Wednesday, January 20, 2010

See you in Feb.

OK, that really is it for January here.

Incidentally, this site has had a number of first-time visitors in the last several days, and to them in particular I want to say that feedback of any kind (barring libel or obscenity) is welcome. I don't stand on ceremony, and when a commenter tells me to shut up, as one did here, my inclination is to try to respond civilly rather than delete the comment or start an exchange of insults. I will never be able to write about everything I would like to write about here, because I have other things to do besides blogging. (And in addition to the limits of time, there are limits imposed by the range of things that I feel competent and, more to the point, not competent to address.)

See you all next month.

Blattman on Brooks

I denounced the Brooks column as nonsense, but Chris Blattman -- who, unlike me, is a work-in-the-field and crunch-numbers social scientist (heck, let's just say that, unlike me, he is a real social scientist) -- took a more measured approach, contenting himself with the observation that Brooks's air of certitude made him "uncomfortable." Blattman says he's undertaking a randomized control trial, involving a project with street youth in Monrovia, Liberia, to test Brooks's notion of "intrusive paternalism."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why do poor countries offer aid when natural disasters strike?

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, governments from around the world offered aid to the U.S. One of those offering aid was the government of Bangladesh. I don't recall the exact amount but it was more than token and not insubstantial for a poor country.

Now the Democratic Republic of Congo (considerably poorer than Bangladesh, I'm quite sure, though I haven't checked the figures) is offering aid to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. A Congolese political scientist is quoted by the BBC as saying: "It's a contradiction to see a country which is facing serious financial problems giving away $2.5 [million] but at the same time, it's a purely diplomatic reaction, the Congolese government wants to appear like any other government." (emphasis added)

I think that is exactly right. Offering aid in disasters has become something that sovereign governments -- or governments that want to appear as fully sovereign as any others -- do. It has become a norm of modern sovereign statehood, virtually in the same category as having a national airline and opening embassies in other countries.

The Congolese government's offer of aid is a way of telling the world that it has its problems under control (even though it almost certainly doesn't) and that it deserves as much respect as any other member state of the U.N.

(And I bet you thought that having studied IR theory was a completely impractical waste of time, didn't you? Hmm, I think I'd better not go further with this...)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pakistan's public schools: condition critical

Griff Witte has an interesting if depressing Wash Post article on the grim state of Pakistan's public education system and the obstacles to reform. USAID will spend $200 million in Kerry-Lugar funds on education in Pakistan this year; the money will not be channeled through NGOs but will be given directly to the government, Witte observes. (This, if I'm not mistaken, might have been a condition for Pakistan's acceptance of the Kerry-Lugar package.) Lack of adequate monitoring of how the money is spent risks that much of it "will go to waste," the article notes.

The vast majority of Pakistani children who are in school attend the public schools, not madrassas. But the public school system is in terrible shape, according to this article; government spending on it is paltry, the curriculum is skewed toward reinforcing half-truths and outright untruths that constitute what one interviewee calls the security establishment's ideology, and "about a third of students drop out by the fifth grade." Read the whole thing, as they say.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brooks's nonsense about Haiti and poverty

I hadn't intended to post again this month, but this passage from David Brooks's NYT column today (hat tip: HC) is beyond the pale in trotting out stale, dubious clichés about the alleged cultural roots of poverty:

"As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book 'The Central Liberal Truth,' Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10."

The notion that these things are why Haiti is poor is arrant nonsense. In fact I've just read the whole column and virtually the whole thing is nonsense. It starts at the very beginning of the piece, where Brooks confuses GDP growth with poverty alleviation. The two are related but they are not the same. You can have a lot of GDP growth without much poverty alleviation, and vice-versa. This has been obvious for decades. Then there's all this stuff about culture and poverty. It's a convenient device to obscure the way in which global institutional and economic structures (in which we're all complicit) create conditions that facilitate the continuation of poverty and maldistribution. To be sure, there are local differences. The Dominican Republic is much better off than Haiti. But is that because they have different cultures, because the Dominican Republic has "a culture of achievement" and Haiti doesn't? I don't think so. In all likelihood it's a result of complicated histories (including U.S. occupation) and the different ways they are positioned in the regional and global economies, among other things.

I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about Haiti, except what I see and read in the media. But David Brooks knows nothing about global poverty and its causes and possible solutions. An intelligent seventh-grader could have written a better column than this piece
of garbage.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Those revolutionary Brillo boxes

I happened to pick up a copy of Arthur Danto's new book on Andy Warhol (called, surprisingly enough, Andy Warhol) in my local public library. Although it's a short book, I didn't and don't have the time or inclination to read it from cover to cover. I did dip into it, however.

