My latest piece on aid, suspicion and evacuation in a time of Ebola has been posted in Dissent Magazine’s blog.
Critical media reading by ‘Black Twitter.”
Black Twitter wasn’t happy with how the Associated Press handled the verdict in case of Theodore Wafer, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Renisha McBride.
The tweet in question inexplicably references McBride’s reported inebriation at the time of her murder, with an equally inexplicable mention of Wafer’s home-ownership.
The hashtag that followed “#APHeadlines” took the usually venerable news wire to task through absurdly satirized headlines of old news stories. Check out some of the more poignant examples below.
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I’m trying not to make my commentary about the current Ebola outbreak about representation, but I’ve been a bit troubled by the political analyses accompanying the epidemiological and health systems ones. Specifically, I want to talk a bit about how Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s civil wars have been deployed by these analysts to understand the response to the outbreak and how explaining existing tensions requires some deeper knowledge about local context.
Laurie Garrett’s recent opinion piece on CNN and her appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show are both examples of this kind of minimally informed political analysis. There is nothing unique about her stance, I suppose. We see this sort of “war changes everything” or “war happened, therefore…” logic quite a bit. But because she is such a well-respected journalist — I loved The Coming Plague in college and became interested in public health because of that book — I think it’s worth discussing here. As much as I have admired her work, I am beginning to see how her analysis, combined with a reputation for producing compelling journalistic accounts of global health problems, may successfully reproduce the tropes that make for interesting and juicy news, but may not help the cause.
One reason it is useful to understand the context is that even reading newspaper editorials requires some knowledge of existing tensions and conflicts. Yesterday, Garrett tweeted a link to an Awareness Times editorial, focusing (in her short Twitter allotment) on the ignorance of a “very important citizen” who underestimated the threat of the disease publicly. While this may very well be one of the points the editorial was making, I think Garrett’s tweet might be missing the point. It helps to know that the Awareness Times is a paper through which Sylvia Blyden, who has been very vocal and critical of the government response to Ebola from very early on, is communicating her disapproval of the government response to the epidemic.
It is also helpful to know that she has ruffled some feathers on many political matters. According to another Facebook friend, Blyden traveled to the Canada some months ago to collect donations for protective gear to help stop Ebola from spreading. Sylvia Blyden’s critique of this “very important citizen,” therefore, must be understood as a critique of the official response to the disease and elites’ repeated claims that rural people are uneducated and ignorant when it comes to assessing their risk for disease. Rather than simply demonstrating ‘ignorance’ of an elite class, then, she is also criticizing complacency and inadequacy of official response. She is disparaging their assessment of rural people.
In her CNN opinion piece, Garrett reminds of us all the backlash against health workers within these Ebola affected communities. She recounts the story of the woman with Ebola whose family removed her from the hospital and was “brought to a traditional healer.” “Brought to a traditional healer” is usually code for ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, which tend to be, well, euphemisms for ‘backwardness.’ But any medical anthropologist or most undergraduates who have taken an introductory medical anthropology course, for that matter, knows and understands that an individual’s therapeutic itinerary is often related to perceived efficacy. Put more simply, folks’ quest to get better often means looking in multiple places for cures. In the case where biomedicine can’t get the job done, or you’re seeing people enter hospitals and not coming out, where would you go?
Certainly these protracted conflicts have done their damage, but it has been noted that some of the causes of the war were, indeed, the perceived failures of the state and the mistrust engendered in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were tales told to me by older politically involved individuals whom I encountered during fieldwork in the mid-2000s. One friend, an anthropologist currently in Liberia and who lived in Sierra Leone before and during the war, described how people use the war to explain current problems, when she had observed the same misfortune and problems those years before the war. She wrote, “I remember driving along the Kamakwie road with someone who was saying what a shame the war had destroyed the road. I said, actually, this is pretty much exactly what the road was like before the war too.”
