Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Assistant Secretary Barton Says Diplomacy Matters

Dean's Discussion
Frederick Barton, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, told an SIS audience that the United States is entering a “golden era of American diplomacy” as it moves away from a “terrorist-heavy narrative to an understanding that conflict resolution has an extremely heavy political, diplomatic element.”
Dean Jim Goldgeier explained in his introduction that the Bureau Of Conflict And Stabilization Operations that Barton heads was created in November 2011 in an effort to bring a more systematic approach to conflict prevention and response. The bureau's mission is “to advance U.S. national security by driving integrated, civilian-led efforts to prevent, respond to, and stabilize crises in priority states, setting conditions for long-term peace.” The talk was facilitated by SIS Professor Charles "Chuck" Call, who is on a two-year sabbatical from AU to serve in Ambassador Barton's office.
Barton explained that the increasing complexity of conflicts precipitated the creation of the new bureau. “Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan underlined to us the complexity of all of these cases,” he said. It seemed that a lot of smaller conflicts were becoming bigger and thornier, so it became crucial to bring together policy and practice.” The bureau’s work is mostly focused on Syria, Kenya, and Honduras, with additional efforts in Burma, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.
He summarized the tri-fold strategy of his bureau as: “1. Where—make a difference in two to three places of strategic importance to the United States; 2. People—create a team; 3. The nature of the work—bring agility to the U.S. response.”
Barton conceded that the State Department did not yet have the agility to move into conflict situations as quickly as humanitarian organizations. “We have tried to be much more agile and build a strong, reliable civilian response network. We also work closely with the military community, who are eager to find civilian partners,” he said.
Barton outlined five elements to successful conflict resolution: “1. Sophisticated understanding of places and an advanced level of analysis; 2. A common view of the problem—for example, the United States would get involved only in areas of strategic importance; 3. Being opportunistic about who does the work; 4. Real-time evaluation; and 5. Improved public communication.”
Politics are also important to conflict prevention and resolution efforts. Namely, which conflicts the United States chooses to involve itself in is a strategic and political decision. “Basically, we are concerned about whether the place matters to the United States, whether there is that moment of ripeness for an intervention, and whether there is something we can actually do,” he concluded.

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dirty Wars Film Blurb

Blurb on the film Dirty Wars for BYT’s Top 13 Movie Superlatives of 2013

Jeremy Scahill, a veteran war journalist and the national security correspondent for The Nation, shines a light on the shadowy outfit known as JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, better known as the people who killed Osama bin Laden in this especially timely and weighty documentary, with the recent controversy over the drone program. JSOC, in place for decades, was created to essentially function outside the purview of any legal or military rule, but Dirty Wars makes a strong and shocking case for it reaching the apogee of its power during Obama’s terms, enjoying a level of impunity unheard of before, targeting assumed terrorists, launching drone attacks, and killing innocent civilians in countries with which the US is not even officially militarily engaged. Having chanced upon the very concept of JSOC in 2010, Scahill is stunned to see it come defiantly into the spotlight, taking credit for bin Laden’s capture, and turning its previously-camera-shy commanders into heroes. Ultimately, Dirty Wars, as the title indicates is about global war being waged in the name of national security by an organization with almost no accountability, except to the President, and one prone to night raids and “kill lists” without regard to nationality or legality. This was the case with American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who were both killed by drones. Dirty Wars is the grotesque flipside of Zero Dark Thirty: piles of bodies do nothing to make this kind of warfare seem just and blow the concept of “collateral damage” to smithereens. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Let The Fire Burn Movie Review

My Review Of Let The Fire Burn

Let The Fire Burn is an incendiary documentary on the tragic standoff between MOVE, a “radical” black group and the city of Philadelphia in the early 80s. Director Jason Osder eschews narration in favor of weaving together archival news footage, city hearings footage, and a MOVE film to create a visceral, eloquent, yet even-handed portrayal of events on the day of May 13th, 1985.
The film is a trenchant look at how a series of incredibly bad political decisions resulted in a fiery fiasco that claimed the lives of six adults and five children and led to the destruction of 61 homes in West Philadelphia. Let The Fire Burn is a subtle exploration of race tensions, police action, and terrorist labeling—the audience is left to draw its own conclusions, although answers as to how something so egregiously grievous came to pass are hard to come by.
MOVE’s first incarnation in the mid 70s is as progressive political organization concerned with issues impacting the black community. They do not espouse violence; they are not a religious cult. In fact, they come across as benign as any other hippy-dippy commune with their rhetoric of unity, love, and harmony. Their kids do not wear clothes and only eat raw food and the community does not believe in using modern luxuries, but that might well be the extent of their singularity. The heavily dogmatic component is definitely not present, especially in a religious sense. They all take the last name of their leader, John Africa, and while concerned with “the system” and its corruption, they are a far cry from the militant organization the city seems hell-bent on portraying them as. One cannot help but feel that had conservative Mayor Frank Rizzo not made it his tenure’s goal to dismantle MOVE, this story would have read rather differently.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Young And The Penniless: 25-35 Age Group Vulnerable To Poverty

My Article For Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Much ado has been made about the purportedly entitled Millenial generation, but the reality of most young people’s lives is more akin to an urban dystopia than an utopia.

