Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: A Beloved Community of Parenting

These words are by UU religious educator Michelle Richards in her 2010 book Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting.

“We start our children on their journey and travel with them for as long as we are able to do so. But in a real sense, parenting is a long process of letting go. From the toddler who pulls away and insists “Me do!” to the adolescent who struggles to separate his identity from that of his parents, our children experience an ever-increasing series of separations from us. When their wings are ready, we can only watch them go and hope that we gave them the roots to find their own way in the world.”

Good morning! My name is Carrie, and I’m a member of this congregation and of our Religious Education Council. I have three kids in our RE programs here: ages 8, 6 and 2. During the week, the older two go to Cambridge public schools and the youngest is in part-time daycare. I’m an anthropologist and work part-time doing research. I’m married to a man who is not a UU, and who doesn’t normally come with us to church. I’m white and come from a long line of emotionally unexpressive New England Puritans. I was raised UU. All these things, and many more, shape the perspectives that I will share with you today.

Today I will be talking about community and parenting. I use Richards’ words today as a starting point. They show a particular model of parenting – one in which parents and children start off bound together, and where they slowly separate, until at last the child is completely independent. But I am going to try to paint a slightly bigger picture of this process, one which also shows the people and communities surrounding the parent and child through this process. I’m going to ask “what could a beloved community of parenting look like?”

I speak today to our entire community. Some of us are currently parenting young children. Some of us have older children, or grownup children, and are parenting in a different way. Some of us may be expecting children soon. Some of us do not have children. Some of us do not plan to. Some of us hope to have children in the future. Some of us may have lost a child. Some of us may be estranged from our children. Some of us may be struggling with fertility, or be waiting on a long adoption process, or have experienced miscarriage. Some of us may be parenting grandchildren, or step children, or sharing the custody of children. All of us have a place in the community we are working to build, and I invite you to consider that we all have a role to play in a beloved community of parenting.

What I won’t talk about:

Today I am going to try hard NOT talk about the many different anxiety-producing parenting philosophies that are out there. I’m not discussing attachment parenting, or tiger moms, or free-range parents, or helicopters, or French children’s diets, or opting out, or leaning in. I will absolutely not bring up any catch phrases that begin with the word “Mommy”. I don’t believe that parents are in competition with one another. If you want to learn more about these topics, I highly recommend pretty much any parenting webpage or magazine.

There are different ways people become parents, different approaches people take towards parenting, and many different experiences along the way. Children are different from one another from day one, and so are parents. I really believe that there are so many right answers for how to do it. But today I invite you to consider how everyone, everyone who is engaged in parenting, is taking part in a gradual process of letting go, of stepping back. Sometimes, it is a matter of letting go of our expectations about how things will turn out. For example, our kids may not be the people we imagined they would be. They may be more challenging, or more amazing, they may need us to love them in a different way than we pictured. And we, as parents, may not end up parenting the way we had planned.

Parenting is letting go. Anecdotes about letting go, it’s inevitable. But letting go into what?

But I have experienced, too, as Richards said, “a long process of letting go” of the children themselves. When my first child was born, I remember sitting in the bed in the hospital, holding him and looking at his tiny hands, and marveling “I get to keep him!!!” But I was wrong. I don’t get to keep him – not forever.

When he was six months old, we held a party to celebrate his first solid food. At this party, he tasted something other than breast milk for the first time. And I made a speech to our guests about letting go: how instead of depending only on me for nutrition, he would now start to depend on the food system of our wider society. I would have to take a step back and do a certain amount of trusting: that the food he ate was safe, that it contained what the label claimed it did, that the things I had learned about nutrition were correct… I soon learned, also, that he would not eat each and everything I wanted him to. So it seemed I would have to trust him, too, to eat the things his body needed to be healthy.

A few months later, he started crawling. Then he enjoyed walking while we held his hands. And one day, he let go and walked alone. A few months later, he was climbing the 6-foot-tall ladders at the playground. And sometimes, despite my best efforts, he scooted away and climbed them without me underneath. Often, other parents would be nearby and help him if needed, or just stand, watchful, until he reached the top. I felt so grateful, and tried to do the same for their kids. We do not just let our kids go to fly or fall on their own. Instead, for better or for worse, we step back and allow our wider communities to assume the roles we previously occupied.

Vision of parenting community

During this time when my first was a baby, and especially after my second child was born, two years later, I often felt so, so alone and overwhelmed. My need and desire for community was, and is, deep – I felt that the very best thing someone could do for me was to give love to my kids.

I have a vision of a beautiful, harmonious community of parenting. In this vision, which I think I share with many, we all would love each other’s children. Both parents and non-parents would recognize that raising and educating children was the vital work of ensuring our society’s better future, and that it was a collective job. Our kids could trustingly approach any adult for help, knowing that they would receive a loving response. Parents wouldn’t feel in competition with one another, or isolated from each other or from society as a whole. Having children would not be seen as a liability for women (or men) in the workplace. We all would have good intentions towards one another, and more or less agree on how to parent. We wouldn’t judge or feel judged.

BUT parenting community isn’t always 100% harmonious. Anecdote about climbing

But in the real world, it doesn’t always work so seamlessly. To go back to the playground… My kids were all early climbers, and I have found that I am usually willing to let them take the risks of climbing. Sometimes, other parents see my tiny kids climbing and assume that I haven’t noticed and warn me, saying “your child is on the ladder!” Other times, other parents just cast alarmed glances at me repeatedly, while hovering under my kids themselves. This makes me feel very self-conscious, as if others are thinking that I am neglectful. When this happens, I try to stick up for my own parenting techniques and instincts – assuming good intentions, trying not to feel judged, and explaining that yes, they are allowed to climb there. I often defensively explain that they take fewer risks this way… but I find myself succumbing to pressure and moving closer after one of those conversations, while inwardly grumbling about it.

So we do not always agree. These letting-go milestones happen at different times and in different ways for different families. And we have different ideas, emotions and histories that shape how we handle them.

Every time we let go, though, for better or for worse, we’re not just leaving our children to flail around by themselves. Sometimes, we do have to trust them to make the decisions that are right for them. But often, we must let larger society also step in. If we let them walk along a street without holding our hands, yes, we trust them not to run in front of cars. But we also trust drivers to look where they’re going and not drive on the sidewalk. If we send them to school, however much we may talk to the teachers or volunteer in the school or know the curriculum, or not, at some point we trust the schools to keep them safe and teach them correct and appropriate things, and for the children’s peer groups, to be more or less positive and safe. Or, sometimes, even if we don’t trust these things, we accept, however uncomfortably, that trying to control them is a losing battle.

Giving up these pieces of control is so, so hard. In kindergarten, my oldest was introduced to a relatively violent TV cartoon by a charismatic little classmate. At first, my son just pretended to be the characters, but then he started reading the companion books and became an authority on the complex, shifting relationships and characters of the fantasy universe, not to mention all their fighting techniques. And I discovered that I was not going to be able to prevent him from having pretend fights – the harder I resisted, the more he was fascinated by them. I realized I would have to let this one go, just a little bit. I am consistently clear with him about why I don’t like fighting and violence. I try to be and steer him towards non-violent role models, and talk about other ways to resolve conflicts. But I recognize that not only do I not control his interests, but that he and I are living in a larger society which has extremely conflicted ideas about violence – glorifying and fantasizing about it on the one hand and absolutely prohibiting it on the other. And short of moving to a desert island with no broadband connection, we will both have to cope with this in our own ways.

I used to feel so angry and sad with this specific little classmate who introduced him to the cartoon. But then, my second child learned to read… and she discovered, by herself in the wholesome environment of our library, a series of extremely gendered and disempowering books. She quickly became hypnotized by this series, and the harder I resisted, the more she was fascinated by them. Sound familiar? I’ve recently come to believe that perhaps even if my oldest never met that classmate, he would have encountered similarly troubling ideas some other way.

My mom tells a story about a similar experience she had while raising me. She was very opposed to Barbie dolls, with their unrealistic body proportions and disempowered roles. She didn’t let me own one, even though my friends at the time were all very dedicated Barbie doll owners. This lasted until the day, when I was maybe 6 years old, and I came home from a friends’ house, and she discovered that I had stolen one of my friends’ dolls. That day, she made me return the doll and apologize, and then took me out and bought me one of my own.

These three stories have one thing in common: my mother and I were pitting ourselves against the values of the community surrounding us, while our children resisted. We stepped back from the immediate conflict in the hopes that our ideas would prevail in the long term… or at least that we might salvage enough relationship with the child to exert influence elsewhere.

