Monday, February 28, 2005
a good day in são paulo
My friend Rachel wrote to me to say she thought it was good I left Salvador, that it was:
...like one of those fairy tales where the hero stops to rest in a beautiful garden,
but then begins to lose days and days there because it's so relaxed and all the
attractive people want him to stay. You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave. But then finally he rouses himself because he
really believes in the Holy Grail, or the damsel, or the microfinance
To which I responded:
Your enchanted garden metaphor was quite apt. I finally shook off the fairy
dust, picked up my now rusted sword, used it to hack off my immense beard (now
gray with age), and barreled off into the forest.
It feels like that. I'm really sad to be gone (and listening to tons of nostalgia-inducing baiana music) but I'm also kind of buzzed, and ready to get a move on. So this morning I shot out of bed after three hours sleep, took a shower, and headed to my favorite internet café to write all the emails I could possibly think of to everyone who ever had anything to do with microfinance. If I don't get a job after this, I'm not getting one.
My favorite internet café is in Liberdade, the Japanese part of town, and it is perpetually filled with Japanese-Brazilian youth yelling and playing networked wargames. Strangely, my favorite internet café in Vancouver was almost exactly the same, but with Korean-Canadians. But back up, Japanese-Brazilians? you might be asking. Yep, a whole lot of them. For reasons I don't quite understand, there has been a massive immigration of Japanese people to Brazil in the last hundred years, centered around the São Paulo area. A fun factoid is that SP has the largest Japanese population of any city outside Japan. Some day soon I plan to go to the Museum of Japanese-Brazilian history, around the corner from the internet, and then perhaps I'll tell you more. Or maybe Jamie knows about this.
So anyway, I sat for four and a half hours trying to compose formal-sounding emails in Portuguese, while all around me people squawked that so-and-so had killed their half-elf. It was weird. But I got a lot done. Then I went out into the sunlight (first sunny day!) and wandered around a bit, finally finding myself in front of a real estate agency. I had decided to wait for a job before committing to an apartment, but I was already here so why not take a look. Inside an extremely nice Japanese woman named Keiko showed me listings while serving me green tea. It was wonderful. She spoke Portuguese in that slow immigrant's way, which for me is easier to understand than a native speaker. Then we went out together to see apartments in the neighborhood. She became concerned about my cough (I've got a lingering cough from my Carnaval cold) and insisted on buying me a cup of acerola juice.
The upshot is that I really liked one of the apartments. It's cheap enough, nice view, big windows and terrace, and has a great location two blocks from the Metro and on one of the main streets of Liberdade, near lots of cheap noodle shops. There's wireless internet in the lobby of the building, and the landlord is really nice. Best of all it's month-to-month, so I don't need to pay a large fee for breaking my lease in August. I want desperately to move in but... I have no job. And if I get one, there's no guarantee it'll be in São Paulo. I want to put down roots here but I don't think I can yet.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
i'm in sampa, yo
Reason one is that I got a little sick of blogging. After enthusiatically pouring out reams about the WSF et al., I got a bit burnt out. I think it needs to go like that for me: a while on, a while off. I have no clue how the bigtime bloggers manage. (Though now even Andrew Sullivan has decided to take a rest after 4 1/2 years of steady blogging. However, his idea of a rest has so far included far more blogging than I've ever done.)
Reason two is that I just moved to São Paulo. I did this because I really want to find a job/volunteer microfinance thing, get to work, and fulfill the terms of my fellowship. I think there are opportunities to do this here in SP than in Bahia. Up until now I've been living an excruciatingly lazy life in Salvador, only occasionally making very weak attempts at moving forward with this plan. It's very easy to put things off when people are contantly inviting you to the beach. I think I really internalized some of the Bahian attitudes during my time there -- and not in a good way.
After a while it became clear that nothing would ever change if I stayed in Bahia. I loved Márcia dearly, and the city was an orgy of delights, but, well, I just wasn't getting anything done. So I packed up my shit, made my goodbyes, and left.
Now I'm in São Paulo. Whereas all of Brazil adores Salvador (today I bought mangos from a man extolling their Bahian origin, as if it mattered: "Bahian mangos! Land of Caetano! Land of Gil!") all of Brazil loves to heap scorn on São Paulo. Ever other popular song is about the wonders of Bahia, but the one song in the cannon about São Paulo, "Sampa" by Caetano Veloso, scrapes the bottom of the barrel by praising the "hard concrete poetry of [its] streets" and then just totally loses it and describes the "ugly smoke that rises, blotting out the stars."
In short, Sampa is not a pretty town. So far it has rained every day. There is no ocean. It's huge: the fourth, third, or second largest city in the world, depending on who's counting. And it's ugly, no doubt about it. And yet somehow... I dunno, I'm enchanted.
Everyone thinks I'm crazy to leave Salvador for Sampa, and maybe I am. But there's something about this place -- I have the feeling things are actually getting done. It's Brazil, but totally different. It's far more international. I don't stick out as a tourist, and indeed there aren't many tourists at all (unlike Rio or Salvador, for reasons that should be now be obvious). It makes me excited, I can't explain it.
