The Monster in the Park

I spent the morning reading Luke Morgan’s The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design, which is a fascinating book. I’m particularly interested in what he has to say about Italian garden statuary, a topic that is much more exciting than it sounds. This is especially true when he focuses on the weird hybrid creatures and colossal monsters that populate Renaissance gardens, fountains, and grottos. Good stuff!

At any rate, because I’m unfamiliar with virtually all of the examples Morgan cites in his book, I spent some time searching the web for photos of the various artifacts he discusses. One of the images I found is this shot of Antonio Novelli’s colossal Polyphemus, which stood in the Orti Oricellari, a sixteenth-century Florentine garden that is now largely lost. Today the site of this once ornate garden is occupied by a modern urban park, which includes the cheap basketball court you see pictured in the foreground.

Antonio Novelli’s colossal Polyphemus

There is something eerie about this image. The clash of historical times, the discrepancy of scale. It reminds me a bit of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which is to say that it makes me anxious about the future. It makes me think that, though we believe we are grand, we are actually shrinking.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Accused = Guilty; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing* under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence, or otherwise cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre — it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better — showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic — a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me to cut two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating — one group French mentions that falls within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers” — a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

Authoritarian societies are not the only places where crime statistics are skewed by outside social and political forces. One need look no further than America’s failed “War on Drugs,” which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of African American citizens being convicted of drug-related charges, even as drug use among white citizens continues unabated. But perhaps the most striking example of politically skewed crime statistics in a major democracy can be found in the United States’ near-perfect conviction rate of those who stand accused of terrorism-related offenses. According to a very informative database published earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged 802 people with terrorism-related offenses since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of the 802 people charged, only two have been acquitted, with three having had their charges dropped. In other words, when it comes to terrorism prosecutions, the United States convicts 99.4% of defendants — just shy of China’s clearly skewed (and terrifying) conviction rate for murder.

It seems to me that much of what French says about crime in China can be applied to terrorism in the United States. As with crime in China, terrorism in America is politically sensitive, and there are powerful interests invested in shaping — often through overt scapegoating — how Americans view both terrorism and terrorists. Unfortunately, those interests have been largely successful. Perhaps 1950s America would have laughed at contemporary Chinese television depictions of “valiant and incorruptible policemen and women,” as French claims, but 21st century America isn’t laughing at the absurdity of valiant and incorruptible federal prosecutors who always get their man.

A 99.4% terrorism conviction rate lays bare the political dimension of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the message is clear: The counter-terrorism police state exists to protect you. It is doing its job. You have nothing to fear.

Tweeted on June 4, 2017, shortly after a terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and dozens wounded.

How can American writers write critically, or even interestingly, about terrorism under such conditions? The closest anyone has come, to my knowledge at least, is Ben Fountain’s outstanding novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which presents a scathing portrayal of America’s post-9/11 mentality. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also quite good,** and Kent Johnson’s Doggerel for the Masses comes to mind, but I can’t think of many other literary or pop-cultural examples that succeed in cutting through the absurdity of America’s response to 9/11.*** (If there are examples I’m missing, let me know; I want to read them.) This is a failure not only of imagination, but also of social and political courage to grapple with the complexities of current affairs. We need writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics to do this work, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later. Their success may very well prove crucial to the success of a larger project for an honest reckoning with the contemporary world.


*Many of the examples aren’t Chinese, though they are set in China.

**I should mention that Hamid is not American, though he does write in English and is widely read in the United States.

***As I write this, I’m reminded of Gavin Hood’s 2007 film Rendition, which I seem to recall presenting a more complex story than the typical good guys vs. bad guys scenario that dominates popular terrorism narratives, but I can’t remember the film well enough to comment on it here.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Locusts and Wild Honey

When I think of the word “ecology,” images of rainforests leap immediately to mind. The dense canopy, the intense diversity of flora and fauna, the screeching monkeys and brilliantly colored birds. If I dwell on the word a bit longer, my imagination expands to include rivers, mountains, deserts, coral reefs, and even the frozen expanses of the arctic. These are the sorts of settings that make nature documentaries such as BBC One’s Planet Earth so compelling to watch. But world ecology encompasses so much more, including human beings (people are notably absent from Planet Earth). In his essay “The Three Ecologies,” Félix Guattari identifies three “ecological registers”: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity,” all of which are intimately interconnected and mutually contingent (18). Where there are rainforests, rivers, mountains, and deserts, there are also social relations and the complexities of human subjectivity. To suggest that humanity and nature exist in separate spheres is to engage in a fallacy, just as it’s naive to neglect the extent to which natural ecology penetrates the human species.

Food is one of the most important means by which natural ecology enters human experience. We eat, and in so doing we incorporate nature into our bodies. It enriches our bodies as it passes through them. As philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton argues, “All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (274). The most obvious way this is true is that we consume aspects of the biological world when we eat, and in turn we produce organic matter (including our own bodies) that feeds back into the biosphere. But eating is also a key aspect of human sociability. What occurs at mealtime is responsible, in significant and far-reaching ways, for human culture, and even for civilization itself. The fact that natural ecology is reflected in every plate of food puts nature at the center of culture. And this, it seems to me, opens up possibilities for shared recognition between distant and sometimes unfamiliar cultures, as well as opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences that may prove crucial to our survival in this age of ecological crisis.

