Category Archives: Serious
Keep the Change
The most gratifying journalism experience of my life
I know I talk about this all the time here, but I still don’t really feel like a journalist. I have no beat, I’m terrible at pitching, my articles start out half-baked and get published only slightly more so.
A few years ago I wrote to my old high school and asked if I could spend two weeks there. I had no idea, no pitch, no characters, no themes, no anything. “I’m interested in how teens are different now than when I was one,” I told them. And I meant it! That was the complete extent to which I had thought it through.
It’s remarkable they invited me to come anyway. Public institutions are notoriously media-averse—if I was a Real Journalist I would have known this, of course—and schools more than most. For administrators and PR staff, the idea of a random writer roaming the halls, pulling aside students, asking them about bullying and studying and sexting, is some sort of nosebleed, a huge gamble with no reward.
But they let me! And it was great! For two weeks I was there all day every day: Sitting in classes, attending after-school clubs, sharing vending-machine lunches with students, debating the merits of standardized tests with teachers.
And, slowly, an idea formed. I went there to write about the kids, but almost all of my conversations ended up being about the adults. The ways the school was changing, what it used to do, how it couldn’t anymore. Things that seemed small to an outsider—shrinking teacher collaboration, tightening budget rules, evolving evaluation criteria—were decisive for the people charged with implementing them.
So that’s what I wrote about. Or tried to anyway. Here’s the story and three things I learned writing it and a video about how my district tried to desegregate itself and failed:
The most un-journalistic thing about this story, the all-caps flashing disclaimer above all of these links, is that this is my old high school. My institution, my hometown, my former teachers. As a journalist I am supposed to be dispassionate and objective. About this place and these people, I am not.
I don’t know if I will start to feel like a journalist anytime soon. But when it requires me to stop rooting for the people I write about, I’ll stop trying.
Filed under Journalism, Serious
What we talk about when we talk about sexual harassment
One of the most pernicious ideas in American life is that sexual harassment lawsuits are an example of political correctness gone mad.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a video series for Highline, a re-examination of all the things we got wrong in the 1990s. The first episode is about the sexual harassment freakouts that cropped up in the wake of the Anita Hill hearing and what was really behind them.
Here’s a sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut, four women testifying at a 1992 Congressional hearing:
This is why we have sexual harassment laws.
Before 1986, none of these stories would have been illegal. Until Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the only workplace discrimination that fell under the law was quid pro quo harassment, the kind where your boss explicitly tells you that if you want this promotion, you’ll have to sleep with him. Skeezy comments about your looks, getting groped at the water cooler, being told you had to meet a higher standard because of your gender, all that was just the cost of being a woman at work.
The most incredible thing about these cases, though, isn’t just the shittiness of the people perpetrating them. It’s the narrow-mindedness of the people in charge of punishing them.
Reading old sexual harassment cases, what you see over and over again is judges who simply couldn’t accept that women were blameless in their own abuse. One victim testified that she been assaulted by her boss for three straight years, that he touched her under the table during work meetings, that he bought her dinner her first week on the job and invited her to a motel afterward. The judges were skeptical. What was she wearing? Why did she go to dinner in the first place? Didn’t she eventually give in and have sex with him? Surely his advances weren’t that unwelcome.
This is how members of Congress treated Anita Hill too. If Clarence Thomas had been such a terrible boss, they asked her in 50 different ways, why did she later ask him for a reference? Despite all the alleged harassment, Arlen Specter pointed out, she never once complained to Thomas’s superiors. She even—gasp—picked him up at the airport once, years after they stopped working together.
It’s fascinating to me all the ways in which societal power is invisible to the people wielding it. For old, white, affluent judges, it simply didn’t make sense that a woman would have sex with her manager unless she really wanted to. Congress members couldn’t comprehend why a woman would maintain a relationship with her dickhead former boss, why she would wait years before publicly complaining about his behavior, why she would read aggression into his flirting and his backrubs and his ribald anecdotes.
I don’t think every judge and every Senator back then was a big old sleazebag. What I do think is that they suffered from a specific form of blindness, one that is human and understandable and utterly pernicious. We are all, in ways major and minor, incapable of seeing the world through anything but our own example. If you have never feared unemployment, the moral compromises others make to avoid it seem foreign. If you have never been hurt by jokes about your gender or your race or your sexuality, those who complain about them seem oversensitive.
Somehow, in the 25 years since the Anita Hill hearing (and, as I argue in the video, the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act), sexual harassment has become a synonym for a country that can no longer take a joke. Colleagues can’t even ask each other out for a drink nowadays. Managers can’t pat their employees on the shoulder.
But in fact, sexual harassment cases have been dwindling for years, and the mechanisms behind them have been steadily eroded. Since 1991, punitive damages have been capped at $500,000. Those eight-digit settlements you’re always reading about? Companies only have to pay a fraction of them. A study in 2002 found that more than half of large punitive damages awards got overturned on appeal. And that’s for the cases that make it to court. The vast majority of them don’t.
The real problem, in other words, is not that we have all become oversensitive. It is that we are not sensitive enough.
I am sure that, in this big and crowded country, someone somewhere has filed a frivolous lawsuit claiming to be sexual harassed when they weren’t. But becoming the country where that happens is not what we should fear. It is becoming the country that we used to be—one where no one is allowed to file them at all.
Becoming a Journalist, Again
Filed under Journalism, Personal, Serious
The Millennium Development Goals Were Bullshit. And That’s OK.
All year I’ve been trying to decide what I think about the Millennium Development Goals. You remember those, right? In 2000, 189 countries and 23 international organizations committed to eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality and improving global health by 2015.
As the deadline approaches, the internet has filled up with equally unconvincing arguments for and against the MDGs. Most of the ‘they’ve failed!’ condemnation is by people who think foreign aid shouldn’t exist at all, and most of the ‘they’ve succeeded!’ cheerleading is by people who were there for creating them.
So a few months ago, I started reading institutional and academic reports on the Goals. Their creation, their progress, their data, I wanted to know what the evidence, what the people gathering it, actually said.
I came away even more conflicted than when I started. Defenders of the Goals say they were great PR, an excuse for the global north to start sending money southward again. Critics of the Goals say they were unrealistic, a top-down tickbox exercise inflicted upon the developing world without their consent.
I think they’re both right! Here’s the arguments for and against the Millennium Development Goals, and why it’s so hard to pick a side.
1. The MDGs resurrected development aid
Let’s start with the non-arguable stuff. In the mid-1990s, development aid was in crisis. The Cold War had just ended, and without communism-prevention giving rich countries a reason to give money to poor ones, the air was slowly leaking out of the field.
