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December 11 2011


We Did Overcome: Hillary's Landmark Speech

Lyndon Johnson's journey from the political precincts of segregated rural Texas to the moment in 1965 when he told the American nation "we shall overcome" was a long one, yet the great moments of advances in freedom are best seen in the changes, in the evolution of thinking. The long struggle for equality in sexual orientation doesn't hold the same century-long existential question for the country as a whole, but it has nonetheless been an accelerating freight train of social change in the last decade, a welcome success in the process of smoothing of the rougher, unfair, immoral edges of our society. And the fragrant, flowering success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has given us all proof in dark challenging times that there still exists a willingness in the American spirit to rethink ourselves, to stride into the future with purpose, and to pursue a more perfect union.

And last week, the Obama Administration provided its LBJ speech in that long struggle - and signaled its evolving commitment to linking gay rights to its wider human rights agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a non-supporter (yet) of full gay marriage and a one-time supporter of the Clinton White House Defense of Marriage Act, threw both her not inconsiderable personal international stardom and the full weight of U.S. foreign policy behind supporting equality for homosexuals - and more importantly, condemning those nations who turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Republican reality show mess that passes for that sad, obstructionist party's nomination process, the speech didn't get the domestic media play it deserved. Yet it marked a high point of the Obama Administration, and showed the keen coordination that has become the extraordinary relationship between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, formerly bitter rivals. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton formally declared the fight against discrimination against homosexuals a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.

"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," she said. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority."

Then she took dead aim:

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

In a word: bravo! It's hard to beat the reaction of Dan Savage (with his implicit political message) in HuffPo: "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."

At Feministing, Easha Pandit praised the speech, especially its muscular and clear-eyed culture message.

I particularly value the connection of social justice issues to human rights language. It’s a powerful statement. This language and the leverage of American diplomatic efforts are vitally important, they give the issue visibility and legitimacy. I particularly appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call for the freedom of expression. She said,

“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.”'

Pandit rightly pointed out that U.S. domestic policy still has a ways to go before both anti-gay violence and discrimination disappear from these shores, politely emphasizing the Obama Administration's own slow boat evolution. Yet radio host and gay rights activist Sandip Roy saw a clear lack of hypocritical nagging in Secretary Clinton's landmark speech.

But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:

"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"

That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.

Secretary Clinton's address in Geneva was strong, dramatic and historic. But it was also given more import with the release of a White House memorandum over President Obama's signature that explicitly ties the U.S. emphasis on human rights to gay rights in our foreign policy. While American foreign policy in general in far from a perfect expression of freedom and civil rights, this is a time for applause and good feeling. Compare Secretary Clinton's address and the sickening, gay-baiting pseudo-Christian political ad released this week by former GOP frontrunner Rick Perry and you'll glimpse the vast contrast between the team we have - and their potential successors. As Leslie Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal said: "A vision of equality and human rights for LGBT people has taken hold, and the number and power of those who promote that vision is growing. It may be a heavy boulder up a steep hill, but many people are pushing history toward the full recognition of LGBT human rights under the law at home and around the world."

Is there a more noble goal for a superpower's foreign policy?

October 17 2011


The Entrepreneurs of #OccupyWallStreet

A month into this, all became clear - and not just because Occupy Wall Street set up camp three blocks from where Jason Chervokas and I ran a small news operation that covered digital start-ups in the 90s (though it helped).

Occupy Wall Street is a start-up. And it is deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if Silicon Alley venture capitalists like my friend Fred Wilson - who is publicly intrigued by the protests - are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than surf the crowd of social entrepreneurs sleeping under tarps in Zuccotti Park.

Unlike the bankers and Wall Street firms, who rely on fixing the game in Washington and public bailout money to lock in their billions, the scraggly and gritty start-up team at Occupy Wall Street steers much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson - and even to the capitalist penny passion plays of Horatio Alger. Who has done more with less? The young organizers of Occupy Wall Street - or Jamie Dimon? Who gets a higher return on capital (both social and the green variety) - the marchers on Broadway or Lloyd Blankfein?  The bankers are essentially oligarchist socialist types these days, looking for handouts from the government. The protesters? They've got their wits, their sleeping bags, their energy, and their American dream.

Where's the better ROI?

Now, Occupy and its sister spin-offs do not lack in advice after a month of stunning success in spreading their story. Get a message. Get public leaders. Join organized labor. Work for Democratic candidates. Get a message (this is the most popular). But all this sounds exactly like the early days of Twitter to me. Do this, be that, fit into our idea of what you should be. And this is where Fred Wilson's longstanding advice to Internet entrepreneurs is instructive: time and again, he's urged startups to focus on building usership and serving customers. The revenue model will be there, if you do those things right.

And in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the "revenue model" is - broadly stated - changing public policy.

