Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Evil Happens in the Sunlight

Palm trees sway in the wind as waves crash on the shore below. Emerald waters stretch far beyond the ancient white walls and neatly aligned cannons. A cool ocean breeze gave relief from the overhead sun. On the other side, a bustling market and dense single-room structures lie between the castle and a hill topped by a colonial fort. This scene is picturesque, cliché, and the setting where a thousand people at a time – some six hundred men and four hundred women – were regularly manacled to each other in solid stone dungeons with a few square inches of sunlight before being sent through the “Door of No Return” onto death ships to the Americas. About 10 million total people went through this ordeal.

Visiting Elmina and Cape Coast Castles, slave trade forts built respectively by the Portuguese and the British, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz four years ago. My first encounter with Auschwitz was as spooky as it gets – waking up at 3 am on the night train from Vienna to Krakow to look out the window and see the train was stopped with some sort of electrical issue at the Oświęcim station which I quickly realized was the Polish town name that was Germanized into Auschwitz. But when I visited Auschwitz the next day it was a beautiful spring day with the sun beating down on the grassy fields around Birkenau, site of the gas chambers that likely killed my great-grandfather’s family.

Beautiful weather and architectural flourishes surround the sites of some of the greatest atrocities ever committed. This is a simple fact to state but an oddly emotionally complex one to wrap your head around when you feel it with your own body. When we think about evil, we think about it in a monochromatic way. Footage of the Holocaust is black and white (hence Steven Spielberg’s decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white, where many of our mental images of Auschwitz come from). For obvious reasons there aren’t pictures of these slave forts in operation, but when I think of the Atlantic Passage, I think of grimy and yellowed blueprints for the boats slave traders stacked kidnapped Africans like library books.

One exception might be the image of an overpowering sun over fields of cotton – but even then, we’re inclined to think of blinding light and overpowering heat. We don’t realize there were days when the weather was fine – pleasant even – as slaves were whipped and worked mercilessly.

We think thematically: it rains on sad days and the sun shines on happy ones. Yet evil can happen in very normal times. It can happen on days that would otherwise be pleasant. It happens in public, in visible spaces with little hiding. (Auschwitz may not have been public, but round ups and deportations and ghettos and checkpoints where people in Munich were required to salute all were.)


All of this is to say that visiting these sites has made it unnerving just how normal evil is. It really happened, and it happened in a place whose air you can still breathe and whose walls you can feel with your own fingers. It happens on bright, breezy days.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Want a Presidential Candidate to Support Animal Rights? Pressure the Good Guys.

There's been a fair amount of talk among vegans and animal rights activists in recent days about the propriety of confronting Bernie Sanders, as my fellow Direct Action Everywhere activists did and as my friend Jay Shooster and I did in the Huffington Post following Russell Simmons' criticism of the presidential candidate over his support for animal agriculture.

Many people feel, arguably rightly so, that Sanders would be the best candidate for animals of any because he is less susceptible to corporate pressure and has at least said he does not like factory farms. So they say that this is just going to hurt him and undermine our cause.

I think this is pretty clearly wrong. I think that's especially true for a cause in its early days - how many votes are animal rights activists going to steal from Bernie Sanders? How I wish we were a threat. On the other hand, the gains from getting this issue on the political table - from even the most cursory of responses - are substantial.

We've seen how #BlackLivesMatter activists have brilliantly made racism a particularly potent issue in the campaign and led Sanders' campaign to considerably change their platform and emphasis. I'd like to offer up another episode from my gay elders as an example of a similar dynamic: pressuring George McGovern - in a far more aggressive way - to endorse gay rights in the 1972 campaign. Note that in general, early protests of politicians by gay activists targeted those who were likely sympathetic (in New York, this meant liberal then-Republicans like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller). Here's the McGovern story:

"Why did McGovern seem to be committed to every liberal issue except gay rights? The gay activists were unable to understand...

"It was a quiet August morning, an hour before lunch and less than two weeks before Labor Day, when thirty members of the Gay Activists Alliance appeared, as if out of nowhere, and quickly and precisely brought McGovern's presidential headquarters to a halt. As soon as they got off the sixth-floor elevator, Bruce Voeller and two other GAA members walked deliberately toward three 10-button phone consoles, the main switchboards for the campaign. 'What's going on here?' the operator asked helpelessly as two of them chained their wrists to the phones... The activists who had chained themselves to the consoles commandeered the telephones and, consulting a list of telephone numbers, began to call every major media outlet in New York City: the Times, the News, the Post, the Associated Press, the United Press and all the TV stations. 'I am chained to a desk in George McGovern's campaign headquarters,' each of them said. Whenever the phone rang and the light lit on the console, they would pick up the phone and announce that the McGovern for President headquarters had been taken over by gay liberationists...

"[F]inally, at mid-afternoon, with the television cameras rolling, [campaign manager] Geto appeared, standing next to GAA member Allen Roskoff, to read a statement: 'Senator George McGovern has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans. He has specifically addressed himself to discrimination directed against men and women based on sexual orientation, and has pledged to alleviate such discrimination in the federal government and in other areas of public life. Sen. McGovern believes that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be eliminated.'"

-Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good

That was the first example, as far as I know, of a presidential candidate explicitly supporting gay rights in any way. It didn't come about because they were nice.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Weeks under the Harmattan: Reflections from Tamale

[Note that I tried to add photos but they wouldn't load on my connection. Just google Tamale, Ghana and look at the pictures. I don't have anything special except for that I'm probably even whiter than most of the peace corps volunteers.]