I began thinking about this after reading Karen L. Kilcup’s recent article on the popular nineteenth-century children’s periodical Juvenile Miscellany. In that article, Kilcup touches on how famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lydia Maria Child, who served as the Miscellany’s editor from 1826 to 1834, used natural history to connect her New England readership with the diversity of cultures around the world. One of the ways Child accomplished this was by drawing her readers’ attention to the relative continuity of human attitudes towards, and interactions with, natural ecology, even when specific cultural practices diverge. For example, in her article surveying the various ways people use insects, Child refuses to “ignore traditional practices, even if they make readers uncomfortable, including descriptions of how various cultures consume insects as food — a practice that, she underscores, the Bible references” (Kilcup 268). By drawing a parallel between modern entomophagy (i.e., the practice of eating insects) and the biblical tradition, Child suggests a point of commonality between her predominantly Christian audience and the many people around the world who eat insects.

There are indeed biblical examples of people practicing entomophagy, the most famous of which is John the Baptist surviving on “locusts and wild honey” as he wandered the desert (Matthew 3:4). Somewhat less famous is the dietary code outlined in the Torah, which condones eating “the locust after its kind, the destroying locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind” (Leviticus 11:22). By emphasizing biblical entomophagy’s precedent, Child was clearly attempting to cultivate within her predominantly Christian audience some measure of tolerance for insects as a viable food source, while at the same time advocating sympathy for those cultures that practice dietary customs unfamiliar to the West. If locusts fed the prophets, why should modern Christians be so repulsed by those who eat insects today? Perhaps locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers should be a part of every omnivore’s diet.

Child was working against the grain of deep-seated cultural assumptions. As important as a nutritious diet may be, the fact remains that people make food choices based on a spectrum of concerns, many of which have little to do with sustenance. Prominent cultural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Mary Douglas have long understood that food has symbolic value. What we eat, and the manner in which we eat it, helps shape our social and individual identities. Lévi-Strauss went so far as to contend that careful attention to eating habits can yield “a significant knowledge of the unconscious attitudes of the society or societies under consideration” (qtd. in Caplan 1–2). Such cultural attitudes, including those expressed in the Western taboo against entomophagy, can be difficult to shake, which is why Child’s biblical appeal did little to persuade her young readers and their parents to incorporate insects into the American diet.

It’s been nearly 200 years since Child made her point regarding entomophagy, and people in the United States — and the West more generally — still object to insects as a viable food source. The degree to which American’s are repulsed by the practice of eating insects is reflected in how entomophagy is represented in pop culture. Consider, for example, American television programs such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Bizarre Foods, all of which feature Americans (or a Briton, in the case of Man vs. Wild) struggling to eat foods that are commonly consumed by people around the world. The insect-eating segments of these programs participate in the pervasive sadomasochism that characterizes reality television; viewers enjoy watching people choke down bugs precisely because entomophagy is considered to be outrageous and vile, if not downright degrading. This is true of even the most sympathetic of these programs. For example, when Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef and host of Bizarre Foods, consumes insect-based dishes, he often seems to enjoy what he’s eating, and yet the appeal of his show is undoubtedly the abnormal spectacle of someone eating food that Americans find disgusting.

But why is eating an insect any more disgusting than, say, eating a pig — an animal that is reviled by many cultures, including the culture that produced the Bible? The answer to this question leads away from food and toward Western notions of ethnocultural supremacy. In its 2013 report Edible Insects, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) repeatedly notes that people in most Western countries view the eating of insects with disgust, and that this feeling of disgust “forms the basis of moral judgement” (Van Huis et al. 35). Related to this is the report’s conclusion that people in the West “perceive the practice [of eating insects] to be associated with primitive behavior” (Van Huis et al. 35). Joseph Bequaert makes a similar case in his 1921 article “Insects as Food,” arguing that it “can be attributed only to prejudice, that civilized man of today shows such a decided aversion to including any six-legged creature in his diet.”* In other words, one of the unconscious attitudes reflected in the taboo against entomophagy is the belief that Western culture has advanced beyond the so-called “primitive” stage of human development, relegating to a distant — and shameful — past such backwards practices as eating insects.

Unfortunately, this disparaging attitude toward entomophagy negatively influences the eating habits of people who have maintained the tradition of consuming insects, arachnids, mealworms, and other creatures that disgust the Western palate. For example, the FAO makes the case that people in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their consumption of insects in an effort to emulate Western standards and norms (Van Huis et al. 39; Halloran and Vantomme). This is especially true of converts to Christianity. Indeed, there is evidence of Christian missionaries explicitly discouraging people from eating insects on the basis that doing so is “a heathen custom.” One Malawi convert is on record as saying that “he would never taste such things [i.e., winged termites], valuing them as highly non-Christian” (Carl-Axel Silow qtd. in Van Huis et al. 39). This is an old story, and it fits within a larger history of Western ethnocentrism:

In 25–50 percent of Native American tribes, … there existed a long history of insect eating; yet because Western cultures lacked strong cultural experience with the practice and considered it primitive, they discouraged and suppressed it among Native American tribes when these two cultural groups began to interact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Western cultures inflicted similar damage on other indigenous groups, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of modernizing or westernizing them. This cultural suppression was still prevalant [sic.] at the end of the twentieth century. As a result, entomophagy has almost disappeared from Canada and the United States and is showing signs of abating in West Africa. (Van Huis et al. 39)

The abhorrence of insects as a food source should be challenged, and not just for the sake of more balanced cultural relations between the West and those societies that practice entomophagy. At a time when human population growth poses a serious threat to global ecology, people everywhere need to rethink how their diets affect the environment. In his National Geographic article “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, makes the case that dietary changes are imperative if we intend to feed the Earth’s growing human population without doing irreparable damage to the planet. He argues that “finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets — even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef — could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.” It would also do a great deal to mitigate animal agriculture’s devastating environmental impacts.**

I would push Foley’s point much further, urging the widespread adoption of plant-based diets, and especially veganism. But in the context of omnivorous food culture, the West has much to learn from those societies that practice entomophagy. Not only are insects a protein-rich food suitable for human consumption, but they can also be used for animal feed, and they are significantly less land and water intensive than traditional livestock. The environmental, health, and social benefits are many. Here are just a few:

Environmental Benefits

  • Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold-blooded. Feed-to-meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used, but nonetheless insects are extremely efficient. On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
  • The production of greenhouse gases by most insects is likely to be lower than that of conventional livestock. For example, pigs produce 10–100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight than mealworms.
  • Insects can feed on bio-waste, such as food and human waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform this into high-quality protein that can be used for animal feed.
  • Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought-resistant than cattle.
  • Insect farming is less land-dependent than conventional livestock farming.

