The late Oxford philosopher Jerry Cohen conceived a though experiment that helps us to understand how money works: imagine that we live in a world where we have little tickets distributed at random. On these tickets are rights – the right to go visit your sick mother, the right to cross a particular road, the right to live somewhere, the right to eat a steak, the right to treatment of disease and so on. (…) If you try to do something for which you have no ticket, the law intervenes. The tickets map out the degree to which you are free (or not free) to do something – they are a complete accounting of your liberties. The more tickets you have, the freer you are.
So here’s the twist: Money is just like these tickets. What, after all, does money offer in a market society if not the ability to buy liberty, to afford health care, decent food, housing, the security of not working in retirement, insurance against accident or unemployment? Those without money are as unfree as those whithout tickets. Without cash in a market society, you’re free to do nothing, to have very little and to die young. In other words, under capitalism, MONEY IS THE RIGHT TO HAVE RIGHTS.
The gap between what people earn and the cost of their freedoms means that, for more and more Americans, freedom is just another word for nothing they can afford. (…) In developing countries, of course, the situation has long been dire, and the global recession is pushing millions more into poverty, but in both cases, this poverty has deepened under a system that offered progress, prosperity and development for the poorest, and has delivered its opposite – a yawning inequality gap, less happiness and a dogged persistence of diseases and afflictions to which we have long known the cures.
In the land of the free, the market delivers few choices to those who cannot afford them. In the U.S. health care system, for example, the value of life is famously defined by the market. Michael Moore’s film Sicko shows the U.S. health care industry’s profit-driven approach at its nadir, with stories of patients asked by their insurance company to choose which of their fingers they’d like to save…”
PATEL, R. The Value of Nothing.
1st Canadian Edition.
Toronto: Harper Collins, 2009. Pgs. 112-113.
“Love despite difference,
Or rather because of difference.”
ABOUT THE FILM
WATCHERS OF THE SKY interweaves four stories of remarkable courage, compassion, and determination, while setting out to uncover the forgotten life of Raphael Lemkin – the man who created the word “genocide,” and believed the law could protect the world from mass atrocities. Inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, WATCHERS OF THE SKY takes you on a provocative journey from Nuremberg to The Hague, from Bosnia to Darfur, from criminality to justice, and from apathy to action.
With his provocative question, “why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” Raphael Lemkin changed the course of history. An extraordinary testament to one man’s perseverance, the Sundance award-winning film Watchers of the Sky examines the life and legacy of the Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist who coined the term genocide. Before Lemkin, the notion of accountability for war crimes was virtually non-existent. After experiencing the barbarity of theHolocaust firsthand, he devoted his life to convincing the international community that there must be legal retribution for mass atrocities targeted at minorities. An impassioned visionary, Lemkin confronted world apathy in a tireless battle for justice, setting the stage for the Nuremberg trails and the creation of the International Criminal Court. Inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell, this multi-faceted documentary interweaves Raphael Lemkin’s struggle with the courageous efforts of four individuals keeping his legacy alive: Luis Moreno Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC; Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor still tenaciously lobbying the UN for peace, and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad. Alternating live interviews with rare archival footage and striking animation, Watchers of the Sky illuminates the compassion and bravery of these humanitarians and powerfully demonstrates the ability of global activism to give a voice to the silent victims of genocide.(C) Music Box
REVIEW BY TORONTO’S NOW MAGAZINE
Rating: N N N N N (5 stars)
“A bracing and heart-wrenching look at genocide over the past century, Edet Belzberg’s documentary could become a vital instrument of change.
Bouncing back and forth between the story of Raphael Lemkin, who in the 1940s tirelessly tried to get the UN to amend its definition of war crimes, to first-hand witnesses to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda, Argentina, Germany and Darfur, Belzberg paints a comprehensive picture of history depressingly repeating itself due to a lack of proper legal deterrents to these atrocities.
Belzberg’s thesis is solidly backed up and needs no dramatic embellishment. It stands alongside The Act Of Killing as one of the best films made on such a delicate subject.”
