There's nothing like a good political discussion between two friends that rides quickly off the rails, which is basically what happened this morning with Latoya Peterson of Racialicious and me, when we fully planned to talk about the next terror attacks on the United States and then drifted into farm subsidies, foreign aid, violence in the media, Malawi and Mexico and didn't manage to even work in a single reference to Madonna because we were so focused on corn. Mmmmm. Corn!
LATOYA: Ok, let's rock. But first I want to add something to the discussion we were having yesterday. I went back to my site to decompress the thoughts on what should and should not be shown in terms of coverage of tragic events.
LATOYA: And after reading through the points made by my readers, the answer was pretty clear: We want more truth in coverage. Violence can be a part of that truth, but most of us are concerned that violent coverage is more for ratings and shock value. Violence happens, and it should be reported on. But asking for more bodies and gore won't necessarily lead us to truth, you know?
MEGAN: And, on the other hand, the American media sanitizes the violence for fear of turning viewers off, and for fear of getting in trouble with the FCC.
LATOYA: Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. Like I said before, it depends on who the victims are. That largely dictates what kind of coverage is provided. Your reference to porn yesterday was apt, because I forgot this phenomenon has already been termed disaster pornography.
MEGAN: I disagree that there's any honesty in our coverage, period. I know that, in other countries, there was more coverage of people hurling themselves from the towers on 9/11. I know that, in other countries, there is more honest carnage shown. Our news generally shows people crying as a stand-in for the results of violence. No, disaster porn is different. Disaster porn is fetishizing the violence. There's a difference between showing it and making it beautiful or erotic.
LATOYA: You don't think we fetishize the violence?
MEGAN: I think we fetishize fake violence, and then don't show real violence, so we end up fetishizing violence we never really see.
LATOYA: Part of that fetish led to the comparisons of the war surges with video games. And ultimately, I wonder if violence can be applied effectively at this point because again, the treatment depends on the victims. Nameless bodies piling up in Iraq? Sure, we could show them the citizens, but because Iraqis have been so othered (insert Katt Williams' joke about insurgents here) would it have an impact? And would it have the same impact if we showed the casualties in Iraq, but continued to hide the deaths of our own?
MEGAN: I think it did in Vietnam. And I think we should show both.
LATOYA: But times have changed since Vietnam.
MEGAN: I think humans should be fully aware of what we can do and are doing to one another.
LATOYA: We are literally inundated with data and images of suffering.
MEGAN: And they still carry power over people. Even those images of Vietnam still do.
LATOYA: We are in a different time, war photography has changed, how we perceive war and death has changed and I think we need to look toward a different version of truth. If those images still held the power you say, why are we still engaged in these wars? Why do people not commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima or listen to the survivors of that bombing, some of whom are still living and speaking out?
MEGAN: I mean, I don't want to gross anyone out in the morning, but go look at the pictures of the Bhutto assassination aftermath I picked out when I worked at Wonkette. Tell me that it looks like what you see on TV. Tell me that it looks like what you saw on the news then, or even this weekend. Tell me is isn't horrifying and sickening and much more real. And then think that this is what you didn't actually see in Mumbai, but that it was there too. No amount of blood on a floor can convey that carnage, or that horror.
LATOYA: But is it really, Megan?
MEGAN: And, so, no. It's not at all the same as listening to a survivor, or watching someone cry — even a kid.
LATOYA: We remember that — we're knee deep in news everyday. But do people?
MEGAN: Do people look? They're hardly ever given a chance to.
LATOYA: It's kind of like dealing with the images of starving kids in other nations. Particularly in Africa (and I hate just using a continent as a blanket term.) For a while, it tugged on people's heartstrings.
MEGAN: We're still engaged because people have short memories.
LATOYA: But then, strangely, people just started to accept this is how things are. Africa is just fucked up, no rhyme, no reason to it, and it will never get better.
MEGAN: We aren't engaged because people have short memories. Every place is fucked up. And the solutions are not easy solutions. People gave money, and it didn't get better.
LATOYA: And that mindset is part of the reason why it is hard to motivate people to take action and to protest. If you go for shock (which is what I feel the media is doing) you have to continually shock on a larger and larger scale to take action. Truth is more potent than that. It is less jarring than that initial shock to the system, but longer lasting.