Health Benefits

  • Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids (comparable with fish). They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
  • Insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) such as like H1N1 (bird flu) and BSE (mad cow disease).

Livelihood and Social Benefits

  • Insect gathering and rearing can offer important livelihood diversification strategies. Insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild. Minimal technical or capital expenditure is required for basic harvesting and rearing equipment.
  • Insects can be gathered in the wild, cultivated, processed and sold by the poorest members of society, such as women and landless people in urban and rural areas. These activities can directly improve diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street food.
  • Insect harvesting and farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed, transitional and developing economies.
  • Insects can be processed for food and feed relatively easily. Some species can be consumed whole. Insects can also be processed into pastes or ground into meal, and their proteins can be extracted. (Halloran and Vantomme)

There has been some modest movement toward entomophagy in the United States. For example, there is a growing demand for cricket flour, which is used in everything from cookies to protein bars, and educator-friendly information about the dietary benefits of insects is readily available. Just type “entomophagy infographic” into Google, and you will find dozens of examples. Two of my favorites can be found here and here. There are also organizations that advocate for insects as a sustainable food source. Little Herds is a good example. And yet a typical American market is unlikely to stock a single item that makes use of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, or other insects that the FOA recommends as nutritious and sustainable food sources. The disgust toward entomophagy — and the unconscious attitudes it reflects — effectively deprives a sizable portion of the world’s population from a perfectly sensible source of nutrition.

The commitment to “progress” and “modernity” has led us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Large-scale industrialization, a voracious fossil fuel industry, a blind faith in free markets, and rampant consumerism are a few of the forces that have contributed to the problem. But there are deeper forces at work as well. One such force is the idea that the West — its culture, its religion, its politics, its technology — represents “progress,” and that those cultures that embrace different values and customs are backwards, primitive, and morally deficient. This ethnocentrism has deep roots and manifests itself in many ways, and it has proven remarkably adept at expanding its sphere of influence. Indeed, one of recent history’s great tragedies is how so many of the world’s cultures have accepted this ethnocentric narrative. The widespread enthusiasm for Western food norms— including the disgust toward entomophagy — is but one example.

There are those who believe technological innovation will save us from the worst of our accelerating environmental degredation, allowing us to progress out of the crisis into which “progress” has delivered us. But perhaps the most progressive thing we can do is to listen to those whose customs are the objects of western disgust. There are communities of people in the world who hold a wealth of traditional knowledge, yet the practices derived from that knowledge are too often dismissed as “primitive,” or as belonging to “a heathen custom.” Western ethnocentrism is, in this regards, maladaptive. We need to learn from each other. The future of our species may depend on it. But to do so we must first become aware of how our unconscious attitudes make us averse to cultural practices that can benefit us and our shared environment. Entomophagy is one such practice that the West would be wise to reconsider.


*In his work on entomophagy, Joseph Bequaert, like Lydia Maria Child, draws attention to the fact that the Bible permits the eating of insects.

**Kip Andersen and Keegan Khun make this point in convincing fashion in their 2014 documentary film Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.


Bequaert, Joseph Charles. “Insects as Food: How They Have Augmented the Food Supply of Mankind in Early and Recent Years.” Natural History Journal 21 (1921): 191–200. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.

Caplan, Pat. “Approaches to the Study of Food, Health and Identity.” Food, Health and Identity. Edited by Pat Caplan. Routledge, 1997. 1–31. Google Books. Web. 8 Jan. 2017.

Foley, Jonathan. “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World.” National Geographic, May 2014,

Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. 1989. Translated by Ian Pinder and Paul Sutton. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Halloran, Afton, and Paul Vantomme. “The Contribution of Insects to Food Security, Livelihoods and the Environment.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

Kilcup, Karen L. “False Stories Corrected: Reinventing Natural History in the Juvenile Miscellany.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.2 (2016): 259–292. Print.

McCall, Alexander. “Startups Pitch Cricket Flour As the Best Protein You Could Eat.” The Salt. NPR. 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

Morton, Timothy. “Guest Column: Queer Ecology.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 2, 2010, pp. 273–282. JSTOR,

Van Huis, et. al. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Last Chapter of Genesis

Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, Christianity promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell touches on this aversion in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” This contempt for nature, and in particular for the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Judeo-Christian myth and has done much to degrade western attitudes toward the environment.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is imagined as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position viz. environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”

The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin (and thus also our own deaths), just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what the Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, called “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (qtd. in Francis, Laudato si).

I was reminded of this imperative by two short articles I recently came across in The Spectator, an underground newspaper published by students at Indiana University from 1966–1970. Both articles draw on biblical language to make the point that we have abdicated our responsibilities toward the environment. The lead article uses familiar phrases from Genesis to argue that both environmental degradation and human want are the consequences of our irresponsibility and ignorance: “We are fruitful and multiply so that overpopulation and starvation are commonplace, subdue our planet by destroying it, exercise dominion with poison and killing” (Williamson). By echoing language taken directly from the first book of Genesis (see 1:28*), this sentence makes the point that modern humanity’s mistreatment of the earth stands in opposition to the doctrine of environmental stewardship.