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“As I surveyed the major genocides of the twentieth century, a few stood out. In addition to the Bosnian Serbs’ eradication of non-Serbs, I examined the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, Pol Pot’s terror in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kurds in northern Iraq, and the Rwandan Hutus’ systematic extermination of the Tutsi minority. Although the cases varied in scope and not all involved the intent to exterminate every last member of a group, each met the terms of the 1948 genocide convention and presented the United States with options for meaningful diplomatic, economic, legal, or military intervention. The crimes occurred in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The victims covered a spectrum of races and religions – they were Asian, African, Caucasian, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim.
The perpetrators operated at different stages of American might: The Armenian genocide (1915-1916) was committed during World War I, before the United States had become a world leader. The Holocaust (1939-1945) took place just as the United States was moving into that role.The Cambodian (1975-1979) and Iraqi (1987-1988) genocides were perpetrated after the Holocaust but during the Cold War and after Vietnam. Bosnia (1992-1995) and Rwanda (1994) happened after the Cold War and while American supremacy and awareness of the “lessons” of the Holocaust were at their height. U.S. decisionmakers also brought a wide variety of backgrounds and foreign policy ideologies to the table. Every American president in office in the last three decades of the twentieth century – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton – made decisions related to the prevention and suppression of genocide. Yet notwithstanding all the variety among cases and within U.S. administrations, the U.S. policy responses to genocide were astonishingly similar across time, geography, ideology, and geopolitical balance…
A grant from the Open Society Institute enabled me to travel to Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, where I spoke with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. I also visited the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague in the Netherlands, as well the UN court for Rwanda, located in Arusha, Tanzania.
People have explained U.S. failures to respond to specific genocides by claiming that the United States didn’t know what was happening, that it knew but didn’t care, or that regardless of what it knew, there was nothing useful to be done. I have found that in fact U.S. policymakers knew a great deal about the crimes being perpetrated. Some Americans cared and fought for action, making considerable personal and professional sacrifices. And the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why.
In exploring a century of U.S. reactions to genocide, I asked: Were there early warnings that mass killing was set to commence? How seriously were the warnings taken? By whom?
In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople, responded to Turkey’s deportation and slaughter of its Armenian minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure its wartime ally Germany. Morgenthau also defied diplomatic convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing the regime, and raising money for humanitarian relief. He was joined by former president Theodore Roosevelt, who went a step further, calling on the administration of Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I and forcibly stop the slaughter. But the United States clung to its neutrality and insisted that Turkey’s internal affairs were not its business. An estimated 1 million Armenians were murdered or died of disease and starvation during the genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and international lawyer, warned about Hitler’s designs in the 1930s but was scoffed at. After finding refuge in the United States in 1941, he failed to win support for any measure to protect imperiled Jews. The Allies resisted denouncing Hitler’s atrocities, granting refuge to Europe’s Jewry, and bombing the railroad tracks to the Nazi concentration camps. Undaunted, Lemkin invented the word “genocide” and secured the passage of the first-ever United Nations human rights treaty, which was devoted to banning the new crime. Sadly, he lived to see the genocide convention rebuffed by the U.S. Senate. William Proxmire, the quixotic U.S. senator from Wisconsin, picked up where Lemkin left off and delivered 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor urging ratification of the UN treaty. After nineteen years of daily soliloquies, Proxmire did manage to get the Senate to accept the genocide convention, but the U.S. ratification was so laden with caveats that it carried next to no force.
A handful of U.S. diplomats and journalists in Cambodia warned of the depravity of a sinister band of Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge. They were derided by the American left for falling for antiCommunist propaganda, and they failed to influence a U.S. policy that could not contemplate engagement of any kind in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Pol Pot’s four-year reign left some 2 million Cambodians dead, but the massacres elicited barely a whimper from Washington, which maintained diplomatic recognition of the genocidal regime even after it had been overthrown.
Peter Galbraith, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drafted punishing legislation for his boss, Senator Claiborne Pell, that would have cut off U.S. agricultural and manufacturing credits to Saddam Hussein in retaliation for his 1987-1988 attempt to wipe out Iraq’s rural Kurds. The sanctions package was defeated by a determined White House, State Department, and U.S. farm lobby, which were eager to maintain friendly ties and sell rice and wheat to Iraq. And so Hussein’s regime received generous American financial support while it gassed and executed some 100,000 Kurds.
Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian major general who commanded UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994, appealed for permission to disarm militias and to prevent the extermination of Rwanda’s Tutsi three months before the genocide began. Denied this by his political masters at the United Nations, he watched corpses pile up around him as Washington led a successful effort to remove most of the peacekeepers under his command and then aggressively worked to block authorization of UN reinforcements.The United States refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, the issue never became a priority for senior U.S. officials. Some 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days.
No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on…”
SAMANTHA POWER – A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
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SYSTEM OF A DOWN’s Screamers doc:
by Salman Rushdie
A lecture delivered at the University of Torino, March 1999
The Australian novelist and poet David Malouf tells us that “the real enemy of writing is talk.” He warns particularly of the dangers of speaking about work in progress. When writing, one is best advised to keep one’s mouth shut, so that the words flow out, instead, through one’s fingers. One builds a dam across the river of words in order to create the hydroelectricity of literature.
I propose, therefore, to speak not of my writing but rather of my reading, and in particular of the many ways in which my experience of Italian literature (and, I must add, Italian cinema) has shaped my thoughts about how and what to write. That is, I want to talk about influence.
“Influence.” The word itself suggests something fluid, something “flowing in.” This feels right, if only because I have always envisaged the world of the imagination not so much as a continent as an ocean. Afloat and terrifyingly free upon these boundless seas, the writer attempts, with his bare hands, the magical task of metamorphosis. Like the figure in the fairy tale who must spin straw into gold, the writer must find the trick of weaving the waters together until they become land: until, all of a sudden, there is solidity where once there was only flow, shape where there was formlessness; there is ground beneath his feet. (And if he fails, of course, he drowns. The fable is the most unforgiving of literary forms.)
The young writer, perhaps uncertain, perhaps ambitious, probably both at once, casts around for help; and sees, within the flow of the ocean, certain sinuous thicknesses, like ropes, the work of earlier weavers, of sorcerers who swam this way before him. Yes, he can use these “in-flowings,” he can grasp them and wind his own work around them. He knows, now, that he will survive. Eagerly, he begins.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of literary influence, of these useful streams of other people’s consciousness, is that they can flow toward the writer from almost anywhere. Often they travel long distances to reach the one who can use them. In South America, I was impressed by the familiarity of Latin American writers with the work of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The editor Victoria Ocampo, who met and admired Tagore, had arranged for his work to be well translated and widely published throughout her own continent, and as a result the influence of Tagore is perhaps greater there than in his own homeland, where the translations from Bengali into the many other tongues of India are often of poor quality, and the great man’s genius must be taken on trust.
Another example is that of William Faulkner. This great American writer is little read in the United States these days; certainly there are few contemporary American writers who claim him as an influence or teacher. I once asked another fine writer of the American South, Eudora Welty, if Faulkner had been a help or a hindrance to her. “Neither one,” she replied. “It’s like knowing there’s a great mountain in the neighborhood. It’s good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you to do your work.” Outside the United States, however—in India, in Africa, and again in Latin America—Faulkner is the American writer most praised by local writers as an inspiration, an enabler, an opener of doors.
From this transcultural, translingual capacity of influence we can deduce something about the nature of literature: that (if I may briefly abandon my watery metaphor) books can grow as easily from spores borne on the air as from their makers’ particular and local roots. That there are international families of words as well as the more familiar clans of earth and blood. Sometimes—as in the case of the influence of James Joyce on the work of Samuel Beckett, and the subsequent and equal influence of Beckett on the work of Harold Pinter—the sense of dynasty, of a torch handed on down the generations, is very clear and very strong. In other cases the familial links are less obvious but no less powerful for that.
When I first read the novels of Jane Austen, books out of a country and a time far removed from my own upbringing in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century Bombay, the thing that struck me about her heroines was how Indian, how contemporary, they seemed. Those bright, willful, sharp-tongued women, brimming with potential but doomed by the narrow convention to an interminable Huis-clos of ballroom dancing and husband hunting, were women whose counterparts could be found throughout the Indian bourgeoisie. The influence of Austen on Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is plain to see.
