The European McVeigh, and His Wider Significance (or Lack Thereof)

May 12, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik is now on trial for his massacre.  It’s a trial that on the whole says wonderful things about Norway, while also underscoring the very real, very gruesome, very powerful effects perception can have, especially vis a vis cultural or transnational issues.   What truth is there in Breivik’s claim that he is but one member of a large anti-Muslim movement lurking on the fringes of European society?

Amidst the discussions of high finance and international political economic reform in the Eurozone, the issues of multiculturalism’s track record, the integration of the continent’s immigrant and immigrant descendant Muslims, and beyond that of how a supra-organization of nation-states negotiates cultural identity in the 21st century were not given the attention that they should have received.   The massacre (not “the tragedy”; there is little about a one-man targeted killing spree which implies a random act of divine will or natural disaster) , while something Breivik alone is culpable for,  put these issues back in the forefront of European and US attention.

Whether or not the specific group the Knights Templar exists, a very chillingly nuanced argument has been made by some of the psychiatrists who have looked at Breivik’s case: it isn’t technically a delusion if other people share it.  And we do know that Breivik, although singular in his tactics, is not alone in his beliefs.   The right-wing backlash is almost as  old as the waves of predominantly Turkish and North Africa immigration themselves.

The nature of that backlash may be obscured by the justifiably intense emotions surrounding the massacre, so it is worth clarifying: Breivik is NOT trying to ignite a religious war in Europe motivated by anything close to purely doctrinal differences.   When he, a lapsed Lutheran rather indifferent to the moral or theological basis of Christianity, declares his allegiance to something called the Knights Templar and his ideology to be anti-Muslim, he really refers to socio-cultural categories marking in-group vs. out-group.   “Muslims” with their foreign customs threaten the cultural purity of Europe.  It is more or less the case that with this ideology, any out-group would do as a scapegoat.  Muslims are a wise choice, though, for both their contemporary and historical salience to the European imagination.

The historical nature of what Breivik wants to achieve, however, is vividly invoked by the use of “Knights Templar”:  a vastly less socially, economically, politically, linguistically complicated Europe, united in a gloriously honorable quest to re-secure the symbol of its common cultural heritage from them, who are heathens because they are the Other as much as they are the Other because they are heathens.

Europe as a whole has not gone crazy, or returned to war with itself.  But if and when we say Breivik should receive full time psychiatric care, we — Europeans and Americans — should keep in mind that he is not quite the singular actor that we want or need him to be.



What’s in a Name / On a Collective Label for the Non-West

April 2, 2012

Say one wishes to make a statement or ask a question about all the parts of the globe that, well, aren’t rich from capitalism to the degree the West is.  Say (for the sake of argument) that one did not wish to be more specific, referring to one or more particular regions of the … Not West.  What all-encompassing label could be used to describe some salient characteristic that a) distinguishes this portion of the globe from the West while b) applying more or less equally to all countries therein?   The usual pattern of label development has been top-down, with neologisms used by government and/or academia, and then being adopted by popular media.

The popular press is guilty of being especially slippery in their use of the various terms, but even in more academic writing the terms are interchanged with a carelessness more common (and more fitting) among teenagers. Which, when one recollects that we the West are attempting to apply a general label to a good plurality if not the majority of the world’s population who we wish to lump together simply by virtue of the fact that they are not us, well, one might appreciate that this whole label thing is kind of A Serious Matter not worthy of sophomoricism. (Yes, this is a population game and not about land area. Physical geographers are going to sit this one out. Again. Sorry folks.)

Thus, let us consider the labels for the non-West in widest current use:

  • Third World
  • Developing world
  • Global South

What may be immediately apparent is that each term highlights — reifies, really — a distinct aspect of the contrast between West and non-West. “Third World” emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the labeling exercise. It comes from a Cold War-era scheme dividing the globe into the First World (the West), the Second World (the Communist countries), and the Third World (every other country on the face of the Earth, largely overlapping with the Non-Aligned Movement). Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and then the break-up of the USSR, the middle rung of this ladder fell apart, but somehow the two end terms stuck around, because even listeners who have no idea of the origins of the construct still see the inherent power dynamic the term invokes — we have it, they don’t.

