WTF Friday, 5/17/2013

This just in: Witches in Swaziland can no longer fly their broomsticks at altitudes higher than 150 meters.

This news comes courtesy of a spokesman for the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, explaining the aviation regulations in the aftermath of the arrest of a detective accused of “operating a toy helicopter equipped with a video camera.”

Local media seem unsure whether the prohibition was meant seriously, although one report points out that while Swazi witches are known to employ brooms to “fling potions,” they do not use them for transport.

In any event, witches: you have been warned.

It’s Books! Hooray Books!

After reading Chris Blattman’s post about it a little while back, I grabbed a copy of G. Pascal Zachary’s new book Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. It’s a collection of essays and reporting on contemporary Africa by a journalist known for skipping the heart of darkness and poverty porn cliches in favor of a nuanced, compassionate view of his subjects. (But fair warning: the Kindle edition is distractingly full of scanning errors.)

I found food for thought in many of the essays in Hotel Africa, but one called “In Malawi, Charity Is Not Enough” stayed with me. In it, Zachary, interviewing a farming family struggling to survive amidst a drought and an AIDS epidemic, begins to cry, and then just as quickly begins to question the validity of his own emotional response. “What’s wrong with me?” he asks, before launching into a list of his hardened-foreign-correspondent-in-depressing-lands bona fides.

The episode highlights the difficulty of situating one’s own emotions in the context of a narrative (or advocacy) about other people’s pain. This issue is frequently raised in criticism of Western journalism on Africa, and motivated much of the backlash to the Kony 2012 video, which focused on the white filmmakers’ discovery of African suffering. Zachary, clearly both embarrassed and sensitive to the risks of making his reaction the center of the story, nevertheless owns his feelings, but uses the moment to discuss the perverse effects of emotion-driven charity and to call for principled, sustained engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.

Reading Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries shortly after Hotel Africa, I was struck by the echoes of this dilemma. Weston and his wife set out on an ambitious journey through West Africa, but somewhere in Burkina Faso, his mental state begins to deterioriate.

For a journalist or a human rights advocate, the consequent loss of objectivity might be disastrous, but the travelogue format gives Weston the leeway to engage his breakdown directly. Instead of minimizing it, or alternately, presenting West Africa as the monolithic “thing that drove him crazy,” he uses it to shrink the distance between himself and his subjects, generating real insight into the emotional lives of the individuals with whom he interacts.

The book is full of rich detail and interesting historical anecdotes (as well as a surprising amount of political economy shout-outs) about a part of the world that most readers will never see, but its real value lies in Weston’s success at communicating exactly what he set out to discover: “a better idea of how the world’s poorest people make it through the day.” Worth a read.


Trolls Against Terror

Via Spencer Ackerman, the US government has an exciting new counterterrorism strategy:

“The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.”

Given that we now live in a world where it seems totally normal for a national army’s spokesman and a major terrorist group to get in a 140-character slap fight on Twitter, this initiative seems timely.

However, as Ackerman reports, the project is still very much in its infancy, and has hit some snags in its efforts to develop a trolling strategy (or strategies) through meetings with young social media users in Muslim countries. Apparently, young, politically-engaged Muslims are more interested in talking about how to remedy societal inequalities and injustices than in plotting how to pwn terrorists on the interwebs. It’s like they don’t even understand how awesome it is to post “FIRST!!1!” to a comment thread.

Quote of the Month

There’s a fascinating BBC News Magazine piece today about young Afghan girls who live as boys.

According to the article, there is a longstanding tradition wherein Afghan parents disguise a daughter as a son, either to avoid the social censure of having no male children, or to enable the child to work outside the home. When the girls reach maturity, they are expected to switch their gender identification and live as women.

Although some of the young women interviewed for the article approvingly cite the benefits of having had the opportunity to enjoy male freedoms, it’s clear that the transition back to gender conformity can be rough. In what has to be the most fascinating sentence I’ve read all month, a 20 year old woman named Elaha makes clear her reluctance to resume a traditional female identity:

“If my parents force me to get married, I will compensate for the sorrows of Afghan women and beat my husband so badly that he will take me to court every day.”

My favorite part is the offhand reference to courts as the appropriate venue for addressing domestic violence, but wow, what a loaded statement.

Today in Political Phenomena I Don’t Really Get…

A couple of days ago my “Death, Destruction, and Unflattering Pants” google alert turned up the news that Sri Lanka has been holding “government-backed protests” against the draft UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for accountability for war crimes committed in the suppression of the Tamil insurgency.

My first thought was “wha…?” followed quickly by “‘government backed protests…’ what are those, exactly?” And then I learned that in addition to the thousands-strong turn out for the protests, Sri Lanka’s Banks Association has released a statement opposing the resolution.

