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In a previous blog post, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos.  I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."

In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. 

The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video. 

My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project.  For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book. 

Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time.  My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.

My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder.  In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO. 

He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced.  He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.

Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary.  Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO. 

Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief.  A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.

I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder.  Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them.  In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.

I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation.  When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly.  I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work.  And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.

But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective.  He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it.  I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.

Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black.  Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.

Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill.  My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions.  On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.

I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant.  Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power.  Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine.  I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect.  (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.)  Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:

  • I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
  • I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
  • I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
  • I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile. 
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional.  My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.). 

On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector.  Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage. 

(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)

Modernity's metaphor: the displaced person

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UNHCR_papers.pngMy parallel careers - novelist and communications specialist for humanitarian and aid organizations - have only one significant point of overlap: displaced people.  Whether they are outside their home countries (refugees), or within their countries but unable to live in their homes (internally displaced people - IDPs), whether their dislocation is literal or metaphoric, displaced people claim my deepest reservoirs of empathy.

I think the reason for this is that displacement is the touchstone of the current historical moment.  Modern trends - urbanization, gender equality, psychologizing (to name three almost at random) - usually displace people.  The tendency in contemporary life is to create greater distance from tradition - by moving people from rural to urban settings, by introducing women into non-traditional roles, by inducing people to question their motives and understand themselves critically.  (Even fundamentalism, which in its many varieties is typically a reaction to modernity, displaces people with its severity and extremity, despite its claims to reestablish "traditions.")  Modern trends also increase the pace of change, requiring people to endure frequent displacement, followed by even-more frequent displacement.

My own life is a case study of the potential for displacement wrought by modern living.  Professionally, I've had four professions in sixteen years.  Geographically, during the same period, I've lived in five states in the U.S. and four countries.  I've gone from being a misfit at home to a "foreigner" abroad.  My identity is coalescing into that of a wanderer, a person whose country is her body and who can be said to belong fully only to the planet.

Although opportunities for humanitarian and aid work with displaced people are sadly common, my experience trying to sell my fiction to mainstream publishing houses suggests little interest in displaced people (who, in my fiction, are often expatriates).  Given my view that displacement is a central concern in modernity's most sweeping, global trends, the lack of interest among commercial publishers disappoints as much as it seems to highlight a disconnect between the world of publishing and, well, the world. 

So I was delighted to find a contradictory suggestion in Pankaj Mishra's recent The New Yorker review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's second memoir, Nomad.  Mishra wrote:

The fate of the truly modern nomad is . . . a ceaseless inner conflict between ways of life and value systems; this very quality has made the nomad an emblematic figure of the contemporary age.
I couldn't agree more.  If only Mishra were in charge of publishing decisions instead of whoever it is who's promoting vampires (and now angels) as the emblematic figures of contemporary literature!

(Image of refugee holding UNHCR papers from New Proposals website)
Thomas_Cromwell.pngThe organization of information is a particular passion of mine.  How a society organizes its information determines its culture, its values and the means by which it exercises power.  

For example, as Walter J. Ong explains in his brilliant contribution to human thought, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures must organize their information so that the important bits are retained and readily accessed in memory (p. 32-77).  Hence, oral cultures emphasize proverbs (as a distillation of wisdom), rhymed and rhythmic verse (easier to remember), and vivid, gory rhetoric that glorifies violence (makes a strong impression on the listener).  The results for culture, values and the exercise of power?  Epic poetry; devaluing critical thinking (too destabilizing to communal wisdom); superstition (a result of a critical thinking vacuum); and non-rational, superstition-, brute force- and violence-heavy means of exercising power.

So I was intrigued to see Joan Acocella explain, in her review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker, that the reign of Henry VIII was a period of radical reorganization of information in England.  Citing the historian G.R. Elton, Acocella writes that, under Thomas Cromwell (the protagonist of Wolf Hall), "English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period."

The need for these bureaucracies arose, of course, because of the proliferation of information.  The greater the quantity of information that needs to be organized, the less likely that an individual mind can manage it with proverbs and epic poems (although both get people pretty far, pace Homer).  