“Developing world” may seem more benign in comparison, but a closer examination of that term’s roots within Western concepts of economic development — wherein the West is the assumed model — reveals a very linear, technological ideal of progress, one that sees the non-West as existing at an earlier temporal point. “Progress” in this model is steadily incremental, and signifies an emphasis on material goods that by and large (ware a further stereotype) the non-West has not embraced culturally to the extent the West has. More broadly, development theory tends to assume a globally universal endpoint — “developed” — which is relatively static and fixed to the set progression which proceeds it. All of this is problematic vis a vis the non-West: definition, method, metric, goal, and universality.

Finally, “global South” appears at first blush to be straightforwardly, even blandly, geographical. As any geographer of any stripe will be among the first to admit, however, geography and politics have a chicken-and-egg relationship. And so with this label for the non-West. A South implies a North, just as a West implies an East. However, the visual orientation of humans has led to a certain way of valuing or privileging whatever is “highest”, spatially. North is “on top” of South, and so the superiority-inferiority dynamic continues.

What term will suffice, then? Perhaps a truer solution is the one suggested already — moving away from a tendency to apply a blanket label to the non-West.

Meanwhile, in the Other Mexico

April 2, 2012

Far from the limelight of the violent drug war in Ciudad Juarez, NAFTA appears to be working more or less as intended: the Mexican middle class is growing by leaps and bounds.   In the city of Queretaro in central Mexico, people are more concerned with mortgage payments and the quality of their kids’ public schools.   Chatting with a transfronterizo recently — one who went to my brother Catholic high school by commuting from across the border — reminded me what a new and promising phenomenon this is.  Those opportunities used to be the exclusive preserve of the rich.  No longer.

The middle class anywhere is as much about mindset and social attitudes as it is about an income bracket. That plays out in the case of Mexico, a rising middle income country where purchasing power is still quite high.  For this new class in the geographic middle of the country, there is also the virtue of being far from the drug violence of the northern states — something their own middle class attitudes and habits perpetuate and reconstruct, so that the distance becomes socio-economic as well as purely geographic.  Those who fled the violence especially serve to promote the distinction.

The Mexican middle class is young enough to share another of its characteristics with another society that experienced economic shock around the same time.  The Russian experience was unique, of course.   But nearly two decades later the majority of citizens in both countries want to hold onto what they have.

There are two main intersecting metrics for how to measure the middle class: consumption and perception.  An overwhelming majority of Mexicans see themselves as middle class — figures that would no doubt surprise most U.S. politicians, especially in the Southwest, to say nothing of voters.   We have become so used to drug violence being the narrative frame for this entire country that this development, the same thing that is happening globally for the same structural reasons, has been overlooked almost completely.  (Making it a perfect NYT story candidate, but I digress.)

If we have ignored such a major trend in our southern neighbor, if — more to the point — the popular imagination in the United States has even come to think Mexico is immune to the positive forces of development?  Houston, tenemos un problema.

On #StopKony and the Role of Context

March 10, 2012

You’ve seen it, or at least heard about it, if you can access this blog: the 29 minute video about a central African warlord who began a guerrilla insurgency against the Ugandan government 26 years ago, an insurgency that devolved into a reign of terror against the civilian population of Acholiland.

Invisible Children, the organization behind both this viral video and aa2005 feature-length documentary on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, takes its name and its laser-narrow perspective on the LRA from what is arguably the most sensationally disturbing atrocities of the conflict in northern Uganda — the nighttime abduction, indoctrination, and conscription of rural children into the LRA, as well as the so-called “night commuters”, children who came into towns each night to escape the rural abductions.

The key, however, is that Uganda’s conflict has always been more complex than two white surfer dudes from San Diego (IC’s founders) could discover.  To take but one example, Kony wasn’t the only spiritualist leader preaching against the government in 1980s Acholiland.

More broadly, IC tells a very one-sided story.  And they didn’t need to! It is possible to be appalled at the LRA’s (former, more on that below) tactics, to even call them evil, while still condemning the Ugandan military and the regime of Yoweri Museveni for human rights abuses in Acholiland committed in the name of fighting the LRA.  To condemn the treatment of Acholiland by the central government that was a factor in Kony’s rise.

But IC doesn’t give that side. They barely bother to explain, at least in the 2005 documentary, what socio-economic and political forces at work in mid-1980s Uganda led to the LRA.

And as I hinted above, they do not update the story to the present day. Yes, Kony is still at large. But he and the LRA do not operate solely in Uganda anymore. They’ve moved on to neighboring countries most Americans still haven’t heard of: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They are now one player among the many in the conflicts in each of these other countries.  Meanwhile, they may now only number in the few hundreds in Uganda, although estimates vary widely.

