The U.S.-Mexico border: a brief history

I’m going to be writing a lot about the border in the next month as I work with No More Deaths and delve into my thesis research. I want to make this blog as accessible as possible for people, so this post is an attempt to explain the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border as I understand it and the issues I have with our immigration and drug policies. If you have no idea what I’m ranting about, start here. This post assumes you’re not already horrendously racist and/or categorically opposed to migration. If you are, you should probably stop failing at life.


(A vastly oversimplified) history
The Southwestern United States was part of Mexico until it was ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War (which was basically a war where the U.S. invaded Mexico to steal land as part of Manifest Destiny). An addition chunk of land, mostly in Southern Arizona, was purchased by the U.S. in 1853 (the Gadsen Purchase) to allow for the completion of the intercontinental railroad. The effect of these two land grabs was that many Mexican nationals became part of U.S. territory overnight. There’s also an entire history of indigenous people in this area that I still don’t know a ton about and won’t get into here. But if you want a bit more detailed history, my good friend Madelyn did a wonderful summary on her blog while she was working with No More Deaths.


Migration patterns
Migration between the United States and Mexico has been happening for a very long time, with a lot of overlap between people, racial groups, etc. along the border. (For a solid history, check out this book.) Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S. in large numbers pre-1930s, often to work in agriculture. The Great Depression and the lack of work led to racism and a call for Mexicans to go back to Mexico (sounds familiar), which led to a huge exodus of workers.

Once World War II started, the U.S. began the Bracero Program to combat the labor shortage caused by so many men being off at war. Many Mexicans came to the U.S. on a contract basis to work in agricultural labor, and many were able to become naturalized during this period. The Bracero Program was popular and continued to be renewed until 1964. Many people were crossing without documents during this time as well. The border itself was relatively permeable, and many people, especially men, would come work in the U.S.  for a few years, save money to bring home, and then return to Mexico.

In part because of the horrendous labor conditions revealed on many farms using Bracero workers, and in part because of general racism and xenophobia, U.S. restrictions on immigration have tightened since then. It’s virtually impossible currently for a Mexican national to get a visa without family already in the U.S., unless they have a job skill set we’re looking for (we’re talking M.D., Ph.D. and the like). The current wait to get a visa for a Mexican national with a close relative living in the U.S. is about twenty years.


NAFTA and economic policies
The restrictions on legal immigration haven’t slowed migration to the U.S. by very much. A lot of people have blamed the tide of people crossing on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Signed in 1994, NAFTA lowered all kinds of tariffs and trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. One result of this was the flooding of Mexican markets with cheap, subsidized corn from the U.S., which put many rural Mexican farmers out of work, forcing them to migrate to find work.

NAFTA also pushed forward existing Mexican efforts to industrialize the border. Mexico began a border industrialization program in 1964, when the Bracero Program ended, as a way of dealing with all the unemployed young men who were coming back to Mexico. The program aimed to build factories called maquiladoras on the border. Many U.S. companies saw the maquilas as a good investment opportunity, and mostly foreign corporations built a bunch of factories in Northern Mexico right along the border.

NAFTA’s lack of labor and environmental protections continued to make investment in Mexican factories a good economic calculation for U.S. corporations. The growth of maquilashas led to an internal migration within Mexico, as people from central and southern states head north in search of work. The dismal working conditions and low pay, plus the fact that many factories prefer to hire women (they’re thought to be more pliable/compliant, and can be paid less), ends up pushing people into the U.S. as well.

There have been a lot of arguments between people who know much more about this than me about the real effects of NAFTA. Based on the research I’ve done, it seems reasonable to say that blaming NAFTA for our current wave of migration is a bit ahistorical, since migration has been such a key part of U.S.-Mexico relations for hundreds of years. However, it did push a lot of people into poverty, and accelerated existing migration patterns.


Border enforcement
Starting in 1994, the U.S. government began building sections of a border fence in Texas, with the goal of stopping unauthorized migration in urban areas. Various sections of the fence were expanded in the mid-90s, through Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Safeguard.

While the stated intention of these policies was to reduce migration, the actual effect was to push migration away from urban areas and into the deserts. Initially, government officials and the Border Patrol said no one would be stupid enough to try to cross through the Arizona desert. Then, they said that they accepted human deaths in the desert as a consequence of border enforcement. Policy became to funnel migrants into a few dangerous areas of desert, including the Altar Valley of Southern Arizona, where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths estimated that there are 300-800 yearly migrant deaths in the Arizona desert alone, largely from dehydration.

Since September 11, the border has been increasingly militarized in the name of national security. Border Patrol has more boots on the ground than at any time in U.S. history, and more and more fence is being built. There are now Border Patrol checkpoints throughout the Southwest—places where officers look into passing cars, make sure nobody’s brown, and ask for papers if you “look” undocumented. The language of the Border Patrol is very military and focused on gaining “operational control” of the border. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who live in and around Tucson and the border towns near it feel as if they’re in a war zone, and that was the impression I got during my last trip down here. Migrants are systematically abused while in Border Patrol custody, and many have died in immigration detention facilities.

Cynics have referred to the militarization of the border as a “Marshall Plan for Mexico.” The Marshall Plan was an economic aid package to post-war Europe that helped get the manufacturing sector back on its feet and is credited with helping to avert the worst of economic catastrophe. Ironically, the U.S. has spent approximately the same amount as the original Marshall Plan on border enforcement with Mexico.

Border enforcement has also has a number of negative environmental impacts. The desert Southwest is a key ecosystem, and serves as an ecological bridge between temperate and tropical zones. It’s also very fragile—wagon wheel tracks from the 1800s are still visible in sections of the Sonoran. Virtually all U.S. environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews for projects, as well as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, have been exempted within a certain number of miles of the border. Currently, there is legislation pending in Congress to extend these exemptions.

