Even the smallest capital cities in Africa will have an outrageously opulent five-star hotel, but few command the highest point in the city like the Ducor Hotel in Monrovia – even while it sits in total dilapidation, a shell of a building where not even squatters are allowed. For ten bucks though you can enter the Ducor’s ruins and climb stairs to the top, getting superb ocean views on one side and the whole city stretching down the coast on the other. Wikipedia’s entry for the Ducor is informative and mentions how the hotel was closed in 1989 prior to the civil war. It was then damaged by the fighting and heavily looted before displaced persons moved in to squat. In 2007, the government cleared out the building, and in 2010, there were plans from the Libyan government to refurbish it into a luxury hotel once again. That plan died when Gaddafi fell and the gutted remains have remained in the same miserable shape ever since, even though plants pushing through the cracks add vibrant color. Here is a quick visual tour:
Meet Duke Appleton, an illustrator who works regularly with UNICEF. On the sleepy Sunday after I arrived in Liberia, I saw him working on this mural, so I stopped and said hello to him and his assistant. It’s a mural that tells the story of an Ebola infection and tries to raise awareness about its phases and outcomes. Here’s the Duke at work:
November 8, 2014
I arrived last night and spent my first day getting to know the team, organizing my stuff and generally ambling around town, observing. And it occurred to me that the main drag of Monrovia looked familiar. Not just from my time in East Africa, but it also looked remarkably similar to roads in parts of India, where I was last month. In fact, they all have a selfsame feel in the way that shops displayed their wares, a single asphalt track fell away on both sides to reveal dirt lots buffering shop fronts. The fixtures, the architecture, the shop names – they all had a vague resemblance, despite the countries’ vast differences. I recognized the feeling and what was causing it: we are, in some way, at the end of the world here. i don’t mean physically or even metaphysically, and certainly not judgmentally. This isn’t the end of a normalized civilization or an otherworldly universe. It’s something else: it’s a supply chain issue. The pattern I picked up was that Liberia and other developing countries sometimes don’t attract big brand names or household items. Their markets and shops draw from a hodgepodge of vendors from abroad, many of whom are small-scale or produce knock-off products that they slap Japanese-sounding names on.
Here are a few I noticed today:
1. When you don’t have big box marts around and you need blankets or curtains, you run the risk of creating color schemes that might show up at a classy brothel. The point of being on these sub-branches of the supply chain is you just don’t really have a choice.
2. And sometimes you risk getting a blanket that says (in French): “a cloud floats in the sky” while underneath, a lamb floats in the sky with a bird.
3. I wasn’t daring enough to try one, but I am intensely curious about a “Heineken Mexicano”. Please tell me you know what that is.
So yes, we are here for a very specific focused task, and we will be throwing everything we have at ending this outbreak. But there’s lots going on here, too, that doesn’t have to do with Ebola. Liberia has a fascinating past and hopefully a strong future. For now, I’m here, and I’d like to show you as much as possible from that experience of simply being here.
August 1, 2014
Even the New York subway ads get it: “If you see something, say something.” Of course, it’s implicitly clear what you are supposed to say (and to whom). You’re supposed to find MTA personnel or someone in uniform and inform them a suspicious package was left behind. And that simple ad works because of these two steps: 1. Stay informed and alert; 2. Take appropriate action. Clear enough.
And therein lies the problem with our relationship to international news.
Even as we realize, especially over the last two decades, that what happens abroad can bring back consequences, and even as information sources become more mobile and more diffuse, we are actually doing less to resolve these problems. As Lauren Wolfe points out in an excellent new Foreign Policy article, we seem to have an attention deficit disorder with important events abroad. We tune in for a bit, we get all riled up, wave our phones like lighters at a concert or a candlelight vigil – in solidarity – and then, nothing. Wolfe, taking a collective psychosocial perspective, suggests that we lose steam because we do not fully identify with the parties involved. She quotes Gloria Steinem:
“’If we knew even one of these girls,’ she says, ‘empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more.’”
But that view sort of contradicts what is happening, because we are already empathetic – that’s how we know about the Nigerian girls in the first place. It may be that more empathy is needed to sustain momentum longer, but I think the problem is that empathy is not enough.
Take this quotation from a Time Lightbox article talking about two photographers one covering Israel’s view of the ongoing conflict and the other Palestine’s.
If the media “cover this story long enough, there will be a solution,” said Andrew Burton, the photog covering Israeli soldiers. But there is that disconnect – “long enough” suggests we build up great reserves of goodwill and empathy, but then magically a solution will reveal itself?
We do not hear what exactly is that solution, and by corollary, no one actually knows how to get there (or we might be making some progress by now). Alongside the information overload at moments of crisis, we have fewer signposts for concrete steps to make a meaningful difference. So we pick up our phones. It is no surprise then that hashtags and manipulative videos resonate – that’s what we would do. That’s all we know to do.
Another example: a week ago, there was an article about why “All You Need to Know” is the worst cliché in journalism. Not just bad, but harmful, because it sets a low common denominator for understanding a given topic and creates the illusion that we can stop learning more at a certain point.
That article hits at the same problem from the other direction: because we don’t really know what to do anyway, because it is unlikely we will actually change the way things are, here’s all that you need to know to satisfy your curiosity.
