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February 16th, 2011

Cat Calls

This news, about Lara Logan’s rape in Egypt on Friday, stole my sleep last night.  As I tossed, my mind flipped between thinking of the horror she must have felt pressed into that crowd, recalling bits of stories my female friends have told me about their experiences on the streets of Cairo, feeling guilty for holding all Egyptian men accountable.  All the cat calls on the street we’ve ever endured that, if only there were a mob to provide anonymity, could have become something else.

In my sleepless daze, I found this 2005 story about Logan from the New York Times.  It’s sexism seems quaint now, in the way it highlights the inane risks our sexuality presents, not imagining they could be worse than having someone think you only got the interview because you’re pretty.

I’ve never been a feminist, at least not consciously.  But there was something about seeing a woman who is smart and sexual and a mom and a wife and strong and reporting from war zones have that taken from her so easily, in the act of doing the work that she loved, that made me realize how fragile it all is.  It can just. be. taken.  And all because of my gender.

November 13th, 2010

Jon Stewart is Losing Me

Sigh.  I love Jon Stewart.  I think he’s hilarious.  I spent considerable money, and time I should have been using to write papers, to go to DC last month for his rally.  But after watching this video of him with Maddow I’m starting to think he’s drinking too much of his own kool-aid.  I really really hate to say it but it’s almost as if he’s spotted the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself between MSNBC and Fox, and conviction does not exist in that niche.  Watching him twist himself up into knots to relativize GWB’s pride in waterboarding is painful.  GWB himself may or may not be evil–being the stellar Catholic that I am, I’m not sure anyone can make that judgment about someone else–but the act of taking pride in having authorized torture certainly is.  If it’s possible to talk yourself into thinking that it’s not, then it’s nothing more than a thought exercise to rationalize away all the evil that’s ever happened in the world.  If Jon Stewart is arguing for a media environment that equivocates on issues like torture in order to maintain decorum….I may have to rethink this sanity thing.

November 2nd, 2010

Thoughts on the Sanity Rally

Peter Beinart wrote a breathtakingly un-self aware piece about the Stewart/Colbert rally this past weekend, which, however misguided, allows me to write a few words about my experience there.

Beinart lists three points on which the rally was off base: 1) that Americans are unnecessarily fearful; 2) that we’re much less divided than the media would lead us to believe; and 3) that there’s too much “insanity” in politics.

I’ll let you read it for yourself, but his refutation of the first two points are really just a weak attempt to defend members of the media against Stewart’s claims that they stoke fear and divisiveness.  Which is funny because in making his third point he seems to miss the point Stewart was making about the media altogether.

Beinart writes:

Finally, the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically. The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.

Beinart claims he watched the rally but I’m not sure how you could have watched this and thought that the insanity Stewart was combating was the insanity of the Tea Party.  I was there and, while there were signs opposing the Tea Party, I’m pretty sure nothing that happened on stage had anything to do with the Tea Party.  The insanity that was being called out was the insanity of members of the media who insist on pitting one side against the other, setting up straw men, staging battles, and stoking fear.  The point Stewart was trying to make is that most Americans are nothing like what’s reflected in the media and we’re sick of being fed “news” that blows up the extremes at the expense of real dialogue about hard choices.

In fact, I think one of the main stories the media has failed to report is what’s at the root of the Tea Party ideology.  There’s a fascinating debate within the Tea Party, reported on Morning Edition a couple months ago, over whether social issues should be added to their platform.  This past weekend on This American Life, I heard an amazing story about the debate within the Tea Party movement about whether to run independent candidates or whether to support Republican candidates.  I haven’t heard much at all about this from other (mainly cable) outlets.  For example, I’m writing a paper on the influence morning shows have on political decision making.  As part of my research, I watched and cataloged every “news” segment of the Today Show for the month of October (I know, I know).  Unless you count the segments with pundits discussing the state of the economy, there was almost no policy segments over the course of the month leading up to the midterm elections.  It was almost completely coverage of the horse race.  Given this media environment, could you really blame the left if they did react snootily to the Tea Party?  They’re reacting to the image of the Tea Party that the media has shown them: Hitler signs, stomping on people’s heads, protests against death panels, campaigns against masturbation, Aqua Buddhas.  If Beinart wants the left to take these people seriously, maybe he should get out and do some real reporting.