International organizations needed a big idea to shake governments out of their ennui, to inject enthusiasm—and more importantly, money—back into poverty reduction. After years of deliberations, they come up with the MDGs, eight quantitative(-ish) targets for the world to rally around. By 2015, they pledged, they would halve extreme poverty, cut maternal mortality by three quarters and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. Oh, and reduce hunger and battle child mortality and improve sanitation and provide safe water and achieve universal education.
Almost immediately, donations started increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, aid flows went from $60 billion per year to $120 billion. Health spending doubled; primary education spending tripled. Donor countries started coordinating their projects, rallying around specific outcomes and quantitative monitoring rather than the ad hoc before-and-afterism they used to work under. As one evaluation puts it, ‘a cascade of statistical and analytical work got underway once the MDGs gained currency.’
The MDGs increased donor commitments and coordination; that part’s undisputed. But just as fast as the new money came in, though, so did the question of whether it was actually making a difference.
2. The MDGs aren’t going to be reached
Look, we’re not going to make the MDGs, not even close. I’m not going to go into a whole big thing where I talk about each Goal and how X number of countries are falling behind or whatever. Even a cursory glance at the Goals themselves shows that reaching them was never the point.
Take Goal 1, ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.’ It’s split up into a few targets, components defining what reaching the Goal means in statistical terms. The first target for eradicating poverty and hunger is pretty reachable: Halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day. We did that years ago. Check.
But the next target under that Goal is ‘achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all.’ Oh is that it, MDGs? A job for every single person on the planet?
It’s like this going down the right down the list, reasonable targets alternating with utter fantasy. Goal 2 is ‘achieve universal primary education.’ Denmark doesn’t have universal primary education. The rest of the world was never going to get there with 15 years and a 60 extra billion dollars split 40 or so-odd ways. One analysis points out that 38 countries started the MDGs with enrolment rates below 80 percent. Achieving the goal by 2015 would have meant ‘improv[ing] enrolment at a rate that has not been achieved by a single country for which post-1960 data is available.’
This is why I’ve spent the first six months of this year rolling my eyes at op-eds gloating about how the aid community has ‘failed’ to reach most of the Goals. Of course we did! Half them are ridiculous!
I should also mention here, speaking of ridiculous, that many of the targets don’t have particularly trustworthy data behind them. Lots of the statistics are based on household surveys, dudes with clipboards wandering through villages, asking people about their kids’ birth weights and whether they use mosquito bednets. Only one African country, Mauritius, even registers births and deaths according to UN standards. Maternal mortality rates for the year 2000, the year the MDGs were signed, were estimated to be between 210 and 620 per 100,000 births. Reducing something by 66 percent gets a lot harder when the baseline has a margin of error of 300 percent.
3. The MDGs might not have made a difference
But the real debate isn’t over whether the Goals, measured by their own science-fiction targets and fingers-crossed data, fail or succeed. It’s about whether they had a galvanizing effect, whether all those extra donations resulted in leaps forward for the indicators the international community decided to work on. It’s incontrovertible that nearly every indicator of human well-being—life expectancy, literacy, income, mortality—has improved in the years since the MDGs were adopted. The question is whether that would have happened without them.
By now, there’ve been a few studies on this, and it doesn’t look great for the MDGs. In 2010, an analysis found that only five indicators (out of 24) accelerated after the MDGs were adopted, and that was only in half to two-thirds of the countries where they were being applied. China, the greatest poverty-alleviation success story of the last generation—28 million Chinese people were lifted out of poverty every year between 1990 and 2008—barely participated in the MDGs. The latest MDGs Progress Report notes that when in 2000, only 6 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Now, it’s 43 percent. Considering all the technical and economic changes that have happened during that time, is anyone really going to argue that that it was a set of donor targets that were the critical factor in that rise?
That critique, though, only works when you look at the global picture. Zooming in, you find specific places, specific ways, where it seems like the MDGs have worked. The Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny, for example, has shown that according to trends from before 2000, primary education rates in developing countries should have reached 76 percent by 2010. They actually reached 81 percent. Maternal mortality should have been 221 per 100,000 births; it ended up 203. That same analysis that found only 5 indicators improving globally post-2000 also found that, in Africa, 16 of them did.
But you can julienne the statistics however you want. The challenge of the MDGs, and why it’s so hard to make up my mind about them, is because the ways in which they’ve failed are so easy to measure, while the ways in which they’ve succeeded are so not. As Kenny and others have pointed out, coordinating donors around measurable goals, renewing the reasons for rich countries to invest in poverty reduction, these things matter. They’re just not as quantifiable as literacy rates or HIV prevalence. In the least developed countries, where aid makes up a significant percentage of the national budget, they may even have been decisive. The shittiness of the data, and the non-existence of the counterfactual, means we’ll never know for sure.
4. The MDGs don’t measure what matters
Another, slightly more convincing, criticism of the MDGs isn’t about whether we reached them, but whether they were worth reaching at all.
Remember Goal 2, ‘Achieve universal primary education’? The way the MDGs chose to measure this was through enrollment rates, how many kids attend school every day. By that measure, poor countries have made significant headway toward the Goal. By the measure of whether they actually learned anything, however, the evidence is less inspiring:
In many cases the rapid expansion of schools aimed to grant an increasing number of students access to primary schools had in many cases a deteriorating effect on the learning quality, first and foremost due to teacher shortages, resulting in single teacher schools with one teacher responsible for one multigrade classroom, or the hiring of so called para-teachers with considerable less educational qualification as regular teachers. … 130 million children completed primary education but without being able to read or write.
This, according to MDG skeptics, is their real weakness: They focus on inputs, the ability of a country to provide a service, rather than outcomes, whether those services are actually improving people’s lives. In doing so, they’ve encouraged governments to work on means and ignore ends. It’s like pledging to lose weight but never actually weighing yourself, just counting how many Cinnabons you eat.
I’m tempted to accept this critique—I’ve been bitching about measuring ‘gender equality’ by the percentage of women in national parliaments for years—but it’s worth pointing out some caveats in it too. Not all the indicators measure inputs. Some of them, like the target on providing access to HIV treatment, really do measure the outcome the MDGs are trying to reach.
And yes, enrollment rates are not a perfect measure of learning and women in government is not a perfect measure of gender equality. But what is? ‘Education’ and ‘equality’ are inherently qualitative concepts—so is ‘development’, while we’re at it. Maybe the Goals should have used test scores rather than enrollment rates to measure education, or the gender pay gap to measure equality, but those are just as jukable, just as subject to over-emphasis by logframes and donor tickboxes, as any other proxy. These are problems with quantification itself, the map versus the territory, not the MDGs in particular.
