously giving Museveni power in what was supposed to be his last term in office. To make the transition smooth, dissenting voices were bought or dismissed, clearing the path for a new, more “democratic” Uganda. The NRM had complete power leading up to the 2006 elections, in which the opposition faced an uphill battle against a party that controlled the army, the police, the state coffers, and the media.

Museveni also gained support from patronage through a) the military and b) local government. The former he cultivated in the ongoing fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the latter he capitalized on by overseeing the rapid decentralization of government in Uganda. Museveni took the 33 districts that existed when he came in power in 1986 and has since turned them into 111.

Decentralization used the rhetoric of democracy too, giving minority groups within districts the chance to successfully elect a person who truly represented them by giving them their own separate district. Or at least, that was the popular belief. New districts rarely fell along linguistic or ethnic lines, but they did create a whole new tiered system of local government offices that owed allegiance to Museveni.

Another mobilization of democratic ideals for authoritarian gains was the creation of reserved seats in Parliament for women. The Women MP seats helped Museveni harness the women’s rights movements and giving the appearance of a government that was more equitable (regarding gender, at least), but in reality women in the reserved Women MP seats had little power or even a clear mandate (their constituents often overlapped with other MPs’).

Whether its women’s seats in Parliament, the creation of new districts, or the opening up of government to opposition parties, Museveni’s regime in Uganda has been expert at using democratic institutions to remain in power.

(HT Kim Yi Dionne who linked me to (and I think edited) the Monkey Cage post).


References:

Carbone, Giovanni M. “Political Parties in a ‘No-Party Democracy:’ Hegemony and Opposition Under ‘Movement Democracy’ in Uganda.” Party Politics. Vol. 9, No. 4 (2003), p. 485-501.

Goetz, Anne Marie. “No Shortcuts to Power: Constraints on Women’s Political Effectiveness in Uganda.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 40, No. 4 (December 2002), p. 549-575.

Green, Elliot. “Patronage, District Creation, and Reform in Uganda.” Studies in Comparative International Development. Vol. 45 (2010), p. 83-103.

Makara, Sabati, Lise Rakner, and Lars Svåsand. “Turnaround: The National Resistance Movement and the Reintroduction of a Multiparty System in Uganda.” International Political Science Review. Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009), p. 185-204.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Uganda in Transition: Two Years of the NRA/NRM.” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1988), p. 1155-1181.

Tripp, Aili Marie. “The Changing Face of Authoritarianism in Africa: The Case of Uganda.” Africa Today. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2004), p. 3-26.

Weekend Reading

Let the readings spring up like… a dozen links.

When Chicago teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike in 2012, their objective was not only to improve workplace conditions for teachers, but also to fight Emanuel’s austerity agenda for public education. Reminiscent of the CTF a century earlier, the CTU connected its labor fight to the struggle against a capricious ruling elite, and in the process made allies of the majority of Chicago residents, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods. Their strike was a strike for all Chicagoans.

It is hard to imagine a socialist America without a vibrant system of public education, and it is equally hard to imagine a vibrant system of public education without an excellent, unionized teaching force.

In January 1945 — two days before Franklin Roosevelt was to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Yalta — the Japanese were offering surrender terms almost identical to what was accepted by the Americans on the USS Missouri in the Japan Bay on September 2, 1945.

The Japanese population was famished, the country’s war machine was out of gas, and the government had capitulated. The Americans were unmoved. The firebombing and the nuclear attacks were heartlessly carried out. If anyone is guilty of disregarding the “context” of the firebombing of Tokyo, it’s the sycophantic and biased American historians who deride these critical facts.

A Reminder to Arizona Lawmakers

Saturday morning, after a marathon night of whatever it is lawmakers do, the Arizona Legislature passed a new budget. The budget does many things, like “balance the budget.” It also does things like completely eviscerate higher education.

The cuts include $99 million taken from state universities and 100% elimination of state funding for Pima and Marciopa County community colleges (the two biggest counties in the state). Education funds that are opened up for K-12 schools include an open door for charter school expansion as well. And for the poor, cash assistance limits were cut in half and medicaid faces sizable cuts too. (Here’s a more in-depth article on the cuts). This will only exacerbate the ongoing trend of the increasing costs of getting a college education in the state of Arizona.

Why are state lawmakers doing this? Because they think they can. As the Arizona Republic editorial makes clear, “this deeper-than-expected raid on higher education is not a consequence of scarce financial resources. It is the result of ideological absolutism — and misplaced ideology, at that.” They link the budget decisions to the overwhelming number of lawmakers who have signed no-tax-increase pledges. Last week, ASU’s State Press lambasted Gov. Ducey’s logic, stating:

After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day.

I’d like to remind all of the state lawmakers that carved a giant chunk of funding from universities and carried out a scorched earth policy on community colleges of one important fact. While many of them find a pledge to not raise taxes to be a Very Important Document, there is another document that says:

The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.

Yes, that would be Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

Weekend Reading

Today we are back to a world that would be familiar to Sir Thomas Roe, where the wealth of the west has begun again to drain eastwards, in the way it did from Roman times until the birth of the East India Company. When a British prime minister (or French president) visits India, he no longer comes as Clive did, to dictate terms. In fact, negotiation of any kind has passed from the agenda. Like Roe, he comes as a supplicant begging for business, and with him come the CEOs of his country’s biggest corporations.

For the corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications. Institutional affiliation has come to function like inherited wealth. Those who have it operate in a different market, more immune from the dark trends – unemployment, adjunctification – that dog their less-prestigious peers.

A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?

And:

For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”