MEGAN: See, I don't think the media is going for shock, because they have to put it on the airwaves. The story I linked to yesterday, that I wrote — they took one of the photos in the set I just linked to, cropped out much of the carnage and then blurred the rest so that you couldn't see. They are giving you a piece of the truth, but not the whole truth. Period. And so the truth remains shrouded. I don't think the truth of Mumbai is a crying child — let alone a crying white child. But that's the truth that people are willing to look at.
LATOYA: I'll cosign, but I don't think the truth is blood on the floor either.
MEGAN: Or, rather, people here. I think the truth is the body on the floor. It's the loss of life. It's the lack of energy in a face.
LATOYA: Anyway, on that note, let's talk about terrorism. As it was dominating the Washington Post coverage this morning. So apparently, a WMD attack is imminent.
MEGAN: Well, that doesn't surprise me. If we think all that planning that went into Mumbai was the end of it, then we're fooling ourselves.
The report, ordered by Congress last year, concludes that terrorists are more likely to obtain materials for a biological attack than to buy or steal nuclear weapons. But it says the nuclear threat is growing rapidly, in part because of the increasing global supply of nuclear material and technology.
"Without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013," says the draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. The Post reported excerpts from an earlier draft in Sunday's editions.
I am watching to see how the India/Pakistan thing shakes out. India is pushing hard to get Pakistan to hand over people they think were involved in the attacks.
MEGAN: Of course they are. I believe we were keen on then handing over people that were involved in 9/11 and Daniel Pearl's murder once upon a time. I wish them luck with that. I'm more concerned that we're talking about nuclear and biological weapons being used in a terror attack and Homeland Security is years behind on things designed to detect them.
LATOYA: Okay, so I know I've been going on all kinds of tangents this morning (and we've only been talking 15 mins) but it's a big picture kind of day for me. Not only is Homeland Security behind on detection, but our infrastructures won't support an attack.
MEGAN: Or, rather, won't support a decent response to an attack.
LATOYA: Our local governments are stretched to the max and cutting vital services everyday - do you think we're in a position to respond to a major biological attack? With our current health care system?
MEGAN: Hell, it's more than 7 years after 9/11 and emergency responders still can't communicate with one another in many cases. Hospitals are closing.
LATOYA: Right. Why isn't this a part of counterterrorism measures? Our infrastructures need to be stable and funded so if - heaven forbid - something does happen, we can actually minimize the damage.
MEGAN: It is, actually. It's just that getting the bandwidth required for communications back from the phone companies we sold it to was a complete clusterfuck in Washington for years.
LATOYA: head desk
MEGAN: The company that owned it — Nextel — didn't want to give it back without major concessions and new bandwidth. There was lobbying, and gobs of money to be had.
LATOYA: I thought corporations had human rights under the law. Can't we force them to be good citizens?
MEGAN: The government chased its tail (and the bandwidth) for most of the last 7 years. That's why Homeland Security is so far behind on it. That, and no one there has any idea what the fuck they are doing. Nope. Welcome to Washington.
LATOYA: Maybe I should buy one of those Corporate America flags from Adbusters after all...
MEGAN: Back to biological weapons,
Meanwhile, although recent intelligence assessments have warned that a biological attack poses the greatest terror threat, signature defense measures - including the multibillion-dollar Project Bioshield to stockpile antidotes - have made only limited strides, according to Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security.
"There has been a modest amount of work done in that venue, candidly," Ridge said in a recent interview. He said Americans "have spent billions on the development of a bio-defense stockpile but they don't have much to show for it."
LATOYA: More minor notes getting lost in the terrorism frenzy. The EU is concerned that we aren't providing enough aid to developing nations. I swear — what can we buy with a billion dollars? Obviously, not what we were expecting.
MEGAN: Yes, let's talk about that during a recession, when we're trying to provide aid to ourselves. Our own states are asking for aid money now.
LATOYA: Well, if you look at the reports:
The World Bank has said that developing countries are facing a 'perfect storm', with the convergence of slowing growth, a withdrawal of private capital, and higher interest rates on their debt.
The Bank says that growth in developing countries will fall by two percentage points to 4.5% next year, as the volume of global trade contracts for the first time since 1982.