More striking still is the second article, which recasts the seven days of creation as a perverse undoing of ecological balance and planetary health. Ironically titled “Last Chapter of Genesis,” the article reads:

In the end, there was earth, and it was with form and beauty; and man dwelt upon the lands of the earth, and meadows, and trees — and said, “Let us build our dwellings in this place of beauty.” And he built cities and covered the earth with concrete and steel. And the meadows were gone, and man said, “It is good.”

On the 2nd day, man looked upon the waters of the earth. And man said, “Let us put our wastes in the waters that the dirt will be washed away.” And man did and the waters became polluted and foul in their smell. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 3rd day, man looked upon the forests of the earth and saw they were beautiful. And man said, “Let us cut the timber and grind the wood for our use.” And man did and the lands became barren and the trees were gone. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 4th day, man saw that animals were in abundance and ran in the fields and played in the sun. And man said, “Let us cage these animals for our amusement and kill them for our sport.” And man did. And there were no more animals on the face of the earth. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 5th day, man breathed the air of the earth. And man said, “Let us dispose of our wastes in the air for the winds shall blow them away.” And man did. And the air became heavy with dust and choked and burned. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 6th day, man saw himself and, seeing the many languages and tongues, he feared and hated. And man said, “Let us build great machines and destroy, lest others destroy us.” And man built great machines and the earth was fired with rage. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 7th day, man rested from his labors and the earth was still, for man no longer dwelt upon the earth. And it was good…

It’s difficult to read “Last Chapter of Genesis” without sharing in its misanthropic attitude, especially when the current ecological crisis is considered alongside the myth of Eden. Not that its misanthropy is out of step with mainstream environmental consciousness. Even Laudato si is misanthropic, especially in its salutation, which bemoans the fact that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Francis leaves little doubt that the responsibility for environmental degradation rests squarely with humanity.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (one of America’s great misanthropes) was correct when he suggested that the only hope for a peaceful, verdant future is the possibility that human beings may still evolve out of our highly-destructive hyper intelligence. In his view, this means regressing (or is it progressing?) into a species of comparatively unintelligent seal-like creatures.** But even this participates in the Christian aversion to nature that Campbell identifies, for Vonnegut’s story exploits an antagonism between humanity and nature that can only be resolved when one or the other is purged from existence. Rather than deepening this antagonism, we need to develop a synthesis between culture and nature. It will only be when we move beyond the sort of dualistic thinking that Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki characterized as “God against man, man against God, man against nature, nature against man, nature against God, God against nature” (qtd. in Campbell) that we will begin to come to terms with how thoroughly we are invested in the natural world.

It’s unfortunate that western thinking continues to be shaped so powerfully by Judeo-Christian myth, especially when it comes to our attitude toward nature. So long as people think of nature as a “gift” from God that is now “at our disposal” (and here Francis seems to fall into the ideological trap of “ownership” that he criticizes in so many of his writings), we are unlikely to experience the behavioral revolution that our ecological crisis demands. In the meantime, we should seize ground wherever we can. If Christian thinking insists upon dominion over nature, let’s commit to a wise and noble dominion. We can then hope that the sort of responsible stewardship urged by The Spectator so many decades ago will serve as a catalyst toward the deeper work that remains to be done.


*Genesis 1:28 —Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

**See Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos.


Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. “The Message of Myth.” The Power of Myth. Moyers & Co. 22 June 1988. 31 Dec. 2016. Web.

Francis. Address to the European Parliament. 25 Nov. 2014. 31 Dec. 2016. Web.

— . Encyclical Letter. Laudato si. 24 May 2015. 31 Dec. 2016. Web.

“Last Chapter of Genesis.” The Spectator. 10 Sept. 1969.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galapagos. Dial, 2009.

Williamson, Bruce. “On Population.” The Spectator. 10 Sept. 1969.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

The Year of Ecological Thinking

The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.

Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had arrived. My concept of the desert at that time owed too much to illustrated stories of Moses wandering through the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust. These were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.

America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But most surprising, for me at least, are the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.

The same can be said for deserts around the world. They too are alive. Earlier this year I drove through a portion of the Arabian Desert on my way from Dubai, where I live, to Muscat, the capital city of Oman. The landscape between these cities is marked by shifting dunes and dark-rocked mountains that cut through the sand, yet even here the earth shows signs of life. My two young sons, looking in confusion from the backseat, didn’t believe me when I told them we were in the desert. They couldn’t see it any better than I could when I first encountered it back in 2002.

This condition of not being able to recognize the desert for what it is is a symptom of ecological know-nothingness — excusable in a child, yes, but hardly so in an adult. I have lived my life content in ecological ignorance, and while I’ve learned to see the desert through the flora, I can’t name a single one of those plants, let alone explain their relationship to each other and the land from which they grow. They are a blur, an impression.

We are approaching the end of a year that has seen record high temperatures around the world. The earth’s biodiversity is in collapse. The United States has elected a man to high office who believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the only nation that pollutes more than his own. And I can’t identify the tree outside my window.

An acquaintance of mine suggested that rather than make a New Year’s resolution, we would be better served by committing to a “theme” for the year, the idea being that a theme offers a more nuanced, expansive way to affect change than a resolution. A theme. Something around which to organize our thoughts and actions. I like this idea, so I choose for myself the theme of “ecology.”

I want to think of ecology broadly, as encompassing what Félix Guattari calls the “three ecologies”: natural ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology. He shows how these ecological registers come to bear on each other; when one of them falls out of balance, the others follow. In other words, the three ecologies are integral parts of a larger ecosystem, which speaks to my earlier point about ecological know-nothingness. Being blind to the desert is to be blind to much more, including ourselves.