Few topics in public discourse are more plagued by pervasive myths and misconceptions than poverty, especially about how and to whom it happens. Poverty, Dr. Mark Rank points out, is a surprisingly commonplace experience. “The question for most Americans is not whether they will experience it at some point but when.” Dr. Rank and long-time collaborator Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University are releasing a new book in February 2014 entitled Chasing the American Dream: Understanding the Dynamics that Shape Our Fortunes. It explores the shifting nature of the American Dream—how tenuous it has become, how has the concept morphed over time, and how economically viable it is. Dr. Rank describes the methodology in the book as based on a “large longitudinal panel of data from 1968 to 2009 and from it, we generated a life table of the likelihood of experiencing particular economic events, thus quantifying the measure of ‘economic insecurity.’ The book also includes interviews with 75 people, as a way for us to study their responses on the question of the American dream.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

God Loves Uganda Film Review

My Review Of God Loves Uganda

God Loves Uganda, a documentary by Roger Ross Williams, turns its lens onto a new kind of Western exploitation taking place in Africa. Spearheaded by American Evangelicals, the cultural exploitation is no less damaging or disturbing than the plundering of resources and people that has decimated Africa for centuries.  The film is about much more than what caused Uganda to be the first country to introduce anti-gay legislation into Parliament that makes homosexuality punishable by death, although it makes the link between America’s hate-filled religious right rhetoric and the spread of homophobia in the country. God Loves Uganda is really about the insidious way in which something as seemingly well-meaning as missionary work has chilling implications for a country still attempting to shake the shackles of Western exploitation. It also is a very probing look into the workings of a mega church.
The film introduces us to International House Of Prayer, a.k.a. IHOP, a religion-in-a-box mega church that would surely match the pancake franchise in its customer outreach. Led by Lou Engle, IHOP is the prototype of the modern-day Christian fundamentalist mega church—in one word, a corporation no different in its methods, resources, and structure than a Fortune 500 company, except in that its media machine would surely be the envy of any corporation. Jono Hall, IHOP’s Media Director, explains he has over 1,000 full-time staff, split into 80 departments; IHOP broadcasts 1 million video hours a month to a 117 nations. No activity goes undocumented on film; millions of dollars go into messaging alone.
What exactly is the message, you might ask? Couched in nebulous and euphemistic terms like “spreading the good news,” or “The Call” campaign (12 hour pray-a-thons to put an end to abortion, for example), the message goes far beyond a merely religious one. This is where the genius of God Loves Uganda really comes through: it reveals the blatantly jingoist language used by the missionaries themselves. The missionaries in Africa keep referring to themselves as an “army” and this kind of rather violence-connoting ethos is scarily illustrated in the scene where firebrand anti-gay preacher Martin Ssempa is literally rolling on the ground, punching the floor, as his disciples all scream, “No to Obama!” for his “pro-gay stance.” A young missionary describes her mission as “imparting a DNA of prayer and worship,” and like DNA, she explains, she wants to “replicate values.” In another equally hair-raising quote, the missionaries explain how the fact that Uganda is nation where 50% of the people are under 15 years old would allow them to “multiply ourselves.” Words like “strategy” and other rather militaristic language only serve to dispel the myth that there is anything particularly spiritual or elevated about IHOP’s goals. At best, this is pure jingoism and all God Loves Uganda does is point a camera at it, without any commentary.
The jingoism also expresses itself in the way the missionaries  hone in on specific communities. Engle calls Uganda, “a firepot of spiritual renewal and revival.” Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a priest and former Ugandan now residing in the U.S., who cannot return home because his research into the influence of the religious right there has made it dangerous for him to do so, calls it preying on vulnerable communities and enforcing values on them at the cost of receiving aid.  Kaoma explains how the mega churches seek out especially neglected communities, ones unreached by anyone else, and turn them into “dumping places for extreme ideas.” By building schools, orphanages, and hospitals, the American Evangelicals are becoming all-powerful in Uganda and reliance on their help makes any sort of dissent an impossibility. As Kaoma very poignantly states about the young missionaries, “All they know are the Biblical verses they have memorized, but people listen to them because they are white and American.” And even worse, extremist preachers like “the gay agenda is to make your children gay and destroy the world” Scott Lively, who as Kaoma points out, is literally a nobody in the US got an audience in Uganda’s Parliament where he was directly instrumental in urging PM David Bahati to introduce the anti-gay bill. The damage is done in other areas too. During the Clinton administration, HIV reduction was hugely successful; with the advent of Bush’s abstinence-only programs, HIV rates once again began to creep up. Abstinence-only programs were the only ones receiving funding so adhering to the religious right party line was the only choice Uganda had.
God Loves Uganda is a daring film and a look into what happens when religion is used to fan the flames of hatred and violence. There is no “good news” to be found in the message of IHOP and others of its ilk; one either goes along with their message of intolerance or one is heading towards sure damnation. It’s a highly ironic given that the West has plundered Africa to the point of making it hell on Earth.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Production Of Value--What Happens When Banksy Roils The Art World's Waters Yet Again

My Blog for Ministers Of Design

Last Sunday, a booth appeared in Central Park selling “signed, 100% original” Banksy pieces at $60 each. Banksy is currently "on residency in New York"; his work is popping up in his trademark spectacularly subversive fashion--a creepy stuffed animal "slaughterhouse delivery truck" in the Meat Packing District, for one.
Art collectors loudly bemoaned the fact that they missed the chance to acquire the much-coveted pieces that routinely fetch six figures at a ridiculously discounted price. And Banksy, as he is wont to do, got to make fun of the idea of what constitutes art and the pretentiousness of the "art market," where value is conferred by exclusivity. Would we recognize art if it is not labeled as such? And what happens when graffiti, an art form that in its very execution flies in the face of concepts such as ownership and private space, gets a price tag and starts participating in the very machine it seeks to obviate?
Banksy might as well be one of the world's most reluctant "successful gallery artists." The Sunday Central Park stunt was a spectacle, a performance art piece like the many he has done before, and it flew in the face of the notion that exclusivity confers value. Sure, Banksy is now, willingly or inadvertently, in the business of selling rebellion. But that doesn't mean that taking the "art world's" money has caused him to sell out. Sunday's stunt was Banksy's thumbing his nose at the fact that we need art critics to tell us what art is and how much it is worth. Banksy has often made fun of the elitism, pretentiousness, and outright absurdity of the curating art and placing it in a museum. The art market, like any other capitalist cultural reproduction tool, works to equate ownership of art with culture and the mark of the "cultured," as James Clifford explored in his seminal article On Collecting Art and Culture.
 According to the video from last Sunday, more than four hours passed before the first sale was made, to a customer who bargained to get two paintings for $60. Later, a woman from New Zealand bought two. Finally, a man from Chicago stopped and said, "I just need something for the walls" of his new place. He bought four. 8 paintings sold in total.
In other words, if it is not labeled as such, would we know a Banksy? Does knowing that it is a Banksy somehow raise the value of the art just because it is now branded and hence ownable and usable as an identifiable and identity-conferring status symbol? Does art's subjectivity not mesh particularly well with its object-ivity? You tell us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Seize The Seizures: My Mom's Book