Charles Dickens, too, struck me from the first as a quintessentially Indian novelist. Dickensian London, that stenchy, rotting city full of sly, conniving shysters, that city in which goodness was under constant assault by duplicity, malice, and greed, seemed to me to hold up the mirror to the pullulating cities of India, with their preening elites living the high life in gleaming skyscrapers while the great majority of their compatriots battled to survive in the hurly-burly of the streets below. In my earlier novels I tried to draw on the genius of Dickens. I was particularly taken with what struck me as his real innovation: namely, his unique combination of naturalistic backgrounds and surreal foregrounds. In Dickens, the details of place and social mores are skewered by a pitiless realism, a naturalistic exactitude that has never been bettered. Upon this realistic canvas he places his outsize characters, in whom we have no choice but to believe because we cannot fail to believe in the world they live in. So I tried, in my novel Midnight’s Children, to set against a scrupulously observed social and historical background—against, that is, the canvas of a “real” India—my “unrealist” notion of children born at the midnight moment of India’s independence, and endowed with magical powers by the coincidence, children who were in some way the embodiment of both the hopes and the flaws of that revolution.
Within the authoritative framework of his realism, Dickens can also make us believe in the perfectly Surrealist notion of a government department, the Circumlocution Office, dedicated to making nothing happen; or in the perfectly Absurdist, Ionesco-like case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case whose nature it is never to reach a conclusion; or in the “magical realist” image of the dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend—the physical symbols of a society living in the shadow of its own excrement, which must, incidentally, also have been an influence on a ecent American masterpiece, which takes the waste products of America as its central metaphor, Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
If influence is omnipresent in literature, it is also, one should emphasize, always secondary in any work of quality. When it is too crude, too obvious, the results can be risible. I was once sent, by an aspiring writer, a short story that began, “One morning Mrs. K. awoke to find herself metamorphosed into a front-loading washing machine.” One can only imagine how Kafka would have reacted to so inept—so detergent—an act of homage.
Perhaps because so much second-rate writing is derivative—and because so much writing is at best second-rate—the idea of influence has become a kind of accusation, a way of denigrating a writer’s work. The frontier between influence and imitation, even between influence and plagiarism, has commenced of late to be somewhat blurred. Two years ago, the distinguished British writer Graham Swift was accused by an obscure Australian academic of something odorously close to plagiarism in his Booker Prize–winning novel Last Orders: the “substantial borrowing” of the multi-voiced narrative structure of his novel from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The British press whipped this accusation up into a sort of scandal, and now Swift was accused of literary “plundering,” and those who defended him were sneered at for their “lofty indulgence” toward him. All this in spite of, or perhaps because of, Swift’s ready concession that he had been influenced by Faulkner, and in spite, too, of the awkward fact that the structures of the two books aren’t really so very alike, although some echoes are apparent. In the end such simple verities ensured that the scandal fizzled out, but not before Swift had been given a media roasting.
Interesting, then, that when Faulkner published As I Lay Dying, he himself had been accused of borrowing its structure from an earlier novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. His retort is the best possible answer that could be given: that when he was in the throes of composing what he modestly called his tour de force, he took whatever he needed from wherever he could find it, and knew of no writer who would not find such borrowing to be completely justified.
In my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a young boy actually travels to the ocean of imagination, which is described to him by his guide:
“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that . . . the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”
By using what is old, and adding to it some new thing of our own, we make what is new. In The Satanic Verses I tried to answer the question, how does newness enter the world? Influence, the flowing of the old into the new, is one part of the answer.
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the fabulous city of Octavia, suspended between two mountains in something like a spider’s web. If influence is the spider’s web in which we hang our work, then the work is like Octavia itself, that glittering jewel of a dream city, hanging in the filaments of the web, for as long as they are able to bear its weight.
I first met Calvino when I was asked to introduce a reading he gave at the Riverside Studios in London in the early 1980s. This was the time of the British publication of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I had just published a long essay about his work in the London Review of Books—disgracefully, this was one of the earliest serious pieces about Calvino to be published in the British press. I knew Calvino had liked the piece, but nevertheless I was nervous about having to speak about his work in his presence. My nervousness increased when he demanded to see my text before we went out to face the audience. What would I do if he disapproved? He read it in silence, frowning a little, then handed it back and nodded. I had evidently passed the examination, and what had particularly pleased him was my comparison of his work with that of the classical writer Lucius Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass.
