Friday, December 23, 2011

Women Writers and the War on Terrorism after 9/11

Review of Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Doubleday, 2011); Anna Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011); and Megan K. Stack, Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday, 2010)

One of the ironic benefits of the 9/11 attacks was that we ended up learning a great deal about the Middle East. Responding to the shocking explosions, American interest in the Middle East and South Asia also exploded. Suddenly, everyone was curious to know about the region, and media outlets scrambled to report the news from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Arab world. In the process, they turned to young American women like Kim Barker, Anna Ciezadlo, and Megan Stack to travel to war zones as reporters.

Reading these women's personal accounts together tells us something about the state of American journalism and the state of the so-called War on Terrorism. What we learn is often troubling, but also revealing. American naivete is the first thing we learn about.

Naive Americans Abroad
Each woman's story moves along a similar arc: from young, naive American unconcerned with foreign affairs, to eager and curious reporter after 9/11, to veteran war correspondent who has seen death up close too many times. None of them had a particular passion for the region and none of them spoke any regional languages when 9/11 occurred. But all of them ended up seeing the worst of what the world had to offer in war zones.

Kim Barker, having landed a job at the Chicago Tribune by age 30, was sent to Afghanistan as a self-confessed "unilingual green reporter" (p. 302). After the Iraq War flared up, she returned to the region and reported extensively from Afghanistan and Pakistan--until the Tribune went into bankruptcy and she chose to quit rather than be reassigned to metro Chicago area reporting. The many moments of humor sprinkled throughout the book make it a pleasant read.

Los Angeles Times reporter Megan Stack, age 25 in 2001, was also sent to Afghanistan, where she was harassed by an Afghan warlord in the early days of the war. Unlike the other two authors, she remained in the region and went on to report from several other countries, including Egypt during its 2005 elections, where she witnessed brutal military violence against voters--an eerie echo of the present. Her book is clearly an attempt to make sense of her sense of shock but resists tidy lessons. Instead of a coherent narrative, she offers fragments of reporting from countries across the region (most memorably Yemen and Lebanon in 2006). This is the most writerly book, serious and a bit ponderous at times.

When 9/11 happened, Annia Ciezadlo was 31, living in New York and dating Mohamad, a Shiite Muslim from Lebanon who was a fellow reporter. (She says that they both loved discussing, of all things, urban transportation policy!) After a five-month courtship, they got married in 2002. By 2003, Newsday made Mohamad its Middle East bureau chief and Ciezadlo joined her husband in the region. "I went to the Middle East like most Americans," she writes, "relatively naive about both Arab culture and American foreign policy" (p. 9). She became a free-lance reporter, contributing a number of pieces to the Christian Science Monitor from Baghdad and Beirut. She, like Stack, reports on the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon with some memorably disturbing images.

Responding to regional cultures
Ciezado, like Stack and Barker, learned a great deal about the region. In her case, she had the added benefit of building on her husband's insider knowledge, which she furthered by learning Arabic. Her book is the most sensitive to regional sensibilities, notably in her praise of local foods in Iraq and Lebanon. She writes of sharing a meal with her husband's family right after the funeral of her father-in-law Abu Hassane: "Food unlocked memories, connecting the family to people and places no longer with us, to the dead. Like tradition, the repetition of familiar foods created the illusion that the past was still alive: we eat this food because we ate it before when Abu Hassane was still with us(p. 208). 

By immersing herself into daily life in the culture, using food as a lens, she was able to see the universality within the particularity. She begins to see a common humanity that eludes the other two writers. Her otherwise-forgettable title refers to an Arabic saying, "youm 'asil, youm bassil"--day of honey, day of onions--which captures her deeper theme: life is bittersweet.

Barker, the author of Taliban Shuffle, is mostly clueless about the cultures in which she reports, and she gravitates toward fellow expatriate reporters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than local friends. She even likens the social scene in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to high school, and we hear a bit too much about her dating life. At the same time, her light-hearted, self-deprecating humor offers a refreshing contrast from Stack's ultra-seriousness. But she also comes across as a bit demeaning toward Muslims.

Stack's Every Man, while sprinkled with autobiographical fragments, is closer to the norm of traditional, straight political reporting. To the extent that culture affects the stories, she touches on it, but she's neither as deeply embedded as Ciezadlo nor as tone-deaf as Barker. She simply navigates enough to get the stories.

Observing war up close
All three books see death up close. After reading about Barker washing the blood and guts off her shoes after a Pakistan suicide bombing, we get the gross-out reality. Both Ciezadlo and Stack tell harrowing tales about traveling into the war zone while Israel was bombarding Southern Lebanon, making me realize how little I had thought about the Lebanese side of the 2006 conflict. This humanizing of ordinary people in the midst of war zones--provoking us to start hearing the voiceless--is the central contribution of these engaging books.

None of these books attempts to teach us anything comprehensive about the so-called war on terrorism; but they do teach us something about humanity in wartime.

The role of autobiography
In contrast to many excellent books by young male reporters on the Iraq War (including Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, George Packer's Assassin's Gate;  and Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near; with Oliver Poole's overlooked Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Baghdad being the exception), these women generally tell us more about their day-to-day struggles with living in war zones. 

This may have something to do with their gender and their location. As liberated, educated American women in pervasively conservative, patriarchal, and gender-conscious societies, they struggled to navigate daily life. It was hard for them to travel safely to and from interviews, for example, without suffering from petty harassment--or worse.

As a result, they take a larger role in their own stories than their male colleagues do in their books. And for this we can be thankful, since we learn more about daily life--shopping, eating, drinking, traveling, dating, and writing--in a war zone. I learned a lot more about what it really meant to live in Kabul, Baghdad, or Beirut while war raged all around.

I'd recommend all three books, depending on what you're hoping to learn about. For excellent coverage of both Iraq and Lebanon between 2003 and 2006, and for mouth-watering descriptions of Middle Eastern food, go with Day of Honey. For thoughtful, serious coverage of multiple stories across entire region, All the Men in This Village would be a good start. And for a funny glimpse into how messed-up Afghanistan and Pakistan were by 2009, The Taliban Shuffle is hard to beat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Ten Best Books of 2011

Bowing to convention, here's my list of the best new books I've read this year on globalization. None of these are dry academic studies; all are engaging first person narratives, journalistic accounts, or colorful histories that illuminate the complexity of globalization for ordinary readers. All of these are highly recommended.

1. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
  • This "biography" of the city of Jerusalem, by focusing so clearly on the most coveted holy city in the world, illuminates the rise and fall of regional and global powers that have claimed possession of Jerusalem's sacred space over millennia. It's the most readable 600 page history book I've ever read, entertaining and enlightening at the same time. It was impossible to put down.

2. Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (W.W. Norton, 2011)
  • As my recent review indicates, this is a entertaining and sobering account of recent financial history by one of our best-known non-fiction writers.

3. Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Penguin, 2010)
  • Another book reviewed in this space, All the Devils is probably the single best place to start reading about the origins of the financial crisis, although it's best read in conjunction with the next selection. McLean and Nocera largely blame Wall Street for the crisis, mostly corroborating Charles Ferguson's Inside Job.

4. Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Times Books, 2011)
  • Unlike McLean and Nocera, Morgenson and Rosner focus on the story of James Johnson's tenure at Fannie Mae, the quasi-government mortgage guarantor. They convincingly show how Fannie Mae was involved early in contributing to the crisis, especially in hijacking Washington politicians. The lesson? Beware of the capitalist-statist complex, the overlap between Wall Street and Capitol Hill: this is the space Fannie Mae exploited to enrich Johnson and his cronies under the guise of expanding homeownership to new borrowers. If you read this and All the Devils, you'll have a fairly complete picture of what happened.