This was all a bit confusing for me, because my understanding of the UN Human Rights Council’s process for consideration of draft resolutions suggests that it is not exactly responsive to protests (popular or bank-based) within violator states. So I put on my incipient-political-scientist hat (it’s green, thanks for asking) and thought, “Well, the Sri Lankan government must know that this isn’t likely to influence the policy of international actors, so they must have some other goal in mind.”

The most plausible explanation is that the protests are aimed at domestic, not international, audiences, but I don’t know enough about Sri Lankan politics to take this analysis any further. So, someone with more country expertise, help a girl out?

I see from the AP article reporting the protests that rising fuel prices have led to civil unrest and clashes between civilians and security forces. Is this an effort to diffuse that tension and convince the public to “rally ’round the flag” against an external threat? I also see that domestic opposition figures have criticized the government for failing to stand up to the US and the UN. The objections to international interference have all been framed in terms of sovereignty incursions. Given that Sri Lanka is a post-colonial state, is this an important enough issue to the electorate that the government feels it needs to bolster its sovereignty credentials through a public display?

Anyone know what gives?

Recommended Listening: Guatemala’s Bomberos

Friend-of-the-blog Myles Estey has a fascinating radio report from Guatemala City, where he spent several nights with the volunteer paramedics/firemen who respond to emergency calls from the wrong side of the (figurative) tracks.  You can listen here (scroll down), see pictures from Myles’s trip here, and read more about the Bomberos here.

Do Improv, Win Friends, Influence People

The UCB’s Will Hines, on why everyone should do improv:

Improv can make you funnier, will likely make you a better actor, and could maybe even get you work. But one thing it will definitely do is make you better at having conversations.

You listen better, you speak to the heart of the matter more, you lie less, you speak more concisely.

But also, you will be better because most of the human race is so unbelievably bad at conversations. After years in improv, I can barely stand speaking to anyone who either isn’t an improviser or is someone who would just naturally be good at it.

Most people, in conversation, speak solely about themselves, and in a way that matters only to themselves, with no ability to sympathize for the other conversational party may think or feel. They listen to other people only for opportunities to speak about things they want to and once they get going cannot be dissuaded. They speak inefficiently and amazingly redundantly. They rarely laugh at what’s funny and instead only at what makes them nervous or at recognizable references to famous things.

Improvisers do all these things too but less often and they know enough to feel badly about it.

There is lots more here. Other posts are good, too – like this one.

(Oh, and confidential to the dude in Will’s story: Learning To Eat Soup With A Knife.)

So This Sounds Pretty Awesome…

My friend Hallie, with whom I was in a sketch class at UCB a few years ago, has sent along an invite to an event that sounds so awesome that I’m concerned it might be bait for some sort of Amanda-trap.

On Saturday, May 7, the Brooklyn Brainery will be hosting the world premiere screening of a short zombie movie made by kids at African Solutions to African Problems (ASAP), with the help of two volunteers.
Although donations to ASAP are encouraged, the event is free, and is sponsored by Chatham Brewing (“upstate’s favorite beer,” according to Hallie), Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, and Papa Bubble. Yes, that means that in addition to the kids’ DIY zombie movie, there will also be free beer, ice cream, and candy.
I wasn’t familiar with ASAP, but it sounds pretty cool. They support community organizations in South Africa that run daycare and drop-in centers for underprivileged children. You’ll note that I didn’t say “orphanages for orphans,” because they don’t believe in orphanages, and don’t distinguish between children who have parents, and children who don’t. (Both good ideas.) They operate on the belief that local communities already know what is best for their children, and so take a supportive role, and hope to make the programs self-sustaining after 8 years.
As for the film: “The kids had a blast shooting it, and the results are, well…perfect for a Brooklyn screening. Don’t expect festival worthy production values – do expect some laughs and a great time.” Or, in the words of the filmmakers, “At least our films are getting shorter and less frequent.”
When: 7-10 p.m. Saturday, May 7th
Where: The Brooklyn Brainery, at 515 Court Street. (aka Carroll Gardens, mere blocks from the lovely, chlamydia-infested superfund site that is the Gowanus Canal! Yay!)
How to get there: take the F/G to Smith-9th (2 minute walk away), or to Carroll Street (6 minutes). If you need more exotic directions, perhaps involving one of them newfangled “cars,” I suggest using google maps.

Ask a Tunisian

Sometimes important news occurs in places that aren’t (a) countries I’ve lived in, or (b) countries with which I am inexplicably obsessed. When that happens, I bring in external experts (see, e.g., Ask an Iranian Part I and Part II). Today I’ve asked Anis Allagui, a Tunisian expat living in North America, to fill us in on recent events in Tunisia. (Please note that while Anis is in close contact with friends and family back home, he’s not in Tunisia at the moment, so the information below may not be completely up to date on what is proving to be an incredibly fast-changing situation. Please feel free to post updates or points of disagreement in the comments.)

