2011 - %3, March

LSE Director Who Took Money From Qaddafi Steps Down

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 4:12 PM EST

The moral of this story is don't accept money from a ruthless dictator, especially one whose son recently got his PhD at your school. Sir Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics, learned that lesson the hard way. Today, he announced he's stepping down from his post amidst an investigation into money the school—and he personally—received from the Libyan government.

In 2009, under Davies' watch, the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation—headed up by Saif "I <3 Democracy" Qaddafi, who earned a PhD from the school in 2008—gave LSE's Global Governance Research Unit a grant of £1.5 million (about $2.4 million). After word of the donation got out last month, student protests broke out on campus. In response, the school announced that it would return most of Saif's money, and that it has commissioned an independent inquiry to look into the school's relationship with Libya. The commission will also look into why the LSE accepted the donation, a $50,000 payment Davies received for advising Libya's sovereign-wealth fund in 2007, and the authenticity of Saif's PhD dissertation.

Davies originally offered to resign when news of the grant first surfaced. But the LSE council stood by him. As the controversy mounted, Davies ultimately decided it was time to go. In his resignation letter to chairman of the court of governors of LSE Peter Sutherland, Davies is careful to note that, at present, there's no reason to think that there's any connection between Saif's degree and the grant money. Davies also accepts full blame for the school's epically poor judgment:

[H]owever laudable our intentions, in the light of developments in Libya the consequences have been highly unfortunate, and I must take responsibility for that. I advised the council that it was reasonable to accept the money, and that has turned out to be a mistake. There were risks involved in taking funding from sources associated with Libya, and they should have been weighed more heavily in the balance. Also, I made a personal error of judgment in accepting the British government's invitation to be an economic envoy, and the consequent Libyan invitation to advise their sovereign wealth fund. There was nothing substantive to be ashamed of in that (modest and unpaid) work, and I disclosed it fully, but the consequence has been to make it more difficult for me to defend the institution than it would otherwise have been.

Circumstances being what they are, Davies' resignation was all but inevitable. And his penitent letter seems genuine enough. But it's hard to believe that he was the only one at LSE to show such poor judgment. As our story on the Monitor Group and prominent academics' ties to the Qaddafi regime showed, there's no shortage of institutions who are willing to hold their noses and accept fat checks for autocratic leaders. Which begs the question: who else is still out there, hoping to avoid notice? 

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Carl Safina's Excellent View

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 3:46 PM EST

I had the distinct pleasure of appearing with Carl Safina at the Song for the Blue Ocean Symposium at Oregon State University last month. One aim of the meeting was to explore whether or not scientists should use their knowledge to advocate for policy change.

The alternative—and, until recently, the status quo—is for scientists to simply deliver their results into the hands of policymakers and the public and let them hammer out our future as best they can. The flaws in that system are pretty obvious.

Safina's been a powerful pioneer in advocacy since his 1999 book Song for the Blue Ocean appeared—when he stepped out from behind the curtain of science and spoke directly to the public about the issues affecting our oceans.

 
 Photo courtesy Carl Safina.Photo courtesy Carl Safina.
 

 Safina's new book, The View From Lazy Point, is a meditative journey around the world and through the seasons, from coral reefs in Belize to penguin rookeries in Antarctica—though its heart beats at the northeastern tip of Long Island. There, he writes, "I became the owner of a beach cottage that had fallen into such disrepair that I could afford it." He continues:

As much as I admire Henry Beston's classic The Outermost House, this is not a story about getting a little place out past the edge of the world and finding one's self in solitude and peace. This story is, though, partly about going home, about immersing in rhythms that come naturally... But this story's also about a kind of heartbreak for a world that remains so vitally unaware of how imperiled it is. The more I sense the miracle, the more intense appears the tragedy.

 
Photo by somenametoforget, at Flickr.Photo by somenametoforget, at Flickr.
 
 
Writing about miracles and tragedies has come at a cost for Safina: The loss of his scientific research. Here's what he told me recently.
 

Carl Safina: I'd been studying mainly terns and their foraging ecology, until I realized that while we're learning increasingly minute things about the workings of these systems, we're losing great things like large populations of fish. So I started working on the issue of driftnets. And when the next tern field season rolled around, I realized I couldn't just quit advocacy. I thought I'd miss one field season. Then I missed two. As the marine advocacy field grew, I moved into what I do better: writing and talking. Now I get my research fix through invitations to visit scientists whose work I'm most interested in during their field seasons. 

 

Least tern, Sternula antillarum, with chicks. Photo by Dan Pancamo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Least tern, Sternula antillarum, with chicks. Photo by Dan Pancamo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

I asked Safina where The View From Lazy Point—his fifth book, released last month—fits into the trajectory of his writing life. 

Carl Safina: I used to think my work was all about marine conservation. But the climate issue has blurred everything. You can't worry about coral reefs without worrying about the people living around coral reefs who depend on them. The climate issue has blurred the lines between our peace and security and, say, the fate of sea turtles. In The View From Lazy Point, I cast my widest net yet, following the ripple effects.

