In Other Words

Politics as a Spectator Sport

The Spectator,
175th Anniversary Issue, 2003, London

Ever since Britain's Conservative Party defenestrated former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, after Thatcher had won three consecutive general elections, the party's standing in British politics has rapidly deteriorated. The Tories suffered two of the heaviest electoral defeats in their history in 1997 and 2001, and now only their incompetence allows British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold on to power. In contrast, The Spectator -- a weekly magazine traditionally regarded as the in-house publication of the Conservative Party -- has gone from strength to strength, as its recent 175th anniversary issue attests. The issue showcases the best articles in the magazine's history as well as some outstanding fresh content. Perhaps more important, The Spectator's weekly sales of 60,000 are nearly three times those of the New Statesman, the Labour Party's counterpart. How has The Spectator flourished while the Conservatives have floundered?

One lesson that the Conservatives should learn from The Spectator is the power of personality. In the post-Thatcher era, the Conservatives have routinely picked insipid leaders whose main quality is that they prevent more flavorsome party candidates from getting the job. For example, the bland John Major, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 1997, was initially chosen to stop the candidacy of Michael Heseltine, the mace-wielding former defense secretary. Indeed, Conservative leaders often seem more threatened than enthused by signs of vigor in the party. These days, much of the party's top talent remains outside the Conservative shadow government. Meanwhile, The Spectator's editor, Conservative parliamentarian Boris Johnson, is one of the biggest personalities in British politics and is not part of the shadow government. Moreover, the magazine's contributors remain a who's who of British intellectual, cultural, and journalistic life.

Of course, one can hardly view The Spectator as a simple cheerleader for the Conservatives. In 1964, for example, The Spectator uncovered how a "magic circle" of party elders dominated by graduates of Britain's most socially elitist school, Eton, picked a rank outsider -- also an old Etonian -- as party leader, despite the wishes of the most senior cabinet members. The exposé caused such a furor that changes were introduced allowing Conservative members of parliament to elect the leader themselves. Similarly, an interview published in The Spectator in 1990 -- and reprinted in the anniversary issue -- marked the beginning of the Conservatives' disastrous decade. In the interview, Nicholas Ridley, then the trade and industry secretary and one of Thatcher's closest political allies, described plans for a common European monetary policy as "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe." His comments revealed the divide within Conservative ranks over Europe. These divisions persist and still play a crucial role in keeping the party out of power.

Charles Moore, an editor of The Spectator during the 1980s who went on to edit the Daily Telegraph, ascribes the magazine's success to its "unique character." This character is distinctly English. Unlike The Economist, which is only 15 years younger and now sells 80 percent of its copies outside Britain, The Spectator has not morphed into an international publication. The magazine also takes a jocular approach to politics and is willing to publish any argument as long as it is well made. For instance, the anniversary collection contains an essay by Lord Jenkins, the most influential British progressive of the post-World-War-II era, and Blair's first published article. Another Spectator trait is its love of the absurd, well represented in this issue by Digby Anderson's essay on the best kind of picnic to take on a trans-Atlantic flight. (Travelers take note: Salad niçoise and stuffed goose neck come highly recommended.)

Ultimately, The Spectator's tone may help explain the magazine's success in contrast to the Conservatives' decline. The speech by recently ousted Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith to the October 2003 party conference was pompous, humorless, and poorly delivered. In contrast, The Spectator remains well written, amusing, and innovative. So, while Duncan Smith turned off all but the most hard-core Conservatives, The Spectator attracts the top writers from across the political spectrum -- one more reason why editing the magazine is widely regarded as the best job in British journalism and leading the Conservatives as the worst one in British politics.

In Other Words

Africa's Custom-Made Cures

Emerging Infectious Diseases,
Vol. 9, No. 10, October 2003, Atlanta

With less than 1,200 deaths since the first known outbreak in 1976, Ebola is a relatively small player in the world league of infectious diseases. Still, Ebola's mysterious origins, its high fatality rate (between 50 and 90 percent), and the sheer horror of its manifestations (patients often bleed from multiple orifices as their internal organs disintegrate) have earned the virus a top spot on the list of new bugs that bear close watching. As with most viruses, a few mutations could launch the virus from its remote outbreaks in Africa onto a destructive global odyssey.

Teams that contain Ebola outbreaks in Africa often find themselves battling more than just the virus. They're also up against forces that defy mobile labs, protective suits, and rubber gloves: namely, unhygienic traditional healing methods, unsafe funeral rites, or patients' deep-seated fear of just visiting a clinic. During an outbreak two years ago in Gabon, disputes over burial practices became so heated that international teams felt compelled to withdraw temporarily from a town where the epidemic was still raging.

But while outbreak fighters at the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the international nongovernmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières can relate many such episodes, the medical community has yet to systematically investigate the local beliefs or misunderstandings that fuel them. Recently, however, Barry Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University, and Richard Amola, a medical official at the Ugandan Ministry of Health, teamed up to study the cultural context of Ebola among the Acholi, the ethnic group hardest hit by a devastating 2000-01 outbreak in northern Uganda. They reported their findings in the cdc's flagship monthly journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The Acholi were aware of Western biomedical explanations for the disease, the authors note. During the outbreak, some victims took antibiotics or antimalarials to try to cure themselves. But once the epidemic had raged for more than a month, another theory took hold among the Acholi. Residents started classifying the scourge as two gemo, which means "epidemic illness." Gemo are bad spirits that sneak up on many people simultaneously, perhaps as punishment for not respecting the gods.

Interestingly, gemo triggered a range of Acholi containment procedures -- from quarantining patients and marking their homes to limiting everyone's movements -- that also made sense from a biomedical perspective. These procedures have been around for a long time, and it is unclear whether the Acholi adopted them from the British during colonial rule or whether they discovered their usefulness independently. In any case, Hewlett and Amola conclude that traditional beliefs aren't always bad; in fact, they may jibe with what Western doctors would order.

Conversely, Western healthcare professionals who don't understand local customs can make matters worse. WHO workers, for example, believed that Ugandan Ebola patients shunned hospitals because they feared they might be buried in the emergency cemetery near the local airfield, not in their village's burial ground. Not so, Hewlett and Amolo discovered. Burial at the edge of the village was part of standard gemo protocol, and if families had been allowed to witness their loved ones being interred at the airfield, the problem could have been averted.

As fascinating as such details may be, a study published nearly three years after the last victim was infected has limited practical value. The authors can't offer much guidance to the doctors and health authorities who will deal with coming outbreaks, because such epidemics (possibly spurred by new, different viruses) may occur among diverse ethnic groups in different countries. And one can hardly expect health authorities to dispatch anthropologists to catalog each and every cultural and medical belief across Africa.

But detailed anthropological studies like these may well become useful in another way. At a recent symposium near Washington, D.C., organized by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Ebola researchers reported several promising findings, including two vaccines and a candidate drug that reduced mortality from the virus in monkeys. Sooner or later, one of these products must be tested in the real world. A profound understanding of how local cultures deal with the disease, and how a vaccine or drug would fit into their spiritual worldview, will then prove essential.