My Mom recently published a book entitled Seize The Seizures; I edited it. Below is an excerpt from my foreword to it; you can preview more of the book on Amazon.

             I have this recurring dream about my Mom–-we are in some unknown European city.  I rap on the door of a small flat. I hear shuffling sounds as she peers from behind a small opening in the door. She looks startled, like I have just awoken her out of some deep slumber and like the light hurts her eyes...she doesn't say much, but her eyes look impossibly plaintive. "I wish you could be here more." I wake up, crying. It's just a dream, but this is what you feel like when someone you love is hurting. There is a lot of guilt, no matter what you do…and what you do is never enough.
People expect you to wear your grief in plain sight for all to see, as though the only way to express authentic pain is to cover yourself in ashes and wear sack cloth…as though there is something you are supposed to be doing. I am not sure how much doing is going on, but I do know a lot of feeling is. I don't like telling people my Mom is sick because it makes what I feel is a very private thing public. To talk about it feels diminishing and banal. How can pain be banal?  I cannot tell you how many times people ask me how she is doing, almost waiting for me to respond "Fine," so they can get on with the conversation. I sometimes don't even bother telling them that she is very far from fine, so I just tell the truth.  She is hanging in there.  
What a lot of people won't tell you, even though it is such a ubiquitous trope, is how hard it is to talk to someone in a coma. Imagine seeing your Mom lying in a bed, with all manner of tubes sticking out of her like some alien arthropod has nested atop, her body wracked by the spasmic echoes of seizures happening beneath the surface of her heavily sedated brain. I tried to talk to her, but the words were not really coming out. All I could do was look at her and hold her hand. I know you will understand that even coming to the hospital to see her like this was crushing.

A Geography Of Internet Popularity: Popular Sites On A World Map

My Blog Post for Ministers of Design

Researchers Mark Graham and Stefano De Stabbata, at the Oxford Internet Institute, mapped the most visited sites in different parts of the world. The map shows each nation’s most popular website, with size of the nations modified to reflect the number of Internet users there. Google's domination is almost universal, reigning in North America, Europe, and parts of South Asia. Facebook, the world’s most popular site, is most popular in North Africa, parts of the Middle East, and the Pacific coast of South America. Yet, even in those countries, Google still retains the second spot. As De Stabbata and Graham explain, "Among the 50 countries that have Facebook listed as the most visited visited website, 36 of them have Google as the second most visited, and the remaining 14 countries list YouTube (currently owned by Google)."

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Friday, October 11, 2013

Public To Politicians: End The War On Drugs

My Article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests.

According to the FBI 2012 Crime Report, of all drug arrests, an overwhelming 82.2 percent were for possession and not distribution. For marijuana alone, 88 percent of arrests were for possession. And as spokesmen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition point out, more people were arrested for marijuana offenses alone last year than for all violent crimes combined. Increasingly in recent times, the futility and utter failure of the “war on drugs” has become all too apparent to the general public, but the shift might be sweeping through the policy-making community as well, where for far too long being anti-prohibition was nearly tantamount to political suicide and equated with being “soft on crime.”
On October 9th, at the National Press Club, Richard Branson of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island hosted a screening of Sundog Pictures’ Breaking The Taboo, followed by a discussion that also included A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, and Naya Arbiter, of the Amity Foundation. “Breaking The Taboo”, akin to the documentary The House I Live In, also puts forth that the “war on drugs” has essentially been a very expensive (in human and economic costs) failure with a lot of unpredictable consequences worldwide. Where The House I Live In focused on the United States and examined what role industrialization, classism, and racism play in the entire picture, Breaking The Taboo takes a more global look at how the illicit drug trade has had a lot of collateral damage, with rampant corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, endangering democracy and civil society (for example, Afghanistan is now dangerously close to being a narco-state), stunting development, and threatening human rights. Both films argue that a move away from prohibition to control is desperately needed. Criminalizing users instead of helping them has been deleterious to communities.
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance spoke about what he perceives to be a shifting tide not only in public opinion but also in political will. “At DPA, we seek to 1. reduce the harm of drugs on communities and 2. reduce the harm of government policies (corruption, etc.). In a nutshell, we seek to reduce the role of criminalization as much as possible while still protecting public safety.” He is convinced that we are definitely at a “major tipping point” when it comes to legally regulating marijuana, for one. Not just past Presidents are now speaking out against the drug war (Bill Clinton, for example), but also current ones—like the Presidents of Uruguay and Guatemala. Nadelman continued: “We have spent 40 years and trillions of dollars and the new focus is coming up with pragmatic alternatives. Rand Paul recently called the drug war the new Jim Crow, so this sort of injustice is becoming a real rallying call.”
And while we are not at a tipping point, we are definitely at a turning point of public opinion on mass incarceration. “We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, with 2.3 million people in jail. The public is finally understanding what this really means. My only big fear is we are so accustomed to such massive rates of incarceration that we would be happy even with a 10% decrease.”