Throughout his ecological writing, Gary Snyder stresses the importance of developing an intimacy with our surroundings, including learning the names of the plants that grow around us. This means looking closely and accounting for what’s there, noting the details and the subtle variations that occur over space and time. This means staying put and watching where we step.

Knowing our neighbors’ names may be the beginning of basic civility, but it’s also — at a deeper level — the beginning of responsible coexistence, which is necessarily bound up in some degree of self-knowledge. To watch where we step is to look at our own feet. I am writing this from my balcony in Dubai, approximately one kilometer from the Persian Gulf. It is December 27, 2016. The weather is mild. I am looking at a tree. It’s a mature date palm, its fronds erect and in excellent health.

There is too much at stake at this critical juncture to continue in ecological ignorance. This is true for the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. But it’s also true for human sociability, for the stability of our communities, for our bodies and our minds. If there is any hope of avoiding the worst of our accelerating ecological crisis, it very well may depend upon our learning to see clearly what surrounds us every day.


Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. Translated by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Living Planet Report 2016: Risk and Resilience in a New Era. World Wildlife Fund, 2016.

Lynch, Patrick. “2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records.” NASA. 19 July 2016.

Snyder, Gary. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952–1998. Counterpoint, 1999.

Wong, Edward. “Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But.” The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins

The MLA’s Vanishing Commission on Faculty Unions

Sitting in my office this afternoon, only the second (or maybe third) rainy day since I moved to Dubai in August 2014, I’m surprised to read this remarkable passage from Margaret Ferguson’s 2015 MLA Presidential Address:

“Looking back once more to the MLA’s past, I move toward my conclusion by noticing that among the seldom remembered documents of the 1970 convention was a resolution urging the MLA’s officers to set up a Commission on Faculty Unions. The commission was to present a report to the membership on such topics as ‘the role of the university teacher as worker–i.e., one who sells his or her skills on the open market’ and ‘arguments for and against teacher unions or collective bargaining units as distinct from professional organizations.’ The resolution’s proposers begin by stating, ‘In the light of the increasing economic insecurity of college teachers, reflecting the overall economic crisis, . . . we recognize the need to explore the possibilities of organizing collective action by college teachers’ (‘1970 Business Meeting Actions’ 597). I’m not sure what happened to this resolution; although it was approved by a majority of the members who voted on it, I haven’t been able to find the commission’s report, which was supposed to build on data gathered with the help of newly hired staff members. The commission was to include members from several organizations that served as bargaining agents for college teachers and teaching assistants. Whatever the commission’s fate, perhaps it’s now time to return to the negotiating table of institutional memory and ask that the ideas motivating that old resolution be dusted off and reexamined” (563).

What happened to the commission’s report? Was it never compiled? If not, this seems to me to be a serious failure on behalf of an organization committed to advancing the interests of literature and language faculty within the academy. Had such a report on faculty unions been generated, members may have had a clearer sense of how to mitigate some of the damage done during this ongoing half-century of crisis in the humanities.

It’s not too late to act on this prescient 1970 resolution. Indeed, the MLA has the responsibility to do so. Because the “economic insecurity” the resolution mentions is much exacerbated now, and because too many members—especially tenured members—are hesitant to see themselves as part of a labor force (and this to the detriment of untenured and contingent faculty), the MLA should finally convene the Commission on Faculty Unions and begin the hard work of imagining forms of collective bargaining that can transcend the limited ability of professional organizations to represent their members’ interests within individual schools and departments.


Ferguson, Margaret. “Negotiating Sites of Memory.” PMLA 130.3 (2015): 546-565.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins

Democracy and the Problem of Speed

We live in a paradoxical time vis-à-vis democracy. While democratic reforms have recently taken hold in places as diverse as Tunisia and Sri Lanka (Tunisia through revolution; Sri Lanka through the ballot), and Greece has turned to the demos as a front line against its predatory creditors, leading democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom continue to suffer economic and political malaise. The developed democracies’ declining influence concentrates a growing skepticism toward democratic governance, especially among the populist right wing and neoliberal elites that constitute such powerful political blocs in the West. It is not uncommon for well-known public figures to openly question—and sometimes even dismiss—democracy’s desirability, and they often do so in the pages of the most widely read and respected publications. Consider, for example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s provocatively titled editorial published in the New York Times this past December: “Is Democracy Dead?” Blair’s op-ed indicts the core political institutions of the US, the UK, and other European democracies as “dysfunctional,” and he openly declares democracy to be “failing its citizens.” These are strongly pessimistic words, yet I suspect they resonate with many people who, nurtured on the Cold War promise that democracy will deliver everything from unlimited economic growth to global political dominance, find themselves disillusioned as the West enters a period of decline. What’s most concerning about this loss of faith in democracy is not that it reflects a failure of democracy itself, but rather that it reflects the success of an ongoing effort to redefine democracy as a tool for advancing economic development rather than as the irreducible means of achieving and preserving political self-determination.

