Break time in D.C.: two-state or too late? (and more)

I’ve had a really nice few days. I came back home to D.C. for my spring break — a plan that is much different from one before that involved me coming back to Columbia early — and after deciding to stay here the whole week, I really think it’s been a great time. I’m definitely in break mode. I mean, I’m channeling my inner gluttony, sloth and indulgence simultaneously. (I know this sounds bad. But you cannot blame me…everyone loves a good week where every day contains seven meals, shamefully long naps and overt —but discounted — spending.)

I only kid. I’ve actually been very, very busy the past few days. I’m not one to brag, but hey…living in D.C. is awesome. And I’ve really got my parents to thank for that. I do honestly miss Orlando sometimes. But D.C. makes up for it tenfold — except for my friends I regretfully have left behind!

It’s always nice to be in a city where it’s not surprising to read about a conference that’s happening right on the weekend you find out about it. That’s exactly what happened to me this weekend. J Street, a progressive-minded pro-Israel lobby in D.C., was hosting its annual Making History conference at the D.C. convention center, and I was beyond excited when I read about it online. (Ask my mom. I yelped when I saw it was this weekend.) I knew I had to go. It was focusing on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as well as other things like the influence of the Arab Spring and the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions) and after learning recently about the conflict and due to my incessant obsession with the region, I practically grabbed my bag and ran to the convention center. It was also nice to see that the student price was super cheap.

(Note: I’m an American who was raised Christian. I’ve just been interested in the conflict and the Middle East region for a while, and as my learning grows, I’ve come to learn more about the complexities and the intertwining of the conflicts within the region. This conference provided a great opportunity for me to get short-term but very intensive and well-worthy knowledge that has helped me sift through the steep intricacies of the region.)

I learned many things at this convention, and I’m surprised at the number of events I was able to go to. I got a wonderful vignette into a Jewish perspective (albeit the progressive one) about the progress (or lack thereof) of the issue between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was two days of intense discussions and panels and films that brought together diplomats, experts, professors, progressive Jews, conservative Jews (although pretty few and far between), non-Jews and a surprising and exciting number of young people like me to talk about an issue that’s become the front and center issue yet has remained shadowed by taboo and conflict. I’d like to consider myself an outsider to the general debate, and that’s something I wanted to change. I spoke to some Jewish men who traveled all the way from Rochester, N.Y. about being a non-Jew and trying to figure out the whole issue and trying to understand it. I was blown away the whole weekend by the friendliness that I was greeted with by everyone. Now, I’m not saying I was expecting judgment or rudeness, but it was nice to see that people understood that I was still learning a lot and was developing my own perspectives.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many facets. That’s clear. There’s land for peace. The settlements. Diaspora. Refugees. Security. The IDF. Relations with the U.S. Relations with the Arab countries. Oil. Water. Jerusalem. Temple of the Mount. Mutual recognition. A two-state solution (or…a one-state solution?). HAMAS. The Gaza strip. Lebanon (and Hezbollah).  Egypt. Syria. Jordan. Iran. Nuclear power. Extremism. Violence. 1949. Gilad Shalit (and captives in general, on both sides). 1967. 1973. Oslo. Judaism. Islam. The PA. The PLO. 2006. 2008. Really, every year. Every day.

That’s just a basic few. There are many, many other issues and things that connect. (But that would go into a marathon-length post that I’m not even sure I could write because I don’t know enough.) It’s a terribly tangled web.

I can’t personally even begin to delve into it, because it’s so complex. I’m not going to take a side, because there are too many complexities, and I think I have a duty as a journalist not to. But I do think, as a member of humanity, and from what I’ve taken from this weekend, we need to open up talks between the two parties. But that’s so hard to do. How do you get two people to talk to each other who hate each other; who know what they’re going to say and what they’re going to disagree with; who have an indescribably long and complex history; who both, essentially, want the same thing? Can two people co-exist when neither will ever be completely happy? There’s a lot of stubbornness that’s pervading the air of the talks. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of betrayal, loss, tension, hatred. A lot of this has come from families, from the media, from the culture of the volatile and heated region of Palestine.

