Category Archives: Uncategorized

Cartels, Blood Avocados and Blood Limes

Zehrs Markets Flyer, Page 9. May 30 to Jun 5, 2014

Zehrs Markets Flyer, Page 9. May 30 to Jun 5, 2014

About a month ago I was browsing through Zehrs and came across this fine piece of extortion.   3 mangoes/avocados for $5, the madness. My reaction back then was a public “What the f— man” My reaction today is still “What the f— man”. It’s the only way I can put into words with how my favourite things to eat in this world have become a luxury right before my eyes.

What gives?

The basic answer is that bad climate and pest infestations have caused a short supply of certain produce in Mexico, thereby driving prices up. That, and the fact that total corruption permeates every facet of life in Mexico. Avocados, mangoes, limes, strawberries-the good things in life-are no exception. The price of all these fruits are tightly linked with drug cartels.

If West Africa has it’s blood diamonds, Mexico has its blood avocado.

Essentially all of Mexico’s avocados, mangoes, limes and strawberries are produced in the state of Michoacán. This is a region home to a cartel called the Knights Templar, an organized group of psychos who have a habit of doing this to its own people:

The production of fruit from Michoacán is a billion dollar industry. The US alone imported $1 billion worth of avocados in just the latter half of 2012 and the early part of 2013 . It’s a fruit that yields more cash than any other crop, even Marijuana. It’s little wonder then, that the Knights Templar have diversified their organization by infiltrating lucrative avocado, limes, strawberries and mango sectors. Infiltrate is a catch all term for the extortion, ransom, kidnapping, execution, money laundering and buying out of Michoacán farmers and packaging plants. A drug cartel with shrewd negotiation styles like this,

Image Source (Reuters)

Image Source (Reuters)

now control the production and distribution of the stuff you put on your nachos and in margaritas.

If you’re like me and bought avocados, mangoes, strawberries or limes with the label “product of Mexico”, chances are some of that money has gone to prop-up a violent drug cartel in Mexico.

I can’t help but feel shame knowing full well the tequila and lime combo I hold so dear to my heart is most likely tainted by blood.



A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.2

“The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.” (The Simpsons, The Secret War of Lisa Simpson)


To start, I have immense reservations on talking about warfare. For one, I have zero experience in war and thus, no conception of what it would possibly feel like to be confronted with life or death situations. Second, I am a beneficiary of other people who have sacrificed their lives.

But I think I’ve become so fixated on this topic because, after doing research in In Part 1, I can’t help but feel that there is something being broken. Certain rules that ought to be followed, morals… sexy stuff like that.

What I’m concerned with is not whether war is justified or not. For the sake of argument I’ll assume that it is. What I’m concerned with is whether or not the use of drones or any remotely piloted machine can be morally justified. Remote controlled T-1000’s, murderous 3CPO’s and missile equipped Roomba’s would fall under this category too.

Now let’s say there are two nation’s engaged in a good ol’ fashioned war.

When two sides engage, it’s clear that one side wants to have an advantage over the enemy. The leaders of both sides have a moral obligation for to put their army in the best position possible to win. You want to create a level asymmetry in which the enemy suffers more while your own forces remain safe. It would be immoral not to minimize the risk of tragedy on your own side.

Furthermore, the fundamental thing about war is that all combatants are considered to be morally innocent, no one is assumed to be guilty. Under International Law, you are only allowed to kill these innocent people if there is a reciprocal imposition of risk. This is a fancy way of saying that a soldier is given the right to kill IF they themselves are under the threat of being killed. Without this element of self-defense, there is no moral or legal right to justify killing anyone. The problem with drones as I see it, is that it creates a level of asymmetry and unevenness so severe, it removes the reciprocity of risk needed to justify killing someone during war.

So imagine yourself as an armed soldier confronting an armed enemy who has the clear intention to kill you. You are justified in pulling the trigger because you meet that condition of reciprocal risk. Now replace yourself in that scenario with a drone. The idea I’m trying to get across is that you no longer have any moral justification to kill that enemy soldier because:

1. You are no longer an immediate threat to you and morally innocent

2. You are in no immediate danger of dying

An interesting question that comes to my mind is that if your enemy is no longer a threat to you, then what makes them an appropriate target?

Imagine that Country A sees Country B as an appropriate target to use force. If A meets B on the battlefield, then their forces are appropriate targets so long as they threaten injury.  But if Country A never physically shows up, what makes Bs’ forces justified targets?

