During the colonial era, class-privileged citizens of colonizing nations would travel to colonized lands to, as I wrote in a previous post, “enjoy reveling in the seemingly bizarre and unfamiliar people and customs of these Other places…” Human beings, in other words, were among the objects of this tourism, along with gorgeous vistas and unfamiliar plants and animals.
Today many citizens of wealthy nations still yearn for “authentic” and “unique” travel experiences. It is somehow more prestigious to go where others do not. And human beings are still, often, the object of such tourism. This kind of travel, always ethically problematic, has become increasingly disruptive as fewer and fewer places are inaccessible and more and more people are able to afford to get there. For those humans identified as worthy of the tourist gaze, this may sometimes mean constant and overwhelming objectification.
A new documentary, Camera, Camera, documents the crushing weight of tourism in Luang Prabang, Laos, where monks make a traditional sacred procession each morning. Seth Mydans, reviewing the film, writes:
…this sacred ritual is now swarmed by scores of bustling tourists, some of whom lean in with cameras and flashes for closeups as the monks pad silently past.
Frustrated, artist Nithakhong Somsanith says:
They come in buses. They look at the monks the same as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theater… Now the monks have no space to meditate, no space for quiet.
This clip from the documentary captures Somsanith’s concerns beautifully and hauntingly:
The 2020 Summer Olympics will be held in Japan. And when the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, made this public at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he did so in an interesting way. He was standing atop a giant “warp pipe” dressed as Super Mario. I’m trying to imagine the U.S. equivalent. Can you imagine the president of the United States standing atop the golden arches, dressed as Ronald McDonald, telling the world that we’d be hosting some international event?
Prime minister Abe was able to do this because Mario is a cultural icon recognized around the world. That Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn created in Japan is truly a global citizen. The Economist recently published an essay on how Mario became known around the world.
Mario is a great example of a process sociologists call cultural globalization. This is a more general social process whereby ideas, meanings, and values are shared on a global level in a way that intensifies social relations. And Japan’s prime minister knew this. Shinzo Abe didn’t dress as Mario to simply sell more Nintendo games. I’m sure it didn’t hurt sales. In fact, in the past decade alone, Super Mario may account for up to one third of the software sales by Nintendo. More than 500 million copies of games in which Mario is featured circulate worldwide. But, Japan selected Mario because he’s an illustration of technological and artistic innovations for which the Japanese economy is internationally known. And beyond this, Mario is also an identity known around the world because of his simple association with the same human sentiment—joy. He intensifies our connections to one another. You can imagine people at the ceremony in Rio de Janeiro laughing along with audience members from different countries who might not speak the same language, but were able to point, smile, and share a moment together during the prime minister’s performance. A short, pudgy, mustached, working-class, Italian-American character is a small representation of that shared sentiment and pursuit. This intensification of human connection, however, comes at a cost.
We may be more connected through Mario, but that connection takes place within a global capitalist economy. In fact, Wisecrack produced a great short animation using Mario to explain Marxism and the inequalities Marx saw as inherent within capitalist economies. Cultural globalization has more sinister sides as well, as it also has to do with global cultural hegemony. Local culture is increasingly swallowed up. We may very well be more internationally connected. But the objects and ideas that get disseminated are not disseminated on an equal playing field. And while the smiles we all share when we connect with Mario and his antics are similar, the political and economic benefits associated with those shared smirks are not equally distributed around the world. Indeed, the character of Mario is partially so well-known because he happened to be created in a nation with a dominant capitalist economy. Add to that that the character himself hails from another globally dominant nation–the U.S. The culture in which he emerged made his a story we’d all be much more likely to hear.
Previously marketed to women, skin lightening, bleaching, and “fairness” creams are being newly marketed to men. The introduction of a Facebook application has triggered a wave of commentary among American journalists and bloggers. The application, launched by Vaseline and aimed at men in India, smoothes out blotches and lightens the overall skin color of your profile photo, allowing men to present a more “radiant” face to their friends.
The U.S. commentary involves a great deal of hand-wringing over Indian preference for light skin and the lengths to which even men will go to get a few shades lighter. Indians, it is claimed, have a preference for light skin because skin color and caste are connected in the Indian imagination. Dating and career success, they say further, are linked to skin color. Perhaps, these sources admit, colorism in India is related to British colonialism and the importation of a color-based hierarchy; but that was then and, today, India embraces prejudice against dark-skinned people, thereby creating a market for these unsavory products.
The obsession with light skin, however, cannot be solely blamed on insecure individuals or a now internalized colorism imported from elsewhere a long time ago. Instead, a preference for white skin is being cultivated, today, by corporations seeking profit. Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn documents the global business of skin lightening in her article, Yearning for Lightness. She argues that interest in the products is rising, especially in places where “…the influence of Western capitalism and culture are most prominent.” The success of these products, then, “cannot be seen as simply a legacy of colonialism.” Instead, it is being actively produced by giant multinational companies today.