5. Stacey Edgar, Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide (St. Martin's Press, 2011).
  • An upbeat and hopeful example of alternative globalization. This young mom built a fair trade fashion business aimed at empowering female producers by giving them access to the large U.S. market through Global While the narrative is a bit too cheerful and optimistic, it also stimulates hope about making a dent in global poverty.

6. Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011)
  • If you can get past the cheesy cover, you'll find an engaging story of eating across the Middle East in a time of war. Having married a Lebanese journalist not long after 9/11, this young writer becomes a war reporter, but she ends up writing about ordinary Middle Eastern life by focusing on the region's cuisine. Globalization is often accused of undermining traditional diets, but, as Ciezadlo shows, it can also foster cross-cultural understanding. Recipes are included!

7. Connor Grennan, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (William Morrow, 2011)
  • A young man decides to spend his savings on a trip around the world and decides to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal because it sounds cool. He ends up finding his wife, discovering his vocation, and starting an organization to combat child trafficking in Nepal. A great story, told humbly. (Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book when it was chosen for Malone University's Fall 2011 required freshman reading program.)

8. Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
  • As the Arab Spring continues to unfold, this is a helpful first cut at telling its early history, by a seasoned journalist. Wright explicitly links the changes in the region to the forces of globalization. Far from being isolated from the world, the region turns out to be very much interconnected: satellite TV, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all significant tools in spreading revolt against corrupt regimes.

9. Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale (Penguin, 2011)
  • A reflective romp through a six-month experiment at going screen-free: no TV, no computers, no cellphones, and no video games in the house. Maushart has a Ph.D. in communications from New York University, so she's got some excellent preparation for thinking about media in society. Her lessons, "The Ten Commandments for Using Modern Media," are excellent advice for all of us. Instead of accepting the intrusion of electronic media as inevitable, we need to slow down and find alternatives that keep us human. We need to make space for kairos time and resist the flattening forces of chronos.

  • Also reviewed here, this book focuses on the American automobile industry in a global context: the oil price spike and financial collapse of 2008 were the nails in the coffin for an industry that had many internal problems. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent and the Kingdom Coming: Emptiness is Fullness

Last night I ran into a former student of mine at an event downtown, where she reminded me that it's Advent. Sadly, I needed this reminder. I've been so busy trying to survive the end of the semester that I've almost forgotten to read my daily experiences through Advent. Which is exactly what I'm arguing in the book that we shouldn't do in any season. Ideally, we should let the narrative of the liturgical season frame how we see the world. Instead, I've all too often let the Flat World define me.

All is not lost, however. This week I've also been talking with a student who is depressed about the brokenness of the world. I share her tendency to be overwhelmed by both history and current events, seeing how much violence, death, destruction, and oppression has occurred and still occurs every day, all around the globe. There's often little sign that God's Kingdom is ruling. "The world is so screwed up!" said this student.

But this is exactly where we should be in Advent:  We should be frustrated with the brokenness. We should be experiencing the "lonely exile here," as evoked in the haunting Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." We should be hungering for God's rule to arrive here on earth as in heaven. We should be longing for God's shalom (peace, justice, righteousness) to be restored.

This is what it means to experience the Fullness of Time right now--a Fullness that means entering into the Emptiness of the Hebrew people longing for a return from exile, the Emptiness that Christ experienced in the Incarnation (Phil 2:7), and the Emptiness that the disciples experienced after the Crucifixion.

In morning prayer on Tuesday, Psalm 74:19 jumped out and spoke of the Emptiness of exile: "Look upon your covenant; the dark places of the earth are haunts of violence."

As we ponder these dark places and their haunts of violence, we can pray for the restoration of the covenant: for a return from exile, for redemption of the world, and for resurrection to eternal life. Experiencing the depths of this brokenness just points us back to the story that begins with Advent. We long for the Kingdom to come and the Fullness of God's reign to begin.

Come quickly, Lord.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Exemplary Failure?

Today's New York Times web opinion page ran an interesting piece by D. Michael Lindsay, the current president of Gordon College who was an academic sociologist at Rice University until this year. Lindsay also wrote Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, a book based on several hundred interviews with evangelical Christians who have "made it" by getting into top positions at mainstream institutions in American society.

But there is another side to the story of "making it." And it's one that I've been thinking about for several years. When Christians enter the Big Time of corporate leadership, will they be corrupted by power? If necessary, will they be willing to sacrifice their positions in order to stay true to their faith?

Lindsay tells us that Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American Airlines, did the latter. As Lindsay puts it, Arpey
resigned and stepped away with no severance package and nearly worthless stock holdings. He split with his employer of 30 years out of a belief that bankruptcy was morally wrong, and that he could not, in good conscience, lead an organization that followed this familiar path.
I'm grateful to hear about this. If Lindsay's account is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt it, since he's interviewed Arpey), then this is a great example of the kind of leadership that Christians could exert in corporate America: real leadership that embraces noble failure rather than compromised success.

Or to be more accurate, the kind of leadership that takes seriously the call and example of Jesus to be a sacrificial servant of others rather than exalt oneself. As Jesus said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). In case the readers of Mark missed the point, this is repeated:
whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
A little context helps appreciate how radical Arpey's move is. First, as I've blogged about before, executive pay has gone crazy in this country, and Arpey is bucking a major trend. Second, all airlines have struggled to be profitable and contemplated bankruptcy in order to shed union contracts with pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance workers. And some of their CEOs had no such scruples. By leading their companies through bankruptcy, they slashed their workers' pay and trimmed their retirement pensions, taking money away from ordinary workers. But Northwest Airlines' CEO came out of bankruptcy in 2007 with a compensation package worth $26.6 million. After United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton put his company and his workers through bankruptcy, he walked away with a cool $39.7 million.

So Gerard Arpey does deserve our praise! Well-done, good and faithful servant.

Epilogue to this story
Of course, the day that Arpey resigned, American Airlines declared bankruptcy, which means that the end of the American Airlines story isn't good news. But the good news of the Christian story is that those servants who sacrifice and end up last will someday, in the Kingdom's economy, be first.

If we were in Arpey's shoes, I hope we'd choose the right thing--to be more motivated by truly loving God and our neighbor in the long run (and in the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead, so we'll have to face our Maker) than by enriching ourselves. I hope we'd decide to work toward that day when we might hear those words: "Well-done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master's happiness" (Matt 25:23).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Report on Bahrain's Crisis Released Today

Readers of this blog may recall several postings on the Arab Spring in the early months of 2011, especially reports on my friend Shubbar who was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned for fifty days--just because he was the son-in-law of a prominent opposition leader. He was one of many victims of a harsh crackdown by Bahrain's security forces, carried out by the Sunni-dominated government against protesters from the Shia majority.

Another prominent victim was the Bahrain national team soccer star Alaa Hubail, whose story was recently covered in this poignant ESPN report:

Today, however, the government of Bahrain received a 500 page report from an independent commission that it had appointed to study the crackdown. To its credit, it allowed the commission to work quite freely in Bahrain and it allowed the document to be made public on the Web.

A quick review of the report suggests that the Commission was very careful to document facts as much as possible. For example, their staff compiled sixty vivid, firsthand accounts of arbitrary arrest and torture (see Annex B in the document).

