Monday, February 28, 2011

Industrial Food Systems Vs Vandana Shiva

Debates about food systems are very much in vogue at the moment.  These issues are especially salient because they include numerous linked corollaries, including everything from public health, legal issues, globalization, resource security, climate, social justice and others.  The industrial food systems that many Americans are dependent upon are in many ways non-sustainable, require food to be shipped thousands (limiting local resiliency in the face of crisis), are controlled by corporate interests who have hindered the ability of farmers to alter practices, and are contributing to obesity and other health problems.

Further, the industrial food system is further supported by a gargantuan program of subsidy that serves as a form of corporate welfare that further limits the extent to which medium and small-scale farmers (the very farmers the subsidies are said to be in place to benefit) can compete.  Things seem to be very much amiss within our wider food systems - problems that journalists and social critics such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, (the latter of who's work I have reviewed here) have brought to the fore of the general consciousness.

An especially controversial issue is that of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  GMOs have seen proponents and critics across the board.  Especially among scientists - there is little consensus.  Some scientists see GMOs as a means of improving both crop yields and food security, while others view them vehicles for continued corporate control of food production.  Some countries, notably France and Japan have banned GMOs and GEOs (Genetically Engineered Organisms) entirely.  There remain a multitude of questions around the genetic safety of GMOs as well as to the extent to which scientists can safely tinker without reducing us to mono-cropping.

Thousands of previously eaten grain, fruit and vegetable varietals have already disappeared as a result of the industrialization of our food systems with varietals selected frequently because they travel well and keep for long periods of time rather than for taste.  Some  in plant science argue that they are in fact improving plant safety, and it is unfair to claim that what they are doing is creating 'Frankenstein crops' as they are most commonly just altering or introducing one or two genes.  However, many of the changes made by large-agricultural business companies has been to transforms perennials into annuals, thus driving farmer dependency upon companies for seeds every year - for which in many developing countries, usurious rates are charged - and diminishing overall food system security

The ability of large argro-business firms such as Monsanto to patent genetic material and then sue farmers for cross-contamination is problematic.  It is highly dubious as to whether a firm should even be able to patent genetic material or a gene sequence within food.  As most crop-varietals have already undergone millennia of genetic manipulation by farmers through cross-breeding, in order to improve yields and improve crop edibility and robustness, it seems farcical that a company - and most simply use software to highlight genetic strains in plants that share common features and then seek a patent - should be able to patent plants at all.

Cross contamination regularly occurs accidentally when wind carries seed from trucks as they travel down the road.  Monsanto meanwhile regularly (and illegally) collects soil samples from farms in order to demonstrate cross-contamination and thus infringement upon it's patents and then litigate.  This has resulted in mass protests against attempts by large-seed companies, especially in developing countries such as India where farmers, as a result of litigation by Monsanto have committed suicide.

This controversy is further compounded by large-scale illegal agricultural subsidies that benefit many of the large agri-business companies in the United States.  These subsidies effectively serve as a mechanism of corporate welfare, especially for those companies that are actively suing farmers, when ironically, organic farmers should be suing them for contamination.  As Joseph Stiglitz notes in a recent editorial:

Corporate welfare accounts for nearly 50% of total income in some parts of US agro-business, with billions of dollars in cotton subsidies, for example, going to a few rich farmers, while lowering prices and increasing poverty among competitors in the developing world.

Clearly the status quo remains unacceptable, and if farm subsidies are to exist they should be to the benefit of the small and medium-scale farmers for whom the subsidies were initially envisioned.

Perhaps the most vocal and eloquent critic of GMOs and the current corporate led globalization of food systems is Vandana Shiva.  I have long been an admirer of Shiva and have recently had the pleasure of seeing her speak several times.  Shiva posits that agricultural systems need to be re-localized and organic.  She is a proponent of urban agriculture and speaks at length about the problems associated with corporate driven agriculture systems which are exploitative of farmers.  Shiva's extensive scientific credentials, strong rooting in her locality, sharp sense of humour and general sense of righteousness make her a ferocious opponent to Monsanto and other large agri-business companies.

Perhaps Shiva's greatest strength is that her righteous indignation is tempered by effective activism.  Shiva has developed a seed bank in her native India to insure that farmers have access to many of the crop varietals that they have traditionally eaten.  In this way, Shiva is changing the world and how we interact with our food system.

