September 30, 2011
Checkbook Diplomacy: In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, the State Department made some bizarre impulse purchases.
September 30, 2011
In 2009, the State Department sent me to Iraq for a year as part of the civilian surge deployed to backstop the more muscular military one. At the head of a six-person Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), I was assigned to spend U.S. government money creating projects that would lift the local economy and lure young men away from the dead-end opportunities of al Qaeda. I was to empower women, turning them into entrepreneurs and handing them a future instead of a suicide vest. This was newfangled hearts and minds, as practiced with a lavish checkbook and supervised by a skittish embassy looking for “victory” anywhere it could be found. We really did believe money could buy us love and win the war.
The work was done by amateurs like me, sent to Iraq on one-year tours without guidance or training, and eager to create photogenic success stories that would get us all promoted. No idea was too bizarre, too gimmicky, or too pointless for us hearts-and-minders: We actually preferred handing out croissants and children’s calendars to tackling tough issues like health care or civic services. One month it might be guaranteed-to-fail small businesses like car washes and brake repair shops in an economy struggling just to take a breath; the next, an Arabic translation of Macbeth, with some of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in bad-guy roles. As one Iraqi told me at a U.S.-funded art show in Dora, one of the most violent suburbs of Baghdad, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
Here are some of the wacky ideas we came up with to rebuild Iraq, and remember: These are the wacky ones that actually got U.S. taxpayer funding.
French Pastry Classes
In the hands of one PRT in southern Baghdad, our instructions to help female entrepreneurs translated into pastry classes for disadvantaged Iraqi women who presumably could then go open cute little French cafes in their city’s bombed-out streets. In the funding request, the PRT stipulated that “a French Chef with experience in both baking pastries and in teaching pastry classes internationally” would volunteer to teach. So, you may ask, if the French chef was volunteering le time, what was the $9,797 spent on? Well, some was certainly spent on paying students to attend. It was almost impossible to get Iraqis to show up for these things (as they had to, if you wanted your photos of the event to look good) without offering a free lunch, taxi fare, and a stipend. Needless to say, I never heard of any pâtisseries sprouting up on the road to Baghdad’s airport.
Play About Donkeys
How to convince the Iraqis to abandon several thousand years of ethnic and religious sectarian hatred? One Baghdad PRT’s solution was to pay the local Iraqi artists’ syndicate to produce a play,Under the Donkey’s Shade. “The play focuses on an uproariously funny legal dispute that splits the people of a town into two groups,” the description in the funding report boasts. “The matter in dispute is the value of shade cast by a donkey. The message is clear: Don’t quarrel over minor differences. Those who see the play will get the message that political reconciliation is critical as we head into national election season.” The production was staged at least once to my knowledge, with some coerced locals in reluctant attendance; political reconciliation did not spontaneously flower.
Road to Nowhere
In 2009, the U.S. Army hired a contractor to pave a short stretch of dirt road near the city of Salman Pak, with the idea of increasing commerce between two nearby neighborhoods. The contractor, however, took the money and laid down only gravel — which made the road just passable enough that insurgents started to use it as a transit route. The local residents appealed to the police, who set up barricades, ending what little commerce the original dirt road had sustained.
One PRT hired a local artist to paint a mural on the side of a gym near Sadr City. The purpose was to “provide an aesthetically pleasing sight upon entry, helping to bring a sense of normalcy for the citizens in the area and for those passing through.” What we ended up with instead was a group of oiled, homoerotic Steve Reeves musclemen…
September 30, 2011
Standing in the cold with 2 million others near the Capitol as Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, I couldn’t help but recall another crowded day 45 years earlier, when I heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration at the other end of the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
A 19-year-old college student at the time, I was moved by his words but had no idea that his speech would soon rank as one of the greatest oratories in American history. My view of King and his rhetoric would be profoundly affected in unexpected ways by the changes the march had set in motion. I wondered how Obama’s speech might affect the lives of the many young people that I saw in the crowd at the Capitol but appreciated how difficult it is to predict the enduring impact of even the most moving oratory Nonetheless, my study of King, especially since becoming editor of his papers, has convinced me that King’s and Obama’s distinctive oratorical qualities are related in important ways. Indeed, the new president seems to personify King’s dream that his children would live in a nation capable of judging people on the basis of character rather than skin color.
