Category Archives: America

‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’

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That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.

 

photo by the wonderful Guy Billout

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Filed under America, Essays, Personal, Serious, Work

Is It Even Fair to Compare AIDS Between Countries?

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The methodology section got cut from my New Republic article, so I pulled it out into its own little blog post.

The first thing you notice about HIV statistics is how slippery they are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS surveillance says there were 46,268 diagnoses of HIV in 2010. The online Atlas provided by the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS says there were 46,043.

It’s the same in Europe. Each country reports its own HIV statistics independently, then they’re gathered and re-reported by the European Centers for Disease Control. The Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s equivalent of the CDC) says 3,034 people were infected with HIV in Germany in 2008. The ECDC says it was 2,850.

Last year at the Smithsonian, I saw this documentary on exoplanets. Rocks in other solar systems don’t emit light, so the only way we can detect them is their tiny pull on the light waves coming from faraway stars. I was—am!—totally stunned at how we can see something so remote, so invisible, with our meager little tools on our provincial little planet.

I had a bit of the same are you fucking kidding me wonder talking to scientists about how they track the AIDS virus, and I could have easily gone another like 2,000 words on methodology alone. Public health is one of those achievements of modern civilization that gets (deserved) credit for stuff like eradicating smallpox and preventing cholera, but we should also give snaps to all the work that goes into just tracking and reporting diseases, just knowing what’s out there.

The data isn’t always available for every country, and it’s not perfectly comparable across them, but I’m glad someone out there is looking at all these little points of light, waiting for one of them to wobble.

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What Did We Learn from the Whole Donald Sterling Thing?

 

There’s this old friend of mine from Seattle who only contacts me like three times a year. Not to say how she is or to ask what I’m up to or to show me her pregnant selfies or whatever, but to tell me what I should be mad about. ‘A state senator compared homosexuality to alcoholism!’ ‘A soccer star told a journalist he doesn’t want his son to grow up gay!’ ‘A sitcom star established a foundation to defend same-sex marriage!’

They’re always like this, variations on ‘someone you’ve never heard of has beliefs you don’t agree with’, and I never know how to respond. I think I’m the only gay person she knows, and she’s sending me these dispatches in a spirit of solidarity and lets-make-it-betterness. But what should I actually do with this information? I guess I could boycott the companies or the states or the sitcoms where these un-agreed-with beliefs are coming from, but … I dunno, do I have to? It seems like kind of a big commitment to only buy stuff from people whose social beliefs I agree with. Do I have to like ask the guy who brews my flat white how he feels about transgender pronouns?

Which is why I don’t really know how I feel about the whole Donald Sterling episode. Obviously about the man himself I feel sheesh what a dick. But I’m still sort of amazed at how much time and energy we all spent reacting to this one guy’s dickishness. Now that some of the foam has subsided, I’ve decided that I think the following things:

  • These episodes have a cycle to them, and this one has basically ended, but let’s take a second to remember just how big a deal this was for like two weeks there. In Zimbabwe I was watching CNN International in my hotel room and they interrupted some documentary on African entrepreneurs to go live to the NBA Commissioner’s press conference.
  • We all know this is how the media works; I’m not going to pretend to be all shock-horror that we don’t subsist on a news diet exclusively composed of kidnapped Nigerian girls and Syrian civil war victims. Maybe we should be focusing more on instances of racism in our own country, maybe this is how it gets solved, I don’t know.
  • But man, in the eye of the shitstorm, it was hard not to notice that Sterling got away with being racist for decades (denying housing to black people, treating his black employees terribly). We only went for our torches and pitchforks when he said something racist. I’m all for witch-hunts when prominent figures use their influence nefariously, but we need ways to find better witches.
  • There’s also this weird thing where the shitty stuff he said wasn’t at a podium or some Rich People Event or in his official capacity as a sports owner or businessman, but in a private conversation, with his girlfriend, when he had no idea he was being recorded. I don’t want to be all ‘Sterling is the real victim here!’ Like I said, the dude sucks. But we are rocketing toward a society where we have the technology to record each other all the time, and we need to take brace positions for that shit.
  • I was talking to a friend of mine the the other day who works at a speech recognition software company. I asked him how long it will be until our phones can record every conversation we have all day and send us a transcript every night, with stats about our word use, suggestions for follow-ups (‘John said he’s starting a new job on Monday. Ask him how it went!’), calendar reminders; Her without the romance. He said about two years.
  • That’s probably optimistic, but I, as a person, am not ready for a society in which I’m being recorded all the time, where everything I say out loud becomes a searchable, Dewey decimaled record of my opinions and commitments. I don’t know that we, as a society, are either.
  • But back to Sterling. Obviously what he said and thinks and did regarding race is deeply wrong. But even before this imagined panopticon future comes to pass, maybe we should think about what we do with and during these little outrage cycles. Twitter already feels like it’s about 50 percent ‘here is something you should be offended by!’ There are a million Donald Sterlings in the world. The next time some CEO announces or tweets or tells his girlfriend something we find repugnant, how much time should we spend chasing it down? What is a proportionate punishment for these statements and beliefs? Are the -isms the only sins for which we should demand penance? If Justin Bieber tells his Facebook followers tomorrow that he opposes the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, is that an unfollowable offense?
  • Look, I am a member of a secular liberal society. I like our values, I think they are worth defending, I think people should be shamed and fired and lose business for violating them. I also, however, like my time and my energy and my attention, and sometimes I want to save them for things that make me happy. I am glad that someone is calling out Donald Sterling and Rush Limbaugh and that lady who made that mean joke on Twitter, but I’m not convinced that it needs to be me, that I have to jump into the pig pile whenever I hear something that, if a friend said it, they wouldn’t be anymore.
  • Maybe that makes me part of the problem. Maybe failing to participate in the internet’s perpetual Intolerance Watch means that I am myself intolerant. Maybe I should be the next one pilloried on Twitter. Maybe I deserve it.

Last week, two friends of mine were turned down for an apartment in Berlin because they’re gay. ‘I’m a family man’, the owner told them, ‘and I want to sell my apartment to someone who will start a family there.’

This is obviously bullshit on a number of levels, least of which the fact that they’re actually starting adoption proceedings as soon as they buy an apartment.

‘Tweet that fucker’s name!’ I said, livid.

‘What’s the point?’ they said. ‘He’s allowed to. Homosexuality isn’t a protected ground for discrimination in services in Germany. It’s his house; he can sell it to whomever he wants. The law’s the problem, not this one guy.’

So I’m not publishing this dude’s name. But am going to tell my old friend in Seattle about it.

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The Pleasures of the Super Gossipy Johnny Carson Biography

On my flight to Armenia I read Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin, Carson’s longtime lawyer, business manager and friend. I recommend the book for three reasons: First, it’s the kind of book you can read in five hours like it’s a muthafuckin whodunit.

Second, it’s a portrait of an era so bygone it might as well be Jane Austen:

Sitting across the room was Tom Snyder, the host of The Tomorrow Show, the NBC program that followed Johnny’s. Snyder, who was dining along, sent our table a round of drinks. […] Johnny had long harbored a serious dislike for Snyder, based on nothing but his performances on TV. He thought Snyder had no talent and was an officious bore, and after Johnny had his second glass of wine, we could see his anger bubbling just below the surface. […]

Johnny kept eyeing [Snyder] and finally said, ‘Why the fuck is he staring at me? I’m going to go over there and kick the shit out of that guy.’ […]

Johnny lunged across the table and grabbed for Snyder’s throat. He got nowhere close. Quinn got in front of Snyder and I pulled on Johnny’s arm and McMahon moved his bulk in between.

And another one:

The last time I saw Rick Carson [Johnny’s son, who later died in a car accident] was at the Tonight Show anniversary party that took place on the Queen Mary in October 1987. […] Dinner, dancing and entertainment were part of the festivities, as was a casino where people could play blackjack, roulette and craps. Rick was playing in the casino and drinking heavily. His father went to see him in order the keep him under control, and a screaming match ensued. Johnny lost his temper and began yelling, and Rick responded in kind. Johnny pulled back his fist—he was going to slug his son—but somebody stepped in and hustled Johnny away.