As the realities of peak-oil, general fuel price volatility and the impacts upon food prices for bio-fuel production, Shiva's advocacy for the re-localization of agricultural production appears to address the frequently overlooked elephant in the room.  Knowing that many of these issues will be further compounded by anthropogenic climate change further strengthens her position.

Perhaps the greatest problem with GMOs is that they represent a short-term solution as a means of improving crop-yields and developing resistance to particular pests, however in the long run, they merely further wed us to an agricultural system that is ailing and that cannot serve us in the future.  Though one may quibble with some of Shiva's positions, one cannot help but feel that she is certainly on the side of history.  It would be fools errand to not heed her warnings and implement policy that is responsive.  Otherwise, that daily question of 'what to eat?' may become all the more pressing.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a pair of articles I wrote here on the topic of gun control were picked up by Gun Pundit.  I had a few exchanges with various gun rights fundamentalists that commented on my posts.  None of them appeared particularly interested in what I was writing or in responding to the studies that I repeatedly pointed them to, with one of them finally dismissing all studies on the dangers of guns to have been discounted in a grand meta-study - for which the poster who cited it appears unwilling to name or send me a link to.  The main interest then has been to advance an ideological point - namely that nothing should impinge the rights to private gun-ownership whatsoever.

Once I discovered where these stray commentators were coming from, I started checking-in periodically on Gun Pundit because I was curious.  Apart from the typical shop talk regarding the minutiae of various weapons specifications that makes up much of the site's content, what emerges is a rather chilling world view.  Certainly posts detailing open-carry laws on college campuses have been disturbing, but three recent posts in particular each demonstrate something galling about the views of the self-stiled 'responsible gun-owners' who visit the site.

Post 1, on the subject of an automatic border guard/gun on the North/South Korean border sees the principle blog author, Murdoc, entering into a sort of lazy moral equivalence:

Not really an option for the Mexican border, but I could be convinced otherwise. Yes, the Mexican border is not the same as the North-South Korean border. But it’s still an important border to control. Too bad more politicians don’t think so. [Emphasis added]

So here in a single statement, though we see the seed planted for an idea, then dismissed but just as quickly reopened as an option. While the author does not come out completely in support of this statement, he remains open to the idea.

Never does it seem to enter his mind that such a device would effectively exist to murder impoverished Mexicans, many driven into the US as a result of illegal American agriculture subsidies which allow for the dumping or surpluses on the Mexican market which undercut local producers (despite higher overall production and environmental costs).

Effectively, what is being said here by the author is that he could be convinced that Mexican peasants attempting to enter the United States should perhaps be treated as though they are in the middle of a war zone.  This point is re-enforced by the dull mutterings about how it is "too bad" more politicians don't seem to think the Mexican-American border is important to control, or at least view it with the same importance as Murdoc. The subtext of flippant xenophobia within this post speaks for itself.

Post 2, on the subject of carrying a shotgun into the library via open-carry laws seems to carry a several self defeating logic:

Sure, points will have been made. Those points will be remembered for about three minutes, unless it’s a point good for the anti-gun crowd, in which case the point will be remembered forever and ever as a basic truth about guns. Like the basic truth about how guns are twice as likely to kill a family member as an intruder in a home defense situation and the basic truth about how no one needs a semi-automatic assault weapon for anything except killing people.  You do not dilute opposition and win allies by irritating and intimidating and scaring people. You’ve got to be smarter than that.

Murdoc here quotes an earlier post, however the context remains the same.  What is telling about this post is that he seems to note that guns are indeed harmful to the general public, however, the roll of responsible gun-owners should be to show the way forward.  While I appreciate that Murdoc seems to advocate for fewer abuses of open-carry laws as a means of intimidation - and that he seemingly through syntax-error seems to agree with me that guns are dangerous to the public as a whole - the underlying problem to me is not that people abuse open-carry laws but that gun laws in which abuse of spirit of the law can constitute carrying a loaded shotgun into a public place in the first place is the bigger problem.  

Murdoc's conclusion that: "You've got to be smarter than that." gives away the game.  Clearly, he is ideologically alright with people carrying loaded shotguns into public libraries but is deeply concerned with winning the public relations war as seething liberals (like myself) tend to seize of this type of thing.

Post 3, detailing Chicago's recent population loss, titled 'Rats from a sinking ship' is also quite confusing.  Blog Author Murdoc cites another blog that states:

This will mean loss of representation for the city, which strengthens the pro-gun position in Illinois, and weakens the anti-gun position.

Before Murdoc himself concludes:

Sooner or later, Chicagostan is going to be allowed back into the Union.