Paul Kahn has written extensively on the topic of machine warfare and proposes that the use of drones no longer becomes a matter of warfare, but policing. The act of policing assumes that you are only targeting people who are morally guilty and that it is only these people that should suffer injury. And that’s precisely how a drone policy operates. For example, the US initiates drone strike targets on “al-Qaeda and its associated forces”, “who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”. It’s this,

with a lot less marionettes.


But I guess what troubles me so much about the use of drones is this trend:

Only about a fifth of the members of US Congress who decide whether or not to authorize U.S. military action have any military experience themselves. To me this shows an incredible disconnect between the consequences of war and the decision makers who decide on whether to enter war or not. Who knows, maybe they would be emboldened to engage in more military action since they have never had to put their own lives on the line, war would be something abstract.

I see drones exacerbating this disconnect because there is no risk for the the guy that presses the button or makes the call to press the button thousands of miles away, they don’t even have to really witness it. It’s a bit unsettling to me the distancing between the suffering that is being caused and that situational feeling that might inhibit someone from causing that suffering.



A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.1

My my, it really has been three months since my last blog.

Over a year ago in June I came across this video that just blew my mind

How cool is that? Imagine. The sun being blocked out because the sky is littered by flying pizzas.  And most importantly, no tipping.

A few months later I quickly abandoned my love for drone-dropped pizza because of this story:


On December 20, 2013  the Associated Press reported that dozens of people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed and others injured, including the bride, in a US military air strike after their party was mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy. (President Obama sends his regards).

Human Rights Watch released a report on the drone strike citing interviews with family members and survivors of the convoy stating all those hit were civilians, whereas Yemeni and US officials told Human Rights Watch that they were militants. When both authorities were asked which of the dead and wounded were members of militant groups and which were civilians, they did not reply to the question.

The purpose of this strike was to target al-Qaeda leader Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badan. U.S. and Yemeni officials said that although wounded, he had escaped. But hey, at least they got the other guys, and the bride.

So in this incident, there is a lot of ambiguity around who was killed and injured in these attacks. It can’t be ruled out the possibility that al-Qaeda members were killed, but neither can the possibility that those killed and wounded were innocent civilians.

In early March of 2013, President Obama laid out his drone policy to direct strikes like this one in Yemen. It is meant to be “a high threshold…for taking violence” because :

  • “we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces”
  • “our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute”
  • “we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”
  • “before any strike is taken, there must be ‘near-certainty‘ that no civilians will be killed or injured”

We can see how well that has worked in practice. A review of CIA documents reveal that over a 14 month period, they did not always know who it was of the 613 people they were targeting and killing in drone strikes. US officials only labelled 1 of the 613 killed as a civilian. 1 in 4  killed by these drone strikes were labelled as “other militants”. “Other militants” is a term used when the CIA cannot determine the affiliation of those killed.

It begs to ask, if you don’t know who these people are, how could you possibly know they’re an imminent threat to national security? In what way is a wedding procession an imminent threat to the American people?

These are stupid questions to ask because apparently it doesn’t really matter anyways. Nothing ever really matters in American foreign policy. Independent sources have reported these depressing drone strike statistics between 2002-2013 in Yemen and Pakistan alone:

Yemen Pakistan
US Drone strike: 44-54Total Reported Killed: 233-333

Civilians Reported Killed: 12-45

Children Reported Killed: 2

US Drone strike: 368Total Reported Killed: 2541-3533

Civilians Reported Killed: 411-884

Children Reported Killed: 168-197

And yet, US officials are adamant that only 1 civilian has been killed. In his very own words, Obama assured that the “[The US has a] high threshold…for taking lethal action”. Straight up bull in my opinion.

Secret memos released reveal the true nature of how the Pakistani and US governments go about their drone strikes. They often participate in what is known as ‘signature strikes’. These are when drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious patterns of behavior or other “signatures”. They make connections between unidentified suspects and other known terrorists and militants. So they look at the places the unknown person goes to, who they meet with, who they call and send emails to, and then match those against other people linked to the same calls, emails and meetings. Tough luck for that Pakistani who just happens to know the wrong guy, chances are he will be as good as dead.