I see this as a fairly common theme in parenting stories. We see ourselves, mostly as individuals, fighting a losing battle against outside influences, whether those come from our children’s peers, the media, or even our own extended families. On the other hand, we have this image of the idyllic, harmonious community of like-minded people where we wouldn’t have to fight these fights, or at least not alone.

Community is a conflicted concept in the society we live in, and, I feel, particularly with UUs. We value finding our own truths and thinking independently. This is a very individualist idea of how truth is arrived at. It also ties in to the wider societal valuing of rugged individualism – we UUs are so rugged and individual that we even make our own religious creeds!

According to these ideas, community can be seen as oppressive, and restrictive. Relying on community also carries negative connotations of dependence, and even of uncritical thinking.

This leaves parents, who are doing a job that absolutely requires community, in a bind.

One way to cope is to seek out people very similar to ourselves, who have backgrounds and have made decisions similar to the ones we’ve made and who will presumably share much of our parenting philosophy. This very understandable impulse to find an approximation of the idyllic, harmonious community, runs the risk, however, of walling us off in homogenous, non-diverse enclaves.

It also isolates children from others at different stages of life, which is unfortunate for both.

On the other hand, UUs, in the words of our service here, ‘strive to create the beloved community of Martin Luther King Junior’s dream.’ This community arises when a critical mass of people adopt non-violent principles, and is based on agape love: the type of love that is directed towards everyone, regardless of any deserving-ness. To “hate segregation but love segregationists”, in Kings’ words. ( This vision of community does not include the idea that there would never be conflict – merely the principle that conflict would be resolved non-violently, and that in resolving conflict, the opposing parties would have the opportunity to grow in understanding of each other.

What could a beloved community of parenting look like? Could we strive towards this here?

It wouldn’t mean that we had to be on the same page about everything related to kids. There would be disagreement, and even conflict. But this conflict would be resolved without the violence of assuming bad intentions.

I also suggest that a beloved community of parenting should include people in many stages of life, not just those currently parenting young children, or just those who ever intend to parent, or even just those who feel generally positive feelings about young children. I adore kids – I recognize that not everybody does, and that a room full of emotional, kinetic preschoolers, for example, or sassy, narcissistic middle schoolers, is not everybody’s idea of a good time. I think it’s sometimes good for kids to realize that they are not universally adorable and appealing, and that inviting kids into spaces that are not always Kid Spaces can be healthy both for kids and the adults around them.

It would have to start from a few shared assumptions, however. One of these might be that people, including children, have inherent worth and dignity. Another might be that children form an important part of the interconnected web of all existence.

Could we imagine a beloved parenting community in which it feels natural to everyone, both parents and non-parents alike, to talk about “our kids,” not just your kids or my kids? What could we do to build a community where it feels natural for anyone to hug a tearful toddler, or remind a kindergartener to say please, or ask a second grader to help with their work, or try to initiate a respectful, listening conversation with a glum-looking fourteen year old?

What could we do so that parents, when we see people doing these things with our children, don’t feel judged?

I believe that these changes in culture arise from changes in social structures. And as a congregation, we’ve taken a significant step in this direction. In our budget for next year, we’ve agreed that there will be childcare every Sunday starting at 9:00 and lasting until 2:00. There will also be lunch available here at church every week. This will go a long way, I believe, towards easing the logistical difficulties of church attendance; making it easier for parents of young children to participate more fully in the life of the congregation and making church a more welcoming place for families. We’ve also been working on various ways to include our youngest community members in the weekly activities of our congregation, and on creating opportunities for people of different life stages to form relationships.

These are some of the ways that we could build a beloved community that is fully inclusive of children of all ages, parents at many different stages of parenting, and those who aren’t parenting. Letting go into a sometimes hostile society is so hard – how much easier can it be when we know we are letting go in the context of a community where, even if we don’t always agree, we hear in the words and deeds of people around us: “I support you”, and “your feelings are valid”? “Your children -- our children -- are important to me and to all of us”, and “we’re in this together”?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Do We Try To Do It Alone?

I’ve been missing my sisters and mothers in the Big House lately. I miss living together—us, our kids, our spouses and partners—in our Big House. I miss eating together, and scrubbing together, and digging together, and singing together. I miss how we casually keep an eye on each other’s children and gossip while we cook and do the dishes. I miss knowing the intimate, silly little details of their daily lives, and having them know mine. I miss how they are good at things I’m bad at, and how I don’t have to try to do everything. I miss how our togetherness makes our creative work more satisfying. I miss how our companionship makes the drudgework less onerous. I desperately miss how we know together that our work is important, how we roll our eyes at each other behind the backs of anyone who doesn’t get it. I feel so lonely for these women, my mothers and my sisters.

I also miss the special savor of the intimacy when my husband and I finally retire to our private bedroom in the Big House at the end of the day. We’ve been looking forward all evening to finally being alone. We whisper and giggle and catch up in ways impossible in front of anyone else. We do other things that aren’t any of your business—more fun because we’ve missed each other while we were next to one another in the crowd of our family. We don’t bicker about who should do the dishes, or whether it’s important to do the dishes, or who does the dishes more often. And we don’t feel we should – or could – control everything about our lives, because many decisions, and a lot of the work, are made by the entire community.

But the Big House isn’t a place that has ever existed for me, really. I get tantalizing tastes of what it might be like on Thanksgiving, together with my sister, mother, aunt, cousin and grandmother in the kitchen. But I haven’t ever lived with extended (or honorary extended) family.

In my everyday life, I live alone with my husband and ten-month-old son. When we share meals with others, it’s a special occasion. I cook and clean for just the three of us, and take care of the baby, and sometimes get enough time to write. My husband works, too. He has a prestigious job which demands 85 hours of his time each week, on average. The only person who cares or knows enough about my work to appreciate it in all its insignificant detail is me. I have to pat my own back when my son emerges from under the furniture NOT covered in dust. A pinch of nutmeg in the cranberry sauce I made the other day tasted wonderful! But my son can’t tell me if he noticed, my husband doesn’t like cranberries, and nobody else had any.

I am sustained in my domestic work by these little moments of creativity. But it is hard to give to myself all the acknowledgement and appreciation I need. And it is in these moments that I miss my mothers and sisters the most.

I did field research in rural Nicaragua for 11 months in 2006 and 2007. And life there wasn’t exactly like life in my Big House. But most of the people I knew, although usually living in individual houses with just their nuclear families, lived within short walking distance of many family members. “Luisa’s” mother lives just across the street and up the hill with her sister and nephew, her father-in-law is next door, and her older brother lives with his wife and children about a ten minute walk away, close to the well. Some non-relatives also live just across the street, and life is such that everyone is often in and out of each others’ houses. There is malicious gossip, there is jealousy, there are feuds. There is also deep, deep poverty, and attempts to better one’s own situation at the expense of others. It isn’t beautiful or ideal. But it isn’t lonely – loneliness, or a desire to be alone, is actually culturally understood as sadness or sickness. And when a woman wants to go earn money by working for a day or two in the fields, her mother or her sister can watch her children. She doesn’t have to get on a 9-month daycare waiting list where the child will be watched by strangers, and do the math to see if she’d earn enough to pay for the daycare.

I fully acknowledge that my community of women—and their children, and partners, and everyone else who lives in my Big House—would not be, could never be, a harmonious, argument-free group. There would be gossip, and disagreements, possibly even big fights. And in my misty images of the Big House, I always seem to forget the various ways my actual mothers and sisters (blood, in-law, and honorary) can often find to push my buttons. But right now, I feel maybe disharmony isn’t the end of the world.

Why do we try to do it alone? Why does each nuclear family feel the need to have its own individual house with its own individual yard and its own individual oven and dishwasher and furnace and washer/dryer and hot water heater? When it’s almost as easy to cook for 8 as for 3, why do we insist on somebody from each individual family planning and shopping for and cooking and eating and cleaning up after their own individual dinners in their own individual houses every single night? Or instead grabbing something on the run, which is more expensive and less yummy or nutritious?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a total, raging, bra-burning feminist. But… especially since I’m breastfeeding, I’ve come to think that we may have been rash in burning all bras. Since I’m a Gen-Xer (sort of), I feel we women, and also men, what the heck, should be able to choose whether to work outside or inside the home once we become parents. But now that it’s happened to me, (I’m not sure it has felt like a conscious choice, but that’s another story) I feel diminished and almost ashamed sometimes. At parties, I get snappy and defensive when people ask me “if I work.” And I think it’s because I work by myself.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fisher endorses Clinton

Dear friends and family,

Please excuse the lengthy mass email, but I want to explain to you all why I've decided to vote for Hillary Clinton in next week's primary.  This hasn't been an easy choice for me, and I still feel some ambivalence about it, but I think she is the best person both to get the Democratic party back in the White House and—more importantly in my opinion—to lead the country after the election is finally over.


