Archive for the 'World Events' Category

Perspective: The Food Crisis, from Wisconsin to Cambodia

bags of rice, thailand. photo by IRRI images.

I WISH I’D HAD A TAPE RECORDER. One day the manager at the cafe where I work was lamenting the climbing cost of her weekly groceries, the next she was attempting to justify the higher prices on our soup.

“[Another cafe] is charging five dollars for a cup that’s the same size!” she said, explaining why it was now costing our customers a dollar more for a product that we dump out of a bag. The economic reasoning seemed rather dubious to me, especially juxtaposed against her earlier complaints.

“This is how food prices go up,” I said to her dryly. She shot me a look that seemed to say, Whatever.

It was an illustrative moment. While I can’t pretend to fully understand the complexities of the looming food crisis, amid all the factors that lay out of human control — floods, poor crops, shortages, etc. — the common denominator appears to be human greed. This has manifested itself on a range of levels, from questionable price gouging to grain hoarding.

With recent riots over food prices in Haiti and the IHT reporting that elementary schools in rural Cambodia are being forced to suspend free breakfast programs, it’s obvious that — as ever — the world’s poorest are the first to feel the pinch of this greed. But in some backwards way it’s hopeful that Americans are too; proof that the distance of oceans doesn’t insulate us from everything.

The worrisome aspect of that equation is this: Americans have agency and buying power, whereas citizens of third world nations have little to none. Bloomberg says that hoarding by eager Wall Streeters is already adding to the pain of farmers and consumers.

And so we’re left with a reality that has always existed in some form but has rarely been so plainly presented — unless we check greed and panic in this situation, people will starve and die.

Looking at soaring food costs as an opportunity for capital gains is one-dimensional and shortsighted. Those inching up their prices hoping to make an extra buck are only going to turn around to find their dollars don’t go as far in the aisles of the grocery store. But Statesiders ought to reflect on the fact that on the other side of the world, the consequences are more real; kids going to school with empty bellies, families grinding by on rations bought with $2 a day.

Community & Fear

IT WAS THE USUAL order: summer rolls, tofu pad kee-mao, and chicken panang curry. Inside the air-conditioned Thai joint, the owner and I waited for my debit-card to go through as diners chatted and clinked their silverware. Thinking to myself that the owner must recognize me by now, I decide to start up a casual conversation. “How’s it going?” I ask. He replies with awkward laughter, then seems to realize that I’m actually listening for a response – “Oh, good,” he says, resigned, tired.

As I drive away, breathing in the palpably humid summer air and the smell of curry, I begin to contemplate the subtleties of my short conversation with the restaurant owner. He had seemed genuinely taken aback by my simple question – in a way that was almost familiar. Back when I worked at a cafe in Seattle (no, not Starbucks), the regular customers similarly balked when they could tell you were asking them questions you obviously didn’t care to hear the answer to.

Society-wide, our interpersonal relationships with strangers are degrading; on a small scale, evidence for this is found in that more and more customers at restaurants and business seem to treat workers as though they were a service rather than a human. A friend of mine, who also worked at a cafe, once told me of a man who walked in, looked at the menu, ignored my friend’s “Hello sir, how are you?” and then left. “It was like I was a robot he could just ignore,” my friend told me afterward.

Thinking back to the Thai restaurant owner’s reaction, it’s likely he was just unused to having normal discussions with customers. But how sad is that? Communities are made strong by when people who live near each other share the idea that their well-being is interlinked, and so naturally care about and are interested in one another.

Many things stand in the way of forming tighter community relationships – time constraints, suburban infrastructure, social awkwardness, etc. But I would argue that the common denominators are apathy and fear.

Indeed, from America’s urban centers to the war zones of the Middle East, we live in a time dominated by fear. When we consider the state of our “War on Terror,” the large-scale evidence for this is endless. The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is one of the strongest examples – we have apathetically ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent people and their families because we got carried away by our fears. If we allow these attitudes to fester, we may find our future filled with the harrowing refugee camps of “Children of Men.”

All of this may seem disconnected to some, but it is tightly intertwined to me. If we don’t care about the person serving us our curry, how can we pretend to be able to empathize with people we’ve never met who are suffering on the other side of the globe? If we can’t build trusting communities on a small scale, how can we build good relationships between nations on the large scale? Change starts on an interpersonal level, and blossoms out from there.

Beware the Pink Armband

In Thailand, pink means trouble. Via the Chicago Tribune:

(AP) Thai police officers who break rules will be forced to wear hot pink armbands featuring “Hello Kitty,” the Japanese icon of cute, as a mark of shame, a senior officer said Monday.

Police officers caught littering, parking in a prohibited area, or arriving late — among other misdemeanors — will be forced to stay in the division office and wear the armband all day, said Police Col. Pongpat Chayaphan. The officers won’t wear the armband in public.

The striking armband features Hello Kitty sitting atop two hearts.

IMO, it’s hardly a punishment if they don’t have to wear them in public – though I suppose that might slightly undermine their authority. I’ll be damned if I’d be handcuffed by someone wearing a Hello Kitty armband …

August 5: Iranian Bloggers Speak Out

Bloggers the world over are protesting the recent imprisonment of several Iranian students who were charged with “defaming Islam” by temporarily renaming their blogs “August 5th,” in honor of the 101st anniversary of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, reports Global Voices Online.

