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Archive for June, 2009

Ed, Farrah, Michael, Billy (Mays) and soon, Walter: we mourn the deaths of these celebrities as if they are old friends or family. In the midst of the latest round of grieving, it occurs to some of us to ask how it is that we take so personally the passing of people we don’t really know.

I have some experience with what I call “public death”: my husband was a 9/11 victim and although he wasn’t a cultural icon in the “traditional” sense, he surely became something symbolic to large numbers of strangers. His name was listed at hundreds of memorials, on billboards, on websites, even on the side of a charter bus I saw. He was remembered in speeches and articles, sometimes specifically by name, though he was simply a back-office worker who was doing his job. Members of an Atlanta church “adopted” my husband as a victim for whom they would pray; so did a group of schoolchildren in Germany. I heard from people who used to know Jim, my husband, or barely knew him, or never knew him. NY911-0104 70.105All felt the loss terribly and personally.

Of course 9/11 was a tragedy of gigantic proportions and involved an unexpected attack that threatened us all. In fact, tragic deaths, whether they involve tsunamis or high school shootings are terrifying because they are so random. We feel the need to respond, reach out, and relate to each other.

Really, though any death is random, when you think about it; that’s what really frightens us, I imagine. Even when we’re expecting it and think we’re prepared for it, it feels sudden and it certainly feels final. And when we’re not prepared, it shoves our own morality right in front of us. Cultural icons that die often represent or recall a particular and perhaps more innocent or happier time and in mourning them, we mourn our own life losses.

That may explain why we seem to pick certain people to mourn and not others. Do we relate more to the loss of a pop star or TV fantasy than we do to starving children aroud the world? I hope not; I suspect it’s a question of scale and familiarity. That doesn’t make it right.

There’s one more thing and that is that we humans seem to need to participate in the (for lack of a better word) pageantry of a public mourning process. Perhaps we find immersing ourselves in the deaths of others is cathartic; a “safe” way to mourn for ourselves. As I noted in an op-ed piece I wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings, our involvement can veer dangerously into a sort of collective therapy session that becomes more about our need to comfort ourselves than about comforting or empathizing with others.VA Tech

This is all perfectly understandable. I do wish we could find a way to avoid the spectacle that accompanies dying in public (although something tells me celebrities might appreciate the posthumous attention). I’d like to see us instead go silent a minute. In the space that opens up, we can send out our thoughts and prayers for those who are gone and quietly contemplate our shared humanity.

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Two stories were prominently on display this past week: Jon and Kate; and the protests in Iran. They aren’t comparable, of course – except in their ubiquity.

To catch you up: Jon and Kate Gosselin had sextuplets, which, in addition to their two older children, gave them a family of eight to raise. They are currently doing a fifth season of a reality program, during which time they’ve apparently been adversely affected by fame and paparazzi, though they seem to enjoy the money. Monday night on their show, they announced they’d filed for divorce, which surprised no one who cared in the first place. Now you know as much as I do and no, I have not watched a single episode. jonkatex-largeI know what I know because other forms of media seem to think this is an important “celebrity” story. We can bicker about whether any celebrity story is important, but I can think of about fifty such stories that would be loads more entertaining and less painful to follow. I managed to have a little fun with this story because Open Salon, a blog to which I contribute, sponsored a contest to come up with what the announcement really ought to be. I wrote a  fake press release noting that Jon and Kate were giving their kids away to needy families.

The show will apparently continue. Fortunately, there are other forms of escapist fare,  from several terrific shows on USA Network or TNT, or any number of quality fiction books.

The other major story of the week: the protests in Iran. Is there any international story more deserving of the dominant place in the news? We here in the U.S. are likely sick of the endless bickering over health care (do something already!), or the sight of state governments from California to New York imploding, and we don’t want to play “Where in the world is Governor Mark Sanford?” any more. Besides, this election, the result, and this protest are important in a number of tangible and symbolic ways, not the least of which is that we can learn what’s happening, despite the typical post-election government crackdown on outside communication.  The fact that the news coming out of Iran is mainly via Twitter has not only thwarted government attempts at media suppression but also has the talking heads talking themselves blue in the face about what Twitter means for the future of journalism. As fantastic a tool as it obviously is, especially for people denied many freedoms (see my post below), Twitter isn’t perfect; a tiny number of observers are noting that these instantaneous messages, even those accompanied by visuals, are hard to verify or put in context.

 6That isn’t the point, of course; neither is the fact that the 3 million votes that appear not to have been counted might not by themselves be enough to change the outcome of the election. The point is, a large, educated, heavily female, mostly young group of citizens is standing up to a repressive government and inviting the world to see what that means. That’s a form of reality television you can be certain isn’t scripted.