Despite the seeming tautological redundancy of the first statement (strengthens/weakens) this post seems to imply that the City of Chicago has somehow separated from the Union and formed it's own country - however this nation's independence is deterministically timestamped.  Or perhaps it is merely that Gun Pundit sees fit to unilaterally dismiss whole municipalities from the Union that do not share it's proclivities.  The title of the piece alone implies a gloating almost adolescent triumphalism in response to implied social attitude changes that have been stated largely without evidence.  These are some very strange causal links that have been implied here.

On the whole then, as strange as it was to have had my piece held up as "typical liberal irrational fear of guns" by Gun Pundit - never mind that this blog's readership is quite small and that I am not a policymaker or public opinion shaper - it has been even stranger to spend the time to digest some of Gun Pundit's content.   In some ways, it was almost flattering to be held up as the anti-thesis on everything believed on the site.  At the very least, I am starting to understand the rhetorical and ideological weirdness Sadhbh Walshe must have to wade through every week in order to file her column.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No One Writes to Colonel Qaddafi

In approaching the subject of Colonel Qaddafi and the current protests in Libya, it is hard to know where to begin.  The title of this piece is, after all, something of a misnomer.  The titular Colonel in the Marquez novella No One Writes to the Colonel is a man isolated through his heroic non-complicity in the corrupt and violent political system around him.  Qaddafi on the other hand is isolated due to semi-heroic embodiment of such as a system in the face of impossible odds.  As Qaddafi's position becomes increasingly untenable he appears to retreat ever further into the maddeningly contradictory persona that he has created for himself. Indeed, perhaps it is his role as something of a clown, replete with his grandiosity and which is in turn isolating, that prevents people from taking Qaddafi as seriously as they should.

My experience in meeting the Colonel (I would say conversing, but you never really have a conversation with Qaddafi, it's more that he talks at you) has left me feeling perennially compelled to respond to the man.  In my initial piece, I noted that I found him to come across as a far more reasoned thinker than many of his critics would state and that much of the bluster was for show.  Qaddafi has, as of recent, done everything from calling for the abolition of Switzerland - as a result of some minor slight by the Swiss in response to gross illegality by Qaddafi's family members operating in Switzerland - to repeatedly attempting to import Italian models as part of cultural tours with the aim of converting them to Islam, in some vainglorious and inane attempt to cosmetically 'improve' the Libyan gene pool.

Despite his very obvious megalomaniacal tendencies, his willingness to express his moods through awful sartorial hyperbole and the seeming pedantic weirdness of his response to recent events in the Middle East - his response to seeing both Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali ejected from their countries on Fridays was to weirdly abolish the day of Friday from the calendar - Qaddafi has largely responded to protest movements with a steely violence reminiscent of Hafez al-Assad's destruction of the town of Hama in response to an attempt on his life.  Despite Qaddafi's idiosyncrasies making him something of a figure of mirth, his actions force one to take him very seriously.

Certainly, the hundreds of unarmed protesters that have been murdered by Qaddafi's security force speak to this.  The regime has resorted to shooting, on-site, anyone found on the streets of Tripoli, grinding a city of two-million to halt in a noxious and brutal fit of pique.  This has further escalated to include the use of tanks and aircraft to attack crowds.  The regime had previosuly stated that peaceful protesters "risk suicide by army hands" - a notion that is as chilling as it is oxymoronic.  Additional reports have alleged that the regime may be employing West and Southern African mercenaries against it's citizenry to avoid qualms from within the military to prevent qualms from being voiced regarding orders to murder fellow Libyans.  Indeed, many of the shooters are apparently soldiers from Chad integrated into the military as a means of thanks for supporting Qaddafi in his foreign escapades their during that countries protracted civil war.  Qaddafi has declared that he will not leave Libya peaceably under any condition and that he will "die a martyr".

While Qaddafi's clinging to power has been of the utmost vulgarity directed against Libyans, it has also affected international events.  Libya pumps some 2% of the World's oil and as oil companies and field workers have fled the country, international oil prices have climbed sharply and stocks have dropped.  In the 40 years since Qaddafi seized power in Libya, his regime has, to it's credit invested many of these oil revenues into services and improvements for many, however, the Colonel's increasing weirdness has limited further improvements and hurt the plight of Libyans, as has his tendency towards isolation in the face of his failed expansionist ventures.  Qaddafi's actions, especially his seeming contempt for those he governs, and his rather limp acknowledgement that he could understand the anger of young towards his regime that they "should be forgiven for being mislead" after being caught up in the movements to depose nearby regimes - increasingly undermine whatever claims to legitimacy Qaddafi may have still had.

