Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Website-Tonitileva.com

Please update your bookmarks; you can now find all of my writing at http://tonitileva.com

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Event Examines ISIS and the Fight Against It

My article for AU's SIS
ISIS Discussion
Two months after President Obama launched air strikes in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group known as Islamic State or ISIS, the operation now has a name—Enduring Resolve—a reference to the difficult task of “fighting” such an amorphous organization.
In an event at the School of International Service on October 15 convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Moderator David Gregory began the discussion by asking how the war on ISIS is going. “It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” said Ignatius, who underscored the need for the United States to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want American help.’”
Ignatius also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat ISIS might be more efficient than just the air bombing campaign. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He believes that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”
Ahmed framed ISIS in the context of tribal Islam, the subject of his recent book: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam,” he said. “Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam, which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.” One distinction he made is that this code has become mutated. Out of the tribal trifecta of “bravery, courage, and revenge,” revenge is the only thing now left. He also noted the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. The conflict is not “Islam vs. the West,” he said, but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.
Glasser spoke about the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the president and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion of an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks,” she said
All three panelists noted that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation among the American public about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.
Watch the event video here.

Time Is Illmatic Film Review

My Review of Time Is Illmatic

“My poetry’s deep; I never fail.”
Twenty years after the release of Nas’ seminal debut album IllmaticTime Is Illmatic offers us a peek behind the curtains of its creation. Unlike other documentaries of its ilk, this is not the standard fare of the “let’s cram as many famous people as possible to sing paeans to the artistic genius” oeuvre. In his feature directing debut, the former graffiti artist One9 directs this not like a wide-eyed fan boy eager to deify Nas but like a museum curator, looking to recreate a piece of history all hip-hop fans, regardless of their position on Nas, would be curious about. Nas describes Illmatic as a record whose intent was “to make you feel that hip-hop is changing, becoming more real.” He wanted to offer a cinematic look into Queensbridge, New York, of the 1990s. Whether Illmatic is *the* hip-hop record of all time is an irrelevant question; few records have come along that have clearly changed the trajectory of their genres and left an indelible mark, regardless of whether they were the first to do so or the best to do so. Illmatic to hip hop is what DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is to turntablism.
Time Is Illmatic does not require that its audience pay homage at the feet of hip hop royalty and instead offers a hushed-breath-reverance-free look at the making of one of the important records in hip-hop history.Time Is Illmatic starts with a look at Nas’ upbringing, which had a momentous impact on his career as an emcee. His father, jazz musician Olu Dara and his mother, Ann Jones, raised Nas and his younger brother Jabari, a.k.a. Jungle, in an Afro-centric cocoon of art, books, and music quite divergent from the typical Queensbridge household. Nas himself explains that he did not grow up in need. He eloquently speaks about the impact that his father’s library and worldly orientation had on his rhyming; even his name was a reminder to take pride in his roots (“Nasir. That’s the name of a king!”). His mother nurtured him and taught him to work hard. Even though Nas’ father is often cited as the more artistically influential part of his life, Jungle identifies their mother as the anchor and protector.
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Time Is Illmatic does not rely on pundits to analyze the social circumstances Illmatic was borne out of, save for a short cameo by Cornel West who discusses the origin of the projects and why so many African-Americans were forced to live in them. But it nevertheless paints a vivid picture of the milieu. For example, Olu Dara describes enrolling Nas into school as “enrolling him into hell. This was not a nurturing school system.” Their father encourages both Nas and Jungle to drop out of school after the eighth grade, despite protests from their mother, because he wants them to follow their entrepreneurial dreams and be men rather than boys. Nas and his upstairs neighbor Will Young, aka Ill Will, start making music in a serious way in between intense bouts of “baking brownies and taping videos” (how’s that for a hip-hop confession!). The hip-hop scene at the time is fresh, colorful, rich.
Fans of old-school hip-hop will also revel in the film’s coverage of the neighborhood rivalries and MC battles on tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx.”Featuring interviews with Illmatic producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., and DJ Premier, Time Is Illmatic certainly knows how to create the setting in an organic way. They bring to life Queensbridge in 1994 and paint a vivid picture of the “N.Y. state of mind.” Hip-hop has always had a close relationship with space and Illmatic is well-established in that pantheon. Illmatic is a look inside a neighborhood ravaged by crack and violence, one where “any and everybody made money by crack or was impacted by it.” Time Is Illmatic is the story of the Queensbridge projects as much as it is the story of Nas. He reflects emotionally on the personal losses he has suffered and on how most of the people from back in the day are either dead or in jail. Q-Tip also makes an appearance, in which he reflects on the poignancy of “One Love,” which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: “Congratulations, you know you got a son. I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?” Nas’ dissection of what the system of incarceration does to a community – the damage it inflicts on families and not just the person in jail – is trenchant.
Time Is Illmatic lovingly and honestly chronicles the making of an album that would influence many generations after its release. Like Olu Dara’s jazz staccatos, it has a clipped, vintagy, Wild Style-esque ethos that has an authentically poetic cadence. By allowing Nas and his family to narrate, it offers a richness that could not have been unearthed in any other way.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review of The Other Language for Rappahannock Magazine