Also, I'm now getting stuff done because I'm in a sort of social exile. I'm staying with a 60-something-year-old friend of a friend, who is an extremely nice man, but I don't know anyone my age and indeed have nearly nothing to do every day but set up this job. I pursued some seemingly unpromising leads, and now they seem far more promising. I won't go into details, but I hope I'll have something soon. Then I'll get an apartment, which should be easy -- according to my host there are currently 16,000 empty apartment units in the city, perhaps testament to how everyone seems to hate the place. But not me. At least not yet. Time will tell.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
wsf addendum: separation anxiety already
If you had explained why you once believed in some of this stuff and why you changed your mind, then you would allow people the opportunity (and I think that this is what Bananarchist wants) to debate you point for point on what is reasonable... What I imagine is frustrating for Mandy is that you make statements that you're leaving her camp (which she clearly strongly identifies with), and yet you don't provide her with an opportunity to defend the reasons. It's like never arguing with your girlfriend and then breaking up, without ever giving her a chance to hash out your differences and deal with your problems, but just telling her that you've finally realized that she's a total bitch and walking out the door. . . Actually it's not like that very much at all, but maybe you see my point in there. And I hope that you understand that I see your side of not wanting to turn your blog into a point my point discussion of left/right politics and policies, but just wanting to make some statements about the strong (and reasonable) reaction that you had to the world social forum.Yeah, he's right, I haven't really given my reasons. I would if it were at all simple, but it's not. My modified opinions are the result of 1,000 different things I've read and experiences I've had over the course of several years. I don't know if I could go back and retrace the steps, and even if I could it would take more time than I'm ready to spend. There was no silver bullet argument I read somewhere. I realize this can be frustrating to the people who want to know why. Perhaps sometime I could do it for a particular topic: try to go back and find some of what I thought were the more persuasive facts and arguments, then put them out there for Bananarchist and others to take potshots at. This would be a very good thing, but I'm not ready to do it right now. (Note: Seth may be cooking up a blog dedicated to this very concept. Stay tuned.) So I'll say I recognize this as a problem, I'm sorry about it, and maybe sometime soon I'll address it. But for now: CARNAVAL!
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
back to brazil
There are also pictures of a cool community recycling program I know nothing about, the area around Lençois which I went to but neglected to take a camera, and the Lavagem do Bonfim, which is another festival which happened in January.
some pictures of the landscape and caverns around lençois, where i was a month ago but forgot to bring my camera
yet another pre-carnaval festival, the lavagem do bonfim. it is literally the "washing" of the church of bonfim -- they scrub the steps. this is part of the way along the 8km march to the church.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
wsf finale(?): i just can't shut up about it
Bananarchist has accused me of focusing not on politics, but on style and image. I can't say I disagree. I think that style and image matter. A fashionable issue can edge a less fashionable but perhaps far more important issue entirely out of the discourse. Style sets the stage for politics, and can seriously circumscribe it.
What I saw at the Forum was not, for the most part, people debating politics. It was people engaging in elaborate shows of support for one or another cause. People displaying their credentials as enlightened radicals for one another, then going for drinks. I went to a lot of workshops, a lot more than most people, but I'm not exaggerating when I say I saw very little debate or dissention of any kind. This is of course not simply a problem of the left. I think that any group, when they all get together, has a tendency to appear to agree. Actual dissention happens in the halls, afterward, when people speak one-on-one: "I'm not sure what I thought of that..."
The real problem I've been trying to pin down is perhaps not the lack of debate. As I said, I don't think that conferences actually foster debate. My problem was the "conscensus" at the Forum. I use the quotes pointedly. As both Bananarchist and I agree, it was of course not a conscensus in the sense of a thing everyone believes. But it was, I think, still very important. It was the set of ideas one could hold without having to explain oneself. It was the square one of the Forum. Any divergence was a statement, a challenge.
To be a little more explicit, I am talking about beliefs such as the following: The US is an imperial power hellbent on world domination. Israel is a terrorist state and ought to be destroyed. Free trade is nothing more than a scheme for multinationals to tighten their stranglehold on the people of the world. And so on. I could have run around the Forum with a cape on screaming any one of these things and no one would have batted an eyelash. But if I had held up a placard saying something quite moderate, something like "The US Occasionally Does Positive Things", I know that I would have been pounced upon. Not violently, but people would have come up and said "the US never does positive things!" or "why do you have that placard?" and then we might have talked about it. Probably they'd even concede a positive thing the US had done (tsunami relief?) and that would be that, but the fact remains such a sign would be a statement. The conscensus made certain things hard to say.
Several people have accused me of being condescending in my description of my "shift", for lack of a better word. For instance, Seth writes:
What strikes me about your WSF posts and your unveiled conservatism is that it
is done with a flair that you sometimes have for pulling the legs out from under
false prophets... you sometime seem to allow the pleasure in being the one to
knock the legs out from under a poorly constructed leftist obscure the fact that
it was deserved. It seems a little mean.
Well, it was never my intent to be mean. Neo-neocon writes:
I have noticed that it is almost inevitable, when one is saying something like,
"I used to believe 'A,' but now I believe 'B,'" and you are addressing someone
who continues to believe "A," then there is a tendency for that person to hear
you as condescending, whether you are really conveying that attitude or not.
Inherent in the idea of someone changing his/her mind from one position to
another is that the person must think the second position is superior to the
first--else why the change? So, whether or not the changer intends to be
condescending, the reader/listener hears condescension because in fact it is
implicit. There doesn't seem to be any way to avoid this--it is inherent in the
And what is my "shift" after all? Bananarchist writes, "I'm not sure from what he describes that there is any movement in his beliefs or values." If my core values haven't changed then something else has. Maybe certain of my opinions about how best to achieve those core values. Maybe the strength of my self-identification with the left has wavered. Again, Seth:
You're assuming that you had the best argument for leftism out there, and once
that argument was overcome you switched camps. Most people... assume that just
because their argument has lost doesn't mean switch camps, it means search for a
better argument and try to stay in the same camp.