I am sure that if you asked any anthropologist who happened to work in Sierra Leone in the 1980s about changes, they would see little change on some issues, but radical changes in others. Because time has passed. Moreover, war does not affect everyone the same. During one of my first interviews for preliminary dissertation research in 2005, I remember a cousin of a friend telling me, “We were very comfortable during the war. We stayed in a nice little place on the outskirts of Freetown and were very safe.” Her story wasn’t exactly typical, but it was not unusual either for a specific class of individuals. If anything, we might ask how intervention has been naturalized under these narratives about ‘failed’ and ‘fragile’ states, as my friend Susan Shepler has said. It also appears to naturalize the outbreak and responses to it: “well, they’ve experienced so much in war that this can only breed distrust.” The distrust and suspicion were there all along, albeit expressed in other forms. I would argue, too, that if war has changed anything, the incredible influx of humanitarian interventions and aid workers during the war and its immediate aftermath — where outsiders and their local cronies seemed to benefit openly from others’ suffering — has also engendered suspicion that has helped fuel the backlash against local and international health workers.
How powerful is a number? I’ve been writing about the politics and techniques of enumeration for some time now and continue to delve into how the global health and development industries use numbers to advance and justify their work. I am also interested in how people interpret and use various estimates to communicate value(s) and significance. For example, when we hear about the case fatality rate of Ebola in West Africa (90%), or the number of children killed by malaria yearly (millions), we feel informed enough to assess their significance and urgency. That is what these numbers and the people who put these numbers out for our viewing compel us to do.
During this last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by how numbers have been used to talk about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Take for example, this excerpt from a report from NBC News about the US “lone soldiers” who fight for the Israeli Defense Forces:
Steinberg, a member of the elite Golani Brigade, was one of 13 Israeli soldiers and scores of Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip over the weekend. He joined the force six months after he visited the country for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip in the summer of 2012.
While this very short statement raises many questions — about how the language of ‘lone soldier’ masks the US fighter’s role as a mercenary, or how Birthright can be responsible for militarizing notions of belonging — I have a somewhat different aim: to draw attention to the disparate ways that deaths are enumerated. In this mundane and somewhat subtle use of numbers, we see how Palestinian lives are valued — how they count and are counted– in comparison to those of Israeli soldiers in a mainstream US media source.
The number of Israeli soldiers is precisely counted. Palestinians, on the other hand, are an undifferentiated mass; we are told that “scores of Palestinians” were killed in the Gaza Strip. One could argue that death counts for Israeli soldiers are more easily collected because military deaths are part of standard recordkeeping. Accurate and precise body counts are a part of military bureaucratic practices. These soldiers’ deaths, in comparison, are also fewer in number, which makes them easier to count. (This is redundant and telling, but stick with me here). The problem with that argument is that numerous organizations do count Palestinian deaths and publish precise numbers. Certainly, these numbers are conservative estimates because they are often based upon hospital admissions, but surely, the numbers are more precise than “scores,” or multiples of 20. But the politics of counting becomes clear: one must be counted to matter; one must matter enough to be counted.
The question remains: what is at stake for representing the numbers — 13 versus “scores” — this way? Could this use of numbers be purely incidental? I’d like to pose the question another way: if precise numbers of Israeli and Palestinian deaths were placed side-by-side, would people more readily question the disparity between them? Would they assess or rethink how lives are valued in the reporting of the conflict?
Last week in my anthropology and global social problems class, students learned about bureaucracy and how anthropologists engage with the concept. We read the introduction to Hummel’s famous book on The Bureaucratic Experience, which is a pretty good primer on how bureaucracy transforms social action, human relations, and bureaucrats themselves.