So bringing these parties together is one of the most imminent issues that our world culture is still facing, half a century later and many, many centuries in coming. It’s been a conflict that’s been around since as long as we have and will continue to plague the region’s culture, society and politics (and abroad in all three categories as well) until we figure out a way to address this complex issue. And I’m definitely in no position to begin to start. But it’s those first steps that are important. I think those steps are possible, but they need to be taken on both sides.

Leaders at the event said they believe it’s possible to make progress. I think it’s possible as well. I just think that it’ll take a lot of strain and pain to get there. (But let’s not forget I’ve still got a lot to learn. Therefore I fear treading on any dangerous territory until I can rightfully claim a stake or at least form something with the likeness of an opinion.)

In a film I saw at the event, one Palestinian Christian girl described the situation in East Jerusalem after she returned from a camp aimed at helping Palestinian and Israeli girls talk over their difference in an American setting — which was the focus of the film. She described how constant bombings kept her on edge, as she bravely bought coffee from a Cafe Hillel through the tumult. Palestinians are killed. Israelis are killed. It’s a constant cycle of violence and unfairness, seen through this girl’s eyes — and many others — that seem to make no sense at times. It’s gotten out of control and the citizens of the region themselves often question what’s really going on.

Can there be a road map for peace when the roads themselves are the casualties of the conflict—from congested traffic to dirt v. paved? Or when the roads themselves may not be there the next day?

“The bomb isn’t gonna choose you if you’re Israeli or Palestinian,” the girl said. “It’s just gonna explode.”

———

I am going to stop myself before I tread down a long path into a long-winded rabbit hole about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Phew. What I do know is that I learned a lot these past few days. And it just felt right. I found myself being drawn into each panel and feeling each guest speaker’s passion about the conflict.

And aside from this (and this should NOT be the last thing I mention, because it’s really what I’ve been thinking about the most over the trip), I’ve landed a great opportunity for a summer internship. For some reason I don’t want to talk a lot about it. But I don’t want to underestimate myself, because I know I’ve worked hard for it. I have trouble being open with applauding myself, because it’s something I don’t like to see much in others. And that’s something I have to work on.

But I see people around me that work very, very hard and subsequently go very far. I know my colleagues will be successful. And this is something to reflect on. It’s very humbling. And moreover, it pushes me to work hard too. Being around motivation really helps me push myself. We push each other. And I can see the results. It’s really exciting, for all of us.

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1/2 Revolution: Revolution, vérité and social media

1/2 Revolution, directed by Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi, actually might be one of my favorite documentaries of the weekend, and it just happens to be the first I’ll write about. Now, I’m very interested in the Middle East region, and the Arab Spring is something in particular that I’ve been utterly fascinated with. The chain reaction of revolution in the Middle Eastern region after the revolution in Tunisia in December 2010 threw such a fierce punch that it was felt globally.

This documentary is so successful because it throws you into the streets of Cairo during the January 2011 revolution based in Tahrir Square in Egypt — and it doesn’t have any qualms with showing the brutality of the movement. The confusion, mayhem, tension, anger, exhilaration of the revolution is perpetuated through the shaky camera shots and exclamations of Karim and his friends as they run through the concrete, bloody streets of Cairo. I was on the verge of tears during the whole documentary. The vérité style of documentary, as portrayed through the direct hand-held perspective (mainly from Karim), is extremely successful in invoking the emotions of the viewer — it’s the tragic reality of the situation that you feel in this movie and that makes you cry when you get home (well…I did, at least.)

Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi's "1/2 Revolution" poster

I’ve been a fan of the vérité style of portraying a story whether it’s true or not (here’s looking at you, Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project) for awhile, and I was really hoping for some of it to come out during this fest. Thankfully it did!