Blair locates the problem with democracy in what he calls the “efficacy challenge,” a phrase which has less to do with the diminishing political power of average citizens than it does with the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. According to this view, speed is more important than popular deliberation. Blair makes this point clear when he writes, “In a world of change, where countries, communities and corporations must constantly adapt to keep up, democracy seems slow, bureaucratic and weak.” He blames this inefficiency on activist citizens groups such as teachers unions, which insists are responsible for rallying the public “to defeat change even when it is in the public’s own interest.” Here again, he leverages these arguments in defense of the view that the public’s primary interest is not justice or equality or political power, but rather the speed with which government is able to deliver material goods and services. This is a vision of democracy sapped of idealism and removed from the higher order virtues that provide the raison d’être of democratic practice throughout history. Indeed, in Blair’s view, the core problem with contemporary democracy is the demos itself, which is either too ignorant to recognize its own best interests or, in those cases when it does articulate interests, too prone to forms of political activism that challenge government hegemony over the political sphere. At the heart of his argument is the peculiar notion that democracy is no longer about a society’s political culture, but that it has become a technocratic means of delivering governmental services with ever-increasing speed and efficiency. Blair is explicit on this point: “It is time to debate how to improve democracy, how to modernize it. Traditionally this debate has been dominated by issues of transparency and honesty [read: accountability to the people] . . . But the disillusionment with democratic governments is really about people believing that the changes they need in their lives can’t happen quickly enough. It is a practical challenge” (my emphasis).

The frustration Blair expresses toward politically active citizens is one of the core anti-democratic attitudes political theorist Jacques Rancière studies in his book Hatred of Democracy. Rancière explains how, by investing political power in elected representatives, democratic societies have opened a paradoxical schism between the public and the private, wherein what has traditionally been understood as public becomes the private concern of the government. By working to demonize and thus discredit and silence political activism, anti-democratic forces seek to wrest political power from the people and establish it as the sole right of elected representatives. Rancière argues that the concern of democracy is not, as Blair would have it, to further privatize what is public, but rather to expand—radically and exponentially—the public sphere: “The spontaneous practices of any government tend to shrink this public sphere, making it into its own private affair and, in so doing, relegating the inventions and sites of intervention of non-State actors to the private domain. Democracy, then, far from being the form of life of individuals dedicated to their private pleasure, is a process of struggle against this privatization, the process of enlarging this sphere” (55). There is, to be sure, an economic component to the struggle over public/private boundaries, and both sides are working hard to establish the political contexts they believe will generate the greatest benefits. Rancière, for his part, sees the privatization of public affairs within the exclusive domain of government to be a thinly disguised substitute for unchecked corporate power, which is why he insists democratic practice “entails struggling against the distribution of the public and the private that shores up the twofold domination of the oligarchy in the State and in society” (55). Blair obviously sees things differently. He openly advocates for increased autonomy of government decision-making power by disparaging the public’s intervention in public affairs, while continually pressing for rapid privatization—both economic and political—as an antidote to the lack of “effective decision-making through strong leadership” that he sees as the principle challenge to 21st century democracy.

With this understanding in mind, it is hardly surprising that Blair holds forth the corporate world—with its anti-democratic, authoritarian hierarchical structures—as a model for how democratic governments can become more responsive to people’s needs. Blair did, after all, cut his teeth as a corporate lawyer and served as a senior advisor to both JPMorgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services in the years following his tenure as Prime Minister [1]. Yet his thoughts on democracy’s failure to keep pace with global capitalism still demand analysis, for it’s precisely in the tension between the public and the private that Blair attempts to shift democratic governance away from accountability to the people and toward an alliance with private business interests. Contrasting government and corporate models, he writes: “Examine the changes in the private sector over the past 20 years. Look at the top companies by market capitalization and how new names have displaced the old. This is the way of the world, except in government. We go along in the same old way—unable to change, due in part to top-down bureaucracies that manage the status quo instead of changing it.” Suggesting that top companies by market capitalization should serve as a model for democracy is a deeply flawed and dangerous (though entirely typical) neoliberal rhetorical strategy. One would think that Blair, with his experience as Prime Minister in the years immediately preceding the great recession and as a senior advisor to JPMorgan Chase, which was recently fined a record $13 billion for its role in causing the 2008 financial crisis, would at least acknowledge the massive fraud and financial destruction companies with “superior market capitalization” have inflicted on the global economy. Yet corporate practices nonetheless serve as the model to which Blair wants democracy to aspire. Indeed, one of the four proposals he makes at the close of his editorial is to allow “greater interchange between public and private sectors,” which is another way of turning to deregulation and privatization to deliver the reforms and services of which he insists democracy is incapable [2].

Blair’s proposal is a call for decentralization, but it is not the sort of decentralization that diffuses decision-making power through varied and popular democratic processes. His concept of decentralization is committed to shifting power away from the centers of government and toward the centers of global commerce, precisely in order to further withdraw power from an impatient people who, imagined as simplistic homines oeconomici, will settle into political contentment so long as their desire for basic services are satisfied without delay. Blair thus recasts the core mission of democracy as evermore speedy (and profitable) economic development, with the weighty and ennobling values that have always been a part of the democratic ideal receding toward the margins of public discourse and policy making. Here we see quite clearly how capitalist ideology attempts to redefine democracy as part of a larger process of economic development and modernization, while actively subverting its deeper purpose: the radical seizure of political power by ordinary people with the intent of advancing evermore freedom and equality. But what’s perhaps most concerning about Blair’s cynical vision for democracy is not that it imagines less public involvement in political affairs, but rather that it articulates a process that has already taken hold around the world and continues to advance with the speed and efficiency he so clearly admires.