I have two thoughts on this. 1. Why, except perhaps the desire to not admit one may have been wrong in the past, do people feel the need to stay in the same camp? 2. Though I say I'm flirting with the right, I don't really mean it. I could no sooner "join" the right than I could wear penny loafers and alligator shirts and attend bible study every week. In this context, left/right it is less a political label than a cultural/fashion/style label. I've always felt like a leftist and will probably always continue to feel like one. It's just hard to cozy up to a right that is so, well, culturally different from me. I'm of the left, and whatever beliefs I end up holding I will do so as a member of the left.
The people at the Forum were not, as Bananarchist wrote, "an arbitrary cluster of people whom you have taken as representative of what you call the 'far left.'" They were not "arbitrary" -- the Forum is explicitly a forum for the world's left. When I criticize, say, the conscensus the at the Forum I believe I am fingering a real problem of the left right now, something that it needs to deal with. But it is true that the Forum is not all there is to the left, not by a long shot. Neo-neocon again:
As for your quest for a left with more honesty and more sense--you write, "And I
know there are millions of people out there ready to join that left, ready to be
well-informed thoughtful participants, ready even to give Bush his due if he
actually does something right. I want to join that movement, but it doesn't
exist." Actually, I think that it does exist--or, at least, that there are a
number of like-minded people actively speaking out as representatives of that
group, and searching for others.
For starters, among bloggers, there are the following liberals (I don't think
they'd call themselves "leftists," but at least they do not consider themselves
conservatives, and many of them used to be leftists prior to 9/11) who might be
considered to be part of that movement you are seeking--although they are on the
more conservative wing of it. The first one that comes to mind would be Michael
Totten at http://www.michaeltotten.com ; also there is Jeff Jarvis at
http://www.buzzmachine.com/ and then there is Roger Simon at
http://www.rogerlsimon.com . Although Christopher Hitchens is not a blogger,
he's a man with much of interest to say (although I certainly disagree with some
of his positions). He clearly identifies himself with the left, and he supports
the war in Iraq. Further on the left (in fact I believe he's a Marxist and a
socialist) is Norman Geras at http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/ .
Particularly interesting is his call to fellow-leftists (what he calls the
"principled left"--that's a nice term, isn't it?) to stop being apologists for
tyranny and tyrants
http://www.normangeras.blogspot.com/2003_07_27_normangeras_archive.html#105948316257163866. Also, you have folks such as these (I'm not too familiar with them, but they
certainly seem to be leftists who support some of what's going on currently in
One last note on political engagement and this very long post will be done. Bananarchist criticizes me for complaining without doing anything about it:
When you don’t like the politics that you are being associated with, you get the
chance to reshape those politics. Airing your political gripes is a lot more
meaningful than silently filling up on Hate-o-rade at the forum and then coming
home to blog your misgivings about something that can’t return your fire. So if
the recycling and trash bags at the conference are overflowing, then make a
sign. Talk to the organizers. Take twenty seconds to put up a $.01 piece of
folded plastic to remedy the immediate situation. Don’t just blog about it.
If you think that your small acts of speaking out didn’t give you enough of a
voice at the conference, organize a caucus of like-minded people to air your
concerns at the next WSF. That might still make you feel like you are a tiny
island of reasonable dissent in a sea of illogic, but I urge you away from your
first response this time around, which was to flee toward any alternative (in
this case, your "flirtation" with the "right"). Get over your fear of being
categorized with people whose political beliefs aren’t exact mirrors of your
own, and then reshape this category so that voices of reason like yours can be
heard. All right? Don’t pretend "left" is something that it is not.
First, though I didn't organize a caucus I did talk to a lot of people. Some were receptive but most, though polite, were not. Second, blogging is not a place to gripe that "can't return your fire." Bananarchist has proven that well enough. I came here to blog as a way to work things out in a place where everyone could see, and comment, and criticize. The Forum did not end in Porto Alegre two weeks ago. It lives on in these discussions, in this caucus. (Now I'm getting melodramatic, sorry.) All I mean is that this is as good a forum as any I've found, and anyone who thinks blogs can't have effects in the real world has been in a coma since 2002.
Third, and lastly, though I am currently attached to the left, I don't see this as such a good thing. I would like to be as unattached as possible. Too much investment in labels, left or right, can seriously dement one's thinking, making one unwilling to criticize within ranks, and too ready to criticize outside them. I'll always be a leftist by culture, but I hope that when it comes to the issues I'll take them one by one.
wsf 8: photos
a workshop with simultaneous radio translation. to get a radio people had to leave an ID. passports from around the world
rebecca & co. had their workshop in one of these cool mud-and-thatch buildings made expecially for the environmental section
these people woke me on the last day by playing sertanejo music right beside my tent. i would have been mad, but they were really good
camp moveout day was really hot and the fire department came by with some hoses. the crowd spontanteously started to chant "the people, united, will never be defeated" but changed the word "united" to "wet". it rhymes in portuguese
Monday, February 14, 2005
wsf 7: afghanistan and darfur
Stepping back, I was struck by the fact that this was the first time I'd seen any mention of Afghanistan at the Forum. Why no Afghanistan? Perhaps because it was pretty stable right now. There had been elections, there was a new government, no one was getting blown up. You have to imagine that if there were still an insurgency Afghanistan would have been on every other placard in the place, like Iraq was. But things were going relatively well, so no one spoke of it. (I'll also mention that good news from Iraq was similarly unmentioned. The last day of the Forum was the Iraqi election, but you wouldn't know it to be there.)
