Happy Thanksgiving

24 November 2011 § 1 Comment

Enjoy with friends, family, and this classic (thanks to Raf for the reminder; the action happens after 1:15):

And this.

September 11, 2011

11 September 2011 § Leave a comment

From a blogger I had never heard of, via James Fallows:

By all means memorialize 9/11, but do so in a quiet, dignified way. Don’t saturate the airwaves with endless, over-sentimentalized retrospectives and ceremonies. That kind of overkill cheapens the event and turns genuine grief into mere spectacle. Just for once can we not go over the top? Make it solemn and proud, modest and brief. Make it worthy of the kind of people we imagine ourselves to be, the kind of people we should be.

I can’t let today go unmarked, but nor do I have much worth saying.

Love the people you love, feel that love strongly, and show it regularly. Take life seriously. A lot happens, and each of us has important things we can and should do, if we’re up to the challenge of doing those things.

As hard and sad and painful as life can be, every moment and sensation is worth the entire universe. I thank a lot of people for helping me appreciate that.

Death

2 May 2011 § Leave a comment

My first reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death were similar to those of many Americans. I felt glad that a decade-long mission had been accomplished, and I felt that his killing had achieved some measure of justice. Reading celebratory emails from friends still in the United States, I shared some sense of victory, if a little uneasily. I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch the president’s speech. As soon as he finished, I went to sleep, since today would be another Monday, and I had classes to teach.

The morning greeted me with many more emails, news stories, tweets, photos. The small sense of shared victory I had enjoyed the night before began to fade as I saw and heard about celebrations. I went about my day relatively normally today, not too affected by bin Laden’s death or the reaction to it. But I kept checking in, reading and seeing more. And I’ve become more emotional.

I don’t have too many original words to write about bin Laden, the United States, terrorism, and related issues, so let me quote liberally from others. I found all these authors through James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among my usual go-tos for help thinking things through.

The group blog Fabius Maximus (via James Fallows) wrote:

Summary:  It’s not a big event.  It might not even be good news for the US, from a long-term perspective.

Contents

  1. It’s not a big event
  2. Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
  3. The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
  4. For more information

(The rest of the post fills in those subjects.)

Kai Wright (via TNC) wrote:

Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.

“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” the president declared. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.

The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America’s child poverty rate—one in five kids—is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great.

Radley Balko (via TNC) wrote:

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—-an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .

  • [13 bullet points detailing U.S. government expansions to warrantless seizures, indefinite detentions, torture, spying and eavesdropping on citizens, and more]

I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.

But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

And James Fallows quoted a reader who wrote in response to him:

I did not find the news heartening, I found it slightly depressing. I support the action to kill OBL, and I believe that the world is a better place w/o him. But I find that reality depressing, and the fact that ‘we’ choose to celebrate his death (there were fireworks in SF) more depressing still. It reminds me how base we (humans) are. I’ve never lost anyone in a terrorist attack, so this is easy for me to say, I know.

Let me, after a day of consideration, echo all these sentiments. Today I am glad Osama bin Laden is no longer alive—but I am unable to forget the world that existed yesterday and still exists today, I see no reason to celebrate his death, and I am disturbed by that response from my countrymen and friends.

I had been meaning to share, before events of the last week, recent events and feelings inspired by two books I’ve read. A couple months ago I read The Looming Tower, a “biography” of Al Qaeda. The book is remarkable for its comprehensive, straightforward account of how Al Qaeda began, how it grew, and what it became in the 1990s. No reader can come away from the book thinking that Osama bin Laden equals Al Qaeda, or that either one is the only principal in 21st-century terrorism. Soon after reading The Looming Tower, I read Columbine, which gives similarly comprehensive treatment to that high school’s massacre, covering the school, the killers, the community, the causes (as well as they can be determined), and the aftermath.

“Reading” both of those as audiobooks during my commutes, I set myself up for an unfortunate experience: Three or four times during Columbine, I began to cry, not loudly, but visibly to any fellow bus riders who happened to glance my way.

Descriptions of kids running away from gunfire, or trying to get their dying friends out of a school erupting with the sounds of explosions, absolutely melted me. Even harder to hear about were the parents collected at the school, kept behind the police perimeter, losing their minds trying to find their kids, desperate to learn that theirs weren’t the ones who had been killed.

[In this space I wrote and deleted four paragraphs about September 11 and me. That's not what I wanted this post to be about. I'll get to that eventually, when I'm ready to really cry and write about it.]

