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You know you’re a Third Culture Kid When…

 

1 You know which airport to go to in the event of a coup

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2 You have spent a lot of time out of contact with your family

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3 You know what it’s like to come to school exhausted from a redeye flight

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4 You are left looking blank when people talk about the tv they watched growing up

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5 You know what a panic button is

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6 You are exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation at a young age from long-haul flights

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7 ‘I’m not really from anywhere, it’s a bit complicated…’

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8 Your heavily-stamped passport arouses suspicion at border checkpoints

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9 You have friends that you don’t get to see for months at a time

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10 You stay well clear of protests and rallies, those can bring back bad memories

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11 Your experiences have moulded your moral reasoning in ways which leave you out of touch with monocultural peers

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‘Equal marriage’ passed this week. People who previously had their rights enforceable under a civil partnership will now have exactly the same rights under marriage. Their wedding ceremonies will be slightly more streamlined in some cases but that’s about it. For everybody else, no change. But to hear some people tell it, this is a either a civil rights victory akin to the end of apartheid or the beginning of the end of Western Civilisation at the hands of the ‘anti-family’ agenda. I’m really starting to see what a amazingly deft bit of politicking it was to introduce all the legal provisions of gay marriage in 2005 and then just call it something else. 

 

This week I had a post up on the Guardian blog in response to Suzanne Moore’s bizarre attack on the field of economics- there was a variety of interesting responses on twitter, but one irritation that kept appearing was this piece claiming to identify 8 elementary errors of economics 

Only one of them seemed remotely valid- see for yourself:

• The measure of success is growth of the Gross Domestic Product.

Economists developed this measure, but it is a very rough tool and its limitations are acknowledged by the field. If politicians over rely on it, that does not say anything about econ as a field of study. Does the fact that life expectancy makes no measure of quality of life invalidate medicine?

• Clear evidence of poor performance is ignored. Growth, unemployment and inflation measures in the neoliberal era, since 1980, have never been as good as those in the 1950s and 1960s, when governments involved themselves substantially in the economy.

In the fifties and sixties the economy was better in the West only- by being so far ahead of other countries it was easy to out-compete. Most countries will not remember this period as a golden era. Now as development raises capabilities and living standards across the world Western workers are less in demand.

• Money and debt are excluded from economic models. I’m not making this up.

You are making this up. There are plenty of economic models which deal with debt and the money supply. What is true is that printing money is not counted as evidence of productivity or development- otherwise ZImbabwe would come top of development indices.

• Modern free-market theory, called the neoclassical theory, predicts the economy will always be close to equilibrium. If that were true it should tick along steadily and sudden changes should only occur in response to large external events like natural disasters or wars. Yet many times over the past two centuries financial markets have suddenly collapsed without any external cause. Some of the more recent examples occurred in 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2007. In 1987 stock prices dropped by 30-40% in a day, though thirty percent of the world’s factories had not been bombed overnight.

Stock prices are the cumulative predictions of all participants in the market. If there is widespread disinformation or ignorance which changes quickly then participants’ predictions will also change quickly. It could have nothing to do with the physical infrastructure, as this is only one aspect of the expectation of performance.

• The neoclassical theory is based on assumptions that are patently absurd or clearly shown by other disciplines to be untrue. Among the patently absurd, it is assumed our collective guesses about the future are accurate, yet people in 1890 could not have conceived how aeroplanes, two world wars, nuclear weapons, computers and digital communication would radically transform the world.

Evidence? Who assumes our collective guesses about the future are accurate?

• Economists assume there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, ignoring the lesson of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Economies of scale allow the biggest firm to undercut other firms and grow faster, until it dominates a market. The existence of many such dominating firms, such as Microsoft, McDonald’s and Facebook, is also ignored.

This is the most nonsensical point. If you think that economists have ignored Henry Ford, you are misinformed. What you are saying is that the big companies you name did not reach the point of diminishing returns. If you can understand that at some level of car production between zero cars per year and infinity cars per year, it would become more difficult to produce each additional car (for example, when every acre of land is already covered in car plants) then you too, assume that there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, just like those foolish economists.

• It is assumed that people are innately individualistic and competitive, but psychologists have clearly documented our tendency to favour cooperation by punishing cheaters, even at a personal cost. Almost every mammalian species lives in groups, and social groups have an innate, and healthy, tension between individualism and cooperation. Most people understand they are better off if they balance their own wishes with those of their family and community.