5. The MDGs were for donors, not governments
The MDGs might have been signed by a huge number of developing countries, but they were written almost entirely without them. The original idea, the Millennium Declaration, was developed by a country-club of rich development agencies in hotel conference centers throughout the 1990s. By the time the rest of the world was presented with the Goals, donors had already identified the problems they wanted to solve and the indicators they would use to measure them.
The result, condensing all the world’s development challenges into fewer than 10 goals, has encouraged countries to zero in on donor-approved problems, rather than solving the ones they actually have. Rwanda, according to one analysis, devoted 24 percent of its health spending to HIV/AIDS, even though only 1.6 percent of its population has it. Malaria might be a huge cause of death globally, but in Mongolia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, it doesn’t even register.
Again, it’s easy to say that donors picked too few goals, conducted too little consultation. But consider the opposite scenario, a set of Goals that included every development problem, that were perfectly applicable to every country in the world.
Actually, don’t. Just look at the sequel to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. Where the MDGs were primarily a tool for donors, the SDGs (stick with me on the acronyms here) have been the most inclusive, taking shape over a five-year, international consultation process that deliberately sought feedback from every institution with an incentive to push their pet issue onto the list.
The result is a jambalaya of impossible ambitions, utopian targets and unmeasurable indicators. Where the MDGs sharpened their attention down to 8 goals and 24 indicators, the SDGs leave no societal challenge behind, comprising 17 goals and 169 targets. Check out everything we, the world, will achieve before they’re finished:
In just sixteen years’ time we will have been able to end poverty in all its forms everywhere; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all; end hunger and malnutrition; attained universal health coverage; wipe out AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases; provide universal secondary education and universal access to tertiary education; end gender discrimination and eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls; ensure adequate and affordable housing, water, sanitation, reliable modern energy, and communications technology access for all; and (strangely) both prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds alongside preventing species loss. If that’s not enough, we will have also eliminated all discriminatory laws, policies, and practices.
This is why I have trouble dragging the MDGs for condensing development challenges down to just a few issues. The MDGs worked, to the extent they did, by coordinating donors around a discrete set of objectives, a consensus on what the world needed to fix and how. That necessarily meant leaving some development problems un-addressed, prioritizing some issues over others. It may sound crass in development, when you’re talking about letting people live with one disease while you work on curing another, but in every other area of human endeavor this is called having a strategy.
6. The time for development goals has passed
The closest thing I come to having a conclusion about the MDGs is that yes, they were bullshit. And yes, they were probably worthwhile.
But I’m not sure the next round of bullshit is going to be. During the 15 years we’ve spent debating the MDGs, the nature of the problem they set out to solve has changed. In 1990, the ostensible start date for the MDGs, 79 percent of the world’s poor lived in stable low-income countries. By 2010, only 13 percent of them did. These days, the vast majority of the world’s poor remain that way either because their countries are riven with conflict (Yemen, Syria, Somalia) or because they have political systems too captured or too gridlocked to be worthy of the term (Zimbabwe, Bangladesh).
In other words, the MDGs may—may—have been the right development initiative for the world of the late 1990s, but they are increasingly irrelevant to the one we have now. Only 1 in 10 poor countries get more than 20 percent of their budget from aid. Even in the poorest countries, domestic health and education are orders of magnitude greater than aid flows. Poor people in China are not poor because their country lacks to resources to make them not be. They are poor because their government would rather spend those resources on high-speed trains.
Maybe that’s a defensible decision for the long-term and maybe it’s not; we shall see. But what the MDGs never did, never could, was pressure governments to develop their own systems to solve their own problems. In 2030, only 8 percent of the world’s population will live in countries classified as “low-income.” Most of the world’s poor will live in cities; many of them will be employed. Informal employment, exploitative working conditions, dysfunctional education and healthcare, they will persist in other countries for same reasons they do in our own.
So did the Millennium Development Goals fail or succeed? I still don’t know. What I do know is that rallying around a set of utopian, un-enforced, top-down targets seems to have worked in the places where development agencies, where we, mattered. If we want to solve the next generation of global poverty, we should ask ourselves where we still do.
Filed under Development, Serious, Work
‘I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water’: Eleven observations from a contract manufacturer in China
I know I’m belaboring these now, but I’m learning a lot from all the people writing in to add points and arguments to my Myth of the Ethical Shopper article. Here’s one from Glen, a project manager at a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen:
Awareness is the first step, and this article does an excellent job of pointing out that contract manufacturing will always result in unfair labor practices. The smaller companies are the biggest offenders because their order sizes don’t warrant the attention of “golden factories”. Not that Apple and Wal-Mart are good examples, but their manufacturing is some of the cleanest out there… After working for a contract manufacturer in China for several years, I can give you a quick glimpse of how it looks in China in relation to this article:
1) Wal-Mart gets caught with unfair labor practices > people protest > Policy reform
These reforms are pushed on factories that really want to improve, but mostly they want the business. They reform simply to keep the business.
2) Factories conform to reforms > operation costs at factories go up > Factories lose money
Making these changes and being socially compliant come at a HUGE cost to the factory, but larger customers will not accept the increased costs to reflect in their orders. Suddenly, factories are losing a lot of money, but they can’t lose Wal-Mart as a customer. Most Wal-Mart-contracted factories operate at zero margins just for the business. They’ll use the molds to remake products under other brands to sell in China.
3) Factory finds cheaper factory to do their production
The original factory might do 20% of the order, but they’ll contract “shadow factories” to do the bulk. These are your “sweatshops”, they don’t exist on paper, but they make up easily 95% of the factories out there. Now, the large Wal-Mart orders can once again turn a profit, because costs are reduced by manufacturing at the shadow factories.
4) Factory becomes an audit mill.
Passing an audit is a big deal, especially the strict standards of Wal-Mart compliance. The factory can now make large sums of money fronting for other companies and factories. They will host audits on a regular basis, to give compliance to hundreds of other companies. A company might not even have a factory, but they’ll get compliance to make products. Now they can make products wherever they want, and when it comes time they can set up their front at the fake factory. Most companies do this.
5) No reason for factories to TRULY conform to regulations
Now that these workarounds are in place, it’s quite easy to get certified without even having a factory. So now that most factories are off the map, they have no incentive whatsoever to follow anything close to standards being set in the USA. Everyone is protected by the “golden factories” that are running fake audits and essentially covering for the ones doing real production runs. Foxconn is a golden factory. Their conditions are incredible compared to those of 99.9% of factories in China. In over 4 years working in China I have never set foot in a factory that is as clean and compliant as Foxconn.