My book review of The Other Language by Francesca Marciano



Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language is essentially the literary and literal antithesis of Eat, Pray, Love—it upends the insufferable, Oprah-sanctified-and-sanctimonious trope of a privileged white woman who travels to exotic locales to “find herself” and replaces it with something all the more magical in its realism. The acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine stories that conjure emotions and places with the kind of natural story-telling that eschews cheap grabs for our emotional investment, reliant on lachrymose and saccharine writing, and instead explore the truism that “home is really where they love you.” The vibrant characters in The Other Language travel across the globe, but the territory covered is far wider than merely geographical. The book is a beautifully-written testament to the absurdity of ideas like “finding yourself,” whether it be through travel, escapism, or intervention. The natural fluency and virtuosity of Marciano’s writing will take you on an engrossing journey and speak to you in a language you can viscerally understand.
In the title story, “The Other Language,” Emma is a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She travels with her father and brother and sister from Italy to a summer vacation in a sleepy Greek village. The story presents the reader with one of the most trenchant and genuine examinations of death and how it thrusts those left behind into a social limelight that makes their personal pain all the more difficult. "The adults had decided they were too small to be told such dreadful particulars, as if their mother's death was just another protocol they had to observe, like never ask for a soft drink unless they were offered one and never fish inside a lady's handbag...They assumed death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind." To "survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person."
On the Greek island, Emma develops a crush on an English boy…and of course, she must learn to speak English to communicate with him. Marciano’s touching description of Emma’s language teacher—Joni Mitchell, singing songs about “the wind is in from Africa,” is such a vivid picture of how people often learn a new language. Emma, “didn't know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” “The Other Language” elegantly captures the indelible mark adolescence often leaves on our lives. Emma’s fascination with English causes her to move to America, where she “made sure to pick up every mannerism and colloquial expression that might polish her new identity.” The bitter-sweet melancholy and wistfulness one experiences when looking back is profoundly conveyed by Marciano’s writing.
The other stories in the book also share this theme of a seeming schism, unraveling, separation, followed by the discovery of something that perhaps was there all along. In, “Chanel,” which sort of recalled O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Three Magi,” for me, a woman buys a Chanel dress she cannot possibly afford. Eventually, she cannot possibly afford to part with this dress she has never worn, yet has now transformed into a talisman of sorts, one harkening to past “glories,” now long-gone. The dress is a reminder that finding out what is glorious simply requires a change of viewpoint. In “Big Island Small Island,” a man has escaped to an island off the coast of Tanzania. Marciano’s description of him as a “beached hippie” is incredibly humorous and apropos. Beached whale; beached hippie; beached human…all the same, in essence.
In another one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Presence of Men” is about the friendship between an extraordinary local seamstress and a divorced woman named Lara who escapes to a small Italian village after her divorce. Her past life keeps tearing at the seams of her new one, with everyone wondering what Lara is running away from, blaming it on all on some kind of a midlife, post-divorce crisis. Until she sheds the vestiges and togs of her past, everything else is only so much curtains…and obfuscation. Of course, there is yoga involved, too. But only in an incredibly hilarious way—Lara, a former yoga teacher, has the proverbial awakening that yoga is not about doing poses that give you a swollen knee (literally, in this case) and about forcing ideas about “living in the present” on yourself. Yoga happens when one isn’t paying attention to yoga. Yoga is realizing that you are not really trying to do anything with yourself.
The Other Language explores romantic relationships in a (mercifully) histrionic-less and melodramatic-free way (in case you are wondering why Oprah did not pick this book to sing paeans to instead of Eat, Pray, Love). The characters are all due for some big realizations; the locations are incidental to their process of disentangling. In “An Indian Soiree,” a husband and a wife decide to end their marriage, perhaps all too easily. Nothing catastrophic happens—apparently, they just choose to. “They had to say things to each other that would make turning back impossible and they obliged…How odiously clichéd it all sounded, and yet—at that very moment—so utterly real and satisfying.”
The stories are all of reinvention, but not the kind of clichéd, spoon-fed reinvention that comes seemingly all-too-readily in books like Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, the characters might be in exotic locales, but the locales are not the self-realization catalysts. "After seven years of European life, she found herself smiling at the predicament she'd found herself in. It was a reminder that there were still places in the world where one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers.” The reinvention often comes only by seeing things that were already there—in that sense, this book will not give you “why am I not traveling” complex. You don’t need to incinerate all vestiges of your “comfortable” life to travel far, as long as you can do that some of that traveling sitting at home, it suggests.
Marciano is not in the business of cheaply tugging at the heartstrings, but her deceptively simple and evocative prose will do that effortlessly and pull you along on a tour-de-force journey rich with sensory details like, “the pots of basil on the windowsills to keep the mosquitoes away.”