Now in balance this is probably more valid- levels of cooperation differ widely between societies and are strongly correlated with economic success and political stability (compare Norway with Greece). There are economists studying these effects but there is a lot of political pressure to not look into this area as it has major implications for immigration and development policies.

• It is assumed we are coldly “rational” calculators, yet we are obviously strongly motivated by love, envy, fashion and insecurity, and marketers ruthlessly exploit these foibles. Psychologists have also clearly documented our tendency to other “non-rational” behaviours such as being risk averse. Neither the fashion industry nor the marketing industry would exist if economists were right.

In what sense would anybody regard ignoring somebody that you love as ‘rational’? The motivations from your goals are different to the means by which you go about achieving them. Most people are pretty rational about how to spend their money to maximise the benefits, whatever their motivation is. I would also query that risk aversion isn’t rational- it is simply a preference which people express with their spending.

 

This link was being sent around by people who really ought to know better. There are criticisms to be made of any field, but surely we can do better than this?

Sentamu cutting up his dog collar

I rather like the idea of an established church- one of the problems with regarding religion as something only for the private sphere is that it robs non-adherents of the ability to comment or get involved. The Church of England’s special place in the UK’s government and parliament, which many atheists see as unfair, is to me a good thing, a sign that whether or not we go to church we can have a say in how it is run, which is why I want to stick my nose into the debate over whether John Sentamu should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sentamu has been in the news this week after clarifying his view on whether civil partnerships should be renamed ‘Marriage’. He thinks they shouldn’t. This has been met with a great deal of criticism from those who are attached to their particular view on what name we should give to a legal contract between two people and the Inland Revenue, but all of this talk is obscuring the thing that most concerns me when I think of Dr Sentamu getting the keys to Lambeth Palace: his dodgy links in Africa.
Many remember the incident in which, while being interviewed by Andrew Marr, Sentamu cut up his dog collar and said he would never wear it again while Robert Mugabe remains president of Zimbabwe. An admirable stand, and the first time many considered him a possible candidate to replace Rowan Williams.

Robert Kayanja after another successful ‘healing’

Closer to home though, are the activities of Senatmu’s brother, Robert Kayanja, a prosperity preacher who has amassed a fortune in the millions by selling ‘healing miracles’ to poor Africans and who enjoys a close political friendship with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President. This relationship is very close indeed, for when Kayanja was accused of raping two young boys in his church, the police arrested the boys, who subsequently retracted their allegation. Kayanja has also established links with the very iffy ministry of Benny Hinn, a similarly profit oriented ‘religion’ and his financial success is based on the same principles of greed and exploitation.

Sentamu has never commented publicly on his brother’s behaviour, having his spokesperson tell the Daily Mail:

“As a matter of Christian discipline he does not comment on or criticise other Churches”

but he has preached as Kayanja’s Miracle Centre Cathedral and officiated at his wedding. Someone in the running to be Archbishop of Canterbury ought to make it very clear whether he thinks this is acceptable behaviour. There is a good point to be made here about homophobia too- the CofE may be unsure on gay marriage, but in a country like Uganda where there are regular calls for gay people to be killed, the Anglican church has a very substantial moderating influence. John Sentamu’s views are far more tolerant than the competing churches in Africa, which exploit local hostility to homosexuality to fill pews, but would he be willing to stand up to them when he has such a close relationship to the Ugandan establishment?

It is a game as old as diplomacy itself to try to convince a great power that you have enemies in common.

Last week I was at the Frontline Club for an evening dedicated to the phenomenon of Kony 2012. Most interesting, given the stated goal of Invisible Children to find and kill/capture Joseph Kony, was the presence in the room of no less than three people who had separately met and shaken hands with Kony over the last few years, who vocally and by their presence made the point that he is not nearly as hard to track down as The Ugandan government and their allies would have you believe.

There was also representation from Uganda’s northern Acholi tribe keen to point out the failings of President Yoweri Museveni, who has enjoyed what was described on the night as quiet support of the Invisible Children, but which now appears to be a much closer relationship than even hardened cynics suspected.  Museveni came to power in Uganda after the violent overthrow of Milton Obote (who took the presidency by force from Idi Amin, who had himself violently ousted that same President Obote eight years previously), and has continued to behave in the established tradition of African big man dictators- ruthless repression at home coupled with appeals to great powers for funding. Instead of seducing the State Department with exaggerated tales of a looming Soviet threat to justify the construction of a police state, it is the first lady’s appeals to the US religious right that have proved most lucrative in 21st Century Uganda. Janet Museveni, wife of the president, evangelical Christian and a cabinet mister in her own right, is also the main driver behind the Ugandan nomenklatura’s links to evangelical organisations with interests in Africa such as Invisible Children.