6) Audit companies get in the game as well.
For MANY if not MOST inspection companies in China you can’t pass an audit unless you pay a bribe. Usually $1000/inspector is enough. Even if your factory really is perfect, you need to pay off inspectors to get the certification.
7) American companies have no control
US companies might know this is happening, or not…. it really doesn’t make a difference. Companies that are aware will distance themselves intentionally so that they’re not liable or seen as negligent. Companies that aren’t aware really truly believe that they are covering their bases.
8) The danger of trade companies passing an audit.
Our trade company passed the [Shoe Company Inc.] audit on a factory that doesn’t exist (we used the name of our company as the factory and the inspection took place at a factory we contracted specifically for a social compliance audit). Now that the trade company has passed this certification, we can make products ANYWHERE. It’s a step beyond the factory using contract manufacturers. Most trade companies are lying to their customers, so it’s incredibly difficult to know if you’re working with a trade company or a real factory. In my experience it’s almost always a trade company if you don’t have boots in the ground in China.
9) When a company issues a RFP (request for proposal), they are essentially GUARANTEEING that their products will be made in some of the nastiest ways possible.
This is very common for companies in our space, sports accessories. Companies like [Shoe Company Inc.] will essentially say some requirements for a product, and they’ll send that to all of their licensees. Those with licensing rights to the brand will contact their suppliers to have them compete for the best prices. Trade companies are typically the supplier they contact, and those trade companies will contact all of their connections for the best price. RFPs are are designed so that the companies like New Balance will get the best and cheapest deals for the required products they need. It’s a beautiful system for the brand, because they do no sourcing whatsoever, and they hold no responsibility whatsoever on how the product is being made.
10) Trade companies intentionally used as a buffer.
I don’t think this is news to you, but some companies with use trade companies because they understand the process. This will keep them legally exempt from issues and can blame the trade company for hoaxing them on their labor practices. A lot of companies know this and I’ve had several people tell me to just “do what we do” to make sure things work on our end.
11) The yoga mat industry in China is disgusting
Just a comment to add here. I did a sourcing project for a [Shoe Company Inc.] request for yoga mats. The factories I saw we’re disgusting. I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water just yards away from where the finished goods were being stacked. These were all TPE yoga mats, and I found it ridiculous that in the factory they were printing logos that said “eco-friendly”. Anything that is so simple to make is going to eventually make its way to these kind of factories.
I chose not to use that factory and instead went with a better factory (still wouldn’t pass an audit, but who does?) for the proposal. We didn’t get the business, it was beyond their budget. Had I used the prior factory we would have fallen within their price target…
This is the current state of things. There isn’t an easy fix. There aren’t regulations to solve this. All I know is that with more awareness solutions will be worked out in the future. I know a lot of these points were made in the article, but I felt they needed repeating. These are truths that I wish all consumers could know and understand.
Go read Glen’s blog it’s hella good!
Filed under Development, Serious
Some responses to my ‘Myth of the Ethical Shopper’ article
I’m working on a longer follow-up to respond to some of the reader responses to my article, but for now, I’ll quote some people who know way more about this topic than me, on what my article got right and wrong.
First up, here’s a note I got from one of the auditors I interviewed for the article:
One thing that I hear repeatedly nowadays is that we can’t forget the role of government. We focus on CSR and what companies should be doing but we can’t forget that companies are primarily acting on these issues because local governments are failing to uphold international obligations to protect human rights, to adhere to treaty obligations, and to enforce their own national legislation, which is often much stricter than anything in any buyer code of conduct.In addition, we can’t be prescriptive about solutions. The West doesn’t have superior solutions. If we want to know what needs to be done, we need to talk to the rights-holders themselves to understand what they want and what they need. In other words, participatory solutions are critical and much more valuable than anything we can dream up in isolation. When communities are engaged holistically in developing solutions, they own that process and it can impact the outcomes much more positively than anything being imposed from the top down.…
When considering the shift of consumer power away from the global North / West, we shouldn’t forget that there is still a lot of financial influence, via organizations such as the World Bank, regional development banks like ERDB, ADB, IADB, and of course investors like state funds and SRIs [socially responsible investors].If you look at the numbers, there are trillions of dollars backed by SRIs alone. But more than that, financing options for many of these institutions are linked to ESG commitments [environmental, social and governmental]. Loans are routinely linked to compliance with things like IFC Performance Standards covering issues from environment and labor to community impact. Funding can be suspended or terminated for non-compliance. Complaint mechanisms allow communities or activists to lodge complaints with ombudsman offices, like those in the IFC and OECD.Last year, I did an investigation into a land rights issue in Asia and found myself in the field alongside a regional investor who was also investigating the issue and working with their client to bring them into compliance.
What workers in the global South need is not better international labor standards, but rather the freedom to organize themselves and demand better standards for themselves. You point out that Foxconn in Indiana is not a sweatshop. It’s not just because the US has good institutions; it’s because the US had a strong labor movement that won basic things like safety laws, weekends, the minimum wage, etc.
I think we have to ask ourselves why these same movements and institutions don’t exist in the global South. And the reason, as far as I can tell, is that the governments of global South countries have been explicitly prevented from nourishing them. The history of structural adjustment from the 1980s onward was a process of actively dismantling state institutions, forcing domestic economies open to the flux of global markets, and rolling back wages and labor standards. If global South countries did otherwise (if they bolstered state institutions, increased wages, etc), they could be sanctioned by the IMF, and have loan capital withdrawn.
Today, this pressure comes mostly in the form of investor-state dispute mechanisms, which are written into free trade agreements. Through these mechanisms, multinational corporations have the power to sue sovereign states for introducing laws (like labor and safety laws) that compromise their expected future profits. And then of course there’s the Doing Business rankings, which also actively pressure global South countries to deregulate.
I think another way to approach the issue is to ask why workers in sweatshops are willing to take jobs that are so terrible. And the answer, of course, is that they have no other choice. And, as a result, they have very little bargaining power. Let’s go back to the US again. Workers were able to successfully bargain for better conditions in factories because they had a real alternative: they could pick up land in the midwest on the cheap, and become farmers (and, later, they had a passable welfare state that allowed them the option of not taking dangerous jobs and still surviving). If they didn’t have that option, chances are we wouldn’t have the weekend today. The same can be said of global South countries. The rise of sweatshops was preceded by a long process of dispossession, of actively kicking people off of their land (and then later dismantling what little welfare mechanisms existed). Without any other options for survival, people are forced to accept sweatshops jobs. This continues today in the form of land grabs; i.e., Fred Pearce’s book.