For those who want the short version: On Friday following weeks of protests, Tunisia’s president of 23 years, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, fled the country for Saudi Arabia. A unity government was sworn in on Monday, but protests over the inclusion of members of the ruling party have already threatened its stability.

For those who want the long version, read on…

Q. So, what’s been going on? Let’s start at the beginning: Who was out on the streets and why?

A. When the movement began over a month ago, with the attempted suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, it was an act of frustration in the face of bleak employment prospects. Although he held a university degree, like most of the Tunisian youth, Bouazizi was forced to assume a modest profession as a fruit vendor. The chain of events was kicked into motion when Mohamed Bouazizi was harassed by the Police for selling his produce without a proper permit from Sidi Bouzid. Although he proceeded to apply for a permit through the local government, his request was denied. In an act reflecting the sense of helplessness and hopelessness of Tunisia’s youth, he set himself on fire in front of the town hall. A few days later, Mohamed Bouazizi died from his injuries. Bouazizi’s death symbolized a growing youth population whose education far surpassed the economic opportunities available to them.

So initially, it was a youth movement for economic reform and the creation of jobs… However, this was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation ignited the long-suppressed sense of frustration with the senseless harassment and injustice doled out by the government on the Tunisian population. From there, this indignation has grown into a popular revolution that has swept through the whole country, both geographically and demographically. Teachers, lawyers, activists, the unemployed, students, men and women, the young and the elderly have all come out in support of change.

Q. Were any political elites associated with the protest movement?

A. No, there were no political elites in the movement. This movement is led 100% by the people, the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed.

Almost all high ranking positions within the Tunisian political system are filled with members of the family known as the Trabelsi/Ben Ali Clan, the Mafia, the Family, and so on. There is no popular faith nor credibility at all in the RCD ruling party, its members, its ideals, its directions, nothing!

Tunisians have never had a real chance to vote. The “elections” have overwhelmingly led to Ben Ali’s victory with, for example, more than 99% of the votes in the 1999 elections, 94% of votes in 2004, and most recently in 2009 he was “elected” with 89% of the votes. It goes without saying that this is f-ing ridiculous.

For years, Ben Ali and his cronies have literally stolen from his people and businesses i.e. stealing money from banks, government reserves, gold, etc. What happened to my uncle is an example of this tendency. He served as an exclusive sales representative of a Canadian Jet Ski and water sport equipment company. He was not wealthy, but he started to earn a bit of money, which attracted the attention of the Family. One day, he was approached by a group of men in suits working for the Trabelsi family. He was told to remain calm, if he wanted to avoid any problems. They then aggressively proceeded to explain that they intended to take his business from him. It was clear that refusal was not an option.

Under Ben Ali, any protest was immediately, and often violently, suppressed. In the end, this movement had the sole objective of using popular momentum to get rid of an evil regime.

Q. How violent have things gotten?

A. There was an intensifying presence of Presidential Police under General Ali Seriati in the streets who are still targeting civilians and looting houses and businesses. The Presidential Police has historically been used as Ben Ali’s attack dog against his people, so they aren’t necessarily the “good guys” we associate with someone in their position.

A few days before Ben Ali left the country was declared under a state of emergency, which is when the army was obliged to intervene. Ben Ali asked for the support of the army to help quell the riots, and even gave the orders to open fire into the crowds to accomplish this end. General Ammar, to whom we will be eternally grateful, didn’t agree with this order, thereby establishing the military as the peaceful protector of the people. The army even clashed with the Presidential Police on numerous occasions before, and since, Ben Ali’s departure. News feeds are filling up with Tunisians expressing their pride and support for their army.  (See picture above from Al Jazeera.)  Al Jazeera is playing videos of protesters hugging their camo-clad comrades on a loop.

Q. Can you give a little more background on the distinction between the Presidential Police and the military and their relationship to the populace?

A. This is an important distinction to make as major Western media outlets, such as CNN, have already bumbled this topic. Just by looking at this article, the first impression I have is that the photograph doesn’t show an army soldier, but a member of the Presidential Police.

The ranks of the Tunisian Presidential Police were gradually formed, doubled, tripled and quadrupled over the course of Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship. This weapon, 160,000 strong, was his iron fist against the Tunisian people. For a point of contrast, the army has only 30,000 soldiers. The Presidential Police operated as a governmental branch and held the responsibility of ensuring the “security” of the regime. Some of the higher-ranking members of the Presidential Police are renowned for their inhuman practice of torture, and even the Minister of the Interior himself, Abdallah Kallel, is wanted internationally for torture and crimes against humanity. Naturally, Ben Ali is the commander of these forces, so he is just as reprehensible and guilty as the drones working on the lowest level. His wife, as well as other family members, also took part in ordering the torture and killing of Tunisians.