The exhibit itself appeared to have undergone some sort of heavy editing. There was no mention of either the US or the Taliban. How could this be? In an exhibit on the current state of Afghanistan? It was as if the organizers had done everything possible to avoid any insinuation that the US might have played any sort of positive role in Afghanistan. Why were these middle-aged women learning to read now, as opposed to any other time? Makes you wonder.
So there I stood in front of a beautiful set of pictures and interviews of Afghani women, an exhibit which, if some context were supplied, would have reflected somewhat favorably on the US. I wondered what other people thought of this, so, taking Mandy's advice retroactively, I resolved to do something about it. I wrote out a set of questions to ask people who came to see the exhibit. "After seeing these pictures, what do you think of the current state of Afghanistan?" "Who do you think is responsible?" "Do you think the country was better or worse under the Taliban?" "Do you think the US was right to overthrow the Taliban?" I sat with these questions (and a few more) nearly 20 minutes, waiting for people to come. But the hour was late and the room was poorly-marked and uninviting. Nobody came. My resolve waned and I moved on.
The second revelation was the combined result of two art pieces. The first was a dance performance by a Palestinian dance troupe. It was actually really good -- circle dances and such.During this performance someone went around handing out leaflets denouncing the "Israeli genocide" of the Palestinians. Whatever one's feelings about the Israel/Palestine situation, "genocide" seems a tough case to make. For one, the total number of people killed is, in the greater scheme of things, rather small. A pro-Palestinian site lists an estimate of 3,334 Palestinians killed during the first 4 years of the intifada. This is of course not a happy number, but from the numbers alone it seems a stretch to make the case for genocide, especially in the context of an ongoing war of attrition in which people from both sides are dying.
(A note about death toll numbers. I have a few problems with how they are often used in the Israel/Palestine conflict. For one, the Palestinians numbers almost always include suicide bombers themselves, and Palestinians killed by other Palestinians. Also, there is rarely a distiction made between combatants and non-combatants. According to this rather detailed report, as of Feb. 2003 45% of Palestinian deaths were civilians, as opposed to 80% of Israeli deaths. Similarly, 32% of Israeli deaths were women, but only 5% of Palestinian deaths.)
Jump ahead a couple days, and I'm back at the art exhibits, wandering around the really back rooms. And there I find, totally deserted, an exhibit dealing with Darfur. And again I think, where's Darfur at the Forum? Why does no one mention Darfur? Darfur is probably the biggest ongoing human tragedy in the world right now. There is most definitely a genocide there. But not a word about it at the Forum, just a little art exhibit in a back back room.
Seriously though, why? Why do people run around crowing about genocide in Israel when there's a very real genocide happening in Sudan? What are their priorities? Do they actually care about stopping the slaughter of innocent people? I've got a theory, which you can make of what you will. My theory is that there is a narrative going around which is "West screws Developing World." Stories that fit this narrative become popular in places like the Forum. Stories that don't get ignored. When the bad guys are themselves people from the developing world, like the Taliban or the janjaweed, the Forum crowd loses interest. The story has no teeth; you can't use it to nail someone you want to nail. It's not about stopping genocide, it's about sticking it to the West. This is a very cynical view I know, but it seems borne out by what I saw at the Forum. Darfur and Afghanistan wiped from our mental maps.
And I guess this is why I get mad. Because this isn't just about whether you say the US is good or bad. This isn't just about opinions, or fashion, or whatever. I don't make the case that Israel/Palestine isn't genocide just to vindicate Israel. I make it because I want everyone to turn around and do something about a real genocide. There was so much energy, zeal, and rightous fury on display there at the Forum, if just some of that political will were turned toward Darfur there might be some real changes. Hundreds of thousands of people not raped, not killed. Maybe.
wsf 6: microfinance!
While at the Forum I stayed in the "Acampamento Juventude," which was greatly reminiscent of the great tent cities there used to be at Phish's large summer festivals. Imagine a modestly-sized park filled with, by the official estimate, 35,000 people. Prohibitively long lines for the showers, only not enough portalets to go around. I'm getting old and crotchety, yet I still kind of loved it. I started out in the hip-hop section of the camp, which basically meant that really bad Brazilian MCs freestyled over weak canned beats (but with excellent amps) until 5:30am every night. Then the public address would come on at 8am announcing the day's events in Portuguese (and, as always, pleading for English translators to rise out of their tents and pitch in -- I never quite made it) leaving, you can do the math, very little time for sleeping. After a couple days of this I moved to another section where, though the 8am wakeup call was the same, if I stayed up until 4:30 debating politics with 18 year old Marxists at least I had only myself to blame. Here is a fairly representative picture:
Though there were various special events and speeches (notably Lula and Hugo Chavez) the meat of the Forum was the workshops. There were literally thousands of workshops held in rooms and tents all over the city. The organizers divided the workshops into 11 "thematic spaces." The individual workshops were given by whoever wanted to give them. Any organization in attendence could simply submit a title and be given a room. This had some real advantages (democratization, variety, lots of workshops) and disadvantages (many of the workshops didn't actually occur). My friend Rebecca, who herself gave a workshop, joked with me that there were three basic types of workshop. (Snarky comments to follow.)