Voting power in the IMF and WB is still terribly, absurdly skewed [basically, rich countries get more voting power]. They keep making noises about changing this in response to outrage from developing countries, but the most they’ve managed is a little bit of window-dressing.
The WB still uses structural adjustment programs. In the 1990s, they had to rhetorically back down from them because of the riots and global outcry, but all they really did is change the name to Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The main difference is that PRSPs must be drafted by the loan recipient, as opposed to the WB, but of course everyone knows the papers have to include structural adjustment if the loan is to be granted. The brilliance is that this allows the WB to evade liability for any disasters that might ensue as a result of the policies, since the recipient country technically offered to adopt structural adjustment policies voluntarily.
As for the WTO: it’s stalled, and for good reason… because global South countries refuse to bargain on unfair terms any longer. But now bilateral trade agreements are proliferating as a way of getting around this.
And from a friend who works at an international institution working on private-sector human rights abuses:
You rightly criticise the auditing industry as fraught with design flaws and full of suppliers who have become highly adept at fooling the auditors. But at the same time, while it’s not a silver bullet, it is one of the best approaches a company has to the issue at the moment. Sure it doesn’t fix the extire global problem. But it fixes small corners of it, and it is those small corners that the company is most worried about, because its business touches upon them.
And yes, some things do get past auditors. But many violations are caught that way, and prevented too. I often compare it to checking my kids room after I’ve told them to clean it. Just the fact that they know it will be checked, means they do a sufficient job (although they still try to fool the auditor by kicking junk under the bed and stuffing it in the back of the closet).
So I wouldn’t be overly dismissive of supply-chain auditing, although I recognise it’s not a global solution, it’s just a band-aid. Because I want companies to keep doing it and to continue to try to perfect the practice (which today is more sophisticated, and includes supplier capacity building). This continued practice will help keep the pressure up, while at the same time, it will allow us to experiment at the micro-level with various good practices, which can then be exported into a global solution.
You are right in identifying the country-challenges in supply chains, like when you compared conditions in Mexico to China. But even those country-challenges can be changed by the pressure from big business. I remember speaking with [giant apparel company] about their experience in Pakistan. They told the Govt of Pakistan that they would not allow their suppliers or licencees to source from Pakistan because the labor conditions were so poor that [the company] couldn’t afford the risk.
So the Govt of Pakistan asked the ILO for help to improve their labor conditions so that they could attract the business. That’s definitely a dynamic we want to encourage with other big buyers. And it’s a dynamic which has a positive spill-over into the really critical aspect of the problem – those suppliers which are producing for the domestic market, rather than for the big Western buyers.
Also, if you’re interested in why Nike’s approach to its suppliers hasn’t improved conditions in them, check out this great Richard Locke lecture from a few years back.
‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’
I’ve been working on this article, in my head at least, since probably 2007, when I started working in CSR, consulting companies on how to reduce their human rights impacts. The conclusion I came to, that everyone in my field seems to come to eventually, was that companies don’t matter. What matters is the environments where they operate.
One little story that didn’t make it into the article:
Here’s a World Bank profile of a Vietnamese Nike factory. In 1997, 84 percent of workers had nose and throat infections, mostly from failing to wear masks when they were working at dyeing stations. Nike, scrambling to respond to the decade-long boycott campaign against it, started delivering worker training, posting hazardous-material info in the break rooms, issuing a monthly health newsletter. By 1998, infections were down to 20 percent.
Huge success story, right? Well … hmmm. The same investigation found that managers were dumping wastewater in the local river, transferring the health risks to the entire population downstream. When the case came to light, they hired the son of the local Communist Party chairman to negotiate the terms of the settlement. The company was never punished.
In that story is everything that consumer boycotts have achieved. It’s not nothing that the factory improved its health and safety practices. In another study, a Cambodian manager grumbled to investigators that “Nike is so much stricter about everything.” Props to Nike, seriously.
But you see this with almost all of these company efforts: The gains inside the factories are dwarfed by the impacts outside of them. Colluding with political officials, poisoning local communities, these are exactly the kinds of things that audits can’t find, that companies can’t fix, that consumers can’t keep track of.
A few months ago I made that video about Uganda. In 2007, the Industrial Court, the place where workers go to file complaints, lost its mandate. It wasn’t renewed until this year. That means that for eight years, labour inspectors couldn’t levy fines against companies that were breaking the law. Workers couldn’t take their bosses to court for failing to pay back wages. I see this again and again in the developing countries I go to for work: Institutions are there on paper, but absent in practice.
Another little point that that didn’t make it into the article:
Sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either. One of the reasons India’s garment sector is so informal, so exploitative, is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. In China, it’s 15 percent, boosted by government loans, grants, more than a decade of cajoling its factories to move up the value chain.
India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”
If we’re going to solve sweatshops, we need to consider why they are there, why they endure. We need to stop trying to vote with our wallets, and start voting with our votes.
Thanks to everyone I interviewed for this article! All of the ideas in it, especially the smart ones, are not mine, they’re all taken from the work of researchers and inspectors and CSR folks who have thought about and done this a lot longer than I have. I’m gonna write some follow-up posts highlighting their work.
Also, I have the best editors. As you can tell from the un-edited snips above, I need them!
The Role of the Media in Development Aid
So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!
Let’s start with a thought experiment.
Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.
Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.
And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.
I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.
But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.
1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete
The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.
This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.
2. Traditional media is getting slower
There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.
This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.
In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.
When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.
For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.
3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.
Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.
It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctors, government cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.
It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.
All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.
So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.
* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.
Filed under America, Development, Serious, Work
Should journalists care how their stories are shared?
The latest episode of NPR’s Invisibilia is about Daniel Kish, the famous ‘blind dude who can ride a bicycle‘.
How does he do it? It’s all in the clicks. Kish uses echolocation—yes, just like a bat—to feel the contours of his environment. According to the episode, neurologists are discovering that blind people’s brains are capable of way more ‘vision’ than we once thought they were.
That’s all super fascinating. What’s a bit troubling is the way the story is framed. Invisibilia packages Kish’s story as a fable about expectations. For most blind people, we expect them to be helpless, to be led around by the arm. For Daniel, his mother expected him to take care of himself. As early as five, he was climbing trees and barreling down hills on his bike. In this telling, it was the expectation, not the neurology, that allowed him to be so much more capable than other blind people.
Kish is—again, according to the episode—part of a growing movement among blind people to teach kids echolocation and independence much earlier. There’s a scene (do podcasts have scenes?) where Kish forces a blind kid, convinced he’s incapable, who almost never leaves the house, to climb a tree, 40 feet up, literally the blind leading the blind. The kid resists, then climbs, then falls, then gets up and tries again. Kish expects him to climb, to see, and eventually, he does both.
