Monthly Archives: July 2012

Development organisations cherish a mental image of happy peasants, tilling fields or resting of an evening in a flourishing village with schools, water and the like. I think many people in development therefore see migration as a failure – the talk is all about people forced to migrate, rather than choosing to. At least that point of view is reinforced by European history (think of the forced and miserable emigration of the Irish famine), but makes even less sense for New Worlders in countries built on migration.

–Duncan Green, “Why is Migration a Cinderella Issue for Development?

Connection between ‘forced’ migration discourse and resistance to viewing migration as part of development? Methinks so. Reason # 13,367,081 why rhetoric and conceptualisation matters, (forced) migration folks everyone.


Dear British friends,

Friday night was crazy. We are talking dancing-nurses-bouncing-sick-kids-for-the-NHS-reenactment-of-the-industrial-revolution-fireworks-like-an-atomic-bomb-the-Queen-parachuting-with-James-Bond crazy.

I couldn’t dream up something so weird. Seriously. Crazy.

Danny gave us some strong stuff and it was real good. For 27 million quid, it should have been but wow. Just wow. I don’t even know how we got home, but I’m pretty sure a cauldron and David Beckham were involved at some point.

I had a lot of fun and I know you did too.

But listen. You said something I can’t forget. Even as my hangover subsided, your words didn’t. They persisted, subtitling everything as I went about my weekend in London, this city I love so dearly.

You said you loved your country. You said you loved the United Kingdom. 

I know what you’re going to try to tell me. “I was saying lots of crazy stuff, Mon. It’s just what you say in the moment.”

I’m not buying it. This is not like that. I remember you at the Diamond Jubilee. This was different. This meant something–to you.

You fell in love with your country.

And I get it, albeit as an outsider. You’ve never had to convince me the incredibleness of your tiny island, which despite your colonizing history (x2 for me), has still managed to occupy my heart with affection and inspiration. So much so I have redirected my life to spend the last four years here, for all the reasons Danny showcased and more.

Granted, ex-pats tend to associate love for the country we live in with the happiness of our current lives. And I do love my life here. Such fickleness underlines why my feelings, as American living in London, are not the same as British patriotism. In fact, my displays of obvious sentimentality towards the UK are probably quintessentially American behaviour. I know because you’ve told me, bluntly, despite my efforts there is no “Britain fuck yeah” and never will be.

And honestly, there doesn’t have to be.  It’s just that, before Friday, there seemed to be no representation of British national love you were remotely comfortable with whatsoever. In fact, you were staunchly uncomfortable with all representations put forth so far. You’re not that into the monarchy. You’re definitely over the empire. And you’re not the BNP.  So what’s left? A whole lot of “everyone but England”. A whole lot of awkward err-ing and ahh-ing. A whole lot of identity baggage for 20-somethings.

Until Friday’s opening ceremonies.  Danny put together more than a killer show. He put together a visionary narrative of what it means to be British now, and maybe, for the future. And that is something really special. I imagine it akin to my first Obama moment in 2004, hearing him deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Convention as the Senator of Illinois. I remember listening, attention rapt, thinking, this is my country and I want to part of this. It gave me hope for change before it was plastered as a  2008 campaign slogan because I so desperately needed to see an alternative version of my country to feel like I was still part of it.

I know. You can already taste the cynicism in your mouth. But before you say anything, that same mouth told me you loved the United Kingdom.

So give in and get that Britain’s number. Because you can’t look me in the eye and tell me any other convincing vision of and for Britishness, with shine and self-deprecation, in the last five years grabbed you like the opening ceremonies did.

Friday night was awesome. But from one friend to another, don’t leave things there because I’ve never seen you like this before. And that’s important.

Yours (dependent on my visa status),

An American living in the United Kingdom

Great writers require idealistic integrity–as do their readers.

The writers we admire most are propelled by a mixture of innocence and chutzpah — the nerve to write big coupled with a childlike need to cultivate the virtues they have always believed in. They may surprise themselves by the insistence of their own higher motives and values. They may also believe that as readers, we will surprise ourselves for the same reasons.