Two New Stories for American University's School of International Service

Spotlight on the GEP Program
Steiner Scholarship Supports Aspiring Diplomats

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Kill Team Review

My review of the documentary The Kill Team

Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.”
The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy.
film3-TheKillTeam
The main story line of the film is Winfield’s court battle, but all of the other people involved in the murders are also interviewed, except for the mastermind and leader of the unit, Sergeant Gibbs. Spc. Jeremy Morlock’s seemingly emotionless account of how “we straight murdered that dude,” is chilling if taken merely as a sign of his apathy to violence. Looking behind the mask, we get the idea that the macho culture of the army he has been reared in has taught him to suppress feelings.  He frequently references “the ideology of the infantry world,” this idea that life in the Army was supposed to be some kind of a glorified Top Gun-esque escapade of patriotism and heroism, which by default involves the killing of the enemy. It’s certainly a novel perspective: all too often we are led to believe that the people who enlist actually seek to avoid combat. Morlock belies that stereotype — he describes an entire platoon of thirty-some men that idolized Sergeant Gibbs, who asked him to help them get “kills” as well. Gibbs’ collecting of finger bones for a grisly war trophy necklace does not strike them, seemingly, as wrong.
The Kill Team offers a scathing – though unstated – condemnation of the Army who essentially made a scapegoat out of Winfield, who had all along attempted to alert the higher-ups, labeling him not enough of a conscious objector. Winfield brings up a salient point: “We tend to handle things in-house. Had I reported it, it would have come right back down the chain-of-command to me.” As his lawyer points out, the military justice system is not impartial: they are essentially the judge and the jury. Furthermore, the film puts into question just how rogue of a platoon was this or was their conduct commonplace, as the soldiers suggest and an issue only because they were caught. The chilling concept of a “drop weapon” is introduced. It is a weapon that is off-the-books and can be “dropped” on anyone, making him/her appear as an aggressor and justifying any violence committed against him/her. Gibbs apparently had access to a whole cache of this kind, including grenades and AK47s. The film raises the interesting question of why uphold the seemingly legality of a war when the very concept of it implies a level of chaos and violence that renders such track-covering pathetic in the true sense of the word.
There is little question about Sergeant Gibbs motivations—he calls the Afghanis “savages.” But what about the other members of the platoon, bullied into submission by him and unable to dissent for fear of their lives? The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “Nobody is innocent here. We are getting blown up every time we go up there to talk to them or build them a well or a school.” As Morlock explains, “the constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”
The Kill Team is easily one of the most thought-provoking documentaries this year and certainly one of the best ones on the war in Afghanistan. It’s a lot more than the plucked from the headlines story of a rogue platoon; it’s the living embodiment of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs:”
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
The film is a testimonial to the kind of damage caused for a cause that is impossible to name or understand.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey Film Review

My review of The Hundred Foot Journey

The Hundred Foot Journey (executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg) is part of the same flavorless, homogenized pedigree of culinary tale that Chocolat (director Lasse Hallström’s previous film) belongs to. And like every other film about Western interaction with Indian cooking and culture (Bend It Like BeckhamEat Pray Love, and other similarly insipid fare), it inevitably fetishizes and exotisizes. In other words, prepare to be really impressed by the use of cardamom… in everything. Talk about a massive reduction.
The film is about a clash of culinary cultures: the spicy and hearty Indian vs. French haute cuisine. Somewhere in the mix is also a homily on “why can’t we all just get along?” The generally amiable vibes and lush cinematography make the movie palatable enough, but don’t look for too much zest or plot innovation.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY
Gifted young chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) and his family move to Europe when their family restaurant in India is uprooted. Hassan’s father, played with winsome comedic flair by Om Puri, has his heart set on a French farm house. Hence, the title of the movie, a reference to the divide between Maison Masala and Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur. The competition between the two makes for some amusing moments, replete with Helen Mirren’s endearing turn as the droll Madame Mallory; she has a penchant for verbal barbs of the “Your cooking, like music, could use a little turning down” ilk. Hassan has mastered Indian cooking, but he has his sights set on the French “classics” as well. In an (un)surprising turn of events, he ends up under Madame Mallory’s stern tutelage and then goes on Paris. But is molecular gastronomy enough to stoke the culinary fires in his heart? I think we already know the answer to this one.
Hassan meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame’s sous-chef, and professional and romantic sparks fly…or so we are to believe. For a film dedicated to sensory pleasures, this is one tepid romantic concoction. Their chemistry is so off that, even in the scene where Marguerite tastes the French sauces that Hassan has made for her, all we are left with is feeling nice yet terribly unfulfilled.
The Hundred Foot Journey attempts very earnestly to convey the sheer magic of cooking to the viewer. It wants to remind us that cooking is about memories and life experiences a lot more than it is about pure gastronomic enjoyment. Luckily, the main characters of Papa and Madame Mallory are incredibly compelling and watchable; the rest is only so much trite fluff. The film attempts to tackle more serious issues like ethnic tensions and discrimination against immigrants, but lacks the chops to really address them more than merely as an aside.
And the cooking—well, for newbies, it is enjoyable enough, but for serious gastro aficionados (notice I avoided using the dreaded “foodie”), it will leave you groaning at the idea that Indian cooking is “cool” because it involves sprinkling cardamom on everything, adding fresh cilantro to an omelet, or even worse, making “curries.”
The Hundred Foot Journey is undoubtedly pleasant and, mercifully, not too maudlin. It is not terribly thought-provoking or interesting, but it is tasty enough of a morsel for you to savor at least superficially.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nipsters: Are Nazi Groups Adopting Hipster Swag for Wider Appeal?

My interview with Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Much has been made of the supposed wave of hipsterfication sweeping through Germany’s neo-Nazi community. In fact, a neologism emerged for the express purpose of describing these Nazi hipsters: “Nipsters.” Adopting some familiar hipster tropes–veganism, gauged ears, and *gasp* hip hop, right-wing groups are seeking to take their message to the bespectacled, bearded masses.
Is this mere sensationalism or an actual movement? I interviewed Dr. Cynthia Idriss-Miller to get to the bottom of this locally-sourced, organic mess.
Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, author of Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany, talked about the commercialization of right-wing imagery in a process she calls “extreme gone mainstream.” She has studied the use of coded messages to convey a right-wing orientation for the last four years in Germany on a grant by The Spencer Foundation. Conducting interviews with high school students in two “trade” schools in Germany, she has observed the fragmentation of the scene. “There used to be a unified aesthetic image that indicated right-wing affiliation…the typical ‘skinhead’ look, if you will–shaved head, bomber jacket, and combat boots. That is really no longer the case. There is no ‘uniform.’”
Blood and Culture Cynthia Miller-Idriss Book Cover
Instead there are brands that tacitly and in a veiled way signal one’s allegiance. For example, the t-shirt company Thor Steinar manufactures a shirt with an image of a fox and the words “Desert Fox: Afrikakorps,” thinly veiled code that refers to the nickname of Erwin Rommel who commanded German troops in North Africa during World War II. Others are more straightforward, like a T-shirt with the words “Hunting Season” sold by Ansgar Aryan.

