Archive for the 'Ambiguous Tragedy' Category

01
Aug
14

if you know something, do what now?

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?

15
Jul
14

an idiocracy starts with the police

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.

16
Jun
14

the body in pain

june 16, 2014

drogba-busquets-peekaboo

Source

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?

12
Jun
14

a few predictions

june 12, 2014

Here are some early guesses who might win the World Cup –

Nate Silver at 538: Brazil

Cebecao, the psychic turtle also says Brazil

More animals

German scientists: Spain

Australian accountants: Germany

Deutsch Bank: England (!!! a.k.a., why we don’t trust banks)

Juergen Klinsmann, coach of the US National Team: Not the U.S.

So who’s the real winner here? I don’t know how yet, but it’s probably Rafa Nadal.

11
Jun
14

why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?

Enh.

If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):

2010WorldCup_Budweiser

And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.

 

Oh, and Argentina will win.

 

08
Sep
13

the never-ending gitmo

September 8, 2013

The Guantanamo/Fifty Shades of Grey debacle in the last couple weeks unraveled with reports in the AP and the New York Times challenging Representative Moran’s version of events. Here’s the New York Times piece:

http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/22/guantanamo-officials-accused-of-inventing-fifty-shades-of-grey-rumor/?_r=4

The attorney from my previous post seems to be dead on: the book was either a joke or planted by a government agent:

“A lawyer for one of the men said that prison guards had placed a contraband copy of the book in the cell of his client, Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, only after Representative Moran’s comments appeared.”

Either way, it’s a pretty damning display of hubris and callousness on the part of prison officials. With so many eyes on Guantanamo and the attendant geopolitical and human rights concerns, you would think the people in charge would act halfway professional. How do you convince anyone fiascos like Abu Ghraib were anomalies when stuff like this keeps happening?

What I’m most interested in is how events like this redound on the current relevant context. On various social media fora, I’ve seen reams of speculative musings about America’s imminent intervention in Syria. Everything from Iraq III to oil interests to regional politics to military ineffectiveness – it seems everyone is taking a few wild swings at the truth piñata. The reality as seen from these shores, it seems, is no one really knows what the Obama administration will attempt or to what end. But alongside scattershot speculation from American sources, there is a noticeable stream of conspiracy theories from various sources, some dubious and some (shockingly) intelligent. Here are some listed on Foreign Policy magazine’s page:

http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/03/meet_the_syria_chemical_weapons_truthers

I think what this points to is not that people outside the West are crazy and illogical about American intentions. Rather, I think theories like these reflect an equally appalling narrative that includes the U.S.’ admission that it orchestrated a coup in Iran or that it facilitated the use of chemical weapons in Iraq in the early 80’s – or that it is holding Muslim prisoners in legal limbo under torture-like conditions with no tenable justification for their continued detention. And for anyone who grew up in the shadow of those real conspiracies that actually happened and are still happening, their logic might lead consistently and, yes, logically, to these kinds of surreal conclusions, even if they turn out to be wrong. Because right now, who really can say with any certainty what the U.S. is trying to do with its imminent Syrian intervention or its long-term strategic plan in the Middle East?

22
Apr
13

best and worst jobs – the kind of thing you read at work

April 22, 2013

It’s unfortunate that it’s always stupid articles that provoke a post from me. But, per the previous post, I am thinking about social media and mobile technologies every day, and I’ll probably write extensively about it this week, now that I got a few deadlines out of the way. Today’s provocative post comes courtesy of the the Wall Street Journal blog, which reported on a survey by CareerCast.com that ranked 200 of the best and worst jobs. What’s interesting is that as a survey, this list really ranks self-perceptions, which means people on the lower end are really channeling their self-loathing. Keep that in mind as you go through the bottom 50. My immediate thought is, “Wow, there are so many kinds of journalists…and they all really hate themselves.”

http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2013/04/22/dust-off-your-math-skills-actuary-is-best-job-of-2013/

A couple of my responses/thoughts that I sent up on Facebook:

– Corporate Exec is 155, two spots behind Janitor. “No, Ma, I don’t want to zip around on corporate jets, I want to clean up urine-drenched toilet bowls in a public school.”

– What would be interesting is to (theoretically, like at a bar) compare jobs if you are successful in them, because I imagine (again, theoretically) that a successful newspaper reporter would have a pretty good thing going whereas no matter how a great a janitor you are, still, toilets. On the other end, a failed any kind of job is tough because it’s not the job that sucks, it’s you.