On attention and activism

I came across a recent interview of Rachel Maddow over at Lenny and her comment about what makes for successful activism caught my attention —

RM: Yes. I did my doctoral dissertation on social movements around prison reform, AIDS, and health reform. One of the things that I wrote about is that there are some political issues where mainstream press attention only hurts. We think about activism as being this generic model of consciousness-raising, then hopefully media attention, attraction of new people to your cause, building public support for your cause, then decision-makers reacting to that change in public opinion. That’s true for some types of activism, but it is not true for all of them.

If you’re working on better conditions for prisoners, if you make that a popular issue and you invite mainstream media to weigh in on that subject, you’re going to end up with a much more regressive public-policy environment than if you approach it in a quieter way. It’s not because the public is stupid, it’s just that people with only a cursory interest in something are going to have a knee-jerk reaction to it. That’s impossible to explain in a cable-news media … it doesn’t make sense.

[emphasis added]

Parallels to migration issues? Perhaps. See also: her fascinating conversation with Ezra Klein


On interview techniques

After being found guilty and sentenced to 40 years by the ICTY today, David A. Graham over at The Atlantic’s Notes highlights a 1993 interview conducted with Radovan Karadzic —

In January 1993, still relatively early in the Bosnian war, [CBC’s] As It Happens scored an interview with Karadzic. In a retrospective segment years ago, former host Michael Enright reminisced about preparing for the interview and his plan to ask standard questions. But he decided that wasn’t going to cut it, so he took a more direct approach when the tape started rolling:

“Mr. Karadzic, generally how—in your view, how is the ethnic cleansing going?” Enright deadpanned.

Karadzic was unsurprisingly annoyed.

“Ethnic cleansing was not part of our policy any time,” he fumed. “Ethnic cleansing was on all sides, and it was sort of ethnic shifting of the people, because Serbs have escaped from Muslim surroundings and the Bosnians have escaped from Serbian surroundings.”

Enright kept rolling, maintaining a studiously detached tone.

[…] It’s a remarkable interview: A reporter asking extremely tough questions of a leader, with great authority and command of facts, about a faraway conflict. You don’t hear this sort of exchange often. For one, few war criminals will talk to the media. For another, few reporters have the chops to pull it off live like this. They might worry about losing access, too—although when the interview ended, Karadzic signed off with a cheery, “Welcome, any time!”

[links in original; click through for further transcript and audio]

On conferences: the discursive construction of ‘strangers’ @ Uni Birmingham

Ruth Wodak’s lecture on the discursive construction of ‘strangers’ during a conference held by the University of Birmingham on 5.11.15:

Inclusion and exclusion of migrants and refugees are renegotiated in the European Union on almost a daily scale: ever new policies defining and restricting immigration are proposed by European member states. A return to more local policies and ideologies can be observed, on many levels: traditions, rules, languages, visions, and imaginaries are affected. I claim that we are currently experiencing a re/nationalisation in spite of (or perhaps because of) multiple globalising tendencies (Wodak 2015) as well as a normalisation of exclusionary rhetoric. Moreover, recent heated political debates across Europe, about citizenship, language tests related to citizenship and immigration, and the construction of the immigrant as ‘the post-modern stranger’, coincide with the global financial crisis, the ‘refugee crisis’, and the crisis of the welfare state. We are dealing with global and glocal developments (Wodak 2010, 2011). Post-nationalism (Heller 2011) and cosmopolitanism (Bauman 1999) have become utopian concepts. In my lecture, I will analyse recent developments in respect to immigration and asylum policies across Europe from a discourse-historical perspective, especially in respect to the current ‘refugee crisis’: The data – analysed both qualitatively and quantitatively – consist of a range of genres (focus group discussions, party programmes, TV documentaries, and election campaign materials).

see also: 95,000 words, many of them ominous, from Donald Trump’s tongue 

On what the news covers

Max Fisher over at Vox addresses the swirling accusations that the media (at large) ignores certain conflicts for others —

It would be easy to blame the media for this, to say that if only media outlets covered Beirut rather than ignoring it, the world might pay attention. I have bad news: The media does cover Beirut, just as it has been covering Lebanon’s refugee plight for years. That’s an uncomfortable truth, because rather than giving us an easy villain, it forces us to ask what our own role might be in the world’s disproportionate care and concern for one country over another.

But if that reflection leads people to express greater interest in what happens in Beirut or Abuja or Baghdad, then few will be happier than those of us in the media. We’ve been trying for years to break through reader apathy and disinterest. If we take some unfair criticisms but it gets people to finally pay attention, I think that is a trade-off every reporter on Earth would accept.

On blindness

The NYT just posted a wide-ranging conversation between George Yancy and Seyla Benhabib in their The Stone blog

George Yancy.: We far too often fail to understand each other across racial divides. A “post-racial” discourse might even occlude the effort to do so. How do we create spaces for understanding the conditions of others, especially within the context of racial boundaries that divide us?

Seyla Benhabib: Let me begin with a personal memory: I first came to this country from Istanbul, Turkey, as a foreign scholarship student in 1970 to Brandeis University. The program that sponsored me, the Larry Wien International Program, had great outreach success in African countries and there were many African Wien students. Yet, when we sat in the student cafeteria, the African students would sit in the company of African-American students, and effectively we self-segregated in one of the most progressive institutions of its time in the country.

G.Y.: What was your response to this?