We can see how the suture of democracy and development works politically by turning our attention away from the West and toward developing nations in the East, particularly India, which is the world’s most populous democracy and a major center of political gravity in Asia. Take, for example, India’s 2014 general election. Widely heralded as a triumph of democracy after the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overwhelmingly defeated the incumbent and long-ruling Indian National Congress, India’s most recent national elections delivered the Prime Ministership to Narendra Modi, whose campaign slogan—“Unity, Action, Progress”— perfectly expresses the value neoliberal political parties put on speedy economic development. The first part of his slogan speaks to the BJP’s Hindutva ultra-nationalism, which imagines India as a Hindu state and has historically found expression in pogroms against India’s minority Muslim population [3]. The second two terms are geared toward Modi’s promise to streamline India’s notoriously labyrinthine bureaucracy, thus speeding the pace with which India achieves economic development. The emphasis is on development, or “progress,” even when the developmental process disenfranchises people and/or otherwise tramples on basic democratic principles. As prominent author/activist Arundhati Roy makes clear in so many of her writings, the forward march of India’s economic development depends on the mass dislocation and dispossession of millions of India’s most vulnerable citizens—the chronically poor, the indigenous, the so-called untouchables [4]. In her essay “Democracy’s Failing Light,” Roy writes: “Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it—and a much, much vaster desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and Special Economic Zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy” (xiv). This process was well underway long before Modi came to power, but he and the BJP openly advocate accelerating these very forms of development by limiting the state’s regulatory apparatus and undermining processes for collective decision making that are the hard-won rewards of democratic struggle.

On the day that it published Blair’s op-ed, the New York Times also published an article by Ellen Barry and Neha Thirani Bagri outlining Modi’s plans to dismantle India’s environmental regulations as a means of accelerating economic growth. As the article makes clear, the struggle between environmental preservation, which is crucial to sustaining the subsistence economies of India’s vast number of rural poor, and large scale industrial development is being decided in favor of industry: “Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are chocking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects” (Barry and Bagri). Modi’s BJP plans to eliminate regulatory oversight wherever possible, while simultaneously relying on “business owners to voluntarily disclose the pollution that their projects will generate and then monitor their own compliance” (Barry and Bagri). This approach, which Modi’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar describes as an effort to “decentralize decision-making,” is in reality a massive centralization of power within the corporate sector (qtd. in Barry and Bagri). Indeed, the reforms Modi has implemented in the months following his election are overtly anti-democratic and do much to stymie the diffusion of power through institutions of collective decision making. As Barry and Bagri explain: “Smaller coal mines were granted one-time permission to expand without holding a public hearing; projects in forests will no longer have to seek the approval of tribal village councils; smaller mining projects of less than 100 hectacres (247 acres) will no longer undergo ministry inspection” (my emphasis). This is to go beyond trusting industry to regulate itself; it is to attack systems of democratic control over how a nation’s natural resources are used, and to undermine the degree to which communities can exercise a role in protecting their own environments. So when Javadekar proudly boasts that the BJP is eliminating “those [environmental regulations] which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress,” he not only admits that India’s new government will choose development over preservation, but he also hints at how these development plans constitute a thinly veiled assault on democracy itself (qtd. in Barry and Bagri).

This sort of anti-democratic “progress” is the lifeblood of the economic structures that both Modi and Blair hold forth as models of good governance. It is also a principle means by which those who stand to benefit the most from global capitalism exploit the poor and eviscerate traditional communities. Development and modernization are almost always presented as the most efficient ways to liberate the destitute from otherwise insurmountable conditions of poverty, disease, and ignorance, but in practice they work tirelessly to expropriate and transform traditional means of subsistence into profits for those at the centers of global capital. As C. Douglas Lummis argues in his work on developmentalism: “The ideology of development has been immensely successful, not in actually raising the poor people of the world to the level of ‘ultimate prosperity’ but in convincing millions that this is what capitalist activities in the Third World are intended to do” (60). Pretenses aside, developmentalism constitutes “the most massive systematic project of human exploitation, and the most massive assault on culture and nature, which history has ever known. It was the extraordinary achievement of the development ideology to render the imperialism of the countries and corporations carrying out this project an arguable question” (Lummis 60). What this exploitation looks like in India, where democratic environmental protections are being dismantled in the name of speed and efficiency, should sound the alarm for all who care about basic social justice and human dignity, whether in the developing East or the developed West. In India alone, there are an “estimated sixty million people who have been displaced by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminum smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3300 big dams built since Independence, and now by special economic zones” (Roy, “Trickledown Revolution,” 153-154). Such massive displacement, which is also a form of dispossession, is but one sign of the ruin that development and modernization brings to so many of the world’s people. To allow development projects to bypass required public hearings, tribal approval, and government inspection not only threatens democracy, it also threatens the very existence of the communities people like Blair wish to silence in the name of so-called “progress.”

The issue here goes beyond economics and cuts to the core of what it means to exist in a state of self-determination. One of the central aims of neoliberalism is to limit self-determination to such an extent that people have no choice but to participate in the consolidation of capitalist hegemony. Global capitalism—from the time of mercantilism and the slave trade to our current age of free trade agreements and corporate personhood—depends on “the massive uprooting of humanity from traditional community life and work, the rendering extinct of ancient skills, values, and ways of thinking and feeling to make society into an instrument of efficient factory production” (Lummis 55). This social uprooting has assumed many forms, from overt subjugation to the commercialization of culture, but it remains in the service of a totalizing project that seeks to pull every aspect of one’s lived experience into the centripetal orbit of capitalist expansion. Those who wish to maintain ways of life outside the logic of efficiency and profits—ways of life that, in some instances, go back thousands of years—are labeled enemies of “progress” and in need of “development” (as if they are underdeveloped children rather than fully-developed, intelligent adults capable of determining their own socioeconomic and political structures). And besides, existing outside of the development regime is, for many people, simply not an option. For example, as recently as 2008, India’s finance minster P. Chidambaram advocated for relocating 85% of India’s rural population to the nation’s burgeoning urban centers. Such a project would, as Roy argues, “require social engineering on an unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about five hundred million people to migrate from the countryside into cities” (“Democracy’s Failing Light” xv). Such a process is well underway throughout the developing world, compelled by a combination of corporate land grants, unchecked environmental degradation, and the growing number of neoliberal trade agreements that render traditional community life and work unsustainable.