Between 2009 and 2010, as many as half of drone strikes were classified as “signature strikes”.  In other words, half the time the executor is just  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that as many as 197 children in Pakistan have been reportedly killed.

In my next blog I’ll be looking at where the use of drones fall in the tricky web of international law, warfare and ethics.

In the meantime, here’s a fun game:
You’re a president or prime minister and a security official comes up to you and tells you they need to execute someone. They say to you that they don’t know exactly who this person, but he might have sent an email to an al-Qaeda member and he goes to Northern Pakistan a lot. Could you in good conscience kill this person who may or may not be a terrorist?


#CancelColbert, @sueypark and a letter to Twitter

Dear Twitter,

My old friend. Have you put on a little weight? It seems that way with all the amateur hams that comprise your membership. I’m sorry, that was a little harsh. I really do love your 140 character straightforwardness, pithy one-liners, and unparalleled power to ruin political and corporate careers through retweets. In all honesty, they sincerely make me smile. You should publish a Twitter Greatest Hits (call it Twitter Gold (I hold a copyright on that one)). You can start with this gem.

You’re usually super funny but, something about you has been irking me as of late. It seems that some of your amateur hams can’t take a joke, particularly satire. Your platform has made it a lot easier to: miss the point of a joke and give credence to opportunists.

Last week on March 28 one of your close friends, Twitter activist (Hashtivist? This is a real thing now) @sueypark went off the rails and accused my hero, Mr. Colbert, of racism. Racism! Incredible! He must have said something incredibly racist to be accused of racism. First, let’s take a moment to reflect on the rich history of racism. Quite the horrendous accusation yes? So what did he do you might ask?

I guess the evidence is pretty clear, Colbert is a racist. But maybe, just maybe, this Tweet made by @ColbertReport was taken out of context. You see Twitter, sometimes your messages get taken out of context. Weird I know, who would have thought that the full meaning of an idea can’t be conveyed in a 140 characters. If I were to see The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation or in my case, The Speedy González Foundation for Sensitivity to Wetback’s or Whatever, I would tell Mr. Colbert to “fuddle duddle, dat’s rassist”. It’s a perfectly legitimate response…to the untrained eye, or in this case, someone who has never experienced humour in their lives. Satire is sometimes hard to comprehend when you read a tweet so I’ve taken the liberty of showing you the original segment (American IP address needed, sorry Canada).—professional-soccer-toddler–golf-innovations—washington-redskins-charm-offensive

The @ColbertReport tweet was taken from a 5min 09 second bit on his March 28 show regarding the absurdity of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s continued resistance to changing an 82 year old racist team name by making a concession to Native Americans in the form of a foundation, while still keeping the name “Redskin”, a racial slur that has withstood the test of time and reason. It reminded me of the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too except more racist. The point Colbert was making with his recurring Ching-Chong character* was to put the owners outlandish Foundation into perspective by giving an even more absurd simile. The term Redskins isn’t acceptable and neither is Ching Chong Ding Dong nor orientals.

The craziest thing happened after this tweet made your sphere, certain people misunderstood the point. In particular, one of your most vocal activists @sueypark, got incredibly offended:

And I get it. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between a real person and a well-known character based on a conservative out-of-touch-with-reality pundit that’s been on air for 9 years, it happens to the best of us. Especially when @StephenColbert is not the actual Twitter handle of the real Stephen Colbert.

But that didn’t deter @sueypark and her ragtag group of ardent supporters to suck the living life-force of a joke designed to point out a racist.

Yet, it would be irresponsible of me to bust your chops and completely ignore the actual influence of what your infinite wisdom (us mere mortals call it trending) distills to us from your most loyal and vocal prophets. I mean of course, activists like @sueypark. For better or worse, your eminence allows the thoughts of a select few to migrate to the wider interwebs, to television and eventually to the collective culture. There is value in the Arab Spring and I’ll even throw in #Kony2012 for good measure because for all my irritation for Hactivism, it would be incorrect to associate everyone one of your users as practitioners of Slacktivism.

But man, you did something special. You facilitated laziness in a way no one person could do. #CancelColbert demonstrated your uncanny ability to streamline our sense of context since we no longer have to be bothered with taking the time to conduct research; we can just see what’s trending and assume. But the really cool thing you do is that you made it easier for strange bedfellows to hop on a bandwagon. #CancelColbert became a powerful banner for Colbert’s bigoted conservative detractors like Michelle Malkin (author of In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror) can get behind

and the bigoted “defenders” of Colbert to spew their own racist vitriol and misogynistic sentiments towards @sueypark.

