Category: links

L’Affaire Mortenson, reactions and commentary

“I stand by the information conveyed in my book.”

Greg Mortenson

One of the interesting things about the whole Mortenson story is that lots of people seem already to have known it was all bullshit, if not in the comprehensive and total way that Krakauer and 60 minutes demonstrated. For example, Carl Prine and Nosheen Ali. And yet!

Alanna Shaikh counts the ways:

…Mountaineers, it turns out, have also known all along that the origin story of Three Cups of Tea was a myth. When Jon Krakauer was reporting the April Byliner.com article that thoroughly debunks Mortenson’s travels and his book, he seems to have simply asked Scott Darsney, one of Mortenson’s companions, for the truth. He got it. Mortenson had three companions walk down K2 with him when he gave up his attempt, and he didn’t wander alone into the village of Korphe, as he claims.

The nonprofit community in the United States also knew that there was something tricky with CAI’s management. Some of Mortenson’s donors saw red flags, wondering how he could possibly run an NGO while also conducting his whirlwind speaking tour. The current board has only three members, one of whom is Mortenson himself: a risky structure with very little accountability built into it. Krakauer reports that three board members quit in frustration over poor management in 2002. Yet none of them spoke out. And CAI wasn’t rated by the Better Business Bureau, as most charities are, because of a failure to disclose accountability information.

Finally, Pakistan scholars knew there was something wrong with Three Cups of Tea because the descriptions of Pakistan were so inaccurate. Throughout the book, the authors get religious divides, tribal affiliations, and political alliances wrong. A scathing 2010 review of the book by the websiteIslamic Insights complains that the book relies gross generalizations and only a superficial knowledge of the region. And it’s just plain wrong: “Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, ‘Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 … because she died in Autumn 1997.'”

One of the blogs at The Economist took aim at Mortenson’s ridiculous attempt to pull the old “them savages don’t understand time” gambit:

Mr Mortenson’s  written response blames the confusion on the Balti language of the people of Korphe:

Even the Balti language — an archaic dialect of Tibetan — has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, “now” can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern.

Calling Balti an “archaic dialect” is odd; it is a full-blown language according toEthnologue, and no language is any more archaic than any other. But this seems as though it might be an attempt to set up a linguistic defence: Balti, being archaic and a mere dialect and all, doesn’t have concepts of time that would allow the villagers to be reliable in contradicting Mr Mortenson.

People should know by now that this kind of thing can be checked. Just because Korphe may not have a broadband connection doesn’t mean that Mr Mortenson is the only person who has learned about its language. Mark Liberman found a book on tense and aspect in Tibetan languages, which includes a discussion of Balti:

Balti and Ladakhi, spoken under Pakistan and India regime, are not mere Tibetan dialects, but have, in contrast to Central Tibetan, generalized the past marker suffix -s for controlled action verbs, have introduced a general Past Marker and thus have fully grammaticalized the concept of TENSE-A, …

And so on. Balti’s alleged lack of care for time is not getting Mr Mortenson off the hook here. In fact, English can allow a lot of vagueness in describing a sequence of events in time. Could Mr Mortenson be taking advantage of our archaic dialect’s ambiguity? CBS asked him point-blank in writing:

Did you really stumble into Korphe after failing to summit K2? 

Mr Mortenson’s words his response rather oddly for a man who claims to have wandered into the village near death:

Yes, I first visited Korphe village, Braldu valley, Baltistan, Pakistan after failing to summit K2 in 1993.

“Visited” is a strange word in this context, if Mr Mortenson indeed staggered in by chance. And “after failing to summit K2 in 1993” leaves him rather a lot of temporal wiggle-room. The “1993” bit can refer to the failed K2 attempt, not the visit, so “I first visited Korphe after failing to summit K2 in 1993” can mean “I first visited Korphe in 1994.”  It doesn’t have to mean that, but it certainly can.