But aid agencies have criticised the fact that neither the head of the World Bank or the IMF, or many other world leaders from rich countries, have come to the talks.
MEGAN: They do, but, hey, we've been throwing money at Pakistan for the better part of a decade, too. That's worked out well for us so far.
LATOYA: I recently spent a few weekends in the company of some rock star National Security experts —- most notably Lorelei Kelly, formerly of the White House Project — and they all had the same answer to this one. Where we invest the money is the problem.
MEGAN: I don't mean to be terribly flip about it, actually. Foreign aid, when done well, is important. But, yes, where we send it is at issue.
LATOYA: Instead of investing in people and infrastructure, we invest in governments and weapons.
MEGAN: More microfinance and less stock market development, please.
LATOYA: According to Lorelei, the security policy of the 21st century has to include helping countries to develop and educated populace. Umm... I'm on the fence about microfinance.
MEGAN: Oh, and let's eliminate the Mexico City Policy, while we're at it.
LATOYA: It has great benefits.
MEGAN: And, notably, it's cheap.
MEGAN: And it also doesn't generally end up in the hands of dictators to build more palaces.
LATOYA: My girl Tanglad opened my eyes to the other side of microcredit.
In her study of Grameen Bank microcredit programs in rural Bangladesh,* Leila Karim finds that the focus on the 98 percent loan recovery rate hides how beneficiaries are co-opted into “a political economy of shame.”
Microcredit works by appropriating the only social capital poor women possess — their virtue and family honor. Among the Ifugao women in the northern Philippines,** microcredit beneficiaries are grouped into cohorts of five to fifteen members. They are given clear instructions: “You are all responsible for the loan and have to make sure that no one defaults.”
This lays the foundation of a very effective surveillance system, wherein poor women monitor other poor women. And the poorest women, the ones who need loans the most, are evicted from the group to minimize the risk of default.
Given the surprising lack of entrepreneurial or job skills training in microcredit schemes, it’s not unusual for a member to default on her loan. This is when things get even uglier, as the other women in the cohort are forced to extract payment.
In Bangladesh, for example, women march off together to publicly scold a member who falls behind on her loan payments. The cohort would also scold her husband in public. If she could not produce the money, the other women in her cohort would take anything that could be sold for loan payments — her cows and chicks, grain from her family’s pantry, uprooted trees and plants from her yard. Even her gold nose-ring, an important symbol of marital status for rural women.
When even these repossessions were not enough to repay the loan, the cohort could instigate the ultimate dishonor of ghar bhanga (literally, “house-breaking”), where the defaulting member’s house is sold off to pay for the microloan.
I think it's a good tool, but not a solution. Just like with capitalism, some people will flourish and thrive under microcredit, and some won't. Oh, some background — Tanglad writes from the Philippines, a major export zone, and ground zero for monitoring the effects of globalization.
MEGAN: That's true. But, like the protesters who argue that vast swaths of the developing world should not have to pay back their loans to lending institutions, I disagree that structuring a system without consequences for default is a good plan. Like, say, what we're seeing with Fannie and Freddie here.
LATOYA: This is also true. I'm not sure Tagland is arguing for that though — she's basically asking that some of the worker protections we enjoy are extended to the developing world, which would allow for more women to take traditional jobs. But, that would also make labor more expensive, which defeats the purpose of exporting. (She also blogs about labor activism and the people who vanish each year for asking for the rights we enjoy.)
MEGAN: I'm for labor protections, but the idea that we'll pay the same wages in the Philippines as here isn't going to function. There will always be labor cost differentials.
LATOYA: True — but do we have to pay the dirt cheapest wages at all times? I know you watched that Primark documentary.
MEGAN: That is, for better or for worse, how capitalism functions. Management buys labor for what laborers are willing to sell it for. It's the purpose of organized labor, to set an agreed-upon floor.
LATOYA: But our capitalism ain't capitalism. Laborers are willing to sell things for so low because they don't have many other options, and major players rig the market so that many countries are forced to import food and other vital necessities at above cost. I feel like a lot of our global problems can be solved by understanding the flow of money and labor. So many things stem from that: the artificial understanding of cost, the desperation that leads to terrorism, the food crisis.
