My op-ed from the weekend on the globalization of protest

It was published last weekend, but I was too busy to post it! Here’s “The Global Imagination of Protest,” by me and Anya Schiffrin, my co-editor for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring. Take a look:

NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.

As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome. Read more.

America’s 99% are rich by global standards. So what?

Photo: Paul Stein, used with a Creative Commons license. Click photo for info.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind: there is a small flaw in the “we are the 99%” slogan adopted by Occupy Wall Street. By global standards, most of us Americans are actually the Richie Riches of the world, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck — or unemployment check to unemployment check.

This has been the source of some criticism of the Occupy movement in the last few weeks. Some have even claimed that America’s 99% is the world’s 1%. Take, for instance, this reddit-style poster linked on The Daily Beast. Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post has tracked down some number-crunchers who showed that, accounting for purchasing power, the idea that the bottom 99% of Americans make up the world’s top 1% is not quite right, but that even the poorest Americans do occupy a privileged income decile vis-à-vis the world.

It’s an interesting and important observation. Global inequality is a serious issue, ultimately far more important to humanity than domestic American inequality. But to the extent that it’s being cited to implicitly discredit the protesters, it stinks like hamburger meat left unrefrigerated beneath a Zucotti Park tarp for a week.

For one, “we are the 99%” is a slogan for a domestic political movement, so it really shouldn’t be held to this global standard. It is a fact that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the country’s wealth and the top 1% of income-earners take in more than 20% of the income. Those are horrendous figures (and are, in a sense, made more horrendous by the global picture — a tiny percentage of Americans control a vast amount of global wealth). Pointing out that OWS protesters would be big balling out of control if they moved to a developing country is not very useful — they live here.  It’s akin to criticizing a movement to stop air pollution in LA because Ulan Bator and Peshawar are X times worse. Does that mean Angelenos are spoiled for wanting clear air? Clearly not.

Another important point is that income, even adjusted for purchasing power, is not the sole or even most important indicator of well-being. This discussion has been gathering steam lately, as more economists point out the inadequacy of GDP (analytically similar to income) as a holistic data point. Bhutan has famously pioneered a different measure with its Gross National Happiness.

A more detailed comparison of the average American’s well-being to the world will have to wait for when I have way more time on my hands. But let me explore this anecdotally. I’ve been to a grim locale or two in my day — places that recently emerged from civil war, and some of the poorest countries in the world. But in the contest for grimness, the depressed corners of America are right up there with the shantytowns of developing countries. If you’re a poor American with a service job, you might be able to buy a used car, which is an unimaginable luxury for much of the world. That is little consolation when you live in, say, an American housing project where the threat of violence is ever near, unemployment is rampant, education options unsatisfactory, and — perhaps most importantly — the possibility of upward mobility is very small. This may be an extreme example, but I think it illustrates that subjective factors matter, as do indicators other than income.

Then there is the matter of the burden of poverty in a rich country, which is not a new subject. W.E.B. Dubois put it so succinctly in The Souls of Black Folk that I don’t think I need to elaborate: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

So the 99% slogan works as a domestic statistic, and it also works as a shorthand for the experience of most Americans, who may be in the world’s top deciles of income earners, but are not necessarily among its happiest — whether you consider happiness as a nebulous term or as a collection of a bigger basket of statistics.

I don’t think most people pointing out the flaw — from a global perspective — in the 99% slogan are doing so to discredit the Occupy protesters as a bunch of whiners. But I can see the observation being marshaled for that argument. And that would be a shame, not only for the domestic movement, but for the push for greater global equality. Whatever you think of Americans, the 99% or the 1%, those protesting for greater equality here are almost surely the most likely to participate in a similar international agenda.

HT Dayo Olopade, without whose tweets and posts today I would have been unaware that this discussion had evolved so much, or read the WaPo post linked above.

Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)

7 great quotes from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom

Bust of Mandela. Photo by RMLondon. / CC BY 2.0

Everyone should read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography! In fact, you probably already have. But I’m a little late to the game and just did it, finally. Long Walk to Freedom is deeply inspiring. It’s the story of an unbelievably strong man who remained a freedom fighter in every aspect of his life, whether he was free or jailed, whether he was trying to dismantle apartheid or simply trying to get Robben Island’s prisoners access to reading materials. More than that, though, the book is a wonderful model for anyone fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Mandela is a master at balancing long- and short-term goals, making smart compromises, and not letting emotion supersede tactics. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole book is Mandela’s willingness, in the end, to partner — in the service of the greater good — with the same people who stole almost everything of personal meaning from his life.

For these reasons, Mandela’s book has lessons far beyond the anti-apartheid movement. I can think of applications from the United States to the Middle East to China and Tibet. Luckily for us, he offers up many quotable passages that provide food for thought. Here are my seven favorite, with a note or two on how I think they have broader applications. Continue reading

A Marshall Plan for Africa? Hmm…

I am feenin’ for my podcasts lately, but expensive bandwidth means I rarely get to download to my heart’s content. I took advantage of a recent Safaricom promo to get updated on all the old episodes of NPR’s Planet Money, one of my favorites. On that recent 18-hour drive from Nairobi to Dar, I had more than enough time to catch up on them.

The episode called A Marshall Plan for Africa had me intrigued. It is a criticism of Jeffrey Sachs’s approach to poverty alleviation (big amounts of planned aid) that is quite different, as far as I can see, from Sachs’s arch-critic William Easterly’s position. In the podcast, Glenn Hubbard, a former economic adviser to the Bush administration, describes his vision for lifting Africa out of poverty. Basically, he wants a Marshall Plan-style lending program to fund Africa’s middle class. (He argues that the Marshall Plan was a lending program, not an aid package.) Continue reading

More on Mwalimu

There’s been some interesting debate on the relevance of Julius Nyerere in the comments field of my blog (thanks to the input of the great TZ blog louder than swahili). On the subject, this week’s East African had a nice column about the ambiguity of Nyerere’s life and contributions, check it out. It’s hard to sum up Nyerere’s real contribution to Tanzania, but I remain impressed by his vision, which almost singularly among leaders of his era transcended tribe and the other constraints that colonialism foisted on the continent. I got more convinced of that after watching the documentary “Mwalimu: The Legacy of Kabarage Nyerere” at the Kenya Film Festival last week. (This film has almost no presence on the internet, which is unfortunately not too big of a surprise for something coming out of TZ.)

Is Ahmadinejad a CIA spy?

By the logic of Iran’s conviction of Kian Tajbaksh, that is a reasonable conclusion. The Iranian-American academic was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week, partly for having been in contact with Gary Sick, an American expert on Iran based at Columbia University. Part of the allegations are that Sick is a CIA agent. In a refutation of the charges, Sick notes that he’s spent more time with Iranian officials than he has with Tajbaksh. Sick asks if they should also be investigated for connections to him. This is an important piece by a guy who is, ironically, sometimes accused by right wingers of being in cahoots with Tehran. Read it here on The Daily Bea(st.

(Now, to return to East African affairs…)

Obama prize: for the people

My initial reaction was, like so many Twitterers and Facebookers, “It’s too early.” Obama has not nearly dismantled the GWOT to the degree I want to see, he’s still presiding over two specific wars, he hasn’t taken a position on the Goldstone report or condemned the bombing of Gaza or Israeli nukes, he may send many more troops to Afghanistan. My expectations are high, and there’s too much about American policy that continues to reek of war and imperialism.

But as a day has passed, I’ve grown more and more excited about his award. One person whose opinion I greatly respect prodded us on Twitter:

“It’s the height of cynicism, and the triumph of punditry, to scoff from the sidelines at President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.”

I don’t think all the negative reactions to the award from the left have been simple, sarcastic scoffing. Many are related to the continuing hugeness of the American war machine, the missile strikes on civilians in Afghanistan, the failure to satisfactorily shut Guantanamo.

Continue reading