In case it isn’t clear what’s happening here, this is the most famous person in America drunkenly attempting to beat up his own son at a fundraising event on a cruise ship. Media were in attendance, as were members of Carson’s staff, their spouses, hired help. Yet we are only hearing about this now.

Then there are the women. Bushkin describes the weekends Carson used to play Vegas. Two shows a night, 10 weeks a year, his material never changed, and neither did his pre- and post-show routine. He would glad-hand his celebrity friends (five minutes at a time—one of Bushkin’s jobs was to make sure Carson was never trapped in conversation with another person too long), then find girls from the slot machines or the front row and take them back to his hotel room.

The next day Johnny called to make sure the girls would be coming to the show. ‘Maybe they would like to join us at a small dinner party afterward,’ Johnny suggested, ‘up in my apartment.’ […]

The three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served then wine from a silver platter.

Maybe I’m naive about the lifestyles of celebrities these days, but this sort of thing strikes me as unimaginable today. One of these women would tweet a photo of the Carsonalia, would YouTube a clip of Carson sleeping off the revelry the next morning.

But reading the book, you realize that it’s not just the technology that has changed. Carson’s fame peaked when he was in his late 40s to his mid 60s. This was a married man, with three kids from the first (of four) wives that he all but abandoned.

Bushkin notes that Carson smoked four packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life, that he drank to excess nearly every night, that he kept a .38 in his glove box. At every location, Carson relied on an architecture of bellhops, hotel managers and personal secretaries to facilitate a steady supply of alcohol and hook-ups with women of diminishing age-appropriateness.

‘In the environs of a Las Vegas hotel,’ Bushkin writes, ‘a free-fire zone where no wives were allowed, it was generally accepted that the bigger the star, the greater the latitude for indiscretion.’

It is true that we live in a time when this indiscretion-latitude is narrower, but it’s not just Twitter and TMZ that made us this way. The social norms of Carson’s era rested on a society-wide agreement that some topics were to be known but not said. Maybe we are more gossipy now, or maybe we are more prudish, less willing to wink-and-nudgingly protect a man in his 50s, inebriated, fucking the starstruck out of women in their 20s while his wife and children waited a timezone away. Either way, whether this means we are a better society or a worse one, it would be harder now for Carson to pull this off.

The third and deepest source of the book’s pleasures is its Big Reveal of Carson as an extreme introvert. As Bushkin describes him, Carson was charming, generous, lively and gracious—but only in small amounts, and under conditions where he controlled each interaction. A one-on-one interview, on his own show, six minutes at a time, with breaks to sell lawnmowers and hair polish, that was Carson’s ideal way of interacting with people. He hated cocktail parties and public appearances, situations where he wasn’t able to choreograph who he would meet, what he would talk about and for how long.

As you can see in the above clips, Carson had a nasty streak. His friendships, his professional relationships, his marriages, nearly all of them ended abruptly and permanently after a perceived slight. It’s like Carson realized that he liked being alone more than he liked his agents and managers, his wives, even (spoiler alert) Bushkin himself. One by one, they all end up under Carson’s emotional guillotine, never to be contacted or acknowledged ever again.

Bushkin notes that Carson died alone, his hospital bed un-surrounded by friends or family. The outpouring of emotion from his audience, kept always at a distance, was not matched by a more intimate group of friends and family. Carson had no inner circle, only the outer one.

It turns out that Johnny, who never carried a wallet but usually kept $1,500 to $2,000 or so in cash on his person, had noticed that at the end of every week for the last month or so, he would be at least $700 to $1,000 light.

Within days we caught his dresser, a union guy who was responsible for taking care of Johnny’s wardrobe, pilfering the money. Johnny was very proud that he had solved the mystery, but he never fired the culprit. He liked him too much as an employee. Instead, he sat him down and told him that as long as he didn’t steal anymore, Johnny would give him another $300 to $400 a week.