I worry about you sometimes Twitter. You harbor some instances of really high blood-pressure and extreme mood swings that spiral out of control. Those versed in environmentalism would call my concerns for you as a positive feedback loop. More crass, some (such as myself and fellow redditors) would call it an r/circlejerk. Academics that study our primate cousins would call it G-G rubbing. I don’t want to question the motives of activists who want to get their message out and share it with their own network of followers using your platform but, the level of opportunism of your selective outrage machine is almost inseparable. You allow for this behaviour. It becomes a sort of opportunism for ignorance to spread on remedial Satire 101, for others to make outlandish claims in order to make a self-serving splash and, for anonymous bigots to direct their bigotry at those who try to share their opinion.

I also understand from the point of view @sueypark in questioning the right of a non-minority like Stephen Colbert to use racial constructions to make a joke about racism. It’s a legitimate opinion to have because it bears repeating, I’m also a minority; I empathize. However, we of course have to take this to it’s logical conclusion by which nobody can partake in satire. Because why stop at a white-man or women from using racial constructions to make a point about racism, nobody else but those of Asian descent truly understands the plight of bigotry against Asians. This is probably why we take intent, history and the person performing satire into account. There is such a thing as poor satire but, expanding the logic of Dan Snyder to point out his hypocritical Foundation with another outrageous construction as Colbert has done is not poor satire.

Twitter, you’re starting to become a reason as to why we can’t have nice things. The way you operate allows for the meta-narrative of a brilliant satirist who made a brilliant satire against the actual racism of whitewashing, to be discussed for all the wrong reasons. You make it easy for the politically correct and thought police to amp up the aggression on a person who specializes in diffusing sensitive topics with such surgical precision by turning it into YHWH; something forbidden to be discussed. You allowed us to be distracted from asking ourselves “Wait, there’s a team called the Redskins?”. You let someone like Dan Snyder win by allowing his Foundation and Native American solidarity #Not4Sale to be consumed by the ether of Tyler, the Creator and Lady Gaga tweets.

Anyways, take care. I look forward to your trending topics such as the Venezuelan and Turkish protests.


Louis Reyes


P.S. Here’s Colbert’s rebuttal and @sueypark’s interview with the Huffington Post regarding #CancelColbert. You’ll quickly learn that the most direct question you can ask someone is also apparently a loaded question.

P.P.S. What’s a #ZainMalikIsPerfect?

Nick Cannon, Instagram, and Mintrelsy

cannon26n-5-web*Warning, links contain really, really, incredibly graphic language. They’re also hilarious.

Nick Cannon’s “whiteface” Instagram has been making the media rounds as of late. As expected, incessant rabbling on social media platforms and comment sections about how racist or how hilarious Cannon was for donning his reverse-minstrel show attire quickly ensued. Just browse through the comment sections in Huntington Post’s article and you’ll get a general idea of how galvanized people have become over this picture.

But I think the majority of people are arguing over the wrong thing. What people should really be arguing about is how much of an idiot Nick Cannon is for gratuitously misusing the “stepping on thin ice” art of minstrelsy, not because what he did was racist or funny; in my opinion it was neither.

A common sentiment I’ve read so far in a few comment sections is the arbitrary double standard of modern minstrelsy. Those who say that what Nick Cannon did is a sheer act of racism is to completely ignore critically lauded acts of “whiting-up”, “blacking-up” and “enter race/ethnicity here-up”. To cry racism is to ignore the fact that minstrelsy gave Robert Downey Jr. an Academy Award for his role of Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. It’s to ignore Dave Chappelle’s whiteface and caricature of a white supremest for which he has garnered considerable praise for. Hell, that’s exactly what the crux of minstrelsy is, a caricature of culturally appropriated features. It’s the same type of caricature Sacha Baron Cohen performed as Borat for several years, for which he would later receive an Academy nomination. I could go on with examples like Eddie Murphy’s makeup where he played an old Jewish man in Coming to America or to a lesser extent, the Wayans Brothers’ White Chicks.