Ansgar Aryan Hunting Season T-Shirt
Dr. Miller-Idriss also spoke about the appropriation of Nordic myths and imagery by right-wing groups. “It is expressing racial purity by evoking Nordic imagery. That of Vikings, snowy glaciers, and ski slopes, all in essence implying Aryan imagery without directly referencing it.”
“We are seeing a lot more layers of coding in Germany due to the ban on the Nazi party as such. Because displaying that sort of thing in an overt way is illegal, we are seeing a lot more veiled imagery.” Some of the other images used by these sort of groups including alpha-numeric symbolism, such as the number 88, which stands for HH or Heil Hitler. In some rare cases, general freedom fighter symbols are also appropriated such as Palestinian scarves or Che Guevara t-shirts. Symbols of national pride are also prominent, as are those that convey hyper-masculinity such as Vikings with bulging biceps.

Nazi 88 Tattoo Legs Asshole
“There is clearly a divorce between style and ideology. The aesthetic expression of the right-wing movement, much like the movement itself, is extremely varied, fragmented, and not homogeneous at all. And funnily enough, one would expect the commercialization aspect of this to have the United States at the vanguard, but this is not the case–this really is a very specific to Germany phenomenon.” Ultimately, while Dr. Miller has not exactly seen first-hand the “hipsterization” of the Aryan-supremacist movement, she notes that the “traditional” neo-Nazi stereotype is a relic of the past. Style over substance has long plagued just about every subculture at some point or another–many of the new supporters of right-wing ideology are not even particularly active in the movement, nor would they describe themselves as politically engaged, period. Some, perhaps, are not even especially devoted to the ideology, instead merely displaying the trappings of the movement. The ideology, too, has undergone modification–anti-Europeanism now joins and sometimes even trumps Aryan and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Her findings in Blood and Culture indicate that, for the majority of German youth, right-wing extremism is more popular for its portrayal of national pride than its xenophobic and racist tendencies as many youth today support a culture-based rather than blood-based German identity. She ultimately finds that the extremist tendencies of German youth stem from the historical taboo of “German pride.” For the younger generation, espousing a nationalist, extremist movement is a cry for unity and belonging that has been historically absent. And that belonging can sometimes be expressed in consumer choices too.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Police Power and Race Riots

Professor Cathy Schneider Chronicles Link Between Police Repression and Race Riots

Associate Professor Cathy Schneider’s new book, Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York, traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and Paris, focusing on the interaction between police and minority youth. Schneider found that riots erupt when political elites activate racial boundaries, police engage in racialized violence, and racial minorities lack alternative avenues of redress.
Schneider, an expert on social movements, collective violence, policing, criminal justice, immigration, and racial and ethnic discrimination, says the book evolved out of her community work where she encountered first-hand the police harassment and racial profiling of minority communities. "This made me wonder about conducting a comparative study between what I saw in New York and somewhere else. I wanted to see how the French police were similar or different in their treatment of minority communities.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ivory Tower Documentary Review

My review of Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower, the new documentary by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), posits itself as the long-overdue expose on the as-broken-as-our-healthcare higher education system. Sadly, this far too diffuse and roving film takes on too much, in the end, not really succeeding in offering a cogent, tidy argument. It would have benefited from a strong dose of good ol’ critical thinking and thesis-honing.
The film opens on the premise that there are problems in all sectors of higher education, problems so large that they are undermining the very idea of higher education and its life value. We are introduced to an African-American freshman with a rather compelling story–”from homeless to Harvard.” Ivory Tower follows his experience through the hallowed halls of Harvard, which actually appears to be well-deserving of its rarefied status and remains one of the last remaining bastions of meritocracy in higher ed. It also is a part of a rather small group of only 1.25% of U.S. colleges that grant full-need financial aid packages and have fully transparent, need-blind admissions.
Ivory Tower then launches into a meandering argument that fails to explain the feedback loop of sky-rocketing higher ed costs. It argues that since colleges are competing against each other and seeking to expand their markets (yes, get used to the idea that American college education is a business), they are driven to create more programs and build more (and fancier) facilities at a faster rate than their competitors. Enter Arizona State University, which has “luxury suites,” with pools and DJs for the privileged few who have come to college for the “student experience,” a thinly-veiled euphemism for beer and circuses ala Spring Breakers (what happened to the simpler days where that meant the more grown-up version of Dead Poets’ Society!?).