But that's a question for father down the road, much like Twitter in 2006. The focus on growth is the right one. And right now, Occupy continues to grow. Micah Sifry has been tracking social media metrics; on Friday he posted that OWS had doubled in size over the previous eight days, while also noting that the spike in original attention had moderated somewhat.

I think it's also clear that the Occupy movement has moved beyond its "early adopters" - protest-ready young people, online activists, anarchist hacker types, alternative media, and the social media chorus for distributed protest movements. Combine Micah's Facebook metrics with some anecdotal experience and I think the picture is of a startup that is close to its mass adoption moment.

But to carry the startup analogy a step farther, Occupy is also at the point where the sharks begin to circle, sensing a potential hit in the marketplace. This is where things get tricky for successful startups: do you go for that round of capital (in this case, human and social capital from unions, nonprofits, and existing political organizations)? Are you tempted by merger or acquisition? How long is the runway? Because Occupy is so decentralized and leaderless, these questions will undoubtedly have to wait. Yet it was troubling this past weekend to see Wikileaks founder Julian Assange attempt to co-opt the London version of Occupy with a speech that smacked of his unfortunate cult of personality; such an event would clearly not be allowed by Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly tacticians. Who will attempt to "be the leader" of the Occupy movement?

These are not minor questions. There is still every chance that Occupy Wall Street goes down as an interesting moment, a nice story for the grandkids, rather than a real movement that changes American policy. Very few startups get their IPO, and really, there's no substitute for winning, as veteran organizer Al Giordano advises in an elegant essay that recounts another generation's Wall Street march against nuclear weapons (one that peripherally involved your humble blogger, who admittedly, was into it for the Springsteen concert).

Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.

Last night, we had dinner in midtown before the Richard Thompson show at Town Hall. On Sixth Avenue, the police were staging a massive show of force - all riot gear, billy clubs, and vehicles. It was if al Qaeda had announced it was marching to Times Square instead of a couple of thousand protesters. Yet NYPD's gross over-reaction showed clearly that Occupy's success extends well beyond its core physical membership, its boots on the ground. It was reacting like Google to the challenge of Facebook - all inelegance, ham-handed action and almost no strategic thought. Meanwhile, the tourists were a little afraid of getting penned in by the cops. And it was really hard to tell the protesters from the - you know - "regular people." Which is to say, the 99 percent - which is the market potential for the Occupy movement.

Fueled by outrage (and empowered in part by the innovative use of technology and communications) Occupy Wall Street has burst out of the founders' garages. It embodies a real entrepreneurial spirit, even as it attacks the worst excesses of big-box, the fix-is-in capitalism. And its brand is going wide. I was standing along Sixth Avenue waiting for the cops to let us through their armored phalanx, when I overheard a midwest-tinged conversation to my right.

"What's going on?" said the older women to her spouse. They were clearly dressed for the theater. The husband answered quickly, and no malice or cultural judgment in his voice.

"Oh you know who it is, hon. That's Occupy Wall Street."

July 18 2011


Maybe We're Amazed: Tom Watson Digs In

It was a bonnie weekend for Tom Watsons in various corners of the British empire. Craggy, 61-year-old Tom Watson from Kansas City aced the sixth at the British Open at Sandwich, made the cut and played very well through the final round, exuding the class and gentlemanly behavior for which he is known (this is a man who once publicly quit a Missouri country club for excluding Jews, it will be remembered). On these shores, a certain blogger known to you all witnessed an act of British musical noblesse oblige by taking in the Paul McCartney concert at Yankee Stadium with his family, a celebratory act marking 25 years of happy marriage. Maybe I'm amazed, but Macca can still bang 'em out, and even the pro formist of pro forma Billy Joel  guest appearances couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of rockers like Jet, one of the great post-Beatle tunes.

But for real accomplishment, it's hard to beat the achievement of a much younger man, the youthful Tom Watson of West Bromwich East, which is to say, the midlands of Birmingham, the MP son of  a labor organizer and human thorn lodged fatally in the haunches of the Murdoch leviathan.

When I last saw Tom in London he was in government,  carrying the cabinet duties for Gordon Brown. But as the brilliant weekend profile in the Guardian recounted, he was falsely accused by The Sun (oh, irony!) of a role in a campaign to smear prominent Tories and received a retraction only on the day he left the confines of Whitehall.

"I took a quality of life decision. I didn't want to be part of this any more. It was taking too much toll. I had an interest in sport and the arts, so told Gordon [Brown] that at the next reshuffle I wanted to stand down as a minister."

And where did Watson end up? Why, the culture select committee, with its role in press oversight (a strange beast to Americans, I'll admit). The tale from there is pretty riveting, and my friend gives an honest accounting - here's a bit, but read the whole thing. Tenacity has its place in government:

"Two days later Nick Davies broke the story in the Guardian on the extent of the phone hacking, and John Whittingdale, the culture select committee chairman, to his credit, extended the inquiry."