The Facebook application is one example of this phenomenon. It does not simply reflect an interest in lighter skin; it very deliberately tells users that they need to “be prepared” to make a first impression and makes it very clear that skin blotches and overall darkness is undesirable and smooth, light-colored skin is ideal. Marketing for skin lightening products not only suggests that light skin is more attractive, it also links light skin to career success, overall upward mobility, and Westernization. Some advertising, for example, overtly links dark skin with saris and unemployment for women, while linking light skin with Western clothes and a career.
The desire for light skin, then, isn’t an “Indian problem” for which they should be entirely blamed. It is being encouraged by corporations who stand to profit from color-based anxieties that are overtly tied to the supposed superiority of Western culture. These corporations, it stands to be noted, are not Indian. They are largely Western: L’Oreal and Unilever are two of the biggest companies. The supposedly Indian preference for light skin, then, is being stoked and manufactured by companies based in countries populated primarily by light-skinned people. As Glenn explains, “Such advertisements can be seen as not simply responding to a preexisting need but actually creating a need by depicting having dark skin as a painful and depressing experience.”
Before pitying Indian seekers of light-skin, condemning the nation for colorism, or gently shaking our heads over the legacies of colonialism, we should consider how ongoing Western cultural dominance (that is, racism and colorism in the West today) and capitalist economic penetration (that is, profit through the cultivation of insecurities around the world) contributes to the global market in skin lightening products.
Originally posted in 2010; crossposted at BlogHer.
NPR recently aired a story about female lawmaker’s representation state by state. According to the story, Colorado has the most women; female lawmakers make up 42% of that total. Wyoming had the least, with women only representing 13% of state lawmakers.
NPR’s experts suggested that term limits in Colorado and a female-friendly party leadership were behind their high number of female legislators, whereas a change in Wyoming from multi-member to single-member district in the 1990s was unfavorable to women (because voters have to pick only one and tend to lean toward men when they have to make hard choices). The story also mentioned voting rules and the difficulty of balancing home, work, and lawmaking responsibilities.
In fact, sociologists have been studying this issue in depth for some time and a few years ago Deborah Carr summarized the reigning wisdom on why women are less likely to be politicians. She highlighted six factors to explain the gender gap in the US Congress:
Women have to face sexism (e.g., glass ceiling – Nancy Pelosi used the term marble ceiling in herinaugural speech as Speaker in 2007), especially voters’ sex role stereotyping “what women can and should be.”
Women are not in the “pipeline,” suggesting that not enough women are in careers that have historically led to political office.
Because of gendered wealth and income inequality, women don’t as often have enough money to run multi-dollar campaigns, nor access to social networks full of big donors.
Women have different interests, focusing on “issues related to family and social welfare, rather than national defense and international relations.”
Women are less likely to be risk-takers than their male counterparts, perhaps explaining why women must be asked several times before they seriously consider launching campaigns.
Women opt out of politics because of family responsibilities.
To improve female participation in politics, we should promote more gender-neural political environments. Political parties should take further steps to recruit and support female candidates, as Colorado seems to be doing. We should repeatedly encourage women to run for office since they take a lot of encouragement before they seriously consider launching candidacies. More importantly, we need to seed the pipeline by encouraging young girls to get involved in student government and see governing as compatible with their interests and abilities.
Sangyoub Park, PhD is a professor of sociology at Washburn University. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.
Wealth inequality in the U.S. is extreme, but global wealth inequality, illustrates a video by The Rules, is even more stunning. Some facts:
The top 20% control 80% of the world’s wealth.
The richest 2% control more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population.
The richest 300 people on earth have more wealth than the poorest 3,000,000,000.
200 years ago, rich countries were three times as rich as poor countries. Today, they are eighty times richer.
Rich countries give $130 billion dollars worth of aid to poor countries every year, but they extract $2 trillion each year thanks to global economic rules.
Here are their sources; or watch the four minute video:
The Rules wants to reveal and challenge the laws that govern our global economy. It is a distinctly sociological project, looking at how factors outside of individuals — or, in this case, countries — shape lives. Shaped strongly by the richest countries in their own best interest, rules governing the trading of goods and money are determining the economic solvency and future of countries.
When those rules are invisible, it can seem like struggling countries are just poorly managed or culturally problematic when, in fact, the rules ensure that the deck is stacked against them.
In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.
Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.
This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.
Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.
When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.
The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.
To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.
In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”
I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.
The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”
The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.
Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.
The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.
In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?
Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.
The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.
It seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015.
On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted “NO” to the austerity ultimatum demanded by what is colloquially being called the Troika, the three institutions that have the power to shape Greece’s future: the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.