The first I will call the "hater" workshop. Someone gets up and talks about how the US/the West/capitalism/corporations/etc. is bad and needs to be stopped. There was a lot of this -- it was maybe the most common kind of workshop. The second type was the "special interest" workshop. Basically, in this workshop an obscure NGO or group of people present their work. The work is probably good and worthwhile, but you really need to be a specialist to understand the context and get anything out of it. Examples:
- Participatory Management of Hydrographic Basins: Lessons Learned, Trends, and Challenges
- Digital Inclusion: The Experience of the Accessa São Paulo Program
- Is Independent Latin Photo-Journalism Possible?
The last kind is the "connections" workshop. In this workshop, several seemingly unrelated related issues are brought together and discussed. Rebecca's workshop on "Forest Rights, Indigenous Communities, and Academia" fits squarely into this category. There is also a fun game where you make up workshops from this category.
And to this I should add a hidden fourth category, unknown to Rebecca, which is the "what the fuck?" workshop. Like this one:
- Carbon Trade and the Commodification of the Atmosphere: What Next?
Huh? What next indeed. Most environmentalists support carbon trading as a way to reduce worldwide carbon emissions (some think it's not enough, but that's another issue) but the people running this workshop have bizarrely recast the debate as a public goods/privatization issue, as if it were water rights or something. But there are no carbon rights -- no one wants atmospheric carbon! It's a pollutant and it's not in short supply. I desperately wish I had gone to this workshop just to administer a beatdown.
In any event, reading the program it soon became clear all the workshops that interested me had been shoved into one particular "thematic category":
- Autonomous Thought: Reappropriation and Socialization of Knowledge and Technologies
What did it mean? I'm wasn't sure, but on the first day of the Forum I climbed out of my tent at 8am sharp, after two beautiful hours of rest in that maelstrom of radical Brazilian youth, put on my most presentable rumpled clothing, and packed off to the Autonomous Thought section in search of... microfinance. Yes, I had ostensibly come to Brazil to learn something about microfinance, and here was a genuine opportunity.
The morning was clear and my spirits were high as I walked among the waterfront industrial warehouses that had been converted into conference rooms. There were many others out, ID lanyards around their necks, programs in hand, searching for the right rooms. And suddenly I noticed something: these people were adults. Where were the 19 year old hippies? Apparently back at the camp smoking a morning bowl. These people were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They wore clean clothing, and the crispness of their step suggested 8 hours sleep in a good hotel. I was consistantly shocked by how little of the conference most of the young people actually attended.
What to say about the microfinance workshops? Well, they appeared to be part of an entirely different conference than the Acampamento. The attendees were almost exclusively people working for microcredit organizations all over Brazil. On the first day we went around introducing ourselves and I was one of the least-credentialed people in the room. Many people wore suits. One of the workshops was actually held in a conference room of Porto Alegre's Central Bank. It looked like this:
In November of 2004 President Lula announced a new initiative to create a federal microfinance program, and much of the debate focused on what form this new program would take, and how to make the transition. People talked a lot about two possible models for the new program, which I'll call "open" and "targeted." The open model seeks the widest access possible, with a minimum of transaction costs. Little attention is paid to vetting the business plans of potential borrowers, or supervising how they spend it. Anyone who wants credit and meets the basic requirements can have it. The targeted model explicitly seeks to use microfinance as a tool for "local development." In this model much more work goes into vetting clients and much more attention paid to how they are going to use the money. Often training of some sort will be offered with the loan. And credit may be withheld from people whose enterprises the lenders believe won't help the community.
The majority of the participants came down on the side of the targeted model. I tend to favor the open model. First, I believe that virtually all microenterprise will help the local community, and that even if some does not, people looking at business plans are unlikely to be able to figure out which is which. I think that by cutting down administrative costs and expanding access you have the potential for much greater impact. I also think that as soon as you ration access you introduce the possibility of politicking. Who gets it and who doesn't are more likely to be determined by who one's friends are (or who pays bribes -- this is Brazil after all) than by merit. I think that adding an extra level of supervision and rationing invites corruption.
Did I raise these points? Well, I was having a hard enough time following the conversation. My doubts about understanding the models correctly, together with my fear of making some huge mistake in Portuguese, plus the natural fear of speaking in front of a large group of experts effectively silenced me.
On the second day the workshop was moved to the Bank, and the crowd was even more distinguished. Brazil's Secretary of Planning spoke from the audience (he wasn't even on the panel) and told a funny story. He had first gone to the tents of the Forum, but found a sign telling him to go to... the Central Bank. He asked someone directions and was told "keep going right!" He finally got there and was surprised that "it wasn't very far after all." This became a little speech on how microfinance had recently moved from the left to the center and from the fringes to the mainstream, and what this might mean for the movement. You kind of had to be there -- he was a really funny guy. There was more discussion about the national program, including political economy stuff I definitely don't know much about. One speaker talked about how, by making this a government policy, it became vulnerable to partisan politics. Apparently a few years ago the city of Belém had a very successful municipal program, but it was completely shut down when the city government changed. Now they are worried that switching much of the microcredit portfolio from independent NGOs to federal bureaus would make it vulnerable when Lula leaves office. This type of political sustainability seemed a larger issue for the participants than financial sustainability, which the only thing I've studied in the past.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed the microcredit conference. Unsurprisingly, I found it the most worthwhile thing at the Forum. It was a little island in a sea of generally unnuanced anti-capitalism. I wondered what the participants in the thematic group "Sovereign Economies: For the People Against Neoliberal Capitalism" (that's not a workshop but one of the 11 categories of workshop) would do if suddenly plopped down there in a room full of people talking about finance. I looked for other things like it at the Forum, but there wasn't much. So yes, the Forum had a diversity of workshop topics. But the proportions were 99%/1% at best.