Laura Miller argues that the book’s inaccuracies are less important than CAI’s financial improprieties:

No one is quite accusing Mortenson of stealing, nor are they questioning his commitment to CAI’s mission. However, Krakauer presents persuasive evidence that Mortenson’s refusal to document any of his expenditures in the U.S. or in Central Asia — indeed, his refusal to be financially accountable to anyone — have made CAI dysfunctional and far less effective than it claims to be. No one knows what the money is spent on, and no one seems to be monitoring the results. At one point, CAI staff resorted to fabricating documentation in order to comply with an audit by an independent accounting firm.

At least some of the schools Mortenson takes credit for building are “ghost schools,” empty structures without students or teachers. Krakauer, after speaking to several former CAI employees, charges Mortenson with repeatedly subverting “efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built, how much each school actually costs and how many schools are up and running.” Achievements that Mortenson claims in this department are not derived from verifiable records or facts, so any donations solicited on the basis of those claims could be regarded as obtained under false pretenses.

The evidence of Mortenson’s financial improprieties is solid; just how much he may have lied about the recuperation and kidnapping stories in “Three Cups of Tea” is both murkier and a bit irrelevant.

Conversational Reading doesn’t quite buy that, and argues that the pretense of realism is the problem:

I’m a huge fan of the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who has done as much as any author to pioneer the “false memoir” school of literature. But here’s the difference: If you read just one page of Shields or Vila-Matas, you’re immediately aware that you’re in the presence of a highly ironic voice that you must be suspicious of. Everything about this kind of literature screams “caveat lector.” But if you read Mortenson (and I have) it’s precisely the opposite–every last rhetorical trick in the book is used to instill a belief that what you are getting is 100% true.

Kalsoom Lakhani notes (in her roundup of links):

He also has not addressed the troubling revelation that the 1996 photo of his alleged Taliban kidnappers were, in fact, not Taliban at all. One of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is actually a well-respected research director of the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. Mahsud recently told the Daily Beast, “[Mortenson] just wanted to sell books because by 2006 everyone wanted to know about the Taliban and Waziristan…He thought this was a good chance to cash in.”

Mosharraf Zaidi on the danger of the appeal to heart strings:

There is nothing, of course, inherently wrong with tugging at people’s heart strings while relating serious problems and the possible solutions that brave innovators are coming up with to solve them. But just because there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with this kind of narrative doesn’t mean it is the right way to deal with complex and multilayered problems like HIV/AIDS in South Africa, malaria in Tanzania, female infanticide in India, or education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every single one of these problems should rightly compel us to act at a basic human level. The morality of doing something to address these problems is unquestionable. But the stimulus to act, and the action itself, have to be separated. Rushing into the serious and sober public-policy problems of health, sanitation, and education on emotional highs, induced by books like Three Cups of Tea, is a recipe for disaster.

Zaidi wrote a great piece in 2009, by the way, on how philanthropy that attempts to fill in for what should be the state’s responsibility will both inevitably fail and, by giving the state an excuse to avoid that responsibility, contribute to the very problem it seeks to correct. (Alex de Waal’s argument along these lines in Famine Crimes, while I’m at it, is must reading in general).

Joshua Foust on “what we’ve lost”:

It was wanting to help people on their own terms and not ours, one of the central themes of his book, which resonated with me deeply…Quite possibly, the greatest danger of the fallout from Mortenson’s scandal (he vigorously denies the allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement lodged against him) is that his influence on foreign policy — what I’ve jokingly referred to as the “don’t be a jerk” school of counterinsurgency — will become discredited as everyone rushes to explain how clever they were to have seen through it all.

Despite the many charges that Mortenson now faces — inflating the number of schools he’s built, fabricating his personal history and the origins of his charity, and so on — his basic message still makes sense. People are going to focus on the ancillary parts of the scandal, like the military’s surprising obsession with it (as if drinking tea would somehow unlock the secrets of counterinsurgency). Or, perhaps the allegations of  financial mismanagement, which are probably more attributable to incompetence rather than malice, will resonate in the future. But his fundamental message of helping people by working locally is still very much a good one, even if it makes no sense for the military to adopt it as a war-fighting strategy.