–Roger Rosenblatt, “How to Write Great“, pg. 2

Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences as soft, which too readily translates as meaning woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians, some of whom are used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and with an eye on the polls.

…So, what has political science ever done for us? We don’t, after all, know why crime rates rise and fall. We cannot solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, and we cannot agree on the state’s role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The ‘larger’ the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of ‘hard science’.”.

In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane’s statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules.

–the editors of Nature, “A Different Agenda” (h/t Kevin Drum) (bolding mine)

Really pleased to see comments like this from academics in the natural sciences, recognising the integrity of social sciences.

As an aside: I have heard colleagues in other disciplines make the (antiquated) claim that the ‘hard’ sciences are more difficult. I have never understood that line of reasoning.

It has always been queries about human systems and behaviours that exposed me to the most unsolvable mysteries, that foiled my methodological pursuits for rigor and replication, and that frustrated me by needing to be couched in so many competing ethical and political considerations.

Maybe I’m settling on what I consider intellectually taxing, but it takes a certain kind of genius to solve this kind of shit. And it’s foolish in-fighting when fellow researchers claim otherwise.

Back to the point though. The ‘softness’ of the social sciences is exactly what makes them so hard. Duh. And that is exactly why social science-related research need resources–be it federal funding, time, or even our attention.

Now if only we could give the humanities some love. Then I’d be as happy as a clam.

I wrote reports that people didn’t read. I went to meetings that didn’t amount to anything. I argued about organizational politics that didn’t matter.

When I look back, I wonder how it was possible to be so busy yet doing so little. How did any of that really help our ‘beneficiaries’?

I’m pretty sure it didn’t. I don’t miss it. 

–a friend, reflecting on his former life working at a big international humanitarian NGO in London

I didn’t agree with my friend when we had this conversation. However his words have echoed in my head since then–admittedly louder during bad, ineffective and inefficient moments.

This sentiment is not the whole truth of (big/international) NGOs. It is a partial-truth though.

There are no quick fixes to eliminate organizational inefficiencies or to maximize impacts for victims of rights abuses and aid recipients.

But even if this is a slow fight, this reflection reminds me what’s at stake if we don’t improve.

“I really want some meaning. It used to be easy to toss it off. Now it’s harder and harder. You have to navigate just to find something that has nourishment. It’s the absence of nourishment. What do you do in place of nourishment? It’s usually junk. Either it’s junk food or junk clothes or junk ideas.”

–Toni Morrison, on popular culture

Also a fab quote, because she is so right and it made me giggle:

Morrison seems largely unimpressed with what counts as controversy today. She admires Lady Gaga as an “art object”, but is ambivalent about Madonna. She mentions the singer’s recent concert in Istanbul where she flashed the largely Muslim audience. “She had a little tiny bra on and she was onstage.

“So she pulled it down and showed her nipple. It was all over the news. I thought,” she begins laughing, “What is a nipple? A nipple? It was supposed to be so radical.” She is tickled. “If you go to the pygmies – nobody is into nipples. Everyone was screaming – she’s so avant-garde or something — it’s just a nipple.”

More meaning. Less junk. Actually, just more Toni Morrison in general, please?

Seeing this today was like the first time my Dad texted me. It’s not right. I don’t know why, but it’s not right—I can feel that shit in my soul, man. Wu-Tang shouldn’t be at the Gap and my Dad should have to call me and leave a voice-mail if he wants to get a hold of me.

–Jon Moy, “Trying to Make Some Sense Out of This Whole Wu-Tang x GAP Thing

I generally hate when people whine about their favourite band/artist/what-have-you ‘sells out’. Because in all fairness, everyone has the right to appeal to the mainstream whatever their reasons may be.

But there is something to be said about that moment when a thing you liked decides to go and become a ‘brand’ and you realise it’s probably not the same as the thing you originally liked even if elements of commercialisation were there in the first place. It still feels wrong.

Even though, ironically, these t-shirts are probably aimed at my demographic. Who’s buying them? Tell me it’s not you, Dad.