You can see what’s heartwarming, what’s enlightening, about all this. A blind woman describes how echolocation allowed her to ‘let go of the arm’, to go places without her husband leading her. Kish leads a group of blind people on long hikes each year, along ravines, with nothing but canes and clicks to guide them.
Once I was done learning and thinking (and, at one point, crying—that woman and the arm!) I started to find it really troubling. Not the episode itself—like everything on NPR, it’s professional, meticulously researched, you feel smarter for having heard it—but how, I fear, it will be retold.
The show includes dozens of caveats. Many blind people have other disabilities that make it difficult to gain more independence. Echolocation is really hard to learn as an adult. Even once they learn to ‘see’ through echolocation, blind people are still significantly disabled, will still require assistance, will still do things more slowly and more carefully. One of the hosts of the show, her dad is blind, she rejects the idea that all he’s missing is someone to berate him into climbing a tree.
But of course the episode’s reservations are not what you take away from it. What you learn is, ‘blind people have the ability to see’ and ‘our expectations are making blind people helpless.’ That’s what you’re going to repeat to your friends when you talk about it. If anything from this episode travels, it will be those two ideas, caveat-less.
It reminds me a bit of the 10,000 hours thing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the idea that most of the people we consider as having ‘inborn talent’—Tiger Woods, Mozart, Bobby Fischer—have in fact worked incredibly hard to refine and develop it. No one just picks up a tennis racquet and is suddenly John McEnroe, not even John McEnroe. Being good at something, no matter your inherent coordination or musicality, means practicing and practicing and practicing.
In its original conception, it’s a pretty small point, a slight tweak to our understanding of talent and practice, far from a revolution in it. Yet all the caveats in Gladwell’s original article, the deliberate smallness of his argument, the concept of 10,000 hours has traveled without them. People have written responses—and a whole book!—arguing that yes, some people are born better at things than other people, that no, you will not become Mozart at something just because you practice it a lot. That’s not a response to the Gladwell expressed—he’s said he agrees, that his 2008 self would have too—but the version of it that traveled, the one we all retold to each other.
I wonder if journalists think about this, the inevitability of it, as they’re doing their work. Caveat all you want, many people will still conclude from that NPR episode that you should never help another blind person across the street, that the ones who can’t by themselves are constrained by their own un-adventurousness, not their physical limitations.
This is entry like 10,000 in my ongoing journalism is hard stomachache. Should NPR not have made this episode just because it will be distorted when we all truncate and tweet it? Fuck no, it was great, I’m super glad I heard it. Should they have included more caveats, been even more reserved in their conclusions? Meh, who wants to listen to an episode that’s all preamble and meta-discussion and asides? Kish’s story is gripping; the tellers of it can’t restrain themselves just because their listeners might draw the wrong lessons from it.
Maybe I’m not making an argument about them, maybe I’m making one about us. I don’t have any blind friends or family members. I don’t know anything about neurology or echolocation or tree climbing. I’m profoundly un-educated on every single issue contained in this podcast. What makes this kind of journalism so great, and so troubling, is that it makes me forget that.
Photo by the wonderful Luise Schröder!
Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious
Rolling Stone, Serial and the Advantages of Uncertainty
Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time—which I read when I was 13 and remember as vividly as other kids remember To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever—has a whole chapter about how one of the keys to persuasion is admitting the weaknesses in your own case. Spence was a celebri-lawyer in the 1990s, he defended Imelda Marcos, and the example he uses in the book is a dude who got hit by a car crossing the street.
The guy was ruined-drunk at the time, and the prosecutor planned to use this information against him at trial. Instead, Spence, his lawyer, not only admitted that his client was drunk in his opening statement, but made it the center of his case. Who’s more deserving of the protection of the law than someone in a vulnerable, confused physical state? Spence won.
The more I think about the Rolling Stone case, the more I think the critical error wasn’t that the reporter failed to check out the details of the rape survivor’s story (though she should have), but that she didn’t tell us the weaknesses in it herself.
In other words, I wonder if we’d still be having this scandal if the RS article included a big fat caveat, if it admitted the limitations of this kind of reporting up front, something like
Look, we didn’t contact the people accused of rape in this story because Jackie didn’t want us to. Given the sensitivity of rape accusations and how traumatized she already is, we didn’t want to re-victimize her by potentially exposing her to more abuse by her rapists. Furthermore, we weren’t able to confirm some details of her account. Regardless, it is not up to us to investigate whether or not she was raped. That is the job of her university, and they have failed spectacularly.
I’m speaking from a counterfactual here, so of course I have no real argument that this would have made a difference. But one thing I’ve realized in the last few years is that when you learn a piece of information can be as important as the information itself.
This is (to make a totally inappropriate transition) I think what makes Serial so great and so popular. The host isn’t playing us clips and going ‘Look! He’s innocent! This is a travesty!’ She gives us the evidence from the prosecution, from the defendant, and goes ‘all of this could mean something … or not. Maybe he’s a misunderstood young man. Or maybe he’s a sociopath!’ She isn’t trying to simplify her case, she’s deliberately admitting the complexities and inconsistencies in it. And by doing so, she not only maintains the mystery of what happened, but of what kind of show we’re listening to. She’s bringing us into the reporting process with her, and giving us some of its power.
What’s happening now is that other reporters are re-doing the Rolling Stone article themselves, interviewing the accused rapist and other people who were there. We’re essentially re-investigating the case, en masse, in real time, and in public. There’s a good reason the justice system does not work this way—one, it is shitty, and two, it results in false certitude, each reporter defending their own source as the ‘credible’ one. Here we are focusing on the events of one particular night in September 2012. Meanwhile, the overall point of the story, namely that universities do not take rape claims seriously, regardless of their veracity, has been lost.
I wrote something earlier this year about how what got Jonah Lehrer in trouble, what makes Malcolm Gladwell so (occasionally) infuriating is this failure, to bring us into the process, to share the knots in their stories and their doubts in themselves to untangle them.
I don’t want to pile on Erdeley. She’s probably having the worst week of her life, and her sin—promoting a false anecdote to illustrate a real problem—is understandable, if not defensible. I just wish she would have shared it with us herself.
Filed under America, Journalism, Serious
Being a Journalist is Scary
Like everybody else this week, I read the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, how women who were raped there had their complaints minimized and ignored.