Certainly, all the NGOs operating in the region will now face more scrutiny, especially if their employees come forward with inspirational stories of triumph over adversity and poverty. And Mortenson can and should answer for what he’s done and not done. His charity has allegedly built 141 schools; even if the real number is significantly less, the achievement is still a substantial one.

As Macy Halford puts it into perspective:

This scandal is only tangentially about the difficulty of ensuring truthfulness in non-fiction writing, which is a problem we’ll never fully solve (book publishers can’t afford fact-checking, but even fact-checked writing depends a great deal on trust). It’s about the particulars: our country is deeply invested—financially, psychologically, and emotionally—in the region where Mortenson sets his tale, and eager to help create a happy ending. Barack Obama donated a hundred thousand dollars to the Central Asia Institute; “Three Cups of Tea” is required reading for American troops sent to Afghanistan; and the “Young Reader’s Edition” is essentially required reading for American school children. In other words, the book is central to the story we’re writing about ourselves, and if certain aspects of it turn out not to be true (like whether Mortenson was really held captive by the Taliban), we’ll have to find different ways of telling that story. The Times talked to a military official in Afghanistan, who said, “We continue to believe in the logic of what Greg is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we know the powerful effects that education can have on eroding the root causes of extremism.” That’s an endorsement of an idea, not a person—the hope is that the idea can survive the person who gave it life, should that person be found wanting.

Michael Maren declares that “the cause is crap, and the faster Greg and his foundation disappear the better”:

What the 60 Minutes piece made clear is that what The Central Asia Institute does primarily is build buildings.  Call them schools. Call them warehouses. Call them what you want, but a building is NOT a school. A building is a monument. A building gives you something made of stones to show your donors.  But you don’t need a building to have a school.

You need teachers. You need books. You need a community’s dedication to educating its children. If a community does not have the resources to build a school in the first place, it will not have to resources to maintain it. As the empty school buildings attest, CAI was not paying for teachers and administrators to run the schools.  They were paying for bricks and mortar — They were investing in their own fund raising.

For a school or any development project to be successful, it must evolve from the strong desires of a community. The community must be able to dedicate the resources necessary to carry out the project. Of course, these communities can’t build school buildings, but they hire a teacher and buy a few books. The evolution process is slow. It requires a huge shift in attitudes and priorities. Placing a building in a community doesn’t accomplish any of this.

Plopping a building into a community doesn’t change anything except the landscape. It makes donors feel good. It gives the charities something to photograph for their brochures.  But in the end it’s all just a pile of rocks. Good riddance Greg Mortenson and your self-serving, self rightous crusade.

Alanna Shaikh, again, on that point:

Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson’s model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education…Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren’t what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really.

The whole CAI model was wrong. But here’s the truly awful thing: Looking back, it’s clear that everyone knew that that CAI’s approach didn’t work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it.

Timothy Burke argues against increased cynicism:

The thing we all really need is a sharper understanding of the development industry and a wiser appreciation of how our own desires for sweeping messianic transformations are as much of a target market as any other consumer demand. I don’t know that we can blame people like Mortenson for giving us what many of us want. Nor should we be surprised when people like Mortenson raise millions of dollars before anyone thinks to ask skeptical questions either about the concrete organizational principles involved or about the accounting. Well-meaning, smart young people all around the world who get involved in philanthropy, NGOs, community service, development work and the like frequently find that good intentions, passion, and a dollop of appropriately couched ideological genuflection to the audience for a given pitch are the equivalent of picking up the “Pass Go and Collect $200? card. There’s little incentive to spell out plausible limits, models of organizational sustainability, or to downplay the potential positive impact of a project. Often it’s the opposite: the more messianic the rhetoric, the more likely the pitch is to succeed.

…If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?