This is the same guy that fired dozens of his employees, threw a tantrum at Reagan’s inauguration, never visited his son during his stay in a mental hospital. Even Bushkin, who knew Carson as well as anyone, can’t explain why he acted so nice on some days and so mean on others. But, for 300 pages, it’s worth watching him try.

 

 

 

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Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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University Rankings are Terrible. Now Can We Stop Doing the Same Thing With Countries?

The release of the US News & World Report college rankings is as good an excuse as any to talk about the sheer ridiculousness of organising complex institutions into rank order and pert decimal scores.

The criticisms of the index itself are nicely summarized in this Atlantic article, but for those that don’t have time for the full Gladwell, they are basically of two kinds:

  1. The ranking is flawed. The methodology constantly changes, schools juke their stats, it’s based on bullshit surveys that only measure the school’s established reputation, etc. The data might be good enough to distinguish Harvard University from  Southern Methodist Tech, but there is too much noise to say that Yale is better than Princeton or that Oregon State is better than Penn State.
  2. Most of the information we use to determine the quality of education isn’t readily measurable. How good are the teachers? Do students get enough personal attention? Is the campus social life welcoming or cliquey? If you list everything that made your college experience positive or negative, you won’t find it in the number tables of these rankings.

A few years ago I was working at a human rights NGO, and one of my jobs was preparing reports for multinational corporations telling them about the human rights situation in countries where they were thinking of operating.  You want to open a shoe factory in Kenya? Here’s what you need to know about gender discrimination, corruption, occupational health and safety. Here’s how you make shoes there without violating human rights.

Sometimes companies would ask us for big packages of countries, 10, 20, 50 at a time.

‘Can’t you just give us a ranking?’ they would ask. ‘Tell us which country is the worst of that list, and we won’t make shoes there.’

Or, they would suggest, better yet, give us an index. If you tell us that Bolivia scores 8.2 out of 10 and  Iran scores 8.3 out of 10, we can make our decision on quantitative data rather than just putting our finger in the air.

‘But that is putting your finger in the air,’ I would tell them. ‘It’s just us doing it instead of you. Bolivia and Iran, their politics, their demographics, their economics, they look nothing like each other. Two numbers isn’t going to make that go away.’

This is one of my beefs with the Failed States Index, the Economic Freedom Index, the Human Development Index, the Corruptions Perceptions Index, the dozens of other indices that purport to rank countries according to some difficult-to-measure variable.

The problem is, countries have all the same problems as colleges. The data out there isn’t strong enough to justify precise determinations, only broad tranches. Yeah, Norway is less corrupt than Angola, but I don’t need an index to tell me that.

But is Norway less corrupt than Denmark? More developed than Switzerland? Given the limited data and even more limited number of indicators these indices use, the answers to those questions are a re-statement of your methodology, not a useful analysis of the conditions in those two countries.

I used to try to tell the companies this, that any attempt to rank countries according to their ability to prevent corporate human rights violations would be like trying to rank kittens according to cuteness. After you separate them into the already-obvious tranches, it’s just a judgement call, preferences disguised as data.   

‘But it would be so much easier for me if you could do that anyway.’ Only one corporate person ever actually said it this directly, but afterward I started hearing it, in subtler ways, from the others.

Eventually I realized that the only reason the companies pushed so hard, why they insisted so strongly on  rankings and scores over information and analysis, was because it made it not their problem anymore. They didn’t have the credentials to pull 50 ‘good’ countries from 100 uncategorised ones, so they used us to push the responsibility away. ‘It’s not me saying Bolivia is an 8.2,’ they could tell their boss. ‘A human rights NGO said it was. Making shoes there is totally approved. 

I don’t know if high schoolers use college rankings to decide where they should get educated. And I don’t know if multinational corporations use country indices to decide where they should make shoes. I just hope that in both cases, they know that most of what they’re seeing is either totally obvious or entirely unsubstantiated.

