Flight Papers

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Archive for April, 2009

The Doctor Will Sue You Now

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

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I have once again been demonstrating enormous lackadaisicality in keeping up with my writing. In penance, I’m taking advantage of the Creative Commons license on the recently released final chapter of Ben Goldcare’s book.

It’s a horrifying look at the ways in which a kind of eco-romanticism—properly blended with colonial and racial privilege—can end up supporting oppression. He touches on the ways in which we westerners export not just suffering and death, but also denialist modes that just cut genuine activism, and, briefly, kill millions of people. After all, it’s easy to demonize Thabo Mbeki, a man who saw millions of people in his country dying of AIDS and encouraged them to eat more potatoes. It’s harder to see the western denialists standing behind him; harder still to look at the hundreds of thousands of prostitutes killed not just by AIDS or by men but by health policies and social structures that marginalize them, sometimes very, very literally.

This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at www.badscience.net

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The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow. Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

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Point.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

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I don’t know anything about Ethan Zuckerman, really, but I’m happy to have stumbled across an old post of his on the importance of pointing, rather than speaking, in activist works.

That is, don’t tell us, in Zuckerman’s case, about the plight of a detained Chinese blogger—carry his words, and his family’s words, far and wide. Don’t, yourself, speak out about sexism in Indian culture—work with Indian women, supporting them and their words.

Don’t, in short, center your words, actions, desires, and experiences. This isn’t about you.

This is the core of media justice: Everyone has a story. We are obligated to make the world such that everyone can speak them.

This applies to more than activist work; this applies to all storytelling. Over here, talking about narrative appropriation, I said,

But I think they first have to love both the stories and the people. They need to know them. And the stories, even and especially in a white storyteller’s mouth, need to writhe and dance and move towards liberation as we would expect and hope them to.

That is, specifically, you can’t tell a story like it’s the story of those quaint primitive people over there who wear funny hats. You can’t, equally, tell this story as if it were your own, as if you knew it from when you were a child. You have to tell it as it is, breathing the air that it breathes, loved by the people who love it, rooted in the earth it came from. You, the storyteller, have to point.

That’s not just the nature of being a good ally. That’s the nature of being a good storyteller.

volunteer! don’t do anything.

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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When you think of volunteerism, what do you think of? What image springs into your head?

Actually, there are lots of answers to that, and they’re probably informed by your own experiences, and that’s wonderful. What I ought to ask is: what do TV writers evidently think of when they think of volunteerism? What cultural image embodies that concept?

Soup. Ladling soup. Some white kid with their heart in the right place, ladling soup out to the homeless.

There’s a lot to do at a soup kitchen. Someone has to acquire raw ingredients. Someone has to prep those ingredients; someone has to cook them. Someone has to clean the place, near-constantly. And that’s just the soup. Someone has to acquire and maintain the space; someone has to advertise; someone has to coordinate with other social services. Depending on how you do it, you can skip some of these things—the Food Not Bombs chapters in my area just go serve food in the park and rely on word of mouth, but even they have to forage for ingredients, maintain their cooking spaces, and so forth.

On TV, all of this is reduced to one white kid, ladling out soup. Which is telling. Seeing that image, I wonder: why is she even there? I mean, there’s the soup, there’s a ladle, and there’s a pile of bowls. People—even homeless people—can generally ladle soup without assistance. The ladler, in this scene, isn’t giving out food—she’s portioning out food: this much for you, this much for you, this much for you….

I think that image and its connotations, more than any reality, damages the notion of “volunteerism”. I don’t want soup ladlers. I don’t want people to “help” me. I don’t want to “help” people. Volunteerism, in short, isn’t activism. Volunteerism is me giving you food. Activism is us, cooking. The government isn’t going to encourage activism, because activism, at its best, is dangerous—not violent, but not helpful, and certainly not safe.

[ Of course, TV has an image of activism, too. That would be (a) white college kids protesting something, or (b) passionate brown people working to “bring down” televangelists whose refineries are giving cancer to children (the passionate brown people, obviously, exist only for as long as they are useful to the main cast). ]