In 1963 King’s dream seemed a fantasy. The continuing reality of racial discrimination and segregation made me dubious about King’s visionary rhetoric, his faith in American ideals, and his mode of charismatic leadership. King critics such as Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and other organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had convinced me that black advancement would come not through the guidance of national civil rights leaders such as King but through militant grassroots activism. The landmark civil rights legislation that followed the march failed to transform Mississippi “into an oasis of freedom and justice,” as King had envisioned. During the era of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, the idea that Americans of all races one day would join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last,” seemed far-fetched. Malcolm X and the Black Power firebrands pushed King from prominence as they revived an alternative black nationalist oratorical tradition that offered a compelling explanation of the escalating racial violence and police repression of the late 1960s. During the last year of his life, King himself spoke of his dream turning into a nightmare; in his 1967 antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church, he labeled the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
As black militancy and white repression spawned ever more deadly violence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I gradually came to understand the wisdom of King’s message of nonviolence and reconciliation. Although I remained skeptical of the notion that great oratory in itself could change the course of history I began to see that King understood the radical potential of the traditional religious and political ideals that many Americans shared and that his commitment to social justice was at least as firm as that of his black critics. While I regretted that King’s provocative speeches of his last years earned little of the attention lavished on the final passages of his “Dream” oration, I did see that King’s vision of a transformed nation was, for Americans of all races, “deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Especially after 1985, when Coretta Scott King asked me to direct the King Papers Project (now part of Stanford’s King Institute), I began to see the speech not as an isolated instance of skilled oratory, but rather as a remarkably cogent contribution to a continuing dialogue about America’s destiny King spoke not only to those gathered but also to “the architects of our republic” who had written “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and thereby signed “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
Of all of King’s many speeches, the address at the March on Washington best represented the transformative ability of oratory to infuse familiar ideas with new meanings. In his 16-minute speech, King linked the aspirations of African Americans to the widely shared but unrealized ideals of the American republic. Although he prepared much of the speech in the days preceding the march, he impulsively extended his remarks to incorporate ideas drawn from almost two centuries of American black-white relations, hearkening back to Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers who spoke of “inalienable rights” while holding slaves. King’s concluding evocation of his dream was extemporaneous, but he had been preparing these remarks for most of his adult life…
September 30, 2011
Community colleges in West Virginia are gearing up for a major upgrade in their statewide broadband network—a move that will provide new opportunities in distance education to institutions in a mountainous state that has long been unable to provide decent Internet access. Some colleges are already reaping the benefits, seeing enrollment increases in online courses. But others, in areas slow to be connected, are still finding it difficult.
For those on the fast track, the plan marks West Virginia’s long-awaited transition from the “copper age to the digital age,” says David J. Ayersman, vice president for technology services at New River Community and Technical College, in the southern part of the state.
Mr. Ayersman works in a state that in 2010 was ranked 48th nationally in broadband penetration, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But within two years, West Virginia is projected to be among the top five most connected states in the country, as broadband Internet access is extended to thousands of community sites. The expansion is being driven by a joint state and federal effort called the West Virginia Statewide Broadband Infrastructure Project.
The effort began just last year, when the state received $126-million in federal economic-stimulus money for broadband expansion. Most of those funds have been spent on schools and libraries, not colleges. But the initiative has drawn Internet providers to the state who, since they were wiring surrounding communities, could offer colleges lower prices to build their networks.
And by making robust connections more affordable to state residents, the effort is providing colleges with potential new students.
“What we’re seeing in particular is nontraditional students who are very interested in being able to access distance education without quitting their jobs or leaving their homes,” says Daniel P. O’Hanlon, vice chancellor for technology at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and director of WVNET, the statewide Internet consortium, comprising education, government, and nonprofit groups.
Broadband uses fiber-optic technology to deliver fast streaming video and rich multimedia. In a mountainous state like West Virginia, where travel can be slow, establishing such a network is both costly and logistically challenging. “Networks in rural states have been problematic for not just West Virginia,” says Mr. O’Hanlon. Wyoming and Vermont, for example, have faced similar difficulties in getting companies to build networks in areas where populations are sparse.
An additional problem in West Virginia is that Internet providers were often being sold or reorganized, complicating any long-term plans that colleges like New River had made for network upgrades.
Without a good network, New River was stymied in its attempts to offer single courses at multiple locations on its nine campuses. A nursing course that tried to use videoconferencing to beam a professor’s lectures to several campuses had to be canceled. “It’s not something that a single person or a single agency can fix,” says Mr. Ayersman.