While no one may write to Colonel Qaddafi, in something of the sense that Marquez expressed, certainly we will remain compelled to write of him.  Qaddafi's staggeringly barbarous response to the popular Democratic protest movements by Libyan's to rid themselves of this crazed and petty tyrant indicate what should have been clear all along - despite the entourage of Amazonian glamour-model bodyguardsBedouin tents in Central Park and nonsensical bombastic pronouncements - Qaddafi is certainly a figure who must be taken deadly seriously.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Decline Effect In Science

The New Yorker recently ran a pair of pieces by Jonah Lehrer on the decline effect in science.*  The decline effect is one of those topics that does not seem to receive adequate coverage because it (a) can be bedeviling  to get one's head around, (b) it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable because it speaks to a potential problem with the scientific method and with falsification, and (c) seems to open the door to specious hucksterism, such as climate-change skepticism and creationism because the decline effect seems to implicate underlying problems in all science as a whole. As a result, one sees very little written about the decline effect in either popular media or in scientific publications despite it's pressing importance.  Indeed, regarding the last of these three rationale, it is something of a shock that the political right has not seized on the decline effect as more of a cause célèbre.

In order to discuss the decline affect, we must be clear what we are talking about - both in terms of how the scientific method operates and what the decline effect indicates.  Lehrer does an excellent job of breaking down the idea in the first of his New Yorker pieces as follows:

Before the effectiveness of a drug can be confirmed, it must be tested and tested again. Different scientists in different labs need to repeat the protocols and publish their results. The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws.

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: [Professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, JohnDavis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.

Members of the scientific community have reacted to the Lehrer piece with irritation, while others have stated that the decline effect is simply 'science correcting itself' - a statement that could not more completely miss the point.  While scientists are entitled to feel defensive about their methods - indeed the rigor required of a double-blind study would be very difficult to improve upon - it still seems that there is some element of 'gaming' results. The tendency of academic publishers to favor studies that see positive correlations rather than negative does not help matters.

Lehrer seems to point to the decline effect being most likely a product of the combination of manipulations and inconsistencies of study sample sizes, etc, on the part of scientists in order verify their suspicions taken with a  statistical error produced by using that semi-arbitrary old chestnut:
α = 0.05
due to the ease it provides in calculations (most notably via the old standard of the slide rule).  However, errors introduced by computational mistakes or manipulation thus providing significantly stronger correlations than may exist have been procedurely corrected for over time and the emphasis on reproducibility of studies is supposed to insulate against this.  The decline effect seems other in that correlations appear to disappear over time, and to do so gradually.  As Lehrer notes, the falsification process outlined by Karl Popper in The Nature of Scientific Discovery was designed to take place in a single grand experiment rather than through this piecemeal process.

The question becomes, with certain types of errors  - most specifically manipulations by researchers, consciously or unconsciously to get the results they want perhaps acting as known errors, to what extent do unknown errors play into the decline effect?  With science being our best device for understanding and interpreting the world around us, to what extent does the decline effect seem to question the very basis that we are capable of carrying out objective science altogether? Certainly, it must beg questions about the efficacy of almost any study.

Despite this, we also have thousands of studies in which the science and data do some to be rigorous, results are constantly reproducible with similar statistical spreads and results appear to be intuitively right, in that they reflect what we see through less rigorous forms of observation.  Certainly, it would be fools errand to use the decline effect as a rationale to dismiss science as a whole as a flawed ontological mechanism.  Importantly, those elements of science, such as climate change or evolution that are more commonly dismissed for ideological reasons tend to be those that have been the most widely studied and which have shown repeated and non-declining confirmation

What needs to be understood about the decline effect is, what can be learned from it in order to determine objectively what is going wrong and thus how to correct for it.  Certainly, an adjustment of the α used as the norm may be an important step, as would still tighter controls upon methodology to prevent insertion of researcher bias are important first steps, but the phenomena of the decline effect itself needs to be more widely studied.  Thus far, meta-studies of the studies that have 'suffered' from the decline effect appear inconclusive.  This however, merely speaks to the need for further study.

Perhaps what should be understood in discussing the decline effect is that, while questioning certain assumptions within science it does not devalue science or the scientific method.  That the decline effect seems to produce seemingly patterned errors speaks to an error or series of errors that is systematically being introduced to rather than one that is randomly occurring.  It speaks to the need for greater oversight in study construction and execution to guard against error.