When asked to comment on the state of affairs from the correctional point of view, A.T. Wall was optimistic in his assessment: “In my state, prosecuting people for simple possession is now almost relatively unheard of; the focus has shifted to other types of crime. And it has definitely been bipartisan. We have people coming forward from both sides of the political spectrum saying the same things.” He also commented on the fact that “we have to work very hard to keep drugs out of prison,” which is why the focus on the demand side makes it imperative that prisons provide treatment and support and not just punishment.
Which brings us to another huge piece of this quagmire—in a sense, the arrest record that follows is the most dangerous thing about drug use and not the drug use itself, many would argue. The record prevents people from reintegrating into society (for example, affecting a multitude of economic aspects of a person’s life, such as voting, securing housing loans, and jobs), and thus hugely increases recidivism rates. Naya Arbiter, who works on the frontlines of support for former drug users, commented, “instead of criminalizing people and dismissing them as ‘bad apples,’ we should really see how we are building bad barrels all the time. We need to address issues of inequality, racism, lack of opportunity, and the social conditions that lead to drug use simultaneously with addressing the issues of the war on drugs.” Ms. Arbiter is convinced that foster care is almost exclusively driven by the war on drugs. For every 200 incarcerated men, there are 700 children that are affected as a result. “We need to focus on a drug policy that has collateral benefits for a lot of people and not just the white middle class. We need to make the transition from corrections to human services.” Richard Branson brought up the example of Portugal, which has stopped prosecuting drug users, as having registered major drops in heroin use as well as Hepatitis C and HIV infection rates.
The ultimate question is when will the actual policies and laws on the books change to reflect the growing discontent with the war on drugs? Undoubtedly, this question has been gaining some political attention as well—at the most recent Summit Of The Americas, it was firmly on the agenda. The “war on drugs” no longer carries the political cache it did during the “Just Say No” days. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse commented, “Currently, there is an incarceration reduction bill that is making its way through the Judiciary Committee, which will deal with pre-sentencing, sentencing, and treatment in prison. We are also working on a recovery bill that will provide support and recovery assistance.” While the tide is undoubtedly shifting in public attitude toward drug use, the crux of the issue remains decriminalization versus legalization. While legalization seems to require the kind of open-mindedness that seems not present at the moment, a consensus now holds that criminalizing simple drug possession and feeding the prison-industrial complex is untenable. As “Breaking the Taboo” points out, “you can’t wage a war on drugs without waging a war on people.”

Thursday, October 3, 2013

BYT Fall Movie Guide

Contribution to the BYT Fall Movie Guide:

Spark: A Burning Man Story (VOD-theatrical release TBD) - This documentary by Steve Brown rekindles the bright-eyed dreamer ethos that we want to believe is what the giant festival in the desert is all about. In recent years, Burning Man has been much maligned for its seeming descent into the dreaded c-word (commercialization) and for no longer being the counter-cultural celebration of a Mad Max-like dystopia it once was. Spark will make a believer out of you; a celebration of the artists who toil assiduously at making the giant sculptures that end up destroyed in a pyre of glory, it is a true roots revival of what Burning Man is still really about.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (November 1) - If you don’t know who Slavoj Zizek is, well, he is probably the coolest academician around at present, even if you won’t find him giving TED Talks. The irreverent and brilliant Czech philosopher/ideology-unraveler follows up The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema with yet another thoroughly engrossing and entertaining film (and don’t call this a documentary…it’s a one-man show). Joining forces with filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, it runs like a cultural studies student’s wet dream, a parsing out of ideology in the most gloriously hilarious way. 

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Friday, September 27, 2013

Inequality For All: Robert Reich’s Powerful Message: Not "Trickle Down," But "Middle Up"