Even though Ben Ali was an army man, the army has always been a neutral body in Tunisia, and he has never fully trusted them to carry out his agenda. This neutrality was established by Habib Bourguiba, the first president of post-colonial Tunisia (FYI: Tunisia has only had two presidents since 1956), and it is one of the rare examples existing in the world. The army isn’t aligned with any political party, and their primary responsibility is to protect Tunisia against any foreign attack. The current mission of the army, with the help of a handful of good and respectable members of the police because, yes, in spite of what I said earlier, they do exist, is to restore calm and order to the streets, which often means confronting the renegade members of the RCD and the Presidential Police.

Q. What should we expect now that a coalition government has been formed?

A. Although Ben Ali and most of his family left the country, the old regime is still present in the current “Coalition Government”, formed by long-serving Prime Minister, Mohamed Ganouchi. When he first announced the members of the new government on January 17, many Tunisians were distressed to learn that major ministerial positions (Minister of the Interior, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of Defense), are still being held by members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), or in plainer terms, Ben Ali’s men.

In order for things to improve, we expect to see the ruling party members tried for their crimes. This is dependent on the interim government’s willingness to cooperate in punishing the former regime members (this is including some members of the temporary government, Presidential Police, as well as the Family). For the time being, as I mentioned earlier, clashes on the street indicate that the war is far from won, but the Tunisian people with, the help of the army, are taking steps in the right direction.

Q. How optimistic are you feeling about prospects for the future?

A. Tunisians have shown that they don’t want anything to do with the evils of the RCD regime. Umar ibn al-Khattāb said: I will not calm down until I will put one cheek of a tyrant on the ground and the other under my feet, and for the poor and weak, I will put my cheek on the ground.

The whole structure of Tunisian society is sick: education, finance and distribution of wealth, health, women’s position in society, even the freedom to practice religion, were all infected during Ben Ali’s regime and are in severe need of reform. In Islam, there is a concept of distribution of responsibilities; every member in a country or a society has to play a role for the betterment of everyone else. All minorities, social castes, races, and religions have to be represented and respected, which is, at the moment, not the case. The day that all 10.5 million Tunisians without a single exception feel happy and respected, the governmental functions will be approved. Given that the symbolic death of one man has spurred a national movement for reform, I do not believe that this is difficult to do.

Q. What do you make of the Western media coverage of the revolution?

A. I will reformulate the question. What do I make of the non-Tunisian coverage of the revolution? The answer is embarrassingly straightforward. In the U.S., Martha Stewart’s busted lip and the man who was arrested for drunk driving a donkey largely dominated airwaves on January 14, 2011. Statements issued by French diplomats continued to protect Ben Ali until it was clear his position was compromised. They even had the audacity to propose “handling the situation”, as they claimed to have experience in settling protests. Their media was complicit in their silence. In the Arab news, only Al Jazeera consistently and accurately covered the protest from its very beginnings. Arab governments, out of fear of igniting similar movements, tightly controlled their local media.

On several social media sites, I have tried to answer people voicing concern over why the Western media has not yet taken a real interest in what is going on. My response is simple: “Who are they to us, and why do we need them to push forward with our cause?” The West and the rest of the world knew about the corruption and the injustice in Tunisia for decades, and they didn’t do anything but support the regime of Ben Ali. It is telling that Islamic perspectives are not being represented or even talked about in the current events, which leads me to believe that there are external factors playing a hand in the way things are being covered. I sincerely hope that we can over come this obstacle and reconnect with our lost values as we form a new generation in Tunisian politics. I believe that we have a golden opportunity to serve not only as an example to the Arab world, but to the world at large as well.

Rethinking the History of Human Rights

Some recommended reading for you: Samuel Moyn’s “Human Rights in History” in the August 30/September 6 issue of The Nation.

Moyn traces the role of human rights rhetoric in recent American political discourse and argues against the popular history of human rights as a paradigm-shifting invention, instantly resonating with a global public reeling from the atrocities of World War II. He describes instead the failure to foreground human rights during the founding of the United Nations and quotes an early commentator’s observation that human rights “died in the process of being born.” Moyn points out that if this is the case, we should be asking why they were “somehow resurrected” thirty years later, and what we should expect for the future of the human rights project.

There’s lots to consider and agree/argue with here, but for my money, one of his most interesting points concerns the linkage of international criminal law and human rights:

“It is not at all obvious that, at the time, Nuremberg and related legal innovations like the genocide convention were conceived as part of the same enterprise as the itemization of human rights, let alone falling under their umbrella—though they are now often inaccurately described as if they were a single, though multifaceted, achievement.”

Although I am not persuaded that the example he cites -of Genocide Convention progenitor Raphael Lemkin’s antagonism to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- tells us as much about the theoretical underpinnings of either document as it does about the contentious process that produced them, I do think the philosophical compatibility of the international criminal law and human rights paradigms remains an open question.

Peanut gallery, thoughts?