On the content of the article itself, there’s little to say that isn’t obvious: The crimes are horrific, the university’s response was appalling, the systems for preventing and adjudicating rape claims are pathetic. It’s self-evident that all of that should be fixed.
But as I read it, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the tremendous power of journalists, and how scared I am that I am now sort of one of them.
The first power of journalism is highlighting. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, chose the University of Virginia, from all the colleges across the country, to investigate. Maybe UVA has the biggest rape problem in the nation and maybe it doesn’t. But by pulling out this one university for scrutiny, everyone who read that story, me included, has the impression that it’s the fucking worst ever and has to be stopped.
The second power is condensing. I’m sure Erdely spent weeks at the school. She must have interviewed dozens of people, heard hundreds of stories. She has chosen, as a journalist, as a person, which of those to retell.
There’s a part in the story where she quotes a letter from the fraternity where the rape happened, responding to her investigation.
UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”
I’m sure the letter was longer than that. Maybe Erdely sent him 10 points for clarification and he responded to each one in turn. Maybe he detailed the history of the fraternity’s response to sexual assault, how it has changed over time. Erdely quoted the part that was relevant and moved on.
The third power of journalism is conclusion. The way the facts are presented, how they are ordered and described, Erdely has done this in a way that makes ugh these fucking people the only sensible response.
I do not believe that Erdely has wielded these powers irresponsibly. She has taken an important issue and presented it grippingly and urgently. I trust that she has fairly summarized the e-mail from the fraternity president, that she investigated the veracity of the claims made against it.
I’m not even making an argument here, just an observation: The power that she, this one person, holds is profound. Rolling Stone reports, rather gleefully, that the governor of Virginia has issued a statement in response to the story. The university has suspended all its fraternities, amid protests from (justifiably!) livid students.
The J-school cliché is that journalism is supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. That appears to be what happened in this case. Erdely could have told a similar story (I fear) about many universities across the United States, but she didn’t, she chose this one. And, in so doing, afflicted it.
But what are the mechanisms to prevent journalists from afflicting the afflicted? From choosing their targets unwisely? From condensing ungenerously? Rolling Stone has every incentive to play up its stories, to megaphone the ways it changes the world from which they are drawn. This is what journalism is supposed to do, what journalists are always telling us is its primary virtue, the one making up for all of its vices—its celebrity news, its comic strips, its listicles.
Rolling Stone, every magazine, has no mandate to provide proportionality, only entertainment. And outrage, like humor, like crossword puzzles, is one of its forms.
Except in extreme cases—libel, fabrication—the only accountability mechanism for journalists is their own story. Erdely didn’t quote that e-mail from the fraternity president (I assume) because it was long, it was boring, it wasn’t in her voice. She didn’t include all the stories she heard from her other interviews because they would have been detours from her primary narrative.
We condense, we highlight, we conclude, as people who want to tell a story in its shortest and interestingest form. This process is, by nature, intrasparent and autocratic. We’ll never know everything lost from Erdely’s story due to her cuts, nor the criteria she used to make them. We share her conclusions, but we easily forget that it was she who fed us the information on which to make them.
Shit, I sound like I’m criticizing her, don’t I. I’m really not. These are just the structures she works in. The same ones that, I guess, I do now too.
I read Erdely’s article the same week that something I wrote for The New Republic got a lot of attention. People have e-mailed me to thank me, to ask me to give them advice and interviews and speeches and join their organisations. I’m happy that something I wrote has been enjoyed by other people across the internet, but I am also nervous. These powers wielded by Erdely, by journalists everywhere, now they are mine. I am not confident that I am ready for them.
I’ve already talked about my own unworthiness here, how I try to make my summaries transparent, my judgements accountable to those upon whom I make them. I could have been more of a dick in my article, I tell myself, could have condensed less charitably, could have wrung the evidence for my own perspective more tightly. Maybe you already think I have.
The reason I am scared is that there would have been no punishment for doing so. A slightly boringer story, maybe, a polemic, something that could have been titled ‘the case for’. As a reader, that incentive is enough. As a writer, sometimes I fear that it is not.
Update: Oh man, so this non-argument of mine just got pretty darn concrete. I’m going to leave the text as it is—I’m too lazy to change it and no one reads this blog anyway!—but it looks like Erdely’s story is less a hypothetical parable about the powers of journalism than an instance of this power improperly applied. Me making this all about my own fears and insecurities still applies.
Filed under America, Journalism, Serious
Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition
There’s this parable that economists always tell.
Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.
‘That’ll be $100,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s $1,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s $99.’
Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.
Here’s what we know so far:
In 2012, Zakaria blatantly yoinked a Jill Lepore (love her!) paragraph in an article he wrote about gun control. He got busted and he apologized.
Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.
Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.
Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:
He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.
Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).
So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.
Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software
The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.
Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.
But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.
The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:
Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”
Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.
I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.
All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.
Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.
When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.
Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.
That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.
I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’
Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.
Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh!
Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious
‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’
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!
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.
Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious
Why I Show Drafts to My Sources
I majored in journalism. I worked at the student newspaper at my community college and then my real one, then did internships at two daily newspapers. Then I gave it up, I moved to Europe, I went to grad school and I ended up working at NGOs for the next eight years.
Since 2012 I’ve been sort of doing journalism again. Nothing serious, just little essays about stupid shit I did as a teenager or a friend of mine who was briefly a prostitute. Lately I’ve been getting slightly more ambitious, writing about foreign countries I visit for work and, this one time, how HIV is way worse in the US than in Europe.
If it’s not already obvious that I’m an amateur from my essays, it certainly is from the methods by which I produce them. I interview people too long, ask them stupid questions, forget to call them ‘doctor’, bug them with too many follow-ups. And I also, the biggest sin of all, send them drafts of my essays for comments before they’re published.
This is highly un-standard operating procedure. In journalism school the rule was, you could check direct quotes—i.e. the stuff in quote marks, not paraphrases—with your sources, and you could fact-check your numbers with them, but giving them actual excerpts from your story would compromise the independent, objective role of journalism.
The reasons behind this rule are obvious. Can you imagine an investigative reporter writing an exposé of a corrupt governor and checking it with him beforehand? Journalism is supposed to, like the old saying says, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Giving a source advance warning of your story, a chance to revoke their quotes or edit your conclusions before it’s published, profoundly undermines that role.
So I get why the rule exists. But not all journalism is political analysis or corruption investigations or public-figure profiles. In the last few years, the rise of ‘explainers’ (Ezra Klein, Nate Silver) and the general trend toward narrative-izing academic findings (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, TED Talks) have demonstrated the utility—and the demand—for works of journalism that see their sources as collaborators rather than antagonists.