September 11 began years of suffering that can only be described by communicators far more skilled than me. New Yorkers experienced heart-wrenching pain that day, and 3,000 families have not been whole since then. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis have lived through similar events every day for nearly a decade. Americans all over the country, and people all around the world, have suffered much less visible and much more insidious violations that will probably never end. Terrorism and counterterrorism live on. Wars, targeted and global, continue. Suffering continues. Pain remains.

Yesterday’s flawlessly executed mission was a long-sought and hard-fought victory for the United States military and intelligence community. It was (probably) a limited strategic victory for the security interests of the country. It was another day of suffering for so, so many. It is fire with fire at its most necessary—and its most futile, since neither fire is anywhere near extinguished.

The last 24 hours have seen city-wide parties across a country.

Why?

“Catharsis” is the reason I have most frequently heard today. I don’t understand.

For those who feel victory today, I ask what has been won. What will be better tomorrow?

For those who are happy today, I ask: Why is death—even when it is just—to be celebrated? What does it build, create, or improve?

For those who feel catharsis, who just feel calm and at peace as a result of this, I ask what you will feel tomorrow. What has been made whole? What pain has been undone?

My thoughts on Haiti

20 January 2010 § Leave a comment

Put better than I could put them, by channeling Martin Luther King:

For King, giving money to Haiti would not be enough. In order to be good citizens of the world, it is not good enough to just to give money, we must make sure to end the economic and social climate that led to the disaster. Here’s an excerpt from his speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

And:

So on Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us reflect on our fellow human beings in Haiti. Let us help them out with our donations, but also let’s fight so third world people do not have to suffer through the poverty that has inflamed this natural disaster. Let us be reminded of how what goes on in our own country affects the rest of the world.

A year later

29 November 2009 § Leave a comment

Another week off to celebrate Thanksgiving, another bombing:

Vladimir I. Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, said: “The basic version that is being investigated by the lead investigators is that it was an unknown device, by unknown persons. Simply put, a terrorist act.”

Official Yakunin isn’t the only one using the word “terrorism”; the Times headline throws out the the same accusation: “Russian Train Wreck Tied to Terrorist Bomb.”

I don’t know anything about Russia. I know less still about Chechnya. So I can’t say this was or was not terrorism. But from the evidence the article provides, neither can the Times. The article makes reference to recent Russian terrorist attacks, and explains this is likely another such attack:

Russia suffered a wave of attacks in the early part of the decade as Muslim separatists from Chechnya struck trains and public places in Moscow and elsewhere, but there have been no such deadly assaults in recent years.

However, another Nevsky Express train was derailed in 2007 by an explosion, wounding more than two dozen people. While two people were later arrested, their motive remains unclear.

For Russians, the attack on Friday night may be reminiscent of terrorist acts that stirred unease across the country earlier in the decade, when Muslim separatists from Chechnya made passenger trains, subways and other public places targets.

A 2003 suicide bombing attack on a commuter train near Chechnya killed 44. At least 12 people were wounded in 2005 when a bomb derailed a train headed from Chechnya to Moscow. And in 2002, more than 100 hostages died in a rescue attempt after Chechen terrorists seized a theater in the heart of Moscow.

But nowhere else do the writers provide any evidence–besides officials’ claims–that this most recent bombing was an act of terrorism. It looks like past terrorist attacks (if we are to call the violent acts of separatist groups terrorism), but how do we know this is terrorism, loaded with all the meaning of that word? Is resemblance to past events enough to explain what this event was and why it happened? Why does the Times tell us an act of terrorism has occurred without giving us any evidence that it is such?

Once upon a time, criminal acts were called crimes. Now, it seems any large crime is quickly and easily labeled terrorism. Is this now to be taken as truth around the world? Whether in Moscow, Madrid, Miami, Mumbia, or Manila, will we now jump to call any bombing terrorism before knowing who planned the attack or why it was committed? Will we remain this way forever?

A year ago today, I wrote of my sadness seeing the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings:

My god. From every act of violence, from every case of abuse, from every painful intrusion into the formerly peaceful lives of good citizens, how much collateral damage must there be? And how many ways can it express itself?

For all that I saw terrorism do to my city, I did not see people fear the next day at work, the next night in bed. No one started sleeping on guns. There were a thousand other fears, but not this one. And now in Mumbai, there is new fear in each citizen. I don’t know all the ways it will show itself — what I’ve read and reprinted is just one way — but it will hurt. And it hurts me to watch.

