the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

Archive for the ‘RANT’ Category

The Message

In RANT on November 14, 2010 at 11:00 pm

When I worked with the non-profit Children Now, an advocacy group that pushes for improved children’s healthcare and education legislation, I noticed that an inordinate amount of time was spent crafting our Message. The Message had to be 1) targeted and 2) reproducible.  It had to pull at a specific legislator’s heartstrings—“20% of kids in CA lack health insurance” was too broad; “Orange County ERs spend $10 million per year on treating uninsured children, the majority of which are from working-class families” was spot-on (note: a. the local flavor, b. the scary budget stat, c. the mention of every politician’s friend, the middle class). You could not talk about “opportunity rights” or “under-insurance” or, god-forbid, “illegal immigrants”; all things philosophical, subtle, scientific were banished—even though every lunch room conversation at Children Now centered on these issues.

We chalked up our dumbing down of the Message to “reality of Politics,” as if our work was somehow outside the big P, un-dirtied by questionable donations or unconcerned with self-preservation.

Humanitarian groups and advocacy NGOs, as Philip Gourevitch explains in The New Yorker (I posted his article a week ago here), seem convinced that their work is above (if not a pointed questioning of their methods) an interrogation of their core principles. These values usually include something along the lines of “we do not engage in political activities.” Gourevitch debunks this myth quickly and completely:

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is [that] of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst—the Red Cross [offered] its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.

The common reply—and I’m guilty of making this argument in conversations about my own international service—is that Aid groups are cognizant of the hypocrisy of impartiality, and integrate these concerns into organization discussions and strategy development. That’s a cop-out. Think back to Children Now and the Message: the second stipulation was that it had to be reproducible—we would send out press releases and policy pamphlets completely aware that the Message was crafted to create the most noise among Sacramento insiders or the media, not the most cogent argument for a specific piece of policy. The self delusion was that we were arguing for Universally-accepted and Morally-responsible policy: we were, instead, simply creating something universally-heard. It was the moral equivalent of what Gourevitch opens his piece with—“Stick-limbed, balloon-bellied, ancient-eyed, the tiny, failing bodies of Biafra had become as heavy a presence on evening-news broadcasts as battlefield dispatches from Vietnam.” Children Now went the pictures-of-healthy-and-adorable-kids route, but the Message maintains its equivalency: If you do not help these kids Now, you lack a conscience.

That insults an intelligent individual’s concept of conscience. It lacks any sense of temporality—the idea that the urgency of humanitarian disaster excuses us from questioning the politics of the crisis’s origin or weighing the effects of supplying acute care against a long-term presence. It lacks a concern for scale or proportion—is stopping 200 isolated, but brutal deaths really of greater importance than providing schooling and shelter for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and preventing future turmoil by empowering young refugees? (I don’t intend to suggest a purely Utilitarian metric should be applied to aid decisions: such a metric is inherently flawed precisely because it ignores the fact that personal values bias determinations of equivalency. My point is that the Message is created, and propagated by the press, to completely exclude possible assistance of other at-need groups from the discussion). And it lacks any self-interrogation:  Does it matter where aid money comes from? What is the end-goal of humanitarianism? (Read this profile on economist Esther Duflo if you want to explore measurable objectives in foreign aid more) What exactly is a “human right”?

I wish Gourevitch had discussed this last question further. He mentions that the humanitarian movement and “the human rights lobby” were introduced to the world at the same time as the pictures of children from the Biafra famine lit up American TVs, and this seems apt: What’s better for the self-preservation of a movement than the simultaneous establishment of incontrovertible, universal Truths that just happen to align with your movement’s goals?

I want to write about the concept of Human Rights in greater depth in future posts, so I’ll begin throwing together a sloppy  working thesis here: I’m suspicious of any idea that is deemed sacred and inarguable, but my suspicions aren’t systemically important—instead, I think humanitarian groups and at-need populations would gain mutually from an acknowledgement by aid workers that their personal (religious/political/economical) values, not the false pursuit of Rights and Moral Obligations, can both positively influence and detract from the needs and expectations of a community in crisis.

