Archive for May, 2010

27 May, 2010

Media & Truth

srilanka2010-035Earlier this year I gave a couple of speeches, one at the State Department and another to an assorted collection of expatriates and Sri Lankans courtesy of the American embassy in Sri Lanka. The speech was on immigration, emigration and writing. Part of what I spoke about involved a sort of meditation on what it required of a writer who wishes to write of or about a foreign country. It involved a reference to the sort of ‘parachute journalism’ practiced by many reporters these days – supported, avidly, by their readers back home – and which describes the practice of “dropping in” on a “situation” in another country, sometimes for a couple of days sometimes for a week or two, firm in the conviction that one has the competence to understand everything that it is necessary to understand before one presumes to write about conflicts or, indeed, disasters or other catastrophes, that affect a culture not ones own. I have written about all that before, here (All the News Fit to Print) and here (Foreign Media).

As it so happened, however, that week’s New Yorker(January 25th, 2010), which I took on the flight with me, carried several excellent articles that spoke to the birth and nourishment of this phenomenon in America. The first of those was Ken Auletta‘s column, Annals of Communication (‘Non-Stop News’), which uses the Obama administration as a way of discussing the matter or, to be more specific, the President’s ongoing effort to educate and retrain the press corps. The issue, laid bare by the President in an interview on CBS’ Meet the Press, is exemplified by his comments to two journalists:

To Bob Schieffer: “I do think part of what is different today is that the twenty-four hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.

And, to David Gregory: “What gets you on the news is controversy.”

Separately, the President is said to have used the occasion to chastise a press corps that has rushed to judgment, with “instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter (Cronkite) disdained. . . . ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens.” It is certainly laudable when the President sits through a two and a half hour long service, so he could deliver a sermon of sorts to the journalists who had gathered there to honor their fallen comrade, Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, the president argued, had earned his title as a trusted news person, through decades of “painstaking effort, a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle.”

Listening to the President’s press conference today, I was struck by the relentless search for a soundbite that seemed to be the driving force behind many of the questions from seasoned personnel from the NYT on down. Indeed, minutes after the conference ended, we have this live-blogging take from Kate Phillips from the NYT, “…it remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidency – a detached, calm, observational pitch – served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.”

As far as I know, being sufficiently enraged is reserved for us foot-soldiers, for activists at the front of a multitude of battles that need to be fought and won on the ground. Detached calm and observational pitch and, indeed, clarity of thought and perfection of diction – which continue to be refreshing in the post-Bush era – is what I expect from a President. But not for journalists, oh no. For them, for the newspapers they wish to sell, for the innumerable byte and pen-and-ink venues in which they wish to spew “the latest,” the “right here right now, don’t go away” version of what is important, rage and fury are what matter.

In that same article I mention above, Peter Baker is quoted as describing the difference between beat reporters from ten years ago and today thus:

“(He had) the luxury of writing for the next day’s newspaper. He had at least a few hours to call people, to access information, to provide context. Today, as much as you want to do that, by the time your deadline comes around you’ve already filed for the Web”—often more than once. In between times, you’ve filed for radio, and appeared on TV, and maybe done a podcast or a blog. “When do you have time to call experts? When do you have time to sort through data and information and do your own research? Even with a well-staffed news organization, we are hostages to the non-stop, never-ending file-it-now, get-on-the-Web, get-on-the-radio, get-on-TV media environment.”

Which is why I was particularly heartened by this interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Lorraine Adams (Harbor and The Room & The Chair), who states the importance of fiction in adding the nuance missing from the news, something I’ve written about before here (Global Civilians). It’s a short interview, and includes both Lorraine and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News), another journalist/author who has been critical of the press, and well worth a listen.

I have just finished reading Harbor, and am deep into Lorraine’s second book. As an immigrant who has experienced the underside of what it means to work illegally in the United States (I won’t say how or why), who has felt both cold and poverty in environments where wealth and privilege seem de rigueur and the lack thereof indicative of a deeper lack in oneself, who has known that the stories from “back home” were never the stories that would be told, who has understood, above all, that the news that is presented to Americans about left-behind countries are never, ever, comprehensive or truthful, Adams’ book, about a group of Algerian stowaways in Boston, was uplifting. Not because the themes contained therein were, but because in her fiction, Adams portrays the origins of perception and the vastness of the distances between us, as immigrants, as survivors, as Americans, as well as the acute intimacy of our inner lives, both proximate and divergent, with an empathy that unfolds what is true in a way that no amount of news coverage ever could.

If I want a soundbite, there are dozens of news blogs and news-aggregating websites and personal rants that I can access. But if I want to understand the human beings behind the story, if I want to truly understand a history, I go to fiction. Harbor was one of those books. Chimamande Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun was another. Long may writers of fiction, particularly those with the skill to uncover both fact as well as moment, gift us with the truth that really matters and could, perhaps, change the world.

14 May, 2010

Birthdays and Prayers. Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today my best friend celebrates his birthday in a state, New York, which denies him and many of his friends basic rights and benefits that the rest of us take for granted.

As I think about that, I am reminded of a Fall morning many years ago, when I sat in a class on Black Women in the Americas, at Bates, and was told that we were going to watch the romantic saga that brought Vivienne Leigh to independent theaters worldwide. “Gone With The Wind? I love that movie!” I exclaimed. My friend, an African-American woman, stared at me, aghast: “But it’s so racist!” Thanks to our subsequent discussions, Mammy and Pork took up a full screen in my mental map of the movie, revealing a subtext that I, a foreigner, had missed in my awe over Scarlett’s waist and the beautiful green velvet drapes.

Recently, I revisited that moment in light of the debate over same-sex marriages in New York, and the attacks that have been made on those who have tried to bring equal rights to everybody in this country as well as those initiatives that seek to export our basest impulses overseas. In an article for the NYT early this year, Jeffrey Gettleman talks about three American evangelical Christians, who went to Uganda to give a series of talks about “curing” homosexuals:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

The end result was a law, introduced by a little known politician with ties to the U.S., called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will impose a death sentence on people exhibiting homosexual behavior. The role of individual Americans, (usually those with an agenda of proselytizing thrown in), in instigating and supporting bigotry in other nations, particularly in the recent past in African nations against gay individuals, is bad enough, but we have troubles closer to home.

Here’s the current status of human rights with regard to gays in the US: five states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont and the District of Washington DC, allow legal marriage between same-sex couples, along with the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon. Previously, the state of California granted the same legal right to marriage for same-sex couples, and then rescinded that right although it continues to grant the right to the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, although only those who were married before November 5, 2008, are allowed the designation, “marriage.” In NY, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed.

So back to that movie. I first saw the driveway to Tara projected on a screen at a private screening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from the movie, I watched a young man, Michael, who was wearing blue shadow on his eyes and had his arm around the shoulder of his boyfriend. My parents – an educator and a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service – were deeply involved in the arts community, and Michael, new to the fold, became a good friend.

I went from 7 to 17, with a dawning realization that our home was a haven for my parents’ non-heterosexual friends. Neither my brothers or I or any of our friends ever questioned their presence under our roof. Uncle Eustace, trained in England and a Brigadier from the Royal Army, a fine actor who played Alfred Doolittle with aplomb, cheered us up when my father lost his job, and commandeered an army ambulance to get him to intensive care when he had his first heart attack. I called Uncle Tony when I needed a ride somewhere. There he would reliably be, a very large gentleman in a very small red Morris Minor, on time and ready to shuttle us where we needed to go. Uncle Damian, Director of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, cleared both my American husband and me for our International Drivers Licenses. These men and women joined the many others who created the social backdrop to my childhood, coloring it with their generous spirits and purposeful lives.

It has been bewildering to me therefore, to watch each wave of fearful and vitriolic reactions to bills ensuring that the rights extended to all citizens and legal residents are not withheld from those who choose to consummate their romantic relationships differently than others. Much of the debate has been centered on God. As a practicing Buddhist who attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian missionary school, reads both the Bible and the Qu’ran, worked for the Quakers, and conducted research on the Jewish and Druze faiths, I have come to see that there really is no God who is not present in every person. Among the words of wisdom that have guided me in how I raise my own three daughters, are the words of Jesus who said, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It is difficult for me to understand how some of God’s followers have taken it upon themselves to decide that they must judge other human beings. Not for the massacre of innocents or the pursuit of material gain at the cost of destroying all creation, but for how two consenting adults choose to conduct their private lives.

In trying to understand the motivation behind these assaults, I go back to that class I took as a young adult. Ignorance is usually at the root of our most repugnant and non-inclusive political positions, but it is also at the root of our blindness to what life might be like for someone other than ourselves. I learned, by seeing that movie through my friend’s eyes, that it both left things unsaid and stated other things loud and clear. It did not diminish my enjoyment of the chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett. It did not make me stop grabbing the unyielding soil of my garden from time to time and declaring that “as god is my witness I’ll never go hungry again!” It did make me understand her experience, it did enlighten me about American history. It broadened my mind, it made me a better human being and it made us real friends, the kind whose friendship is based not only on shared activities and interests but deep empathy.

Surely our lives should be defined by the people we stand up for, not by those we seek to destroy? One of the early Quakers, William Penn, once said that “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it,” which is not unlike the verse in Colossians, Chapter 2:13-19: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

May my friend wake up someday soon to a home that recognizes that which is holy in every living being. Happy birthday, Charles.

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7 May, 2010

Respice Finem

I am over at the Main Line Times today, but if you want to avoid the usual suspects, all anonymous, unloading over there, just read the op ed below in its extended version.

Respice finem means, literally, “look to the end; consider the outcome.” I was reminded of those words as I listened to some of the grandstanding that was done by various members of the community and, sadly, at least one high school student headed for the newspaper business, at the special meeting of the school board last night at Harriton High School. The most bewildering question, as far as I was concerned, came from Professor Burton Caine, a legal scholar of considerable prominence who asked why the legal firm Ballard Spahr “had not interviewed the former Police Commissioner, Joe Daley, who was quoted in the newspaper as saying that’s as illegal as hell.” Isn’t the answer obvious? If we relied not on the evidence before our eyes, but rather, the whimsy of newspaper reporters and statements made by sundry individuals to the press, we would be fighting this lawsuit for years. Perhaps decades. (The full report from Ballard Sparh is available here.)

Professor Caine also referenced the fact that many in the audience questioned the motives of the Robbins family in filing the lawsuit at all. What struck me about his statement, which elaborated, with great flourish, the worth of lawsuits, is that an academic interest in the merit of lawsuits is quite different from the real-world impact of lawsuits on communities. Has the professor forgotten that the courts exist to intervene when all other methods of arriving at compromise and obtaining justice have broken down? We do not file lawsuits for purposes of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. We file them when no other means exist to obtain what we seek, which, in the words of the Robbinses’ lawyer himself, Mr. Haltzman, was, apparently, information, not compensation.

The fact is, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t opt out of civil discussion and rush to filing a class action lawsuit – a lawsuit whose legal credibility as a “class action” is now in question given that the TheftTrack feature’s three separate functions (i.e. recording the IP address, taking a webcam photo and taking a screen shot), were only activated on Blake Robbins’ computer and no other. Even if we set aside the fact that a team of parents, as well as one separate family, have filed for consideration as an intervening class, the fact of the matter is, the circumstances surrounding Blake Robbins are not representative of those surrounding any other student. Here is the paragraph within the report that deals with that issue:

On March 18, 2010, a group of six parents of LMSD high school students filed a motion to intervene in the Robbins case to pursue claims arising from the District’s remote activation of webcams on student laptops.5 Their proposed complaint seeks only equitable relief, including an order prohibiting LMSD from remotely activating webcams on student laptops, prohibiting LMSD from using laptop tracking technology that can compromise students’ and families’ privacy, and requiring LMSD to create and implement policies and practices for the District’s administration of student laptops. (Motion of Colleen and Kenneth Wortley, Frances and David McComb, and Christopher and Lorena Chambers for Intervention, filed March 18, 2010 in Robbins, et al. v. Lower Merion School District, et al., No. 10-665 (E.D. Pa.) (“Wortley Intervention Motion”), App. Tab 205.)