My Article For Voice Of Russia

The documentary Inequality For All, directed by Jacob Kornbluth, features Robert Reich, former Secretary Of Labor under Bill Clinton, author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, in an impassioned exposé on why the chasm between the rich and the poor has much further reaching implications than a mere income gap.
In and of itself, Reich points out, inequality can be viewed as an inherent part of an incentive-driven capitalist system, but Inequality For All asks when inequality becomes a problem. This question takes on particular urgency when we consider that of all the developed nations, the United States has the greatest degree of wealth disparity. Much like The Corporation, Inequality For All is broad in its scope, and clearly shows the interconnectedness of a number of seemingly disparate phenomena. Filmed in the style of other policy lecture documentaries, Inequality For All uses Reich’s Wealth And Poverty class at UC Berkeley as the platform for some rather hair-raising revelations (a lot of them new even to those very familiar with the Occupy movement’s platform), yet the tone of the film remains optimistic about disrupting this status quo.
Just how consolidated is wealth at the top, you might ask? Put simply, 400 people in the top income bracket earn the same amount as 150 million in the lower tiers. Reich homes in on a recent study by Pikkety and Saez that analyzed tax data dating back to 1913, when the income tax was first instituted. The study finds that 1928 and 2007 were the peak years of income concentration at the top, creating a graph that resembles a suspension bridge. Both years were followed by calamitous market crashes — a parallel that Reich thinks is not random at all. As income got more concentrated at the top, the rich turned to the financial sector for investment, creating a speculative bubble. And as middle class income was stagnating, that in turn created a debt bubble, conditions that inevitably precipitated economic crises.
The crux of Reich’s argument is that what makes an economy stable is a strong middle class. And while his assertion that consumer spending makes up 70% of economic activity is contestable, there can be no denying that the middle class plays an integral role in the economy. The rich alone are not spending enough to generate the requisite level of economic activity. Inequality For All features venture capitalist/1%-er Nick Hanauer who debunks the myth of the rich as “job creators” in favor of a feedback loop theory that Reich also espouses (he calls it the virtuous cycle). If there is one sound bite to emerge from the film, it is that Reich supports “middle up” rather than “trickle down” economics. If the middle class is not doing well enough to create healthy consumer spending levels, then the economy as a whole will suffer—in other words, as the film rightly notes, one doesn’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to understand that this is not merely a social justice issue. Reich argues that even from a cynical and self-serving perspective, the top 1% should have an interest in how well the middle class is doing as they drive spending in a rather significant way.
Was there an idyllic time that was different from the current abysmal state of affairs? Reich points to the years between 1947 and 1977 as the golden age of great prosperity and very low inequality. What were we doing right then? Public higher education spending was much more of a priority and the proportion of people who were able to receive a college degree without being saddled with mountains of debt was much higher than today. With decimated federal funding for higher education nowadays, little is trickling down to the states, he argues, causing unparalleled spikes in tuition costs. Unions were also very strong, ensuring that worker wages remained robust. With the decline of unions, Reich argues, wages and rights have suffered a crushing blow. Not only have wages remained stagnant, but upward mobility is also equally imperiled. 42% of children born in poverty will never leave poverty behind. No other developed nation, Reich argues, even the UK with its vestiges of a monarchic system, has less social mobility than that.
Inequality For All covers a number of other plucked-from-the-headlines issues thoroughly as well, such as the shockingly low tax rate most of the rich actually pay, and how the tax code has increasingly evolved to the benefit of the haves. It also talks about the impact globalization has had on worker wages and the fact that which countries’ workers add the most value determines what country reaps the benefits. A prime example is that even though iPods are assembled in China, it only earns 3.6% of the value of an iPod, with Germany and Japan taking much more significant portions because the parts come from there.
The ultimate upshot of inequality is that its deleterious effects ripple outward, profoundly disrupting a healthy economic cycle. Reich calls equal opportunity the “the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built,” and that is not mere exaggeration or partisan-minded alarmism. When money starts to infect politics, as it has done now with lobbyists and PACs, it undermines democracy and paves the way to plutocracy. Inequality For All offers plenty to get outraged over, but Reich remains measured in his rhetoric. Instead of portraying inequality as an “us versus them” zero-sum game, he explains that is in our interest and in our power in to disrupt the status quo by demanding change.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What’s In A Number: Can We Meet UN Poverty Reduction Goals?

My Article For Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— As the old saying goes, “the numbers don’t lie.” Perhaps not, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth, either.

The numbers in the recently released UN Millenium Development Goals Report are a case in point. Among its key findings, the report tells us that "the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level. In developing regions, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2010. About 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990." A UN High-Level Panel report touts the progress made in the last 13 years as “the fastest reduction in poverty in human history.” In essence, the prevailing consensus is that Millenium Development Goal 1, the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger by half, is already accomplished. But are the numbers really so clear?
The actual numbers on poverty look significantly grimmer--1.29 billion people in 2008 lived below $1.25 a day; 2.47 billion people in 2008 consumed less than $2 a day. At the current rate of progress, there will still be around 1 billion people living below $1.25 per day in 2015. Most of the 649 million fewer poor by the $1.25 per day standard over 1981-2008 are still poor by the standards of middle-income developing countries.
It turns out that the seemingly simple question of how we measure the number of poor people in the world is surprisingly difficult and extremely important to answer. It affects how we report success, especially considering that the post-2015 talks now dare to speak openly about the goal of complete poverty eradication. In April, at a press conference during the Spring meeting of the international financial institutions in Washington, DC, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, pointed to 2030 as the global target year to end poverty. President Obama expressed similar sentiments in February, when he promised that “the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades.”
So, how much has actually been accomplished? Thomas Pogge, the Director of the Global Justice Program and the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, makes an important insight—the way that extreme poverty and hunger are measured has shifted over time, and significantly. In other words, some of the madness definitely lies in the method—measurement shifts have taken place, perhaps under the radar of public knowledge and only noticeable by economics geeks. This is inherently confusing. When we claim success, we should know what we have actually accomplished.
In September 2000, the heads of 147 governments pledged that they would halve the proportion of people on Earth living in the direst poverty by 2015, using the poverty rate in 1990 as a baseline. Here Pogge points out something largely glossed over: as with the hunger target, the so-called success over recent years owes much to the back-dating of the base year from 2000 (UNGA Millennium Declaration) to 1990. More specifically, the goal set at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996 was to halve the number of chronically under-nourished people between 1996 and 2015. That criterion quickly changed at the 2000 meeting to “halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” Changing the language to refer to a proportion instead of an outright number and backdating the goals to 1990 changed the picture and made the goals easier to reach. Another modification changed the definition to refer only to people in the developing world. Dr. Pogge explains, “…there are two different shifts: (a) shifts in what is to be halved by 2015 (number of poor, proportion of poor in world population, proportion of poor in population of the developing world) and from what baseline (1996, 2000, 1990). (b) Shifts in how persons get identified as poor (average household income below $1/day in 1985 US-dollars, below $1.08/day in 1993 US-dollars, $1.25/day in 2005 US-dollars). These methodological revisions entailed substantial shifts in the number of poor, in their geographical distribution, and, most importantly, in the global poverty trend.” The back-dating of the year allowed for the international institutions to count the significant progress China had made in poverty reduction.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Film Review: Salinger

