Recent Reads

Some stuff I've read lately:

John Kenneth Galbraith's The Underdeveloped Country and The Affluent Society. These books are interesting couterpoints to one another. The Underdeveloped Country is a transcript of the Massey Lecture given by Galbraith in the 1960's on developing nations, the duty of the developing world to those nations, and the likelihood that the affluence gap will widen without concerted efforts to counteract passive economic forces. The Affluent Society is Galbraith's classic long essay on capitalism in societies where subsistence has been left so far behind that the economy's engines rely on the creation of superfluous wants by a robust marketing industry, where the needs filled by the marketplace are psychological rather than physical, and where expenditures on public spaces and institutions lag far behind private ones.

Michael Ignatieff's The Rights Revolution. This is another Massey Lecture transcript. Michael Ignatieff has had a resurgence of late as a parachuted Liberal candidate in the last federal election and as a candidate for the coming Liberal leadership race. This book is loaded with interesting insights into Ignatieff's political philosophy. It is an account of a decades-long movement toward the primacy of individual and group rights in politics, and of the pitfalls and payoffs of that movement.

Sarah Vowell's Take The Cannoli. I first noticed Sarah Vowell when she voiced Violet in The Incredibles, a dubious credit in the career of this interesting writer. Take The Cannoli is a collection of essays that Vowell wrote for NPR's This American Life. I found the poignancy of the opening essay, "Shooting Dad," (listen to Vowell here at minute 4:30) truly heart-wrenching. There is something about the last two lines in the essay that makes me well-up every time. I found most of the other essays don't end nearly as well; in fact, Vowell seems to have a tough time closing her ideas. It is only in the rambling middle sections of each essay that she really shines. The title essay, "Take the Cannoli," is an ode to her fixation on The Godfather and its explicit Sicilian moral code. The appeal of an alternative to a religious moral code was magnetic, especially in the post-theist state of mind Vowell found herself in during college. In her words: God was dead and I had whacked Him.


Indie Nightmare

I watched Darwin's Nightmare last night, an indie documentary that is allegedly about the Nile perch's obliteration of native species in Lake Victoria. With a title like that, I was settling in for a riveting tale of man's careless introduction of an alien species into the fragile Lake Victoria habitat, and a naturalist's take on the devastating effect of the introduced species, like the cane toad in Australia, or the mountain pine beetle in North American forests. Maybe it would be narrated by David Attenborough to boot.

Instead I got everything but that. The point of the documentary wasn't the perch at all. In interviews with European pilots who flew out 55 tons of fish in a single load, Tanzanian prostitutes who serviced them, Indo-Tanzanians who were the entrepeneurs of the companies thriving on the fish trade, and dirt poor black Tanzanians who barely subsisted on the shore, the message was this: the outsiders are just as voraciously and rapaciously consuming native Africans as the Nile perch consumed Lake Victoria's diverse bounty. The 'West' has homogenized and devoured the Africa that was there before. In an endless convoy, the massive planes arrive in Africa laden with ordinance, and return to Europe laden with fish. Fish that is too expensive for the fishermen who catch them to eat. As one Russian pilot observed after a December weapons run to Angola then return via South Africa to Europe, "For Christmas, African children get guns. European children get grapes."

I struggled through passages of this film. The sound was good, but the digital video was frequently shaky and poorly composed. Sometimes conversations were allowed to ramble without purpose. And at the end of it, I felt the weight of a lot of guilt.

It is sometimes hard to enjoy the fruits of my good fortune. In the world's lottery, I won just by being born here. What do I need a million dollar jackpot for when I have health, security of person, security of property, job security, education, a pantry and freezer full of food, and a house full of my four kids and wife? This is the jackpot.

While the film does depict some nightmarish scenes, I don't know how much Darwin or natural selection has to do with it. Director Hubert Sauper shows children collecting styrofoam fish packaging, melting it down, then inhaling the volatilized chemicals to get high. He shows women sifting through heaps of decomposing fish carcasses to lay them on racks in the sun so they can be dried, fried, and consumed. The maggots wriggling up through the ooze between their toes turned my stomach. The bitter irony of the World Bank and European Union's pride at what they have wrought in the fish industry was not lost on Sauper; he juxtaposes a self-congratulatory EU press conference with headlines of famine and millions of dollars of emergency food aid. In achieving the quality standards that make these fish fit for consumption abroad, the industry has priced itself beyond the reach of nearly all Africans.

Though not what I expected, Darwin's Nightmare was worth suffering through.