The accuracy of the film can really be justified by its content. Everyone knows what has happened from the Arab Spring, and this documentary just shows a new light to the issue. Our perspective of the Arab Spring has been bogged down by different media perspectives and social media. I regret to say that Karim revealed that the effectiveness of the movement was not from Twitter or from (but perhaps Al Jazeera and other nearby news sources played a much more important role) outside news sources, but rather, from the people themselves. Karim said that only 10 to 12 percent of Egyptians used Internet at the time of the revolution, and much less used social media. It’s not a happy thought, but perhaps outside influence isn’t good for — or at least doesn’t have that big of an impact — on the actual happenings during a movement like the Arab Spring. That’s not to say that coverage isn’t important, because it clearly is necessary to inform other people of what’s going on. But I think we run the risk of seeming either too naive or too stubborn when we think that Western ideas and developments are the sole reason for a movement’s success. The people wanted nationalism, so they rallied together; they didn’t necessarily want democracy or Twitter. These outlets that connected our countries were beneficial for both parties, no doubt, but Karim said they really weren’t as influential as we’ve been told. He definitely proposed an interesting argument, and opened my eyes.

It’s not that’s it’s the most groundbreaking documentary in terms of style, presentation or concept. It’s so good because it’s so real; it’s raw footage of one of the most decisive moments of the Arab Spring and of modern history. I mean, I found myself questioning whether or not it was real or not, just because of the things that I was seeing in the film were just so horrendous. Bullet shots in a man’s back, citizens being run over my military tanks — it’s all there and they document all of it. In their small Cairo apartment where they meet up, the friends of the filmmakers are constantly sparring and joining together against the regime and its “thugs” with the other revolutionaries.

Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi's "1/2 Revolution"

Karim said that the reason behind the “1/2” in the title of the documentary was because the revolution isn’t over yet. Although Mubarak was deposed, protestors believe that, perhaps, it’s just a matter of a new regime taking over the old regime, and that tensions are hardly ending.

But moreover, I think the most important part about this documentary is that it serves as one of the best and most undeniably vital records of one of the most important developments in recent political world history. The Arab Spring is something that won’t soon leave our minds, and will be searing in the minds of those who actually live in the countries for an indeterminate amount of time. But as Karim said, we need to make sure that we keep our coverage and opinion of events like this within the perspective of the people themselves. This documentary serves as a champion of the Egyptians (and revolutionaries abroad) and a preserver of a very, very important moment in history. It was moving and should be seen by anyone who reads a newspaper, who writes in a newspaper, or who simply cares about the world and its developments.

Passive activism

I was sitting in Starbucks the other day (a fact that might totally debase the entire next novella I’m about to post out of a case of classic upper-middle class college kid hypocrisy), and I overheard two girls talking about their clothes. I wasn’t exactly listening to their conversation, as I was semi-focusing on the reading I had to do for a political science class the next day, until they brought up their pairs of TOMS shoes.

“I reaaaaaaally need a new pair of TOMS,” Girl 1 said. “They’re just so old.”

“Me too,” Girl 2 said. “I kind of want to get the sparkly gold ones.”

I stopped for a moment, pondered, and then got back to work. I didn’t stop because of the high pitch of these girls’ voices or because they were speaking at a volume normally preferred for a loud sports event. I stopped because I’d heard this before.

It brought me back to a few weeks ago when I saw a new box in front of the cashier at Starbucks. It had some minimalist design I can’t specifically recall right now upon which bracelets hung. On each bracelet was a little piece of metal with “INDIVISIBLE” emblazoned on it. The box had some patriotic slogan involving jobs and U.S. and red, white and blue. The goal, according to the website, is to encourage growth of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Buy the bracelet, save American jobs.

The only thing I could think (and accidentally out loud) was, “Seriously?”

There is charity. There is passion and drive. There is devotion to a cause, to a movement where you dirty your hands with a soiled shovel or sweat through the day on a site where you help build a building for a village. There is entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to genuinely bring something to the common good.

But there is also deception in our modern definition of charity.

Case in point. Gap got a huge backlash from customers when someone posted a picture online of their "Made in America" bags with "Made in China" tags.

Case in point. Gap got a huge backlash from customers when someone posted a picture online of their "Made in America" bags with "Made in China" tags.