August 8th, 2010

On the Eve of My Journey

When I moved to Boston twelve years ago, I was a child.  Literally.  I was seventeen and too dumb to realize how scared I was.  Once I figured it out, I had a crippling case of homesickness that lasted almost a year.  I almost gave up several times, and there’s almost nothing in my life I’m more grateful for than that I decided to see it through.

As I sit in anticipation of my next move to Austin, it’s strangely satisfying to think that I’m going to be as homesick for this place as I was for Ann Arbor when I left.  People keep asking me if I’m excited, and the honest answer is no.  I’m also not dreading the move, but there’s no part of me that’s supremely eager to get down to Texas.  Instead I have the strange mix of anxiety, self doubt, reflectiveness, and determination that I’ve always felt just before experiencing something awesomely life-changing.  Of all the things I’ve learned in Boston–how to love, what I’m meant to do with my life, what faith means–it’s that knowledge that the risk is worth it that I’m most grateful for right now.

I may have grown up in Ann Arbor, but I became an adult in Boston.  Beantown, I will miss you.

May 18th, 2010

Transparency and Attention

Over the last couple of years (let’s pick a random title and call it “The Obama Era”) we’ve seen a movement develop, spearheaded by groups like the Sunlight Foundation and enabled by some innovative thinkers in the White House, around open government data and transparency.  The movement has been wildly successful in publishing reams and reams of local, state and federal government data (in the US and abroad) in machine-readable formats online.  Amazing tools are being built to harness that data and make it accessible.  In the U.S., tracks campaign donations and their connection to legislative votes.  Global Voices’ Technology for Transparency Project has done a breathtaking job collecting and analyzing a slew of  international transparency projects.  The next stage of this phenomenon is creating programs to make meaning from that data, put context around it, and deliver it to citizens in a way that helps them become better decision makers.  ProPublica and OpenCongress are good examples of this model.

The push for transparency and accountability that drives this movement is based on a few important assumptions:

1)   that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and that as information is exposed corruption will dwindle;

2)   that the sets of data that are most important to expose are those that involve finances (agency budgets, campaign donations, earmarks, that sort of thing);

3)   that when this information is made public citizens will be empowered to use it to make enlightened decisions about policy, officials, budget priorities, etc.

For these assumptions to hold true we have a lot more work to do than just make sure information is free and available.  Transparency only matters if the end result is delivering information to citizens, which means storytelling is still a very important function—probably more important than it’s ever been—in American democracy.

Unfortunately, our storytelling institutions are failing.   Today’s corporate, profit-driven media outlets are much too focused on catching eyeballs so they can sell ads to do the hard work of translating policy information to citizens.  And as we all know the crisis of the news business model means there are fewer journalists employed by these organizations to engage in this translation process even if they wanted to.

It’s hard to know what the impact will be on our information diets as new media ventures—like blogs, hyperlocal news sites, and non-profit web-based models—rise to fill the void left by traditional media.  In order to discern the impact of this shift in news—or, for that matter, whether a shift is really happening—it’s vital to extend the concept of transparency to that equally essential democratic institution—the press.  We need tools to uncover patterns of attention as much as patterns of corruption.

Those of us who are working to promote civic engagement should be asking: What stories get reported?  How do those stories get told?  Who’s telling them?  Are blogs really as entrepreneurial and disruptive as we like to think, or are they simply amplifying stories that the MSM has already told?  Where do stories start and how do they get picked up?

Right now we’re making decisions as citizens assuming we have the best available set of information.   If we had answers to the questions above it’d be easier for news consumers (and reporters for that matter) to understand what we’re missing.  We could finally know what it is that we don’t know and potentially shift the demand for news coverage away from inanity and conflict (which, admittedly, sells ads) and towards rich, complex coverage of policy and its consequences.