The road-building and off-road patrolling of the Border Patrol have disrupted hydrology and shrunk habitat for many endangered species in the area. The border wall itself also fragments habitat, disrupting the migration of many keystone wildlife species. As climate change worsens, animal migration will become ever more necessary, and the impacts of the wall ever-more-severe.


Undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The stepped up border enforcement has been matched by an environment which is increasingly racist and overtly hostile to migrants once they arrive in the U.S. There have been expanded efforts to establish partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which handles deportations for people in the U.S. Most notably, the Secure Communities program aims to make sure that every person arrested for any crime in the U.S. also has their immigration status checked. The stated goal is to prioritize the deportation of violent felons, but many, many more people are deported for things like petty theft and minor traffic violations.

Laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which essentially criminalized being brown in public, have left many immigrants who have documents afraid to go out in public or drive cars. These policies end up deporting many people who have been in the U.S. for years and have children who are U.S. citizens. They also create hardships for mixed-status families.


Drugs, guns and cartels
A lot has been made of the violence along the border and the drug wars going on in Mexico. This is an area of policy I’m less familiar with. My understanding basically boils down to the following points:

  • The increased number of people, especially young men, involved in drug cartels is a direct consequence of the lack of other economic opportunities available in many parts of Mexico
  • Drug-related violence is often fueled by guns and other arms which enter Mexico from the U.S.-something our policymakers really don’t want to talk about
  • Drug cartels now have a virtual monopoly on human smuggling as well. It’s almost impossible to cross the border without paying a guide (a polleroor coyote) from a cartel thousands of dollars. Migrants are often forced to carry drugs as well.
  • Drug-related violence on the border, while a very real problem for many people, has been sensationalized and in some case overstated in the U.S. media to make a case for increased border enforcement.



By every reasonable metric—logic, fiscal efficiency, compassion, respect for human life, sustainability—our border policy is a miserable failure. People continue to die in the desert. Drugs continue to cross the line. Habitat continues to be fragmented. And outside of the military industrial complex, which profits from building and monitoring the fence, and the prison industrial complex, which profits from throwing more and more brown bodies behind bars, no one benefits from this system.

In summary, the U.S. strategy for dealing the border is profoundly flawed. It utterly fails to consider the roots of migration and drug trafficking, and refuses to examine the U.S. government’s complicity in fueling these trends. It doesn’t consider the intersections between economic policy, border industrialization, history, migration trends, and drugs. It is ahistorical and fails to consider the humanity of the people it impacts. It is fuelled by and perpetuates a racist society.

I’m going to be writing about these issues a lot more, but I hope this is helpful as a jumping off point. If you want to learn more, check out some of the links and books I’ve referenced in here.


My latest paper: The Rhetorical Construction of Ecoterrorism

One of the classes I took this semester was Environmental Communication, a rhetoric class focusing on environmental issues. Our final assignment, which we worked on for about half of the semester, was to write a final paper focusing on a specific topic. Because of my interest in radical activism, I chose to write about “ecoterrorism,” looking at how that word had evolved to refer to acts of environmentally-motivated property destruction and sabotage.

A lot of my research involved reading court documents, the Congressional Record, FBI reports and laws like the USA PATRIOT Act. Over the course of this research, I realized just how repressive, insidious and relatively unknown a lot of these policies are. And it’s with that in mind that I’d like to share my paper with more people.

Regardless of your opinion on the legitimacy of environmentally-motivated sabotage as a tactic, or your thoughts on the ethics of taking illegal action, the ways in which the U.S.  government has responded to these actions is profoundly repressive and should concern anyone with a vested interest in activism, protest and true democracy.

You can read and download the paper here (pdf).

It’s not about the orgasms: on the importance of sex positivity

(Trigger warning: brief discussion of rape culture)

Occasionally, I run into people who ask me why I feel compelled to talk publicly about sex all the time. (Often, these people are my older relatives.) Partly, it’s that I’m a very open person. My close friends all know that there’s basically no such thing as “too much information” with me, and anyone I’ve talked to for more than ten minutes has probably heard some ridiculous story involving some kind of young person shenanigans. But my openness about sex goes way beyond my lack of personal boundaries. I talk about sex because I’m a huge fan of sex positivity as a force for social good.

Sex positivity, for me, is all about destigmatizing sex. It’s rooted in the belief that sex is something natural, and that however you’re choosing to be sexual (monogamous or not, regardless of your gender or your partner’s gender, with as many or as few people as you’d like) is perfectly fine. As long as what you’re doing is between consenting adults, you’re good. And if you’re asexual or choose to abstain from sex for personal, moral, religious or any other set of reasons, that’s perfectly fine too (as long as you don’t try to legislate compliance with your particular breed of morality).

A lot of people have talked a lot about the benefits of sex-positivity when you’re actually having sex with people. I’ve found in my own experience that feeling comfortable with your sexual desires leads to better communication and way more fun in bed. My friend has an awesome list of sex tips based on our experience together that reflect this idea pretty well if you’re not sold yet. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now, because the importance of sex positivity goes way beyond having good sex.

Being sex positive is a deeply political act with hugely important consequences. In a culture which stigmatizes sexual activity, female pleasure, non-heterosexual orientations, trans* people, bodies which don’t conform to beauty ideals or gender expectations and a whole host of other things, having mutually fulfilling sex with another person sometimes feels like a revolutionary act. In this context, sex positivity hasn’t just given me lots of good orgasms. It’s also the reason I’ve been able to have healthy, successful relationships, love and respect myself and my body, remain STI-free and help friends out in tricky situations. I don’t say this as a “Look at me, I’m doing everything so well!” I say it because I think it’s important to recognize what people are attacking when they try to make moral arguments about sex, and how much sex negativity spills over into mental and physical health.