Thanks to a friend, I read an article titled “7 worst international aid ideas”, which makes some pretty good points. One of the charity organizations criticized was TOMS shoes, and I was curious. I’d talked about this before, about how I was uncomfortable with TOMS shoes and other organizations like RED, Livestrong and the pink ribbon campaign (who doesn’t really need criticizing, because Komen’s gotten itself into a heap of trouble recently). TOMS has turned into the starlet of charities because it does what it says it does: it gives a pair of shoes to a poverty-stricken child in Africa when someone buys a pair online.

So, it’s a one-for-one deal, you may think. What’s bad about that?

But it’s much more than that. It’s a matter of diffusion of responsibility. It’s just like the crisis in Haiti: everyone jumped to help out. But, what does your text of $10 to Haiti efforts really mean? And moreover, why was coverage and attention in Haiti so short-lived?

What do we really contribute to the movement by passively buying a bracelet, a red shirt, a pair of canvas shoes? What does this really do for the greater good? And more importantly, why do we need to be rewarded for helping others out? If TOMS were a company that only sent the pair of shoes to the children—and took away the stylish pair from the lamenting Starbucks girl—would it be as successful?

These are all questions to raise as journalists and to help citizens raise.

I think I’ve just got a lot of qualms with the tendency to embrace materialism in our country’s publicity agencies. But I realize it would be unrealistic for me to say, “Hey, guys, stop that! Everyone needs to stop being consumers.” Because that’s definitely never going to happen.

I could go into a long rant about how consumerism is destroying our culture, but that would be a futile gesture. I also want to prevent the exhaustive effort of going into political philosophies (because we all know that socialism doesn’t work out well, communism doesn’t work at all, and democracy, despite what some say, does have problems)…because no one really wants that. (Sorry, political science professor. The Internet wins.)

Consumerism (and its father, or brother, capitalism) has already been wreaking havoc on our society, and has been since humans realized they could create a system of coinage and material goods. (I also recently saw a coin collection at our university’s Art and Archaeology museum and was blown away at the complexity of the commerce systems from political systems of old.) Everyone knows the deficiencies and inadequacies of our consumerist culture.

But it’s the intertwining of consumerism and charity that is concerning. Companies realize that people REALLY like to be humanitarians, and, armed with minimalist designs and idealistic slogans and YouTube videos, they’ve captured our spirit of altruism.

And we completely fall for it. Pay $30 for a shirt with a red logo and help save Africa? Seems easy enough. But we fail the potential of the movement by just clicking “buy” and then going about our business.

(Here’s a good nonprofit website for charity information. And, our state attorney general has a site for it too.)

And then when people find out about the realities of charity companies—the high administrative costs of their services, the “celebrity” complex as shown in the Haiti fervor, the impracticality of calling for the end of something so weighty as starvation or inequality—they get upset. This is understandable. When a movement is undermined by consumerism itself, it leaves a bruise. I’m not here to critique anyone, I just want to raise questions.

International conflict and human rights are a go-to issue for journalists. We’re attracted to negative coverage; starvation and culture clash are perfect candidates. I’m personally looking into pursuing foreign conflict journalism myself, but I think it’s important for us to avoid ignorance. Yes, starvation is bad, and totalitarian regimes are bad. I think that can be generally agreed upon. But the conflicts we involve ourselves in have many asterisks and details that we, and subsequently, the people, don’t know.

I’m not sure what my goal was with this post, but I did want to address the hypocrisies that are occurring in our society. Perhaps it is a lack of information. Perhaps it is an ignorance in the fault of the people. Perhaps it is denial, or self-gratification as a motive. I don’t think any one blog post could address the psychological nature of why we feel the need to be charitable and why charity capitalism has spiralled out of control.

But the fact is that instead of buying that new pair of TOMS shoes, we should research the source of inequality and conflict in African countries. After reading through that Times article about pre-arranged Muslim marriages, look up different translations of what the Quran says about marriage.