As humans, we have a genetic tendency to want to intuit things.  We appreciate the observable and tactile and our brains seek out patterns that appeal to us emotionally or aesthetically.  Science does not operate under the same set of limitations, however as science is conducted by humans, the occasional error will be introduced.  It is the roll of the scientific method to limit the number of errors that can occur, however, as Popper noted, definitive Truth remains unknowable, and we must perpetually falsify (in the Popperian sense) those truths that we do arrive at as a means of bringing us ever closer to that unreachable position of what is.

The decline effect is perhaps best interpreted as a feedback mechanism.  It illuminates certain shortcomings in our current modus operandi and demands of us that we falsify and refine anew.  We must perpetually destroy the intellectual frame-works that we build in order to better understand.  Science exists as a method of discovery rather than speaking to absolutes. This process is almost, to a the definition postmodern, in its rationale.‡  We should not despair of this, but rather to respond and learn as such are the wages of discovery.


* The whole of Lehrer's first piece should be read as a primer to this piece for those that have not previously encountered the decline effect.  He does a wonderful job of breaking down the idea and presenting it within context.
 Many thanks to my friend Nick 'Arkan' Meyers for these links and for his thoughts on the decline effect which have helped to shape my thinking on this subject.
 Post modernism is best defined, from a scientific perspective, as the perpetual negotiation and renegotiation of difference.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thomas Paine: The Secular Moralist

English firebrand Thomas Paine certainly knew something about revolution - having long advocated for the American revolutionary and serving as one of the intellectual bulwarks that informed his friend Thomas Jefferson (who called him "a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.") and later serving as voice of reason during the French Revolution in his attempts to prevent the execution of the King and the wider reign of terror.  I had intended to mark his birthday, which passed on February 9th, as the character of the Egyptian protesters is very Paine-esque.

I have a special affinity for Paine -  not merely because of his position as a pamphleteer  (of which blogging can be viewed as something of a modern equivalent) and a liberal reformist, but also as a result of Paine's involvement in Urban Planning.  Paine briefly worked a bridge-designer and urban developer in his native England - something between an architect and civil engineer.  It would not be too much to fall back on a trite and overused expression and call Paine a true "Renaissance Man" as indeed, he was very much a beneficiary of that era and it's emphasis on liberalism, rationality, art and science.

The lack of memory of Paine within the American canon (despite seeming near idyllic worship of the other 'founding fathers' of the constitution) is puzzling as Thomas Jefferson himself had a statue commissioned of Paine.  This likely has something to do with Paine's deep hostility towards organized religion (which Jefferson certainly shared).  He made a point of seeing Christianity as simply a new variation of the old creation myths of antiquity, declaring:
The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man called Christ in the place of the sun, and pay him the adoration originally payed to the sun.
He goes on to compare the idea of Christ to to it's apparent source material of ancient Egyptian mythology, with Christ being compared to Egyptian Messianic figure of Horace.  More importantly, Paine believed in the tradition of secular humanism, inherited from Spinoza and the other secular moralists, that would go on to nourish other great recent moral thinkers, including George Orwell, Albert Camus and Bertrand Russel among others.  Much of this alternative form of morality: built on reason, compassion and empathy underpins the Social Democracies of Europe today and Paine was one of the figures who gave this position substance.

It is time then to perhaps rehabilitate Paine as a figure not just of the left, but of one of supporter of struggles of resistance and self-determination as a whole.  In these heady days in which much of what makes the United States civilized is again trying to be dismantled by the radical right (frequently citing ecclesiastical justification), and repressed peoples are organizing in attempts to force the re-establishment of civil society in many countries, Paine's ideas represent something of a clarion call for those that will listen.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Post Mubarak

The popular movement in Egypt has today succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak, with power now residing with the military.  Mubarak had remained in power for the better part of 30 years supervised a regime that was authoritarian and recklessly corrupt.  He will likely be missed by few, however this hardly represents the end of the institutionally abusive power structure that Egyptians took to the street in opposition to. Whether Mubarak's removal from office and expulsion from Egypt augers a new era of genuine Democratic leadership within Egypt - as the United States' UN Ambassador Susan Rice seems to believe at a speaking engagement I attended earlier this evening here in Portland - or whether Omar Suleiman and the Egyptian military will be able to continue to subvert the civil society movement and retain control, reamins to be seen.

I should add here that the celebratory rhetoric of the United States government is incredibly cynical when one considers the failure of the US to take a definitive stance on Mubarak while still providing much of the tear gas and equipment which protesters were subjected to.  Effectively, the Obama administration tried to have it both ways, muddled through, and now has been left trying to appear on the correct side of history.  We shall have to see how easily Egyptians are swayed by this apparent American triumphalism.

In the end, let us hope that whatever government results from this shake-up, that it be responsive to local needs and not be so easily subverted by the previous power structure as the similar protest movement in Tunisia has apparently been.

Thanks to my friend Ascher at Hungèer, Cluod for the above photo, and check out his brilliant portrait of Mubarak here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egyptian Fish

Ongoing protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square have seen Egypt's Vice-President, the odious Omar Suleiman threaten or warn of (depending on one's ideological read) a coup d'etat if protesters are not willing to accept the Mubarak regime's timeline for transition from power.  There are questions as to whether the regime is willing to honor this deal that it is advancing, or is simply trying to buy time in order to further advance it's organs of repression and quell the protests indefinitely.

The American response meanwhile, has been to dither as the White House has claimed to support the Democratic movement in Egypt while failing to pull funding from the regime.  This despite a large percentage of Americans supporting Egyptians right to self-determination.  This clinging to the old power order, represents the sort of cynical policy long-advanced by the likes of Henry Kissinger, and demonstrates, as Noam Chomsky notes not so much a fear of radical Islam, but a fear of independence for Egyptians, as doing so may undermine American hegemony.  Indeed, as Chomsky notes, the United States has long backed some of the vilest regimes in region, and particularly those that have advanced Islamic fundamentalism in the region as a means of retaining American control:

A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological centre of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan's dictators and President Reagan's favorite, who carried out a programme of radical Islamisation (with Saudi funding).

This in itself may be a null argument.  As I mentioned in my last post on Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which by dint of it's organization, seems most likely to seize the reigns of power in Egypt in the event of a power vacuum, does not seem to be the fundamentalist group it is made out to be.  While the occasional (though increasingly rare) rhetoric of the group may be worrisome to some Israelis, it remains largely a moderate organization.  A recent interview with several of the group's leaders in the Guardian seemed to indicate that though the group refuses to negotiate with the Mubarak regime (which has outlawed it), the main thrust of the Brotherhood seems to be basic human rights.  Further, there is a real push towards pluralism in the group's position:

"If we can build a wide coalition instead, this would be good," Erian says. "This is our strategy for many reasons: not to frighten others, inside or outside, and also because this is a country destroyed, destroyed by Mubarak and his family – why would the rebuilding task be only for us? It's not our task alone, it's the job of all Egyptians." He adds: "The Muslim Brothers are a special case because we are not seeking power through violent or military means like other Islamic organisations that might be violent. We are a peaceful organisation; we work according to the constitution and the law."

As I have previously noted, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to understand quite fully the implications of Egypt's dependence on the outside world.  Further, the group does not appear to be fundamentalist in any way and instead to be a reasoned a pluralistic body that uses Muslim nationalism as it's fulcrum.  This makes it not particularly different from say, the moderately Islamic Justice and Development (AK) Party in Turkey.

As protests continue, and despite the government's best efforts at repression, Egyptian self-determination is, in many ways, beginning to take on the whiff of the inevitable.  The question has increasingly become, to use an old joke, how much longer will the Mubarak regime play the part of the Egyptian fish: living in De Nile (denial)?

Manfred Max-Neef on Neo-Liberalism

Chiliean economist Manfred Max-Neef, in the brief video below, advances a biting critique of neo-Liberal economic theory in very much the same vein as my recent 'Society, The Economy & The Environment' post.  He argues that much of the development economics taught today is at odds with the implementation of economic policies as experienced by much world's poor.  This has resulted in a 'value-free' science that fails to address the multitude of human needs in pursuit of economic bottom lines and has proven destructive towards communities, civil society and the environment.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Defense of Powell's Books: A Love Letter

A friend of mine recently told me that, as a child, he used to fantasize about being trapped in Powell's Books.  It's a fantasy that I can imagine myself sharing - to roam the isles in that vast, immaculately organized font of writing.  It is the type of place that can make you forget hunger pains and simply give in to the singular pleasure of the printed word.  For those non-Portlanders that haven't been, it is the sweep and majesty of the place that is what is truly wonderful about it.  Powell's is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, and unlike The Strand in New York - the only place that comes close to it, is well-organized and easy to navigate.