There have been a lot of comparisons made lately between Barack Obama and JFK—both of them have the power to move crowds and inspire.  But I was born too late to remember JFK personally.  The closest parallel that occurs to me, of a charismatic politician elected despite a relatively shallow political resume, with the rationale that he would hire good advisers and get the important tasks accomplished through the power of his attractive personality and will, was George W. Bush.  The Bush years have made me profoundly anxious about the idea of electing another president with this same profile.   I feel much more comfortable with Hillary Clinton, a politician whom I trust to go about things in a methodical, pragmatic, realistic way. 

One thing some people dislike about her is exactly this willingness to be pragmatic.  They say she is too calculating, and this supposedly indicates a lack of genuineness.  But I feel very strongly that this country does not need more leaders who, due to their "spiritual clarity", stick with their convictions come hell or high water, despite the shifting and indefinite nature of external reality.  We need politicians who can deal with that reality, who are capable of introspection and re-calculation when they see their strategies failing.  Hillary Clinton has demonstrated she has this capability.


I've heard some people arguing—and read quite frequently in the press—that Obama would have an advantage in a general election in terms of electability.  But poll numbers indicate otherwise.  At the site RealClearPolitics, which publishes aggregate results of multiple polls, in recent head-to-head matchups between Obama vs. McCain, and Clinton vs. McCain, Obama and Clinton come out with almost identical results (McCain beats Clinton by 1.8% and McCain beats Obama by 1.5%).  These numbers are available at:  

There is also the idea out there that people either love Hillary or hate her, and that therefore people who are not supporting her must hate her—they say "Hillary is nobody's second choice."  But CNN exit polls argue against Hillary being much more hated than Obama.  In Florida (which Hillary won), 80% of Democratic voters would be very satisfied or somewhat satisfied if Hillary got the nomination.  Only 70% of Democratic voters would be satisfied if Obama got it (  In South Carolina (the only election which Obama has won so far), 77% of Democratic voters would be satisfied with Hillary, and 83% would be satisfied with Obama (  Neither of these differences are large enough to justify a storyline of overwhelming hatred against Hillary. 

Healthcare Policy

I will mention one specific policy on which Clinton differs significantly from Barack Obama.  Both candidates support government programs to expand health coverage to more people.  But Obama's plan does not make coverage mandatory to all adults.  He says he wants to give people "choice", but that he believes that everyone, including healthy young adults, will want health coverage.  Clinton's plan, on the other hand, makes coverage mandatory for all.  This is an extremely important distinction. 

Insurance as an economic model only works and is profitable—or, in the case of non-profit insurance, does not lose money—because it can count on having some people, the healthy, pay more for the coverage than they receive in benefits, in addition to the sick people who receive more in benefits than they pay.  Nobody can accurately predict whether a given individual will get injured or sick.  Given the choice, many young and healthy people choose not to buy healthy insurance, effectively betting that they will remain healthy.  As people get older and/or sicker, their cost to health insurance increases, and they more often choose to buy the insurance.  But the health insurance industry depends on having enough healthy young adults in its population in order to pay for the coverage they have promised.  The smaller the percentage of healthy people, the more everybody else has to pay in premiums, and the less money there is available to provide care.

Obama wants to give adults "choice" whether or not to have health coverage.  And so some people—the youngest and healthiest—will choose not to have coverage.  This will weaken and undermine the entire system of coverage.  The more responsible system, and the one that guarantees the highest-quality care and the cheapest premiums for individuals, is the one which makes coverage mandatory.

Work to be Done

Towards the end of the Bill Clinton presidency, a politically radical professor of mine explained to me that she didn't vote because the contests were meaningless—that the positions of the Democrats and the Republicans were so close as to make distinctions between them meaningless, and that the only way to accomplish the necessary radical social changes was through working outside the political system.  My political sympathies were largely, and to an extent still are, in agreement with hers.  And this statement seemed reasonable to me at the time.  However, in the ensuing years I have come to believe that this professor's strategy of non-participation was dangerously complacent. 

I am very aware that under Bill Clinton the U.S. was not on a course which I was totally comfortable with.  Just to name two issues, it was under Bill Clinton that NAFTA was signed, legislation which had devastating effects on Mexican agriculture.  It was under Bill Clinton that welfare "reform" was instituted, seriously undermining the social safety net in this country and therefore driving down wages for the entire working class. 

However, the years of the Bush presidency have shown me that there are even larger issues at stake.  Again, just to list two, the irresponsible use of the U.S.'s frighteningly powerful military holds incredible danger for both the rest of the world and the U.S. itself.  Another danger we have seen under the Bush administration is the expansion of the sphere of executive power, throwing off the vital system of checks and balances which has the potential—if used—to prevent this powerful country from becoming an autocracy.

I'm not trying to argue that I think that under Obama these dangerous policies would be continued.  I'm just trying to argue that it makes a big difference who we choose.  And that I trust I know the types of policies Hillary would make, and the types of advisors she would appoint.  Whereas I don't trust that I entirely know these things about Obama.

With all this said, I will absolutely be behind Obama if he gets the Democratic nomination.  But on Tuesday I'm voting for Hillary.

Carolyn Fisher

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

8:00 pm update

Felix is now down to a Category 1 and has crossed the border into Honduras.  However, the Category designation only talks about the strength of the winds, not about the amount of rain it is bringing.  La Prensa, one of the Nicaraguan national newspapers, is reporting 4 dead (so far reported) on the Atlantic coast and 5,500 houses destroyed.  There is a picture of what used to be a wooden house... it now resembles a pile of lumber. 

What will still make the biggest difference for my inland friends, however, is the amount of rain which falls, and how quickly the storm moves out.  The worst damage during Mitch was caused, not by the winds, but by the rain and the consequent mudslides.

Hurricane Felix

Hi everybody,

Well, I wish I was writing after such a long hiatus with good news, but unfortunately this isn't the case.  Hurricane Felix made landfall on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua this morning as a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest type of storm.  For comparison, Katrina was only a Category 3 when it made landfall near New Orleans.  Felix is closely following the trajectory taken by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which was extremely destructive in the area where my friends live.

In good news, the eye of the hurricane is passing to the north of the Matagalpa area, and Felix is travelling a little faster than Mitch was.  (Mitch parked over the region for a week, causing enormous floods.)  Also, it has now weakened to a Category 3. 

In bad news, the storm is slowing down.  The National Weather Service has predicted that between 8-12 inches of rain may fall on Nicaragua, but that mountainous regions (like Matagalpa, although it didn't specifically give Matagalpa as an example), may get up to 25 inches of rain. 

Back during Hurricane Mitch, the rain was the worst part of the storm in the Matagalpa region.  Landslides and flooding carried away most of the crops that had been planted that year, and stripped most of the coffee off the trees.  Many of the coffee trees themselves were even uprooted and carried off by mudslides.  Some houses were even carried off.  And in this normally pretty dry region, water sources--wells and natural springs--were permanently damaged.  The roads were blocked for weeks.

I expect that most of my friends are taking shelter in the cement schoolhouse in the community, which is not too near any unstable hillsides.  After the experience 9 years ago, I imagine they're taking this storm seriously.  But after the storm, an NGO did a survey of unstable hillsides in the area, which might pose a risk for mudslides in another similar storm.  They identified houses which are in risky places, and advised the residents of the houses to move.  But they had nowhere else to go which would be less risky.  If those surveys were accurate, I am worried that a number of my friends may lose their houses in this storm.

Keep your fingers crossed that this storm will pass through quickly.  If you pray, please pray.  If anything changes, or I get any news, I'll post about it here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Things are serious when the blog entry has a list of works cited...

Hi everybody,

So I’m working on writing a paper which I have to give at a conference at the end of the month, and thought I’d try out my arguments on you for practice. I would LOVE to know what anyone thinks, whether my arguments are clear, whether you have any questions or thoughts, whether you have any criticisms, whether the logic of my argument breaks down, etc. And apologies in advance for a way-longer-than-usual post.

My main arguments are: we need to distinguish between accusations of corruption and actual instances of corruption. And also, an accusation of corruption is not necessarily always or merely describing corruption. It also is a moral evaluation of a world economic system that is unjust, and a way of making meaningful sense out of this injustice. And finally, when these accusations were made to me, it was a way of making a moral claim on those rich countries in the system with the perceived power to help.

When I was in Nicaragua, I was told story after story of corrupt practices among government officials, from national leaders to local community representatives, among church and political party leaders, and among officials of cooperatives, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and other development projects.