But with broadband on the scene, enrollment in New River’s online courses has more than doubled. Students are typically working adults who live in rural areas, he notes. Online classes give them flexible scheduling and reduce travel time; otherwise, many would have to drive 100 miles or more, over rough terrain, to get to class.
Mr. Ayersman is working with Internet providers to double the college’s bandwidth while cutting costs. “I think we are overdue,” he says, “and we’re finally getting the attention that we need.”
But for those in the more remote areas, progress has not been as swift.
At Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, on four campuses in the state’s southwestern coal country, gaining connectivity continues to be tough. It has been financially difficult to invest in network upgrades, says the chief information officer, George A. Beshears. Local populations are declining as the depressed economy produces few jobs, he notes, and so the college is not seeing the enrollment increases that push it toward better technology.
“We understand that we’re really below the curve,” he says. The college provides dial-up access to about 200 private residences in the area and experiences connectivity losses on its campus network during peak periods every trimester…
September 30, 2011
September 30, 2011
September 29, 2011
September 29, 2011
Ammunition crates, now empty in the wake of recent heavy fighting, are stacked outside the military barracks at the Tripoli airport. One of the victors, wearing military fatigues, is sitting in a luxurious leather armchair inside the building. He presses his combat boots into the thick carpet, his facial features as rigid as if they had been sculpted. The man speaks intently. He wants to make sure that each of his sentences is recorded on video, and that nothing is misunderstood.
For years, American and British intelligence agencies hunted Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of the Libyan rebels’ Tripoli brigade, believing him to be a terrorist and ally of then al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. They also reportedly had him abducted, which led to his being tortured with syringes and ice-cold water. Now though, the West and many in Libya are paying close attention, and are listening to his every word.
“In reality, our group had nothing to do with al-Qaida at the time,” says Belhaj, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which, persecuted by the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, took refuge in Afghanistan for years. Belhaj, the battle-hardened Islamist, is now the commander of all rebel troops in the Libyan capital.
His men drive around in their pickups, outfitted with automatic weapons while the civilian heads of the rebellion seek to map out a path for their country’s future. Belhaj says that the power lies “in the hands of the Libyan people,” and that Libyans can now decide democratically how they wish to live their lives. “We want a secular country,” he adds. But many Libyans don’t believe a word the Islamist is saying.
There is, after all, more at stake today than merely the question of who is currently in power. It is about shaping Libya’s future. The Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa are over, and in the wake of the change of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, a coalition of Islamists and secular insurgents has emerged victorious in Libya. But now that the war is almost over, the deep differences between the two groups are becoming more apparent.
As in Tunisia and Egypt, it will soon become apparent how democratic the new Libya can be. Will it develop along the lines of the Turkish model, for which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently campaigned on a celebrated trip through the Arab world? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, will it model itself after the Iranian theocracy?
The old dictators were convenient for the West, because they kept the Islamists under control. But now that the people have liberated themselves, their new freedoms apply to everyone, including the Islamists and jihadists who want to see Sharia law introduced in their respective countries. They are demanding their share of power, which is hardly likely to be small.
The Islamists’ brigades fought well in Libya. Indeed, even decades before the revolutions in North Africa, they were the best-organized opposition in the three countries. Their leaders were locked up, tortured and killed. The Islamists paid a heavy price, which has made their supporters tough. They also have greater financial resources than other opposition groups, partly because of support from Gulf sheikhs like the leader of Qatar.
A constitutional convention is to be elected in Tunisia in four weeks, and polls show that the religious Nahda Party could capture 20 to 30 percent of the vote. This would likely give the Islamists more power than any secular party.
This comes as no surprise, since the Islamists have the largest election campaign war chest, they fund scholarships and social projects, they are omnipresent and preach piety. Women are already complaining about being attacked in broad daylight. When a film critical of religion was shown in Tunis, Islamists stormed out of the theater and physically assaulted the owners.
Observers in Egypt believe that the Islamists there — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists — hold a similar potential among voters. The Muslim Brotherhood, now calling itself the Freedom and Justice Party, already wants to establish strict rules for foreign women wearing bikinis on Egyptian beaches. Members of the Salafist sect have established a number of different parties.
When the two groups organized a joint rally on Tahrir Square in Cairo, tens of thousands showed up to demonstrate for an Islamic state. Some are blaming the Salafists for a recent rise in arson attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt.