According to a Radio Free Europe story (reprinted with permission here), eight students from Tehran Polytechnic University were imprisoned because of their writings in student publications and were charged with “inciting public opinion” and insulting Iran’s leaders. Three of the students are still in jail and, according to their families, have been deprived of sleep and food and been beaten until losing consciousness.

It’s great to see so many bloggers – GVO counts 397 from Iran and elsewhere – taking a stand. Whether Ahmadinejad listens or not (and it is likely that he won’t), it should be recognized that bloggers who are inside Iran are significantly sticking their neck out for this; Iran has jailed bloggers before, and there is nothing to keep them from doing so again.

In that vein, GVO has a link to the Reporters Without Borders’ Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents, which gives tips ranging from how to create a blog to how to get around digital censorship. If you’re in a country where free speech is an issue (or in a country where the NSA could be watching your every move) it’s a handy resource.

Iran may need an entire system overhaul, but for now let’s hope for the hasty release of those students.

Hostage Situation: The Wrong Reaction

THE days following the Taliban’s capture of 23 South Korean missionaries and the ensuing murder of two have been wrenching, tearful and unexpectedly divisive for the East Asian nation.

Yesterday, reporter Choe Sang-Hun wrote about South Korea’s complex reaction (IHT). He says that many in Seoul question the judgement of the missionaries’ church in allowing them to travel to Afghanistan in such a dangerous time, while others view the situation as an inevitable reaction to Christian arrogance.

Choe reports that some responses to the issue on online forums have been apathetic or cold, with netizens expressing anger at the missionaries for getting themselves into this mess.

While I’ll concede that a high level of naiveté surely played into the creation of this horrific situation, I’m appalled that so many are dehumanizing these people for that reason alone. As my friend JJ and I discussed the issue, he astutely pointed out that it is all too easy for people to type harsh, condemning words – it’s an entirely different thing to confront the human reality. These are people, and we are talking about life and death.

But the netizens are not the only ones at fault. Mainstream Korean media’s voyeuristic photography of the sobbing parents of kidnapped missionaries is also extremely disappointing.

Meanwhile, other Korean citizens are demanding that the U.S. get involved, as Choe reports on today. But I’m inclined to agree with The Metropolitician on this one – pleading for the U.S.’s help only undermines the notion that South Korea is a sovereign and powerful nation; the SK government ought to be able to handle this. Moreover, the protesters’ claims that the U.S. created the danger in Afghanistan is not only irrelevant, but largely inaccurate as well.

This is a grave situation, and the “right” thing to do is unclear. Does Korea reward these terrorists by negotiating with them – does that perpetuate the threat? Or does bringing these people home supersede all of those concerns? If so, how do we bring them home safely? We ought to be coming up with answers instead of bumbling over who’s to blame.

Television: The World’s Uniter

AFGHANISTAN and the United States have little in common. This dichotomy is perhaps best expressed in television terms: in the U.S., the war exists on TV while our daily lives are peaceful. In Afghanistan, the war is right outside, but on TV there’s a chance for escape.

Yet a converse example is also sprouting, says The New York Times, as Afghans are spending time on their keester glued to the screen:

But television is off to a phenomenal start, with Afghans now engrossed, for better or worse, in much of the same escapist fare that seduces the rest of the world: soap operas that pit the unbearably conniving against the implausibly virtuous, chefs preparing meals that most people would never eat in kitchens they could never afford, talk show hosts wheedling secrets from those too shameless to keep their troubles to themselves.

The latest national survey, which dates from 2005, shows that 19 percent of Afghan households own a television, a remarkable total considering not only that owning a TV was a crime under the Taliban but that a mere 14 percent of the population has access to public electricity. In a study this year of Afghanistan’s five most urban provinces, two-thirds of all people said they watched TV every day or almost every day.

“Maybe Afghanistan is not so different from other places,” said Muhammad Qaseem Akhgar, a prominent social analyst and newspaper editor. “People watch television because there is nothing else to do.” [Read full]

Yes, in a bombed-out war zone where going outside may get you killed, it makes sense that people would stay in and want to be transported someplace else for a while. According to the same article, a dismally low literacy rate in Afghanistan  means that reading is not an option for many.

So the Afghans have their reasons for loving the glowing box. But what’s our excuse? Though I’ll shamelessly defend my watching of Family Guy and Anthony Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, I’m a bit more embarrassed about vegging out with reruns when I would do better to read, spend time with a friend or just go to sleep.

Too often it seems that television is just a way to “kill time.” Seems such a waste when I think about the fact that time will eventually end up killing us.

Iraq: Reasons to Celebrate, Mourn

The Iraqi national soccer team won a victory over South Korea in yesterday’s Asia Cup match, via the NYTimes:

As the Iraqi national soccer team eked out a 4-3 shootout victory over South Korea on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets in a paroxysm of good feeling and unity not seen in years.

It was more rapture than celebration, a singular release of the sort of emotion that has fueled so much rage and fear and paranoia. But this evening, at least at first, it seemed diverted into nonstop car-horn bliss; spontaneous parades clogged streets from Erbil to Karbala, from Basra to Mosul, from Ramadi to Baghdad. [Full]

While I’d normally be bummed to see a loss for South Korea, given the current situation in Iraq it’s clear which nation needed this more.

Tragically, the halcyon moment of revelry was fleeting for Iraqis, as two suicide bombings tore through Baghdad killing at least 50 people and several men used the cover of the crowd to violently end their personal vendettas.

Will the nation of Iraq ever know unity again?


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