AFI Documentaries Preview

AFI Docs 2014

112 Weddings
Filmmmaker Doug Block spent two decades working as a wedding videographer. In 112 Weddings, he revisits some of the couples he saw walk down the aisle, looking to find answers about the nature of marriage and whether the proverbial wedded bliss materialized for them. The premise seems rather interesting; unfortunately, the stories of the couples are not particularly compelling. One theme that emerges is that almost all of them had kids and that, boy, having children is really hard (serious newsflash here) and has the potential to really rock a relationship. Aside from that, it becomes pretty obvious that it is hard to encapsulate married life into sound bites culled together from brief interviews.
Some of the couples featured are a pair of Burner-types, who post a “partnership ceremony” and 13 years together decide to go traditional and marry; a comically uptight American married to a Korean violinist; some Brooklyn hipster-types; and  David Bromberg, screenwriter of the indie flick Dedication, whose love of prescription drugs and general manic-ness make for some tragic scenes. And of course, we have the requisite “my husband is cheating on me,” couple as well. Overall, the couples featured, lesbian couple notwithstanding, are fairly homogeneous. Longitudinal study this is not. And for the fun subject that this is, this movie is surprisingly not terribly fun. On the flip side, it is also not gloomy enough to make one get serious cold feet-itis about marriage or to denounce “the institution,” for that matter either. It’s fairly light fare, but it does leave the viewer longing for a little less fluff.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum

My article: Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum


The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.

The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems," says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises. When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Signal Film Review

The Signal

The Signal, directed by William Eubank, is a stylish sci-fi thriller that epitomizes the “less is more” ethos the genre could use a lot more of. It has a singular visual style, reliant on fairly minimal CGI that nevertheless packs a serious punch, quite literally–the scene in which one of the characters punches the ground is breath-taking in the most subtle of ways. The trailer of the movie riffs on some familiar Matrix-like motifs, not the least of which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus-channeling turn as a Hazmat-suit-wearing doctor. Yet, you are not watching The Matrix nor District 9, as the surprising ending reveals.
The Signal starts amiably enough as a road trip movie of sorts: M.I.T. students/hackers-in-training Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving cross-country to help move Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to California. Along the way, they are taunted by a mysterious hacker named Nomad, whom they trace to a remote area in Nevada. What they encounter there is…a Catfish scenario gone really, really awry.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Incarcenation: In Pursuit of Liberty in American's Broken Prison System

My article for Voice of Russia

A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States "is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons." There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721 percent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch Report.
“In the last 40 years, there has been a historic marked expansion in the US prison system. There are 7 times as many people in the prison system today than in the 1970s,” says Marc Mauer, Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that documents trends and calls attention to policies.
The exponential rise in imprisonment rates is, sadly, not a reflection of rising crime rates. The prevailing consensus points a finger squarely at politicians and their push for policy changes in a much more punitive direction, intended to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. According to a national study, 88 percent of the increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 1996 was due to policymakers’ decisions to lengthen sentences, impose incarceration (as opposed to probation), and ensure that offenders spent an increased amount of their sentence in person (for example, by reducing parole).
In the 1980s, with rising crime rates, simmering racial tensions, and the spread of crack cocaine, legislators adopted a “tough on crime” stance. The “war on drugs,” that gained tremendous political speed during the Reagan administration, contributed significantly to the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000. The political hysteria led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, the tough-on-crime stance became a default for most politicians.
“Mandatory sentencing laws took away the power of discretion from judges to consider the personal circumstances of the offenders. ‘Three strikes and you are out,’ the war on drugs, and a number of other policies have all combined to make the system much harsher,” says Mauer. If all of this was intended to safeguard public safety, how has increased incarceration impacted crime rates? “The broad consensus is that while the threat of prison has some effect on crime, as the system has grossly expanded, we very much have a case of diminishing returns.” According to an ACLU report, over half of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more are serving time for a non-violent offense. Life sentences are often imposed on recidivists for property or drug-related crimes.
On average, it costs $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. With almost 700,000 people returning home from prison each year, “they find it hard to establish themselves since in most cases, they did not pick up any substantial work skills or education in prison that would enable them to reintegrate back,” Mauer explains. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, he adds—66% for violent crimes, 78% for property crimes, and 71% for drug re-arrests.
Who stands to profit from the massive incarceration? One obvious culprit, the private prison industry, interestingly enough, is not as deeply enmeshed in the system as one would think. Mauer points out that only 130,000 inmates are held in the private prison system, which amounts to roughly 8% of the total prison population. The industry has, instead, focused its profit-seeking efforts on immigration detention as the new area for expansion and has spent over 45 million in lobbying funds to ensure that immigration reform remains mired in a legislative quagmire. With a record number of deportations taking place, imprisonment is turning into the solution of choice when it should be the last option.
And prison labor has become the new sweatshop labor. Nearly a million prisoners are performing labor for private corporations, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, giving new meaning to the term “confinement at hard labor.” The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to establish employment opportunities for inmates "that approximate private sector work opportunities”—a far cry from the tidy profit-making scheme for corporations that exploit the captive labor force it has devolved to. The worst abuses have taken place in the agricultural sector, especially in states like Arizona that require inmates to work, earning between 10 and 50 cents an hour, hardly approximating “private sector work opportunities.”
So what should be the priorities in seeking to reform the system? “Sentencing policy change is the most important. Reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant is vital. Extremely long sentences are far too common. Far too many 25 year olds are sentenced to life in prison when their progress should be reviewed and they could be released back into the community,” states Mauer.