“Give me a penny and I’ll tell you a golden story,” the old Milesian oral storytellers used to say, and Apuleius’s tale of transformation had used the fabulist manner of these ancient tellers of tall stories to great effect. He possessed, too, those virtues that Calvino also embodied and of which he wrote so well in one of his last works, Six Memos for the Next Millennium: the virtues of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. These qualities were much in my mind when I came to write Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Although the form of this novel is that of a child’s fantastic adventure, I wanted the work somehow to erase the division between children’s literature and adult books. It was in the end a question of finding precisely the right tone of voice, and Apuleius and Calvino were the ones who helped me to find it. I re-read Calvino’s great trilogy, The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight, and they gave me the clues I needed. The secret was to use the language of the fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop.
Recently, I have again been thinking about Calvino. The sixth of his “memos for the next millennium” was to have been on the subject of consistency. Consistency is the special genius of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Calvino was planning to suggest—that heroic, inexplicable Bartleby who simply and unshakably “preferred not to.” One might add the names of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, so inexorable in his search for small but necessary justice, or of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus, who insisted that he must live until he died, or of chivalry-maddened Quixote, or of Kafka’s Land Surveyor, eternally yearning toward the unattainable Castle.
We are speaking of an epic consistency, a monomania that strives toward the condition of tragedy or myth. But consistency also may be understood in a darker sense, the consistency of Ahab in pursuit of his whale, of Savonarola who burned the books, of Khomeini’s definition of his revolution as a revolt against history itself.
More and more I feel drawn toward Calvino’s unexplored sixth value. The new millennium that is upon us already shows signs of being dominated by alarming examples of consistency of all types: the great refusers, the wild quixotics, the narrow-minded, the bigoted, and those who are valiant for truth. But now I am coming close to doing what David Malouf warns against—that is, discussing the nature of my own embryonic, and fragile (because as yet uncreated), work. So I must leave it there, and say only that Calvino, whose early support and encouragement I will always remember, continues to murmur in my ear.
I should add that many other artists both of classical Rome and of modern Italy have been, so to speak, present at my shoulder. When I was writing Shame, I re-read Suetonius’s great study of the twelve Caesars. Here they were in their palaces, these foul dynasts, power-mad, libidinous, deranged, locked in a series of murderous embraces, doing one another terrible harm. Here was a tale of coup and counter-coup; and yet, as far as their subjects beyond the palace gates were concerned, nothing really changed. Power remained within the family. The Palace was still the Palace.
From Suetonius, I learned much about the paradoxical nature of power elites, and so was able to construct an elite of my own in the version of Pakistan that is the setting for Shame: an elite riven by hatreds and fights to the death but joined by bonds of blood and marriage and, crucially, in control of all the power in the land. For the masses, deprived of all power, the brutal wars inside the elite change little or nothing. The Palace still rules, and the people still groan under its heel.
If Suetonius influenced Shame, then The Satanic Verses, a novel whose central theme is that of metamorphosis, evidently learned much from Ovid; and for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is informed by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Virgil’s Georgics were essential reading. And, if I may make one more tentative step toward the unwritten future, I have for a long time been engaged and fascinated by the Florence of the High Renaissance in general, and by the character of Niccolò Machiavelli in particular.
The demonization of Machiavelli strikes me as one of the most successful acts of slander in European history. In the English literature of the Elizabethan golden age, there are around four hundred Machiavellian references, none of them favorable. At that time no work of Machiavelli’s was available in the English language; the playwrights of England were basing their satanic portraits on a translated French text, the Anti-Machiavel. The sinister, amoral persona created for Machiavelli then still cloaks his reputation. As a fellow writer who has also learned a thing or two about demonization, I feel it may soon be time to re-evaluate the maligned Florentine.
I have sought to portray a little of the cultural cross-pollination without which literature becomes parochial and marginal. Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the genius of Federico Fellini, from whose films, as a young man, I learned how one might transmute the highly charged material of childhood and private life into the stuff of showmanship and myth; and to those other Italian masters, Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni, De Sica, and so on, and so on—for of influence and creative stimulation there can really be no end.
Step Across This Line – Collected Nonfiction 1992 – 2002.
“Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight. Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what’s more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills. Overweight and hungry people are linked through the chains of production that bring food from fields to our plate. Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food. The limitations are clearest at the fast food outlet, where the spectrum of choice runs from McMuffin to McNugget. But there are hidden and systemic constraints even when we feel we’re beyond the purview of Ronald McDonald.
Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes, but by the power of food corporations.