In February I moved to Ghana for ten weeks as part of a study on smallholder crop farmers in the Northern Region. I’m based out of Tamale, the second-biggest city. Coming with American eyes (or even eyes from many other African cities, my colleague tells me) you wouldn’t know it was so large. Modern structures are a minority here, with many tin roofs around and the city surprisingly sparse outside of a tiny nucleus at the center.

It’s very dry and dusty – I arrived here during the season known as “Harmattan,” when the wind from the Sahara blows so much dust into the reason that the sky turns brown and the sunlight is dimmed. After a couple rainstorms the dust has now descended to make way for the hottest month of the year, March. It struck me as odd that March is the hottest month – I figured seasons should match what I’ve experienced before in the Northern hemisphere (June-August) or Southern hemisphere (December-February).

I don’t have a clear answer on why March is so hot but I think it’s a few things. a) “Heat” really has to do with rain. My best nights of sleep recently have been after it rained, which cooled things down. b) In the Northern hemisphere’s summer, the equator is slightly south of the closest point to the sun. It’s the opposite in the Northern hemisphere’s winter. Since Ghana sits on the equator, the hottest time is in between.

That said, while it’s dry and dusty, there are beautiful mango and other varieties of trees dotting the ground, and they provide a nice contrast from the North American foliage that I’m used to.

There are a few things that have struck me here. I’m about halfway through my time here and have been reflecting today while reading Ghana Must Go, a novel by a Ghanaian immigrant to the U.S. (and fellow Yalie).

   1) People relate to each other very differently from in the U.S. I’m surely biased since people notice me more and are constantly curious about me (see point 2), but except perhaps in the busiest parts of the city, people acknowledge each other much more than in the U.S. or at least the Northeast. You’re expected to say good morning (“despa”), good afternoon (“antille”), or good evening (“annoula”) when you see someone. You respond “na”, and while the word may not sound beautiful to English ears, people often lengthen the word “na”, saying it with an expressive tune. I never thought a word like “na” could be said in so many different and melodic ways. If someone trips or drops something – even across the room from you – you are expected to say “sorry”.

People do not walk around as if they are in completely separate spaces like in New York City. They acknowledge and receive each other’s presence. I’ve mentioned to a number of Ghanaians the scene in Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen frantically chases people around the street trying to say hello to them. That’s what would happen if you deployed Tamale etiquette in New York City. I wonder how much of it is how urbanization changes people’s behavior. Given that Tamale is the fastest-growing city in West Africa and cities like it are likely to grow substantially in the coming years (which is creating all sorts of infrastructural challenges), it’s going to be interesting to see if this culture changes at all.

   2) Being a white person here attracts widespread curiosity. When walking down one of the emptier streets, you’ll see children – even toddlers – run out into the road, jump up and down, and eagerly shout “Siliminga hello!” Siliminga means white person. (“Siliminga goodbye” quickly follows.) It’s pretty adorable. I’ve gotten used to it, though, as everyone eventually does, and after a point it starts to get trying. Adults do it too but less often.

When you’re not being enthusiastically greeted by children, you attract widespread curiosity – sometimes fear – from people around you. In my experience, though this may differ for women, young men often approach me and ask for money, help buying them food, or even my phone number. If one of these young men gets your phone number, even a cab driver you’ve made an arrangement with, you can expect the phone to ring constantly. It seems people here fight to have white friends.

I think it provides a window, albeit with a very different power imbalance, into what it’s like to be the only person of your race on the street. Obviously I’m still the one with power here and the one that others are afraid of, but the experience of having people constantly gawk because you look different is not a pleasant one. I can only imagine what it would be like when you also have less money and privilege on top of that.

On a side note, I asked a Ghanaian friend of mine how people would react here if they saw someone, say, from China. He said they would react the same way they react to a white person, would consider them white, and would assume they spoke English.

    3) Apparently scientists have found that people from richer countries are more likely to cry, and after being here, I can see why. Many, many things we take for granted are at least inconsistent here. Water and electricity go in and out, of course, as does the Internet, which is entirely based on cell networks. Don’t think there’s A/C in many places to take care of the heat (and even if there is, it doesn’t work without power)! This is all from someone with as much money as you reasonably could use here to spend. So you’ve gotta hold your tears here if you’re going to survive.

It’s interesting to see even in this novel Ghana Must Go how similarly a family of Ghanaian emigrants reacts when they return to Ghana. I’m honestly not sure there aren’t some benefits to having a bit less convenience and a bit more of a dependence on the weather and the natural world.

    4) The culture around animals here is radically different from in the U.S. Everywhere you look, even in the most urban parts of town, there are goats, sheep, chickens, and guinea fowl. Occasionally there are cattle, all emaciated from a lack of water for much of the year. People feed animals when they’re young so they return regularly but otherwise they have to feed themselves. Merchants cut them up right in the middle of town. It’s interesting how the West has invented far more shocking ways to torture and kill animals (though slaughter here is nothing to be in awe of) but most Westerners would recoil from the sort of displays you see here. Sheds interesting light on theories by anthropologist Timothy Pachirat about the “Politics of Sight” and animal agriculture.


    5) Foreigners from the U.S. and Europe who are in Ghana are an odd bunch. In my other stay in a developing country, in Peru in 2011, I didn’t have the experience of being around many Americans there. Ghana Must Go talks about the loss of “context” for a family of Ghanaian immigrants and the way they lose aspects of their heritage. I feel a similar thing among Americans and Europeans in Ghana. It feels like there’s something missing, some lack of grounding and passion that generally gets covered up with beer.