The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work. One. When we keep our checkbooks closed and our frowny-faces on because that’s not enough, not nearly enough, we create a situation where development messianism is inevitable. We invite not mission creep but mission gallop: make a hundred schools! change gender ideology! eliminate poverty! Under the circumstances, looking back, you have to ask how that was ever creditable, why anyone cheered and hoped and wrote checks.

In that vein, Umair J offers “Resettling the Indus” as an example of exactly the sort of thing Burke is talking about:

As opposed to upsetting the historically evolved balance created by the way a village is shaped in a particular environment, the theory behind RTI seeks to re-grow a village using locally available material, and domestic labor, so as to remove costs and obstacles created by contractors and middle men. They’ve been ably facilitated by their invented technique to fashion multiple hazard resistant compressed mud-bricks that reduce cost of rebuilding by nearly 50 percent and create locally sustainable structures.

Beyond the blandness of development speak, the unquantifiable impact that this project has had on that community can only be witnessed in that particular space. The community that has been facilitated into resettling itself radiates a manner of cohesiveness, purpose, and camaraderie that’s arisen out of a sense of shared experience. Beyond the limited agenda of recovery, as important as that is, the residents of this small village are now seeking collective and shared solutions to solve long-term problems of subsistence and employment. It is exactly this ingredient that is normally missing from the way development practice is carried out in Pakistan.

Of course, Resettling the Indus had already gotten the coveted Chapati Mystery endorsement, who gave us this bit of language from RtI’s facebook page:

Architecturally speaking, people who have lived in mud houses for generations will be satisfied to be living in a brick or concrete house, but in the long run, will they have the resources to maintain these houses? Who will pay for the maintenance of these houses? ‘Aid’ will be not always be flowing in for them. They need to be given solutions that they can sustain, long after the aid is gone. Mud (or any other local material) is readily available in these areas, and will always be. Why give them an infrastructure, which they will not be able to afford? Why give them an infrastructure that they are not used to culturally, socially and financially?

It is utterly impractical, and insensitive, for any organization to pick up a project that promises more and delivers less. The approach to this disaster should be delivering more by promising them less – in a way that requires the participation of the local population in the reconstruction process.

This might seem like an unsympathetic approach to their vows, but one that understands the overall implications. It is imperative, in our view, that the people affected by this natural disaster are involved in the process of rehabilitation, so that they are a vital part of putting their own lives and their communities back together again. This will not only instill a sense of ownership in them, it will give them a chance to be a part of rebuilding their own lives. Maybe the only opportunity in this disaster is to help these people rise beyond their current states of mind about not being ‘able’ enough and actually be able to be agents of change in their own lives.

A blog post from the 60 minutes photographer for the Mortenson segment:

The school looked like it was never-ever used. The 2 only Kyrgyz teachers in the Afghan Pamir leave too far off from the school . In fact, by the time the CAI finished building the school, the government had already started sending teachers up to the Afghan Pamir and classes were being held at 8 locations. They didn’t have schools, they just used the Aga Khan Foundation tourist yurts or regular guestrooms or tents. But it worked. For these reasons, the school, so far, has never been used – at least not to the degree CAI claims…

And an interview with the producer of the 60 minutes story.

In response to the outpouring of defensive rationalizations for Mortenson’s actions, Nosheen Ali notes that:

…such a lenient, sympathetic response would have been unimaginable if the humanitarian in question was a non-westerner.

The saviour rhetoric of humanitarianism constitutes a powerful force that often claims unquestionable moral certainty and superiority, and therein lies its danger. All critiques of Greg Mortenson’s work can simply be silenced by saying, ‘he has made schools, you have not’. Hence, the bottom line for many people is that since Mortenson is doing good and making a difference in the lives of poor people, it does not really matter if there are errors in how he conducts himselfbecause the targets of his action are basically happy to have schools. That is tantamount to saying that poor people do not have feelings or a right to due process and dignity. Ghulam Parvi, a key character inThree Cups of Tea and CAI operations director in Pakistan for many years, resigned from CAI last year partly in response to the book’s blatantly false depiction of Baltistan as Taliban-central. Several of my friends from the region who are deeply grateful for Mortenson’s services are nevertheless thoroughly disappointed that he would use his platform to spread fundamental misperceptions about their region. Others are suspicious of his work with the military. If the CBS report is indeed true, then the casualness with which the director of a Pakistani think tank is portrayed as a Taliban kidnapper in Mortenson’s writings exemplifies a form of imperialist abuse that cannot be shielded under the guise of humanitarianism.