March 30th, 2010

The Non-Profit News Straw Man

I know, I know.  This is a tired conversation.  But my friend John Bracken tweeted a link to a post on Alan Mutter’s blog bashing the idea that non-profit business models would save journalism.  While he’s probably right, I had a couple of problems with his argument that ultimately helped shape what role I think money (or business models) plays in this conversation so I thought I’d address them:

1) Why is it assumed that the cost of mainstream media is the cost of journalism?  Mutter says: “The math, as detailed below, shows that it would take $88 billion – or nearly a third of all the $307.7 billion donated to charity in 2008 – to fund the reporting still being done at America’s seriously straitened newspapers” and “if you wanted to sustain the current level of newspaper coverage by replacing for-profit funding with non-profit dollars, the typical approach would be to raise an endowment that would be invested conservatively to produce an annual return of 5%.”  Um, who says we want to sustain the current level (or at least format) of newspaper coverage?  And why would we want to do it so simplistically as to replace every for-profit dollar with a non-profit one?  I think there are a lot of imaginative people out there who can envision running a viable news organization on significantly less than what traditional media outlets spend today.  I understand the argument that “it costs a lot of money to maintain a Baghdad (let alone Port au Prince) bureau” but many innovative outlets have shown that it’s at least possible to deliver meaningful, accurate, insightful news content without spending billions of dollars.  So, it’s a small point, but it’s important to recognize that solving the problem isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about a one-to-one replacement of lost dollars from mainstream media outlets.

2) I take issue with the way the term “non-profit” is used.  It seems too narrow to me.  I shouldn’t pick on Mutter because I see this in all corners of the debate, but non-profit doesn’t have to mean “publicly funded” or “only supported by charitable donations.”  In my view, the failure of journalism derives from the fact that too many mainstream media organizations are capitalist operations.  They’re publicly owned entities–usually a subsidiary of a larger conglomerate–that are producing a product in hopes of selling it to a market.  They’re worried about increasing margins and shareholder returns, not practicing journalism.  I mean, has anyone watched the Today Show lately?  They’re in the business of selling.

Forget funding for a second (I know, naive).  If we agree that a free press (or independent news media, or whatever) is vital for the health of a democracy, then we should also believe that journalism organizations should be mission-driven: to provide information in the public interest, in such a way that promotes civic engagement and good governance.  There’s no reason why an organization with that mission shouldn’t be able to have a business model that’s something other than “non-profit” (in the narrow sense of the term) without jumping all the way over to “cog in a capitalist machine.”  Let’s use the New Yorker as an example.  While their model (one rich guy who doesn’t mind losing a lot of money on a magazine) isn’t exactly sustainable, it gets to the point I’m trying to make: “for-profit” news outlets can be governed by something other than a desire for better margins.  In order to endure, the New Yorker is going to have to find another way to support itself, but I don’t think it has to become The Today Show in order to do so.

I’m fully willing to recognize that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.  God knows there have been umpteen discussions on this topic, among people who actually work in this field.  I just think there needs to be a little more imagination (and maybe more focus on the mission rather than the product) when thinking about how journalism will be reconceived.

March 7th, 2010

Just Finished Reading: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

For the first two-thirds of this book, I felt immensely guilty that I didn’t feel more compelled by the story.  The recounting of the colonization of the Belgian Congo shouldn’t be that hard to ache over.  Maybe it was the mass scale—I just couldn’t get my head around it?  Maybe it was that the picture of a greedy European king willing to exploit Africans for his own personal economic gain (and be just an all-around dick otherwise—sleeping with teenagers, disinheriting his daughters, abusing his wife) wasn’t all that surprising? 

What was more interesting was the part of the book after King Leopold dies.  First of all, the epilogues for the “good guys” are so poignant.  They remind us that there’s nothing particularly superhuman about being heroic—it’s just flawed human beings like the rest of us deciding to choose the harder path, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Then there are the moral questions Hochschild poses—the crux of every human rights issue ever—do we aim for what we know is right, or do we do what’s possible given the political context of the times?  And why do some conflicts grab our attention while other mass violations slip under the headlines?