Basically, as things stand the penalties for downloading copyrighted material far outweigh the penalties for just walking into a store and shoplifting. The author of the post made the point that this might be justifiable as a way a of detering downloading and shoplifting equally -- if you're much less likely to be caught downloading, it might make sense to have higher penalties in order to achieve an equal deterent effect.
However, is this how our criminal system is supposed to work? Perhaps high penalties for downloading would equalize the determent of downloading and shoplifting, but so what? The point isn't to equalize determent between crimes, but instead to extract the maximum determent for each crime without making the penalties completely out of proportion with the crimes themselves. You could really deter jaywalking if you applied the dealth penalty (think Singapore) but who wants that? And who cares if jaywalking is being detered more or less than public nudity? I'd prefer we deter each crime (except perhaps public nudity) as much as possible without making the penalties unreasonably onerous.
And I think current penalties for downloading copyrighted material are in fact unreasonably onerous. I say this not just because $14,875 is an awful lot to pay for a DVD of Shrek 2. I say it because I believe that, in a fundamental sense, downloading copyrighted music (or movies or anything else) is very different from stealing it.
I believe that a very high proportion of downloaded material -- 95% or more -- is stuff that the downloader would not otherwise buy. Record companies act as if each album downloaded is a CD unbought, and hence lost revenue, but a person will download a lot more albums at $0 than he or she will buy at $15. Back in my Napster days I used it almost exclusively to get pop singles I would never think of buying, and listen to bands people had told me about but that I wasn't ready to drop money on. Napster replaced my CD buying hardly at all (I still bought CDs when I wanted complete albums) and, since it exposed me to much music I wouldn't otherwise have heard, it may actually have increased my music purchases.
This is all to say that the relation between downloading and buying is ambiguous at best, and certainly is nothing near the 1-for-1 that record companies would have you believe. In this context, I see inflated penalties as particularly misguided.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
hello works again
Something happened on the way to the Forum: I stayed for 4 days in Belo Horizonte with the extremely hospitable Guimarães family, pictured here. I got to know Sarah in Boston when I was learning Portuguese and she was learning English. Her father, Mozart, reminded me strangely of my own father. Within minutes of my arrival he was showing me videos of "Crossing Over with John Edward," dubbed into Portuguese of course. When I asked him to play a song for me on his guitar he instead made an elaborate video of himself playing the guitar, including a speech to me in "english", and then had me watch the video. A quirky and gentle-hearted man.
arcade fire keeps rocking shit
Also, check out the fansite...
Thursday, February 10, 2005
the day i stole 9 cents from a street kid
In the central square of Pelourinho a 25 centavo coin, worth about 9 American cents, rolled by me and almost hit me in the foot. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. A moment later a boy appeared, about 10 years old, screaming at me. I'd seen the boy many times before. He's one of the regulars in Pelourinho, and in my opinion one of the worst.
I never know how to act when there is a person who has obviously been shaped by horrible forces -- hunger, poverty, cruelty, desperation -- and who, as a result, has become horrible him or herself. This child in particular is hard and pitiless. The sort who would kill dogs for fun. I have absolutely no doubt he will grow up to be (and no doubt already is) a violent criminal. The causes of his condition are obvious, but do nothing to mitigate the fact of his condition. What does one do with someone like this? I feel sorry for him, and yet I cannot help but hate him.
He saw me pocket the coin and he wants it, so he starts screaming in my face, saying that it is his coin, he dropped it. It did come from his direction, but there are tons of people around and given the lag in his arrival this seems unlikely. More likely he heard the clink, saw the roll, and found me. I can't stand him screaming in my face, I hate his hate-filled eyes, I do not want to give in to this browbeating he is dishing out, so I refuse to give him the coin. I tell him to get lost. Out of principle, or so I tell myself. Because this is no way for a person to act, and if I give him the coin just because he's screaming in my face then he'll know screaming in people's faces is a great way to get things. So goes my thinking.
But he doesn't want to get lost. He wants to run after me and my friends and pinch my arm, hard. I jerk aside his hand, whirl around, and yell a little louder. He still follows, swearing a blue streak, screeching "that gringo stole my money!" One of my companions spoke my name, and he seized on this, screaming "Alex Alex Alex!" I turned on him again, put on my best I'm-going-to-kick-your-ass face (which wasn't hard, given how much I wanted to kick his ass) and started coming after him. He ran away fast. But thirty seconds later he was back, with a handful of pebbles. He started chucking these at me, still cursing at the top of his lungs, saying "I'm going to kill you Alex!".
Awesome, thought I. Now I've got a street kid who wants to kill me. None of the rocks hit, but still I stepped toward a nearby police officer and politely informed him of the crazy violent child who was throwing rocks. The kid arrived too and did the I'm-about-to-cry face, which was so convincing I almost handed over the coin right there. Why didn't I give him the coin, after all? Then I could be out of the situation. Oh yeah, principle. And also because by now I really hated the little fucker and would have been sorely pressed to give him a rope if he were drowning. The policeman tells him to stop throwing rocks and I slip away around the corner.