I am not in a position to evaluate whether any of these stories are true or not. However, there have been a number of studies done, using questionable research methods, attempting to measure corruption, or at least rank countries according to the degree of corruption that exists within them today and to measure the change in this corruption over time. Transparency International, for example, does a “Corruption Barometer” every year, using survey data commissioned from Gallup to ask about people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of government in combating corruption, which sectors people perceive as being the most corrupt, and asking about the last bribe they paid. They then use this data to publish conclusions about “the public’s” perceptions of corruption. Similarly, the World Bank Institute published a report last year measuring and ranking, among other “governance indicators”, the degree of corruption in each country. These rankings were based on multiple surveys done by other agencies, practically all of which were constructed based on opinion surveys conducted among “business leaders” working in the countries in question. I have not found any agency which is successfully attempting to measure and compare across countries, in quantitative money terms, the amount of money lost to bribery or embezzlement. In other words, we have measures of perceptions of corruption, but not of actual instances of corruption. And these questions about perceptions of corruption do not allow for any cultural variation in understandings of what corruption might be. (However, more specific questioning about personal experiences of specific types of corruption may help with this, as in the Transparency International’s questions about the last bribe that you paid, its amount, etc.)

Despite these methodological issues, I should mention that Nicaragua gets mixed reviews in these surveys, despite some very high-profile corruption cases in recent years. (Nicaragua’s president from 1996-2002, Arnoldo Aleman, is serving a cushy home-detention jail sentence for embezzlement during his presidential term.) Among Central American countries, according to the World Bank study, Nicaragua scores third out of five. But Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America: if Nicaragua is compared with its fellow low-income countries across the globe, it scores better than average. . (If anyone’s interested, you can play with the World Bank data yourself at the website of the report. However, the Transparency International 2005 report, which asked about people’s expectations for the future, found that Nicaraguans were the most pessimistic in Latin America about the future, with over 60% predicting that the corruption situation would get worse. (Disappointingly, Nicaragua was dropped from the countries analyzed in the 2006 TI Barometer—it would have been interesting to see whether this pessimism got better or worse after the re-election of Daniel Ortega.)

So my point is that although I was constantly hearing stories about both governmental and non-governmental corruption, Nicaragua does not stand out as a country with an unusual degree of corruption according to what few, questionable, international comparisons are available.

One thing I noticed when hearing the stories told to me in Nicaragua is that they did not always conform to my definition of corruption. My dictionaries, both English and Spanish, are vague on this point, merely saying that corruption is immoral behavior. (Corruption/corrupción is a cognate in English and Spanish and the dictionary definitions are almost identical.) For example, according to one of them, corrupting a woman could mean seducing her (of course, seducing a man, if you’re a woman, wouldn’t be corrupting him, since heterosexual sex is apparently only immoral for women. Grr.) However, I think we can say that in the current context, corruption is generally understood to be a technical term, meaning more than just immoral behavior, but also including something about abuse of power and personal gain. Therefore I was surprised to hear cases of what I would describe as simple incompetence or inefficiency, in which nobody benefited, and least of all those responsible, described as corruption.

For example: Nicaraguan political commentator Oscar-René Vargas, in a book on the topic of corruption in Nicaraguan society, defines corruption as “acts which, taking advantage of the authority of a public or judicial office, are used to gain illicit or improper earnings” (2000: 25 my approximate translation). However, in a different part of this same book, Vargas describes a two-stage project to improve the health system in Nicaragua, for which loans were taken out from the World Bank. This project involved a high degree of training for the employees involved. However, with the entrance of a new government, all the employees were fired. The project was started up again later, but new employees had to be located, and further loans had to be taken out for the trainings to be done all over again (Vargas 2000: 34). I would have interpreted this situation as very bad, yes… as evidence of incompetence and negligence, yes. But corruption? Nobody benefited from this situation. Another example from the same book is that Vargas lists “high salaries, paid in U.S. dollars, of government officials” as one of the aspects of corruption. I would describe the topic of Vargas’ book as “misuse of funds”, a topic which includes what I would call corruption. But he calls all these things corruption.

And this perspective is rather common, not only among the people I was talking to—both middle-class people in the city and poor people in the countryside—but also in, for example, newspapers.

As an anthropologist, my job is not to decide that people are wrong, that they misunderstand the meaning of a word, or to shrug off an inconsistency. Rather, I actively look for “slippages” of meaning like this. I listen to the context in which people speak. I ask is the inconsistency wide-spread? (yes it is) Is the inconsistency I’m perceiving due to a prejudice I have? (my understanding of the word is the same as Vargas’ explicit definition). So having decided that it’s not just one person, and it’s not just me, I ask about the meaning of situations like this.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve described Matagalpa—both the city and the department (province) of the same name—as a place which is surprisingly full of development projects and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), all with the stated goal of reducing poverty or things stemming from poverty, like infant mortality, women’s disadvantage, and environmental degradation, and generally serve the underserved. I am not the only one to make this observation, either. In the words of one small-scale farmer I talked to, “Nicaragua has been very very rich in organizations”.

Despite the vast number of these organizations, however, and despite their best stated intentions, most people remain poor. Now, I don’t want to say that NGOs do nothing positive. I heard stories of particular projects and particular relief which helped quite a lot. Some organizations built wells for communal use, filling a crucial need in a fairly dry zone, or dug latrines, or donated sheets of zinc for roofs, or food to families with very young children. There are places which provide prenatal care for free, and a place for pregnant women to stay when they are close to term, so that they can give birth in safe conditions (though this doesn’t help if the baby is born prematurely—see blog entry for Oct 22). After the devastating damage wrought in the area by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, there was food relief brought in which helped some families survive until the next harvest could be sown and harvested. I was especially touched by one particular story: a woman was raped, and with the help and encouragement of a women’s advocacy NGO, the women of the community banded together and denounced the rapist, driving him out of the area.

On the other hand… as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I conducted an economic life history survey with members of fifty randomly-chosen households out of the approximately 200 households in the rural community where I spent the most time. And although I haven’t yet run the numbers, a number of people I talked to have actually become poorer through interactions with NGOs—this mostly happened through being forced to sell land to pay off micro-loans made at exorbitant interest rates.

How can we understand the simultaneous existence of many programs with the objective of eliminating poverty, and persisting poverty? Anthropologist Lesley Gill writes about a city in Bolivia which was similarly inundated with NGOs, and which similarly wasn’t rising out of poverty (Gill 2000). She takes the perspective that the NGOs, although they have stated intentions of poverty reduction, are actually only functioning to keep the population under control and extract value from them (unpaid labor, interest from micro-loans, etc). These groups, in her view, are merely helping out with the neo-liberal project. (If anyone’s interested, I’ll talk about neo-liberalism here another day. Leave me a comment. The people who are going to be hearing me read this paper will know what I’m talking about.) And Gill clearly sees the people involved in the neo-liberal project as The Bad Guys. In addition, for her, the neo-liberals are clearly an alliance between middle- and upper-class Bolivians and foreign interests, especially the U.S. government. Therefore, Gill’s answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph is that poverty persists despite these programs because the NGOs were reinforcing poverty by supporting neoliberalism. And that the people ultimately responsible for this situation were not Bolivian—the center of the neoliberal project is in the U.S..


I came to Nicaragua with ideas like these pretty firmly in my head. I understood the ways that global projects like neoliberalism function, and I expected that many people in Nicaragua would lay the blame for Nicaragua’s continuing poverty at the door of the United States. (After all, just 20 years ago it was no secret that the U.S. was sponsoring an armed insurgency attempting to bring down the Nicaraguan government.)

However, to my surprise, not only do my friends not blame the U.S. or neoliberal projects for ongoing poverty today, they also do not place ultimate blame on the U.S. for the Contra war. The war is seen as a civil war in which both sides got foreign sponsorship (Cuba and the USSR sponsored the Sandinistas), but for which Nicaraguans were ultimately responsible. Also, current ongoing poverty is not blamed on foreign intervention, fluctuating commodity markets, the declining relative value of agricultural products, or even the constraints placed on government programs by international lending bodies (like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc). Rather, according to most people I talked to—both middle class and poor—the principle reason for Nicaragua’s ongoing poverty is corruption among Nicaraguans themselves. The same man I quoted before as saying Nicaragua was very very rich in NGOs continued on, in the same conversation, to tell me “If these NGOs worked well, Nicaragua would not be as undeveloped as it is today. We Nicaraguans are very grateful for the aid we receive (from abroad), but all the aid goes to the friends of the functionaries. No aid comes for poor people” (my approximate translation). I heard this point of view many times—the aid and programs that come are good, people in donor countries are benevolent, but the embezzlement or misuse of the funds by government or NGO employees causes the failure of the objective of the programs. Blame is placed not on any foreign government or other entity, but on Nicaraguans themselves.