The people of Greece have stood up for the rights of working people everywhere.
Greece has experienced six consecutive years of recession and the social costs have been enormous. The following charts provide only the barest glimpse into the human suffering:
While the Troika has been eager to blame this outcome on the bungling and dishonesty of successive Greek governments and even the Greek people, the fact is that it is Troika policies that are primarily responsible. In broad brush, Greece grew rapidly over the 2000s in large part thanks to government borrowing, especially from French and German banks. When the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, Greece was quickly thrown into recession and the Greek government found its revenue in steep decline and its ability to borrow sharply limited. By 2010, without its own national currency, it faced bankruptcy.
Enter the Troika. In 2010, they penned the first bailout agreement with the Greek government. The Greek government received new loans in exchange for its acceptance of austerity policies and monitoring by the IMF. Most of the new money went back out of the country, largely to its bank creditors. And the massive cuts in public spending deepened the country’s recession.
By 2011 it had become clear that the Troika’s policies were self-defeating. The deeper recession further reduced tax revenues, making it harder for the Greek government to pay its debts. Thus in 2012 the Troika again extended loans to the Greek government as part of a second bailout which included . . . wait for it . . . yet new austerity measures.
Not surprisingly, the outcome was more of the same. By then, French and German banks were off the hook. It was now the European governments and the International Monetary Fund that worried about repayment. And the Greek economy continued its downward ascent.
Significantly, in 2012, IMF staff acknowledged that the its support for austerity in 2010 was a mistake. Simply put, if you ask a government to cut spending during a period of recession you will only worsen the recession. And a country in recession will not be able to pay its debts. It was a pretty clear and obvious conclusion.
But, significantly, this acknowledgement did little to change Troika policies toward Greece.
By the end of 2014, the Greek people were fed up. Their government had done most of what was demanded of it and yet the economy continued to worsen and the country was deeper in debt than it had been at the start of the bailouts. And, once again, the Greek government was unable to make its debt payments without access to new loans. So, in January 2015 they elected a left wing, radical party known as Syriza because of the party’s commitment to negotiate a new understanding with the Troika, one that would enable the country to return to growth, which meant an end to austerity and debt relief.
Syriza entered the negotiations hopeful that the lessons of the past had been learned. But no, the Troika refused all additional financial support unless Greece agreed to implement yet another round of austerity. What started out as negotiations quickly turned into a one way scolding. The Troika continued to demand significant cuts in public spending to boost Greek government revenue for debt repayment. Greece eventually won a compromise that limited the size of the primary surplus required, but when they proposed achieving it by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy rather than spending cuts, they were rebuffed, principally by the IMF.
The Troika demanded cuts in pensions, again to reduce government spending. When Greece countered with an offer to boost contributions rather than slash the benefits going to those at the bottom of the income distribution, they were again rebuffed. On and on it went. Even the previous head of the IMF penned an intervention warning that the IMF was in danger of repeating its past mistakes, but to no avail.
Finally on June 25, the Troika made its final offer. It would provide additional funds to Greece, enough to enable it to make its debt payments over the next five months in exchange for more austerity. However, as the Greek government recognized, this would just be “kicking the can down the road.” In five months the country would again be forced to ask for more money and accept more austerity. No wonder the Greek Prime Minister announced he was done, that he would take this offer to the Greek people with a recommendation of a “NO” vote.
Almost immediately after the Greek government announced its plans for a referendum, the leaders of the Troika intervened in the Greek debate. For example, as the New York Timesreported:
By long-established diplomatic tradition, leaders and international institutions do not meddle in the domestic politics of other countries. But under cover of a referendum in which the rest of Europe has a clear stake, European leaders who have found [Greece Prime Minister] Tsipras difficult to deal with have been clear about the outcome they prefer.
Many are openly opposing him on the referendum, which could very possibly make way for a new government and a new approach to finding a compromise. The situation in Greece, analysts said, is not the first time that European politics have crossed borders, but it is the most open instance and the one with the greatest potential effect so far on European unity…
Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament, offered at one point to travel to Greece to campaign for the “yes” forces, those in favor of taking a deal along the lines offered by the
On Thursday, Mr. Schulz was on television making clear that he had little regard for Mr. Tsipras and his government. “We will help the Greek people but most certainly not the government,” he said.
European leaders actively worked to distort the terms of the referendum. Greeks were voting on whether to accept or reject Troika austerity policies yet the Troika leaders falsely claimed the vote was on whether Greece should remain in the Eurozone. In fact, there is no mechanism for kicking a country out of the Eurozone and the Greek government was always clear that it was not seeking to leave the zone.
Having whipped up popular fears of an end to the euro, some Greeks began talking their money out of the banks. On June 28, the European Central Bank then took the aggressive step of limiting its support to the Greek financial system.