American University's School of International Service Stories and Newsletters

Professor Amitav Acharya sees a "Multiplex" World
Student Speaker Interested in the "Other"

I also made these newsletters:
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013

Friday, May 9, 2014

Fed Up Film Review

My review of Fed Up

In recent years, a number of powerful food documentaries have set out to pull the proverbial wool from our eyes and expose big agriculture and the Monsanto monster for what it is. Despite the glut of information available, however, making sense of the piecemeal data can be confounding. Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, is a rather cogent contribution despite covering some familiar ground.
Fed Up focuses on childhood obesity and its concomitant illnesses: Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Type 2 Diabetes amongst adolescents has gone from being non-existent in the ’80s to a staggering number of 57,638 cases today. The film follows three teenagers as they struggle to lose weight.
The film does an admirable job of definitively hammering the nail into the coffin of the “eat less, exercise more” myth of weight loss that has permeated public consciousness for so long. The fallacy of “all calories are the same” is conclusively laid to rest here as well, using the example of a soft drink vs. almonds, the fiber in which causes them to be digested qualitatively differently and cause much less of a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Similarly to sodas, juices also have no fiber, and the film argues that they’re essentially the same (makes you want to toss your Odwallas, huh?). With that, Fed Up also aims to squarely take on the personal responsibility model of obesity and supplant it by the disease model of drug addiction. “Food addiction is a biological fact,” states one of the many pundits in the film. In the same way that drugs can hijack neural pathways, so can hyper palatable foods (the study of the cocaine-addicted rats who consistently chose sugar water over cocaine is referenced).

So, what is making us fat? Fed Up points the finger at sugar, while also addressing the other co-variables. In 1977, the McGovern Report, strongly cautioned against the consumption of refined sugars. The sugar lobby fought vehemently against these standards, in the end succeeding in their removal from the report. The 1980s saw the rise of America’s obsession with a low-fat diet. The fat, predictably, was replaced with sugar. Since 1977, daily consumption of sugar has doubled. There are currently 600,000 products in the marketplace with sugar in them. The pundits in the movie do bring up a very hotly-contested topic — namely, they argue that a sugar calorie *is* a sugar calorie. Essentially, honey is just as bad as high-fructose corn syrup, they argue. While not exactly scientifically confirmed beyond doubt, this is certainly food for thought. Another fallout of the low-fat fixation: the explosion of the cheese industry. Once all the fat was removed from milk to make it skim, the dairy industry, in a stroke of Machiavellian genius, ramped up its cheese production, and spun cheese into the new “protein food,” causing a huge spike in cheese sales.
Fed Up argues that while the food lobby is incredibly powerful, the sugar lobby is especially so because with the creation of cheap additives like high-fructose corn syrup, the companies had a vested interested in keeping America (and especially its children) sugar-addicted. One of the scariest statistics in the film (and there were quite a few) is that we should be consuming between 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day, and most American easily eat 4 times that amount. When the World Health Organization released its 916 TRS report in 2002, it unequivocally identified sugar as the cause of most metabolic diseases and set the limit to 10 percent of calories as sugar consumption. By the time (surprise) the food lobby was done with this, the WHO was forced to amend that to the alarmingly high 25 percent.
Fed Up also thoroughly explores the inherent conflict of interest facing the USDA: they must safeguard public health yet promote the food industry. It also delves into the bigger structural forces at play: how budget cuts in the National School Lunch Program during the Reagan era caused most school cafeterias to purchase their meals from fast food companies and not prepare food themselves. Fed Up takes a hard look at Michelle Obama’s “Let's Move” campaign, which while well-intentioned, just did not have the teeth to stand up to the food company lobby which quickly cried out with reductionistic “Nanny State” objections. By focusing mostly on one half of the problem, exercise, it largely ignored just how badly the deck is stacked against children’s ability to make sensible food choices. As one speaker put it rather succinctly, “Junk is still junk even if it is less junky.” The companies paid only so much lip service to improving their products, the film argues. Junk food marketing, especially to children, remained egregiously non-curtailed.
Not every data point in Fed Up is ground-breaking, but its focus on sugar certainly is. Ultimately, the film argues that as long as we allow private profit to be in charge of public health, we are in trouble, but knowing the facts about what one is eating is a sure first step in revolutionizing food industry and our role in it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Feature: Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

My coverage and photos from the Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

This was my third year of covering the Baltimore Tattoo Convention, yet the charm has yet to wear off on Charm City’s colorful display. A celebration of all things body art, it always remains str-ink-ingly communal in its spirit. Tattoos have long moved past the “freak factor” to make an indelible mark on the mainstream and become a very public, yet intensely personal form of self-expression. It’s art on a mobile canvass. The artists who create them and the people who commission them come from all walks of life and have an equally broad array of reasons for getting them.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Focus on Care at Home and Abroad