At his very first hearing, on 21 July 2009, Watson found his presence on the select committee challenged by Tom Crone, legal manager on News Group Newspapers, on the grounds he was in litigation with News Group. Speaker's Counsel effectively told the Murdoch group to get lost.

"What was clear from the first hour of evidence given that day was that the executives were incredibly nervous. The interplay between Crone and the News of the World editor Colin Myler was curious. I was just trying to find out whether they'd told Rupert Murdoch about the payments, to silence people like Gordon Taylor with a £700,000 payment. They went defensive and said they had never told Rupert.

"But then they admitted that James Murdoch had authorised the payment, and from that moment I knew there was much more to this than met the eye. As soon as Myler said that, Crone looked very tense and suddenly realised a body blow had been delivered.

What's not in the Guardian profile is Tom's reliance on social media to keep the embers of this story burning. Through his blog, Facebook, and especially Twitter, Watson was able to ask public questions outside the House of Commons - questions that invariably got picked up by the cadre of journalists, bloggers, and observers who were closely following the story. It was a small but committed built-in audience for anything related to the widening (but still mainly quashed) phone hacking story. It helped the have the Guardian, England's most important news outlet, on the case, with investigative reporter Nick Davies running the story.

So tomorrow, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will face the committee. The story gets stranger, sadder, and more cinematic every day. Watson cautions against predicting too many fireworks but as James Wolcott slyly notes, this showdown has all the elements of the old Sam Ervin days on Capitol Hill. So much the better, because this story is not merely the tittle tattle of tabloid culture - it's the tale of an elected government and the national force in total thrall of a single multinational corporation and its hegemonic claws. As Watson says, the mess that the Murdochs find themselves in "is of their own making, in both conducting the hacking, and then failing to clear it up."

"Their response until the middle of last week has been dumb insolence, but they are now in freefall. I don't think they have a strategy. They are just slashing and burning everything, and anyone who was there at the time. The difficulty they have is James Murdoch was there at the time, and we know he authorised the payments to buy the silence of a victim of crime.

"It is still hard to believe what has happened over the past 10 days. It is just beginning to sink in what together we may have found out."

UPDATE: Via Jim Wolcott just now, this:

Mr. Murdoch was attending a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in early July when it became clear that the latest eruption of the hacking scandal was not, as he first thought, a passing problem. According to a person briefed on the conversation, he proposed to one senior executive that he “fly commercial to London,” so he might be seen as man of the people. He was told that would hardly do the trick, and he arrived on a Gulfstream G550 private jet.

July 14 2011


Phonegate and MSNBC's Quiet Car: No War on Uncle Rupert?

I'm writing this from the Acela quiet car (look there's Joe Biden - hiya pal!), which is zipping in whispers past the clear summer beauty of Newark backyards and the Thomas Eakins version of the Schuykill en route to Washington - where, it seems, the Beltway crowd of voices (ever-evolving, always wrong) still doesn't get it.

Latest example: MSNBC's Chuck Todd, who reacted this morning to the metastasizing Murdoch hacking scandal by comparing what News International has done in Britain to the TMZs and National Enquirers in this, our American nation. Surely, posited Todd, the unrolling of Murdoch's empire in the UK was a warning shot across the bow of tabloid culture.

But it's hardly tabloid culture that provides the most shocking elements of the Phonegate horror. The pursuit of sensationalism isn't on trial - nor should it be, to my thinking.

What's on trial is the illegal and immoral encroachment into private data by a hegemonic organization with the evident and sickening power to tell a democratic government exactly what to do.

That this should be lost on Todd isn't surprising, I guess, in the cozy confines of a Washington "journalism" culture that values relationships in the permanent governing class - the willingness to, ahem, play ball - above almost everything else. It's access baby - the location, location, location mantra of political talking heads.

Then too, there was perhaps a frisson of - oh, I dunno - professional courtesy in the conflating of the tabloids with the egregious and more frightening elements of the Murdoch scandal. It was almost like throwing TMZ and the Enquirer into the commentary was a not-so-subtle misdirection play. Yeah, we don't dig the tabs - but they're our black sheep cousins, and it's not ever going to change. Shrug. Sigh. Back to Bachmann.

While you'd expect MSNBC to be going wall-to-wall over Phonegate and Murdoch's hackers - and the implications on these shores, particularly for erstwhile arch-enemy Fox News or the Wall Street Journal - such isn't the case, at least from what I've been able to see over the past couple of days.

Yet it's that corrupt partnership with political actors that's so slimy in Britain, and clearly available for muckraking here in the U.S. Digby quickly recounts three episodes where Roger Ailes sought to use the power of the Murdoch empire to attack political enemies (including MSNBC), and then concludes:

There is a ton of stuff that we already know about Fox News' intrusion into the political process and blackmailing rivals and political foes. That's what's at the heart of the UK scandals as much as the criminal hacking. There's very little reason to believe that an ethos that so closely tracks in the one way isn't likely to have tracked in the other.

