Dear Vice Magazine: How Could You Do This?

When I was sixteen, Iris Chang gave the graduation address at my high school, from which she had graduated the decade before. It remains, to this day, one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen.

Statue of Iris Chang at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial

I wish that I could find a video or transcript of the speech, because it is difficult to do justice to it without access to the text, but she exhorted us to resist the forces of cynicism and disappointment, and told us that we had the power to change the world, and somehow managed to make it seem more like a road map than a collection of graduation-day platitudes.

At the time, Iris was only thirty, but she had already published two books, including The Rape of Nanking, a meticulously-researched account of Japanese atrocities during their conquest of that city during World War II. At sixteen, I was not yet planning to go into the human rights field, but I remember watching her give that speech, and thinking that if I grew up to be someone like her, who did the things that she did, that would be something to be proud of.

Many times, since then, I have thought about her speech when I have felt tempted to be the kind of person who just gets on with life and doesn’t bother reaching for something better. At those times, I have remembered seeing her, up on that stage, telling a room of fascinated children that we would have moments when cynicism and surrender seemed like attractive options, but that she believed we would be strong enough to overcome them. And then I have decided that cynicism can wait for another day.

I am not the only one she affected that way. Author Paula Kamen once wrote in Salon about turning “Iris Chang” into a verb, meaning to think big. She encouraged her university students to “Iris Chang it”: “Just decide what you want and go get it. To the point of being naive.”

This isn’t a funny post, because six years after she gave that graduation speech, Iris Chang killed herself.

And then this week, for reasons beyond my understanding, Vice Magazine decided that the way to remember her, and the personal costs she bore in her attempts to stand in solidarity with the victims of horrific crimes, was to publish a photograph of a fashion model reenacting the scene of her suicide. Which was accompanied by a caption explaining where to buy the outfit the model was wearing. And which was part of a multi-page spread called “Last Words,” which also contained stylishly accessorized reenactments of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen, and of one of Dorothy Parker’s unsuccessful suicide attempts.

Iris had a son, who was two years old when she died, and is only eleven now. She had a husband, and parents, all of whom are still alive. If seeing the photo was enough to make me burst into tears, I can only imagine how her family must have felt when they saw it. (I fervently hope that they did not). There is no question in my mind that Vice did her family a disservice when they decided to publish it.

But the magazine’s decision to publish this spread was also a disservice to its readers. Iris and the other writers depicted in the spread have expanded our world through their work, and made it a more interesting, vital, and just place. Vice could have depicted them in a way that honored that work, and encouraged their readers to seek it out, thereby making their own worlds bigger and more exciting. Instead, it depicted them as nothing but a group of high-gloss deaths, good for selling clothes and not much more. There was nothing about that photograph that would lead someone to, say, read Iris Chang’s Atlantic piece on the “Oskar Schindler of China.” How unfortunate that is. I cannot understand why anyone in the writing business would want to so undermine the value of extraordinary writing, but apparently Vice did.

Vice has removed the article from their website, and replaced it with an unimpressive apology of the “sorry you felt offended” variety. I hope that they will do more than that to make this right.

Greetings from Guatemala!

Hola from the Land of Eternal Spring/Land of Eternal Shenanigans in Genocide Trials. That’s right – I’m in Guatemala.

Yesterday morning I went to observe the Rios Montt/Rodriguez Sanchez genocide trial. (Why, what do you do on your vacation?)

The highlights:

  • Rios Montt’s entrance. He shuffled into the room, looked around, and then walked over to the prosecution table and shook hands with each lawyer, one by one, before waving and blowing them a kiss. It was so bizarre that I still can’t quite believe I saw it, but I’m reasonably certain that I did. I was too far away to hear their conversation, but Xeni Jardin was closer, and she said that it was “mostly small talk.”
  • My successful achievement of a nearly 1/1 correlation between “hours spent on an airplane” to “minutes of trial observed.” After Judge Barrios called the hearing to order, she explained that Rios Montt’s attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, had called her this morning to complain that he was suffering from “problemas de salud,” (health problems) and would therefore not be attending the hearing. Without him, it could not proceed. (The judge’s decision to temporarily eject Garcia Gudiel at the beginning of the trial has proven to be a problem for the tribunal. So, unsurprisingly, she seemed unwilling to take any risks, even though the lawyer’s sudden “illness” is highly suspect.) I think the whole thing took about six minutes, from “all rise” to the dismissal for the day.
  • The dress code: jeans and linen for the human rights lawyers. Suits for prosecutors and defense lawyers, and a couple of nervous-looking students in the audience. (I wore my usual NYC work clothes, which led to me being mistaken for one of the aforementioned nervous students. Oh well.) Spectacular traditional dress for the Ixil women, but button-downs and slacks for the Ixil men. And one extremely snappy red skirt suit for Judge Barrios.

Africa, Land of Rape OR Lions?

Is this the result of the lion lobby getting wind of our popular post tag, and making an effort distance “lions” from “rape”?

From the AP, the story of an adolescent girl being saved from rape and forced marriage by three Ethiopian lions:

“A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.

The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa.

She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.

“They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest,” Wondimu said.
“If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage,” he said.”

You heard it here first, folks. In the battle against sexual violence, lions are the new camcorders.

(H/T Melinda.)

WTF Friday, Princeton Edition

This advice, from a Princeton alumna to the young women who are studying there today, is pretty much the worst:

“Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there.”

You see, “[m]en regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated.  It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty.”  Women’s possession of erudition, on the other hand, is apparently unforgivable to the dudelier sex:

“Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

One wonders if Patton believes that there’s a sliding scale for women who are super-duper-exceptionally pretty.  What if a girl looks like Natalie Portman?  Would that be enough to make men “forgive” the fact that she’s also able to think like Natalie Portman – herself a Westinghouse semifinalist, Harvard graduate, and Oscar winner?  Or should we just conclude that Nat landed Benjamin Millepied by laughing at all his jokes and complaining that math is sooo hard?

Lest any of you think that I’m being too harsh, and Patton is really delivering a message about the benefits of creating a lifelong partnership with an intellectual equal, she then gets down to brass tacks, telling the young women of Princeton that they’d better be “nicer” to the men around them before they get too old to be appealing.  And by old, she means “22″:

“Here is another truth that you know, but nobody is talking about. As freshman women, you have four classes of men to choose from. Every year, you lose the men in the senior class, and you become older than the class of incoming freshman men. So, by the time you are a senior, you basically have only the men in your own class to choose from, and frankly, they now have four classes of women to choose from. Maybe you should have been a little nicer to these guys when you were freshmen?
If I had daughters, this is what I would be telling them.”

Snark aside, this is tremendously sad. I don’t have any daughters, but I do have younger sisters, cousins, and nieces, and it pains me to think that any of them would judge their lives and successes by how palatable they had made themselves to “worthy” men. And it seems like there was also a time when it would have pained Patton herself. In this earlier letter to the Princetonian from 2006, Patton paints a very different picture of her values. She describes the courage and independence it took for her to get a Princeton education in the first place:

“It was a spring day in 1973 when I received my acceptance letter to Princeton’s Class of 1977. It was the affirmative answer to a prayer I could only whisper. It was the promise of a life beyond the Bronx. There should have been great joy and hearty celebration at home. I had forgotten until this week that my admission to Princeton was joyous only to me. It was upsetting and shameful to my parents.

I would be the first woman in my family to attend college. The necessity of my continued education eluded my mother and father. My leaving their home before marriage was an utter disgrace to them. Princeton was unknown to my parents. They saw no honor in my admission to such a prestigious institution, and they were confident that I should be investing myself in other things. It wouldn’t have mattered where I wanted to go away to school. They were adamant that a young girl’s place is in her parents’ home, until she is in her husband’s home. European immigrants and concentration camp survivors, my parents couldn’t understand why at 18 years old, I didn’t direct my efforts towards finding a mate.

As a very young child, I understood that my parents were different. The memories of Auschwitz for my mother and Bergen-Belsen for my father would haunt them all their lives, and often render me feeling more than one generation removed from them. The explanation of how I would benefit from a Princeton education fell on their deaf ears and paled in comparison to their fear of the horrors that could befall me if, as an unmarried daughter, I lived other than under their roof. They wanted nothing to do with my college application and refused to sign the required financial documentation. For many years, filing my application to Princeton as an emancipated minor made me feel strong and independent.

Thirty-two years later, I feel sad that my parents couldn’t accept the pleasure and pride of having a daughter at Princeton. Through loans, grants, and working multiple jobs on campus and during summers, I paid my own way through school. The cost of a Princeton education today is more than 10 times what it was in 1973. I have long dreamed that someday I might be the proud parent of a Princetonian. It will be a (very expensive) pleasure to pay my son’s University bill.

All freshmen begin their undergraduate experience hoping that they will fit in, make friends, and succeed academically. I remember that the support and encouragement from family was often the thing that carried my classmates over their early adjustment hurdles. I was fortunate to find a sympathetic roommate (the granddaughter of an Orthodox rabbi), a caring Schools Committee alumnus (who has remained a lifelong mentor), and happiness singing and dancing with the Triangle Club.”

That is not the life story of a woman who only cared about getting an MRS degree.

What happened to the Patton of 1973, who was willing to sacrifice so much to achieve her dreams of education, instead of “direct[ing] her efforts towards finding a mate”? The Patton of 1977, who became president of her graduating class? The Patton of 2006, who wrote about her own accomplishments, and her son’s, with such obvious and well-earned pride?

If only one of them could have attended that Women in Leadership conference.

(H/T Jezebel.)

WTF Friday, 3/22/2013, Iraq Warlord Pet Edition

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, we bring you a very special edition of our long-abandoned Warlord Pets series.

RIP Barney, Dubya’s White House Dog:

Barney the terrier lived at the White House during both of George W. Bush’s terms.  He died of lymphoma six weeks ago.  It is not known whether he was a supporter of the Iraq war, but he was certainly a constant companion to the guy who started it.

(Perhaps Dubya’s dog paintings are really therapy to help him ease his grief at Barney’s passing?)

(Barney photo via Wikimedia Commons)

WTF Friday, 3/8/2013, Somalia-Yet-Again Edition

This week’s WTF Friday goes to Somalia (again), for its continued ability to take a ridiculous situation and make it so much more ridiculous.

Somali journalists protest the imprisonment of their colleague. Photo credit: Badri Media

For those just tuning in now, a recap: members of the Somali security forces allegedly raped a woman last August. She told her story to a journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim. When she reported the rape last February, the Somali government arrested her and subjected her to a two-day coercive interrogation without a lawyer, during which they allegedly forced her to give up the names of any journalists she had spoken to about the rape. The police then arrested Ibrahim, and brought criminal charges against both him and the alleged victim. Then, for good measure, they also threw in charges against the woman’s husband, and two acquaintances of hers who were accused of introducing her to journalists. A lower court convicted both the woman and Ibrahim of “insulting a government body,” and sentenced each of them to one year in prison.

How could this situation get any more ridiculous, you ask? Were costumes perhaps involved, or a salad featuring both mayonnaise and jell-o as ingredients? Take it away, Human Rights Watch:

“On March 3, 2013, the court of appeals upheld a lower court’s conviction of journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, but reduced his sentence from one year to six months. The judge stated that Abdiaziz Abdinur had not respected the laws of the country and the ethics of journalism by not reporting his interview with the alleged rape victim. It is unclear what laws specifically he is found to have violated.”

That’s right – while he was first convicted of “insulting a government body,” even though he never actually published his story, his conviction was upheld on the basis that he failed to report the story!  Attention all journalists in Somalia: if you are either reporting or not reporting a story, you are probably committing a crime.

(There is a small silver lining here: the conviction against the alleged rape victim herself was vacated on appeal.  I am very pleased that she is now free, but in light of the above, I will not be awarding any Lucky Charms to the appeals court.)

WTF Friday, Hashtag Edition

Stay classy, conservatives: the hashtag #LiberalTipsToAvoidRape spent much of this week trending on Twitter.

Some choice excerpts:

And a special WTF for Fox News’s Dana Perino, who apparently couldn’t come up with a better #ff than the creator of the hashtag, @SooperMexican:

(Mother Jones has a good description of the hashtag’s origins here.)

On That New “Half the Sky” Game

The New York Times reports that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half The Sky Foundation is coming out with a Facebook game:

The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game.

Ten dollars, for example, will help buy a goat for Heifer International; $20 will help support United Nations Foundation immunization efforts.

To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed $250,000 to buy real-world operations from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read, respectively.

[...]

Asi Burak, also co-president of Games for Change, said the hope is to draw two million to five million players, persuading 5 percent or more to donate. Players can play at no charge, but they will make faster progress through donations.”

I will hold off of judging this specific game until I have a chance to play it. (It doesn’t come out until March 4th, so it’s not really clear to me why the PR push is beginning now, approximately 179 internet-years in advance of that date).

However, is it just me, or does it seem like using the game for both awareness-raising and fund-raising is a strategy that is kind of at war with itself?

To encourage people to donate, the slow, no-donation path through the game needs to be annoying enough to prompt people to pay for the quicker progression – except that will probably also mean that a substantial number of gamers will neither donate nor complete the game. They will just stop playing, and go back to a non-educational game that’s designed purely to maximize addictiveness and fun. (And which may also offer charitable donations, via the various Zynga.org efforts.)

Basically, charities who use these educational change-making games remind me of parents who sneak vegetables into their kids’ food. Is a brownie that contains spinach more delicious than spinach alone? Probably. Is it, therefore, a decent spinach-delivery device if your end goal is to increase total spinach consumption? Sure. But it’s still less delicious than a regular spinach-free brownie.