Me, I’m paralyzed-scared of getting anything factually wrong in my essays. As I mentioned the other day, for my HIV piece I read probably 150 documents and interviewed like 18 people. Many of these people and documents didn’t agree with each other, or emphasized different historical or demographic factors as the key to explaining the higher rates of HIV deaths in the United States (‘It’s the health care system!’ one of them would say. ‘The health care system doesn’t matter!’ says another ).
Weighing that up, then cinching it into a few thousand words, then trying to make it readable for people who are less obsessed with this topic than I am, there’s no way to do that without leaving some conclusions and explanations on the side of the road. The only way to make sure I got my conclusions right was to share them with the people who provided the basis on which I made them.
So I sent my essay to six of my sources. Everyone got back to me. All of them had comments and corrections, all of them were reasonable, and all of their changes got included in the essay before it ran.
Most of the corrections were related to terminology. ‘Your story says there were 15,500 people diagnosed with HIV in 2010,’ one of my sources wrote. ‘What you mean is infections, not diagnoses.’ That’s actually a pretty important distinction, and the kind that traditional magazine fact-checkers might not notice.
I also let them alter their direct quotes. I was a bit nervous about this, since In journalism school they taught us that anything in quote marks is sacrosanct. ‘I have you on tape with this exact wording,’ is what they told us to say when sources backtracked on their interviews. ‘You knew you were talking to a journalist.’
But what’s the point? Like the others, the changes in quotes they suggested were grammar and terminology and clarification, not self-preservation. One of my sources told me that when you’re on Medicaid it’s difficult to move ‘from one place to another’. She wanted me to change it to ‘from one state to another’. Should I have stood on principle on not changing the quote? Her suggestion is more accurate than what I had originally anyway.
Knowing I was going to send a draft of my article to my sources made me write it differently, made me work harder to fairly summarize what they said. It’s possible to get all your facts and your quotes correct and your conclusions wrong; having expert eyes on the full content, the tone and the structure and the corny jokes, made me think harder about what I was actually saying, not just the numbers I was using to say it.
There’s also the issue of courtesy. Academics, authors, people who work at AIDS clinics, they’re busy; the ones I spoke to spent unbelievable amounts of time, one-on-one, walking me through the basics of the field in which they are experts, my own little Socratic seminar. They sent me their academic work and their data and their annual reports, knowing that I was going to quote and paraphrase them without a chaperone. I paid them nothing for this, not even the guarantee of being name-checked in my article. The least I can do—as a person, if not as a journalist—is to show them in advance how I will represent them, give them a chance to correct what I got wrong or over-condensed.
I’m not arguing that every single piece of journalism should be checked with the subject of it. I was talking with a magazine editor the other day about this, and he said ‘whenever you write a profile of someone, they end up hating you. That’s how it works.’ No one wants to read a piece of propaganda, or be fed conclusions that have been vetted and authorized by the people they are concluding about. Fair enough.
But the ethical prohibition on sharing drafts of stories with sources comes from the assumed un-alignment of interests between the journalist and subject. The subject of a profile or a political story or business news has an interest in putting out a particular version of themselves—the hero, the victim, the striver, the successful startup, whatever. The journalist has an interest in telling the truth, or at least in finding the angle that’s going to get their story read and shared and talked about.
But in the case of explainers and science journalism and (some types of) feature stories, the interests of the journalist and the subject are aligned. Both want to bring the truth to a complex subject. Both want to bring attention to a field or a finding that was previously unknown. Both want to frame the narrative in a way that will get the general public interested. The bestselling Freakonomics was written through collaboration between a journalist and an academic. The documentary Food, Inc was created with the oversight of two of the subjects (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) interviewed in it. I think that adds to the credibility of the finished works, rather than diminishing them.
I didn’t share my HIV story with all of my sources. The CDC, who graciously provided me with Excel after Excel of estimates and back-calculations, and was generally lovely to work with, all they got was the figures from the story and an outline of my general points. Even I’m savvy enough to know that they have interests beyond the accuracy of the story.
Sometimes I think about this old Yogi Berra quote, about his relationship to the press: ‘You shouldn’t have printed what I said. You should have printed what I meant.’
I remember reading it on a 365 Dumb Quotes calendar we kept on the kitchen table as a kid. These days, it doesn’t seem so dumb.
Filed under Journalism, Personal, Random, Serious
The Devil you know
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 an airport 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.’
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. His retirement from television was one of the largest outpourings of emotion in history. Days of tearful actors and audience members telling him how much he meant to them. But behind it all, it turns out Carson had no inner circle, only the outer one.
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.
Filed under America, Journalism, Serious
My Parents Fled From Iran During the Revolution and All I Got Was This Stupid Slate Article
I have an essay in Slate today about how my parents moved to Iran in 1978 to be Christian missionaries, then had to flee when the Revolution happened.
The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see if it was a foreigner or an Iranian.
The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.
The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the stewardesses opened champagne.
The date was January 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.
“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a stewardess looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”
Some stuff got cut from the story, so here’s some bonus anecdotes:
- Lynne and Dave’s letters barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male hand-holding and cheek kissing (‘but there is apparently very little homosexuality’ she writes in one of her letters—ah, the ‘70s). They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! … How much is your rent?”
- Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else. Even Lynne’s Farsi workbooks were mostly stories about the Shah, Iran’s bright future, the triumphs of 2,500-years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
- Helen tells them about a German woman here, a housewife married to an Iranian. In November she was walking home from school with her children and found her house being ransacked by a mob. Somehow they had discovered that her landlords were Bahais. She drove to the compound, left her children with Helen and borrowed a chador. With the chador on, she went back to her own house to join the mob, to salvage whatever she could of her belongings. That night, she and her husband returned to the compound to stay a few nights until they found a new home. That was the last time Helen saw them.
- One day last month Martin and Helen’s daughters left for school in the morning, got on the school bus the same as always. A few hours later, one of her daughters came home early and told Helen that the school was closed. Too many demonstrations, too much noise. Now the demonstrators were blocking the roads, and the school buses couldn’t get home. Helen had no way of getting ahold of her daughters, she could do nothing except wait. So she did, for hours, until they finally returned.
I want to thank my parents for spending so much time walking me through these episodes, and especially their friends Martin and Helen, who gave me a really vivid picture of their lives in Iran. It’s not always easy to have some random guy poking around in your past stripping it for anecdotes, and everyone I spoke to was patient with my questions and forgiving of my mistakes.
To get a better understanding of the political context and the experience of the Christian community in Iran before and during the Revolution, Martin and Helen recommended that I read Paul Hunt’s Inside Iran, and I did, and I recommend you do too!
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