By teaching that desire is normal and fine and that women can be sexual, sex positivity moves away from the conquest model of sex. Popular culture often promotes the idea that sex is a conquest—men are pursuing women, women are being coy and shy and demure. Women are expected to fend off male advances; men are expected to be aggressive and know that women often say no when they mean something else. Unsurprisingly, this cultural construct directly leads to sexual assault (and also ignores non-binary identities and non-heterosexual relationships). If men are taught that no doesn’t mean no, and if women are taught that they should give in to men, problems are going to ensue. This is something that the anti-sex crowd doesn’t like to acknowledge, but promoting the idea that sex=bad also contributes directly to rape culture. If all sex is bad or immoral, then non-consensual acts just become another form of immoral conduct. There are religious traditions where all sex outside of marriage is considered immoral—doesn’t matter if it was consensual or not.

Sex positivity, in contrast, promotes what I would call a communication model of sex. Because I was taught that my body and my desires were okay, I’ve always felt comfortable articulating what I want and need in sexual situations. When I had partners who wanted to go further than I did, I was able to bring it up with them. On the rare occasion that someone hasn’t respected my boundaries, I’ve been able to articulate that clearly and unambiguously, and it’s generally resulted in an immediate apology. When I wanted to be sexual with people, I felt confident enough in my own desires to talk about it with them (instead of adhering to Cosmo’s advice to just slap some handcuffs on your guy in bed without any conversation). When I’ve had partners propose things in bed that seemed weird to me, I knew enough to talk it outwith them instead of saying, “OMG WHAT YOU LIKE THAT GROSS!” Not surprisingly, my long-term relationships have benefitted from this communication. I’ve been able to enjoy good sex in an environment where I felt comfortable saying something if things weren’t working out.

This confidence also translates into physical health realm. Not being ashamed of sex means I haven’t been ashamed to seek out medical care when I need it. (I’ve also been privileged enough to have access to high-quality, affordable medical care for my whole life.) I’ve gotten comprehensive STI testing every year and felt comfortable seeking out medical care for things like yeast infections. I’ve asked questions about birth control and abortions, been able to choose methods of preventing pregnancy that were right for me, and checked in regularly with my gynecologist and sexual partners about those methods. The fact that I am able to do that is thanks to decades of fighting for reproductive healthcare. The fact that I feel comfortable doing it has a lot to do with the way I was raised to think about sex.

As a spillover benefit, the fact that I’m vocal about these issues means that friends seek me out for advice. I’ve given advice to friends dealing with everything from broken condoms to pain during intercourse. I’ve helped multiple people get emergency contraception when they needed it. And I know that I’ve been helped immensely by the presence of other sex positive people in my life. I’ve sought out advice from my friends for all kinds of things like this, and I’m better off and healthier for it.

I have a decent number of friends who are uncomfortable with sex—some of them think it’s something wrong, others just think it should be private and not openly discussed. And while I respect those opinions, I think a public conversation about sex is essential, especially as long as we live in a culture which stigmatizes the act itself and those who enjoy it. Talking openly about sex isn’t about bragging, and it isn’t about having amazing orgasms. It’s about health, both physical and mental. It’s about preventing unwanted pregnancies. It’s about promoting body positivity and fighting rape culture. It’s about declaring—unambiguously, clearly, proudly—that this is my body, and I’m going to enjoy all of the things it can do.

Six stories from the borderlands

One short week, spent sleeping nestled between mesquite bushes and barrel cactus, driving nearly impassable dirt roads by day, and here I am back in Tucson. I have ideas and issues and ideology to wrestle with, and if you’re at all interested in immigration or politics more generally, you’ll have a lot of reading to do in the next few weeks. But for now, while I’m still here, I wanted to share a few short stories from the Arizona borderlands.

1) I meet a man in Nogales. Not a man, I suppose—he’s more or less my age, though substantially taller. Sarah introduces me to him, saying that he’s from a town near my college. We talk for a minute—I’m always excited to meet people who have heard of Walla Walla, Washington. I ask him a few questions about where he grew up, and we part ways.

Later, Sarah tells me that he grew up near me, but was deported last year—caught in a traffic stop. He has no legal way of getting home, no means of re-entering the U.S. I cringe at the thought that in a few days, I’ll step onto a plane and be back home in a matter of hours. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.

2) I find myself cooking dinner with a group of anarchists. It’s much like cooking dinner with any group of young people. We have the radio cranked to play the latest in terrible pop music, and we relax into the ease of self-deprecation while waiting for the onions to brown. Any time our limited camp kitchen resources create a challenge, someone feels compelled to blame hierarchical systems of oppression.

“You guys, the patriarchy is burning the quesedillas again.”

Someone else chimes in. “Fucking patriarchy ruins everything.”

We all laugh, and someone suggests adding noodles to the soup. I’m not a huge fan, so I cross my forearms in an x front of my chest—a block. It’s used in consensus circles to indicate irreconcilable disagreement with something being proposed. Here, though, we’ve resigned ourselves to the irony of having a trip run by leaders (or “facilitators”) who don’t believe in hierarchy. The noodles go into the soup. I have a bite, and find to my surprise that it’s not so bad after all.

3) Walking, I notice suddenly that the signs are all in Spanish. I turn to my right.

“Sarah, are we in Mexico?”

She nods.

I’ve walked into Nogales without being asked to stop, show my passport, prove my citizenship or answer questions about my intentions.

On the way back stateside, standing in line, I snap pictures of the trucks lined up and waiting to enter. A Customs and Border Patrol agent snaps at me, telling me to stop. I apologize, saying I didn’t know. I assume this is the end of it, but I reach the front of the line. The man waves me forward and takes my passport.