My Review of Salinger

Salinger, the ten-years-in-the-making documentary by Shane Salerno, is a surprisingly moving and thorough look at the life of one of American’s most beloved iconic writers. It is a must-see film for anyone who appreciates the child birthing-like nature of writing and its nearly supernatural ability to give voice to our shared humanity.  Surprisingly because there was a veneer of sensationalism/celebrity-chasing in the marketing of the film as a “never before seen” and uncomfortably probing  wide-angle-lens-ish expose on a man who purposely shunned the spotlight. The Catcher In The Rye captured the hearts and minds of generations; the very relatable angst of Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of all things fake made this seminal work timeless and dearly loved and not just one of those other classics you were forced to read in English class but never really enjoyed. Salerno’s documentary certainly covers a lot of ground—as for the attention-grabbing ploys, we can chalk those up to misguided publicity efforts because the strength of the film is certainly not in unearthing unseen footage but in painting a holistic portrait of the enigmatic Salinger.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The High Cost Of Unpaid Internships

My article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Unpaid internships have become increasingly common in the current career landscape, becoming almost a requisite milestone in “growing up.”

Couched as an “investment in yourself,” and a place to “make contacts and get a job someday,” they are all too readily accepted as the only available path to full-time employment. Yet, the internships of today are a far cry from the apprenticeships of yore—by some estimates as many as 50% of internships are unpaid. Are they the quid-pro-quo arrangement they are posited as, or simply a front for employers to secure free labor that would otherwise have to be performed by an employee? With internships rife in all branches of the government, they stir up thorny questions about access, equality, and opportunity. A movement against unpaid and exploitative internships has been gaining steam since the economic crisis of 2008 made employment prospects especially bleak, and a number of important legal precedents are now in place. Ultimately, the question is not just whether internships give that extra experiential learning boost for interns’ resumes. The more important question is whether unpaid internships have become yet another playground of “the haves” that perpetuates the status quo of limited social mobility and income inequality.
The unemployment rate of the 16-24 age group today is more than double that of the remaining population, at nearly 20%. The average starting salary today is lower that it was in 2000. Internships have become so coveted in this stagnant climate that they have become a veritable industry—arguably one that lines the pockets of everyone involved but the interns themselves. Colleges charge students thousands in tuition money for the “opportunity” to earn academic credit for internships; a myriad of programs have sprung up promising students insider access to internships (The Washington Center and Washington Semester Program, to name a few). Yes, it is so competitive out there that securing an unpaid internship can be just as difficult, if not more, as securing regular employment.
Ross Perlin’s seminal work Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing And Learn Very Little In A Brave New Economyoffered one of the most thorough exposes on the issue, shattering the image of the typical intern as a college student and showing the sheer breadth of the intern demographic. A Georgetown law student, 41-year-old Eric Glatt, was one of those “non-traditional” interns, who in seeking to transition to a career in the film industry, worked as an unpaid intern on the set of the movie “Black Swan” in 2010, essentially performing the functions of an accounting clerk . In September 2011, after being referred by Ross Perlin to a lawyer, Glatt sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, asking for compensation for his work. “Obviously, this was not a suit about back pay only. It was a suit to put this culture under the legal microscope and see if it withstood the test in court." Some of the legal underpinnings of the suits have been the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Labor Department’s Fact Sheet 71. In a New York Times article, published on April 10, 2010, Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage and hour division, said, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.” In essence, Fact Sheet 71 established the six federal legal criteria of what constitutes an internship. Glatt’s case proved that the standard very much holds—the judge ruled in favor of Glatt and his fellow interns, deeming their “intern” work to be labor requiring compensation and allowing the suit to continue as a class action one.
Glatt continues his activist work outside of court as well. He explains that a group he is a part of, Intern Labor Rights, initially began as a grass-roots offshoot from the Occupy movement, and has since grown to be a part of an international coalition with branches in six other countries, including the UK, France, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Canada. Describing the two main issues the group works on, he states “most organizations did not seem overly concerned with how the practice of unpaid interns fit within the law/legal code, nor did they worry about the ethics and economics of the practice.” In essence, a lot of the work of Intern Labor Rights has been educational in nature—getting the public to see the flaws in a system that embodies and promotes inequalities of opportunity.
The economic impact is significant in some fields where unpaid internships seriously undermine the health of the labor market, especially in what Glatt calls the "cultural production industries,” such as film, music, and journalism. He attributes that to the notion that "thinking labor" is somehow perceived not as "labor" because it is mental and not physical. The implications of unpaid internships being the only “in” in cultural production industries are worrisome—a narrowing in the voices of our future journalists, and thus, the viewpoints we hear. In a study conducted in the UK, Alan Milburn found that 54% of top journalists were privately educated and “the media had become one of the most socially exclusive of professions.”
Unpaid internships are rife in many branches of government and international governing organizations, including the EU, the UN, and others. These positions are coveted because of the prestige and access they might grant. As a commentary on just how stacked the deck is in favor of the employers, the Department Of Justice now has unpaid intern positions for "special assistant US attorneys." One can easily see why the kind of cache of exclusivity these internships permit and the hypercompetitive arena for landing one of them only serves to perpetuate entrenched social divides. While one could argue that non-profits really do need the help of interns to operate, the same cannot be said for the government or for the private sector.
So, how true are the assumptions of inequality? In a study conducted by Intern Bridge, women are much more likely to be engaged in unpaid internships than men, who prefer to participate in paid internships with for-profit companies. The “liberal arts industries” are much more likely to offer unpaid internships. And “high income students through their preferences, social networks, and status, enjoy more opportunities at the largest companies, are more likely to be paid, and have access to a limited number of opportunities in organizations their peers compete fiercely to enter.” Almost ¾ of interns report holding a second part-time job to support themselves while on internships.
While the challenges faced by unpaid interns are formidable, the movement to correct employers’ abuses is picking up tremendous momentum, both through legal filings and grassroots activism. The arts and labor working group of Occupy Wall Street demanded that the New York Foundation for the Arts stop advertising unpaid internships. Designer Alexander McQueen ignited a controversy for advertising a full-time, unpaid internship. And groups like The Fair Pay Campaign, Make Youth A Priority, and The Campaign for America’s Future are at the frontlines of this long overdue battle.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