I did a lot of thinking about this last question just after the Haiti earthquake.  I was more overwhelmed by that disaster than I’ve ever been by a foreign crisis in my lifetime.  I kept wondering why that was.  I have no natural affinity for Haiti.  I’m not Creole.  I’ve never been there.  I don’t have any close friends who are Haitian.  Maybe it was the scale of destruction?  Maybe, but I certainly wasn’t this affected by, say, the tsunami in 2004.  Why is it that we focus our attention on some crises and not others?  Why is a Haitian, in my mind, more worthy of my sympathy and attention than a North Korean or a Darfurian?  I still haven’t come up with a good answer for this.

The expediency vs. what’s right conundrum was maybe the lasting impression from the book.  In the Congo context, E.D. Morel, the most vociferous of the anti-Leopold organizers, was often trying to balance his own deeply-held belief that African ownership of African land was the ultimate goal with the reality that he could lose everything else if he pushed too hard on that issue:

“Despite some doubts raised in his private correspondence, Morel decided to publicly claim victory.  ‘I do not wish to paint the present in roseate hues.  The wounds of the Congo will take generations to heal.  But…the atrocities have disappeared… The revenues are no longer supplied by forced or slave labour.  The rubber tax is gone.  The native is free to gather the produce of his soil… A responsible Government has replaced an irresponsible despotism.’  The one major goal not achieved, he acknowledged, was African ownership of land.”

History, naturally, has proven Morel right:


“In Morel’s writing of the period, we can begin to see signs of how his involvement with the Congo had changed and deepened him.  In 1909, decades ahead of his time and in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory mood around him, he wrote a trenchant warning of the ‘far-reaching consequences over the wider destiny, not only of South Africa, but of all Negro Africa” that would flow from the fact that Britain had set up the new, independent Union of South Africa with an all-white legislature.”

Of course, it was beyond the realm of human imagination at the time to consider putting Africans in charge of their own government.  If Morel had taken up the cause of land ownership and self-governance instead of fighting against the image of an evil king committing atrocious acts, would the Congolese ever have been freed?  Or could he have brought people around and laid the groundwork for a healthy African continent in the 20th century?

This question reminds me of another book I read recently, a masterpiece (really, a life changing book) called Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon.  It’s about the era of reconstruction and Jim Crow in the South, and argues that the glaring human rights violation of American slavery was in some ways less oppressive than the sheer terror inflicted upon African-Americans in the hundred-plus years that followed it.  The lack of political will to follow through on protecting the rights of freed slaves—by the very people who had been committed to ending slavery—paved the way for levels of economic, psychological, and physical devastation that are still being worked out.

By nature, I’m pretty temperate, and I tend to look for workable solutions to problems rather than holding fast to all-or-nothing positions.  Sometimes that’s the right path, but that position is much easier to take when it’s not my rights being violated.  As MLK said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.  There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.  I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

March 3rd, 2010

White People Shouldn’t Wear Dreadlocks, Part II

David’s got a characteristically brilliant follow-up on the theme I discussed below about western appropriation of non-western cultural artifacts and authenticity (a theme I originally “appropriated” from him–see how that works?).  Ever since I wrote that post, I’ve been meaning to revise/clarify in the comments, but now that he’s called me out, I figured I might as well do a whole new post, not least because there’s other stuff he raises that’s also got me thinking.

Anyway, first things first: I’m regretting my sloppy characterization of white/asian kids who wear dreadlocks.  I thought my post sufficiently made clear that my initial reaction was a gut reaction–I hadn’t really interrogated it.  I also think, in the context of our conversation in the Berkman kitchen, that we were talking more about superficial fashion trends more than getting into the depths of cultural meaning so in my own defense, I sound like more of an asshole out of context than I did at the time (at least I hope).

The ensuing conversation (including some behind-the-firewall chats on Facebook with Georgia) forced me to come to a more sophisticated explanation for my gut reaction; what I’ve come up with is that it’s all about motives.  Though I’m wholly unequipped to judge individual motives (and is one of the things that made me uncomfortable with my original post), I do think there’s some number of people who are driven by “I want to look cool” when they grow dreads or get an asian tattoo or wear assless chaps.  That bothers me because there’s a respect for the original culture that gets lost, but more than that there’s an intrinsic rejection of your own identity. 