“What were you taking pictures of?” he demands.

“Signs, the trucks…nothing much.”

I shrug, hoping my casualness will deflect his concerns about homeland security, but it doesn’t work. He motions for me to show him. I turn the screen on.

“You’re not allowed to take pictures of the port,” he tells me, shaking his head. I wonder what I look like to him, greasy hair pulled back into a knot, Chacos covered in Mexican dust. I pause, waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t. I ask if I need to delete the photo, and he says yes.

The first one is of a sign—no agricultural products may enter the country. He doesn’t check for agricultural products in my backpack, but he makes sure I hit the delete button twice. The next photo shows two trucks under a sign that says “open” in green lights. I hit delete. We continue this for twenty images until I reach one of the border wall, framed by construction work.

“The wall is okay,” he tells me grudgingly. I put my camera away, ask if he needs anything else, and walk back into my country.

It didn’t occur to me until after I’d crossed that I could have refused. It didn’t occur to me until later that night how low the stakes are for me when I choose to cross a border.

4) The two Border Patrol agents are joking with each other, but I can barely hear them over the rattling of chains. To my left are forty or so detainees—people picked up near the border in the last few days. They’re here in court to plead guilty en masse to criminal offenses—entering the U.S. not through an authorized port, re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Six at a time, they go up to the microphone and the judge questions them.

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?”
“Were you found in Arivaca, Arizona on the 22nd of March of this year?”
“Were you previously denied admission, excluded, deported and removed from the United States on April 2 . . .”

And together, as a group: Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.

“All guilty,” says the translator to the judge.

Those six file out, and another six are up. Some of them were previously deported earlier this year. I can’t imagine making the journey through the desert twice in a lifetime, much less twice in one year. Those who have never been deported before will be back on a bus to Mexico this afternoon. How many of them will try again? How many of them will end up back here?


5) Heading back into town, we pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint. They’re stationed strategically throughout the Southwest to pick up migrants who have survived the desert. We roll down the window, and he sticks his head in the car.

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?”

Marcel, our driver, says no, he’s German, and starts to hand the man his passport. The agent glances at the cover, doesn’t open it, and hands it back.

“I’ve seen all I need to see,” he says to our four white faces. “You folks have a nice weekend.”


6) We’re out on water drops, delayed a few hours because I noticed the car needed gas right before we’d reached the remote washes where we put supplies out. It’s our second stop on the route, and each of us carries a gallon of water in each hand. On the caps, we’ve drawn hearts. The sides say Suerte or Buen viaje in black marker.

We follow the migrant trail, but when we get there, we find almost a dozen full jugs of water. The Samaritans have been here recently. I tell myself it’s a good thing that the water isn’t being taken, hoping that it means people don’t need it, not that they aren’t finding it. We rearrange the jugs, placing them directly on the trail, since the coyotesdon’t always let people stop to grab supplies when the groups move at night. On the side of one, in pink marker, is a wish: Hasta un mundo sin fronteras.

Until a world without borders.

Selling out to investment banks

Most of the students I know at Whitman want to go save the world. We’re a liberal arts college made up of idealists, future Peace Corps volunteers and academics. I’ve always sort of pictured Whitman as a place to train the next generation of college-educated small organic farmers, but there’s something to be said for health insurance and being able to pay off student loans. I’ve spent the last week in New York City talking to Whitman College alums working in tons of different careers—law, media, finance—and it’s been fascinating to see how people explain their career choices to us, and to see so many Whitties living and working in a city that’s about as different from Walla Walla as you could reasonably get.

One of our first appointments was with an alum who does private baking for Merrill Lynch. He deals exclusively with clients who have at least $25 million in assets. He came to the U.S. and to Whitman as an immigrant on a full scholarship, so he’s been incredibly happy to be so successful in his professional life.

We asked him what he thought about his job. He leaned back in his chair, arm angled against his side, and thought for a minute.

“We don’t really produce anything. We’re capital allocators,” he told us. “I struggled with it for a few years—what am I really accomplishing here? Making rich people richer?”

Ultimately, he goes back to the fact that he has a dynamic, rewarding career. He also said that the wealth earned by the rich often goes back to philanthropy efforts, so in a sense, he’s making the world a better place by allowing more charity to take place. Still, I got the sense that he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“I do love my profession, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he told us. He said he had to do it to pay the bills, which there are a lot of.

Our Goldman Sachs guy was much less apologetic. He’s a vice president in merchant banking—not the division that was responsible for the collapse of capitalism, as he told us several times. He said he loves the challenges he faces at work and the culture at Goldman. He downplayed our concerns about the long hours, acknowledging that sometimes he has to stay late (until 2 or 3 a.m.), but he’s usually out of the office by 8 or 9 at night. I thought about that for a while. I’ve always told myself that I would never get a job where 60 hour work weeks are the norm and 18-hour days are sometimes a necessity, but I don’t think that’s really true. I can’t imagine loving banking enough to do it for most of my waking hours, but I would spend that time on writing or reporting in a heartbeat.

I asked him if there are any social or environmental responsibility guidelines that Goldman uses to screen potential investments. He said that the firm takes those things very seriously, and that they wouldn’t invest in a company causing serious environmental damage. I asked him to what extent that’s really true.

“You’d invest in Exxon-Mobil or Apple or Nike, right?”

He paused for a second, then acknowledged that yes, they would. But he added that there had been investment deals which had been stopped because of environmental concerns. The cynic in me says that any efforts to avoid environmental damages stem purely from a profit motive. If your company is dumping toxic waste everywhere and is eventually forced to pay for clean-up, the value of your assets goes down. I don’t fault him for this, really. I was trying to get at something I struggle with a lot. I understand that investing allocates capital in a supposedly “efficient” way and allows for business creation, economic growth and jobs, but I think there’s a fundamental tension between profit-motivated investing and environmental/social responsibility. A conservative or moderate (and really, most liberals I know as well) would say that the problem is externalities, and that if we figure out a way to make environmental liabilities show up on a P&L, we’ll make that investment machine a vehicle for environmental good. But I’m not convinced it’s a reconcilable problem.