Now, it’s easy to understand why IC chose, for they did choose, to ignore all that.   Those two dudes from San Diego are filmmakers*, not historians of the non-West nor political scientists, and were not any kind of NGO worker prior to IC’s founding.   So they did what filmmakers do: they told a simple story, with an overarching narrative that had clear heroes and villains.

And Kony is clearly made into a villain, even demonized, in the 2005 film.  And nowhere in the narration and witness to the group’s atrocities is the emphasis on “one man, one story” even questioned.  For IC, context is inconvenient: the Ugandan government and the military are barely mentioned, and only in positive terms. The “solution” of essentially permanent camps of those Acholis deliberately displaced by the anti-LRA campaign is not mentioned.  And on and on. Real world conflicts have context: multiple perspectives, multiple actors, history, messy “solutions” possibly worse than the problem, and no completely happy ending.

It really does seem as though Kony is a villain in a vacuum to IC.  But that’s the thing.  If you want to see the inside of a vacuum, watch a Dyson commercial.   Out here in the real world, the Disney treatment doesn’t do real suffering and real complex problems any justice.

*I know a filmmaker, a filmmaker is a relative of mine.  And these, Senator, are two rather naive and disingenuous filmmakers.

Birds in Hand vs in the Bush

March 7, 2012

Both Russia and Chima held important elections this past week. Russia’s presidential balloting returned Putin to the presidency–a Back to the Future style machination the USSR may not have been capable of.

Meanwhile, the Chinese village of Wukan has elected the leaders of serious anti-land grab protests as its mayor and deputy mayor. The local CCP authorities apparently didn’t wish to reignite discontent by interfering. And preliminary reports are that the villagers are satisfied with the democratic process. They seem to strongly feel that democratic reform will be positive for their economic development, in an interesting potential portend for the CCP.

Russian voters, on the other hand, were on the whole much less inclined to rock the boat. Stability, preserving what they still had economically, was the theme from voters and Putin both. The young protestors in Moscow chamting “Russia without Putin!” are obviously a minority in this country which still vividly recalls the economic and political upheaval of the early 1990s. Putin’s siren song of stability was overwhelmingly attractive in the face of that memory.

In that dichotomy the youthful protesters of Russia have something in common with the U.S. Occupy movement: inability to fully engage what we Americans have called “the 99 percent”.

The contrasting example of the PRC, with its 20+ years of explosive growth, may allow us to tease out from local context the hypothesis that economic growth coupled with repression that threatens it is a more potent recipe for productive protest than repression in a land of fitful, resource-driven growth and/or growth insufficiently grounded to orient people towards future prospects.

These elections offered lessons to the United States’ policymakers, both foreign and domestic.

On Studying Abroad Outside the West

March 3, 2012

The stereotype most Americans hold of studying abroad revolves around Parisian cafes, the Louvre, really authentic Irish pub crawls, and the Amanda Knox case notwithstanding, the learning of “romantic” French or Italian, the better to woo or be wooed on the Riviera.

Riding a camel around the pyramids of Giza, walking on the Great Wall of China, learning Zapotec in an indigenous village in central Mexico, or climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro tend not to even register on most Americans’ radars as “studying abroad”.

But those are the areas where the world is changing most dynamically and consequentially, where the most relevant global learning for the 21st century is going to take place.  We need a cultural shift in the U.S. toward seeing the year plus that one of my college classmates did in China as the norm, not a year in France or Italy.

Those EU countries are great — one day I’d like to go to Italy myself.  But studying abroad isn’t the same as a dream vacation.  It’s about gaining knowledge and experiences which will prepare students for their future and the future of the world.  And in most cases, that knowledge and experience is best gained outside the West.

Study abroad needs an extreme makeover, cultural perception edition.

A Catholic Schoolgirl’s Thoughts on Peacebuilding 1/infinity

February 17, 2012

No, just because I attended “the Academy of Our Lady of Peace” did not mean I thought peace was a simple thing or easily achievable, even as a teen.  Yes, I was and am grounded by the ethos of Catholic social teaching, but as is the case 99.9 % of the time, my undergrad years were a dose of reality.

Which is not to say that I was a realist by the time I got my BA, just that I’d been fed a steady diet of nuts and bolts on peacebuilding, to the point where the most ephemeral I can now get about “peace” is that it’s a journey, not a destination, and certainly not a definition-by-negation destination.

One of the most significant and yet overlooked influences on that worldview was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both predominantly counterinsurgency conflicts that began during my high school years.