I asked him why we're so slow to get any traction of the global issues facing us.

Carl Safina: Our institutions are fundamentally irrational. Economics, including capitalism, our wisdom traditions, like religion, are all hundreds or even thousands of years old. They're born from a time when we thought the world was unchanging and unchangeable. Not until science came along did we understand that the world can and does change, and that we have the power to change the world for better or worse.

I asked what themes he was working on in the book and he described one that emerged only late in the writing.

Carl Safina: That nature and human dignity require each other. When nature is destroyed—Haiti is a case in point—people can't get back on their feet and lose their ability to live a dignified life. When people are oppressed beyond human dignity, then there's no ability to care for nature.

 Photo by Fred Hsu, Fredhsu, at Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Fred Hsu, Fredhsu, at Wikimedia Commons.

 

The View From Lazy Point is a synthesis of deep storytelling and deep thinking. Its muscular language makes for an uncommonly good read: far from doom and gloom, rich with anecdotal rewards and practical solutions. It's infused with Safina's own signature blend of fisherman-scientist-philosopher wisdom. Here's one of my favorite passages: 

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that, though I'm a secular person and a scientist, I believe that our relationship with the living world must be mainly religious. But I don't mean theological. I mean religious in the sense of reverent, revolutionary, spiritual, and inspired. Reverent because the world is unique, thus holy. Revolutionary in making a break with the drift and downdraft of outdated, maladapted modes of thought. Spiritual in seeking attainment of a higher realm of human being. Inspired in the aspiration to connect crucial truths with wider communities. Religious in precisely this way: connection, with a sense of purpose.

   

 

Chart of the Day: Who's Afraid of the Tea Party?

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 3:41 PM EST

In the Boston Review, Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder write that the tea party movement has been overrated:

It is tempting to believe that the Tea Party endorsement moved voters. Indeed, the candidates endorsed by these groups did well: 64 percent of Republican candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express or FreedomWorks (or both) won, while only 52 percent of non-endorsed Republicans won. The numbers look even more impressive among non-incumbents: almost 52 percent of endorsed candidates won, while only 28 percent of non-endorsed candidates won.

But the tea party groups mostly endorsed candidates in heavy Republican districts who were going to win anyway. If you take a look at the vote percentage of tea party candidates (shown with black Ts in the chart below), it looks pretty similar to the vote percentage of all the other Republican candidates:

This seems pretty plausible, especially since it matches what seems to have happened in the Senate, where tea party candidates didn't do any better — and might even have done worse — than other Republicans. On the other hand, I think it's possible that this might miss what happened in the primaries, where tea party endorsements helped power conservative candidates to victory over more moderate ones. That doesn't show up in the general election results, but it's a real effect nonetheless.

Margaret Atwood Pwns E-Book Confab

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 3:09 PM EST

Few novelists are more respected in the tech world than Margaret Atwood, the English language's most celebrated literary sci-fi writer. So imagine the reaction last month at the Tools of Change Conference in New York, a 3-day orgy of sessions on distributing e-books, creating iPad apps, and "Planning for Tomorrow's Digital Landscape," when Atwood savaged the hype. Maybe it should have been expected, given how much of her work tends towards the dystopian. "The stupid side of electronic information includes: One big solar flare and it's gone," she said. Yet some of her best attacks were as much visual as literary: Hand-drawn PowerPoint slides of a dead moose, a blood-covered knife, and a rampaging bear. 

 

Deconstructing MoJo's Haiti Reconstruction Story

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:55 PM EST

Last week, Andrea Pitzer, the editor of Nieman Storyboard, a project of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, sent me an email. "Each month, we pick one outstanding narrative that is then poked and prodded by a group of top editors from around the US to see how it ticks," she wrote. This month, they picked my feature "Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell." 

Pitzer promised that being dissected by the editors would be "a little like getting an ice cream sundae while being beaten with a stick." Indeed, some of their comments are flattering, some of them harsh, some bitingly true and then some, in my opinion, a little off the mark. If you've read the piece and want to see if you agree with the experts, check out the roundtable here.

You're Trammeling My Bears

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:47 PM EST
Crazy George/Flickr.

When Congress passed the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964, they defined "wilderness" as an area "untrammeled by man." The thinking was that if only certain activities like hiking, camping and biking were permitted in a space, the human impact would be negligible. But a new study published on March 3 in the open access journal PLoS ONE shows that even these minor activities alter the ecosystems we want so badly to preserve.

A group of researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada placed more than 40 cameras on hiking trails and roads in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta to observe how even mild human traffic alters the ecosystem. They found that on roads and trails trafficked by more than 18 visitors a day, large predators like wolves, black bears, grizzlies and cougars were less abundant than they would be in the wild. Furthermore, they found that on roads trafficked by more than 32 people a day, the number of small prey increased by 300%.