The point of the trip is to network with alums and get a sense of what careers are out there in the world. We’re able to ask them questions about their work, ostensibly to figure out if we might be interested in working in a similar position. Since most of us are bleeding heart liberals with no desire to be in investment banking, we asked them their thoughts on the Occupy movement instead.

Both of our guys said they absolutely supported the movement’s goal of reducing income inequality. I found this interesting, since the original Occupy contingent wasn’t really about that at all. The 99% rhetoric is so ingrained in our national consciousness now that it’s easy to forget Occupy’s birth was with the Adbusters folks—a contingent of anti-capitalist anarchists who wanted to criticize the most obvious and extreme example of soulless capitalism: investment banking. Income inequality is a symptom of what they see as a much larger problem, but they’re not really into reform, because the whole system is rotten.

Our Merrill Lynch guy was more strident in his support of the protests, talking about the importance of equal opportunity and how much he believes in the American Dream, even though he knows it’s gotten harder to move up since he did it. Still, he thinks Occupy hasn’t accomplished much.

“It has high hopes. I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I think it sort of failed to do what it was going to do, which was create a more urgent environment for our country to rally around. . .”

He also said that he thought the movement was too fragmented and disjointed to do much that was practical. Our Goldman guy echoed this sentiment, saying that he agreed with the goal of more equal income distribution, but thought the movement was too theatrical in ways that detracted from the point.

Most interestingly for me, Merrill Lynch guy said that he absolutely considers himself to be part of the 99%. I’ve thought about this a lot as well—can you affiliate with others across class lines effectively? Whether or not he’s technically part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, I have no doubt that his life is much more closely aligned with that crowd than it is with the single mother working two minimum wage jobs to try to put food on the table for her kids. Still, I’d rather have a fabulously rich guy who cares about those below him than one who’s indifferent. He said most of his colleagues aren’t like this, and that politics isn’t something you discuss at the office. We asked him if he would ever consider bringing it up, but he said it wouldn’t be possible.

These meetings reminded me how easy it is to become complacent, how easy it is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is enough. I’m not criticizing these guys’ individual career choices, though they’re not choices I would make. But talking to them reminded me that whatever I end up doing with my life—journalism, activism, food policy—I need to keep the end goal in mind. Another Whittie we met with—a lawyer at a global firm that represents banks, sovereign nations and a bunch of other important actors—said that he didn’t think the work he was doing was actively making the world worse, but that there’s a huge difference between that and actively improving things. There are a ton of things I want to do with my life, but while I navigate that, I need to make sure that I’m true to the values that got me there in the first place. I’m sure I’ll become less radical as I age and settle down (though I’m still hoping not), but I want to check in with myself about why I’m doing the work I’m doing regularly. Because if whatever it is isn’t working to fix something that’s wrong with the world, I’m in the wrong profession.

Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World

Quite frequently, I get people who ask me for recommended reading lists or a list of books they can read to be better informed about stuff going on in the world. After a number of friends from my study abroad program asked me to make a reading list for them so they could be more on top of politics and other news, I started thinking. While I do read a lot of nonfiction, the books I’ve read aren’t the only source of my knowledge about stuff. I spend at least as much time reading articles online, following people on Twitter and doing other things to stay informed. So rather than make a book list, I made this: Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World. It’s a booklist with article links, recommendations for people to follow and stuff like that, vaguely grouped by topic, but generally sort of free form. It’s based on my personal experience and is thus completely subjective, noncomprehensive and biased. Hopefully this is helpful to everyone who wants to understand where my brain picks up the information it does. Comments, questions, criticisms and additions are highly appreciated/encouraged. I will also make additions as I encounter and remember more cool stuff. (Disclaimer: I am pretty damn far left of center, a fact which I make no apologies for, but which certainly informs my news sources and the things I choose to read. I think being better-informed is a nonpartisan activity, but my Twitter feed also doesn’t contain a single political commentator who self-identifies as conservative except the National Review Online. Just sayin’.)

a general note about finding cool stuff to read online

I get my online news primarily four ways:
1) Twitter. I follow a group of magazines, newspapers, journalists, bloggers, people who are paid to think, etc. My timeline thus usually somewhat reflects what’s going on in the world of lefty politics, environmental news and the like, without me having to individually check the websites of everyone cool who I try to pay attention to.

Some people I would highly recommend for having a well-rounded feed:

Pro Publica (nonprofit indie investigative journalism)
Grist (environmental news)
Feministing (awesome feminist blog)
Mother Jones (my favorite nonprofit journalists ever)
Colorlines (racial justice analysis and news)
RH Reality Check (reproductive and sexual health and access news)
AlterNet (leftist news)
GOOD (a magazine covering a variety of topics, generally into highlighting cool stuff people are doing)
Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine, commentator on various issues)
High Country News (news about the American West, strong environmental coverage)
Wikileaks (they open governments, apparently)
Al Jazeera English (great global coverage)
2) Reddit. If you’re unaware, reddit is a social news site grouped by topic. Basically, users can subscribe to different sub-reddits focusing on different subjects, which can be general (politics, environment) or very specific (Occupy Wall Street, guerrilla gardening). Users submit links to different sub-reddits, which are then voted up or down by other users. So the front page of any given reddit displays links that are the most well-liked by the community as a whole. And your personal front page displays the same for all the sub-reddits you subscribe to. It’s a pretty cool way of finding weird articles you otherwise might not about stuff you’re interested in. Plus, you can comment on links and generate discussions with other interested people.
3) and These two sites collect submissions of longform journalism–generally articles that take at least 10 or so minutes to read. They both post a few new articles each day. Longform has articles organized by topic, so if you want to learn a lot about a particular country or issue, it can be a great source. Longreads lets you search all their articles for keywords of interest. Both sites will also post content that’s timely, such as collections of articles about Steve Jobs right after he died. In general, they’re best for going deep into interesting or random things, or for people who just appreciate good writing, and less good for keeping up on current events.
4) The New York Times. While somewhat vanilla, it’s a damn good all-around general news source. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get access to something like 20 articles online per month free. Articles you click on links to (for example, via Twitter, Facebook, or email) don’t count against this limit. Another good daily general news sources is the BBC. Also The Economist.
One other thing: more than being about following the right people on Twitter or reading the best articles out there, being well-informed is mostly a choice. You have to decide that you’re going to dedicate a certain amount of time every day, whether it’s ten minutes or three hours, to figuring out what’s going on in the world. By all means, go for what you’re interested in. I follow reproductive healthcare issues very closely, because it’s something I care deeply about. I didn’t pay as much attention to the Arab Spring as I probably should have, because it just didn’t grab me. There are far too many things going on in the world for you to ever know all of them. Don’t let it stop you from getting started.
Now then, here are some specific topics I care about with books and articles that I think are especially helpful for understanding them.
food and food politics
1) books
The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Michael Pollan
The classic explaining what’s wrong with our industrial food system, especially industrial meat and corn, and how we might go about fixing it. Not a great analysis of some key food justice issues, like food deserts and access to healthy options, but a great introduction to what’s out there.
Fast Food Nation—Eric Schlosser
I actually like this a lot better than Omnivore’s Dilemma. It explores the history of fast food and looks at industrial potato farming, flavor additives, slaughterhouses and a whole bunch of other related issues. My favorite part is the fact that he looks at industrial meat production from a labor standpoint, not just from a this-is-gross-and-unethical perspective.
Animal Factory—David Kirby
For people interested in factory farms, this book is a nice break from the usual literature focused on animal torture and gross health violations. It focuses on the efforts of local activists in rural areas (all self-identified Republicans) to stop factory farms near their homes because of human health and odor concerns. It’s a refreshingly personal and unique perspective.
Stuffed and Starved—Raj Patel
This is an awesome book about global food politics. It’s a bit academic in tone, and has been criticized for being one-sided with regard to the causes of poverty in developing countries. But I think it has a ton of interesting perspectives about government food policy, genetically modified crops and a bunch of other important topics.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit—Barry Estabrook
The title of this book is somewhat misleading, because the majority of it is actually about the slave labor used to grow most Florida tomatoes and the way undocumented immigrants are exploited for cheap fruit (which, in my opinion, is even more interesting). Though it also talks about tomato genes, organic producers and a few other things. But anyway, it’s an awesome book, whether you’re into good food, social justice, immigrant rights, or whatever.

Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement—Janet Poppendieck
This is an awesomely thought-provoking book. The author essentially argues that food banks and other food giveaway things have done more harm than good in addressing food insecurity in the US. She discusses how American values, such as not wasting food, inform the kinds of actions being taken to address hunger, and how the concept of “poverty” has been almost completely redefined as an issue of “hunger”.

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda—Carolyn de la Pena
A great cultural history of artificial sweeteners, including where they came from, how they were marketed, how gender and a desire for “control” played into their popularity and how efforts to regulate or control them have been resisted.

2) articles
On Racialicious, an awesome essay about growing up in a food desert.
My own blog post from this summer: what I learned about food justice and food “choice” during two years behind a checkstand.
How Goldman Sachs gambled on starvation.
From Foreign Policy magazine, the new geopolitics of food.
The Seattle Times explores what quinoa’s rising popularity in affluent countries has done to Bolivia and other exporters.
3) blogs and sites for news
Tom Philpott, food blogger for Mother Jones
Raj Patel’s blog

financial crisis
In general, there are a few great journalists who have covered the collapse very well from different angles.
Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has some great articles explaining how we got here and ranting about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street. He’s also written a few books about the crash, most recently Giftopia, which would be good for further reading. Among his articles, these are my favorites:
-Is the Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC) covering up Wall Street crimes?

Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair has also written extensively about the collapse, focusing more on the Euro Zone. His article on Greece, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“, is a great explanation of the state of Greece’s economy. He’s also covered Ireland and what all these failing Euro countries will mean for Germany. He’s written several books as well–The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which explores the housing market/derivative crisis through the eyes of people who saw it coming; and Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which looks at the economies that have been collapsing around the world.

Bethany McLean, also with Vanity Fair, has covered investment baking for a while (she was one of the journalists who broke the Enron story). She has an excellent article exploring the disconnect between how we see Goldman Sachs and how the company sees itself, post-crash, and another piece on the history of Merril Lynch and how its corporate culture contributed to the mortgage crisis.

A German paper, Spiegel, did an excellent, if somewhat dry, series explaining the collapse of the Euro Zone very clearly. (Parts one, two and three.)

Mother Jones, my favorite magazine ever, has a timelinefrom 2008 tracing the history of the housing/financial crisis.

American society/culture/labor
Reefer Madness—Eric Schlosser
By the Fast Food Nation guy, this book explores the underground economy in the US by looking at three markets: marijuana, porn, and illegal immigrant labor. It’s a fascinating history of drug wars, obscenity laws and a bunch of other random things.

Methland—Nick Reding
One of my favorite books ever. It explores what the meth epidemic has done to small-town America, which means that in addition to being about drugs, it talks about the crippling effects that job loss and industrial agriculture have had in rural areas.

