Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Betrayal of Liliuokalani

Since my youth, the islands of Hawaii have evoked strong images and emotions in me. I travelled there with my family when I was around 12, and for the first time I met an American living a totally different lifestyle. He was a friend of my brothers who had decided he was going to spend his time in the sun and surfing. For a rain-soaked kid from the Pacific Northwest, this seemed like an incredible adventure. So it happened that, when I was 19 years old and had an opportunity to travel, I bought a ticket for Honolulu, where I was to live, work, and surf for the next four months. As it was my first independent experience of traveling, I hold a special place in my memories for this time of my life.

I probably got spoiled. Hawaii is one of the few places I've been where I had the distinct feeling that I was in a special, sacred part of the earth. It is with this personal background that I have begun reading on Hawaiian history. The book I chose to start with is titled "The Betrayal of Liliuokalani" by Helena Allen. "The Betrayal" is not that good, unfortunately. In an attempt to be thorough, the author makes the classic History-class mistake of presenting the past as a collection of dates and names. It took some discipline to get past the first 200 pages.

The incredible story of how the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown, however, is too interesting to get diminished through poor writing. Non-native property owners were successful in getting American troops to land on shore to "protect (their) life and property". This was in response to the Queen's attempt to write a new constitution that was more favorable to native Hawaiians. With the implicit backing of the soldiers, a group of 13 non-Hawaiians established a provisional government. The president of the United States at the time, Grover Cleveland, wrote a letter condemning the action and demanding a reversal. Incredibly, this small group of men rejected the command of the President. Their reasoning was an amazing display of how clever legal maneuvering can undermine justice.

The provisional government stated that as they were the de facto government of Hawaii, they were an independent nation not subject to American law. Nevermind that these men were Americans and that their coup was only made possible through the force of the American military. Short of a war that Congress was reluctant to agree to, nothing more could be done. With the beginning of WWI, the strategic importance of these islands was recognized and the move from annexation to statehood was completed.

I hope to read more about Hawaiian history in other books. Somehow the tedious style of this book seemed especially incongruent for a place like Hawaii. I would also critique that the author was too one-sided in her perspective, but I am beginning to understand that the situation really was pretty lopsided. In fact, President Clinton made an official apology to Hawaii for the manner in which it became a state of the union.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All Our Relations

They say every story has two sides. Well, the other side to this story better be pretty damn good, because Winona Laduke has shown us the heart-wrenching Indian perspective in her collection of non-fiction titled "All Our Relations". Each chapter of the book addresses a specific environmental issue that various Indian tribes are facing. Although surely some accountability must lay with the Indian leaders themselves, many of the challenges these low-income communities face stem from outside decision making.

In an ironic twist, it appears that the "worthless" land that was designated for Native American reservations is actually enormously rich in natural resources. Unfortunately, the BIA, mining companies, and the military have used their power to successfully exploit this situation without due compensation to the peoples whose land it is, the Indians.

The general message of this book is that the Indian people who want to live a lifestyle more in accordance with their traditional values are being denied that right through the environmental devastation of their land. Some of the abuses that are occuring on Indian lands RIGHT NOW are: strip mining of uranium, nuclear waste storage, industrial pollution, clear-cutting of forests, and land appropriation. If this were happening to middle-class America and affecting our cities, we would be outraged.

Winona Laduke is perhaps best known as the Vice-Presidential running mate with Ralph Nader in 2000. She is a leading voice within the Native American leadership that argues for a holistic approach to politics. Ms. Laduke views each situation as a combination of environmental, economic, political and, above all, spiritual factors. I decided I wanted to read this collection of non-fiction after reading an interview with her and religious scholar Huston Smith. Of all the speakers in that book, she stood out to me as incredibly poised, compassionate, and intelligent. This book did not disappoint. I feel like I gained a tremendous insight into the world of activist Native Americans. More than that, I feel inspired to get better informed and see what part I can play to support these causes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Making Globalization Work

Joseph Stiglitz has managed to survive as the rarest of breeds: an establishment radical. During the Clinton years, he acted as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Afterwards, he left national politics to work with the World Bank as the Chief Economist. He won the Nobel Prize, for goodness sake. Throughout his time at the pinnacle of institutionalized power, Stiglitz has amazed/infuriated onlookers with his voice of dissent. His opinions are "radical" only in their context, however. Not a communist, anarchist, or socialist, he is a believer in markets and capitalism who wishes to transform the discussion of globalization from "Is it good or bad?" to "How can we make the most out of the globalization of the world".

Stiglitz wrote the inflammatory "Globalization and It's Discontents" after his experience with the World Bank. In it, he is very critical of the IMF policies and how undemocratic international financial institutions were pushing special interests at the cost of the developing countries. I read this book last year and really learned a lot. As a follow-up to that book, in "How to Make Globalization Work", Stiglitz wishes to move from critic to creator.