Mohsin Hamid dramatizes this violent transformation in his aptly named novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Taking the form of a satirical self-help book for those wishing to make the most of South Asian economic development, Hamid’s novel traces the upward mobility of an unnamed protagonist (also the narrator) from his youth in a desperately poor village to his rise as a corrupt,  street-smart entrepreneur. There is much I could say about the novel’s commentary on poverty, urbanization, war, and the deleterious effects of global markets, but what’s most interesting about Hamid’s work vis-à-vis development is that he isolates the destruction of traditional communities as the very foundation of “rising Asia.” For example, the book’s opening chapter narrates how the protagonist’s family is forced to move to the city, in part because he has fallen chronically ill from drinking river water contaminated by a textile factory located nearby. As he and his family arrive in the city, the unnamed narrator says (speaking in the second person, as he does throughout the novel):

As you and your parents and siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential. (Hamid 15)

Within this wonderfully dense passage Hamid compresses the erosion of traditional communalism, environmental destruction, the insane proliferation of nuclear weapons (though never explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to determine that the novel is set in Hamid’s native Pakistan, which has been engaged in a dangerous game of nuclear one-upsmanship with India for decades), and the way in which economic “productivity” and “potential” are tied to the “insecurity” and “anxiety” that attend free-market economics. It also gives a powerfully human voice to the sixty million people who, like the novel’s narrator, have witnessed their traditional way of life intentionally rendered obsolete by the forces of development in neighboring India.

This is class war, but it’s also a war on democracy, and the battles in this war occur at the level of language and ideas every bit as much as they do at the level of economics and politics. As such, literature and the arts have an important role to play in cutting through the narrative that reduces democracy to a lubricant in an economic machine. I agree with Michael Mack when he argues that narrative fiction “does not celebrate or endorse what it represents. Rather than affirming the validity of history’s quasi-universal and mythic repetition of harmful socio-political and socio-economic policies, the mimetic content of the novel turns against itself. Here representation aims at interrupting itself” (101; original emphasis) [5]. We can see such a process in Hamid’s work. That How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia gives us a protagonist who only realizes his “potential” through a process of forced urbanization gives the lie to the narrative of neoliberalism as a force freedom and democracy by contextualizing the limited benefits of economic development in relation to an ongoing social transformation that actively limits the potential of people to survive outside of the capitalist paradigm. Hamid thus turns the representation of economic development as a benign, mutually beneficial and voluntary process against itself. There is nothing democratic about a rural community disbanding in order to escape a poisoned river, even if one of its members strikes it rich in the city. And there is nothing democratic about systematically dismantling sites of communal decision-making à la Modi’s environmental deregulation, or concentrating political power in the hands of government and corporate technocrats as Blair suggests we do.

Democracy is slow. It is intentionally deliberative, and it militates on behalf of both expanding the public sphere and subjecting it to the influence of as many ordinary people as possible. When leaders and spokespersons for the world’s major democracies advocate for freeing democratic governments from the influence of activist groups, popular councils, and individual citizens, they engage in an act of doublespeak designed to delegitimize the very premise of democracy—that power belongs to the people. So long as democracy is accepted as a synonym for capitalism, and freedom and power are reduced to free markets and purchasing power, such doublespeak will rule the day. With global economic inequality and environmental degradation reaching alarming heights, it’s clear that a project for revitalizing democracy’s core tenants is in order. Such a project can begin by rescuing the term’s meaning from the perverse uses to which it has been put by neoliberal developmentalists. Democracy is not capitalism, nor does it exist to service the global market’s demand for speed and efficiency. On the contrary, democracy exists to deliver power into the hands of the people. This is the radical point from which all who wish to revitalize democracy’s liberatory potential must begin.


[1] Rancière notes how the easy flow of officials between government and the corporate sector is one way that oligarchy exerts control over both the State and the economy: “What we call democracy is a statist and governmental functioning that is exactly the contrary: eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative school; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; business people who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media. In a word: the monopolizing of la chose publique by a solid alliance of State oligarchy and economic oligarchy” (72-73; my emphasis).

[2] Blair’s other proposals include changing “the relationship between governing and governed,” forcing parliaments to “function differently,” and even implementing “constitutional changes,” all of which are vaguely articulated, to say the least. He also, earlier in the op-ed, proposes raising the salaries of elected officials in order to encourage those who are successful in the corporate sector to bring their business acumen to government.

[3] Modi is widely believe to have used his position as Chief Minister of Gujarat to help orchestrate the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others. The United States was so convinced of his involvement that they suspended his visa privileges. It was only with his election as Prime Minister that the U.S. agreed to issue Modi a visa, after which he promptly traveled to New York City to address a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Since then, President Obama has travelled to Delhi on an official state visit to deepen ties between the U.S. and Modi’s India.

[4] For more on Roy’s advocacy on behalf of those fighting to forestall this process, see my essay “Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy.”

[5] Mack makes this comment in relation to Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, but the point applies to any number of fictions, including Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.


Barry, Ellen, and Neha Thirani Bagri. “Nerendra Modi, Favoring Growth in India, Pares Back Environmental Rules.” New York Times. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 March 2015.

Blair, Tony. “Is Democracy Dead?New York Times. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 March 2015.

Hamid, Mohsin. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.

Lummis, Douglas C. Radical Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996.

Mack, Michael. Philosophy & Literature in Times of Crisis: Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy. Trans. Steve Corcoran. London: Verso, 2014. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. “Democracy’s Failing Light.” Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. New York: Penguin, 2009. ix-xxxvii. Print.

–. “Trickledown Revolution.” Broken Republic: Three Essays. New York: Penguin, 2011. 149-214. Print.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins