Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No Pictures Please

Recently I read in a New York Times article that photojournalists are not being allowed to photograph - and certainly not allowed to print anything they do manage to get - anything the U.S. government deems too... shall we say, too real. The story was about a photographer not allowed anymore to even be near 'sensitive' areas in Iraq; from what I can tell, this is standard procedure.

I won't even discuss freedom of speech, freedom of information, censorship or the rest. That is certainly an issue but one (or many) I'll leave to others. For now I just want to focus on the basic concept that because of this sanitizing of the photos we see here in the U.S., many people still believe what we're doing over there is a good thing.

For the sake of this post I'll stay away from the actual politics and not talk about whether we have a right to be there, whether we should be leaving now or later, what lies were told to get us there in the first place, and I'll, again, focus on photos.

Anyone not an idiot has been sure to notice the lack of images of war in the news - we don't see the blood, the gore, the body parts. We don't see Americans dying. We hear cold numbers - 4,000. Four thousand and more dead in a war... and we see none of it?

We don't see Iraqis dying. The numbers here range from 10,000 - 100,000 depending on who you listen to - at its lowest, it's more than double the Americans who died.

And no matter who it is, we see no pictures. We don't see the screaming children covered in blood, the broken faces of mothers and fathers who have lost their sons or daughters in errant firefights, mistaken identity, stray bullets, or a suicide bomb. We don't see the shattered shops or homes. We don't get before and after images that shows us that Baghdad wasn't a backwater slum to begin with. This we don't see because it would make us monsters.

We don't see the destruction on the face of a young soldier who has just had to kill a man, who has seen his comrades die at his side, who has to live his life facing the fact that he is responsible for the deaths of tens, of hundreds of people. This we don't see because it would make us ask 'is it worth it?'

We don't see dead soldiers. At least, we don't see dead American soldiers. These we don't see because it would make it too real.

When we do see dead soldiers, they are nameless Iraqis. These we get to see because they are, after all, not us. They are 'other,' they are enemy.

Ultimately, we don't see this war. We get excuses: showing photographs of the dead will hurt the families; it will dishonor the dead; it is not the point.

Actually, it is the only point.
If Americans could actually see - in living, bloody color - what war does to people, they might think twice (or four times, or eight) about sending young men and women out to kill others.
If Americans could see - in living, bloody color - what death really looks like, they'd be a lot less likely to vote into office another man who would jump at the chance to attack, who believes war is inevitable.
And if Americans were actually allowed to see - in living, bloody color - what war truly IS, they would, I think, work harder to figure out how not to destroy lives in this way again.

As it is, we open the paper and see words on the page: another soldier died in Kirkuk, another suicide bomber killed 10 or 20 or 40; another house was mistakenly bombed and 5 children killed. These words might begin to tell a story, but for us to truly understand, we need to see it.

We need to see what we bring into the world. We need to see what our actions do. For if we cannot see - in living, bloody color - what five children killed really looks like, then that is the tragedy. That is the dishonor. And that is the path to yet more and more - and more - dead children.

I say let the photographers in, let them make their own choices about what is fit for us to see. It's easy. If you don't want to see what this war is, what it does, what we do - then don't look.

It is always our choice to turn away and to choose what not to see.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Globalization and Starbucks

You know... I have to say that I am of mixed feelings about the concept of Globalization.

I agree 100% that the destruction of cultures in the name of progess is reprehensible. Western culture is particularly insidious; it is seen by many as the 'civilized' world, and many countries want to not only emulate but also participate in Western culture... opening the doors for the horrifying spectre of a McDonald's in Piazza Rotunda last year. I am frightened that the merging of cultures (really, the encroaching of Western ideas on the rest of the world) might result in the disappearance of local cultures everywhere. (I'm not convinced this is inevitable but for the sake of argument I can state vehemently that if it happened, this would be tragic.)

However, if the concept of Globalization is understood as an opening of communication, a sharing of ideas and concepts and/or a breakdown of stereotypes and misunderstandings throughout the world, with easier access to others' cultures and ideas... and if it all is approached with care, then I applaud it.

As with the advent of any new thing, it is the application of the technology or concept that matters, not the thing itself. Arguments could be made for the good and bad in almost every concept or invention throughout history -- from the big giant stick that could be used both as a weapon to beat one's neighbor or as an oar to row a boat, to nuclear power which has the potential to destroy us all, or power entire countries -- and Globalization is just as potentially terrifying, and potentially wonderous.

Bottom line... I dread the day Starbucks worms its way into Rome (though at home I visit it three times a week or more), and I hope countries worldwide don't get caught up in the game of trying to "keep up" by installing Western versions of all things in their cities and their lives. The danger lies in the potential for destruction of cultures around the globe.

On the other hand, I have faith that people will hold to their senses of identity (another slippery concept) and will still be Italians, still be Turkish, still be Germans, whether drinking a glass of wine or eating an order of fries.

I hope.....

Saturday, July 19, 2008

New Directions

I've been writing on various slips of paper for a number of years the following goals:
  • Travel, Write and Teach
  • Run writing retreats in Italy
  • Learn Middle Eastern Dance
  • Speak Italian
  • Travel in Turkey
  • Write movies
  • Write books
All of which seemed normal and doable - and so, I did them. And continue to do them. But there was this other goal...
  • Be Peter Bergen... wait, what?
Obviously I don't want to really be Peter Bergen - that would be silly, and impossible. What I want is to do what he does, or what I imagine he does based on reading his books and hearing him speak.

To that end I finally applied for and was accepted into a PhD program at the University of New Mexico to study... cultural theory, terrorism - the history, the mindset, the groups, the way they shift and eventually become entities other nations will deal with - and how 'othering' is accomplished through word and image in media, and what are its inevitable results. What I intend to do with this degree is write about, teach, and become an expert on those subjects. (See, there's the tie to Peter Bergen - tenuous as it is. I'll be an expert on terrorism in the Middle East, an expert on othering, and will theoretically be called by CNN or other news orgs to give my two-cents worth. Would love to be interviewed on Foreign Exchange, too, once I actually have something to say.)

I set up this blog spot specifically to have a space for my thoughts on various political and cultural issues as they came to me. I subsequently wrote nothing in it for a year.

I'm back. The PhD program will provide me with not only a place to learn and explore new concepts and ideas, but will generate a ton of new thoughts about the world we live in, the way it's shaping up and breaking down, and how it seems to be moving inevitably toward... well, maybe the only thing that's inevitable is the future. We'll see how it works out.

I'm excited that we'll see the first black American president in three months, and I'm apprehensive and hopeful both about the way the world is moving. Peace talks seem to be replacing bombs in some areas of the Middle East; and on the streets of Afghanistan, women still can't show their faces.

It's at the center where we'll find the truth.

Until next time....