David asks what being authentic really means.  For me it’s about embodying your lived experiences.  That’s why where you come from is so important in this equation—whether we like it or not, it’s part of our experience; we bring it to the table along with all the other experiences we encounter as we chart our lives.  (Related tangent: Does anyone really believe Beyonce is being authentic when she sings You Oughta Know?  I mean, she was good, but let’s be honest—she’s never had her heart broken.  Alannis on the other hand…)

Ultimately, I think I’m really advocating for people actively seeking out new experiences, while making sure the place they come from is based in what they already know.  If there’s anything I hate more than white dreadlocks, it’s people who revel in lack of experience (aka: ignorance).  There’s a certain amount we can’t help—our family, our home town, etc.—but there’s so much we can.  I just think along the way we shouldn’t throw away everything that led up to us being able to choose our lives. 

A couple other random thoughts that I’m too lazy to incorporate into coherent paragraphs:

*I loved the post David linked to about the commodification of authenticity (and I must plead guilty to the “authentic travel experience” thing).  What does it mean when cultural artifacts start getting marketed?  What’s the difference between exporting Baywatch and importing anime?  And with respect to travel, what does it mean to really have an authentic experience in a foreign culture?  Can it be done in a week?  If so, how? 

*I’ve got some personal discomfort around this issue because sometimes I feel like, because I’m brown, I get a free pass that I shouldn’t necessarily get.  I had a conversation with Mario and his cousins last week about the difference between assimilation and acculturation among Hispanic immigrants; as minorities become the majority in the US, what does that mean for “western” culture, which we often think of as white?

*Something Georgia said is really sticking with me: what does it mean when a cultural artifact is sufficiently incorporated to another culture that it is, in fact, authentic for that second culture to claim it? 

Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to American Idol for my weekly dose of American authenticity.  For the record, one of the final contestants is a white girl with dreadlocks and she can fucking sing.  She showed me I guess.

February 20th, 2010

Thought for the Day

You know that feeling you get when you finally, after many attempts, get the thread to go through the g-d’ed needle hole? At 29, I feel that way. I spent my twenties approaching the needle from every which way, poking my fingers, getting really frustrated, threatening to give up. On the cusp of my thirties I can’t wait to get to work sewing it all up.

(I blame the insanely nice-for-February weather and a really gratifying message I found in my inbox this morning–more on that later this spring–for this little piece of inspiration).

February 19th, 2010

White People Shouldn’t Wear Dreadlocks: Thoughts on Appropriating Culture

There was a debate over lunch in the Berkman Center kitchen today over whether white people (or Asian people, for that matter) should wear dreadlocks. I’m of the opinion that it’s a terrible idea, though at the time I couldn’t really articulate why without sounding like I was being snotty and judgmental. My gut reaction when I see a white kid with dreadlocks is to roll my eyes–this kid is trying way too hard to be something he’s not. What I think is behind that is something my friend David raised on his blog earlier this week: Western appropriation/importation of cultural memes from other countries. (Note: I *think* we’re still friends though I have to wonder after his blanket denigration of female/male friendship at the beginning of his post).

There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about what counts as Western importation: David thinks the list of Western imports would be short, though I think I’m with Nick. There are TONS of things that we’ve imported from other cultures. The problem is, like with white kids wearing dreadlocks who CLEARLY aren’t rastafarians no matter how much Legend they’ve listened to, we don’t also import the cultural meaning behind them. I’m sure it’s all well-meaning, but it’s also really clumsy. First, it smacks of trying to run away from who you are. As much as we may not like it, where we come from matters. I’m all for cross-cultural appreciation, but there are ways to enjoy and appreciate other cultures without losing your own authenticity. There’s got to be a level of self-awareness and humility involved. Second, when appropriated the symbols tend to lose any importance or context and just get swallowed up into our own ethno-centric view of what they *should* mean (how many times have you seen someone with a Chinese/Japanese tattoo who clearly doesn’t speak the language?). This sort of appropriation is different from the remixing that Nick talks about in the comments on David’s post because all respect for the original meme is lost.

At the end of our lunch discussion, I was convinced that it’s not ALWAYS wrong for white people to wear dreadlocks.  Only 90% of the time.  And if they do, they better actually be rastafarians or have been adopted by Lenny Kravitz.  Otherwise, ride that good hair thing out.

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