S.B.: I was almost offended by this. I came from a country that was divided along all sorts of ethnic and religious lines, but not the color line. Having been active in the student movement of ’68 and beyond, to me it was incomprehensible that at least those of us who shared similar political views could not be friends and colleagues. Brandeis, like much of North America at the time, was in the grips of forms of black separatism. Angela Davis had been a student of Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis, and I had come to study with Marcuse, not realizing that he had already left for University of California at San Diego! It was not until I attended Yale Graduate School and formed friendships with Lorenzo Simpson and Robert Gooding-Williams that I began to fathom something about depth and hurt of the color line in this country.

I share this anecdote with you because, as Iris Marion Young reminded us, to understand one another across racial and many other divides we have to begin by “greeting” and “storytelling.” One of the worst offenses of racism is that it blinds us to who the individual person is — the color of your skin becomes the mask which I see and often, behind which I do not want to see the real person. And as Du Bois, a student of Hegel’s, reminds us, the one who is in the dominated position is aware of the perspective of the master: She is conscious of herself as being seen by the other. It is this double-consciousness that we must learn to understand. We must learn to see each other — to use terms which I introduced in “Situating the Self” both as “the generalized” and “the concrete other.”

As humans, we are like one another, equally entitled to respect and dignity; but we are also different from one another because of our concrete psychological histories, abilities, racial and gender characteristics, etc. Ethics and politics are about negotiating this identity-in-difference across all divides. We live in a “post-racial” society only in the sense that we are all generalized others in the eyes of the law; but as we learn painfully, not in the eyes of those who administer the law; the bank clerk who decides upon a mortgage loan or even — to use Cornel West’s famous example — the New York taxi cab driver who refuses to pick up the black man. The history of discrimination, domination and power struggles among the concrete others trump the standpoint of the generalized other.

Relatedly: listen to Radiolab’s Update: New Normal? episode, including the story about human complexity — “Stu is Stu.

On interviews

I think I safely fall into the camp that would happily have a conversation with Terry Gross. I’d be lying if — like the Ira Glass note below — I didn’t admit to listening to her interviews to study the nuance of the art.

From Susan Burton’s profile of Terry Gross in the New York Times Magazine

Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘‘Mad Men,’’ has been among the most frequent guests on ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ He imagined being interviewed by Gross years before it first happened, and once it did, ‘‘you’re like: Oh, this is my fantasy of a conversation,’’ Weiner told me. ‘‘I’m not even talking about people hearing it. I’m talking about actually having the conversation.’’

‘‘Having the conversation’’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.

From Ira Glass’ blog over at This American Life,

I’ve always admired how well she imagines herself into the mind of the person she’s interviewing. Like she once asked the magician Ricky Jay something like “Is there ever a trick where the behind-the-scenes stuff – the secret stuff we don’t see – is actually more interesting than what we DO see?” Inventing a question like that is such a pure imaginative act of empathy. She does it all the time. She asked my cousin Philip Glass, memorably, “Do you ever try to write music that doesn’t sound like Philip Glass music?” The greatest question he’s ever been asked in an interview. “Yes!” he responded, excited by the question. “And every time I fail.” […]

She’s incredibly efficient in those interviews. I don’t know any other word for it. They seem to speed to where they’re going and to cover so much more ground than you usually hear. There’ve been times when I’ve re-listened, just to hear the order of the questions and to figure out what was planned and unplanned. Like a magician sitting in on another guy’s act for two nights so he can figure out the trick, to steal it. […]

Really so much comes down to her judgment. I think when we talk about what makes someone’s work great, we overemphasize technique and not enough gets said about the importance of having interesting taste. In the end, whether you’re David Simon or the South Park Guys or Beyonce or a radio interviewer, that’s so much of the game. Terry’s a person with broad-ranging very interesting thoughts about things. She’s up to the job. An interviewer doesn’t need to be as interesting as her interviewees, for sure, but she needs to be pretty damn interesting, and, more important, to have the taste to know what’s truly fascinating and new.

On a crisis of values

From Volker Türk’s remarks at the 133rd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union General Debate —

Yet the single-most important challenge to the protection of refugees, as well as to reaping the development potential of migration more broadly comes from populist politics and uninformed public debates. They engender a climate of fear. In some countries there has been a proliferation of xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives, hate speech, fear-mongering, and inflammatory statements both at the political and civil society levels. In some instances this has even led to arson or other violent attacks directed against refugees as well as migrants.

We have also noted with concern that the terms “refugee” and “migrant” have in many instances been used interchangeably in the media and public discourse. The two terms have different meanings, and conflating them has serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Both migrants and refugees are protected under international human rights law, but the failure to mention refugees specifically is a failure to recognise their unique predicament  their lack of national protection, the risks they face should they return to their home countries, and our obligations to protect them under a legal framework crafted specifically for them. This can undermine public support for the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.

Preserving the institution of asylum is critical. Asylum is literally life-saving, and has ensured the survival of millions of people for decades. This is not to say that the problems and challenges of today’s large-scale mixed migration movements are not real, particularly in relation to adequate shelter, reception, security concerns, as well as burden- and responsibility-sharing. However, the situation is manageable and needs to be addressed in a manner that is consistent with obligations under international law to protect asylum-seekers and refugees.

All of this suggests that the more fundamental crisis that we are facing today is perhaps one of values the same values that we had sworn never to forget after the atrocities of the Second World War and that are embodied in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.