I Give It A Year--Movie Review

My I Give It A Year film review

Hey, look, a droll and properly cheeky romantic British comedy! Simon Baker, the scion to High Grant’s romantic lead throne—check! I Give It A Year, the new film by Borat writer Dan Mazer attempts to upend traditional rom-com plot structure by literally going about it backwards; instead of the ineluctable march to the altar, we have our characters walk away from it, literally and metaphorically. The question is whether this premise reversal alone helps the film escape well-trodden, trite territory. I gave it an hour and thirty minutes.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

My article for Voice Of Russia

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations
The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

Worldwide, bee populations are suffering significant decline and rather than a single cause, it seems to be the result of multiple factors working in concert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report in 2012 citing a “complex set of stressors and pathogens," and calling for "multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses," yet stopped short of making any policy recommendations. The EPA has, sadly, been woefully lackadaiscal in taking steps to stem the problem. Perhaps that will change with the recent momentous suit filed by beekeepers and environmental groups against it for failing to protect bee populations.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. domesticated hives did not survive this past winter, making it the worst loss to date. Far more than just giving us honey, bees are a crucial player in our food production; they are responsible for pollinating many flowering plants--by some estimates, almost one out of every three bites of food that we eat was produced with the help of these natural pollinators. Cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, watermelons, cucumber, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds are just a few of many of the delicious crops our six-legged worker friends toil on.

Domesticated bees are not the only ones being affected either—wild bee populations have decreased by an alarming 90% over the last 50 years. The ecological implications are nearly catastrophic; so are the resultant economic and food supply concerns. The World Conservation Union predicts that 20,000 flowering plant species will disappear in the next few decades as a result of bee losses.
Bee die-off is in part attributed to the appropriately-ominously-named phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive. Climate change, habitat destruction, pesticides, and disease all seem to have an influence on the occurrence of CCD and are factors that often interplay with each other--the worldwide bee population decline speaks to the multiplicity of causes not endemic to specific regions.
Climate change and habitat destruction are affecting ecosystems as a whole and bees in particular. Erratic weather patterns have an indelible effect on the schedule of flowering plants. Plants may blossom early, before honeybees can fly, or may not produce flowers at all, resulting in no pollen for the bees.
The impact of pesticides on bee depopulation has been widely examined by researchers. Jeff Pettis of USDA's Agricultural Research Service and his team found that a pesticide called imidacloprid is weakening the bees' immune systems and allowing infections to spread through hives. Another group of pesticides, extremely commonly-used worldwide, the neonicotinoids, chemically-related to nicotine, could harm bees by disrupting the navigational and learning abilities they use to find flowers and make their way back to the hive. The neonicotinoids have often been likened to "nerve agents" for the neuroactive effects they have on bees. In a landmark move, the European Union passed a measure last month to provisionally ban the use of neonicotinoids for the next 2 years. By contrast, the EPA continues to greenlight chemicals widely recognized even by the EPA itself as “highly toxic to bee health,” allowing the use of the pesticide sulfoxaflor manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company.
In addition to their neuroactive effects, pesticides also tie into another element in the explanatory chain--disease--by decreasing pathogen resistance. The blood-sucking parasite, the Varroa mite, is one of the most virulent pests of bee colonies. It is dangerous not only in its own right, but also in that exposes hives to other viruses too. Another suspect is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in the pollen of genetically modified corn, which German scientists found compromised bee immune systems. The bacterial disease European foulbrood is yet another pathogen.
Communities worldwide are astir about the danger of bee extinction and the buzz is certainly gaining in volume, with many states, including Oregon ,passing measures to ban the use of certain pesticides. Clearly, the battle against CCD will have to be waged on a multiplicity of fronts.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dunbar's Number--Why Your 1000+ Friend-Having Friends on Facebook Are Really *Not* Paying You Any Mind

My post for the Ministers Of Design Blog

Revolutionary evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has the answer to the question of how many friends do you need. The Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University earned the coveted honor of having a number named after him when he posited that 150 is the number of people we can maintain a meaningful social connection with.
Robin Dunbar arrived at that number by conducting a study of the Christmas-card-sending habits of the British. Amongst some of the findings of the study were that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The chief finding, however, was the number of cards sent out always seemed to converge around the number 150. Over the past two decades, he and other researchers have arrived at 150 as the magical Pi-like number of social relationships. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us,” Dunbar explains. “Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Dunbar's work has been of tremendous interest to social media architects who initially conjectured that this number could very easily climb in the baseball-card-version-of-friends world of Facebook and its ilk. Facebook conducted research on this: while the median friend count on Facebook is 100, for most people (84%), the median friend count of their friends is higher than their own friend count. “Facebook has muddied the waters by calling them all friends, but really they are not,” Dunbar states. He regards Facebook’s main impact on social circles as an ability to preserve long-standing or long-distance friendships that might otherwise decay rapidly. The downside, he suggests, is hanging onto old and remote friendships prevents us from making new non-remote ones: "Since friends exist to be shoulders to cry on (metaphorically speaking!) and shoulders that are physically remote aren’t much use for crying on, this might not be ideal."
The scope of Dunbar's work is significantly larger than the rather reductionistic concept of 150 and he has continued to conduct research and expand his study of human social interaction. And while Dunbar's number has been critiqued, it has managed to withstand the test of replication, remaining relevant event  two decades later ( for example, research conducted in 2011 on Twitter found the average number of people a user regularly interacts with falls between 100 and 200). Dunbar agrees that people have different social networks for different purposes, but he qualified the term "friend" as a person we have an emotional connection with, independent of his/her utility to us: “Someone like your boss, or the person you borrow $50 from to pay the drug dealer, these people are meaningful in your life, but they’re not meaningful to you as relationships.”
The ultimate question remains not how many friends one can have on Facebook but how many friends one actually pays mind and heed to. As Dunbar explains, "Yes, I can find out what you had for breakfast from your Tweet, but can I really get to know you better? These digital developments help us keep in touch, when in the past a relationship might just have died; but in the end, we actually have to get together to make a relationship work." Dunbar was first inspired to conduct this sort of research when he examined the grooming patterns of apes--what differentiated the humans was not just brain size but, much more importantly, the capacity for language. This capacity, funnily enough, is what is hyper developed in the world of social networking, yet Dunbar would argue words are hardly the glue of a strong emotional bond. Real meaningful interaction, research shows, still remains face-based and not word or baseball-card-collection-based.