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Newt Gingrich's Awkward Prom Photos

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:37 PM EST

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich launched his presidential exploratory effort yesterday, joining a GOP field that also includes pizza mogul Herman Cain and former one-term Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer. Because it's 2011, the media coverage of his announcement focused on his new website, and more specifically, its very obvious use of a stock photo to make it seem as if Gingrich and his wife, Callista, were standing in front of an adoring—and multi-cultural—flag-waving crowd (see relevant Tumblr here). As the Wall Street Journal noted, the photo is called "Large Crowd of People Holding Stars and Stripes Flags," and had previously been used by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

But what about the photo of Newt and Callista that was photo-shopped on top of the cheering throng? We tracked down the original on Gingrich Productions. It was from a photo shoot for his Citizens United-funded documentary about radical Islam, America at Risk—and there are plenty of others. Here's one, which we'll call "Unhappy Couple Standing in Front of Saplings."

Courtesy of Gingrich ProductionsCourtesy of Gingrich Productions

They look pissed!

This one's called "Couple Standing on Wooden Board":

Courtesy of Gingrich ProductionsCourtesy of Gingrich Productions

More photos here; relevant Tumblr here.
 

Whoops! Alabama Anti-Sharia Bill Lifted From Wikipedia

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:21 PM EST

Earlier this week, we told you about the Missouri state legislator who instructed reporters to "Google" Sharia law, because he couldn't think of any real-life examples that would justifiy his proposal to ban it. It's part of a trend: In Tennessee, the author of the state's proposed ban on Islamic law confessed that the bill could probably be phrased a little better; two weeks ago, a South Dakota lawmaker tabled his anti-Sharia proposal after learning that beheading one's wife was already illegal in the Mount Rushmore State.

But this story from Alabama, via the Anniston Star, trumps everything. State senator Gerald Allen introduced a bill to ban Islamic law from state courts, making his state the 17th to consider such a proposal since the beginning of 2010. Just one problem:

[The] definition is the same, almost word for word, as wording in the Wikipedia entry on Shariah law as it appeared Thursday. Allen said the wording was drafted by Legislative staff. A source on the staff at the Legislature confirmed that the definition was in fact pulled from Wikipedia.

Allen could not readily define Shariah in an interview Thursday. "I don't have my file in front of me," he said. "I wish I could answer you better."

The Glenn Beck Vortex

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 1:54 PM EST

I almost agreed to do a piece about Glenn Beck for the next issue of the magazine, but in the end I begged off. I just couldn't do it. The tipping point came a week after I'd said I'd do it, when I was in a bookstore and decided that if I was going to do a Beck piece, then I guess I'd better read his latest book. So I took a copy off the shelf and started browsing. And the pit in my stomach grew. I just couldn't dive down that rabbit hole for the next month.

Besides, I was also halfway convinced that Beck had also reached a tipping point and might very well have imploded completely by the time the magazine hit the newsstands. In the New Republic today, James Downie recounts Beck's steep decline in the ratings and suggests that the implosion might have happened already:

Beck, says [biographer Alexander] Zaitchik, was caught “in a vicious circle”: To keep viewers coming back, he had to keep creating new, more intricate theories. Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was “controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Beck is now warning viewers not to use Google, accusing the search-engine giant of “being deep in bed with the government.” In recent months, it seems, Beck’s theories became so outlandish that even conservatives—both viewers and media personalities—were having a hard time stomaching them. Now, each new idea appears to be costing Beck both eyeballs and credibility. “At some point,” says Boehlert, “it doesn’t add up any more.”

I caught a few minutes of Beck's show yesterday for the first time in a while, and he was rattling on about.....Van Jones. Jesus. Surely he's milked that dry even for an audience as credulous as his? And that's his problem. He either replays his greatest hits over and over, which starts to get preposterous even for his biggest fans, who must have an increasingly hard time believing that Van Jones is literally at the center of all that's wrong with the world. Or he creates ever more convoluted alternate universes that are not just harder to follow, but are also increasingly hard to believe for an audience that basically just wants to hear that Barack Obama is Satan. There's really no way off this carousel.

11-Dimensional Chess

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 1:09 PM EST

I disagree completely with Ezra Klein's blanket statment that "No one can carry out complicated plans." People can! If you're willing to put in a lot of hard work and clear thinking, you absolutely can make complicated plans and carry them out successfully fairly often.

However, I agree completely with Ezra's specific observation that politicians are rarely as sneaky and devious and 11-dimensional-chess-ish as we think:

Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there's so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.

But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn't. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate....There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed....The most common lamentation you'll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is "didn't anyone think of this beforehand?" In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn't have enough time, or couldn't get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.

I don't have even a scintilla of personal experience observing Washington strategists up close, but even from 3,000 miles away this rings true. There's no 11-dimensional chess. There are no bank shots. Virtually all political plans are straightforward efforts to figure out how to persuade more people to support you. Sometimes those plans are sophisticated and sometimes they're bumbling, but they're almost never anything other than what they seem. At most, they're hidden by the usual thin veneer of hypocrisy or self-righteousness, and that's about it.