Of course a minute later he's back, all hint of crying gone from his face. I had only come to Pelourinho for the walk and had already been planning to go back early (my friends were buying stuff in a music store) so, with the pronouncement "this is why I hate Pelourinho," I told them I was going home. The little demon was filling me so full of both rage and guilt, I just had to get away.
What was 9 cents to me? Suffice to say it was nothing. To him? Probably still not much. Even here there is very little one can get for 25 centavos. Would he learn a lesson about rock-throwing if I didn't give him the money? Probably not. Would anything I might do change his plight, undo his years of misery, and make him into the theorical bright sunny boy he might have been? No. Would anything stop him from growing into pitiless thug, and dying before thirty? it was unlikely. Would anything stop me from getting hit by rocks? Giving him the money would probably do that. But I am a stubborn person by nature, and I couldn't give in.
I set out toward home at a fast clip but he ran after, wielding two baseball-size stones, much larger than before, and still screaming my name at the top of his lungs. I couldn't believe it: he hadn't given up yet. The ferocity of his pursuit was beginning to make me think that, in fact, it had been his coin. Many times people beg with a couple coins in their hand, to give a hint to people who might not get the picture. It's totally possible one might have rolled away from him. How else to explain this scene? Twenty-five centavos is not much to go to such lengths for. But what if it really was his? What if he really believed that I, this gringo, had stolen it from him? What if I really had? How else to explain this 15-minute chase, the mad and furious gleam in his eye as he raised his stone?
I began to advance on him again, both to threaten him and to avoid getting hit in the back of the head. He threw and my forearm deflected the rock aimed at my gut. At this point I was very near him, near enough to grab him and break his neck. His eyes filled with fear. I was on the verge of beating him. It would have been easy -- he was so skinny. But lord! What had my life become? What was I doing? There was no way I could beat a 10-year-old street kid. What to do with all this anger, this guilt?
I took the moment to slip into a crowd of people and set out across the square again toward home. Looking around and not finding him, I slipped the coin out of my pocket and on to the edge of a bench. I wanted nothing to do with this money. I continued across the square and on the far side, beside another police officer, turned around to look back. Through a temporary break in the crowd I saw a hand reaching up, and the sunny glint of gold. Of course he had been watching me, and now he had the coin. He was showing me he had it. Then he turned away.
Now I'm back home and my forearm still smarts. So does the memory. There is a tiny spot of blood where the rock broke the skin. The kid won, that's for sure. But of course I'm the one in a home right now, and no doubt he's still out there, hastling someone else. I will never know if the coin was really his, though after everything I now believe it probably was. Why else would he do all he did, but to avenge the injustice of a rich gringo stealing his money? But it's also possible he's simply a liar, likes to throw rocks at rich people, and fills with rage when people don't give in. Either way he was wrong to curse and scream instead of speak and explain, wrong to throw rocks. Either way he is a deeply troubled and violent child, and will become a deeply troubled and violent adult very soon.
And what about me? We've seen that I am stubborn, capable of great anger, and maybe capable of violence. That I believe that people should not act like he acted, whatever their history, and that I don't mind withholding things, out of spite, from people who do act that way. And that guilt and anger are a bad combination. It was not my finest hour, but what should I have done? The best would have been to resist the instinct to pick up the coin at all, and leave it to someone more needy on the streets of Pelourinho.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
photos & cia
I've once again been having trouble keeping up with all the things I might like to say. I still have several untouched topics on the Forum (microfinance among them!) but, in the meantime, Carnaval has happened. For those who might not know, Carnaval is a 6-day nationwide party involving nearly nonstop parading, drinking, dancing, and sex. I was lucky enough to get a bad cold just in time for Carnaval, probably from overexertion at the Forum, which made Carnaval all the more fun. Also there were torrential downpours the last two days. There are stories, and they are coming some day soon.
In the meantime, I'm due to clear out the dustbin of old photos. I'll do it thematically-ish.
The first theme is people in funny costumes. For some reason in our house people are always being made to put on funny costumes, which is one of the reasons I like living here. First we have my friend Paizão (which I should mention means "Big Daddy") wearing a dress and pretending to be pregnant.
Next up are three gringos (Sharon, Lisa, and Manuel) wearing the fantasias for Cortejo Afro. During Carnaval, a good way to go out without getting physically crushed is to join a bloco, which is basically a bunch of people all dressed in the same silly outfits (fantasias) all grouped around a Mack truck with giant speakers, protected by an outer ring of people with a cord who will only let in people with such costumes, all moving down the road at about 1000 feet an hour. I joined Cortejo Afro because I know several people who play with them (Márica and Paizão among them), but unfortunately this meant wearing these costumes all the time. Note the red feather in the hat. According to many people, I looked like some wannabe sheik. There is sadly no quality picture of me in the costume.
And finally there is a combo picture, taken today, of our gringo friend Mike wearing the fantasia of Ilê Aiyê and playing a berimbau, while Márcia wears my clothes and tries to look "American".