My piece published here
Also here
Renowned scholar and President of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, visited SIS as part of the Dean’s Discussion lecture series. Titling her talk, Revaluing Care, at Home and Abroad, Dr. Slaughter spoke about a broad range of issues, domestic and foreign. The revaluing of care is a reference to a feminist theory called ethics of care; one of the relevant tenets of that theory is valuing actions in the private sphere equally to those in the public one.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published an article in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All; she wryly remarked that, to this day, this article keeps being referenced as the article amongst the myriad of pieces she has authored in her 20+ year academic career.  In outlining the evolution of her thinking since the article was published, Dr. Slaughter said, “I don’t think the problem alone is discrimination against women, although that is not to dismiss that as an ongoing problem facing women, especially low-income women.” The severe underrepresentation of women in positions of power is, in a sense, baffling considering the much-rosier statistics of women graduating college. “The deeper problem that unites the many facets of the symptoms we see is less about women per se and more about not valuing the kind of work that women have traditionally done. We don’t value care; we value competition and consumption.”
“There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”
Dr. Slaughter suggested that until we are able to value care as much as earning an income and until we learn to support care-givers, not much headway can be made. She has been using Twitter (and the hashtags #wherearethewomen and #foreignpolicyinterrupted) actively to raise the profile of women in international affairs. “There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”
Taking her care vs. competition framework to a grander scale, Dr. Slaughter said, “We should place an equal weight on human interest and government interest. What happens to people in a country should be of as much value as what happens politically.” Referring to the ongoing civil war, she stated, “I have been very passionate about the need to do more in Syria.” Invoking the principle of “responsibility to protect” is relevant in the case of Syria which is committing crimes against humanity on its own territory. “Syria is the Rwanda of our time. An estimated 150,000 people have already died in this conflict; the entire region surrounding Syria has become majorly destabilized.” Dr. Slaughter expressed outrage and dismay that Assad is still allowed to operate from the air, a capacity she feels could have easily and swiftly been disabled by intervention. “I wish the President had used force as soon as the chemical weapons use by Assad, with the approval of international bodies.” Talking about Russia, Dr. Slaughter felt that Putin is being given way too much power by the second-Cold-Water rhetoric. “His approval ratings are not that great at home,” she added.
You can watch a video of her talk here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BYT Spring/Summer 2014 Film Guide

The dynamic Georgetown alum duo of Mike Cahill and Brit Marling is back with the follow up to their brilliant Another Earth, I Origins. Expect more of a thinking man's sci-fi, where science actually helps us learn more about being human. In I Origins, a molecular biologist (Michael Pitt of The Dreamers fame) and his lab partner are experimenting with giving non-functioning-eyed organisms sight. The eyes/Is have it.
Sexy Beast--in one word, unnerving. Director Jonathan Glazer is back after 10 years with similarly unsettling matter with Under The Skin, "a horror with a heart," starring Scarlett Johansson as an impossibly mesmerizing and prepossessing alien with a British accent. "You don't really want to wake up, do you?" I am sure most audience members would agree.
Director Sydney Freeland filmed Drunktown's Finest near the Navajo Reservation she was raised in. It's a film about young Native Americans, with some of the themes you would anticipate--alcoholism, poverty, search for an identity, finding one's place. Yet, there is a certain levity that links the stories of Sick Boy, who has enlisted in the Army to support his family but is at risk of getting booted before basic training, Nizhoni, who was adopted by white parents and spent most of her adolescence in faraway private schools, and Felixia, a pre-op transsexual who secretly turns tricks while living with her tradition-minded grandparents on the reservation.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Global War on Tribal Islam: An Interview with Akbar Ahmed

Originally published here
Also here
“After 9/11, I dedicated myself to creating bridges of understanding between different cultures and faiths. The relationship between the West and the Muslim world seemed to especially be fraught by much misunderstanding,” says Professor Akbar Ahmed. For his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Professor Ahmed focused on tribal areas: The peripheral areas between states and on the communities living between borders.  Ahmed provides an exhaustive survey of tribal cultures across North and East Africa, Yemen, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The title of the book is a metaphor; the thistle was how Leo Tolstoy described the tribes living in the Caucuses in his book Hadji Murad because, like the flower, they were thorny and prickly. The drone, on the other hand, is a symbol of globalism and the epitome of technological advancement.
In The Thistle and The Drone, Ahmed explores in-depth tribal history, culture, code of honor, and tribal Islam, an Islam that is very different in nature from more mainstream branches of the religion. Drawing on 40 case studies that Ahmed and his team of student researchers interviewed and analyzed, Ahmed couches his discussion in the dichotomy between center and periphery.
The first main finding of the book is that terror towards the West is very much perpetrated by tribal people. 90% of the 9/11 hijackers were from Yemeni tribes. The rhetoric used by Osama bin Laden and many others has always been very tribal in nature, Ahmed suggests.  Thus, he says, “we [the West] are fighting one kind of war when it is an entirely different kind of war to them.” The second major point is that Ahmed believes that there is a way that the tribes can be pacified via peaceful and diplomatic means, citing the example of the Aceh in Indonesia or the relations between Scotland and England.
The central argument of The Thistle and the Drone is that “war on terror” is ultimately a war between a central government and a periphery. In Ahmed’s view, the “center” is nearly always in direct conflict with the tribal societies—a war of the state vs. its domestic antagonists, if you will. These tribal societies are often fighting against modernity or increasing encroachment upon their territories and way of life– the Rohingya in Burma, the Tuareg in Mali, or the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. “These tribes already have turbulent relations with the central government, which has failed to bring them into the nation, and the war on terror has only exacerbated this tension.” In addition, their own fellow Muslims often look upon the tribespeople as backward as well. This central vs. periphery tension is something Ahmed sees as fixable but not through the use of drones in the war on terror. “Drones have in essence become a symbol of Western arrogance. A far cry from the surgical-precision weapons they are described as, they have devastating moral costs. We often don’t hear about what it is like to live in an area where drones are buzzing overhead all night long—how often the women and the children suffer…”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Particle Fever Movie Review

My review of Particle Fever

Particle Fever epitomizes the wide-eyed enthusiasm and awe of a “heck yeah, science!” sentiment we can all get behind. The documentary is a breathtaking look at one of the most significant scientific experiments in recent times and one that captured the public’s imagination like few others. It focuses on nothing less than the search for answers about the nature of our universe by looking for the smallest particle in the microverse, the elementary particle called the Higgs boson/a.k.a. “the God particle.”
Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist, and produced by another physicist involved in the experiment, David Kaplan, Particle Fever makes grasp-defyingly big concepts such as what are the origins of the universe and how is matter created accessible to the viewer. Rather than relying on clever infographics, Particle Fever makes us understand *why* this experiment matters and makes the scientists’ mixed emotions of giddiness and apprehension feel palpable.