To get back to Wolfe’s article, complexity is a major stumbling block. As soon as we learn more, information comes pouring in, passion, opinions, propaganda – all of that leaves us not sure where to go next or what to do with our hard-earned information. Take Syria, already a distant reality. Now add on that the U.S.’ interests in that conflict might align on some level with Iran’s, and there is instant cognitive dissonance. And that’s just one potential relationship. Or the Israel-Palestine saga: we feel for the Palestinian people and their mistreatment by the IDF, but Hamas is also part of the problem, and didn’t the Palestinian people vote them in? And Israel – how to square its policies and ongoing atrocities with its own history, its own perception of itself as an oppressed people fighting for its survival, when it is Gazans’ survival at stake? In other words, if I did want to empathize in this situation, it’s not easy to pick whom.
But above all, once I figure out where my principles should place me, I have no idea to whom I should reach out with my desire for action. Domestic issues have that advantage – maybe I take to the streets, or organize, or write some letters. But where international affairs are concerned, it is leaders and multilateral agencies that pull the strings. Even if we wanted to help the girls in Nigeria, ultimately, we have to count on the Nigerian government to take that action – and how is that working out?
I will bring up one other article that has been circulating recently: “We’re Missing the Story” in the New York Times. It is actually a preview for an upcoming book (which in itself is a strong statement about the market dynamics underpinning journalistic articles). The author Anjan Sundaram makes the point that international news reporting is declining. He laments that foreign correspondents keep their distance in cushy hotels and rarely get the real story. He says he really tried to get real story by living as the Congolese did. Yet, that doesn’t add up – if the content was of local interest and required living amongst the Congolese, then why not just hire a Congolese reporter? And if the information is meant for an international audience, are we surprised that audience would focus on topics that pull them in for their own reasons?
Sundaram switches to an economic argument: there is money for international reporting, he says, it’s just allocated elsewhere. But if you make that kind of argument, then you have to acknowledge that these news outlets are businesses, and if the audience does not see a need or use for Congolese electoral politics, then naturally, the supply will be squeezed. Because what can an American citizen really do about Congolese politics? (Nothing, I hope.) Nor will they see the aftermath, because they won’t have to live under the elected official.
And that’s what it comes back to. Empower people with the news, we say. Inform and engage, we say. But to do what? We need to be clearer about pathways toward solutions so people can use the information we throw at them.
At the end of the day, it’s like learning a foreign language, if I don’t see the need for me to actually use it, there’s little chance I will retain what I learn, so why would I bother sticking with it?
July 15, 2014
I have written about police militarization issues before and I have written about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I shouldn’t be surprised that those topics would eventually converge, and here we are.
Here is a (older) news article about a man barred from joining the police because his IQ score was too high.
july 4, 2014
If you have been watching the World Cup, you’ve probably seen the bizarre ritual where players turn toward the camera and cross their arms as they are announced in the team line-up.
When I saw them, the players’ looked blatantly uncomfortable with these instructions. Their expressions range from ‘roid rage to sulky to defrocked maiden trying to save her modesty, like this:
I was going to post elaborately about this topic but this Slate article beat me to it, in quality and quantity. Enjoy!
june 16, 2014
You might hate FIFA, but you can still love football. But if there is one thing – more than corruption – that taints the game of soccer-football it is diving, which is, of course, a form of cheating. (One minor distinction: diving is not the same as embellishing. Diving is total fabrication, e.g., a trip where no contact occurred. If there was a foul, i.e., some strong contact that causes a player to lose balance, I am not adverse to seeing the player actually fall to signal that contact to the referee – but only if a foul actually occurred.)
Unfortunately, as this and every World Cup highlights, diving and its cousin, flopping, show up every match. In high-definition, it’s even more appalling. You can see every blade of grass in between feet that never collide. So what really happens when there is a foul or an injury?
For one, your arms don’t fly outward like you fell off a cliff. You also don’t roll like you’re putting out a fire, and you absolutely do NOT have a seizure.
I recall a 5-on-5 tournament I played in college. I didn’t wear shinguards but the games turned out to be very competitive. In one play, I slammed my shin against an opponent’s also shinguard-less leg. The force of the collision sent me head over heels. It was so painful, everything stopped for me. I reacted by being in pain. A lot of it. That meant I crouched holding my shin, not making a sound. The injury didn’t break skin, but it would be two years before the numbness along my shinbone would dissipate. In that moment, I just remember clenching my mouth closed, biting my lip some. I was also aware play continued around me and at one point, my team attacked and the ball rolled toward me. A teammate shouted at me. I looked up, saw the ball approaching – and I was still in pain. Helpless. I didn’t move. The ball bounced off me. Feebly. I looked up like I wanted to run after it, but I just clutched my hand to the spot of the injury until my head was clear enough for me to stumble off the field.
There were no hysterics, no other thought than the pain I was in. In her 1985 classic, “The Body in Pain,” Elaine Scarry talks about how pain “unmakes” the world for a person. The intensity of incapacitating pain turns a person’s consciousness inward to the point where all external objects disappear – the world is “unmade.” The reactions we are seeing in football suggest comparable pain levels, but of course, that is almost never the case. Players bound back up and kick on within seconds.
Here are the things I often remark about real injuries, like this one:
– There are no shouts or screams. Your immediate reaction to a bad physical trauma is to assess and survive. You turn your thoughts inward. You are not looking around for other people’s reactions.
– Same with the limbs – they go inward, so arms shouldn’t flail out, they should pull in. Arms flying outward show clear intent to deceive, in my opinion.
-You don’t roll like a car that goes off-road in a Terminator movie. Sorry, does not happen. If you’re hurt, you know to stop moving. You don’t let yourself roll around causing more pain or damage. You get yourself to safety.
– As an athlete, if your motive is based on sporting principles (like “win at all cost”), you are usually trained not to show weakness, to bear it, especially if an opponent might target the injured area. So again, no histrionics.
What are other giveaways of feigned injury? Hands brought up to cover the eyes? Teammates telling the player to get up?