The next theme is the tiny weak little kitten that Márcia picked up on the street and that lived with us until recently, when he was farmed out to Márcia's mom's house. This cat was about the size of a large hamster, and significantly less charming. It had been abandoned by its mom and Márcia, ever the champion of underdogs (cats?) and lost causes, couldn't just pass it by. It lived in the box my parents sent my birthday presents in, and screeched all the time. It could hardly walk, spilled milk everywhere every time we tried to feed it, had a tail that looked like it had been sat on my an elephant. Every day I was certain it would die. We came to call it gatinho chatinho, which rhymes and means "annoying little cat". Here Márcia feeds the bugger, and I hold him in one hand.
Next there are some photos from my all time favorite theme, which is Márcia doing stuff. In the first picture she talks on two cellphones at once, not at all in jest.
Next we have Márcia coming home drunk one night and demonstrating how she had just danced with a girl and kissed her, using of course a chair as the girl-substitute.
Oh wait, my photo-blogging has been interrupted in midstream. I just made the silly mistake of upgrading Hello, the program I use to post photos, to the new version. Silly me, I thought maybe it might go faster. Now it doesn't work at all. Remind me never to update a program that is working fine. So no more photos for now, but hopefully I'll work it out soon.
UPDATE: Someone had given me a bad translation. Cia doesn't mean conversation at all. Instead, it's like the "Co." in "& Co." So disregard this entire post.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
wsf interlude: spanking mandy (gently)
About forum fashion, this may sound like a lame excuse, but what you see up there is only half the post I intended to write. I was getting booted off the computer, and I posted the part I had already written but never got back to it to finish it. I concede it was weak to flog the dead horse of Ché couture as I did, but really it was just a lead-in to the meat of my real topic: Palestinian/Arab fashion.
Someone had made a whole lot of cheap plastic Palestinian flags and must have been giving them out free because nearly every tent had one flying. They were as ubiquitous as the program of events. And not only that, many many non-Arab people were wearing Arab headscarves. For instance, check out THIS guy:
Solidarity or fashion? You decide. The scarves had a habit of finding their way off heads and around the necks or waists of attractive young women. Can someone who knows more than I do tell me if this is sacrilegious? Are they secular or religious objects? In any event, the adoption of Arab and specifically Palestinian symbols was very widespread at the Forum, be it fashion statement or political statement.
But about the bigger issue of my politics, let me collect my thoughts. Mandy accuses me of being condesceding and holier-than-thou. Specifically she says:
The reason I am picking on you so much for this posting is because it is
representative of the derisive tone you take in describing your conversion from
uninformed antiwar activist to wiser-than-thou left-center center-war war-right
neoneoconcon. You exaggerate your differences with some fictitious monolithic
"left," which creates a heroic oppositional narrative that casts you as the sole
figure of righteousness holding forth against a sea of radical idiocy, but
doesn't really describe the cautious pro-democracy
realism/anti-torture/pro-transperancy left that I see. You pick on details (Che,
consensus) but perhaps you misapprehend the position of the people who protest
against expensive and undermanned wars.
I guess a few points are in order. First, please note my context. I was not reacting to the "cautious pro-democracy realism/anti-torture/pro-transparency left" that Mandy describes. That left describes me pretty well, actually. (I never said I wasn't left -- just not far left any more.) However, though I'm sure that description is also true of many individuals at the Forum, it was nowhere in evidence on a mass scale. What was in evidence was banners "honoring the heroes of the Iraqi resistence." As in, the people who murder election workers and old women trying to vote. In short, the conscensus on display at the forum (which I'm sure was not a real conscensus actually believed by everyone) was, to my eyes, ludicrous and wrong. Like the worst strawman I could imagine. And this is what I was reacting against, and feeling (I believe justifiably) derisive of and holier-than.
Mandy may have also been reacting against the rags-to-riches, ignorant-to-enlightened, hippie-to-asshole bildungsroman I presented earlier. If so, I can hardly blame her. But I felt the need to include something about where I was coming from. Basically, I've been on this little vision quest of mine because I think the issues are really, really important, and though that makes me sound sanctimonious it's the truth. I have no desire to spank leftists for being leftists (I like to spank them because they've been naughty) but when I meet people who appear to know rather little about these topics (like they don't know the Iraqi elections are happening or they've never heard of Darfur) but who still have fiery opinions about the state of the world, I get a little mad. And holier-than-thou, yes. Because the world is important and you won't get very far towards the truth spewing the shit your friend who's all political told you about. I saw a lot of things at the Forum I didn't like, and a lot of people not challenging them at all, and I got upset.
And when I challenged the conscensus in small ways, I found a lot of receptive ears. Like a woman from Spain who had come to see a representative of the Basque separatist movement speak (he didn't show) who told me about how she was against the Basque separatists, and how she felt out of place at the Forum. Or one American I spoke to, who once I started went on a rant of his own against what he saw as the wanton US-bashing all around him. These people are left too, but there was no forum for them at the Forum.
So Mandy, thanks for your comments and I'll try to be less smug in the future. But good god, it was a small tent I saw at the Forum, and a pretty looney one. It's not the vision of the left I'd like, nor I suspect one you'd like (and I haven't even touched on economics here). I want some other left -- one that's a little more honest, that doesn't just ignore the things that don't square with its vision of the world, one that isn't willing to explain away atrocities just because they are committed by people in the developing world. And I know there are millions of people out there ready to join that left, ready to be well-informed thoughtful participants, ready even to give Bush his due if he actually does something right. I want to join that movement, but it doesn't exist. So I'm flirting with the right. Sue me.