Placing the blame on Nicaraguans, rather than on foreign powers or the way the world economy is set up, is a way of making meaningful sense out of injustice. Concluding that poverty (or other bad things, for example, illness) (Farmer 1993) is the fault of a person with bad intentions who is acting malevolently is more meaningful for many people than blaming “The System” or vast impersonal mechanisms like the world economy. It also points the way to a resolution of the situation—if only these malevolent people could be caught and punished, there might be a solution to these desperate situations, whereas a solution to The System is much more remote—maybe this is especially the case in a place like Nicaragua where popular revolution has already been unsuccessfully attempted.[1]

Now I am not trying to say that this is the point of view of all Nicaraguans. First of all, people who are very involved members of the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, the political party of Daniel Ortega) will generally talk freely about U.S. imperialism and “capitalismo salvaje”. However, these people were a small minority in the rural community where I worked, and also among the people I worked with in the city of Matagalpa. Second, in all cases, people were talking to me, a gringa from the United States, a country that donates a significant proportion of the foreign aid that comes to Nicaragua, and that this shaped what they said and what they didn’t say, despite the fact that I attempted to distance myself from the policies of the U.S. government at every appropriate opportunity. I fully expect that there were currents of anti-U.S. sentiment which I never became aware of.

I was surprised and flattered, at first, that people were willing to tell stories of corruption to me. I thought that if people were thinking of me as just “the gringa”, a representative of the U.S., people would have tried to cover up corruption as much as possible. After all, if people were trying to convince the U.S., via me, to help the poor, they would not want to portray Nicaragua as full of corruption. So I interpreted these stories as evidence of trust, and of people thinking of me as an individual, not as “the gringa”. But this interpretation was in error. I later came to understand that people were telling me stories of corruption exactly because they thought of me as a representative of a donor country, with a potential to communicate these stories back to people who make decisions about foreign aid. In fact, they were telling me these stories as a way of making a moral claim on me and on the rich country which they saw me as representing.

In the U.S., there is a strong cultural narrative that upward economic mobility is within the reach of everybody, no matter how poor they start off. Poverty is interpreted, therefore, as personal failure, and is highly stigmatized. Even more highly stigmatized is the asking for and receiving of charity, associated as it is with “dependency” (Fraser and Gordon 1994). However, I found that this stigma is not as marked in Nicaragua. Rather, the poor are often described as having a legitimate moral claim on the rich, and the rich have obligations to help the poor. While NGO employees and other members of the middle class often have an understanding that is similar to that common in the U.S.—that the poor are irresponsible and dependent—the poor people who spoke with me do not usually consider their neediness to be evidence of personal failure. For a rich person to enjoy his or her wealth without helping those in need is immoral. Therefore, describing one’s own poverty to someone from a rich country is a way of both making a moral critique of the inequality existing between rich and poor and making a claim on that person, and by extension that country.[2]

People told these stories to me, in the absence of a more direct foreign government representative, because they hoped that the benevolent donor countries who want to do the right thing by helping the poor might be able to exert influence over the corrupt intermediaries. One person actually suggested to me that it would be nice if the U.S. could just send money directly to poor families like his, instead of channeling it through the NGOs.

In conclusion, I have argued that the accusations of corruption I heard in Nicaragua were meaningful ways in which people morally condemned their own poverty and the economic inequalities between Nicaragua and the United States, and staked moral claims on me and the country which I represented to them. I have no way of evaluating whether these accusations were all, or partly, also descriptively accurate. But Nicaragua does not stand out on comparative scales as a country with a particularly high scale of corruption for its income level, although apparently anxiety about corruption is higher than average as shown by people’s pessimism for the future. And it is noteworthy that as a part of this moral critique, the category of “corruption” is expanded to include things such as inefficiency or incompetence which do not fit a technical or legal definition of corruption but which are similarly morally condemnable. Therefore, great care should be taken when evaluating accusations of corruption—or the international corruption indices which are based on them.

So that’s it… again, I’d love to hear any commentary. Thanks!


Works Cited:

Farmer, P. 1993. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fraser, N., and L. Gordon. 1994. A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State. Signs 19:309-336.

Gill, L. 2000. Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. New York: Columbia University Press.

Vargas, O.-R. 2000. Círculos del Infierno: Corrupción, Dinero y Poder. Managua: Foro Democrático y Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional de Nicaragua (CEREN).

[1] Actually, despite having to deal with an insurgency and economic strangulation, the Nicaraguan revolutionary government accomplished some meaningful successes, a few of which are still apparent today in some areas: the literacy campaign of 1980 and agrarian reform programs are the ones which are especially remembered in the rural community where I spent the most time.

[2] This was very hard on me at first, as I felt more and more pressure to respond to these claims. But after a while I found that when beginning a conversation with a new person, if I could find a way to immediately acknowledge the poverty of the community and express my own regrets about it, the person tended to exert less pressure on me personally.

Friday, March 02, 2007


Hi Everybody,

I'm writing this in an airplane somewhere between Managua and Miami,
somewhere between the earth and the sky, somewhere between the third
world and the capital of the world, somewhere between Carolina and

One of the few technical terms in anthropology that I feel has any
value is the word "liminal". (There are quite a few technical terms
in anthropology, but I feel most of them serve mainly to make their
users sound smart or announce the theoretical orientation of the
author.) The word liminal is used a lot when describing coming-of-age
rituals. In many of these ceremonies, boys or girls are ritually
separated from their identities as chidlren, and spend some time in an
intermediate, identity-less state when they sometimes must pass
through certain dangers, before being re-integrated into the community
as newly-formed women or men. The in-between time, when the initiates
are neither children nor adults, when they face uncertainties and
dangers, is called a liminal state.

In this last week I have felt like this. Like someone preparing to
join a particularly strict religious order, I gave away or sold all my
worldly possessions except those which fit in my suitcase (goodbye,
motorcycle!). I finished fulfilling the promises I made over the last
year, as much as possible. I paid good-bye visits, and gave and
received a few small gifts. On Tuesday night there was afarewell
religious celebration in the house of a friend of mine in the
campo--about forty people crowded into the little house and we sang
happy songs and clapped. People also made really nice speeches, and I
tried to, too, but broke up in the middle like I always do. (I'm such
a sap!) This morning I handed the key of my rented house back to the
landlord (goodbye, house!), and I was cut free from my identity as
Carolina, the tall, blond, motorcycle-riding gringa who isn't afraid
to go around all alone and hates young men.

So now I'm winging along, facing the dangers of airplane and the
uncertainties of U.S. customs procedures. Well, at least I don't have
to forage in a wilderness or ingest hallucinogens or undergo genital
mutilation. I am greatly looking forward, however, to receiving
instruction from my elders (the professors on my dissertation
committee) and the camraderie of my fellow students.

And I cannot express how much I'm looking forward to being Home. To
settling down to living, not just visiting, with my husband. To being
in regular contact with family and friends. To wearing clothes that
make me feel pretty, instead of aggressively sending the signal that
I'm uninterested and unavailable (not that this ever apparently
deterred many of the obnoxious looks and comments). To sitting, and
thinking, and reading, and writing, in a real library, with other
people who are doing the same thing. To the subway and the park. To
high-speed internet! Even, a little bit, to the cold. And especially
to not feeling like a visitor and a foreigner.

Being in a new place, even if it's also an old place, always takes
some adjustment. But by now I know what to expect--emotional ups and
downs, nostalgia and disorientation, sometimes feeling disconnected
from everything. And these, too, shall pass as I become re-integrated
back into my social role.

I don't know if I will continue to blog or not, now that I'm going
home. Anyone who misses my irregular spurts of wisdom should be in
direct touch!

Best wishes to you all,

P.S. I'm sending this on Friday afternoon. I made it back, but all
my checked luggage is still in a liminal state, somewhere between
Miami and New York. Fortunately, however, all my data is here with me
since I prudently packed it in my carryon bag.

Friday, February 09, 2007

original sin

Hi everyone,

So I don't think I've mentioned this on this blog before, but I've
been going to church in the campo a lot lately. This has given me a
reputation of being very religious. And in this way I am a contrast
to many other outsiders who come to visit in solidarity. There is an
NGO, a women's group, which has alienated both churches, and those
women who hold jobs in either church are not allowed to go to their
meetings. In one conversation, someone told me about some visiting
Cubans who encouraged people not to go to church and said that
religion was bad. Despite your political ideology, however, this is
not reality-based strategy.