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: An Interview with Christine Chin

Originally published on The Stoner's Journal

Professor Christine Chin came to write her ground-breaking book, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, somewhat reluctantly as sex work a subject she was not initially interested in and one that is fraught with contention in feminist scholar circles.My first book was about domestic workers in Asia; my second was about global cruise ships. Even though I kept hearing about sex workers, I was not interested in conducting research on the topic initially. One of the reasons was that the debate amongst feminists on how to understand this phenomenon was divided between abolitionists and those who felt that sex workers had agency and that it was a valid choice, with the dominant perspective being the abolitionist. I did not want to get into this debate as I felt it was too binary and picking a side was incredibly limiting.”
Christine Chin: Cosmopolitan Sex Workers
Christine Chin: Cosmopolitan Sex Workers
Dr. Chin instead allowed what was coming in from the field to shape her line of inquiry—for example, news reports of immigration raids were suggesting that not all of the women in the industry had been trafficked. “I started to dig into this somewhat reluctantly, but I also saw how the literature up to this point was so rigid and so…almost morally rarefied; it was very focused on sex trafficking and I felt that there was an unrecognized spectrum of experience that could only be seen by letting the women tell their stories.”
Utilizing an ethnographic method, Dr. Chin interviewed a number of sex workers from all over the world–including Asia, the Middle East, and Russia–living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shattering  many of the prevailing views on the industry, and turning her research lens on non-trafficked women who willingly migrate to major global metropolises for sex work. Uncovering a wide spectrum of experiences, including the nature of the migration (serial, where women shuttle back and forth between home and a city vs. circular, where the women move within the global cities of a region and then move to another region), whether the workers moved with the aid of a syndicate or independently, and the motivation for their involvement in the industry, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers paints a complex picture of the structural forces of globalization at play and how the women very keenly understand and respond to them.
When I sat down with Dr. Chin to discuss her book, she outlined three of the key findings of Cosmopolitan Sex Workers. Firstly, migration for sex work is being globalized via an interconnected web of global cities that are nodes on this new frontier. For example, there are Senegalese women in Paris and Eastern European women in the Middle East—in other words, the same forces at play as a result of globalization are impacting this industry in predictable ways as well. The clients these women serve also travel to these destinations driven by the same economic motivations. Second, the common assumption that the workers are the “poorest of the poor,” is often not true. Some of the women are college graduates and/or come from middle class families. The women enter the business for a variety of reasons. For example, to assist their families, save money to start a business, get an education abroad, enjoy a certain more consumptive lifestyle, or simply earn income while travelling. These are the same reasons most workers migrate, regardless of their profession. From the women’s perspective, and the reason Dr. Chin prefers to use the term “sex work” rather than “prostitution,” sex work is work.  Dr. Chin underlines the fact that doing this strictly for survival purposes is not always the case; for many of the women, this is a very calculated choice based on a careful consideration of their ability to earn income doing work that is commonly associated with—and available to–migrants, more specifically domestic work or other blue-collar labor. Sadly, the math weighs heavily on the side of sex work, which could earn them something akin to ten times as much as what they could bring in otherwise. Women’s monthly incomes (post-syndicate “taxes”) range between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, the impetus lies somewhere between a familiar, pragmatic strategy and an imperative.
Trafficking map: USA Routes
Sex trafficking USA routes via anti-trafficking organization The Future Group
Finally, Dr. Chin reflects on how neoliberal globalization facilitates the occurrence of the relatively new phenomenon of non-trafficked sex workers. Some of the women contract with syndicates or facilitating groups—one of those syndicates is explored in-depth in the book. Morphing from a traditional Chinese secret society or a triad to a new model of a transnational corporation, it reflects the environment of the global city. Whereas organizations such as this one previous dealt in debt bondage and extortion, the newly “cleaned up” climate of the global cities rendered those feudal vestige industries obsolete, if you will. This is a horizontal organization that conducts a lot of “legitimate” business, such as investing and as a business organization also responds to the needs of its clients. What are those needs, you might ask? Predictably, fair-skinned women are in high demand, as are African women who are perceived to be “exotic” in Europe. To quote one of the members, “they want to make this a five star city; we will give them five star women.” Women who contract with such syndicates pay agreed-upon fees and a percentage of their income in return for syndicate-arrangement of their travel documents, transportation, board and lodging, and personal security.  The spaces for the sex work are very varied as are the hierarchies of what was “in,” in other words: The physical characteristics of the women controlled where they could work and what prices they could command. Most of these women come into the cities under the auspices of either a tourist or a student visa. Though it deserves mentioning that some actually were receiving legitimate educations and not just using the visa status as a cover.
“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system.”
“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system,” Dr. Chin says. This system, in parallel with the same structural forces in place under colonialism, is highly gendered and racialized. Dr. Chin explains, “The book shows the gradations, the nuances of something that was previously thought to be very binary. I wanted to show that the women are responding, and rather astutely so, to structural forces at play. They understand the hypocrisies inherent in the system—the fact that their occupation is morally-condemned, yet at the same time, work such as being a domestic servant is so incredibly low-paying and subjects them to abuse as well.”