And, sure enough, both these points - the limits of memory, and the proliferation of information - are emphasized in leit motifs in Wolf Hall.  In a sub-sub-plot, Thomas Cromwell tries to obtain a memory device built by Guido Camillo.  The thingamajig is a cabinet with drawers inside of drawers, described as

a theatre on the ancient Vitruvian plan.  But it is not to put on plays. . . . The owner of the theatre . . . stand[s] in the centre of it, and look[s] up.  Around you there is arrayed a system of human knowledge.  Like a library, but as if - can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that?
(p. 472.)  In a foreshadowing of the fate to befall prodigious memory in a literate future, Cromwell never obtains the device.  (Indeed, Camillo never finishes building it.)

Mantel also makes sly and amusing references to the information "avalanche" burying her sixteenth century characters:

[King Henry VIII] slips into his mouth an aniseed comfit, and snaps down on it.  "Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all."
(p. 472)

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.  [Thomas Cromwell] feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
(p. 492)  In a month!?  Cromwell, pity us the Internet!

Historical periods of reorganization of information are particularly rich, since they invariably involve upheavals of culture and power as well.  In such periods, opportunity (as much as ruin) abounds.  Out of the churn, the long shot can win; the lowborn son-of-a-blacksmith can become the adviser to a King and second-most-important in the nation.  

While Cromwell has long been paired with the adjective "Machiavellian," Mantel suggests that his patron saint may not be Niccolo, but Melvil Dewey.  Mantel makes a persuasive case that Cromwell's greatest asset was not his cunning, propensity to manipulate others or hunger for power, but his awareness and understanding of how information was being reorganized and the ramifications of the new order - especially the increasing importance of the financial industry.  Here, for example, is the commoner Cromwell besting the noble Earl of Northumberland in a battle of wills over Anne Boleyn:

How can [Cromwell] explain to [Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland]?  The world is not run from where he thinks.  Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
(p. 378).  Whether Mantel is correct, historically, about Cromwell's gift, the lesson for us is clear.  We are currently living through a historic moment during which information is being radically reorganized.  Digitization of traditionally printed materials, along with decreases in the consumption of printed materials (which face massive competition from television, movies, Internet, and video games), are only two of the monumental shifts in information organization that are impacting our era.  Awareness and understanding of these changes are our keys to leveraging them for profit (personal, political, financial or otherwise).  Short of this consciousness, we'll have to fall back on being Machiavellian to succeed.

(Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Daily Mail)

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

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Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    

Worth rereading

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tayeb_salih.jpgI have read Tayeb Salih's novel, Season of Migration to the North, more times than any other non-children's book - four or five times by my last count.  I first read it in college (it may constitute my only academic take-away from those years), and my ardor was instantaneous.  

In a sense, my devotion to Season of Migration to the North is odd because, even now, my understanding of the story is limited.  But from the beginning, I grasped that Season of Migration to the North was a book to be read when resiliency was needed, and that its author, Tayeb Salih, was a person of immense wisdom and deep understanding of human behavior and society.  That I never met him (he died last year) is one of the few regrets of my life.

Season of Migration to the North recounts the story of a young man (unnamed) who returns from studying in London to his native Sudan, where he takes a job as a civil servant in the newly-independent country's Ministry of Education.  On a trip to the remote village in which he was raised, he meets a newcomer to the village - Mustafa Sa'eed - who has a mysterious past.

Like the young narrator, Mustafa Sa'eed also studied in London and lived there for 30 years, a sojourn that culminated in tragedy and imprisonment.  After his release from prison, Mustafa Sa'eed returns to Sudan, where he settles down to the life of a farmer and marries a local woman, Hosna.  Confiding part of his backstory to the young narrator when they first meet, Mustafa Sa'eed soon dies and entrusts guardianship of his wife and sons to the young narrator.

Some years later an elderly man, Wad Rayyes, in the village decides that he wants to marry Hosna.  The young narrator is called upon to act - by Wad Rayyes, who wants the narrator to convince Hosna to marry him; by Hosna, who wants the narrator to marry her so that she can be protected from suitors; by the narrator himself, who is in love with Hosna.

Only after unearthing a more comprehensive version of Mustafa Sa'eed backstory than had been originally disclosed is the young narrator able to act.  The choice he makes is simultaneously inadequate to the demands of the situation and momentous, a polarity that Salih urges us to accept and embrace as implicit in the human condition.