People, and especially community leaders, spend a truly astonishing
amount of time in church and on church-related activities. In some
seasons of the year there are "visits", or prayer and song meetings,
in private homes every night of the week. But religion is anything
but the somber, serious, quiet event that my New England background
has led me to expect. Quiet is associated with sadness, not
reverence, and in Nicaragua people worship God by being joyful. Songs
are usually upbeat and often accompanied by clapping. Prayer is done
not by bowing the head solemnly but by looking ahead or up with both
palms to the sky. One hymn, accompanied by clapping, goes "In heaven
they hear what is sung on earth!" and "With lots of lot of happiness
and enjoyment, this is how we worship God". (En el cielo se oye, lo
que en la tierra se canta; Con mucho alegria y gozo, asi se alaba

In the community where I work, there are two religions: Catholic, and
Evangelical (Church of God). I have been alternating Sunday mornings
at each one. This has been a strategic move—I am now well-known among
church goers, so that even when I show up to do an interview in a
house where the people are unknown to me I am often recognized (Here
comes the tall white lady from church!). But listening to the sermons
has also sparked some meditations.

One of these has to do with the idea of original sin. In case you'd
like a refresher, the idea of original sin is that human mortal
existence is inherently sinful. This is traced back to Eve's sin of
eating the apple of knowledge in the garden of Eden, contrary to God's
instructions. Ever since that happened, people have been born into
sin, and in the Catholic version must be cleansed and forgiven by
church sacraments (baptism, confession and communion, marriage, last
rites). However, the condition of alive humans is that of constant
sin, and although sin must be fought against, nobody can avoid it. So
life is in perpetual tension, a constant dialectic, swinging between
sin, repentence, forgiveness, and more sin. In the Catholic church,
as part of the weekly service, people touch their breast bones and
say, "por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa" (because of my
fault, because of my fault, because of my terrible fault).

For many people who have become alienated from a Christian church,
this is a big part of the reason. Why is it my fault? What do I have
to repent for? I haven't done anything wrong. Being born into the
human condition, which I didn't have any choice in, shouldn't force me
to feel guilty.

What I've been thinking about, though, is that this is an
individualistic understanding of sin, and of responsibility. Is the
only unit that can be held accountable for something an individual
human being? This is certainly the way that most Westerners think
today, and it is the basis on which Western legal systems are built.
There is no provision for an act committed by a group of people apart
from the actions of any individual member of that group. You either
wielded the knife or you were an accomplice. Even corporations are
"legal people"— the root of the word "corporation" is in the Latin for

However, this causes plenty of paradoxes and problems, because in
reality people are not just individual agents, they are always members
of groups of various sizes, and those groups act. The whole of a
human group—whether it's a family, a stampeding crowd, the people who
send on an email forward, an ethnic group, or an audience—is more than
the sum of its parts. Let's take the extreme case of genocide. The
Nuremberg trials, where various Nazi officials were tried for the
crime of genocide after World War II, is a good illustration of the
complex problems posed by a purely individual understanding of crime.
Was a Nazi officer guilty of the crime of genocide? No, not as an
individual. He was a part of a human group, and that human group was
guilty of the crime. But the legal system didn't allow for putting a
human group on trial. So instead we had defenses arguing that an
individual officer was "just following orders", making him seem like a
particularly unintelligent robot. And we had prosecutions similarly
unrealistically inflating his freedom of action. Was the radio
broadcaster in Rwanda single-handedly responsible for the decimation
of the Hutus? Of course not. One Rush Limbaugh type cannot cause an
entire nation to rise up and slaughter another. But she was an
important part of the group which was responsible.

You might argue that groups can't be held responsible, because you
can't throw an ethnic group in jail, for example. And there are
always innocent members of the group who would be also punished. But
I would answer that recognition of the problem is the first step.
Finding an appropriate way to hold a group responsible would be

In fact, there have been some steps taken towards effectively holding
groups responsible for their crimes. In South Africa after the end of
apartheid and in Guatemala in the years after the worst of the
genocide was over (and in other places), there were Truth and
Reconciliation commissions. In these, people who had been victims, or
family members of victims, told their stories in a public forum. I
believe there were ways that the truth-tellers' identities were
protected. I see this as a way of holding a group responsible for its
action—a public denunciation and humiliation. It is a punishment
similar to the old method of exposing an individual in the stocks with
a sign on them proclaiming their crime.

The idea of original sin tackles this issue of collective
responsibility. Why are we all born into sin? Because a member of
the group which is humans sinned once. (More misogynistic
interpretations hold women especially responsible, but that's a
distortion of the main point, for me.) God didn't throw just Eve and
Adam out of Eden, but say that Cain and Abel would be allowed back,
since after all they hadn't even been born when the apple was eaten.
We were all held responsible. And I, personally, don't see Eve as an
individual actor, either. Humans are curious, that's how we're put
together. If Eve hadn't eaten the apple, somebody else would have.
The serpent was only acting like the Rwandan radio broadcaster—Eve was
not just a robot following orders, but acting on behalf of all humans.

For a humanist like me, the idea of original sin can be meaningful in
the way it tackles collective responsibility. I am a white
Unitedstatesean born in the late 20th century, and the group of which
I am a member has a hell of a lot to answer for. Is this my
individual fault? Of course not. I did not invent the atomic bomb,
or drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did not send Japanese and
Germans to detainment camps. I have never owned an SUV. I did not
use Agent Orange in Vietnam, or napalm in Korea. I did not come up
with the idea of the fast-food half-pound hamburger with super-sized
soda and french fries. I did not ignore global warming, although I
contribute to it every day (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out). I did not
squelch the hopes of the Guatemalan people in 1955. I have never
slashed-and-burned a rainforest, or directly given other people
incentives to do so. I did not fund the Contras, although my parents'
tax dollars did. I have never lynched a black person, or a gay
person, and it wasn't me who segregated schools or the inner cities.
I did not invade Haiti any of the times. I did not run the Exxon
Valdez aground. I did not support Pinochet, or Trujillo, or the
Somozas, or Duvalier, or Saddam Hussein. I didn't even vote for
George W. Bush, either time.

But the group of which I am a member is responsible. Por mi culpa,
por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa.

What are the possible reactions of a person of conscience? She could
renounce citizenship, immerse herself in a totally different culture
and never come back, denying who she is and breaking ties with family
and friends (and thus making herself a part of the wrongs committed by
another group). She could retreat into individualism, telling
herself, "it's not MY fault" and trying to forget about it in order to
achieve peace of mind. Or she could buy in conditionally, agreeing to
be a member while working to promote change and improvement, or to at
least ameliorate things a little bit. In other words, she could
accept that she was born into sin, and that sin is inevitable, but
that she will nevertheless struggle against it and ask for

Life is lived in creative tension and dialectic, both for deists and
for humanists. The idea of original sin, of collective responsibility
and individual reaction to it, can help us to constructively work
through these struggles. What humanists don't have is a regular
ritual of absolution like the Catholic confession. Maybe we should
invent one!


Monday, February 05, 2007

Another rocky interview in the campo

Dear Readers,

I have been going back and forth in my mind about whether to tell the
story I am about to tell. There are a couple of reasons why I am
ambivalent. First, I don't want to give you a bad impression of the
people I work with or of Nicaraguans in general. And second, I don't
want anybody to be worried about my personal safety. But I would like
to emphasize ahead of time that I am not, nor was I at the time, in
danger. The matter seemed to have been caused by a long-term and
personal grudge, it was not random. Also, people have this sort of
problem everywhere, not just in Nicaragua. I am especially aware of
this having lived in New York City for five years. The big difference
that I see is the way people react, and the resources that are
available to them to deal with the problems. And that is why I've
decided to tell the story. That plus it's funny.

Have I got your interest yet? Well, first I want to describe the work
I've been doing lately. I took a list which the mayor's office gave
me of all the households in the community… there are about 200. I
picked 50 of these households and am currently engaged in trying to
make contact with every one of the 50 households to do rather lengthy
(sometimes 2 plus hours) ethnographic interviews. Of course,
household is a slightly complicated term. In rural Matagalpa, as soon
as a couple officially starts living together, or as soon as a woman
has a baby, the ideal is that they will live in their own house away
from either one's parents. However, poverty being what it is, this
ideal is seldom immediately realized. Sometimes a couple or a
mother-and-child will build a small house in the yard of their
parents' houses. Sometimes a couple will travel around working in
temporary jobs. And sometimes they will all crowd into one house, the
separation between the newly-created families marked only by cooking
arrangements. For example, they might use the kitchen fire in shifts,
cooking their own food, gathering their own firewood, and bringing
their own water from the well. So under these circumstances, it is
complicated for a researcher to try to pick a unit of analysis which
is "a household" for economic analysis. However, I've been doing my
best, focusing on either couples or women (men almost never live
without a woman—I've seen a couple of instances of single men who live
with their children, but also with their mother until a daughter is
old enough to cook.)