We started class with this clip:
A brief description: With ominous music playing in the background, a young woman stands in the doorway of what appears to be a government office. Her eyes follow something — someone? — off-camera. Within moments, we see that she has been watching a dark-haired man who soon stops in the doorway, eyes wide and frightened. She responds with a sideways glance of her own. The woman is buzzed over to a desk where a bureaucrat, dressed in a black sweater adorned with leather, lazily chews on a toothpick and shuffles papers. She takes a seat at his desk. The bureaucrat interrupts her as she begins to speak and gestures for her to wait as he pours his coffee. After the coffee is poured, the woman tells him that she would like to register as a freelance worker. The bureaucrat rapidly fires off a series of requests, procedures and esoteric form names. With each request, the woman slaps down a form with defiance. The final administrative task that the bureaucrat requires, stapling documents together, is presented to the audience with great suspense. The two stare at each other and then at a distant desk, where a lone stapler sits. The two dive for the stapler; the bureaucrat reaches it first. But the woman has one more trick up her sleeve. Reminiscent of the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a close-up of the woman’s hand reveals a stapler neatly tucked into her shirt sleeve. The bureaucrat drops his stapler, the woman staples her documents. The bureaucrat, foiled in his attempt to set up requisite roadblocks and ‘red tape’, crumples to his desk, defeated.
What can we infer from this short film about bureaucracy? Some students recognized this as evidence of the psychological and cognitive effects of bureaucracy: one’s professional identity is lost once he has no administrative work to do! Others saw the depersonalization of bureaucracy in this clip. And of course, there’s the hierarchy and rules, procedures and paperwork that characterize bureaucracy.
The hierarchical organization of ‘the office’ and the numerous administrative procedures central to bureaucracy also come through in this familiar clip from Office Space (1999) about TPS reports:
Because bureaucracy is a common feature of university life — and everyday life, more generally — students were quickly able to recognize its features in this clip. The ‘iron cage’ of the increased bureaucratization of social life and human action was easy to see here.
Yet, when I asked them about Arendt’s claims about the links between violence and bureaucracy, they were challenged to think about how bureaucracies, as ‘tyranny without tyrants’ might inspire ‘real’ violence:
the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains, what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.
Or how it might, in fact, be backed up by the threat of violence, as in this clip from Brazil:
or in David Graeber’s provocative 2006 Malinowski Lecture, in which he writes:
We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force,” in turn, is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence. All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would indeed be summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.
This all dovetails into a guest lecture by Kirk Johnson, who spoke about his work with the List Project. During that lecture, Kirk talked about his work with USAID during reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In his book, he notes how his work was less about development and more about managing contracts and contractors. He also described his work with The List Project and the various administrative tactics used by the US government to prevent Iraqis who worked alongside US agencies and military (and are now in danger because of that involvement) to receive visas to come to the US.
Right now, we’re still grappling with the relationships between war and bureaucracy, why it matters, and what anthropologists have to say about this relationship. But I do think that we’re off to a good start.
Sarah Kendzior, in a recent opinion piece on Al Jazeera, compares the aftermath of President McKinley’s assassination by a Polish-American to that of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings. In the piece, she argues that Chechen ethnicity became demonized (and criminalized). She writes:
Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaevs’ motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time. Journalist Eliza Shapiro proclaimed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “named after a brutal warlord”, despite the fact that Tamerlan, or Timur, is an ordinary first name in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her claim is equivalent to saying a child named Nicholas must be named in honour of ruthless Russian tsar Nicholas I – an irony apparently lost on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who made a similar denouncement on Twitter (to his credit, Kristof quickly retracted the comment).
more on the politics of representation in relation to childhood in Africa.
In 1995 Dorling Kinderlsey published a book, Children Just Like Us, sponsored by UNICEF, which brought pictures of children from “all over the world” into its pages, complete with facts and apparently direct quotations from the children (who all seem to speak perfect English). The book feels friendly, ecumenical: children certainly have some funny habits and names, but underneath, of course, they are all alike! What effects do these kind of books, which make faraway places and different cultures specularly available to middle-class children, have on the young minds who read them. Do they inform a harmlessly cosmopolitan, global outlook? Or ambitions to travel, to see and know the world as benevolently different as it was promised? Is there another perspective hidden within, which involves a dangerous sense of moral and intellectual superiority? The cause of these thoughts are a photo-series of children with their toys, by an Italian…
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