That’s obviously a lot to ask of people. Which is why, as journalists, we should strive to give all of the information out that we can find. We’re human too, and because of this, we can fall into the trap of assumption and shallow reporting. I personally don’t think I do enough research myself, and that’s something I need to change.

It’s just like what I say about veganism. I think veganism is a great cause, and I applaud those who brave the waters of such a devoted lifestyle. But unless a vegan is personally going about changing the face of the meat industry (which I’m sure is happening, and to those people, I salute you), they can’t assume that their preference of spelt over Challah bread is making much impact on the decisions at the Cargill, Tyson or Smithfield headquarters.

As Joseph Conrad put it, there is a heart of darkness inside all of us, and the cruelties condemned by charities could be described as one of the world’s hearts of darkness. The problem now is we choose to cover up that heart with a thin veil of positivity and idealism through our products and consumer-charities. It’s hard to deny the fact that sending money via text to Haiti or buying a Livestrong bracelet briefly alleviates the guilt of being a consumer (as Zizek describes in the video). But maybe it’s our goal, as journalists (and citizens), to start raising some questions about those little actions.

Charity is not a bad thing, and neither are the foundations that represent them. Rather, charity is a fantastic facet of our culture’s complex psyche. It’s wonderful to see how people will jump so quickly on helping out once crisis occurs (although there is also a critique of the tendency of the U.S. to not take action until crisis occurs). But our passive approach to bringing about change will, in turn, bring nothing but a prolonged status quo. Our culture of fast food and faster information has undermined our ability to stop and really realize significance—significance of anything. Pressing the “checkout” button is easier and has become preferred over more active decisions.

We as journalists need to inform. We need to research so that we don’t make sweeping assumptions or generalizations. We need to keep foundations like Susan G. Komen and TOMS accountable for their actions. We need to look into the background and history of international conflicts through the eyes of journalists, not necessarily just as humanitarians. We need to be honest and realistic in our reporting, so people can do the same about their own perceptions. It is our role to be the middle man between the people, these groups and activist movements, and the damaged countries under the spotlight. We ask the questions no one else asks, so that maybe, in the future, the people can too.

As journalists, as people and as a world community, we need to be active instead of passive. We can’t expect the world to change if we don’t take a role in the change itself.

Rebels without a cause: the reality of Occupy Wall Street

So, there’s been a lot of talk about the Occupy movement that is spreading through cities across the nation and world. It’s a great movement in theory, and it’s needed to happen for quite some time. The whole movement is based around the socioeconomic inequalities between the “1%” elite and the so-called “99%”, the victimized proportion that the protesters are representing. Their website is constantly updating and the whole movement started when the hashtag #OCCUPYWALLST called for 20,000 people to assemble in lower Manhattan in September to protest the elite moneymakers in Wall Street and to get Obama to regulate the outrageous economic inequalities.

Yes, I agree with what they’re going for. And maybe I’m about to be highly hypocritical, because I have always complained about the socioeconomic problems in this country, particularly after the recession of 2008 and more recently after I saw the documentary Inside Job

Inside Job went deep into the minds and ways of the top %1 of earners in U.S.

But honestly, there’s something about this movement that I just don’t like. Maybe it’s the excess of contrived young adults who are in attendance (or at least who I assume are in attendance). Maybe it’s the lack of an all-encompassing goal. Maybe it’s just the fact that I think the whole movement is futile. One of my colleagues traveled to NYC to cover the protest, and maybe I’m just subconsciously jealous, but I just can’t seem to get on this bandwagon.

One of the questions I want to ask the movement is: who exactly are you attacking? The “freeloaders” of the assisted care community, aka the 47%? The top 1%? The corporations? The stock brokers?

The protesters are primarily demanding change and upheaval. Yes, change is necessary. But one of the things these protesters are calling for is the uprooting of American capitalism. Yes, capitalism has its failures. But so does every other economic system. Moreover, what do they expect to happen once the hated capitalistic society falls? Introduce a shining rainbows and unicorns society that embraces socialism? Communism? Anarchy? Do they want a stock market? Power at the state level? The local level? No power at all?