As an unrepentant and compulsive bibliophile, the Powell's Burnside store represents, not just an institution, but a four-story tall city block of unprecedented pleasure.  I am a veritable junky for the printed word, and Powell's represents the preeminent place to slink for my drug of choice.  My love affair with Powell's began the moment I set foot in the place at the tender age of 14 as a new arrival to Portland and has only grown with time.  Certainly, it has been love/hate at times, especially on those rainy days when I found myself loaded down with new purchases - distraught that I could not find a used copy of a longed for volume and my pocket book stinging as a result. Despite this, it is a love that has always bloomed anew.  The $100 or so there I can drop in a single visit always feel like something of a bargain for the splendor of literature - a tribute to some benign and kind literary god rather than a business transaction.  Being able to browse the store's brimming shelves and extracting that perhaps not-so-rare or previously unknown treasure is part of what makes Portland the livable a place it is.

This said, today's news then that the grand institution was being forced to shed some 31 employees - a veritable 7% of it's total staff came as a shock and a blow.  Powell's has noted, in an internal e-mail memo that:

Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices.

Thus, we are hearing the potential death knell of an institution that I love as sounded by some cynical piece of gadgetry.  Regardless of advancements in liquid paper technology and the rest, there is something I find deeply vulgar about the printed word being replaced by e-book readers.  The technology represents, certainly something new and compelling, but it compromises the whole tactile sensation of reading that partially makes up the experience.  The weight of a book in my hands, the aesthetic and stylistic decisions made by the printers and importantly - the element of discovery - the ability to stumble upon some previously unknown gem on the shelf at a used book store are things that, to me, are worth fighting for.

Indeed, while there is a compelling argument to be made, with continually changing digital formats and the like for the retention of printed documents to insure the permanence of preserving human thought as put to paper - the preservation of Powell's as institution that puts Portland on the map may be of equal importance. While certain scholastic and bookish dinosaurs like myself have nothing but the utmost of resentment for the new digital formats - and Powell's is likely to survive in some form - the idea of it being reduced to a shell of itself, and indeed one that tourists will continue to come to see for years and begin to wonder what the big deal was all along - is harrowing.

This trend speaks to our declining literary and attention spans, our increased tendency to demand instant gratification, and our longstanding cultural decline.  As marvelous as technology can be, it's affects on the language as a whole and on discourse can makes one feel as though the barbarians are pounding at the gate.  Powell's is one of those rare institutions that serves as a bright shining beacon of culture.  The existence of Powell's promotes literacy and a love of words: what cause could be higher?

So, though I am loathe to advocate mindless consumerism, drop by Powell's, browse the still ample shelves and maybe buy a book.  In doing so, you are, in some small way, defending civilization.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

John McPhee

One of my heroes, John McPhee, was recently interviewed in the Paris Review as part of the publication's 'Art of Nonfiction' series.  McPhee's great subject was America and his writing has focused on technical, ecological and infrastructure considerations across the United States.  His corpus, when taken together feels as though it might encompass the breadth of the United States.  McPhee was one of the founders of so-called new journalism'.  His style of writing, while including elements of fiction, never devolved into the sort of angry polemic that characterized his most notable contemporary, Hunter S. Thompson.

McPhee has a way of enlightening certain aspects of things that might not otherwise be apparent.  I still remember rereading McPhee's piece on the Atchafalaya river basin from his book, The Control of Nature in late 2005 and realizing that, despite the mismanagement following Katrina, the very idea of controlling a river as powerful as the Mississippi could only be an act of hubris.

The interview linked to is eminently worth reading - as are previous 'Art of Nonfiction' interviewees, which has included the great Ryszard Kapuschinski among others.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt and Tunisia

One of the major developments thus far overlooked by this blog has been the successful Internet organized protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.  Thus far, Tunisia's Ben Ali has been forced into exile in France while similarly long-serving despots Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh have both agreed to step down.  The use of communications technology as a mechanism for mass organization of protesters has been particularly impressive - especially in Tunisia where controls upon the Internet have been semi-draconian.

Indeed, despite numerous previous protest movements in opposition to autocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa, one wonders if these protests would have been nearly as successful in their aims.  The Arab world in certainly no stranger to effective protest movements - even before mass dissemination of communications technology, decentralized and rapidly responsive protest movements have seen some success - as was the case of the first Palestinian Intifada, well-documented in Thomas X. Hammes' The Sling and the Stone.  Hammes' a retired marine colonel, characterizes these types of protest movements as '4th generation' asymmetrical warfare. it is clear that the implementation of technology has further allowed for mass resistance, and preferably for more responsive, pluralistic and democratic governments to come.