Nickle and Dimed—Barbara Ehrenreich
A classic from the mid-90s. The author goes “undercover” and works a variety of minimum-wage jobs to see how hard it is to survive. Not the most eye-opening today if you pay attention to the real world, but it puts a face on problems that can seem abstract.

The Working Poor—David Shipley
Kind of a more modern updated of Nickle and Dimed, the authors goes around and interviews a bunch of working poor people. It’s a nicely balanced book—the fact that some of the individuals he profiles have made bad choices or have problems like drug addiction isn’t glossed over, but Shipley also looks at structural factors that have kept working people in poverty.

The single best summary I’ve ever read of Ayn Rand’s crazy libertarian/”Objectivist” philosophy, why the right is infatuated with it, and why it’s completely wrong.

environmental stuff
Cadillac Desert—Marc Reisner
A classic looking at the history of dam building in the US, mostly the American West. It examines the politics that led to so many stupid dams getting approved and some of the financial and environmental ramifications.

Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming and the Future of Water in the West—James Powell
A more updated book about Western water politics, looking at the future of the Colorado River Basin as global warming starts diminishing water supplies.

Chasing Molecules—Elizabeth Grossman
An environmental chemistry exploration of biologically pervasive molecules (like flame retardants and dioxins) and the health effects they’re having on people. Informative and easy to read.

Endgame (Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Volume 2: Resistance)—Derrick Jensen
This is by one of my favorite authors, the anti-civilization activist Derrick Jensen. He’s very radical, and I disagree with him on several key things, but his writing does a beautiful job of tying together seemingly disparate problems like pollution, sweatshop labor, the prison-industrial complex and rape. Other good books of his to check out are A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front
An awesome documentary about ELF which raises great questions about what kinds of activism are effective, what should be considered terrorism, etc. Available on Netflix Instant as well.

FLOW: For Love of Water
A documentary looking at corporate privatization of the world’s water supplies. Also on Netflix Instant.

US-Mexico border/immigration
The Devil’s Highway—Luis Alberto Urrea
The story of the Yuma 14, a group of 26 Mexican migrants whose story started with a journey across the Arizona desert and ended with fourteen of them being flown home in bodybags. A great examination of the way US border policies contribute to deaths in the desert, beautifully written.

Amexica: War Along the Borderline—Ed Vulliamy
The most comprehensive border book I’ve ever read, tying together the drug trade, illegal immigration, the rise of maquilas, the effects of free trade agreements, the murders and violence in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere, poverty and everything else you can think of. He’s also written an article for The Nation, As Juarez Falls.

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields—Charles Bowden
Bowden has covered the border for at least 20 years, and his latest book looks at the violence in Ciudad Juarez as a phenomenon that has gone beyond a simple explanation, like drug wars. He argues that Juarez has reached a tipping point where violence is part of the social order and that the breakdown of Juarez tells us a lot about the future of global capitalism.

The New York Times Magazine looks at the relationship between the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world, and El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the US.

Business Week examines the labor market in the US in the wake of Alabama’s strict immigration laws. Turns out a lot of Americans don’t want to do the jobs left behind.

development, aid, international relations, global issues
The Shock Doctrine—Naomi Klein
If you want to read one book to learn as much as possible about the world, read this one. It’s a history of the way neoliberal economic theory (privatization, deregulation, etc.) has been applied all over the world by the US, the IMF and the World Bank, for the benefit of private corporations and wealthy/powerful individuals, usually with disastrous consequences for the people actually living in these countries. Even if you believe that neoliberal policies have benefited these countries in the long run, it sheds light on the complete lack of democratic process which often accompanies Chicago School economic policy.

Half the Sky—Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A look at the ways women are oppressed around the world, from sex slavery to maternal mortality, which highlights NGOs and initiatives that are making a difference. Focuses more on local, grassroots groups than on big NGOs like CARE and Heifer International, which I like (though those guys are in there too).

An awesome interview with Michael Maren, a former Peace Corps volunteer and aid worker, analyzing why aid has been completely useless for developing countries. (Another book, The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, also argues this thesis. I haven’t read it personally, but it’s supposed to be pretty good.)

GQ has an awesome three-part series on the international sex trade. Part one is about sex clubs in the Philippines, part two is about sex trafficking and part three looks at sex tourism in Costa Rica.

My hometown paper, the Seattle Stranger, has a series investigating why cocaine showing up in Seattle was being cut with levamisole, a cattle deworming drug that can kill you. On the way, the author uncovers a bunch of interesting information about the global cocaine trade. Part one looks at the levamisole-tainted cocaine in Seattle, part two investigates the global trade and part three looks at the death toll from the last 100 years of US drug policy and argues for legalization as the best solution.

Although I often take issue with his conclusions, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted is a great look at the limits of social media inspired activism.

Generation Why? One of the best essays I’ve ever read. It’s a review of The Social Network, a critique of Facebook and a plea for our generation to do something better without being condescending.

How Google Dominates Us: a much-needed synthesis of the most recent books about Google exploring privacy, their search algorithms, and the ubiquity of Google in our lives

Wired on Amazon’s increasing domination of the Internet.

A profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Google VP who left to become the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. Also one of the few women in Silicon Valley.

The Great Tech War of 2012: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Facebook vs. Google.

I read way too much about the future of journalism on the internet, but this Columbia Journalism Review piece is one of my favorites. It calls into question many of the agreed-upon solutions for the future of news, like that news organizations will become less prominent and we’ll see more “citizen journalism”. It argues that specialized knowledge and expertise is still important for news to serve its watchdog function.

feminism, gender, sex, LGBTQ
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape—edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It goes way beyond rape to look at the ways society constructs female sexuality, issues of consent, and how we can go about building a better model of sexuality that will help everyone have more fulfilling sex lives and relationships.