The situation in Libya is much more chaotic than in the two neighboring countries, partly because the rebels are still fighting the last remaining Gadhafi loyalists. Nevertheless, the National Transitional Council, headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, and the so-called Executive Committee, under the chairmanship of Mahmoud Jibril, have presented roadmap to democracy which calls for the election of a 200-member national congress in about eight months. Within a year, the congress would draw up a constitution, organize a constitutional referendum and eventually hold free elections.
Military leader Belhaj already feels powerful enough to counter Jibril, who serves as the de facto prime minister. Belhaj, in fact, is trying to oust Jibril from his position.
Charges of Corruption
But the two most influential Libyan Islamists are probably the Salabi brothers. Ismail Salabi commands one of the toughest rebel brigades in Benghazi. His brother Ali, considered one of the country’s religious leaders, travels back and forth between Libya and Qatar, the Arab nation on the Persian Gulf that supplied the rebels with weapons and trained its fighters.
The Salabis have already tried several times to discredit members of the National Transitional Council with charges of corruption. Ali Salabi claims the council is filled with “radical secularists” who are trying to sideline the religious groups before elections, and that Jibril wants to usher in a “new era of tyranny and dictatorship.”
The Islamists now plan to establish a religious party. If they do not do well in the election, however, says Ali Salabi, they will still respect the will of the people. Salabi insists that he believes in democracy.
But many distrust radicals like the Salabis, especially since the murder of Abdul Fattah Younis. Gadhafi’s former interior minister, Younis joined the rebels days after the rebellion began, and, as their commander-in-chief, developed their army. His was one of three bodies were found near Benghazi on July 28. To this day, it remains unclear who shot Younis and his two companions and then burned the bodies, although suspicions point to the Islamists.
Fathi Bin Issa, editor-in-chief of the new Tripoli newspaper Arus al-Bahr, is sitting in his long, narrow office, a room bathed in cold fluorescent light. The red, black and green flag of the new Libya hangs next to his desk. Bin Issa was the spokesman of the rebels shortly after they captured the capital, and his editors now write regular features about the Islamists. He says that he received several death threats only last week, with callers threatening to blow up his office…
Atomic Dogs: Why can’t the world’s nuclear energy watchdog do anything about Fukushima or Iran’s weapons program?
September 29, 2011
The Incident and Emergency Center of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is on the eighth floor of the organization’s headquarters building in Vienna. It is a low-ceilinged room, with a small conference table and a handful of cubicles, that somehow manages to be claustrophobic despite its expansive views toward the center of the city — one set of windows looks down on the IAEA’s plaza, where over 100 national flags line a fountain; the other looks across the Danube. It was a gray and stately vista of European order the day I visited.
For almost two months following Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a still-unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the room was staffed around the clock by 230 IAEA staff members working in shifts. I asked Elena Buglova, the Incident and Emergency Center’s (IEC’s) director, what they had accomplished during their 24/7 alert. “We did accomplish the activities of the IEC in line with the plans and procedures agreed in advance, which were known to member states, which were known to the competent authorities,” she said. These are some of the plans and procedures Buglova followed, which she showed me on a slide:Fundamental Safety Principles; Governmental, Legal and Regulatory Framework for Safety; Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency; Arrangements for Preparedness for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency; and, lastly, the Criteria for Use in Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency.
But for all this preparedness, even as the Fukushima Daiichi plant leaked a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere, all Yukiya Amano, the IAEA’s head, could do was relay reassuring messages from the Japanese government, bound as he was by IAEA regulations limiting his authority. Even Buglova couldn’t tell me what any of this had actually accomplished.
I was in Vienna for the IAEA’s annual General Conference — a chance for the ambassadors of the 151 IAEA member states to take stock of the past year and make plans for the next. Assorted VIPs also make an appearance, including U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the highest-ranking American official there.
In a week in Vienna I heard exactly one person — George Felgate, head of the World Association of Nuclear Operators — express some sense of responsibility for the disaster. “Did we fail? Yes, we did,” Felgate said, referring to the Fukushima plant’s lack of preparation for a massive tsunami and the resulting loss of electrical power. By contrast, Amano’s opening statement went directly to the public reaction: “[Fukushima] caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power,” he said. Amano’s attitude was not one of contrition, but rather was directed at how to assuage public fears, the implication being that such fears stem from ignorance and could not possibly be well-founded.