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Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Originally posted at The Billfold

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.

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Filed under America, Food, Serious, United Kingdom

Paula Deen, Race and A Defense of Thoughtcrime

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Every American knows about the epic third-railness of racism in public life. Nappy-headed hos, you people, articulate and bright, macaca, let’s stop there. All public figures in America are one N-word away from utter and total ruin. No other word or opinion has anything like the toxicity of a racial slur. A white politician or actor (or, apparently, TV chef) can be on record saying just about anything (‘sugar tits‘, ‘takers not makers‘) and keep their job, their chance at a second chance. But say something racist and, well, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

This is correct. Racism in America is a uniquely ugly thing, something whose effects are still present in our policies, our economy, our workplaces, our schools. You’re not allowed to defend something whose impacts are still being lived by a significant percentage of your countrymen, especially if you are on the benefits end of those impacts. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about race, just that you have to be a little more careful when you do. If you can’t keep your eyes open underwater, don’t jump in the pool.

This sensitivity, this hesitation, is  unique in American history. You could get away with saying some bonkers-racist shit in public just a few decades ago. But racism is also unique relative to other social issues. If Paula Deen had said that the death penalty should be expanded, that poor people just don’t work hard enough, that public schools should be abolished, that Medicare should be defunded, that inequality in America isn’t wide enough, yeah the internet would have shitted on her, and maybe she would have lost an endorsement or two, but we would move on. She would have nothing like the systematic ostracism she’s getting now.

Again, this is not a bad thing. Discrimination was the great battle of the 20th century, and winning it is one of the progressive left’s greatest victories. I’m fine with a world where you have to be careful talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, where certain opinions (‘women shouldn’t be voting!’ ‘Slavery was adorable‘) will get you kicked off the TV and the ballot.

I am a great big homosexual. Every day I root for homophobia to reach this magical status, to get to the point where a politician says a mean, stupid thing about My People and is instantly shoved off the platform of public life. In fact, I hope when homophobia gets there, it brings some of its friends with it. Poverty, inequality, free health care, free(er) immigration, worker’s rights—I want all these topics to achieve the level of consensus we’ve worked so hard to reach on racism. I hope progressive activists are looking at the way we police each other on race and going ‘yeah, looks about right.’

This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with. But what I’m saying is that I want them  to feel prohibited from expressing the first thing that pops into their head. Race in America is something that, when you talk about it, you have to think a little harder, talk a little slower, squeeze a little empathy out of your words and your heart to be taken seriously.

This, that little pause before you speak, is what progress looks like, and there are a lot more issues in America that deserve it. Next time a TV chef sits down for an interview, I’ll bet they will take it. 

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Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

Is organic Nutella better for you?

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Everyone knows Nutella has basically he same nutritional profile as cake frosting, and that you should eat it about as often.

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Yesterday in the store I saw something called ‘Bionella’ — Organic Nutella. Look how healthy it looks! Green stripes everywhere, two certification stickers, even the font looks humble and nourishing.

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Ingredients! OK, this is in German so that’s annoying, but the gist is, Nutella is 13% hazelnuts. The other 87 percent is basically sugar and fat. ‘Reduced fat cocoa’ and ‘skim milk powder’ are both more than half sugar, and there’s not even that much of them in here. By contrast, even the Acme peanut butter you buy at the dollar store is at least 87% peanuts.

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So how’s Bionella compare? It’s … 14% hazelnuts! And has exactly the same ingredients as the non-organic Nutella!

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As you would expect from two products made from exactly the same things, the nutrition information is about equal.

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Though organic Nutella has more calories, less protein and more fat than the non-organic version. Somehow they have taken our culture’s most potent caloric napalm and made it even more powerful. I’m almost impressed.

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The one thing you can say about Nutella, at least it’s cheap. In Europe they sell tubs of this stuff the size of human babies for less than it costs to take the train to go get them.

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And … nice. Apparently if you want those extra calories, you’re going to have to pay for them.

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Filed under America, Food