The major proposals set forth in this book seem reasonable to me. First and foremost, Stiglitz argues that we need to democratize the international governance of finance. The economic globalization of the world has taken place faster than the political globalization. Therefore, the democratic values so cherished in our nations are largely ignored in these crucial negotiations. Currently the WTO, IMF, and World Bank conduct their business in secrecy and with a disproportionate influence among it's members. To insure that the the developing world's voices are heard, we should demand more transparency and more equitable decision-making.

From this basic platform come several specific suggestions. Some of them are:
-Debt forgiveness of the poorest countries would enable them to invest more in development.
-The removal of agricultural subsidies in the developed world to provide opportunities for exports in the developing nations primary comparative advantage.
-A more narrow intellectual property protection to allow competitive development and give access to life-saving drugs for the millions in need.
-A recognition that global warming needs immediate attention. He proposes financial incentives to developing nations to NOT log their forests and an alternative to Kyoto that was based on taxation instead of national guidelines.

I believe that the thinking behind Stiglitz' proposals is solid. In fact, for all the tension between the "Kenynesian" and "Smith" camps, I would venture that Greenspan agrees with a large part of the economics. What seems to divide this two schools of thought more than the economics is the politics. Greenspan and the fundamentalist followers of Adam Smith tend to be more libertarian in their emphasis on individual rights and the lack of governmental intervention. Stiglitz and the Neo-Keynsians favor democratic governance as a means to provide for the community as a whole. This balancing act plays itself out in our Courts, our Senate floors, and, now it appears, in the Globalization. One of the things I appreciate about Stiglitz is his candor in accepting the reality of a politically-influenced economics.

This is a great read for anyone interested in learning how we can create a more humane globalization. It is decidedly "liberal", so know that going in. I consider myself fairly progessive and, still, at times I found the rights and respect due the developed countries were too-easily ignored. It does, however, do an excellent job of opening the discussion on globalization from it's current, limited perspective.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Island of the Colorblind

Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes. He is a neurologist out of New York who publishes his case studies. The studies read like biographies because Sachs' medical philosophy emphasises the person, and their role, in their illness. Each patient is experiencing something beyond the normal range of human experience and through these extraordinary circumstances Sachs is able to learn about how the brain functions ordinarily.

For example, in one of his studies published in "An Anthropologist on Mars", he meets a man who has been blind for his whole life. One day this man learns his "blindness" is actually the result of scar tissue covering his cornea, and that his actual visual receptors are fine. The entire medical community, Sachs included, assumed this man would have the surgery to remove his cataracts and, hoorah, be able to see. Well, when the bandages were removed the man was able to recieve light input, but his brain did not have the ability to organize this information into a coherent picture. It was discovered that seeing is not passive. Our experience shapes our understanding of the world, in a literal sense. Wow. It is through stories like these and, of course, the powerful "Awakenings", that Sachs' writing has changed the way I think about the world.

In "The Island of the Colorblind", Dr. Sachs is at his best. The book is a blend of natural and political history, medical analysis, and philosophic concepts. After reading the first 30 pages I felt a tremendous excitement to be reading. It was, strange enough, a "reader's high". What I was learning, coupled with the beautiful writing style, was actually making my heart beat faster and an endorphine rush charged through my body.

My favorite parts of the book are bookended in the introduction to the political history of the Pacific islands and towards the end when the concept of "deep time" is discussed in his ruminations on the cycads. The book is actually two separate writings on independent visits to the Pacific islands. The main thrust of the first segment, exploring a "colorblind" island and discovering how the loss of color affects the community, is diluted. The island is not totally colorblind (only about 12% are) and the novel insights the reader is expecting never fully materialize.

Likewise, the primary story line of the second half is centered on an investigation of a rare neurological disease in Guam that has puzzled scientists for years. Unlike his usual case studies, I didn't feel I got to know these patients that well. For readers familiar with Sachs's encephalitic patients, these stories seem familiar, but not as intimately portrayed.

In the last chapter on Rota, Sachs shares how his research into prehistoric plants give him a sense of the sublime time-scale we live in. He refers to this concept as "deep time". Deep time refers to an understanding of, and connection with, the almost inconcievable length of time that passes on a geological or evolutionary scale. For the vast majority of our life we are limited in our relationship to deep time. Rarely, and it happens to Sachs when he is amongst ancient ferns, we catch a glimpse of what 100 million years ago truly means. One gets the sense that for Sachs this could be described as a secular religious epiphany: witnessing the miracle of eternity.

I finished reading this book feeling inspired and humbled. A great read. For first time readers of Sachs, his "Awakenings" is still the masterpiece. And, for anyone interested in a casual introduction to his writing I would recommend one of his collections of cases.