Once more, people have been attacked, have been killed. I hope–I can only hope–that they and we, all of us, will not live in fear. That need not be the way we live; that is no way to live. We are not necessarily living in an age of terrorism, even if terrorism happens in this age.

A couple days ago I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family and dear friends. Eighteen people in all ate at my apartment, enjoying a meal my family (mostly my mom) prepared. Family members have been here since. There is great good, and I have felt it powerfully this week. If only that could be all we were struck by. I am sorry to make yet another Thanksgiving-time post about such pain. I hope not to do so next year.

We’re post-racial!

5 August 2009 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I retweeted this comment: “ ‘American karma’ called for a black Prez, not a post-racial one.” The original tweet’s author, Michael Shaw, runs the indispensable BAGnewNotes (described on the site as “A progressive blog dedicated to visual politics, the analysis of news images and the support of ‘concerned’ photojournalism”), which I’ve recommended on this blog for over a year, and which I may be lucky enough to soon join in some capacity. More on that later, if and when there’s real news to announce.

But even if we don’t have a post-racial president, post-racialism has arrived! That’s right–it’s right here in this music video. Universal Music Group disabled embedding of the video, so I can only link to it, but here’s what it is: A 15-year-old white Canadian’s own hip hop-inspired music video in which Usher plays his bro/father figure. Welcome to post-racial America (slash Canada, I guess).

My big realization

5 August 2009 § 1 Comment

Yesterday Ezra Klein wrote this (emphasis mine):

One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers. That leads to a focus on the journalism side of things rather than the business side. But good journalism hasn’t stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable. The problem is that advertising has collapsed, and readers have moved online, and department stores have merged, and all the rest of it. If Gawker, and everyone else, was more fastidious about links, there’s no evidence that newspaper revenue would rebound.

Upon reading that, I immediately felt stupid. Why had I never realized this before? It’s so obvious, and yet I hadn’t connected the dots that way before Klein did for me.

And then I became skeptical, and felt stupider. If that’s true, I wondered, how come I hadn’t read anyone else point out that fact sooner? And why am I so willing to call it fact so quickly? What do I know, really?

Not much. I came of age in the internet era, so I speak on little knowledge when I talk about the times before my own. But the highlighted sentence of Klein’s post, as soon as I read it, spoke like truth to me. Here’s what I think I know:

  1. Newspapers made vast amounts of money off advertisements until very recently. Of course they could do so because many people read their papers. But ads, not consumers, paid for the content directly. Consumers subsidized, and made all the revenue possible by reading.
  2. People read newspapers for lots of reasons, and journalism was only one of them. People did and do buy newspapers for access to advertisements, for crossword puzzles and sports scores, and for much other content that is not rooted in journalism, that requires no reporting to obtain.
  3. Before the internet, much of this information would have been available to consumers through media besides newspapers, but: a) most content was only available through specific other media, not all other media; b) media like TV and radio, through which information like sports scores and weather has always been available, transmit content at specific times, and thus must be followed at the right time to acquire the right information; and c) no other medium included all the information that newspapers did and do, every day and every week.

I’ve started and stopped about half a dozen posts now about the future of journalism. My ideas about where journalism is headed mean nothing; I really know nothing about this industry. But, as a consumer and as a hopeful producer before too long, I’m not content to say or hear, “Journalism is dying.” Newspapers, in broad terms, may be. But we need to keep pressing to understand which forces are doing what to the news media in general, and what that means for journalism. Newspapers themselves are not worth saving for any public good; their journalism is.

So let’s make sure we know who paid for journalism and how. Klein, I believe, is on to something that gets far too little attention in this whole discussion. And, though my thought, “Why haven’t I read this elsewhere? Could it really be true?,” is a good test to put most ideas through, it shouldn’t be a stumbling block here, for a reason Klein points out in that paragraph: “One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers.” There’s no conspiracy here, but it seems silly to ask newspaper writers to admit that their product has never been profitable. Value, in our economy, is most easily and permanently determined by profit.

Postscript: At the end of his post, Klein links to this piece by David Simon in the Columbia Journalism Review (which was also sent to me tonight by a friend. HT: DGP). Though I don’t believe he’s right in insisting that an immediate paywall at The New York Times and The Washington Post is the only or even necessarily the best route for American newspapers, the piece is maybe the best, most thoughtful, and most fair analysis on newspapers’ pasts, presents, and futures. Most of all, I take from it that HBO, more than anything else, is the model to follow, somehow.

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