Those who comment on whiteface or blackface as acts of pure racism are ignorant of the fact that our society has always had a pretty good appetite for faces. We have a good track record of handling different kinds of blackface, whiteface or whatever type of -face in stride by how we like to reward them. We lend our acceptance based on what I perceive to be reasons of purposeful a) comedic absurdity and b) critiques on the absurdity in on our society. When a minstrelsy fulfills these two purposes, it fits into a gray space of racism that we are comfortable with because it becomes an art-form to us. It transforms cultural appropriation from just being  “idiot comments meant to be amusing” to something that is profound because there is an intrinsic method to its offensiveness. As Marlee Horn puts it we have cues “that tell us as  where we will accept appropriation up to the point where it becomes a mere minstrel act”. Those cues are contingent on the purpose.

Another thing is to consider what we even deem to be racism in the first place since that term seems to be thrown around a lot. Winant gives an excellent definition for what constitutes racism:

Today, a racial project can be defined as racist if it creates or reproduces hierarchical social structures based on essentialized racial categories”….Of course, any of these projects may be considered racist, but only if they meet the criteria I have just outlined: in other words, essentialization and subordination

Nick Cannon’s picture is indeed a reproduction of essentialized racial categories. Yet, to also say that it is also a reproduction of subordination or hierarchical social structures or anything with nefarious intent behind it would be a stretch. I don’t think this is the case.

Here’s why.

If his hashtag on the picture (#RacialDraft) and “Bro I got drafted” comment are any indication, what Cannon has done is based in benign intentions that should simply be faulted by how misguided and little value it has. Put together with his uncanny resemblance to Dave Chappelle’s take on whiteface, Nick Cannon is lazily looking for a shortcut to minstrelsy, something akin to dressing up for Halloween or an “ethnically” themed party. He’s just really bad at being funny.

Let’s be honest,

Nick Cannon is no Dave Chappelle.

Nick Cannon is no Robert Downey Jr.

Nick Cannon is no Eddie Murphy

Nick Cannon is no Sacha Baron Cohen.

Those who laud Nick Cannon for his picture and how humorous it is completely miss the point of what a well executed minstrelsy is. Again, for whiteface and blackface to be palatable it must serve an actual purpose, their portrayals must have merit in both absurdity and skewering our society. This is where the real problem with Nick Cannon’s donning of whiteface lies. It it is essentially devoid of fulfilling any real purpose since it is done to promote his upcoming album “White People Party Music”. It’s gratuitous misuse of minstrelsy because whiteface is used as a self-serving marketing ploy. People shouldn’t be mad because they think Nick Cannon is a racist, they should be mad because he’s appropriating culture to illicit cheap publicity.

A particular columnist, Adriana Velez, gave Cannon ample benefit of the doubt for his provoking by stating “If anything, Nick Cannon is starting a potentially interesting conversation”. That’s to suggest that Nick Cannon had the intention of doing so with his stunt, which is pretty wishful thinking considering the whole point of his whiteface was to plug some album.


Moral Dillema, Violence, and Civil War

I’ve always thought my views on violence were firm. I tend to believe that any sort of violent response means that you immediately lose the battle of ideas, that violence becomes the only solution because you cannot convince someone about your views based on the merit of your own words. Simply put, violence is unjustifiable.

I like to think that I have some moral superiority when I say that I detest violence and give my reasons why. But I feel that I can only do so because I’ve never been in any real danger, I’ve never had to test this aspect of my morality. So I’m a hypocrite when I say that given certain circumstances, I think that violence is a perfectly justifiable response.

I often talk to my mom about her life in El Salvador, especially in the 1980’s where she was a university student during the height of her country’s civil war between its right-wing dictatorship (oligarchs, military and US government) and its guerrillas (leftist intellectuals, peasantry and Communist governments).

Her accounts always give me chills since it is a story of a life in constant fear and where her best friends and peers “disappear”. In Latin America, disappearing is a fate much worse than death. But of course, my mom ended up escaping the civil war and found asylum in Canada near the end of the decade. Yet, I can’t help but think that if I were in her position, as I am now (a 21 year old student), I might have chosen a different path. I won’t mince my words, I absolutely would have stayed and fought alongside guerrilla forces despite knowing full well who they were backed by.

I can’t help but reiterate my detest of violence, especially its destructiveness when it becomes manifested through war. The thought of people organizing themselves with the intent to slaughter each other just boggles me. Yet, I can’t help myself in feeling that when democratic channels fail, especially for the most marginalized in society, what hope is there for non-violent means to achieve change? When I look at the country my mom was living in, I have complete empathy for a repressed population who started responding in a language best understood by a military dictatorship.