Season of Migration to the North unfolds non-chronologically and impressionistically, allowing its story to emerge through juxtaposition of memories, conversations and scribbles.  From Salih's expert (and concise - the novel is a mere 169 pages) use of this technique, a kind of magic results.  The book is a page-turner and a prose poem, an analysis of all the major power dynamics of modern times (East/West, male/female, black/white, Christian/Muslim), as well as an affirmation of the human capacity to reduce such dynamics to irrelevancies.  Symbolically reenacting the confrontation of cultures wrought by colonialism, Season also contains stunning depictions of the destructive potential in sexual passion between individuals.  The novel additionally features some of the most haunting descriptions and quotable phrases I have read (in Denys Johnson-Davies' superb translation).

To this list of achievements, add another: Season's power is so visceral that it compels action.  "[H]alfway between north and south . . . . unable to continue, unable to return," the novel's narrator rejects paralysis and embraces volition.  (p. 167.)  This reader has never been able to read the book without doing the same.  

For this reason, Season of Migration to the North is indispensable.  I have  a copy with me anywhere I live, and I am confident that - given the life span - I will yet read it many more times.

(Image of Tayeb Salih from NPR)
Peter_Singer.jpgThomas Nagel's recent review in The New York Review of Books of Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, does a fine job of demonstrating why moral philosophy in its academic form has always baffled me: the blasted hypotheticals.

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but you will have to wade into a shallow pond and muddy your trousers and ruin your shoes.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
From this hypothetical and variations thereon, Singer distills a principle: "'If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.'" (p. 24.)  Building on this principle, Singer develops the general rule that "those who are financially comfortable" should donate 5% of their annual earnings (or more, if they are rich) to aid organizations that alleviate poverty.  (p. 25.)

While I agree with Singer that individuals have a moral responsibility for others less well off than themselves, and further that we should all be developing means of discharging that responsibility, I think the hypotheticals have led Singer astray.  As economists have learned, abstract models that work in theory tend not to operate so cleanly in the real world.  All of those "externalities" that economists - and moral philosophers - have ignored for the sake of elegant conceptualizing have a way of refusing to be ignored once the conceptual gets concrete.

One major externality in Singer's hypothetical is the response of the drowning kid.  Singer treats the drowning kid as a prop that serves to highlight the moral decision-making of the affluent actor.  But the needy, no less than those whose needs are met, are moral agents with responsibilities that they may choose to discharge or disregard.  "Internalizing" this externality in Singer's hypothetical might look like the following:

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will be ungrateful and, moreover, will steal your wallet while you are saving him or her.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will accuse you of implementing a non-sustainable intervention and of thereby preventing him or her from being able to survive without your assistance, a charge that will lead to your public humiliation and condemnation.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child's brother will be furious at what he perceives to be foreign interference with his family and will subsequently blow up a bakery that foreigners in town frequent, with the result that several local youths die and several more people (including foreigners) are injured.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
In posing these hypotheticals, my point is not to suggest that aid recipients are immoral, but to illustrate the over-simplistic nature of Singer's unilateral model for assessing moral responsibility and crafting general rules based thereupon.  The financially well-off may have a moral responsibility to help those in need, even if they prove to be ungrateful, cheat them of small sums, accuse them of acting injudiciously, humiliate them, or use them as an excuse for outrageous crimes; but the affluent also have a moral responsibility to discharge their obligations in a way that will have the most positive possible outcome.  

With his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Singer launched the animal rights movement, an impressive achievement that - despite its already numerous accomplishments - will continue to reverberate for generations to come.  As between humans and non-human animals, of course, humans are the only moral agents, a situation in which Singer's conceptual model has much greater emotional and logical force.  As between rich humans and poor humans, however, Singer's one-sided general rule both fails to persuade (the rich) and demeans (the poor).  What is necessary, instead, is a general rule that takes into account the moral responsibilities of both the donor and the aid recipient.  Only such an approach will have any chance of resulting in "the most positive possible outcome."

Such a rule cannot help but be more radical that Singer's current proposal.  Any general rule designed to promote optimal discharge of moral responsibilities on both sides of the wealth-redistribution equation must involve the affluent in more direct engagement with poverty than mere check writing.  

And while nobody today thinks that people who won't give 5% of their salary to charity are going face poverty more directly - by, for example, sharing the burdens of power outages and sub-par sanitation that result from volunteering in a developing country slum - nobody thought that the indiscriminate and cruel slaughter of animals was noteworthy in 1975 either.

(Image of Peter Singer from The Guardian)   
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Transitional modernization category.

The well-told story is the previous category.

Unconditional love of life is the next category.



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