Can the IAEA prevent the next Fukushima? Can it prevent the spread of nuclear weapons? I’d come to find out the answer to these questions. And the answer, which saddened me and should sadden you, is no. The story of the IAEA is a story of good intentions getting tangled in officiousness. It is a place where the dominant culture prevents smart people from taking risks. Its mandate is limited by law, but also by an attitude that revels in these limitations.
The week-long conference began on Monday morning, Sept. 19. For the next three days, each member state made its statement, with sessions sometimes going late into the night. Without fail, each of these would ritually include congratulations to the conference’s new president, Romanian diplomat Cornel Feruta; condolences to the people and government of Japan; and then a welcome to the new IAEA members: Commonwealth of Dominica, the Kingdom of Tonga, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (There was some confusion when Mozambique’s energy minister mixed up Dominica and the Dominican Republic.)
None of these countries was joining the IAEA because of its interest in preventing proliferation. They were after the IAEA’s main fringe benefit — easier access to nuclear technology. And herein lies part of the problem: The IAEA has two mandates that often come into direct conflict. The first is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The second is to encourage the spread of nuclear energy and other peaceful uses of nuclear technology. In broad terms, poor countries want to give priority to the second goal and rich countries want the first. The result is an organization that does the second adequately well — rich countries are happy to be exporters of energy technology — but that is failing at the first.
No country that has ever been determined to get nuclear weapons has failed in doing so because of the IAEA’s intervention; it can, at best, cause delays. And the countries that have given up nuclear weapons — Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine — did so not because of the IAEA’s enforcement capacity, but because of political considerations. This failure is for several reasons. The first is that it is extremely difficult to control the spread of technology. Many bomb-making tools have so-called “dual uses” (meaning both civilian and weaponization utilities). For instance, the precision machining tools used to create, say, currency engraving plates could also be used to shape a bomb. Thus, keeping technology from a country determined to create a bomb, even a poor and backward one like North Korea, is next to impossible. But the failure also stems from the fact that most IAEA members are more interested in acquiring peaceful nuclear technology than in curtailing new nuclear powers.
Indeed, as much as the IAEA wants to paint itself as a technical agency, it is, by its nature, political. Whether it is Israel or Iran, the United States or Egypt, most member states have a basically identical goal: Each is concerned with its own national interest, which mostly involves keeping the agency weak. Giving the agency enforcement powers (to do what it is actually tasked to do) would involve ceding some measure of sovereignty, and for different reasons, nobody wants to do this. Much better to make pro forma statements and applaud.
There were reminders of the inherent futility of the IAEA’s mission throughout its headquarters. Along the main auditorium’s left wall was a small sign that says “Financial Contributions.” In front of the sign was a table with a tray of chocolate coins, there to encourage delegates from delinquent countries to pay their dues. By Thursday, the coins were gone. I didn’t see who ate them. At the conference’s outset, 14 countries had had their voting privileges suspended for nonpayment; five more were on negotiated payment plans, their dues having been restructured…
The Currents of Islam: In Belgium and elsewhere, Muslims face a choice between secularism or radicalization.
September 29, 2011
I don’t read the Belgian press often, but a recent headline in Le Soircaught my eye: ISLAMIZATION OF THE YOUNG: FUNDAMENTALISM SWEEPS THEM.
Actually, the headline turned out to be something of an exaggeration compared with what followed. The article reported on a recently defended doctoral thesis by a young researcher at the Free University of Brussels, Leila El Bachiri. She maintained that the radicalization of a small minority of the Muslim young of Brussels (the European city with the highest proportion of Muslims, 17 percent) was brought about not from the influence of their immigrant parents, or by the religious institutions in their country of origin (mainly Morocco), but by the preaching of members of the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and of Wahhabi or Salafist missionaries on the other.
These two strains are somewhat different. The former might be called the New Left, or Gramscian, wing of Islamism, the latter the Old Left, or Stalinist flank. While the Wahhabist Old Left cleaves to literalism, the New Left Muslim Brotherhood claims (at least for public consumption) an “interpretive” reading of the Koran. The Brotherhood even has a feminist wing, led by Malika Hamidi, a sociologist with a doctorate from Paris who serves as director of the European Muslim Network and vice president of the International Group for the Study of and Reflexion on the Woman in Islam. Hamidi says that wearing the veil is not an enforceable religious obligation, and she argues for equality of the sexes “of and by means of Islam.” This equality, however, would be put to “the service of a religious view of the world.” By contrast, for the Wahhabis and Salafists, the obligation for women to wear the veil is simply incontestable.
Asked by Le Soir whether the Islamist problem in Brussels alarmed her, Bachiri replied, “I am neither afraid nor alarmed. The population of Muslim origin is plural, and crossed by currents of individualization and secularization… But also, I admit, by a phenomenon of re-Islamization.”
The question, I suppose, is which current is the most powerful, and it is not easy to determine—in Belgium or elsewhere. A few days after reading Le Soir, I happened to take a taxi from Welwyn Garden City—a town, about 20 miles north of London, built as a planned community in the 1920s—to Heathrow Airport…
September 29, 2011
September 29, 2011
September 28, 2011
September 28, 2011
September 28, 2011
VANCE PACKARD was the Malcolm Gladwell of his day, a journalist with a gift for explaining business to the general public. But in his 1957 classic “The Hidden Persuaders”, he out-Gladwelled Gladwell. The book not only had a perfect title. It also revealed for the first time the psychological tricks that the advertising industry used to make Americans want stuff, instantly transforming the image of America’s advertising executives from glamorous Mad Men into servants of Mephistopheles.
“Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy” is an attempt to write a modern version of “The Hidden Persuaders”. Martin Lindstrom cannot write as elegantly as Packard, as his chapter titles (eg, “Buy it, get laid”) make clear. But as a marketing veteran who lists McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft among his former clients, he knows the industry well. It is far more sophisticated than it was in the 1950s, and just as cynical.
Marketers have vastly more information about potential consumers than ever before. Every time you use a loyalty card you surrender personal information. Every time you do a Google search or hit the “like” button on Facebook, you surrender yet more. Google and Facebook protect personal privacy, but they also make money by selling generic information to advertisers. Professional data-miners use electronic data to create a detailed picture of what you have bought in the past (“history sniffing”) and how you bought it (“behaviour sniffing”). They can then draw your attention to products they think you might want to buy in the future. Smartphones can tell you that there is a shop nearby that stocks just the thing you have been looking for.
Marketers milk science for insights. Studies show that music can affect people’s behaviour: shoppers in American department stores who are exposed to piped tunes with a slow tempo spend 18% longer in the store and make 17% more purchases than those who shop in silence. Marketers routinely track shoppers as they make their way around supermarkets and listen in on their conversations at the counter. They also take willing subjects and observe their reactions as they gawp at products.
Marketers are devoting ever more effort to wooing children. The little monsters have a remarkable ability to nag their parents (whom marketers call “wallet-carriers”) into buying what they want. Better still, habits learned in childhood can last a lifetime. So companies bombard children with advertisements from the day they are born. The average American three-year-old can recognise 100 brands. Many can also recite annoying jingles more readily than their times tables. Given a choice between carrots and “McDonald’s carrots”, children hungrily choose the latter. From a company’s point of view, the earlier you hook your customers, the better. Experiments on rats suggest that a taste for junk food can be acquired in the womb.
The most effective marketing tools are often subtle. Kopiko, a confectioner from the Philippines, distributes free chocolates to paediatricians. Apple offers baby-friendly apps such as “Toddler Teasers” and “Baby Fun!”. Gatorade, a drinks-maker, tweets good-luck messages to star athletes. A company called Girls Intelligence Agency employs 40,000 American girls to act as “guerrilla marketers”. It gives them free products and everything they need to organise a slumber party with their friends to try them out. Then it sits back and waits for the buzz to build…
September 28, 2011
The resignation last week of Wadah Khanfar as managing director of Al Jazeera has provoked speculation that scandal lurks beneath his departure. Many have pointed to a WikiLeaks cable stating that Khanfar had succumbed to pressure from the U.S. in 2005 and played down civilian casualties in some of the network’s coverage of the Iraq War. Others have argued that larger political matters related to its coverage of the Arab Spring — especially its unrestrained, albeit selective, endorsement of democratic reforms — forced Khanfar’s ouster.
Both suggestions contain more fancy than substance: it is hard to believe that Doha did not already know about Khanfar’s talking to the U.S. ambassador or that pro-democracy strands in Al Jazeera’s programming would end his career. (Khanfar regularly ruffled feathers during his tenure.) A far likelier explanation is that, after eight stressful years, Khanfar simply decided that he had contributed all he could to the network. Indeed, his contributions have been transformative.
The more intriguing question is what comes next for Al Jazeera. On one level, the network is doing well. It has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1996. Al Jazeera English’s reputation for solid journalism continues to improve, as evidenced by its surge in popularity in the United States during this year’s Arab uprisings. The network is developing franchises in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and the Balkans. There is even talk of Al Jazeera Urdu. But despite its expanding global reach, the Arab world’s flagship 24-hour satellite news channel must now face the fact that Arabs’ dependence on it is decreasing. As more and more of the region gains access to the Internet, a proliferation of information providers is eroding Al Jazeera’s dominance. Meanwhile, the revolutions that the network helped drive have unleashed a cascade of largely local news outlets, which provide more direct competition. There is no doubt that Al Jazeera will remain a major force in the region for years to come, but its singular role as a unique provider of open, honest content may already be a thing of the past.
In many ways, Al Jazeera is a victim of its own success. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, which the network is regularly credited (and criticized) for galvanizing, Al Jazeera played a vital role in spreading news about the uprisings throughout the region. Al Jazeera’s critics — and the network’s dogged reporting ensures that it has plenty — may argue that its coverage was sensationalistic, but the channel provided a much-desired flow of information that offset old-guard governments’ efforts to suppress the news. It also helped lay the groundwork for the revelations by providing skeptical coverage of religious and other sensitive issues, such as women’s rights, that traditional government-dominated media had long avoided.
Once the revolutions started, the network featured more than just traditional newsgathering. In addition to providing its own reporting, throughout the Arab Spring Al Jazeera made a point of aggregating social media content, repurposing YouTube video, reproducing Facebook material, and delivering Twitter messages to its TV viewers. Because many countries across the Arab world still have limited Internet access — but boast very high percentages of satellite TV viewers — Al Jazeera bridged a vital communications gap.
Following Al Jazeera’s success, the number of free-to-air satellite channels has continued to grow, increasing by more than ten percent in just the last year. More than 530 channels are now broadcast on the region’s three principal satellites: Arabsat, Nilesat, and Noorsat. More than two-thirds are privately owned. Direct 24-hour news networks such as Al Arabiya have sprung up as direct competitors to Al Jazeera. Analysts expect more to come.
Meanwhile, Internet penetration is growing rapidly in the Arab world. Total numbers vary substantially throughout the region: according to Internet World Stats, penetration in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is less than ten percent, while in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates the figure has climbed above 65 percent. Growth, though, has been widespread. In percentage terms, the increased rate of Internet use in the last decade has been huge. Even the poorest nations exemplify the trend: Yemen has seen user growth rise by more than 15,000 percent over the last decade.
With the Internet have come social media. In the 12 months leading up to April, personal and community access for young Arabs in cafés, schools, and other public spots rose from 59 to 62 percent. Facebook first introduced an Arabic-language interface in early 2009, and according to the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report, the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world skyrocketed 30 percent from January to April of 2011, as the Arab Spring unfolded. But that rise came on the heels of what was already rapid growth — Arabic-language Facebook users doubled since April 2010.
Across the Arab world, social media have become go-to sources of information about demonstrations around the corner, as well as places to find real-time reactions from around the world. Politically active Arabs of a new generation have adopted social media as an indispensible tool, and they will not be surrendering it anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has also resulted in a more sprawling and vibrant network of local and national news organizations. In some cases these organizations will supplement Al Jazeera’s regional focus, but in others they will undoubtedly supplant it…
The first time they had sex, during that initial exploration of unfamiliar flesh, John Ross uttered words to Ann Maloney that would sound to her like prophecy. “You have the body of a young girl. You need a baby.”
This compliment, though gallant, could not have been objectively true. The first time Maloney and Ross had sex, he was 54 and she was 47. Maloney may have looked good for her age, but she most certainly did not have the body of a young girl. And the subject of babies, not in wide use as a come-on in any cohort, might have struck another woman so deeply middle-aged as creepy. But Maloney had no children at the time, and she wanted them—badly. As she recalls that ancient intimacy over martinis at an Upper East Side restaurant, her voice reverberates with remembered pleasure. Her husband gazes on fondly as she describes the moment when, as she approached 50, her fantasy came true. Maloney had deferred motherhood for the typical reasons: an unhappy first marriage and a late career switch—in her case from interior designer to psychiatrist—that required years of school and training and a radical relocation from suburban Texas to New York City. When she met her future husband, Maloney was establishing her practice and building a national reputation. She was, finally, ready.
Ross had his own procreative urges. Also a shrink, also divorced, he felt that he and his first wife hadn’t raised their son, now 35, “the way I thought he should be raised. I wanted to rear a family in a better way.” As often happens between mature couples who know what they want, things progressed quickly. The two married within eighteen months of their first date. With their medical backgrounds, they were clear-eyed about this biological fact: The odds that a woman over 45 will get pregnant in the usual, no-tech way are dauntingly low. So, skipping agonizing years of “trying,” they began the process of securing a donor egg. With Ross’s sperm, Maloney’s womb, and the gametes of a much younger woman, they would build the family they both craved.
Donor eggs result in live births about 60 percent of the time, no matter how old the mother-to-be is. But clinics set various age cutoffs, and when Maloney and Ross were attempting to conceive, she was 48, which represented the outer limit. Even after NYU raised concerns about her age, Maloney says she never wondered if she was too old to have children.
Eventually, Columbia University took the couple on. A donor was identified, ejaculate dispensed into a sterile cup. Some of the resulting embryos were immediately transferred into Maloney’s uterus, the remainder sent to the deep freeze for future use. Ann Maloney gave birth to Isabella in February 2001, a blissful event followed by severe postpartum depression followed by the hormonal rages that accompany the onset of menopause. A townhouse was purchased, two flourishing practices shuffled and reshuffled to accommodate newly complicated priorities. Lily was born when her mother was 52. This time, Maloney had to be brought out of menopause with hormones before she could get pregnant.
Today, Maloney and Ross, 60 and 66, inhabit their home with a rotating crew of housekeepers, a couple of fish tanks, a cockatiel, two bearded dragons, two dogs, two cats, and a dwarf hamster. Lily and Isabella are 7 and 10 and come with a docket of demands befitting their age—soccer games, birthday parties, sibling fights.
“You don’t know how high-energy, actually, both of us are,” Ross says. “I acted in 32 productions at Harvard, worked with Erik Erikson, graduated near the top of my class. We are both very intense, and also nurturers.”
You know such people. They are your colleagues and friends, your boss or your mother’s cousin. You see them on the subway—as I did recently at the Bloomingdale’s stop. From behind, the woman looked like a Manhattan-mom archetype: a slim-hipped, pony-tailed blonde in jeans struggling with a stroller. As I passed her, I saw that she had the too-tanned and haggard face of a very fit grandma. In parks and playgrounds, you note a grizzled grown-up and his dimpled charge, and you do the math and you wonder.
The age of first motherhood is rising all over the West. In Italy, Germany, and Great Britain, it’s 30. In the U.S., it’s gone up to 25 from 21 since 1970, and in New York State, it’s even higher, at 27. But among the extremely middle-aged, births aren’t just inching up. They are booming. In 2008, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, about 8,000 babies were born to women 45 or older, more than double the number in 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Five hundred and forty-one of these were born to women age 50 or older—a 375 percent increase. In adoption, the story is the same. Nearly a quarter of adopted children in the U.S. have parents more than 45 years older than they are.
The baby-having drive in this set is so strong it’s recessionproof. Since 2008, birthrates among women overall have declined 4 percent, as families put childbearing on hold while they ride out hard times. But among women over 40, birthrates have increased. Among women ages 45 to 49, they’ve risen 17 percent.
Reproductive technology accounts for the sharp rise in the numbers. Women over 45 who want to carry their own babies most often use donor eggs, though egg freezing, a more cutting-edge method, offers early adopters another option, a kind of reproductive DVR for circumventing the inflexible and often inconvenient schedules handed down by Mother Nature. (Save your shows, and watch them when you have time; put your own eggs on ice, and wait for Mr. Right.) Egg freezing now gets write-ups not just in medical journals but also in Vogue, where a long feature on the technology appeared this past May between articles on avant-garde gastronomy and the fashionable art of mismatching patterns.
But just as important as those medical advances is a baby-crazed, youth-crazed culture that encourages 50-year-olds to envision themselves changing diapers when a decade ago they might have been content to calculate the future returns on their 401(k)s. Nothing—not a sports car, not a genius dye job—says “I’m young” like a baby on your hip. “He’s given the house a renewed spirit and purpose,” John Travolta toldPeople magazine earlier this year about his new son, Benjamin. Travolta is 57. His wife, Kelly Preston, is 48…
September 28, 2011
September 28, 2011
September 27, 2011