In these interviews I draw time-lines with people of their lives and
the economic changes they have lived. This is pretty complicated and
requires a ton of concentration from me. Just as an example, many
people, especially older people, don't know how old they are and we
have to calculate it based on a number of markers ("I was about
eighteen when my first child was born, and that child was born the
year of the earthquake that destroyed Managua"). This is even more
delicate when people don't really know but insist that they do,
despite some inconsistencies ("I was born in 1972. My first child was
born when I was 15, and was just a little baby during the war" [the
war was in 1979]). My policy is not to confront and embarrass people,
but to do my own calculations in the middle of the conversation while
still trying to listen and respond.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of one of these interviews
when a man rushed into the house and launched himself on top of the
man I was interviewing. He didn't succeed in knocking my participant
to the ground, and they started wrestling. The man who had entered
was yelling about money, and was paying attention to absolutely nobody
but my participant. I just sat with my interview materials in my lap
for several seconds, surprised but not yet alarmed, until the
daughters of my participant beckoned to me to move away into the
kitchen. The attacker was evidently quite drunk and weakened as a
consequence, and my participant had no trouble in defending himself
once over his initial surprise. We watched around the corner as my
participant grappled with the drunk man, working him out of the house
again. He gave him a push and told him to leave. When the drunk man
continued to shout, my participant slashed at him with a horse whip,
and he ran stumbling away up the path to the road.

The house we were in is near the road, but down a steep slope from it,
so the tin roof is pretty much on a level with the road surface.
After this exciting interlude, we resumed the interview (at my
participant's suggestion—I was ready to call it a day). But at
intervals throughout the rest of my time there, the drunk man would
hurl a rock onto the roof. I would be in the middle of a question
("so can you tell me if you have any debt with any microcredit
organization…") when KABOOM a rock would make a sound like a cannon on
the metal over our heads. Not the best conditions for maintaining

The family of my participant was concerned that the rocks would do
damage to the roof, and of course the racket was annoying. My
expectation was that they would try to summon police and have the man
arrested. However, this was not suggested, and thinking about it
later I realized there were a couple of obstacles: first, that there
are no telephones or other ways of getting word out to any
authorities. Someone would have to go into the city, perhaps on a
horse or perhaps by paying someone to drive a pick-up truck. Either
way, it would be several hours at a minimum before the earliest time
in which the police could come in a car. And I have never seen a
police car outside of the city. During the coffee harvest (now), some
larger haciendas hire private security guards, or perhaps off-duty
army or police officers, to patrol, but they are always on foot. (And
I have never seen a car in the community, and I doubt one would make
it over the roads. It's always only pick-up trucks, motorcycles, or
large trucks.) So police assistance was out of the question, and
wasn't brought up.

The suggestion that was made was for the brother of the drunk man to
be summoned and asked to tie him up until he calmed down. I was a
little shocked by this, at first. Tied up?? It sounded a little
inhumane. But what else could have been suggested? If a person is
violent, and door don't have locks, how else could they be restrained?

The next week, I was at a religious celebration in the home of the
drunk man's brother. I had heard that the drunk man had sobered up
after having been on a bender for almost a month. But I was still a
little startled to see him show up for the singing and prayer. I
watched him closely to make sure he wasn't going to make any sudden
moves. But everyone else treated him normally. Nobody seemed nervous
or uneasy in his presence (except for me), and he sang along with

I guess there are two morals to this story, and they both have to do
with how a community (or at least THIS community) governs itself when
there aren't functioning law-enforcement structures. First, that in
the absence of formal authority, people appeal to less-formal
hierarchies. People are responsible for their family members. And
second, forgiveness is practiced far more often than in, for example,
cities in the U.S. If you have a little spat with someone, or you
think their behavior has been inappropriate, you don't really have the
option to avoid them. Ostracism, or running someone out of the
community, is a very drastic, permanent step. And so on the surface,
everybody gets along with everybody else, to a degree that almost
looks like passivity and placidity… until you get tapped into the
gossip and ill-will that simmers just below the surface.

As I've written before on this blog, this avoidance of open conflict
vastly complicates the operation of democracy in the town-hall meeting
format that many NGO workers feel so comfortable with. But that is
another story for another day.


P.S. About my personal safety: the man has since fallen off the
wagon again and even was drunk in church this Sunday, making loud
comments and talking back to the preacher during the sermon, much to
the embarassment of his family. However, having observed him drunk in
several contexts, I conclude that he seems to have particular enemies
towards whom he can be violent, and that he also has particular
friends towards whom he is always amiable. My friends agree with my
observation. He seems to like me—he shakes my hand warmly and tells
me he is my friend, without even asking me for money. So although I
am always very alert when he is around, I would like to assure
everyone that I am in no personal danger from him.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Government, and analysis vs judgment

Dear readers,

In my spare time lately, I have started the book "Roll of Thunder Hear
my Cry," by Mildred Taylor, whose narrator is a black fourth grade
girl living in post-Civil War Mississippi. It talks about the daily
humiliations inflicted on blacks by racial segregation. It talks
about lynchings, and how lynchers were not brought to justice even
though everybody knew who they were. I've taken away two thoughts
from this that I want to talk about today.

The first has to do with governance and government. A theme I keep
returning to in my research, and which will probably be an important
part of my dissertation, is the importance of a functioning
government. Government in Nicaragua is perceived to be fairly weak,
at least by outsiders. From my current perspective as a foreigner
living in Nicaragua, it seems like an extraordinary privilege to be
able to depend on the rule of law like many people do in the U.S.
today—that contracts must be honored if members don't want the courts
involved, that lynch mobs or illegal timber harvesters will be
prosecuted, that the Supreme Court has a chance to put a successful
check on the expansion of the powers of the Executive branch. From
this perspective, the government in Nicaragua is weak, because it does
none of these things. However, although the people I work with
recognize that the government does not do these things and ought to,
government is still perceived as the legitimate governing power, and
the correct place to go to claim rights.

It was interesting to me to see that during the fair trade inspection
last week, the inspector seemed to think of the cooperative as a
governmental structure. She talked about entire communities as under
the responsibility of the cooperative, for example. However, in
reality a cooperative has no real or legal relationship with
territory. A cooperative consists of its members, and there is no
requirement that the members live anyplace in particular. Government,
on the other hand, takes responsibility for a certain territory, and
the people living within it. The current situation in the community
that I work in is that there are members of several different
cooperatives living in the same area, plus plenty of people who are
not members of any cooperative at all. So a single cooperative could
not, in fact, take responsibility for this community.

In a number of ways the fair trade requirements for cooperatives sound
like guidelines for small governments: there must be democratic
institutions and accountability, with regular elections and
transparency; environmental stewardship; doing economic development
projects, etc. They are even phasing in a requirement for members to
make detailed maps of the communities showing water sources and their
relationship to agricultural production, etc.—mapping is a classic and
important governmental function, and the history of map-making is
closely tied to the historical moment when governments started taking
responsibility for territory, not just people. And it is not just
fair trade. I have seen several ways in which NGOs, not just
cooperatives, seem to be trying to take the place of a number of
governmental functions. Just as one example, there is a women's group
which comes from outside and holds meetings once a month and helps
women confront abusive partners and denounce rapists. However, NGOs
and cooperatives do not do a good job substituting for government.
First, many of them, especially NGOs, are transitory—they come, stay
for a few years, and leave again or move on. Second, they are
membership-based, not territory based, so there are always people left
out. Third, they are voluntary, not compulsory. And fourth, they are
neither recognized as legitimate governing bodies nor held responsible
for fulfilling their functions, so when times get tough—if there is
disagreement in the local community, for example—the NGOs tend to just
pull out. (This last may seem a like fairly theoretical point when we
think that the government of Nicaragua IS recognized as legitimate and
held responsible, but its hands are tied by lack of funds and
restrictions on the use of existing funds by international lending
agencies, but nevertheless.)

The second thought I want to talk about, changing topics kind of
abruptly, is that it is confusing to me to think about injustice
within the United States and injustice outside of the United States at
the same time. From the perspective of Nicaragua, the United States
is a land of plenty and wealth. Even poor people in the United States
have flush toilets and running hot water and a gas stove to cook on
(at least in the cities—I don't know much about rural poverty in the
U.S.). And if they don't, they can get the city to crack down on
their deadbeat landlord. But the United States today (still) also
contains great injustice. If there is any question about this, please
just refer to infant mortality statistics broken down by race, even
adjusting for income. If there is still any question about this,
please read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities: Children in
America's School about school segregation in the U.S. today. (This
was published in 1991, but there are more recent things he's written
on the same theme, too.)