In addition, Annex A records all the deaths tied to the unrest and crackdown:
  • Thirteen civilian deaths attributed to security forces
  • Eight civilian deaths "not attributed to specific perpetrators"
  • Five deaths attributed to torture
  • Four expatriate workers killed
  • Five police officers and military members killed (three by protesters)
  • Eleven killings that occurred "outside the Commission's temporal mandate" (after the cutoff date)
In a crude calculus of the two sides' losses, at least forty opponents of the government were killed, in contrast to three members of the police and security forces.

Scanning the bulk of the report feels a bit like reading a divorce proceeding, with the two sides bitterly disputing each point. But its thoroughness is a tribute to the work of the commission and its chairman, M. Cherif Bassiouni.

How this will play in the Bahraini government is the real question. My hunch is that the younger members of the royal family will try to use this as ammunition to force out the old guard (the prime minister), but they'll have an uphill battle, as Anthony Shadid pointed out yesterday in the New York Times.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Alone in a Dark Room With a Pile of Money: What Would You Do?

Review of Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, first came to prominence with Liar's Poker, his memoir of going to work for the Wall Street bond trading firm Salomon Brothers in the mid-1980s (a book I finally read this summer). Liar's Poker is a hillarious send-up of the big shots who ran Salomon by someone who saw their greed and recklessness firsthand. Lewis was close enough to be on the inside, but critical enough to keep his distance; his account turns out to be readable introduction to Wall Street, specifically the bond market, in the 1980s.

An art history major at Princeton who ended up making a tremendous amount of money shortly after graduation, thanks to Salomon Brothers, Lewis maintains a bemused and detached tone throughout Liar's Poker. It's as if he never believed that he was smart enough to work there. His detachment was evident when he quit while he was still young. (Of course, it didn't hurt that he had a nice financial cushion.)

Twenty years later, his knowledge of the global bond market--including the introduction of mortgage-backed bonds--would help him later unravel parts of the global financial crisis of 2007-2009. His first book on the crisis, The Big Short (reviewed last year in this blog), explained how several smart investors predicted the crisis and were able to "short" collateralized mortgage bonds when their value crashed. ("Shorting" is basically betting that the value of an asset will fall in the future, by borrowing it and selling it in the present. If indeed the investor is correct, then they benefit by buying the same asset at a lower price in the future.)  Hedge fund investors like John Paulson and Kyle Bass made out like bandits when the mortgage-backed bond market collapsed, because they had essentially shorted these bonds by investing in credit-default swaps.

Lewis starts Boomerang by confessing that he ignored some of what Kyle Bass, a Texas-based investor, had told him back while he was researching The Big Short. Bass had told Lewis that the next big crisis was going to be in the market for government bonds (sovereign debt). At the end of 2008, Bass was predicting that Greece would probably default within two years and possibly cause the Euro currency to collapse. "He was totally persuasive. He was also totally incredible" (xv). How could some guy in Dallas figure this out when almost no one else could? The guy seemed a little crazy. So, as Lewis puts it, "I made my excuses . . . and more or less dismissed him. When I wrote the book, I left Kyle Bass on the cutting room floor." (xvi).

But Bass was right. It turned out that private bank debts were becoming public debts in both the US and Europe, as the Fed and the European Central Bank bailed out private banks. Iceland and Ireland had already crashed. And Greece was the tipping point.

What happened? Lewis travels to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany, and California to tell their stories before and after the collapse of the global bubble. In each place, he singles out cultural factors that make each place unique. This cultural approach is quite simplistic, but it does help explain how different countries react when they are "left alone in a dark room with a pile of money" (the pile of money being a huge expansion of bank lending). It also roots the financial problems in a larger context than mere government regulation. It turns out that we all have a cultural and moral problem.

Greece, on Lewis' view, simply lacks any public spiritedness and is so corrupt that even a group of Greek monks participated in the corruption. No one pays taxes and everyone is looking to bilk the government.

In Iceland, he contends, a male-dominated fishing culture led to excessive risk-taking. Once the fisherman of Iceland got rich, they needed to find something else to do. International banking and speculation was it.

"But while the Icelandic male used foreign money to conquer foreign places--trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia--the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was buy Ireland. From each other" (84, emphasis in original). In other words, Ireland had a massive real estate bubble that has now popped. According to one estimate, "Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for the next four years" (85). Ouch! But the Irish are buckling down and embracing austerity to pay down the debt (quite in contrast to Greece).

The Germans, being so-rule oriented (or so Lewis argues), trusted the bond credit ratings agencies that said that mortgage-backed bonds and collateralized debt obligations were AAA (the safest of any bonds), so they ended up getting stuck buying lots of these. Too bad for them.

Finally, there are the Americans. California's dire public finances (especially at the local level) are a microcosm of the national struggle to balance budgets. But it's not just the mortgage bankers or governments who are to blame. Public-sector unions also took advantage of the financial boom to wrest huge pension guarantees from governments. And private citizens borrowed to the hilt. The problem, writes Lewis, is "with the entire society."
It's what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis. It's a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They'd been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans (202).
Lewis, usually a hillarious and light-hearted story-teller, ends up in prophetic mode, issuing a jeremiad: "Everywhere you turn," he writes, "you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward. What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term self-interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end?" (205)

In the end, Lewis' book offers a sober diagnosis of the American character, covering Wall Street bankers, politicians, unions, and households. We're all in this together, but how in the world do we get ourselves back on track in living for the long-term?

Let us know if you figure that out.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Margin Call" Challenges Wall Street Ethics

I woke up this morning to Kenneth Turan's positive review on NPR of the just-released Hollywood drama, Margin Call, which is based on the collapse of the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers in 2008. (Also see Turan's review for the LA Times and the HBO film Too Big to Fail.)

That radio story was quickly followed by my reading of A.O. Scott's glowing review in the New York Times. In light of both reviews, I was hoping to see this movie tonight (in violation of my usual policy of waiting until movies make it to the dollar theater or DVD). It's not often that I would willingly part with $9.00 for a movie; I have to be persuaded by multiple sources. Sadly, though, Margin Call isn't playing in our area yet.

That's a bit surprising, because you would think that the continuing Occupy Wall Street protests and the Academy Award winning documentary Inside Job would warrant a nationwide release. While Inside Job marshals enough evidence to outrage even the most indifferent citizen (see earlier posts), Margin Call is said to take a subtler approach. As in Kevin Spacey's portrait of Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack (another ripped-from-the headlines drama), we get to see real people making real choices in morally compromising situations. These are flesh-and-blood human beings--not crude caricatures like Oliver Stone's evil Gordon Gekko in the two Wall Street films.

A very telling exchange quoted in Turan's review is between Kevin Spacey's character and Jeremy Irons' character (the CEO):
Sam Rogers [Spacey]: And you're selling something that you know has no value?
John Tuld [Irons]: We are selling to willing buyers at the current, fair market price.
One lesson of this snippet? The winners are those who can get away with peddling junk; the losers are the ordinary suckers who aren't smart enough to see how the winners have gamed the system. Too bad for the losers: it's a free market. If they lost, it was because they got out of the game too late. They were "the last one holding the bag." They were the fools who bought the junk. Hey, it's a free market; they just failed to do their due diligence. The market punishes fools.

The real lesson: A free market economy full of unethical people like Irons' CEO is no longer a free market. It's a system that allows the slick, smart, greedy, and unethical to dupe unsuspecting, trusting people. Such a system is predatory and enslaving: the opposite of free. And saying this is not "class warfare." It's just describing Wall Street and the global financial system for what they have become: a group of people cloaking their knowing misdeeds in the rhetoric of the free market.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Updates: The Occupy Movement and the J-1 Visa Program

Globalization continues to breed contention. Two recent examples:

The Occupy Wall Street protests mushroomed over the weekend to the point that even my little town of Canton, OH saw a protest downtown, with at least 70 protestors. It looks like we are seeing the growth of a social movement that may rival the Tea Party in its energy. As with that earlier wave, new media are a key part of mobilizing and energizing participants. All in all, it's a fascinating development, worth watching closely.

The New York Times reported today on the foreign student cultural exchange visa program that contributed to a work stoppage at Hershey's Chocolate company earlier this year. (For details see earlier posts.) The subcontractor that brought students over, the Council for Educational Travel USA, comes out looking pretty bad. All in all, it looks like the kind of program that was open to abuse, subjecting some of the young people from overseas to some rough treatment. All along, though everyone agrees that they got an all-too-accurate picture of American culture in the process. As one participant was told,
“You wanted a cultural exchange . . . . This is America and this is the way we do things here.” 
Indeed. Subcontracting and exploiting workers? Guess it's just part of our culture.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Social Movement or Flash in the Pan?

In the last week, anti-Wall Street protests have begun to attract more media attention. The Occupy Wall Street movement may just catch on, but it's too soon to tell. Two things about Occupy Wall Street bear directly on globalization.

First, one of their key slogans "We are the 99%" capitalizes on the startling fact that the top 1% of income earners in our society earn a significant share of national income--a dynamic that the growth of the financial sector (Wall Street) has aided and abetted.

Second, the Occupy Wall Street page explicitly claims inspiration from the Arab Spring movements--perhaps one of the first times in history that young people in a Western democracy were inspired to go out into the streets by young people in the Arab world. This feedback loop from the Arab world to the United States suggests that global media do have some power to spread contagious ideas of protest and freedom in multiple directions around the globe.

For a little sense of the rather chill vibe down in the financial district in lower Manhattan, check out this video:

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Not exactly violent or scary. It does seem a little vague and unfocused.

Nonetheless, I suspect we'll be hearing more from this group in the weeks to come, as they clarify what it would take for them to go home. See the Occupy Wall Street page for more up-to-date information.  And for a list of specific demands, see this page.

For now, it isn't clear that these protests will rise to the level of being a significant social movement or whether they will fizzle out. Will they drive real political change in our governmental institutions or policies? Or will they occupy unemployed hipsters until the cold weather hits? Either way, I'll be watching them closely.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Update on Hershey's Funky Globalization

In my previous post, I discussed the State Department's J-1 visa program, which brings over foreign students for alleged cultural exchanges. The program was tied to a series of abuses at Hershey's packaging facility that led to a walkout by student workers and two stories in the New York Times.

What's the deal with this visa program? In reality, it turns out to be a way to import cheap workers for the summer, on a larger scale than I realized.

According to an op-ed piece by Fordham University law professor Jennifer Gordon in the New York Times, this program
has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.
Why would employers like Hershey go for such a program? Gordon writes,
the J-1 program is attractive to employers because it is uncapped and virtually unregulated; companies avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and, in many states, unemployment taxes for workers hired through the program. One sponsor authorized by the State Department even offers a “payroll taxes savings calculator” on its Web site, so potential employers can see how much they would save by hiring J-1 visa holders rather than American workers. Visa holders can be deported if they so much as complain, and cannot easily switch employers.
Well, that explains it. Companies get compliant summer workers and save on payroll taxes. The sponsors and contractors who arrange it all make good money. But the young people have little or no recourse to alter their situation and are stuck here (at least for the summer). Everybody's happy, it seems, but the foreign students who were expecting cultural exchanges. And if they don't like it, they can get deported.

As Gordon points out, these students are getting a taste of today's corporate America, which relies on outsourcing and subcontracting to avoid responsibility. It turns out that they do get real cultural exchange, a real taste of real America. Unfortunately, it's a bitter taste, not all the sweetness of Hershey's chocolates they were expecting.

Students, welcome to America!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Funky Globalization in Hershey, PA

Americans love Hershey chocolate bars and think of them as all-American. But some funky globalization-related things happened recently at the packaging facility that ships Hershey candies in Pennsylvania. And these happenings were definitely not all-American.

It turns out that Hershey, Inc. has been subcontracting with subcontractors who partner with another subcontractor to bring over groups of foreign university students to work in packaging facilities in the summers. The students coming over this year under the State Department's J-1 visa program were expecting to see the USA, earn a little money, and participate in cultural exchanges.

Instead, the only American culture these poor students were immersed in was our corporate culture. The 400 or so students were surprised to find themselves working physically demanding jobs at a packaging facility for Hershey, wrapping up Kit-Kat bars, Reese's candies, and Almond Joys. Many of them were forced to work on the night shift, and all of them were forced to work eight hour shifts under pressure and surveillance. Still, it wasn't the jobs that put the students over the edge. According to the New York Times, "the students said they decided to protest when they learned that neighbors in the apartments and houses where they were staying were paying significantly less rent."

Fed up, then, the students went on strike. While their immediate frustrations with their jobs caused them to walk out, their larger frustrations were with the brokers who promised them visions of cultural exchange, who forced them to pay up to $4,000 to come to the U.S., and who then over-charged them for rent. Many of the students were expecting to make a little money but now expect to return home having lost money on the deal. And all they got to see was Hershey Chocolate World! : (

How is globalization demonstrated here? For one thing, America's sales culture has been exported abroad: These foreign students learned all too well that you should never trust strangers who make big promises. Meanwhile, the students' desire to visit America is an interesting case study of international migration, as is the State Department's J-1 visa program. A cynic might say that the U.S. government is allowing the temporary migration of cheap guest workers for corporate interests, but the State Department classifies the J-1 visa as an Exchange Visa, which suggests an original intent to promote those exchanges. Students expecting to work in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory were expecting to participate in some global cultural exchange (Hersheys Chocolate World doesn't count).

And the most interesting globalization aspect in this story is the use of multiple subcontractors, a classic corporate and government tactic for outsourcing ultimate responsibility. After the story was published, the followup story pointed out how four different companies all blamed each other. This is what makes globalization so frustrating to people: no one is taking responsibility! This passage was especially telling:
The Hershey Company said it had contracted day-to-day operations at the packing plant to Exel, a logistics company. “The Hershey Company expects all its vendors, including Exel, to treat employees fairly and equitably,” said Kirk Saville, a spokesman.
Exel contracted with a local labor supplier, SHS Staffing Solutions, to provide temporary workers, including the J-1 students, for the summer months when work is at a peak, said Lynn Anderson, a spokeswoman for Exel.
SHS Staffing said its main function was to handle payroll and schedules for the students.
Along with the non-profit organization that recruited the students to come to the U.S., the Council for Educational Travel U.S.A., we have four organizations with a hand in this. Of those four, who is responsible? Hershey? Exel? SHS Staffing Solutions? The Council for Educational Travel? The students? All of the above? It isn't clear.

In any case, we know about this story because the students and the labor union friends decided to create some noise. Whether or not their complaints are justified, this is a fascinating dimension of globalization. How many of these J-1 visas are granted every year? And how many of these foreign students come over expecting cultural exchange only to get stuck working in miserable summer jobs? And how many of those jobs could be filled by young American citizens? In a time of high unemployment, it makes you wonder.

Do readers out there have any experiences with foreign young people in summer jobs on these J-1 visas?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chesterton's Defense of Repetitious Rituals

The British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most eccentric and famous twentieth century converts to Christianity. After a brief sojourn in the Church of England, he ended up in the Roman Catholic Church, a counter-cultural perch that informed his quirky views of just about everything toward the end of his life.

In researching my book, a friend recommended that I read a volume of his collected writings on economics, including a book he published under the title Outline of Sanity, which I did read and did enjoy. There, Chesterton defends his philosophy of Distributism, which he and his friend Hillaire Belloc framed as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism. In Chesterton's view, there was little difference between the two, because both led to giant bureaucracies with monopolies. (A contemporary Chestertonian would challenge anyone to identify major differences between navigating through government red tape and cellphone or computer companies' red tape. Both are giant, anonymous, remote, and have you over a barrel.)

The true alternative to these concentrations of power, for Chesterton, was to foster small, local forms of ownership and proprietorship, as in the Middle Ages. Although he could be accused of idealizing the peacefulness of the medieval economy, he was quite well-read in history, and his criticisms of modern economics are often trenchant (and occasionally tinged with nostalgia). Distributism's solutions are not always realistic, but its critique is spot-on.

More recently, I picked up a library copy of an earlier volume of G.K.C.'s collected works, composed of his writings on his conversion to Catholicism. In a book entitled The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929), he responds to one of the common Protestant objections to Catholicism: the charge that it relies on empty, repeated rituals in its prayer and worship or what Chesterton calls "mechanical repetition." His response is worth quoting extensively, since it is so lively:
[A critic] says that we repeat prayers and other verbal forms without thinking about them. And doubtless there are many sympathizers who will repeat that denunciation after him, without thinking about it at all. But, before we come to explaining the Church's real teaching about such things, or quoting her numberless recommendations of attention and vigilance, or expounding the reason of the reasonable exceptions that she does allow, there is a wide, a simple and a luminous truth about the whole situation which anybody can see if he will walk about with his eyes open. It is the obvious fact that all human forms of speech tend to fossilize into a formalism; and that the Church stands unique in history, not as talking a dead language among everlasting languages; but, on the contrary, as having preserved a living language in a world of dying languages. When the great Greek cry breaks into the Latin of the Mass, as old as Christianity itself, it may surprise some to learn that there are good many people in church who really do say Kyrie eleison [Lord have mercy] and mean exactly what they say. But anyhow, they mean what they say rather more than a man who begins a letter with "Dear Sir" means what he says. "Dear" is emphatically a dead word; in that place it has ceased to have any meaning. It is exactly what the Protestants would allege of Popish rites and forms; it is done rapidly, ritually, and without any memory even of the meaning of the rite. When Mr. Jones the solicitor uses it to Mr. Brown the banker, he does not mean that the banker is dear to him, or that his heart is filled with Christian love, even so much as the heart of some poor ignorant Papist listening to the Mass. Now, life, ordinary, jolly, heathen, human life, is simply chockful of these dead words and meaningless ceremonies. You will not escape from them by escaping from the Church into the world. When the critic in question, or a thousand other critics like him, say that we are only required to make a material or mechanical attendance at Mass, he says something which is not true about the ordinary Catholic in his feelings about the Catholic Sacraments. But he says something which is true about the ordinary Court levee or Ministerial reception, and about three-quarters of the ordinary society calls and polite visits in the town. This deadening of repeated social action may be a harmless thing; it may be a melancholy thing; it may be a mark of the Fall of Man; it may be anything the critic chooses to think. But those who have made it, hundreds and hundreds of times, a special and concentrated charge against the Church, are men blind to the whole human world they live in and unable to see anything but the thing they traduce. (The Collected Works G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990], pp. 216-217).
We can boil G.K.C.'s points down to four: 1) the charge of "mechanical repetition" overlooks Catholic tradition, which acknowledges and deals with this very problem; 2) ordinary human societies also have many empty rituals, such as addressing a letter with "Dear" or the rituals of government; 3) many of these secular rituals are quite empty in comparison to repeated practices in worship, which believers find meaningful; and 4) the people who make this charge (ironically enough) are themselves repeating this charge without thinking about it.

To this, one can add another point: all worship practices involve some element of repetition. No low-church evangelicals would propose getting rid of sermons, even though sermons are given every week (empty ritual!). All worship is liturgical in the sense that it involves a set of patterns and practices; and most churches repeat these patterns and practices weekly.

For anyone interested in the liturgical year, this is an interesting defense against the church of "mechanical repetition."

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Figures on a Balance Sheet" or Things You Can See?

A week or so ago, I watched a torn-from-the-headlines Hollywood flick entitled The Company Men. Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Kevin Costner, the film puts a Boston-area face on American capitalism in an era of recession. The official trailer gives you the idea of the story arc, which was obvious but ambitious. (Spoiler alert: I give away the ending in the next paragraph.)

Overall, Company Men is a heavy-handed, melodramatic, and predictable riff on corporate America. Ben Affleck's arrogant sales executive character gets downsized from his job in shipbuilding sales and eventually rediscovers honest manual labor by helping out his brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner, who tries out the same terrible Boston accent that marred his character in Thirteen Days). Then, in the end, Affleck's humbled character gets a second chance to work in shipbuilding with his old boss, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

The hopeful ending fits uneasily with some underlying, deep, and undying trends of corporate capitalism that are condemned in the film. Among those trends, which continue today, are the avid pursuit of profit, luxury, debt, and power by corporate executive suites. If visual depictions of all this sound heavy-handed to you, well, you would be right. The Company Men explores some of the same terrain as Up in Air, but without the surprise plot twists or clever visual crafting. It's earnest but all too obvious.

Yet, however didactic the tone, the film's writers still do well to describe root problems with American corporations in an era of footloose global capital. In one forty second monologue by Tommy Lee Jones (my favorite scene) they nail what I consider to be the fundamental problem. As Jones walks with Ben Affleck through the dormant old shipyard, he points to an abandoned factory building and waxes eloquent about the past:
Two thousand men a shift, three shifts a day, six thousand men, held an honest wage in that room. Fed their kids . . . bought homes . . . made enough to send their kids to college . . . buy a second car . . . building something they could see--not just figures on a balance sheet but a ship they could see, smell, touch.
Anyone who's ever lived in a Rust Belt town full of empty old factories will feel this scene tugging at their heartstrings.

But there's a serious point being made here, too, which the writers clearly get by alluding to "figures on a balance sheet." A couple of years ago, I made a similar point in an article titled "Money or Business?" which started with the gap between the pursuit of profit and the craft of business. Essentially, I asked, should corporations pursue abstract figures on a balance sheet or the tangible goods intrinsic to the practice of their business (care for the product, for customers, for the community, all pursued virtuously)? I argued for the latter: corporations are involved in a corporate (communal) work, and should be working to pursue goods intrinsic to their businesses. In other words, good shipbuilding means attending to the excellent crafting of physical ships within the wider community, which could lead to profits as a desirable by-product, but the pursuit of profit for its own sake will corrupt the business by introducing the competition for a scarce good external to the practice of shipbuilding. By competing for profits, the corporation will be tempted to neglect its original mission of building excellent ships within its community.

Now, thanks to Jon Wells (the producer of the TV series ER) and his fellow filmmakers on The Company Men, the point is much clearer: the pursuit of a good balance sheet is not the primary pursuit of good business. Rather, a good business will first pursue the good, as manifested in something they can see, smell, or touch. And they will count profits as an added blessing.

Somewhere along the line, many corporations reversed that emphasis, putting profits before their physical business, and as a result we are all suffering. But it's never too late to return to sanity.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Father of Counter-Globalization Experiments

It's funny how some books lead you to other books. Earlier this summer I read Wendell Berry's Long-Legged House and Susan Maushart's Winter of our Disconnect--both of which referred to Henry David Thoreau (left) and his famous living experiment on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachussetts. So I decided to follow the lead of these other authors and read Walden (published in 1854 and based on Thoreau's experiences between 1845 to 1847).

Having never read all of Walden, I was able to fill a gap in my education and discover that Thoreau could easily be credited with inventing a genre of non-fiction that has exploded in recent years: the counter-globalization-living-experiment-turned-into-a-book.

One of my Advent 2010 posts listed several examples of these books, with Sara Bongiorni's A Year Without "Made in China" serving as a typical model. A new and notable model of the alternative living genre, though, is Susan Maushart's experiment, aptly described by the lengthy subtitle of her book: "How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale."

Maushart is the first author I've encountered in this genre who openly turns to Thoreau for inspiration--an appropriate move, since Thoreau is famous for his experiment move to the woods on Walden Pond, which even then was not exactly in the wilderness. But the turn to Thoreau is also appropriate because he has an eye on global economic trends (among other things).

The reader expecting a simple chronological account of Thoreau's two years in his little cabin will be surprised to discover that he opens the book with a lengthy and digressive chapter entitled "Economy," in which he points out that modern people depend heavily on others for transportation, clothing, and shelter. In the name of economy and efficiency, the division of labor supposedly frees us. But Thoreau believes that such dependence on others actually enslaves us. And he even shows us his financial accounts, to prove that his simple way of living is actually cost-effective.

Furthermore, contends Thoreau, the desire to connect disparate parts of the globe through technology often goes unexamined, and questions about the purposes of such connections go unasked. As he puts it,
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already too easy to arrive at . . . . We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has a whooping cough. ("Economy," Everyman's Library edition, p. 46)
All this global media technology provides instantaneous updates to everyone all over the world, all at once. And we await important newsflashes . . . about Lady Gaga's outfits or Lindsey Lohan's misdeeds or George Clooney's new movie. We have iPhones, iPads, Twitter and Facebook, but do we communicate any better now than we do sitting face to face? Or is all this noise and distraction making it harder to communicate about important matters? Thoreau would have us ask such questions.

One benefit of living a simpler life, says Thoreau, was that
life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without end. ("Sounds," p. 100)
News Flash: Simple reality can often be more engaging than the diverting dramas on television.

In his chapter, "Sounds," Thoreau muses about railroads (a symbol of the creeping modernization and industrialization and globalization that Thoreau was resisting). One particular point echoes the introduction to chapter 1 of my book about railroad time:
The startings and arrivals of the [railroad] cars are now the epochs of the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? . . . To do things "railroad fashion" is now the by-word; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. ("Sounds,"p. 105)
In the second half of the book, Thoreau closely observes nature in and around Walden Pond. Even the earth itself, he says, is
not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit--not a fossil earth, but a living earth . . . . ("Spring," p. 273)
It is this section of the book that Wendell Berry clearly echoes in The Long-Legged House, with his evocative descriptions of the landscapes on his family's land near the Kentucky River. Attachment and attention to a particular place is a powerful and healthy antidote to the placeless landscape of globalization.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that a whole generation of people worried about the unsettling processes of globalization have consciously or unconsciously emulated Thoreau's desire to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" and "live deep and suck all the marrow of life" ("Where I Lived," pp. 80-81).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Capital Reserves? No Thanks, Say the Banks

Joe Nocera, a business-reporter-turned columnist for the New York Times, ran an informative column yesterday about raising the required amounts of capital that international banks must have in reserve to cover their lending. As he notes, the Basel III agreement being negotiated in Switzerland would require the banks to have 7 to 10 percent of reserve capital on hand, far less than the 14 percent preferred by Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo. (Nocera is a co-author of one of the best books on the mortgage meltdown, reviewed in this space in a previous post.)

Naturally, of course, the big Wall Street banks and their allies in Congress are resisting this push, citing the dangers of "over-regulation." But we've tried de-regulation of the financial industry over the last 30 years and ended up with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression (and it may yet equal the Great Depression).

Which raises a rhetorical question. Why can't the banks and politicians do the right thing for the nation and the world, even it means some modest sacrifice?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Executive Pay and Globalization

 In the Lexus and the Olive Tree, Tom Friedman has a catchy chapter on the dangers of a winner-take-all, free-market society--the kind of society rewarded by processes of globalization. He uses a professional basketball analogy to make his main point. A few top competitors--those like Michael Jordan or LeBron James--reap massive rewards, while the average competitors in the market--the lesser-known teammates of the superstars--get much less. Friedman's concern is a real one: How sustainable is a team that includes both mega-rich and not-so-rich players? We have cause to worry about the erosion of social solidarity between the affluent and the ordinary.

U.S. income data since the 1970s suggest that this concern is valid. "The rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer" is one of those thoughtless cliches that turns out to have some truth in it. The undisputed fact here is that the top 1% of income earners now account for at least a quarter of the nation's total income.

But who are these people and how do they get their money? Are they executives, doctors, lawyers, or financiers? According to a recent study of tax returns by three researchers reported in today's Washington Post, "executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals" accounted for around 60 percent of this group by 2005. Executives, managers, and supervisors alone were 40 percent of the group. 

The study itself is pretty dry material for the average reader, but the Post story by Peter Whoriskey frames their findings with a comparison of the top executives at Dean Foods, a Fortune 500 national dairy company. 

His lead paragraphs capture the reality of today's executive compensation problem:
It was the 1970s, and the chief executive of a leading U.S. dairy company, Kenneth J. Douglas, lived the good life. He earned the equivalent of about $1 million today. He and his family moved from a three-bedroom home to a four-bedroom home, about a half-mile away, in River Forest, Ill., an upscale Chicago suburb. He joined a country club. The company gave him a Cadillac. The money was good enough, in fact, that he sometimes turned down raises. He said making too much was bad for morale.
Forty years later, the trappings at the top of Dean Foods, as at most U.S. big companies, are more lavish. The current chief executive, Gregg L. Engles, averages 10 times as much in compensation as Douglas did, or about $10 million in a typical year. He owns a $6 million home in an elite suburb of Dallas and 64 acres near Vail, Colo., an area he frequently visits. He belongs to as many as four golf clubs at a time — two in Texas and two in Colorado. While Douglas’s office sat on the second floor of a milk distribution center, Engles’s stylish new headquarters occupies the top nine floors of a 41-story Dallas office tower. When Engles leaves town, he takes the company’s $10 million Challenger 604 jet, which is largely dedicated to his needs, both business and personal.
Meanwhile, as Whoriskey reports, 
while pay for Dean Foods chief executives was rising 10 times over, wages for the unionized workers actually declined slightly. The hourly wage rate for the people who process, pasteurize and package the milk at the company’s dairies declined by 9 percent in real terms, according to union contract records. It is now about $23 an hour.
The concern here is about relative gains. The ordinary workers, probably because of union power, are not destitute; $23 an hour is a decent wage. But their share of the overall wealth generated by the company is declining, just as ordinary workers' shares of national wealth are declining. And whose shares are gaining? The bosses'.