For those who don't know, Danto is a philosopher and art critic who has written about the philosophy of art, among other things (see Louis Menand's piece in the current New Yorker
). In a nutshell, Danto thinks Warhol was a revolutionary artist because he threw into question the definition of art more sharply than previous artists (such as Duchamp) had. If Warhol's Brillo Boxes, which consists of stacks of Brillo boxes, is art, the definition of art must involve something extra-visual or non-visual, since there is no significant difference between Warhol's Brillo Boxes and Brillo boxes that could have been found on any grocery store shelf. "What makes something art must accordingly be invisible to the eye" (Danto, Andy Warhol, p.65).

Similarly, Warhol's 1964 movie Empire, consisting of "an uninterrupted view" of the Empire State Building and running for "just over eight hours" (p.77), throws into question the definition of a movie. Empire "showed...that in a moving picture, nothing in the picture has to move" (p.79).

Danto's book also contains some humor. This R-rated passage (pp.76-77) is an example:
"In none of the silent, so-called minimalist films is there anything much to see, not even in the 1964 Blow Job, which shows the face of an attractive if anonymous young man who is being fellated off-screen. So the title seems like false or at least misleading advertising. It [i.e., the film] was too long, however short a time it lasted, and nearly caused a riot when shown at Columbia 1966. The students were impatient and filled the air with boos, hisses, and jokey singing of 'He shall never come.' ... Andy was in the audience, planning to say a few words after the screening, but he left quietly when the furor started."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pedagogy of the not-so-oppressed

I just ran across, more or less by accident, this piece by Henry Giroux on Paulo Freire, best known as the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While reading quickly through some of the piece, I was struck by this passage:
"Too many classrooms at all levels of schooling now resemble a 'dead zone,' where any vestige of critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination quickly migrate [sic; this should read migrates -- LFC] to sites outside of the school only to be mediated and corrupted by a corporate-driven media culture. The major issue now driving public schooling is how to teach for the test, while disciplining those students who because of their class and race undermine a school district's ranking in the ethically sterile and bloodless world of high stakes testing and empirical score cards. Higher education mimics this logic by reducing its public vision to the interests of capital and redefining itself largely as a credentializing factory for students and a Petri dish for downsizing academic labor. Under such circumstances, rarely do educators ask questions about how schools can prepare students to be informed citizens, nurture a civic imagination or teach them to be self-reflective about public issues and the world in which they live."
The last sentence of this passage (the italics are mine) led me to wonder what Giroux would think of Michael Sandel's "Justice" course (which I've had occasion to refer to before, albeit briefly). After watching an hour or two of "Justice" online a while ago, it seems to me difficult to deny that Sandel's aim -- and probably, to some extent, his effect -- is precisely to help students become more informed, reflective citizens. But Sandel's politics are not radical, while Giroux's are, and I somehow doubt that Sandel is practicing the pedagogy of the oppressed as Giroux might construe it -- although Giroux does point out that Freire refused to identify his outlook with a particular method. I don't follow debates about education much, so I don't know what if anything Giroux has written about Sandel's course (yes, I could have done a search but I didn't). It does strike me as an interesting question, however.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Soufan on Al Qaeda in Yemen

Ali Soufan, FBI case agent for the USS Cole investigation from 2000 to 2005, writes about al Qaeda in Yemen and observes that those who were jailed for their roles in the Cole bombing have been released. While recognizing the problems Yemeni officials are dealing with, he urges the U.S. to hold them more accountable in return for the U.S. aid Yemen gets.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What to expect here in 2010

For various reasons, I anticipate that I will be posting less frequently in 2010 than I did in '09. When I do post, the substantive foci (focuses? whatever) probably will remain more or less what they have been, though I may go off on tangents now and again.

Best wishes for the new year.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Update on the attack in Khost

The murkiness of the situation on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has only been underscored by the claims of responsibility and involvement by both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban in the recent attack on the CIA base. The attack, as Christine Fair said on the NewsHour tonight, appears to have been aimed at decreasing the CIA's ability to carry out drone strikes in North Waziristan, the home of the Haqqani network. Thomas Johnson, on the same NewsHour segment, suggested that the Haqqani network might have "outsourced" the attack to (elements of) the Pakistani Taliban. Johnson also said that the degree of insurgent infiltration of the Afghan police and army, and of interpreters, has been underestimated. Fair had interesting things to say about Hakimullah Mehsud, current head of the Pakistani Taliban. They were both speaking rather quickly and my TV was misbehaving, so I later went to the NewsHour website and listened to the segment again. (Easier to follow that way.)
Further update: See the front-page articles in Wash Post of Jan.10.