What seems to have happened with the Kony project can be traced to the impact of the search for Bin Laden. As a dictator whose rule has been looking shaky after 26 years in government and some public disorder following 2011’s presidential election , Museveni must have looked enviously at the huge amount of aid being given to fund Pakistan’s earnest and sincere hunt for Bin Laden, aid which was gainfully diverted by the Pak government to the brutal repression of separatists in Balochistan and a whole host of other matters of purely national interest. Thinking that the solution to their financial problems was a bogeyman who could be used to extract military resources from an ever generous West, the Ugandans must have seen that if a charity was able to raise a campaign to support military intervention to catch Kony then the spigot of Western military aid could be turned on full force- no wonder they granted Invisible Children access to film-making opportunities like helicopter shots that legitimate documentary makers like, well, me would never have access to (and indeed didn’t have access to when filming there last year).

The problems came when the video became so successful that investors were scared away from the supposedly war-torn country and the backlash to the gratingly chirpy (and now sadly troubled) Jason Russell resulted in more negative publicity for Uganda and the government. As Great Game players, the Museveni cadre are novices, but shouldn’t be underestimated; next time, they might just come up with the goods.

Katharine Round, who is an awesome filmmaker and a founder of the brilliant Docheads network posted a link to a recent article in Screen Daily on indie film funding which included this quote from Jess Search, the Chief Exec of Britdoc:

“independent film-makers are the rebels, the thought-leaders, the intellectuals, the troublemakers, taking the place of what used to happen with print journalism and television.”

Adam Curtis touched on this point at DocFest when he said that he was expecting the emergence of a movement similar to New Journalism, but that TV wouldn’t be the medium. TV can be so hidebound by convention and a desire not to upset anybody that challenging ideas struggle to get through, but it’s not dead yet, and I’m not sure that independent film is really offering the alternative that is being talked up here. Some of the most stimulating stuff of recent times has been made by people like Adam himself and Jonathan Meades through the traditional route. Are there independent films offering much of the calibre of Meades’ latest creative docs based on the story of the Algerian Pieds Noirs or indeed of Curtis’ recent work?
A big problem with the piecemeal funding model discussed in the article, broadly speaking bringing in outside corporate and NGO funders, is one similar to the problem with academic journals- there’s a publication bias. Everyone wants to get on board with positive films, so stories about bad things happening can get pushed to the side in the scramble for funding; a case in point is The Interrupters.

It has an uplifting storyline and comforting message and there’s no doubt it is a well made film, but it is socially responsible to put out a documentary which will leave audiences with a misleadingly clean impression of the murky relationship between public funding and gangs in Chicago?
I think a lot of this comes down to a lack of diversity in the broadcast/indie film world. Lots of people with similar background, education, politics and attitude. Every time you hear somebody talk about wanting to hear ‘unheard voices’ in a film, you know exactly what they want, whose voice you’ll hear, and what they’ll be saying.

My own experiences with the tremendous anti science bias of media insiders has been sobering, but oddly, it extends to hating religion too, in favour of a sort of mishmash of New Age anti authoritarianism which doesn’t bear much scrutiny. What is so frustrating is that, returning to Adam Curtis’ remarks, these attitudes were exposed and rejected by the first wave of New Journalism back in the 1970s. Compare The Interrupters’ rather soppy music heavy approach with the surgically efficient and ruthlessly satirical writing of Tom Wolfe on the same topic, or the essay that I can’t imagine many UK media types have read judging by their unblushing faces, The Me Decade.

My own feeling is that the next wave of innovation in ways to inform us about the world will be found in blogs, where radical and challenging ways of telling us about the world are flourishing. Doc film seems in danger of, if anything, being left behind.

UPDATE: Katharine responds on Facebook, plus my response:

 

  • Katharine Round

    Interesting post, Michael. Although I agree that the piecemeal approach of the independent route is far from ideal, I have to disagree that all of the interesting films of recent times have come through broadcast TV. For me, good films break through onto television in spite of the system rather than because of it. Excellent films like the End of the LIne, Hell and Back Again, You’ve Been Trumped and many many more would have been unlikely broadcast prospects yet provide the kind of debate and creative, risk-taking filmmaking it desperately needs. I’m not saying good films aren’t made for TV – they are – but they tend to be from the either the same voices or formatted/made tabloid so they can be stomached by an audience that is assumed to desire such tosh.
    about an hour ago · Unlike ·  1
  • Michael Story