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Geography Of Hate

My post for the Ministers Of Design Blog

How do we measure racism and homophobia across the United States? Humboldt State's Dr. Monica Stephens teamed up with Floating Sheep, the same group that mapped post-election Twitter hate speech to broaden the scope of the study and give a more panoramic view of America's bigotry. The Geography Of Hate map was created by geo-coding 150,000 hate tweets between June 2012 and April 2013, dividing the tweets in three categories--racist, homophobic, and disability-hating, including the words "chink," "gook," "nigger," "wetback," "spick," "cripple," "dyke," "fag," "homo," or "queer," amongst others. You might argue, however, that context is everything when it comes to these words so how did the research control for that variable? They used humans (probably woefully underpaid or even unpaid Ph.D. students, natch) to analyze and code the 150,000 tweets, eschewing machine inability to read tone and coding the usage as negative, neutral, or positive.
To add more rigor to the study, the researchers accounted for tweet density by creating a scale, essentially measuring something akin to per capita hate, accounting for population density.
So, what can we conclude from all this? On a micro level, there are some rather surprising results--click on the n word, for example, and you will see for yourself...the Deep South is not the hotbed of racism it is often stereotypically cast as. On a more macro level, hate speech is clearly alive and well-spread across America. In addition, the study demonstrates that Twitter has become a really vibrant (and vociferous) platform for the spreading of hateful ideas and even recruiting people with that sort of rhetoric. Now you might argue that 150,000 tweets is not a wide enough sample to make conclusions on, but this is a prime example that Twitter *can* have scholarly utility (don't worry, consider me as shocked as you are).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I Am A Walking Contradiction: Deconstructing The Concept of Personality

My post for the Ministers Of Design Blog

In his 2013 Wesleyan commencement address, Joss Whedon talked about the inherent contradictions of being human--"the contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have." The notion of our "self" or "personality" as something established and fairly long-lasting is being replaced by a new, much more apt paradigm--as something malleable and negotiated, and more importantly, through a process that requires work as opposed to something one is born with. "You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key – not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pandora's Promise--A Movie Review

Pandora's Promise Review

Pandora’s Promise is an exposé on the past and future of nuclear energy that readjusts a lot of public assumptions in a rather explosive way. By featuring a coterie of respected, world-renowned environmentalists who have had a change of heart on the issue, the film, although clearly on the pro side of the debate, shines light on a paradigm shift afoot. The crux of its argument is “to be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of using fossil fuel.” In other words, despite all the strides made towards renewable energy sources, we remain mired in the climate-destroying reality of oil and coal usage for energy production and this state of affairs is not tenable from any perspective. The film astutely observes that nuclear power has been forever imprinted into the public’s psyche as a “weapon we feel badly about” and seeks to destigmatize it, remove it from its Armageddon-esque milieu, and put it in a different and less malevolent context.

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Less Than Cheery--The Cheerios Ad Serves Up Some Unanticipated Indigestion

My post for the Ministers Of Design blog

It's an ad like any other Cheerios ad--heart-warming (and heart-healthy) and family-oriented so why the hoopla? The interracial-family-featuring ad elicited a veritable maelstrom of responses emblematic of the darkly vitriolic racist underbelly of Internet trolldom and prompting Cheerios to disable YouTube commenting. Camille Gibson, Cheerios' Vice President of Marketing, explained: "The [YouTube] comments that were made were, in our view, not family friendly. And that was really the trigger for us to pull them off. Ultimately we were trying to portray an American family. And there are lots of multicultural families in America today." Noteworthy is that the tagline of this ad, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, is "Love," while previous ones were "Smile," and "Happy Mother's Day."
The commercial has also received an equally vocal positive response for doing its part in "normalizing" biracial families by making them more visible in the media zeitgeist. The response from the multicultural community has been, overwhelmingly, "I finally get to see a representation of me on TV." As Ad Week points out, however, TV ads have been notoriously behind the curve in "envelope pushing" in comparison to shows or movies, as brands are very fearful of making political statements in their casting choices. Arguably, multicultural families are a far cry from the shocking and subversive category, considering that 1 in 10 families would fit that definition, a 28% jump from 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, race representation concerns are starting to become much more prominent of a consideration in brand strategy, considering the multicultural ad market spending is rising in a serious way.
So was Cheerios being socially progressive or were they attempting (rather successfully, in this case) to divert public attention away from the GMO-labeling scandal which roiled their Facebook page less than several months ago? Clever brand repositioning notwithstanding, it seems like the ad did earn the company some "love" back.