If the spinach brownie is free, and the regular brownie isn’t, there is probably some constituency of spinach-hating children who will be like “fuck it, still a brownie, I’ll take five of them please.”  (The imaginary children I know may swear like sailors when speaking to adults, but they never forget to say please.)

But if your theory is that kids can be convinced not only to eat the spinach brownies, but to first buy the spinach brownies from a bake sale that also offers delicious, non-spinach-smuggling regular brownies – then you’ve lost me.  What kid who has to be tricked into eating spinach in the first place is going to take you up on that?

That’s roughly where I stand on this game.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find myself a spinach-free brownie.

Is Brooklyn Cuisine Just an Elaborate Practical Joke Now?

Does anyone still believe that hipster restaurants are really eateries, as opposed to conceptual art installations and/or elaborate social psychology experiments? If you answered “yes,” then I dare you to identify which of the below statements are not lines from a recent review of an institution claiming to be a restaurant (answers after the jump):

  1. “He’s a peer of the Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, who conjures up strange delicacies from all sorts of primal ingredients (pig’s blood, cow’s bones, wet forest leaves, etc.)”
  2. “My favorite course was a plate of locally-sourced loam with mucosal kombucha. The accompanying homemade pickles are a $9 supplement, but shouldn’t be missed – their tangy crunch harmonizes perfectly with the heavy funk of the main plate.”
  3. “Or so I thought to myself as I pondered a pair of crimson-colored cracker­like objects, which, our lumberjack waiter gently informed us, were made mostly with dehydrated pig’s blood.”
  4. “Although I was initially skeptical of the hay-roasted herring livers, the presentation – in which the still-smoking bale is brought to the table in a brazier and the diner is offered a pair of antique Norwegian elk shears with which to remove the charred morsels from the ashes – won me over.”
  5. “The next course is a mulch-y concoction of root vegetables (salsify, lichen curls) served with the yolk of a single egg, which tasted bracing in a faintly medicinal way, despite looking, in the words of one of my city-slicker guests, like “something you’d find in the puddles of a tree stump after a rainstorm.”

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What If We Responded to Sexual Assault by Limiting Men’s Freedom Like We Limit Women’s?

Calls for Men to Be Blindfolded in Public
In response to claims that men are unable to restrain themselves from committing rape if they see women in skimpy clothing, members of law enforcement agencies around the country have called for men to blindfold themselves when they are in places where they might encounter a female wearing a tank top or a short skirt.

“For years, we have been told that men don’t understand how to respond to the sight of a woman wearing, say, gym clothes – that as far as they are concerned, if they can see the outline of her body, then that’s an invitation to sex that they are simply unable to refuse,” said one police chief. “If that’s true, then we have no choice. We want women to be safe, and there is apparently no way for some men to reasonably restrain their own behavior once they catch a glimpse of cleavage, so all men will have to cover their eyes while working out, going to bars or clubs, or relaxing at the beach.”

Popular radio “shock jocks” Skeezer and the Gooch have gone even further, arguing that men should be blindfolded at all times while in public, on the grounds that “it’s not just skimpy outfits, some dudes get turned on by random stuff like women wearing athletic jerseys and sneakers,” making situation-specific blindfolding insufficient to preserve women’s safety.

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?
A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

Time to Admit That Some Jobs May Just Be Too Dangerous for Men?
Recent allegations that Jimmy Savile raped numerous children while working as a television presenter for the BBC, have led to widespread calls for television stations to avoid allowing men to do similar jobs.

“We know that not all men are rapists, and that some men can probably be trusted to present tv shows safely,” said the director of Televisions Within Borders, a professional group that promotes the welfare of TV hosts and the people they cover. “However, now we know that some men can’t. And why take the risk? There are plenty of qualified women who can do this job instead.”

Voices from the blogosphere agree. “You wouldn’t send a cocaine addict to do a Good Morning America segment about a big pile of cocaine,” said a blogger who calls himself “UltimateMindz.” “Letting men be TV presenters is basically the same thing.” That post has since been shared more than 180 times on twitter, and has garnered nearly 2000 Facebook “likes.”

Supporters of this movement point to the fact that there has not been a single recorded case of a football coach raping a child since all college football coaching staff were replaced by women after last year’s Penn State abuse scandal.

Deans of 25 prominent journalism schools have taken a more moderate position, however, urging television programs to do more segments on bodybuilders and military contractors – subjects who are seen as safe for male presenters to interact with because their physical strength leaves them less vulnerable to assault. That way, the deans argue in a widely-circulated letter, male presenters may be able to remain in their jobs, albeit in a role with less visibility and almost no opportunity for advancement.

(If you’re wondering where this post came from, see, e.g., here, here, here, and here.)