And the best way to do that is to 1) let the at-need population decide which groups will help them, 2) create an international body that could prosecute groups for breaking from their aid commitment or failing to factor in the costs of externalities incurred by their care, and 3) do away with the UN Human Rights charter. (Gasp!) Why?  Because  the idea of “crisis” would then cease to exist—and the media and aid NGOs would be forced to trace or address socio-political battles as what they truly are: an ongoing clash of individual values. Because we should be having arguments about the political process in struggling countries, and dispersing aid to those nations that demonstrate a measurable and fixable need, not defining or discussing the relative importance of Woman’s Rights vs. Food Rights vs. Education Rights. The Message will continue to be the life blood of aid groups as long as the media and donors unquestioningly accept it as Truth—but policy papers or NGO billboards don’t need to defend Truth; they need (and the recipients of their care need) Honesty.

RANT: Cable News

In RANT, the msm blows on October 21, 2010 at 7:25 pm

As elections approach, the best thing you can do is turn off your TV.

All forms of news media, perhaps most notably television, have a strong incentive to convince Americans that We are the beating heart of a healthy public discourse. CNN has “YOU DECIDE” plastered to its ads, Time magazine named “You” as the person of the year in 2008, Fox News relies on instant text polls when it’s not directly taking calls from Real Americans. In this You Decide narrative, the town hall health care meetings of last summer are held up as the pinnacle of Participatory Democracy.

But individual voices didn’t emerge from the clangor of those meetings—unique anecdotes of suffering un/underinsured Americans were repeated so often they became meta-narratives. And the “You” foregrounded by Time or CNN has been similarly conflated to the point where living people become talking points. This is not the golden age of participatory democracy: the Citizens United case confirmed what the downturn of 2008 proved—corporate “free speech” (ie, profits) will be maintained even if their protection inflicts human suffering; anti-war positions are quickly denounced by both political parties as un-patriotic. We (small “w”) are the sclerotic heart within a sickly public discourse.

While most discussions of about the capital-P Public center on entitlements—our country’s system of shaky-at-best “safety nets”—these debates quickly become emotional exchanges, untethered to reason, logic, etc. Nazis are usually mentioned, Sarah Palin tweets nonsense, shouting ensues. It’s not very productive. But I think—or, at least, I really want to believe—that we can have important, human discussions about what the public discourse, and the media’s inevitable involvement  in this discourse, should look like.

How should politicians receive input from their constituents? What percentage of cable news programming should cover international events? What role should advocacy groups or lobbyists play in developing new laws? How can we combat still-continuing disenfranchisement of minority groups? What role should physicians or health insurance companies play in the development of health care legislation? Does the world really need Wolf Blitzer? –these questions (excluding the last) are critical because their answers reposition the collective consciousness on the process of democracy and away from its current obsession with defining American-ness, Freedom, and other proper nouns made vacant of meaning from overuse.

The fallacy of the “You Decide” media is its reactive nature. At no time are outside individuals dictating what news is presented or prioritized by the Fox News’s of the world—we can only respond to their narrative, which serves only to reinforce the media’s obsession with a stark (and false, constructed) polarity of arguments.

Rant: Advocacy

In RANT on October 18, 2010 at 9:06 pm


The methods and objectives of Advocacy groups mirror, in many ways, what we think of as ideal governance—forming coalitions, using constituent voices, overcoming an unsustainable status quo. Something predictable, then, happens when these morally upright means run into the illogical, self-protecting, ends-centered reality inhabited by politicians: advocacy groups fail.

They fail not because of the goodness or fairness of their message, but because they are not disruptive enough. Confronted with the perennial tangle of lobbyist influence, political seniority, unchallengeable party memos, advocacy efforts do little to make these relationships problematic for senators or representatives.

What is needed—advocates running for office on a one-issue platform, boycotts of the businesses that provide specific politicians with their campaign funding, outbidding corporations for their lobbyists—can seem unrealistic and unpalatable for groups that have relied on grassroots campaigns in the past. But advocating for change while failing to adapt your methods to a new political reality is simply foolhardy.

501c3 status currently prohibits advocacy groups from directly supporting political campaigns (they may allot 50% of their cashflows to “issue-based” advertising). But if the Citizens United case can give corporations free reign with respect to their contributions to politicians, advocacy groups should fight for their own monetized “free speech.” For those arguing that the politicization of not-for-profits somehow cheapens or degrades the purity of advocacy efforts, the health reform debate offers an uncomfortable truth about the scale of equivocation and petty bartering already existing within the advocacy ranks—the public option, by many accounts, was a victim of competing demands of politicians who had the unquestioning support of special interest advocacy groups. (click below to read on)

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