Stuffed and Starved (by Raj Patel) is “an enquiry that uncovers the real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa, why there is a worldwide epidemic of farmer suicides, why we don’t know what’s in our food any more, why black people in the United States are more likely to be overweight than white, why there are cowboys in South Central Los Angeles, and how the world’s largest social movement is discovering ways, large and small, for us to think about, and live differently with, food.
India has, for example, destroyed millions of tons of grains, permitting food to rot in silos, while the quality of food eaten by India’s poorest is getting worse for the first time since Independence in 1947. In 1992, in the same towns and villages where malnutrition had begun to grip the poorest families, the Indian government admitted foreign soft drinks manufacturers and food multinationals to its previously protected economy. Within a decade, India has become home to the world’s largest concentration of diabetics: people – often children – whose bodies have fractured under the pressure of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food.
It’s easy to become inured to this contradiction; its daily version causes only mild discomfort, walking past the ‘homeless and hungry’ signs on the way to supermarkets bursting with food. There are moral emollients to balm a troubled conscience: the poor are hungry because they’re lazy, or perhaps the wealthy are fat because they eat too richly. This vein of folk wisdom has a long pedigree. Every culture has had, in some form or other, an understanding of our bodies as public ledgers on which is written the catalogue of our private vices. The language of condemnation doesn’t, however, help us understand why hunger, abundance and obesity are more compatible on our planet than they’ve ever been.
The closer a Mexican family lives to its northern neighbours and to their sugar and fat-rich processed food habits, the more overweight the family’s children are likely to be. That geography matters so much rather overturns the idea that personal choice is the key to preventing obesity or, by the same token, preventing hunger. And it helps to renew the lament of Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s late-nineteenth-century presidents and autocrats: ‘¡Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios; y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos’ (Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States). A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it’s now possible for people who can’t afford enough to eat to be obese. Children growing up malnourished in the favelas of São Paulo, for instance, are at greater risk from obesity when they become adults. Their bodies, broken by childhood poverty, metabolize and store food poorly. As a result, they’re at greater risk of storing as fat the (poor-quality) food that they can access.
As consumers, we’re encouraged to think that an economic system based on individual choice will save us from the collective ills of hunger and obesity. Yet it is precisely ‘freedom of choice’ that has incubated these ills. Those of us able to head to the supermarket can boggle at the possibility of choosing from fifty brands of sugared cereals, from half a dozen kinds of milk that all taste like chalk, from shelves of bread so sopped in chemicals that they will never go off, from aisles of products in which the principal ingredient is sugar. British children are, for instance, able to select from twenty-eight branded breakfast cereals the marketing of which is aimed directly at them. The sugar content of twenty-seven of these exceeds the government’s recommendations. Nine of these children’s cereals are 40 per cent sugar.
There are, after all, no mom-and-pop international food distribution companies. The small fish have been devoured by the Leviathans of distribution and supply. And when the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it.
Governmental concerns about poverty, for example, have historically been driven by fear, not least because of their concerns of what large groups of politically organized, angry and hungry urban poor people might do to the urban rich. (…) In different ways, the countries of Europe and North America set their food policies in order to ensure that the cries of the urban hungry didn’t lead to civil war…
In Brazil, over one million landless people have organized and occupied disused farmland. As a result, they are living healthier, longer and better-educated lives than those in comparable schemes elsewhere. The members of this movement, the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement, are part of arguably the world’s largest independent social movement organization – La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way), 18 representing as many as 150 million people worldwide. Incorporating groups from the KRRS, with an estimated membership of twenty million in India, to the National Farmers Union in Canada, the Korean Women Farmers Association, the Confédération Paysanne in France and the União Nacional de Camponeses in Mozambique, it’s nearly as globalized as the forces against which it ranges itself. It’s a mixed bag of movements. Some of its members are landless, some own land and hire the landless; some are small producers, some are medium-sized.
As consumers we can shape the market, however slightly, by taking our wallets elsewhere. But the choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom – it’s choice lite.
In the course of this book, I look at some of the ways the food system is shaped by farming communities, corporations, governments, consumers, activists and movements. The sum of these choices has left many stuffed and many starved, with people at both ends of the food system obese and impoverished, and with a handful of the system’s architects extremely wealthy…”
Title: Stuffed and Starved
Author(s): Raj Patel
Harper Collins, 2008, 438 pgs