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science—Julie des Jardins
Using Marie Curie as a starting point, the author looks at the role women have played in scientific discoveries, and the ways narratives of women in science are constructed to fit in with society’s standards for “acceptable” roles for women.

Dan Savage, America’s sex columnist, on the virtues of nonmonogamy for saving marriages.

Teaching Good Sex: a novel sex ed class at a high school in Pennsylvania.

A good overview of feminism and its history from Bitch magazine.

Savior vs. Savior: Looking at the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist.

Schrodinger’s Rapist: A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Getting Maced

Queering Ecology: Orion Magazine looks at queer behavior in the animal kingdom

Feministing: general feminist news and commentary
Feministe: general feminist news and commentary
Savage Love, Dan Savage’s sex advice column, which is awesome
Microagressions, a Tumblr which looks at people’s daily experiences with sexism, racism, etc.

Fat acceptance

I’m five feet, five and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150.7 pounds. This gives me a body mass index (BMI) of 24.7, just a hair below the cutoff for overweight (25).

I used to be skinny. I had no breasts to speak of until well into seventh grade. I had bony knees tiny legs and ribs you could count, if only just. By freshman year of high school, I had developed a bit. I ran cross country that fall, stopped running once the season was over, kept eating four meals a day and gained ten pounds that winter. In my first two years of college, I’ve put on another fifteen pounds.

By American standards, I’m an average weight, probably even below average. I’ve always loved my body–especially during the two or three years when I had a respectable chest and still held on to my flat stomach. I’ve never felt “fat”, or had any particular desire to lose weight. But over the past two years, as I’ve gained more weight, I’ve found it harder to look in the mirror and feel proud. Initially, I thought this was because of the way I looked–the rolls of fat on my side that appeared when I bent over, or the way my cheekbones didn’t stick out quite as much as they used to. I told myself I wouldn’t always look like this, that it would get better when I didn’t have school and three jobs to keep me busy and stressed.

After a year of feeling this way, during which I stayed about the same weight, I realized I wasn’t mad at myself for the way I looked. I was mad because I wasn’t taking care of my body. With an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I’d been eating more than I was used to, and I felt worse for it. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I made some choices to change this. I signed up for aerobics classes, got off Whitman’s meal plan so I could cook healthy food for myself and tried to limit my binging on chips and cookies a bit.

Guess what happened? I stayed exactly the same weight. I might have even gotten bigger. And I do not care anymore.

My parents, like many well-meaning people, have fallen into the skinny = healthy trap. When I told Mom I hated cross country and was quitting junior year of high school, she was concerned about my health without a regular source of exercise. The way she chose to phrase this concern was, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?” This summer, I proudly declared that I didn’t care about my stomach fat anymore, because I had more important things to worry about and I wasn’t “overweight” anyway. My dad’s response: “Don’t you think you are, a little bit?” I responded with a vehement, “No!” Later, I had another thought. What if I was? Would it even matter?

Since then, I’ve thought about fat a lot. Here’s my non-radical reasoning about why fat is the wrong question:

Americans (and other people, to be fair) eat terrible food and don’t exercise. Many people could stand to be more healthy. But healthier doesn’t mean skinnier. People can be healthy at tons of different weights. Some obese people eat very little and exercise regularly. Some skinny people can eat whatever they want without gaining any weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So sure, encourage people to be healthy, eat well, lay off the junk food and exercise regularly. Maybe they’ll lose weight in the process. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll certainly be healthier, and better off. There is absolutely no need to shame people for their weight or teach them that they are disgusting or unworthy of love or some other awful shit like that.

And here’s my more radical reasoning (thanks to the amazing Lindy West at The Stranger for giving me some of these ideas in her awesome essay Hello, I Am Fat, which you should go read right now.)

Being healthy is an admirable trait, but it’s not the be all and end all of human existence. What if someone wants to eat fried food all the time? That’s their right as a person. What if someone has absolutely no desire to lose weight? That’s absolutely their prerogative, because it’s their body. Not yours. Not society’s. Not everybody has to be healthy, just like not everyone has to be well-read or fluent in three languages or able to cook five course meals or pilot fighter jets. These are all traits that make for pleasant, well-rounded people, but they’re not essential to live a happy, fulfilling life. If someone wants to be unhealthy, that’s completely their choice. If someone happens to be fat, there’s no guarantee that they are unhealthy at all, and either way, you don’t have a right to tell them how to live their life.

People berate and ridicule fat people, tell them that they’re imperfect, half-formed people who just need to lose a little weight before they can find love and happiness. People who do this claim to be concerned about health and people’s well being, which is bullshit. As Lindy points out, health includes mental health, and there are literally millions of fat people who’re tried to lose weight to no avail.

For people who are concerned about public health, I would like to point something else out. I’ve previously quoted Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, who argues that obesity is a symptom not of “an impoverished faculty of choice” but “an impoverished range of choices”. Obesity correlates with poverty, because poor people are more likely to live in food deserts and to not be able to afford fresh produce, gym memberships and a host of other things that keep the rich looking like covergirls. So if you’re really, really concerned about health and people’s well being, you’d be much better off pushing for food system reform (an end to corn subsidies, better social welfare programs, subsidized produce, etc.) than you would shaming fat people.

Obviously, that’s what I want to do. But I’m making a promise to myself. Starting today, I promise to take good care of myself–regular exercise, not too much junk food. I promise to love myself no matter how much I weigh. I promise to never try to lose weight, because that’s so not the point. I promise to remember all the amazing things my body can do, like hiking up ridiculous hills. I promise to never encourage anyone else to lose weight or shame them for their body size or appearance. I promise to be aware of thin privilege. I promise to fight with everything I have to build a better food system, and if I happen to have stomach fat rolls while I’m doing it, I promise to not care at all.