MEGAN: Well, I think the importation of goods that could be locally produced cheaper is a remnant of colonialism, so thank Britain for that.
LATOYA: And just shrugging and saying "hey, that's the way things are" ignores how this system has hyper-evolved over the last fifty years.
MEGAN: But it's also a lack of free markets in those countries that would allow the market to function properly — which is to say, if it can be produced cheaper locally, in a functioning market, it would be.
LATOYA: False. Not if we prohibit them from doing so!
MEGAN: But there are still a lot of governments in the developing world that rely on command economic structures.
LATOYA: Hang on, let me pull out my old post standby...
MEGAN: We don't prohibit countries from producing goods. We prohibit them from exporting them to us by our tariff structure, or make it less economically viable by our farm subsidization programs. That isn't the same thing.
LATOYA: Actually, we do. We can put restraints on the money we provide unless the country meets the conditions we set. This happened in Malawi. We told them that in order to get funding from us, they could not farm their own food. Analysts decided it was cheaper for Malawi to import food and sell other goods and services. This led to a massive food shortage for a few years. The government finally decided to defy the recommendations (at great risk - because that could mean the end of the money stream) and subsidized its farmers the way we do. And that ended the food crisis for two consecutive years.
MEGAN: Now, that is an oversimplification of what went on, honestly.
LATOYA: They sent the emergency aid to other nations. Now, every African nation is not Malawi.
MEGAN: We didn't prohibit them from farming their own food. We refrained from giving them money to pay for a subsidy program.
LATOYA: Megs, if they rely on that money, isn't that a prohibition? Now, it's not like every single situation works out this way.
MEGAN: So we're supposed to fund every other country's farm subsidy program?
LATOYA: Global finance works in strange ways, and impacts different nations differently.
MEGAN: We shouldn't be funding our own.
LATOYA: We are funding our own — but, yes, we need to shift to helping nations become self-sufficient.
MEGAN: The point of subsidies is that it encourages inefficiencies. Subsidies don't encourage self-sufficiency.
LATOYA: In some nations. And in some nations, it prevents starvation. Yes, they can. If you check the food experts take on this, our insistence on an efficient market lead to this mess in the first place.
MEGAN: No, there are plenty of factors which led to the underlying problems that then necessitated the use of subsidies.
LATOYA: Like the droughts. But there is a reason the global south continues to reject a whole slew of policies that they see as ensuring their dependence on foreign aid and imported food.
MEGAN: Or the inefficient farming system that relied upon one, high-intensive food stuff.
LATOYA: What, like Mexico?
MEGAN: Maize is not an efficient crop. It's also debilitating on the soil and — notably — not native to Africa.
LATOYA: Who structured most of their eating habits around what could be bountifully grown and then found themselves fucked over following the import/export strategy prescribed?
MEGAN: In no small part because we subsidize heavily the growing of it here. Which we should stop, but we won't, because no one else will either. Subsidies either have to be multilateral disarmament, or they will never go away.
When tens of thousands of people staged demonstrations in Mexico last year to protest a 60 percent increase in the price of tortillas, many analysts pointed to biofuel as the culprit. Because of U.S. government subsidies, American farmers were devoting more and more acreage to corn for ethanol than for food, which sparked a steep rise in corn prices. The diversion of corn from tortillas to biofuel was certainly one cause of skyrocketing prices, though speculation on biofuel demand by transnational middlemen may have played a bigger role. However, an intriguing question escaped many observers: how on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on U.S. imports in the first place?
From the Nation Manufacturing a Food Crisis. Damn, it's close to 10.
MEGAN: Notably, we also subsidize the production of ethanol — and impose heavy tariffs on cheap Brazilian ethanol to keep the prices high.
LATOYA: Resume tomorrow? I'll call Lorelei about national security and grab my copy of notes from the Global South.
MEGAN: Or maybe we'll have just convinced the government to forgo ethanol tariffs and farm subsidies by then.
LATOYA: Farm subsidies fuck us up — but that's my day job, so I'm biased. We'll talk more about that tomorrow too.
MEGAN: Farm subsidies fuck a lot of shit up, and it isn't my day job. But, yes, tomorrow!