CNN reported in 2007 that the average American CEO was making 364 times more than the average American worker. With stock options and salaries and all the rest, the top bosses were doing quite well, even while they were downsizing and outsourcing and union-busting. As a result, CEOs became the single largest group within the top 1 percent of American income earners.

Back in the day people like Kenneth Douglas were willing to turn down raises out of a sense of solidarity. But people like Gregg Engles--and other winner-take-all executives--are jeopardizing the stability of our society. They might blame globalization, but they we all know that greed is the real problem.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia

In today's New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof posted an open letter to King Hamad of Bahrain, requesting the release of Hassan al-Sahaf, a 57-year old Shia moderate. Like many other Bahrainis, including relatives of our friend Shubbar, al-Sahaf remains under arrest. Here's hoping that King Hamad will listen to such reasonable voices and free political prisoners. We're thankful that our friend Shubbar is out, but we won't rest until all the unfairly detained political prisoners are free.

Today's Times also has a story by Neil MacFarquhar on how Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has spent $130 billion to buy off opposition critics and forestall the kind of pro-reform protests that have rocked nearly every other Arab state. In addition to deep pockets, the royal family has a loyal religious establishment that has been preaching against revolt as un-Islamic. And the police have arrested anyone with the temerity to test restrictions against public protest.

As a result, and contrary to my expectations, the al-Saud family has managed to forestall any major protests, turning an announced Day of Rage on March 11 into a Day of Duds. Given the lack of protests so far, the al-Saud family wins the Donkey award for the most skillful use of carrots and sticks

But will this strategy work in the long run? As MacFarquhar writes, 
Saudi Arabia’s efforts have succeeded in the short run, at home and in its Persian Gulf backyard. But some critics call its strategy of effectively buying off public opinion unsustainable because it fails to address underlying problems.
Keep watching Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring hasn't ended yet.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Good news! After 50 days of detention, our friend Shubbar was freed. We were in Italy, with limited Internet access, when we got the news, so it took some time to get the word out after we got the updates from Hajar and Shubbar. Sadly, Shubbar's father-in-law and brothers-in-law remain in captivity.

Bahrain remains under a state of siege, as the McClatchy reporter Roy Gutman has shown in a series of informative dispatches from the island, including a recent one on Bahrain's plans to sentence two protestors to death. Pressure from the U.S. may have contributed to a slight easing of the crackdown.

Whatever the cause, we're just glad that our friend is free.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Finally . . . Al Jazeera Picks Up the Story

It's about time. Al Jazeera English is finally telling the story of the crackdown from the perspective of detainees' families (similar to our friends Shubbar and Hajar).

Check out this story, which includes footage of the crackdown and an interview with the wife of an abducted man.

AJE also ran some of the first video confirming reports that the government of Bahrain has destroyed over a dozen Shia mosques:

Interestingly, someone in Qatar has decided to start pressing the Obama Administration to protect human rights. We'll see if this shift convinces the Obama team to press their allies in Manama a bit harder. There may be a voice for the voiceless Shia in Bahrain after all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Human Rights Abuses in Bahrain on Al Jazeera?

The Washington Post published a story on Friday that mostly supports the view that the Al Jazeera TV network is largely ignoring the crackdown in Bahrain. After their extensive coverage of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, their relative silence on Bahrain has been deafening. 

Perhaps in response, Al Jazeera English ran this story on Friday's hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights (a non-legislative committee):

Three things are striking about this story. First, CNN interviewed all three of the same witnesses quite some time ago (see earlier posts on this blog). Second, the CNN stories, reported by Amber Lyon, carried some gruesome video and eyewitness accounts, but this one was confined to footage of the U.S. Capitol building: hard-hitting vs. dry, academic policy debate. Third, the CNN stories made the Bahraini government look bad, but this one makes the U.S. government look indifferent or hypocritical. Either way, Al Jazeera's approach is quite tepid and its target misplaced.

While the Post story suggests that Al Jazeera English has been tougher than the Arabic version, a quick comparison with CNN demonstrates that even the English version has avoided criticizing the Bahraini regime.

Al Jazeera's motto is "a voice for the voiceless." But that should be amended to read, "--except for the voiceless in the Arabian Gulf."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Prison Time and Liturgical Time

Review of Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2010)

As our friend Shubbar sits in his sixth week of arbitrary detention, I've just finished reading Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg's and Shubbar's stories raise two common questions: What does it mean to be deprived of one's freedom? And how does one experience time in captivity?

Steinberg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Cleveland and Boston. After graduating from Harvard a few years back, he was adrift from the community of his youth and adrift in his career ambitions (like so many young college graduates these days). But when he applied, and got hired, for a job as a prison librarian in a Boston jail, he found his voice and his story. He tells that story with self-deprecating humor, bittersweet pathos, street smarts, and quiet literary elegance. This is a coming-of-age story with unusual depth and richness.

As a blogger and author concerned with how liturgical time can transform our engagement with the world, I found the most eloquent passage in the book in a meditation on the experience of holiday times in jail.
Time has its own peculiar meaning in prison . . . . Although a person in prison always has countless hours, he has no access to time's attendant meanings. When it comes to time, most inmates are like the tragic mariner: water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. There's endless time but not the nourishing kind, no seasons, no holiday cycles. At least, nothing that can be shared with others.
When snow collects in the yard--it is winter. When your cellmate smells particularly rank--it is summer. But these things don't imply anything beyond themselves. Snow doesn't mean sledding with your children, or skiing, or playing football or going to concerts for Christmas. It means snow.
The closest approximations of seasons in prison are the gambling seasons. When the Super Bowl gambling crunch hits, it is winter; when the NCAA basketball tourney happens, it is spring. These are the Christmas and Easter of prison. Aside from these sad interludes, prison time is neither marked nor shared by a community. It is personal and moves toward one holiday: the end of one's sentence. Each individual follows his own private eschatological calendar, which has only one holiday, the Last Day, the End of Days.
This is a very practical matter for those who work in prison. When you leave before a holiday, a well-meaning caseworker instructed me, you don't say "Merry Christmas" to the inmates. It doesn't make sense and, as she added, "It's kind of a slap in the face." In prison, seasons are best left unmarked and unremarked upon (pp. 375-76).
Imprisonment, then, expresses both literally and figuratively what it means to live flat, secular time. There are no seasons and only one holiday: escape. One lives in a private, solitary world, sharing no common times. It's truly hell.

In the meantime, living out of liturgical time, I am praying for an end to Shubbar's current ordeal: for his return to the many festivals and celebrations of the Shiite calendar among the bosom of his family. In this Easter season, surely we can hope in the One who broke down the gates of hell and liberated the first prisoners.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bin Laden and the Word of the Day: Simulacrum

It struck me today that part of what troubles me about the proliferation of multiple social media (see my previous post) is what the French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard described as the free play of simulacra (the plural of simulacrum, which can be defined as "something that replaces reality with its representation").

In other words, as Baudrillard feared, we are so busy looking at representations of reality--representations that are separated by several degrees from reality--that we lose sight of reality itself. In other words, we are trapped in Plato's cave, watching images dance on a wall.