I think the reason this is confusing to me is that I have a tendency
to mark something in my mind as Bad, and have it be an absolute, black
hole, unquestionable negative. The worst possible thing on a
one-dimensional pollster-type scale: choice 5, very bad. I thought
about poverty this way before coming to Nicaragua. If you were Poor,
I thought, this was absolute. You were in crisis all the time. You
never had enough to eat.

The reality, of course, is not like that. There are degrees of poor.
Some people, at some times of the year, don't have enough to eat.
More people merely have a protein-poor and vitamin-poor diet: lots of
corn, rice and beans, not many vegetables, the occasional egg or bit
of cheese. Meat when a chicken is killed, maybe once a month. Being
poor doesn't mean there isn't happiness, any more than being rich
doesn't mean there isn't sadness. However, it is very important to
avoid the cliché of "poor but happy"—the image of innocence and peace
away from the stress and materialism of Modern Life. First, I do not
know anybody who feels peace and happiness about being poor. Poor,
for the people I work with, is ignorance, not innocence. People have a
sense of limitless possibilities which will never be available to them
because of lack of money. And second, the life of the small farmers
is just as important a part of how Modern Life is put together as the
life of an intellectual in New York City, for who could imagine that
intellectual's life without her constant companion cup of gourmet
coffee? Without small farmers, the world economy would collapse, or
at least be shaped radically differently than it is now.

What I struggle to come to grips with is the realization that although
it is imperative for me to bring a moral evaluation to some things—the
preventable death of a baby is Bad, racial lynchings are Bad—my
analysis and understanding must not stop there. Calling something bad
is not an explanation, and does not help solve the problem. Too
often, understanding or explaining something, or someone, is seen as
the same thing as pardoning it. But shouldn't there be a way of
speaking or writing which analyzes evil while maintaining a sense of
moral condemnation? Shouldn't we be able to understand that the
serial rapist was sexually abused as a child without forgiving him for
the rape, or making the rape somehow okay? And if I talk about
poverty in Nicaragua, and maintain my sense that it is wrong, it
shouldn't prevent me from recognizing that the situation is bad in a
different way in Iraq, or sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Saying that
in Nicaragua at least we're not afraid of being killed on a daily
basis, or that at least the population is not being decimated by AIDS,
doesn't mean that the poverty is less bad.

As always, I'd be interested in any thoughts. And I'm thrilled to see
that this blog is being read by some folks in the fair trade industry!
Everybody please see the comment on my last entry telling us how to
get fair trade sports balls in the U.S., too. We should all be sure
to support small soccer-ball farmers—I believe they grow on a
perennial woody bush, while rugby balls are a root crop. ;-)


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

inspections... and monkeys!!!

Hi everybody,

This last week the cooperative I work with had a visit from the fair
trade inspector. As part of my research, I followed this inspector
around to nearly everything she did, taking notes on her interactions
and her attitudes, and also on other people's reactions to her. This
is actually the fourth time I have observed an inspection visit—twice
I watched the organic inspector, and twice I watched this same fair
trade inspector.

You may wonder "what is a fair trade inspector?" She is an employee
of the international fair trade certifying agency, FLO. This is the
agency that licenses companies to put the familiar little sticker on
your coffee, tea or chocolate (or if you are in europe, your sugar,
bananas, oranges, honey, wine, and even soccer balls.) Her job is to
make sure the cooperative complies with the FLO requirements. The
organic inspector goes around doing the same thing for the organic

These inspection visits are, for me, a really interesting interaction
in the commodity chain connecting consumers (those of us who drink the
coffee) and producers. I read an article before starting this
research which described organic inspectors in Mexico as mediators
between two very different sets of (cultural) expectations (reference
available upon request), and I have found that this is also true here.
On the one hand, there are the certifying agencies—FLO is located in
Germany, and the organic certifying agency, located in Peru, has to
take into consideration the different requirements written into the
laws of the European Union, the United States, and other rich-country
governments. For the curious, the European Union has more strict
requirements about the actual farming done—the coffee can't be organic
if corn is grown on the same farm using chemical fertilizers, for
example. But the United States requires more paperwork documenting
the techniques used. And on the other hand, there are the world-views
and expectations of farmers. Quite often, too, there are the
contrasting worlds of the city-based cooperative employees, which in
many details are different from those of the farmers.

Both certifiers require all farmers to keep a log of the work they do
on the farm. If the farmers are highly literate, this is not
generally a big burden. However, for those who are illiterate or only
semi-literate, this can be a high enough wall to prevent them from
joining a cooperative which is certified. It isn't always, though.
Some swallow their pride and seek help from literate children or
neighbors. And some actually request accomodations from their
cooperatives—these may come in the form of fill-in-the-blank logbooks
with pictograms where the farmer can make an X to indicate the work
done, for example, or it can mean the employees of the cooperative
help to fill out the books. Among the farmers I work with, the books
are usually seen as a significant burden. During an inspection last
year, one farmer complained to the organic inspector about these
expectations, asking "do they want our coffee, or do they just want
this paperwork?"

Both of these inspectors do not limit themselves to asking questions,
making observations, and filling out their checklists. Instead,
during their inspection visits they often come across as a combination
of cheerleader and social worker. They give compliments. They
encourage people to participate more and to take pride in what they
are doing. They give suggestions and advice—on how to accomplish the
requirements of the certification, on how to strengthen the
organization, on how to find markets now that they have the
certifications. The organic inspector told me that this is the
official policy of his certifying agency, Bio Latina. There are
actually a number of organic certifiers, and he said Bio Latina's
policy of hiring local inspectors and giving advice and suggestions
during the inspection means that they have a more realistic system.
On the other hand, the FLO inspector told me that she has been
reprimanded for all the advice she gives. Her agency tells her she
should limit herself to "taking the snapshot" of the cooperative when
she visits—of filling out her checklist. She never does, though,
although sometimes she has had to specify that she is giving advice
not as the representative of FLO but just as a private person.

Although the FLO inspector, like the organic inspector, is concerned
about ecological practices, she has a couple of other concerns, too.
First, she needs to make sure that the cooperative is "democratically
operated". This means that it needs to show evidence of significant
participation in decision-making by people other than the leaders,
that all the members need to understand the pricing structure, and
that the committees are operating, especially the committee called the
"Vigilance Committee" (is there a better translation for that?). The
Vigilance Committee is essentially an auditing committee, whose job it
is to poke around in the books and ask questions, to prevent both
corruption and authoritarianism. Next, she has to make sure that the
financial accounts are in order and that the labor practices in the
cooperative meet a certain standard.

About labor practices: everybody around here recognizes that children
work. School vacation is during December and January (rather than
July and August, like in the U.S.) in order that the children can help
with the coffee harvest, and this is normal and not frowned-upon.
However, a lack of government services, or laws about school
enrollment, mean that orphans and children of very poor families often
quit school (or never begin school) and may start working by the age
of 7, and this is seen as a sad fact of life. On the other hand, for
people who have a little land, farmers like the members of
cooperatives, who are able to look ahead a little further than the
next meal, education for their children is almost always a big
priority. Education implies a significant cost and difficulty for
parents—finishing elementary school through sixth grade in the
community where I work means the children have to have shoes,
notebooks and pens. But in order to attend secondary school, the
children have to leave the community and either live with a relative
or friend, or rent a room somewhere. Sometimes there is tuition.
Some people get small partial scholarships for this, but not always.
However, if a child makes it through secondary school, it seems there
are more scholarships available to go to the university for those who
get accepted. And one of the first laws passed by the new Sandinista
government has outlawed schools from collecting enrollment fees and

Oh, but I was talking about the FLO inspector. Well, to wrap it up
here, one of the things she was encouraging the cooperative to do was
to very seriously look for foreign coffee buyers, and not to use
intermediaries in Nicaragua, like they have been doing until now.
This is where I can help the cooperative. I made a contact with the
buyer for Green Mountain coffees, and they are sending along a sample
of their coffee. We'll see how that turns out… wish us luck? Anyone
else know any fair trade coffee buyers, especially who are looking to
buy coffee this year? Please let us know!

I also made a website: This is
still a work in progress, but I'm thrilled that some cooperative
members are excited about helping me to put together more details.
I'd love any comments or suggestions, and thank you very much to those
of you who have already helped me with it! Yesterday, I accepted the
invitation of the president of one of the base cooperatives to go to
take pictures of howler monkeys on a cooperative member's farm. (YAY
monkeys!!!) These monkeys disappeared from the area for a while, due
to deforestation. But they have returned as farmers began to take
more responsibility for their environment, planting trees, conserving
the soil, protecting the sources of water. So I'll leave you with a
couple of not-exactly-National-Geographic-quality photos that I took