Exactly. So where's the fuss among the biggest liberal voices outside the independent and uncorrupted blogosphere? Could it be that Parliamentary inquiries into multi-national media conglomerates puts a pit into the stomachs of even "the liberal media's" overlords. Does an ebbing tide beach all boats? Or to put it less gently: too much face time with ole Rupe in Sun Valley?

And why did it have to be Patrick Buchanan, of all people, who told the Morning Joe zoo yesterday that "this Murdoch crisis is gonna leap the Atlantic like it's golden pond?"

May 27 2011


Homeland Insecurity

Of the many wrong turns this country has taken since the suicide attacks of 2001,  the use of a single word may seem small change to quibble over. Yet a decade on, and deep into a Democratic administration that has continued a global "war on terror" and the erosion of civil liberties, one word still stings and sticks like a cracked fingernail.

The word is "homeland."

I've never thought of my native country as a homeland. We are far from the homogenous society such a word connotes; indeed, homogeneity is deeply anti-American because the United States has always been a destination. Diversity is the national currency, though many don't either realize it or admit it. At our best, we are mobile and lithe - open to ideas and culture and language and change. "Homeland security" is - to my ear - something of an explicit abandonment of the outward-facing view, of an open-sourced, open-handed America. In 20th century terms, it smacks of Lindbergh and Father Coughlin and darker European movements tied to land and blood. In 21st century terms, it reeks of fear, of a national nesting instinct that stands in opposition to confidence in our system of justice. Using "homeland" for a Federal security agency was the involuntary muscle spasm that signals a deeper sickness within.

For years, I hated the word on the lips of the Bush Administration officials who instituted its use. But it sounds just as strange from the mouths of Democrats; witness Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was attacking radical libertarian Republican Rand Paul to holding up the vote extending the Patriot Act (via Glenn Greenwald):

"If the senator from Kentucky refuses to relent," Reid said earlier Wednesday, "that would increase the risk of a retaliatory terrorist strike against the homeland and hamper our ability to deal a truly fatal blow to al-Qaida."

As Greenwald has pointed out repeatedly, this was simple fear-mongering under Republicans, and it's fear-mongering under Democrats. And "homeland" is just the right word for jacking up security spending - it's le mot juste for the vast anti-terrorism system that has grown up in the last ten years.

Terrorism succeeds only by inducing an instinctive reflex of fear. "Homeland" falsely suggests that a  brutal but relatively small band of Islamic desperadoes constitute an existential threat to the republic. It goes the bland but accurate "National" several editorializing steps further. And it supports more full body scans, more extraordinary rendition, more wiretaps, more extra-judicial anti-terrorism activities against American citizens.

As President Obama begins to campaign for the second term he clearly deserves, my hope is that he'll hew more to the themes and promises of his first campaign - and begin to move away from the fear-driven policy of the last decade. President of the Homeland is a title he (and we) should explicitly reject. As Kevin Gosztola argued back in 2009:

If Obama really thinks “we cannot keep the country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values,” we the people will have to lead the way in enlisting these values.

February 03 2011


From Cairo to Algiers

Instant movies on Netflix, streamed through my son's hand-me-down xBox (he's traded up) brought me to the teeming streets of a North African revolt a few weeks ago, in my insanely prescient choice of The Battle of Algiers for a night of solo viewing on my nifty home office screen while the family chose alternate entertainment downstairs. In truth, I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's masterwork as a follow-up to a semi-recent jag through Camus, particularly The Plague and its terrifying social descent into ever-narrowing tribal circles of survival and sacrifice in the walled Alergian city of Oran.

The Battle of Algiers, with its verite style, incredible locations, and cast of mostly non-actors felt like the perfect documentary, the inside story of revolution and vicious urban guerilla warfare that even Al Jazeera couldn't possibly tell. It's rightly famous for its clear-eyed depiction of violence, and for its uncondescending portrayal of the Algerian revolutionaries. There is a "right" side in Pontecorvo's film, and the director's heart lies with a poor, debased majority under the French colonial heel - yet there is no sentimentality about the killing on either side or the brutal cycle of terrorism and reprisal; indeed the film nearly succeeds in making the viewer understand the methods of torture employed by the infamous French paratroopers brought in to quell the revolt. The lone professional among the cast was actor Jean Martin, who played a composite character, Col. Mathieu, the French commander and a veteran of both Indochina and the Resistance. He's decisive, cold, and the picture of authority and colonial arrogance - yet he seems to sympathize with the sheer bravery of the men and women he must hunt down and kill.

