Posts Tagged ‘world trends’

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

30 March, 2009

Facebook, Democracy & World Peace

So, on Saturday, Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, who claim they are so not cool, but rather, nerdy and useful, were part of a NYT feature on the evolution and valuation of Facebook. One of the most interesting things mentioned in the article was about the recent changes that incited a near-mutiny aboard the good ship Facebook:

“The changes, Facebook executives say, are intended to make the act of sharing — not just information about themselves but what people are doing now — easier, faster and more urgent. Chris Cox, 26, Facebook’s director of products and a confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg, envisions users announcing where they are going to lunch as they leave their computers so friends can see the updates and join them.

“That is the kind of thing that is not meaningful when it is announced 40 minutes later,” he says.”

Which got me thinking about the whole “friending” thing again. Frankly, many of us don’t, really, want to wine, dine or even java with about 793 of our 817 friends. We also do not wish to be stalked by the fifty or so weirdos who friended us on Facebook. Do, say, Antonya Nelson, Cormac McCarthy, or Charles Baxter really want a mob of fledgling writers barging into their private lunch at Rouge in Philadelphia? Which is not to say they ever dined there together or apart. Or that I knew of it. Because I don’t.

The Sultans of Facebook also say that the conflict over the new design stems from the mad idea that we who helped build the site through our participation, imagine that we might have a say in its design. They respond thus:

“It’s not a democracy,” Mr. Cox says of his company’s relationship with users. “We are here to build an Internet medium for communicating and we think we have enough perspective to do that and be caretakers of that vision.”

Which is true. They do. But it is also true that true caretakers of a vision respond to the needs of its component parts. For the most part, Facebook has done a terrific job of enabling us to find our common threads and stitch ourselves cozy virtual social blankets. I have friends on Facebook who disagree strongly, to put it mildly, with my political opinions. I have friends who should be, if we went the usual route of only hanging around kindred spirits, enemies. But having found each other through our common interests or friends, we are still holding on because something probably tells us that the fuss and fury we exhibit about each others POV are really not as important as those other things that made us click “friend request” in the first place.

While they celebrate this fast and furious path to world peace through Facebook, though, Zuckerberg and Cox should keep in mind the fact that the desire for global human connections, which waits like a vast ocean at the end of our clicks and clacks, can find another river. The two and a half million souls who have joined the “Millions Against Facebook’s New Layout and Terms of Service” may not seem like much in the face of one hundred million users. But, as the saying goes, it only takes a small leak to sink a big ship.

And, for our part, those of us who wish to treat Facebook as the democracy it is, no matter what its founders would prefer it to be, should also have the intelligence to use its design – i.e. the reasonably creative privacy settings that can be fine-tuned to fit your fancy – to create a more perfect union.

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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