Case in point: you can watch on your computer screen a video of Osama bin Laden watching himself on television--a video snatched by the Navy SEAL teams last week but now being broadcast all over the world. So what's real here?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Media Convergence or Confusion?

Watching Al Jazeera English today on their live Internet feed, I discovered their new program, The Stream, which they tout as 

a social media community that just happens to have a television programme on Al Jazeera English.

Being rather old-school, and not knowing what a "social media community" is, I was watching the television program. 

But here I was watching this television program on an Arab network based in Qatar that broadcasts in English, over the Internet. During the show, the hosts cued up Internet videos on their laptops, live. While conducting interviews with two guests, they also took comments from Facebook and Twitter and interviewed a Yemeni and a Chinese blogger via Skype. 

So . . . just to keep all the media straight:
  1. I'm watching TV on my computer over the Internet.
  2. They are broadcasting the show from a studio inside the Newseum in Washington, DC.
  3. The headquarters of the television network, however, is based in Doha, Qatar.
  4. The hosts interview their guests live in the studio about the role of social media.
  5. They also interrupt occasionally to check their Twitter feed for comments or stories that are trending.
  6. They pull video of a car accident in China off the Internet, click play, and maximize it to full screen, live. So now I am watching via TV cameras filming them watching a video hosted on the Internet. (Wouldn't it be more efficient to have the studio run it firsthand?)
  7. They also interview the Yemeni and Chinese bloggers live, via Skype video chat. So I'm watching TV on the Internet, watching TV cameras filming them chatting via video on the Internet. (Wouldn't it be better quality if they could have TV cameras film each side of the conversation?)
  8. Once their time us up, they continue the filmed conversation on their website, separate from the network's live feed. (I kept watching the network news feed.)
Lost in all my confusion over the media of transmission was much of a sense of message. While we can now connect and micro-blog instantaneously across multiple media technologies, I wonder if we are losing coherent narratives. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, then what is being communicated here?

Don't get me wrong: this is fascinating stuff, but the fascination is focused upon the novelty of means of communication rather than the substance of the stories. These technologies haven't changed the fact that powerful state authorities retain the upper hand to repress their populations in Bahrain, China, Syria, Yemen, and many other places.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Update on Our Friend

As Americans were getting excited last night over the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I received an email from Shubbar's wife saying that her father and two brothers were arrested yesterday in Bahrain. Her father is Sheikh Mohammed al Mahfoodh, the religious leader of the Islamic Action Society, or Amal (right). 

Needless to say, this leaves his daughter upset, since her husband has already been detained for one month, and now she is without father and brothers. Today, she asked me to convey the following message to President Obama:
Dear Mr President,
I am writing to you from Bahrain. First, I would like to congratulate you concerning Bin Ladin. However, I am writing to you concerning my country Bahrain. I am the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed Ali Almahfoodh, the chairman of Amal Islamic Society. I would like to tell you that yesterday he was detained with my two brothers to an unknown destination. A month ago, my husband was arrested as a hostage.
Mr President, this action is your full responsibility, since your policy is to spread democracy. Your administration condemned the dissolving of the societies, and therefore, you have the upper hand to release my father and brothers, and husband. My mother has collapsed as to the news. 
I beseech your help and protection, and whatever happens to my detained family is under your responsibility. 
Finally, I strongly urge your administration to prove to the world that the US respects their values and morals, and not double standards as many people are pointing out currently. I always looked at the US constitution as my aspiration to a better world.
I want to thank you for your time, and I hope something happens to reunite my family again.
Best wishes,
Hajar Mahfoodh

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Unlike Anything That I Have Seen in My Twenty Years of Investigating Human Rights"

CNN is putting Al Jazeera English to shame with its much-better coverage of the deteriorating situation in Bahrain. (CNN reporter Amber Lyon has thousands of Bahraini admirers because she's taken an interest in their plight.) Yesterday their London and Atlanta studios featured a new report by Physicians for Human Rights, whose head told CNN that the situation in Bahrain was unlike anything he had seen in his twenty years of investigating human rights abuses.

CNN's London studio added a feature with Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, in which he correctly noted that hundreds of Bahrainis have disappeared. Among them, of course, is our friend Shubbar. On this Holy Saturday, I am praying for Shubbar and the others who are imprisoned.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week and Suffering in Bahrain

This week between Palm Sunday and Easter is the center of the Christian calendar, re-enacting the surprising events that (Christians believe) usher in the reign of God in human history: Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey (not a white horse), he symbolically re-claims the Temple, he washes his disciples' feet; he gives himself over to betrayal; he stands silently before his judges, torturers, and executioners; he carries the instrument of his own death to the site of his own execution. This--this?--is how the Kingdom is revealed, in the humble face of a suffering servant.

It's also the week of Passover in the Jewish lunar calendar, which is no accident, since the events of this week occurred during Passover, which is why the Christian church has always tied its observance of Holy Week to that calendar (and why Easter never has a fixed date in the solar calendar: it moves with the Jewish lunar months).

Just today, during this week of kairos (deeply meaningful) time, I received a disturbing message from my friend Shubbar's wife:
Thugs and security have attacked us twice, threatening to take my kids as hostages and causing my mum to go through a collapse two times. They stayed for two hours or so and created horror among the women and children in the house. They also took my brother in law and tortured him with electric shock to reveal the place of my father. We don't know where my father is since more than a month, but they are not believing us. I don't know what to do.
Pray for me and I seek your help if you have any idea.
In an earlier message she also said that her little two-year-old, who is just barely talking now, was deeply troubled by the original intrusion of masked security forces and the abduction of Shubbar. In fragments, this adorable little guy said
Mama; they came, they broke the door and the gate; they hurt baba [daddy]; they went; I don't like them; they are not nice; mama I am scared.
How do we even begin to comprehend the fear and anxiety that this family, like hundreds of others, is facing?

I couldn't help but notice some resonances between the suffering of Jesus and his community in Holy Week and the suffering of the Shiite community in Bahrain. Of course, there are many differences between the early followers of Jesus and 21st century Bahrainis, but their stories converge on this point: the Powers seek to crush resistance through force, to disperse opposition through fear, and to deprive their opponents through denying any hope. And ordinary people lose their will to resist; they scatter; and they lose hope. Rome (and the Al Khalifa) appear to have won.

So is there hope for Bahrain or for our friends? I see little, but the story of Holy Week suggests that hope may emerge at the darkest moments. Yesterday, liturgical churches would have read Isaiah 50:4-9, part of which reads
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? (vv. 6-9)
The church reads this prophetic, poetic text as pointing toward the drama of what is about to happen to Jesus, who was tortured.

But this suffering, paradoxically, is the way to glory. How can this be? The prayer for Wednesday of Holy Week in the Book of Common Prayer offers a model:
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed.
I pray this prayer for our friends in Bahrain. I pray that the path of Jesus--through suffering toward redemption and glory--will be their road as well.

During this week, my Jewish friends say "Next year in Jerusalem," recalling how God liberated them from Egypt. During Ashura, my Shiite friends speak of the way of 'Ali and Hussein as opposed to the ways of Yazid and Mu'awiyya (Caliphs who tried to crush the Shiite movement). And, today and tomorrow, Christians speak of the way of Jesus as opposed to the ways of the Sanhedrin and of Pontius Pilate. We are all praying that justice will be done and that the weak will be vindicated.

May the reign of God triumph here on earth as it is already ruling in heaven. May justice be done. And may the captives be freed, here, today, as in heaven and in the future.