And Saleem Ali points out the ways a focus on celebrity philanthropy crowds out and impedes quieter but more effective organizations:

What is most troubling about these revelations is how they show a dangerous conflation of pomp and circumstance with philanthropy. Often, the easiest way to secure funds from the public is through theatrical melodrama rather than simple, honest hard work…

In contrast to Mortenson’s celebrated charities, the Aga Khan Foundation has done far more for rural education in remote parts of Pakistan, yet they have instead been marginalised through sectarian innuendo. Recall the Aga Khan educational board controversy from only a few years back.

Also, consider the work of Mukhtaran Mai and her charitable schools. After her harrowing experience at the behest of medieval tribal practices, she continues to work on rural education in Punjab. Has she received the same respect from our own Pakistani philanthropists? How many politicians have come to her assistance in recent months when local politicians in Muzaffargarh repeatedly threatened her activities and her life? Instead of helping such noble indigenous activists, we are beguiled by celebrity endorsements which fall flat on modest scrutiny.

(A far more comprehensive round-up is to be found at Good Intentions are Not Enough; 77 articles and counting!)

Sunday Reading (and Viewing)

Africa is a Country, on South Africa’s Tunisia:

South Africa is far from what Tunisia was like pre-revolution (for one it is not governed by a one-party police state), but the parallels of small-town cops beating to death (here‘s video footage from South African TV news) a South African Everyman because his was angry with poor or non-existent service delivery (water, electricity, roads, housing) is eerily reminiscent of a certainfruit vendor in southern Tunisia.   Again, the differences between South Africa and Tunisia are too many to mention. But if you asked someone in Meqheleng (yes, I did look up the largest township in Ficksburg in the Free State Province) if they are as frustrated as your typical Tunisian circa 2010, I wonder what they would say?

Michael Ralph at Social Text, on protests in sub-Saharan Africa:

In the midst of revolutionary transformations sweeping the “Middle East,” be careful not to overlook a conjoined protest movement stretching across the African continent. In addition to “pro-democracy protests” in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, there have been mass demonstrations calling for major democratic reforms in Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Benin, Sudan, Swaziland and Djibouti. In fact, you could argue that this “season” of  uprisings kicked off in November 2010, when protests against Morocco’s continuing occupation of neighboring Western Sahara reached a fever pitch.

Lil Buck jookin’ with Yo Yo Ma:

(On the Memphis roots and setting of Jookin)

Of course, Oakland has Turfing:

(On the Oakland roots and setting of Turfing)

On the expat:

“If you picked up, moved to Paris, and landed a job, what would you call yourself? Chances are, if you’re an American, you’d soon find yourself part of a colorful community of ‘expats.’ If, while there, you hired an Algerian nanny– a woman who had picked up, moved abroad, and landed a job– how would you refer to him or her? Expat probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Yet almost no one refers to herself as a ‘migrant worker.’”

On punishing the victims of sexual assault:

Universities in the United States rarely expel students for sexual assault, according to an investigation by the federal government. And in the 42 years since it began admitting women, Yale University has not been an exception. Because of the way universities handle sexual misconduct, it is often the victim who drops out of school. In fact, a survey I conducted of female students transferring into Brown University in the early 1990s revealed that one of the top reasons women may transfer colleges is because they’ve been sexually assaulted on their campus.

On the lies of BP:

A year after the Deepwater Horizon exploded 60 miles south of his Buras hunting and fishing lodge, Ryan Lambert can distill his opinion of BP and the oil industry down to one word: Liars. It’s an opinion he never thought he’d have. “The fishing industry has always lived side-by-side with the oil industry down here in Plaquemines Parish, and they’ve always told us that if anything happened, they would take care of the problem — they would repair the damages and they would make us whole — and I believed them,” said Lambert, whose Cajun Fishing Adventures Lodge is one of the state’s largest.