El Salvador needed 70 000 lives over 12 years to break its political inertia and reach a new state of affairs with the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords. I feel kind of dirty for saying this but, I’m adamant that conclusion would have never come to fruition had government opponents never decided to use violence means.

Broken Windows, Band-Aids and Siths

“If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!”.


Those around me know very well my contempt for Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Ever since reading the book I’ve had a long time to mull over my dissatisfaction.  I’ll be honest and say that  before this past week, I never knew who Malcolm Gladwell was. I’m not really a viewer of TED Talks so that’s probably why. But now because that’s been taken away from me, I can no longer revel in my own ignorance.

For you brave souls who actually read this…getcha popcorn ready.

Now, it’s not so much that I perceived the concepts of The Broken Windows Theory and Band-Aid solutions as counter-intuitive or “radical” as Gladwell would say, far from it. What irked me was how shoddy Gladwell jammed concepts like Broken Window’s Theory and his particular notion of context to fit his narrative that small changes can make a big difference.

My criticisms aren’t new. A few Google searches and I quickly learned that Gladwell has long been scrutinized for his loosey-goosey extrapolations from behavioural studies in every single one of his books since The Tipping Point. Christopher Chabris’s breakdown of Gladwell’s latest book pretty much summarizes major criticisms with his work.

I’ve read enough academic journals to know that someone who says that “they know the know the best way” (Gladwell, 2000, p.60) to frame a concept raises a major red-flag. Take The Law of the Few for instance. Chabris best challenged The Law of the Few stating, “To say something is a law is to say that it applies with (near) universality and can be used to predict, in advance, with a fair degree of certainty, what will happen in a situation”. It gives a loaded impression that these concepts in behavioural sciences are enduring, the closest thing to an absolute (A wise Jedi once said “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”, which in it of itself is an absolute statement. I still love the quote however).

Absolutes bring me to Broken Windows Theory. I’ll be honest with the hindsight bias on the explanation for New York City’s crime drop. I’ve had prior knowledge of several analyses related to Broken Windows after The Tipping Point was written, and long before I’ve ever read the book concerning the conflicting evidence surrounding the New York City case study.

I remember reading Freakonomics back in 2008 that challenged Broken Windows Theory by suggesting that the policing strategy was a confounding variable in New York City’s crime drop in the 90’s. The authors (Levitt and Dubner) explain that: crime in New York City was already on its way down well before Giuliani and Bratton became involved; the NYPD police force grew by 45% between 1991-2001 (which is positively correlated with a decrease crime); the Roe v. Wade decision in the 1970’s where unwanted children susceptible to crime were not being born; and the fact crime decreased nationwide in the US during the 1990’s, not just in New York.

Did Broken Windows play a part in New York City’s dramatic crime drop? It’s perfectly plausible. Was it the silver bullet? We can’t say because nobody knows for sure. One study on Broken Windows in New York between 1989-1998 concluded that there was no support for a disorder-crime relationship or that this strategy was even the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources. Another study, in the Netherlands, indicated that “Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behaviour”. The take-away message from these heavily cited studies is that there can be more than one explanation.

And that’s part of my beef. To continue to push, as Gladwell has done, that policing Broken Windows was the clear cause in explaining New York City’s crime drop is a little much. It’s intriguing that Broken Window’s Theory may have contributed to crime reduction.  The case in the Netherlands demonstrates that there is validity in principles of the Theory. But it’s certainly not causal. I see it as indicative of what Gladwell is willing to do to fit his narrative.

 “The Power of Context says you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime” (Gladwell, 2000, p.151)

(Come again?)

Now It’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider unorthodox variables or as Gladwell (2000, p.150) calls them, “the little things”. Framing problems as having non-linear dimensions helps broaden the scope of assessing epidemics and can very will lead to novel solutions; that’s the point of epidemiology. But why does that mean social determinants like race, poverty, unemployment and, institutional neglect ought to be overlooked in favour of counter-intuitive variables like graffiti and fare-beaters?

Gladwell says (2000, p.150), “…the Power of Context says what really matters is the little things…You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing of graffiti and arresting fare-beaters”. Here, it’s clear to me that his version of context is objective, that something like disorder and crime are elements that can be clearly defined and separated. He reduces a social problem in a way that makes his “little things” (disorder) an independent variable and crime a dependent variable. Gladwell is  asking us to accept  that socio-structural inequities really don’t matter.