Made in 1966, after the Algierians won their independence, the film depicts the period before 1960, when the French succeeded at least partly in putting the rebellion down. Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a National Liberation Front commander who fought the French, it remains a crucial cultural document both in the history of North Africa and in guerilla struggles against oppression. As the Self-Style Siren noted a few years ago, The Battle of Algiers was reportedly screened by Bush Administration planners before the Iraq invasion: "Did the Defense guys really watch the full two hours of French forces torturing, interrogating, cracking down, going house-to-house and throwing their full military might at Algiers? I do hate to post spoilers, but I think Pontecorvo's film should be screened again for Mr. Cheney and the Pentagon, with special attention to the part near the end."

Watching the rebels in Egypt this week, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Battle of Algiers and its whitewashed back alleys; it's not a colonial struggle, yet it clearly involves large numbers of frustrated, under-employed, economically-depressed young people willing to die in a longshot throw of the dice for political freedom. And as Mubarak's police mounted their own violent counter-demonstrations today, I remembered the scenes in Pontecorvo's film of huge crowds overwhelming armored cars and tanks, swarming and disarming troops, and marching on government buildings. Like Mubarak, Col. Mathieu also wondered about the mob and the majority, and the knife's edge between a country's desire for order and an insurgency's desire for freedom.

"There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah," Col. Mathieu told the French journalists gathered in his office. "Are they all against us? We know they're not. In reality, it's only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it."

Mubarak, an important ally of the United States until approximately Sunday at 9 am Eastern time, may be thinking the same thing.

Here's the trailer for The Battle of Algiers - if you need a break from the live images on Al Jazeera, this is the clear choice. 

February 01 2011


The Revolution Will be Televised


You won't find it on Time Warner or FIOS or Cablevision, but Al Jazeera's English language television service is laying claim to the viewing loyalty of vast numbers of news-hungry, media-obsessed westerners following the incredible story of courage and revolution in Egypt.

More than any of the social media platforms we've come to worship with the ardent, almost physical hunger of Charlie Sheen expecting a delivery man, the humble satellite signal is rewriting the course of a region in which secular democracy is the dreamy contrast to the wakeful nightmare of dynastic strongmen or intolerant mullahs.

Al Jazeera. Television and a news network sympathetic to the cause of freedom - a polished and professional network endemic to the ethnic, religious, and cultural characteristics of the region, not an import. Remember that ten years ago, the Bush Administration targeted Al Jazeera's journalists as enemies and bombed its bureau in Kabul. Now our State Department follows Al Jazeera as a matter of basic professional pratice, and you can bet it's in heavy rotation on the Situation Room flat screens. And among those who follow international news and politics closely, Al Jazeera has become the channel of first choice; traffic to the English-language stream online has grown by 2,500 percent since last Friday. And Mohamed Nanabhay, the head of online for the English language channel, told the NYT's Brian Stelter that the site’s live stream had been viewed over 4 million times since Friday, and that 1.6 million of those views have come from the United States. “It’s just a testament to the fact that Americans do care about foreign news,” he said.

Of course, Al Jazeera's English-language service is different than its main Arabic-language programming yet we can't help but marvel at the dead-straight reporting from Egypt (before the Mubarak government shut it down) and the fluff-free style. No studio talking heads, no all-star panels, no attempt to make the television experience look like an iPad app, with anchors pressing touch screens and sliding meaningless graphics around the viewing palette. Just waves of in-depth coverage, images backed by reporting. Yes, this is what big news television used to be - a bit unfashionable perhaps among a crowd of digerati obsessed with smart phones and Quora, but what a joy.

And to use the technical journalism term, it's a hell of a story. What began with the slap of a protester's face in a remote part of Tunisia has spread quickly across the North African Arab countries and is leaking into the gulf states - emboldened and knit together by digital communications tools, but mostly powered by a willingness to confront power and by the mass realization that what lies behind (powerless poverty) is far less compelling than a mysterious and dangerous future that may include self-determination.

We shouldn't undersell the digital communications portion of this. Yes, Twitter may be playing almost no role inside Egypt over the past week, and Facebook may be blacked out, but it's important to look back further into the roots of the revolt. And there, you'll find upper middle class Egpytians and Tunisians (and connected people in other parts of the Arab world) organizing in Facebook groups. They're only a part of the story, of course - most of the anger comes from the poor and the middle class living with high prices, low wages, and no political power. Nancy Scola pulled this quote from the op-ed piece by novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin in the Times, and I think it says quite a bit about the current among young Arabic people who yearn to be both free and upwardly mobile:

Clearly, the scent of Tunisia’s 'jasmine revolution' has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?