“Well, they lied. About everything. They didn’t take care of the problem, and they’re not taking care of us. Guys in my business weren’t made whole. A lot of them are starving. And now that the national media is gone, BP couldn’t care less. “I’m sick of it, and I’m telling the whole country about it — on national TV, in magazines and in front of Congress.”

Roberto Bolaño, on exile: (via)

For some writers exile means leaving the family home; for others, leaving the childhood town or city; for others, more radically, growing up. There are exiles that last a lifetime and others that last a weekend. Bartleby, who prefers not to, is an absolute exile, an alien on planet Earth. Melville, who was always leaving, didn’t experience—or wasn’t adversely affected by—the chilliness of the word exile. Philip K. Dick knew better than anyone how to recognize the disturbances of exile. William Burroughs was the incarnation of every one of those disturbances.

Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.

Almost all Chilean writers, at some point in their lives, have gone into exile. Many have been followed doggedly by the ghost of Chile, have been caught and returned to the fold. Others have managed to shake the ghost and gone into hiding; still others have changed their names and their ways and Chile has luckily forgotten them.

Sometimes exile simply means that Chileans tell me I talk like a Spaniard, Mexicans tell me I talk like a Chilean, and Spaniards tell me I talk like an Argentinean: it’s a question of accents.

Mr. Destructo on how to score while seeing Atlas Shrugged.

Idi Amin writes a letter to the Queen of England:

“My Dear Queen, I intend to arrive in London for an official visit on August 4th this year, but I am writing now to give you time to make all the necessary preparations for my stay so that nothing important is omitted. I am particularly concerned about food, because I know that you are in the middle of a fearsome economic crisis. I would also like you to arrange for me to visit Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to meet the heads of revolutionary movements fighting against your imperialist oppression.”

No, actually for real.

On unintentionally sexual church signs.

On why you better hope the judge didn’t skip breakfast:

There are few places where society values rational, objective decision making as much as it values it in judges. While there is a rather cynical discipline called legal realism that says the law is really based on quirks of individual psychology, “what the judge had for breakfast,” there’s a broad social belief that the decision of judges are unbiased. And where they aren’t unbiased, they’re biased for Big, Important, Bad reasons, like racism or classism or politics.

It turns out that legal realism is totally wrong. It’s not what the judge had for breakfast. It’s how recently the judge had breakfast. A a new study (media coverage) on Israeli judges shows that, when making parole decisions, they grant about 65% after meal breaks, and almost all the way down to 0% right before breaks and at the end of the day (i.e. as far from the last break as possible). There’s a relatively linear decline between the two points.

Lady Poverty on the cultural baggage of universal commodification:

If you try to read a book like Marx’s Capital as a route to understanding between yourself and other working people, inevitably you are pegged as the consumer of a particular kind of commodity. This tells other people everything they need to know about you: namely, that you are either extremely smart for “consuming” philosophy; or that you are a poseur who is working really hard to be seen this way!

Consequently, people seeing me the way they do are doubly eager to declare their position on something like the Jersey Shore; for example, because their expectation of someone who reads a lot is that I wouldn’t be interested in commodities that don’t promote this, or which appear to go against it. So let me just reassure everyone that, much like my good friend Marx, I am indeed very interested in commodities of every sort, and much for the same reasons: because my relationships with other people are so profoundly shaped by them, and because for my purposes I have no choice but to engage.

David Simon keeps saying this, but it sort of remains true

We were doing our job, making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us?” I would buy that if I wasn’t in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet. I took the third buyout from the Baltimore Sun. I was about reporter number eighty or ninety who left, in 1995, long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time when the Baltimore Sun was earning a 37-percent profit.

We now know this because it’s in bankruptcy and the books are open. All that R&D money that was supposed to go into making newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.