On April 5, 2010, an HHS student and his parents filed a motion to intervene in the Robbins case to pursue claims arising from the District’s remote activation of webcams on student laptops. Their proposed complaint seeks only equitable relief – namely, an injunction permanently prohibiting the District from remotely accessing laptops “in a manner that constitutes an unreasonable search of students and their families,” and a declaration restricting the dissemination of images captured by TheftTrack. (Emergency Motion of the Neill Family to Intervene and for a Protective Order, filed April 5, 2010 in Robbins, et al. v. Lower Merion School District, et al., No. 10-665 (E.D. Pa.) (“Neill Intervention Motion”), App. Tab 06.)

The second of the two young men from the staff of The Merionite had several questions most of which revolved around why the Superintendent was allowed sole access to the data, a question, that Dr. McGinley fielded with an indulgent reference to his technological ineptitude. The main thrust of the student’s comments, as well as those of some others in the audience, was why the board would authorize such an expense without understanding completely what the separate features might be. Well, here’s the answer: trust. The principal of a school routinely authorizes creative modifications to curricula based on trust in the expertise of teachers. If a principal were to have to understand every single subject before she made such authorizations, we would still be etching on stone tablets. When a president wishes to make policy on the environment, he (and, someday, she) asks for the recommendations of subordinates. In this case, the recommendations was supported by material that indicated to the persons making the recommendation, Ms. Cafiero and Mr. Perbix, that another school in Pennsylvania had used the TheftTrack effectively. The paragraph relating to that is below.

In addition, Pole Position touted TheftTrack in its promotional materials, including a “case study” of the use of TheftTrack by the Bensalem (PA) Township School District to recover two MacBooks, one of which had been stolen from a student and the other of which was stolen from a teacher.25 Noting that the Bensalem district had chosen LANrev in part for its ability to manage both Mac and Windows computers, Pole Position stated that the stolen laptops had returned 500 webcam photographs and other tracking data that the Bensalem and Camden, New Jersey police Departments used to obtain search warrants. The article quotes a Bensalem district network technician as saying: “The police were amazed at the detailed tracking info provided by LANrev. Thanks to TheftTrack, our stolen MacBooks were recovered, the culprits apprehended, and we got the last laugh.”

But more than these kinds of agenda-driven questions, what struck me as most disappointing was the tone used by the student in addressing people at least three decades his senior. There are questions to be asked, and they have been. There is anger to be expressed, and it has been. But there is something else that has fallen by the wayside during this circus and that is our understanding of what makes a good school system. It is not buildings, although they are certainly glorious, it is not a/c for Philadelphia summers and a greenhouse for potted plants, although those bring comfort, it is not, in short, facilities, but people. So what I would like to say to this boy and his peers are those two words: respice finem. Look to the end, consider the outcome. For the outcome and end is not the little media blip you get from being precocious and combative. The outcome is your own education. The outcome is the respect and care of your teachers and elders. The outcome is the stature of the school to which you belong.

The public and private schools my brothers, friends and I attended in Sri Lanka all had classes consisting of 40 students, a piece of chalk and a blackboard. All of us went on to graduate school, some of us to the finest universities here, including Harvard, MIT and Cornell. We didn’t learn what we needed to know to succeed in life from the facilities in which our learning took place. Our advantage was that we had teachers who cared about us and parents who did not see teachers and administrators as adversaries.

In the midst of all the new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment in Lower Merion, what I have seen, and what I focus on, is that same care and commitment to students that we had in our Spartan Sri Lankan classrooms, and the willingness on the part of parents and staff to consider education a task that is undertaken with mutual respect and cooperation. That, son, is a fragile but beautiful thing. When you look back at this time in your life, what you will remember is not free laptops, webcams or multi-million-dollar renovations. What you will remember are those people. Give them your respect, for without them nothing else matters. Respice finem.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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