Facebook groups were a huge part of this; democratic activists have been using the platform for years to gather support and share information. Connected young Egyptians like citizen journalist Noha Atef have been chronicling human rights abuses in Egypt for years, and disseminating the information via Facebook and YouTube. And even though the term "Twitter revolution" has the smell of the discredited about it, short messaging over networks is also a part of this - whether it's texting or Twitter or the on-fly-invention allowing Egyptians to tweet by phone, cobbled together in an unusual collaboration between Twitter and Google. Further, I do think there's something to Jeff Jarvis's suggestion that in the future, connectivity to the network of networks - ordinary people's ability to communicate - should be considered a basic human right. Of course, this raises the spectre of the vast private ownership of most of what we consider "the Internet," and the inherent weakness of private companies interested in profit standing up to governments who demand censorship or monitoring, a topic covered in detail by Evgeny Morozov in his riveting challenge to cyber-utopians (and digital centrism), The Net Delusion.

Yet there is no debating two facts out of Egypt:

1. Mubarak shut down the Internet and digital life there is at a standstill.

2. The revolution not only continued under an Internet black-out, it picked up steam.

Some of it's economic. While cell phone usage has grown wildly in developing countries and places like Egypt, where almost half the population lives in poverty, those phones aren't fancy smart phones with Web access and social media apps; they're cheaper basic models with pre-paid voice service. So while more educated and wealthier elements of Egyptian society may miss their access and suffer from a major Facebook jones, the crowds jamming Tahrir Square are powered by two alternative technologies - their feet, and their voices.

Or as a friend of Parvez Sharma put it from inside Egypt:

Fuck the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it. I don’t need it. No one in Tahrir Square needs it. No one in Suez needs it or in Alex…Go tell Mubarak that the peoples revolution does not [need] his damn internet!

But it will, I think. It will when the job of building a more liberal civil society in Egypt replaces the job of taking down the dictator, when long-term organizing and creating progressive political parties is at hand. The networks of young organizers that relied on Facebook for years will be reactivated and empowered, and new voices will emerge.

That time is not now, however. Strangely enough, this is television's time - and it's clearly the cross-over moment for the news network that Bill O'Reilly bashed as "anti-America" just last week. No matter: the Drudge Report is now sending linky love Al Jazeera's way. And this is good for our society, not just for the Arab world. In embracing Al Jazeera's splendid coverage in large numbers over the past week, we're laying aside a good portion of fear - and we're turning a page to a new chapter in the post-post-9/11 world. Al Jazeera is good for us.

Watching Al Jazeera break through this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Reese Schonfeld 10 years ago at the launch party for his memoir about helping Ted Turner create CNN.  Schonfeld recalled how the CNN founders really saw themselves as revolutionaries - and how they thought of the news network as a kind of social enterprise aimed at changing the nation's relationship to news and information, right down to Turner's  famous banning of the word "foreign." And the conversation recalled how Ted Turner introduced CNN to the world in 1980:

"We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' before we sign off."

That commitment to meaty, unending television coverage lives again, and let's hope it spreads to our sets like democracy activism through the Middle East. With Al Jazeera, the tune may be a little different - maybe they'll be singing Mawtini at the end - but the song remains the same.

August 05 2010


Goin' to the Chapel of Love

Sure, I'm happy for all the Californians who can now join the ranks of the married, regardless of the genetic soup their parents ordered up from the vast menu of life, love and "lifestyle." And darnit, if Judge Vaughn Walker's decision in the landmark Proposition 8 case wasn't coldly and brilliantly reasoned, leaving virtually no path for the anti-marriage squadrons except the strange and non-legal "it just ain't normal, judge!" course. (We'll enjoy Elana Kagan's reaction to that particular oral argument). And yeah, the spectacularly odd legal couple of David Boies and Ted Olson is a stirring Movie of the Week in the making - too bad Matthau and Lemmon belong to the ages. But I also have to agree with the sharp-eyed Roy Edroso that "anything that gets Kathryn J. Lopez palpably shaking with rage brightens my day."

Visions of same-sex in Berkeley (with the Jefferson Airplane on the stereo and the smell of patchouli in the air) will leave K-Lo thrashing on the daybed in her office for weeks to come.

Yeah, it's a good day. So let's all give thanks to Ronald Reagan of sainted memory and his minion Ed Meese for their vision in appointing Judge Walker, and Poppy Bush for elevating him to the Federal bench.

August 03 2010


Ground Zero Mosque Hell: Fiddlers on the Hoof?

That the Ground Zero Mosque in question is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque seems a convenient pair of facts for the predictable chorus of elderly, mouth-foaming Islam-baiters currently braying in and around New York to ignore. But ancient right-wing imams named Lieberman, Gingrich, King and Giuliani jerked their crinkly replacement knees anyway, stepping in time to the fiddle played by Rupe's New York Post in what can only be viewed as a revival show put on in summer stock for little old ladies with blue hair.

It's all so old, so predictable, so lame, and so utterly bereft of any principles having anything at all to do with the human freedoms this little American experiment of ours are supposed to encourage. It's a tidy little package of intolerance wrapped in yesterday's news, a little blue pill for old-timey hatred hard-ons to go with book tours and cocktails at '21.'