Screenshot from V for Vendetta.

This leads to another issue I have with the movement: its proclivity towards the “anti-system” movement. Don’t get me wrong, V for Vendetta was a great graphic novel and movie. But, using the visage of Guy Fawkes is not going to help the Occupy movement any more than the media’s portrayal of the protestors as dirty hippies (which they’re not, I understand that) is. If anything, it would hurt the movement. Unless the movement really wants its figurehead to be the guy who wants to kill the leader of the country and burn down all the government buildings. Seriously?

Then there are the people who have “proven” themselves and have personally become the 1%. Here’s what one person said on the Occupy website:

“I am the 1%.

I am the 1% that has my shit together. I am the 1% that doesn’t expect the government to take care of me. I am the 1% that believes in personal responsibility. I am the 1% that got a degree in a profession the market wants, instead of a degree in something useless that I enjoy. I am the 1% that worked my ass off to get good at that profession, allowing me to demand a high pay for my high skill level. I am the 1% that spent my whole life working while the other 99% fucked around or followed their dreams or indulged themselves at useless protests. I am the 1% that won at life. And in America, anyone can do the same just by working hard.

And I don’t owe any of you fucking failures anything.”

Expletives aside, it’s a pretty good argument. At least, in the capitalist mindset. Now, our society has problems and the socioeconomic divides are outrageous and are leading to a trend that needs to be addressed. But I just don’t think 70’s-esque protests are going to cut it. Our society has become so used to “alternative” ideas—the “indie” scene, new types of music, the internet age, the decline of traditionalist values—that a protest simply becomes another bandwagon, another story to cover, another act. After the 50’s, American alternative society was very controversial and it was the perfect time for the war movement, civil rights movement and other movements to occur because people were genuinely shocked. People just aren’t shocked anymore. And more importantly, the corporate entities know what they’re doing is wrong. A bunch of kids in south Manhattan isn’t going to make them ask for the washing away of their transgressions. Getting them to get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness will take a lot more than a few cardboard signs.

If anything’s going to work, it’s going to be a movement within these corporations. The age of protest in America is over. The protests across the world, particularly in the Arab Spring, have been awe-inspiring and exhilarating. But the sad truth is that it just simply can’t work in America.

If corporations don’t get their own act together (and let’s be honest, they probably never will because the essence of capitalism is to be self-centered), then maybe executive action needs to be taken. But because of political ties, that probably won’t happen either. Legislation addressing commerce would be inefficient, so that wouldn’t work either.

Clearly I have no golden key solutions to the socioeconomic disparities and inequalities in America today. I’m not a conservative. I’m not a liberal. I’m not a money-hungry capitalist. I’m just being realistic. That being said, I think that the Occupy movement is similar in that it doesn’t know exactly what it wants, and that will soon become a problem that could potentially fracture and breach the movement until they address it.

I want to talk to a majority of the protesters. I want to know exactly what they would give up to actually protest against the corporations. Their iPhones? Their Nikon/Canon cameras? Those nice warm tents they sleep in? The information they send to Huffington Post, the most corporation-ed out “news agency”?

Moreover, what do these protesters contribute to society? Did they vote in 2008? 2010? Will they vote next year? Would they have been willing to contribute as much time to volunteering at the local food bank or homeless shelter before the movement? Did they get a degree? Did they read both things they enjoyed and disagreed with, including the Wealth of Nations or the Bible or Quran or even the New York Times? Did they stay informed and keep up with the news, with current events? Did they hold doors open for others, pick up pens that strangers dropped? Call their parents? What do they do that gives them a right to defend their moral high ground?

The movement’s just one big messy bandwagon. I agree with what they’re fighting against, but they’ve gotta figure out a counter-argument based on what they’re fighting for. Do more than fight fire with fire. What I want to describe, the Elegance in the Details tumblr stated perfectly: be self-sufficient. Vote. Learn. Read. Just because the 1% doesn’t contribute to society doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. Burning buildings and occupying a park simply won’t get the movement anywhere close to where it should be.