So why does that mean social determinants ought to be overlooked in favour of Gladwell’s counter-intuitive variables? The answer, as I see it, is that it’s the only way that Broken Windows Theory and by extent, Band-Aid solutions as advocated by Gladwell, make sense as policy tools. Since Broken Windows is contingent on tackling disorder, it would be reasonable to focus on decreasing disorder. If the reader accepts Gladwell’s distinction of variables, then OF COURSE (some might say Claro Que Si) a Band-Aid solution like Broken Windows “is…the best kind of solution” (Gladwell, 2000, p.258).

But here’s the thing about disorder: it’s been shown to carry an implicit bias. Disorder might be less about how we perceive our environment but rather, the subject matter Gladwell deflected attention from. When we speak of disorder, race and economic circumstances have been shown to matter more. A study of 500 block groups in Chicago showed that when the concentration of minority groups and poverty increases, residents of all races perceive heightened disorder, regardless of observed disorder (i.e broken windows).

For the case of New York, here’s a primer. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the policing of Broken Windows in New York City has been a person-centered activity, not an environment-centered one. Davies and Fagan (2000) demonstrate with empirical evidence that “[Broken Windows] policing is not about disorderly places…but about policing poor people in poor places”. This is because they found that that the racial and economic composition of neighbourhoods could predict race and crime specific stops.

Gladwell completely ignored this stark incongruence of the application of Broken Windows from theory to practice in The Tipping Point and really establishes just how selective his narrative is. It’s one thing to ask us to reframe the way we think about the world, but it’s also another thing to do so in a way that blocks out the things that appear to have such a gripping influence in how we already look at the world to begin with. Treating disorder as an independent variable relies on how much you’re willing to bend you’re definition of context.

Step 1. Tinker
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit

Everything in this book boils down to the Band-Aid solution, the Deus ex Machina of big problem-solving as advocated by Gladwell. It has everything that you could ever want: inexpensiveness, convenience, versatility, efficiency, a short-cut. It’s perfect in every single way, just look at all the confirming examples. There are no bounds to its applicability. It’s a technocrat’s wet dream.

I think it’s here where most of my problem with The Tipping Point sort of pools together. The whole crux of the book is to advocate that social change can be achieved by simply tinkering. We are told that by tinkering,  “people can radically transform their behaviours or beliefs” (Gladwell, p. 258). But this message alone isn’t enough. Gladwell provides us with such a high degree of personal agency because according to him (2000, p.167) “Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change”. So not only does he tell us the exact parameters on how to look at the world, we are also given his permission to think that way.

So I mean, what sort of change can you actually expect if you frame social problems as Gladwell does?

His idea of change is superficial if his deliberation of Broken Windows Theory is any indication. If “Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same” (Gladwell 2000, p.146) , then change is literally superficial because we’re only looking for solutions that change the surface of the problem, not the root.

It’s so easy to have Band-Aid solutions if we remove socio-structural inequities environmental determinants from the conversation and pretend that they don’t exist. Unequal power dynamics, history, spatial segregation, perceptional biases? No. That stuff is too hard. But what about graffiti?

It reminds me a lot about my grievance with how Sustainable Development has often been conceptualized for social change. It’s treated a lot like a Band-Aid solution. Like the Tipping Point, sustainable development creates the impression that only tweaks need to be made for significant change, yet it does nothing to challenge the status quo that has brought upon the problems that require change in the first place.

In my opinion, Gladwell’s way of framing is most appropriate to keep things business-as-usual. I can’t see anything radical or transformative about his ideas.

I’m not trying to be malicious. Gladwell should be commended for bringing behvioural sciences into mainstream discussion where his academic opposites have failed. I can’t imagine how anyone could make these studies palatable to the masses.

But how the hell am I supposed to take someone like him seriously when he speaks well beyond empirical data? Why should I take his word that Band-Aid solutions have merit?

I understand that he posits himself as story-teller and not an academic. However, that’s a poor excuse to give him any sort of pardon on how he goes about presenting empirical evidence considering how large an audience he has. What he’s presenting are intriguing reflections but some might take it as causal evidence of how the world actually works and fool-proof prescriptions to solve its problems. I seriously hope that’s not the case.