I mean, the guys who are running newspapers over the last twenty or thirty years have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It’s even more profound than Detroit in 1973 making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car. Except it’s not analogous, in that a Nissan is a pretty good car and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it’s great for commentary and froth, doesn’t do very much first-generation reporting at all. The economic model can’t sustain that kind of reporting. They had contempt for their own product, these people…for twenty years, they looked upon the copy as being the stuff that went around the ads. The ads were God. And then all of a sudden the ads were not there, and the copy they had contempt for. They had actually marginalized themselves.

On traditional media’s refusal to enter the link economy.

Sady Doyle, on the lovely mistakes of blogging:

On a blog, you get to take chances. If you want to write a 3,500-word meditation on Tina Fey and 30 Rock, while the show’s not currently airing new episodes, and without any news peg or worked-out thesis, then you can do just that. And I did that, and posted the first draft as soon as I’d finished, and it was one of the most successful things I’d written. But no editor would have taken that from me as a pitch. On a blog, you don’t have to convince anyone that what you’re doing is worthwhile, so you get to stretch and take chances and figure out your voice and your talents as you go. And you end up with some really lovely mistakes.

The Arabist takes apart a WSJ article on the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Some Talking Points That Will Be Useful For the Coming Class War

Francis Fukuyama, “Left Out”
David Cay Johnson, “9 things the Rich Don’t Want You To Know About Taxes
Joseph Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”
Pro Publica, “5 Ways GE Plays the Tax Game”
NYT “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures” (along with Matt Taibbi’s “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail”)
Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup”
Robert Reich, “Why We Must Raise Taxes on the Rich”
“Patriotic Millionaires” argue that we should raises taxes on the rich.
Mike Konczal, “The Broken Mousetrap”
James Kwak, “Taxing and Spending for Beginners,” “Convenient Solutions”
Matt Taibbi “The Real Housewives of Wall Street”
IOZ, “Surfing to Serfdom” and Glenn Greenwald “Obama’s ‘Bad Negotiating’ is Actually Shrewd Negotiating”
David Harvey:

Also, last month, David Harvey speaking at MIT (at much greater length)


Here, Hilzoy at Obsidianwings blogs about Hillary Clinton’s, um, dubious claim to have urged intervention in Rwanda:

Bill Clinton claims that Hillary Clinton…had wanted the United States to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of people died in a genocide that lasted just a few months. ‘I believe if I had moved we might have saved at least a third of those lives,’ he said. ‘I think she clearly would have done that.'” But, as Hilzoy goes on to illustrate, “The Clinton administration did not simply fail to intervene militarily in Rwanda. It took a number of steps that made it easier for genocide to be committed. Not taking these steps would have been much, much easier than sending actual troops to Rwanda. They would have made a real difference. And yet the Clinton administration failed to take them”

Matt Taibbi writes, in the style that makes him a sober man’s Hunter S. Thompson, about why John McCain is the worst case scenario:

“John McCain…has risen from the political dead to wrap up the GOP nomination…because ‘Onward to Victory’ is the last great illusion the Republican Party has left to sell in this country, even to its own followers. They can’t sell fiscal responsibility, they can’t sell “values,” they can’t sell competence, they can’t sell small government, they can’t even sell the economy. All they have left to offer is this sad, dwindling, knee-jerk patriotism, a promise to keep selling world politics as a McHale’s Navy rerun to a Middle America that wants nothing to do with realizing the world has changed since 1946. The lesson of the McCain campaign is that one should never underestimate America’s capacity for self-delusion. Balls-deep in one of the biggest foreign-policy catastrophes of all time, an arrogant military misadventure destined to make us infamous for a generation across a dozen cultures, minivan-driving suburban America is still waiting for Bill Holden to make it right by blowing up the Bridge on the River Kwai — and returning, tanned and handsome, to get the girl with a mouth full of cool one-liners.”

From languagelog which I found at the great linker noli irritare leones, the following quote turns out even to dramatically understate the case:

“On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. ”


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