This was a very significant and highly political step. Eurozone governments do not print their own money or control their own monetary systems. The European Central Bank is in charge of regional monetary policy and is duty bound to support the stability of the region’s financial system. By limiting its support for Greek banks it forced the Greek government to limit withdrawals which only worsened economic conditions and heightened fears about an economic collapse. This was, as reported by the New York Times, a clear attempt to influence the vote, one might even say an act of economic terrorism:
Some experts say the timing of the European Central Bank action in capping emergency funding to Greek banks this week appeared to be part of a campaign to influence voters.
“I don’t see how anybody can believe that the timing of this was coincidence,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist and a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “When you restrict the flow of cash enough to close the banks during the week of a referendum, this is a very deliberate move to scare people.”
Then on July 2, three days before the referendum, an IMF staff report on Greece was made public. Echos of 2010, the report made clear that Troika austerity demands were counterproductive. Greece needed massive new loans and debt forgiveness. The Bruegel Institute, a European think tank, offered a summary and analysis of the report, concluding that “the creditors negotiated with Greece in bad faith” and used “indefensible economic logic.”
The leaders of the Troika were insisting on policies that the IMF’s own staff viewed as misguided. Moreover, as noted above, European leaders desperately but unsuccessfully tried to kill the report. Only one conclusion is possible: the negotiations were a sham.
The Troika’s goals were political: they wanted to destroy the leftist, radical Syriza because it represented a threat to a status quo in which working people suffer to generate profits for the region’s leading corporations. It apparently didn’t matter to them that what they were demanding was disastrous for the people of Greece. In fact, quite the opposite was likely true: punishing Greece was part of their plan to ensure that voters would reject insurgent movements in other countries, especially Spain.
And despite, or perhaps because of all of the interventions and threats highlighted above, the Greek people stood firm. As the headlines of a Bloomberg news story proclaimed: “Varoufakis: Greeks Said ‘No’ to Five Years of Hypocrisy.”
The Greek vote was a huge victory for working people everywhere.
Now, we need to learn the lessons of this experience. Among the most important are: those who speak for dominant capitalist interests are not to be trusted. Our strength is in organization and collective action. Our efforts can shape alternatives.
One of the first things other academics ask me is “why are you interested in toilets?”
For the vast majority of people, the biological function of waste excretion is an after thought, an activity that nobody wants to talk about, and often times, the mere thought of talking about shit grosses them out. I, however, am fascinated by the human and political dimensions of human waste and the challenges that solving the global sanitation crisis presents. More than excrement itself, I’m interested in a holistic view of sanitation (waste disposal, transportation, removal, treatment and reuse). This interest stems primarily from my training as a chemical engineer, my work experience as a sanitation engineer and researcher, and my interest from my doctoral studies in understanding the politics of policy intervention.
Contrary to what one might think, toilets are political. Owning a toilet will become a necessary prerequisite for politicians to run for office in Gujarat, India. The new Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, has made ending open defecation and increasing access to toilets one of his campaign promises and a crucial component of his political and public policy agenda. Modi’s “toilets first, temples later” has been seen as a strong statement in favor of increasing toilet and latrine access in India.
In my own work I have emphasized that even if we have the technical capabilities to increase access to toilets, latrines and sanitation infrastructure, often times we see lack of progress because institutional, cultural, behavioral and societal barriers have been erected through time. I have shown that the behavioral determinants of sanitation governance are complex and multicausal, and also have multiple effects. Not having a toilet in your own home or easily accessible can lead to violence and physical/sexual assault. Lack of toilets affects women disproportionately and leaves them vulnerable to physical violence. Earlier this year I wrote about the complex linkages between menstrual hygiene management, access to toilets, and violence against women.
To end open defecation and increase sanitation access, we need a set of policy strategies that aren’t solely focused (individually) on cultural practices, or access to latrines, or poverty alleviation. All these factors must be tackled simultaneously.
World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th. This year finally the United Nations named World Toilet Day an official UN day, although for all the noise it has been making, we are WAY behind the target for the Millennium Development Goals. If we really want to end open defecation by 2025, as the UN indicates, we are definitely going to need a better approach. In my own research, I have found that institution- and routine-based strategies help increase access to sanitation. I have also argued that access to toilets can be used as a political manipulation strategy. We should be interested in the global politics of sanitation because the crisis is far-reaching and widespread.
Today, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that over 1 billion people defecate in the open because they lack the dignity of a toilet, and that 2.6 billion people don’t have access to improved water and sanitation sources.
Think about it. It IS political. Because we can’t wait to solve the global sanitation crisis.
Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD is a professor of Resource Management and Environmental Studies with a specialty in the global politics of sanitation. You can follow him at raulpacheco.org, where this post originally appeared, and on Twitter and Facebook.
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