It’s understandable everyone wants to report on, analyze, discuss, and dissect the events in Iran.  A variety of issues intersect with this event: how democracy and a particular interpretation of Islam will work; what the U.S  relationship with a nascent nuclear power can be; how women’s quest for equal rights may be affected; and, of course, how communication technology promotes a sort of freedom that can’t be contained.  But there’s another point to be made: While mainstream media tries to chase the Twitter phenomena, while alt media shakes its head at how out-of touch mainstream media really is, and while a shrinking corps of journalists risk their necks to get stories, I hope everyone will notice there’s a lot going on, not just with the Gosselins and not just in Iran.

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TwitI am not the most backward person I know when it comes to technology but neither am I in the vanguard. Some of that relates to my skill set (not innately tech-focused  and my age (the dark side of fifty). I also find the immediacy of certain kinds of high-tech communication leaves a lot to be desired in the in-depth department. Texting is fine when you are running late (or L8) and sending a tweet that says “help” when you’re sinking in quicksand might make sense, but as for reporting (not to mention analyzing, deciphering, dissecting or opining on) the news, I want quality, I want depth and I want complete sentences.

Let me now revise that.

protestIn the space of a few days, Twitter, that ubiquitous and previously irritating form of communication favored by second-strong celebrities, has become a force for real revolution: the kind that allows ordinary (or extraordinary) citizens a voice even in the midst of a government crackdown on communications. Of course I’m referring to Iran, where young protesters are broadcasting minute by real-time minute about their protests in a way that CNN has been absolutely unable to do.

There are a number of reports that talk about this new use for this new medium, including today’s New York Times and a recent post by Andrew Sullivan online at the Atlantic Magazine.

But what I’m most excited about is not just the on-the-spot, heartfelt reporting (one demonstrator sent a tweet that proclaimed “Ahmadinejad called us Dust, we showed him a sandstorm.”) but also the response of the other social networkers around the world. They are providing support both emotional (a large Facebook group as well as a number of followers around the world plugged in to “listen” to the opposition reports) and practical (supplying proxy server addresses for Twitter accounts when the government shuts down local Internet access).

Think about it: a democratic uprising takes place in one part of the world and people all over the globe can mobilize world opinion and perhaps more in a nanosecond. Are there young people in North Korea who, drawn to the social power of Facebook or Twitter, will also be drawn to protest1the power of freedom? What about Cuba? What about Saudi Arabia? Moreover, what does the involvement of twitterers say about the potential to interest an entire generation in the politics of communication and the possibility of change?

Twitter will still be used for inane reports about the breakfast habits of wanna-be A-listers and as a cruelly simple way of engineering a breakup, I suppose. But the idea that it can be used to sustain a social democracy movement has me as excited as I’ve been in years. I’m ready to open an account if I can sustain the required manual dexterity; I want to keep up. peace

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I liked what I read about Obama’s Cairo speech and I pretty much liked the speech itself. At the risk of sounding fatuous, I would have given a similar presentation had I been in his position – with a couple of additions. I would have been more direct about the necessity of giving more than lip service to democracy. I would have reminded the Arab countries a little more forcefully (as he had indicated he would do) that they haven’t exactly stepped up to the plate when it comes to investing in the future of Palestine although some nations have been happy to arm the militant factions. He might have been a bit more careful when discussing the Holocaust as if it were equivalent to the Palestinian plight; from a tactical standpoint, that wasn’t going to sit too well with an Israel already stunned by the idea that an American President would tell them to stop building settlements. But by and large and given the setting, I think it worked. It brilliantly undermined Osama Bin Laden’s bid for attention and made it seem almost churlish to dislike an America that was trying hard to balance competing interests. 

What I don’t know is whether his comments will help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems at this point to be intractable.  As I wrote in a similarly named post here in January:  

“Israelis see themselves as always and evermore in danger of being targeted for extinction. Nearly everything they do seems to derive from their understanding of and belief in the constant threat of annihilation… Palestinians see themselves as always and evermore in danger of remaining as refugees, without rights, without opportunities and without a homeland, pushed around by a small country with a large and powerful friend. Many have been raised to believe it is uniquely Israel that stands in the way of their liberation and so Israel must be destroyed, which, of course, confirms Israel’s worst fears.”

We’ve lived through other two-party conflicts: the Cold War was all about a nuclear standoff between two superpowers with weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other’s cities. Capitalism seems to have been a major player in the end of that faceoff; that and internal dissention pursuaded the USSR to have a go at the free market way of life. There was also the impracticality of surviving in a post-nuclear world, something I wish I felt the current nuclear powers were considering more carefully.

What’s going on between Israel and Palestine ought to be able to be resolved along similarly pragmatic lines: yes to the two-state solution and to Israel’s right to exist, with the proviso that punishment for any violators will come from the Muslim world. Not a chance, I hear some of my readers say. Well then, let’s get right to the heart of the matter. While grievances and fears and biases and hatreds exist, they can be overcome by proof that common ground might yield a better life for everyone. Resolution is always potentially possible, especially when it becomes obvious it makes more sense to do so. So who wants the Israel-Palestinian issue to be resolved, and more importantly, who doesn’t – and why not?

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