Then there's what can only be described as the weaselly attitude of the ADL which, as Greg Sargent points out, seemingly favors a one-mile No Mosque Zone around the site of the 9/11 attacks. And it's hard for anyone to argue with Peter Beinart's reaction to the ADL's strange move:

The ADL’s rationale for opposing the Ground Zero mosque is that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.” Huh? What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue? Would the ADL for one second suggest that sensitivity toward people victimized by members of a certain religion or race justifies discriminating against other, completely innocent, members of that religion or race? Of course not. But when it comes to Muslims, the standards are different.

But it's not hard at all to argue with Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor has stood tall in the saddle on the so-called Ground Zero Mosque - actually an Islamic cultural and community center two blocks away from the current construction site that may or may not include a prayer room - from the very beginning. Bloomberg deserves praise as well as the thanks of cool-headed New Yorkers who value our wildly multicultural city. There was zero weasel in the kind of statements the Mayor has peppered the media with over the past couple of months; here's two of the menschiest:

"Muslims are as much a part of our city and country as any faith - and as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group. This is as important a test of the separation of church and state as any we may see in our lifetime, and it's critical we get it right."


"What is great about America and particularly New York is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us? Democracy is stronger than this. You know the ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to just say no is just, I think, not appropriate is a nice way to phrase it . . . If you are religious, you do not want the government picking religions, because what do you do the day they don't pick yours?"

Can't say it better than that. Haven't always agreed with Bloomberg. But his sincere lack of wiggle and straightforward, clear-headed policy here can't be overlooked. So what of the planned Cordoba House, the American Society for Muslim Advancement and its "controversial" founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? ThinkProgress has the brief:

While the project has received considerable support from New York state and city politicians, it has also been praised by local religious leaders, Jewish and Christian. And if Abdul Rauf is so anti-American as Cheney and Kristol say, why would the FBI praise his cooperation with the agency after 9/11? “We’ve had positive interactions with him in the past,” an agency spokesperson said.

When President Bush said they hate our freedom in 2001, he was right. And some still do.

March 14 2010


Women in the World: Bravery in the Pursuit of Power

Women in the World, which unfolded this weekend at the historic Hudson Theater just east of Times Square - where Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut in 1941 - was the energetic vision of one of New York's most connected women. Tina Brown, proprietor of The Daily Beast (where I occasionally contribute), assembled this town's old guard media tribe and then some: Barry Diller, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Rose mingled with Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Madeline Albright, Donna Karan, Nora Ephron and the ever-present Diane Von Furstenberg.

"My hope is that it will help grow this important message of economic empowerment for women as the key to prosperity, and help spread this message around the world," Brown told USA Today.

Bringing together what Brown referred to as "lioness leaders" in the cause of telling stories, getting prominent people (including corporate and media types) more involved, and building a movement. Yet this movement clearly dates to 1995, when Hillary Clinton famously told the UN's. Fourth World Conference on Women that "women's rights are human rights." Yet it's a decade and a half down the road, and the horrors that women endure in fields of conflict, throughout the developing world, and just down the block continue to shock and sicken on almost a daily basis. Just a day before Women in the World opened, a young woman was savagely beaten in the bathroom of a clb only a few blocks from the Hudson Theater - reportedly for refusing the dance with the man now charged with her attempted murder.

"Sexual terrorism" carries different meanings in different settings - yet it's the terrorism part of the phrase that should get more attention. Gender itself is so vast, so seemingly non-organizable. It was no accident that Brown named the Daily Beast's conference Women in the World; "of" is untenable, yielding more of a soft-touch 1964 World's Fair exhibit of a title than a call to action. No, this gathering, for all its glamor, had a sharp point with a barbed tip. The barb that stayed caught was the quest for political and economic power. Time and again at Women in the World, I heard speakers talk about meaningful participation in governance and the world economy. This was a gathering of women not content with traditional philanthropy and corporate hand-outs, with slogans and ribbons and rubber bracelets.

Yet story-telling is so important. One of the real highlights was an evocative reading (directed by Julie Taymor) of Seven, a play that is a collaboration between Vital Voices and seven award-winning women playwrights, including that profiles seven women leaders from the Vital Voices' Global Leadership Network. Meryl Streep added Oscar-worthiness to the ensemble cast, which also featured Marcia Gay Harden, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stephanie Okereke, Archie Panjabi, Julyana Soelistyo, Lauren Vélez. Over 90 minutes, Seven moves its protagonists from the desperation and powerlessness to activism and achievement. But the overarching theme isn't organizing - it's bravery.

From Inez McCormack, a civil rights leader in Northern Ireland (portrayed by Streep with humor and a believable Ulster brogue), to my personal hero, Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan, who was played effectively by Aghdashloo, the willingness to court more violence in the pursuit of justice pervades the reading of Seven, whose stories were subtly propelled by sparse sound effects and strong photograpic images on the large screen behind the actors. Seven women, speaking for billions. Seven stories to mobilize half of humanity.