    Those are good examples of what the best of indie docs can do and we certainly agree that TV can stifle creative filmmaking, but I worry that the piecemeal indie funding model risks only putting forward films whose editorial perspectives already enjoy widespread support. Does anybody not think that Donald Trump is unpleasant, that the current Afghan War will be another slow and bloody failure, or that overfishing is a problem? Those are all great films to stimulate and entertain an audience, but what of films who premise is not certain to meet with approval?
    What I would like to see is a third option- one where films can be made untabloided and dumbed down (safe from the dread hands of the TV establishment) and without the need to reinforce the preconceptions of audiences (well meaning indie funders). Maybe we need to start something along the lines of the MacArthur genius grants. Award money to people rather than specific projects, then let them pursue their ideas.
    The kind of films I really love are ones where we get to see how the world looks to people outside of the norm, and I don’t mean the film student’s classic tactic of finding the nearest down and out at the bus stop and running cello music under their musings. Recently I saw an article about Africans living in London, among whom was a group of refugees from the Biafran War, still clinging to a four decades old dream of a nation which only existed for three years. The writer brushed over their story a bit but it made me think what an amazing doc that could be, to see what life would be like for people in that farcical and tragic situation- exactly the kind of project which would be considered too esoteric by TV yet lacking a simplistic political message to tempt the indie crowd.
    You’ve got me rambling again, and on a Saturday night too!
    4 minutes ago · Like

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Baldauf has written an article to which I came late, called “Five Myths About Africa”

It supposedly undermines the lazy stereotypes of the Western media to get to the real heart of the continent, but is actually a perfect example of a new kind of journalism about Africa, one which tries to undermine facts with anecdotes and emotional manipulation. The piece starts with the photo on the left, of two obviously poor girls in rags collecting brushwood. Hardly breaking down people’s preconceptions, is it?

Here are the five myths that the article seeks to repudiate:

1: Africa is Poor.

In this section the article describes a family ground down by “greed by family members” who expected to be given a portion of the welfare check received by a woman called Olga Thimbela who has taken in AIDS orphans. It is very important to recognise that a common theme in Southern African culture is that you must help your relatives no matter what (very important in a country with such terrible poverty).

The trouble with what Scott Baldauf calls ‘cultural wealth’ goes much further: when someone reaches political or administrative high office they will be again expected to use their position to provide for their relatives. This cultural trait, often remarked on favourably by Western journalists among the poor, is responsible for a great amount of the corruption and misallocation of funds that keep that poverty going.

2: Africa is Violent

Baldauf quotes unnamed friends from Mexico and Brasil who say that their home countries are more dangerous than South Africa. In 2008 in South Africa there were 34 murders per hundred thousand population; in Brasil 22, in Mexico there were 12.

3: Africa needs our help

Baldauf talks here about the Mbeki AIDS policy which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Mugabe’s brutal rule in Zim, Kenyan pols avoiding prosecution for post election violence, Malawi rejecting aid in order to keep corruption for its leaders and poverty for the rest. That sounds like a region in need of some help, but this is a myth because of… Nkosinathi Biko (son of Steve Biko, advocate for African pride) and a lady who hosted a tea party for him and another journalist? Surely it is possible that a proud and hospitable people can still be in need of assistance?

4 Africa is backward

The CSM points to the practise of using cellphone credit as a makeshift mobile currency as evidence of innovation. Certainly this is true, but Baldauf leads onto this:

In fact, it was this common practice of using airtime to send money that attracted the attention of the cellphone company Safaricom and the British Department for International Development to launch a new service called M-PESA. Today, M-PESA serves effectively as one of Kenya’s largest banks, with some 75 percent of the 9.5 million M-PESA account holders using it to store money, according to a study by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology. The project worked so well, it has now spread to South Africa – a country with a world-class banking sector – and plans are afoot to take it elsewhere in Africa.

How does the fact that Safaricom (part owned by Vodaphone UK and run for the last ten years by a white South African who has just stepped aside to be replaced as CEO by a British retail manager) has done a deal with the UK Department for International Development to create a new service say anything about whether Africa is innovative or not?

The other examples given, of farmers making cellphone calls and refugees using solar cookers are not good examples to go alongside William Kamkwamba (the Malawian windmill boy), who while very ingenious indeed, is but one person.

5 Africa is a country Well this one is obviously not true. Africa isn’t a country the way Europe isn’t a country. Hard to fault this one, but it comes at the end of a problematic list.

Go Well, readers.

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