The motivations for these resistance movements are interesting in and of themselves. In both cases, shame in response to potential international denigration following revelations about corruption seem to be pressing.  In Tunisia, the prevalent story seems to be that, while Ben Ali was long known to be debauched, it was the exposure of his corruption to the outside world (via the WikiLeaks diplomatic leaks) that motivated Tunisians, largely to save face, to seek his immediate removal.  This was a link drawn by Gaddafi in neighboring Libya, who ever desiring to shackle his fortunes to a proven 'winner', apparently viewed the leaks as 'diabolic' and has stated his support for Ali after Ali had been removed to Paris.  So much for playing to populist sympathies of Tunisians for the colonel then.

As Mubarak's withering regime writhes and grasps for the remaining tendrils of power, largely by visiting violence upon protesters, there remain several pertinent points about Egypt that are worth keeping in mind.  Firstly, the United States has a hand in supporting the Egyptian regime.  We subsidize Mubarak to the tune of around $1.5 billion annually, largely to placate the Egyptian government and insure that it remains on civil terms with Israel and ostensibly to fight creeping "Islamic extremism", most specifically the Muslim Brotherhood.  While some percentage of this money disappears into Swiss bank accounts and the like, some of it has gone to strengthen the military, largely to the detriment of the Egyptian people.  Further, the United States has provided many of the sinews of repression currently being employed by the regime.  The American stance should be one of understanding with Egyptian protesters, less we risk the venom of whatever government succeeds Mubarak.

Secondly, Egypt remains firmly dependent upon outside aid to both feed it's economy (tourism and shipping through the Suez Canal being key) as well as to feed it's population, with Egypt importing nearly 40% of it's food.  This means that, even if a new regime is made up of largely Muslim Brotherhood members, who despite being an illegal organization under the current regime, has it's ranks largely filled with educated professionals, and as a result, is likely to take positions of moderation.  Egypt is dependent on it's interactions with the rest of the World and no regime would be foolish enough to damn the whole of the population.

The Muslim Brotherhood has shifted radically from it's ideology following the state execution of Sayyid Qutb, who according to Adam Curtis (in the excellent The Power of Nightmares mini-series) represents the ideological father of modern Islamic reactionary thought.  Indeed, even the Islamism of Qutb called for ongoing Western-style scientific and technological advancement in the Arab world while simultaneously embracing Islamic legal codes. These Islamic legal norms have their roots in the Ottoman Empire and have historically been a perceived source of fair arbitration in the face of despotic rule, hence the reason for their popularity even among many more secular Arabs.  As a result, even an Islamic regime in Egypt is likely not to be feared and is likely to continue to support modernization efforts.

Thirdly, Egypt is undergoing demographic and humanitarian upheaval.  Much of Egypt - like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the wider Arab World - is under 25.  This population is currently of reproductive age and underemployed.  Urban development and infrastructure remain heavily lacking for many Egyptians and large-scale informal squatter and slum settlements represent standard living conditions for many.  One of the reasons for Nasser's ongoing popularity in Egypt has little to do with foreign policy - despite nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Nasser's legacy includes, after all a quagmire in Yemen and terrible losses incurred during the 1967 Six-Day War - and has more to do with his emphasis in investment in the Egyptian population, in both infrastructure and education that saw living standards rise for many.

Given this failure of infrastructure and of despotic governments within North Africa and the wider Arab World to provide adequate services for their citizens, these protests should be viewed as a restoration of civil society.  Denizens of these countries have seen their talents squandered and living conditions deteriorate under the heels of frequently Western-backed regimes that have served as vehicles of corruption and repression.  The West should seek to begin to rectify these errors by supporting the liberation struggles of those resisting today and who are asserting a desire for self-determination and for basic services.  

The movement in Egypt is one that is  popularly rooted and bottom-up and thus represents something radically different from the region transforming power fantasies of the Neo-Conservatives.  This series of popular rebellions across the Arab world has local and personal meaning and resonance to many of those agitating.  The mealy-mouthed, group-think derived real politique that is frequently advanced as sensible foreign policy serves only affluent Western States and fails to address the considerations that these protests are about.  With this emphasis on the restoration of civil society within the region at the heart of these protests, it would be deeply cynical to not extend solidarity to these protesters, whether what new comes of it is secular or Islamic.