Yet in chatting with Rebecca Lolosoli just before the reading of Seven, I was struck by how quickly village-level organizing can attain a bigger profile - and with it, more of a say in the halls of power. Rebecca is the founder and director of the Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, a community of survivors fleeing domestic abuse and arranged marriages in Kenya. She wears the brilliant colors and beaded necklace of the Samburu and, though Vital Voices, has become a recognized voice for changing traditions that make women into victims. We were talking about the violence in Kenya, and she said that real political power remains elusive.

This echoed the words of Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women, which provides women in Afghanistan with shelter, counseling and job training. "Don't think of women's issues as a project - women are not a program," she told a panel on women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakzad, who courageously risks her life to run her shelters, argued that women belong at the table for peace talks. And this echoed the top global issue facing women identified by a coalition of leaders who gathered last fall in Florence under the Vital Voices banner: Lack of political will and accountability.

That technology can help even the playing field is taken as an issue of faith at gatherings like Women in the World. And indeed, the growth of cell phones and networked organizing is changing the landscape quite a bit. As I wrote in the Daily Beast last week: "The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world."

I heard many people say over the weekend that the network really matters to them - the ability to connect women in remote developing regions to colleagues in NGOs, corporations, and government provides a shorter path to recognition. Cherie Blair talked about her partnership with the GSMA association of mobile operators to get inexpensive phones into the hands of more women in developing nations, where there remains a demonstrable technology gap between the genders. But technology can also bear witness. At Women in the World, the word "Congo" bore as much emotional power as "Katrina" or "9/11" do for many in the U.S. and the reason to me seemed clear: horrific cell phone images of the victims of infamous mass rape.

"Congo" has become short-hand for sexual terrorism.

Yes, images do matter. In introducing Seven, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the story of her recent visit to Guatemala and the request of an American diplomat there when she met with a a civil rights leader. The ambassador's request to Secretary Clinton was simple: take picture with her. "They're trying to kill her." A photo with one of the world's most famous and powerful women carries some power. "Here's a woman who is putting everything there is on the line."

The story provided the perfect lead-in to Seven, which is about women who have done just that - and with success. Yet Secretary Clinton warned that "extremist voices against women's rights are growing louder." And she took a moment to update the language of her 1995 declaration:

"Women's progress," she said, "is human progress."

November 23 2009


Open Court: New York and the Terror Trials

The right-wing blogosphere is damp this morning from the threat of accused 9/11 masterminds - gasp - holding forth on "why they did it" (Fox's headline) in open court here in New York.

Quakes a snide Jules Crittendon in not his most Churchillian moment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the right of jihadis to grandstand in front of juries.” Pam Geller, as unhinged as usual, smells some kind of White House plot to help the terrorists win: "And the clown in the White House will enjoy every disgusting minute of this obamanation. Jihad attacked America, jihad is winning."

At Gateway Pundit, the scorn for New York is obvious - and disgusting - in this little throwaway line: "The 9-11 terrorists are ready to rock New York City- again." Clever. Always nice to mix the living memories of fellow citizens jumping from 1,300 feet with a cheap political slogan.

My question for our right-wing brothers and sisters is this: Why so cowardly? Why is the usually "strict constructionist" crowd so afraid of public speech in an American courtroom? Do they think that New Yorkers will somehow come under the sway of those who plotted the murder of 2,700 of our neighbors? That we'll turn jihadi? That the words of those who would plan to fly planes full of human beings into buildings filled with other human beings will somehow become a public relations coup for Al Qaeda? And why do they lust so for a Chinese-style form of justice that favors a bullet in the head and a press release?

Why the fear?

New Yorkers strongly favor public trials for these defendants and I agree. I saw haul 'em into court, and let's hear what they have to say. Yeah, I'd like to know "why they did it," deranged as it may be. And frankly, some creepy Saddam-style hanging in Gitmo will hardly avenge the deaths of our fellow New Yorkers, or bring the illusory "closure" to this act of mass violence that so many demand.

You see, I know what the right fears and it's not jihadi propaganda or an unlikely terrorist strike at the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square. No, they fear the loss of faceless and fearful monsters locked away from public view; they fear that these "masterminds" may be revealed - like the Nazis at Nuremburg - as small men of limited intelligence whose humanity was stripped away by a code of blind hatred and bloodlust. Yes, they'll look small in court - and they'll sound hateful and stupid. And perhaps, a chapter in history will close - and with it, a useful political tool. The right wing has tried to make "the 9/12" world last as long as possible for a reason.

A judge and a New York jury in open court is the way to move us all forward, out of the shadows.

November 18 2009


Empowering Sarah

There's a great little Mad Men moment in Jonathan Van Meter's detailed profile of Hillary Clinton in this month's Vogue (and what socially ambitious magazine piece doesn't have a Mad Men moment these days). "That's how it was!" enthuses the...
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