Does silence always equal consent?

Standard

It’s past midnight now (I’m in Atlanta this week speaking at, and staffing the WordPress.com/VIP/Longreads booth at the AAJA conference.) My colleagues and I stayed up late to enjoy a last, late snack and drinks before we fly off to our respective corners of the country tomorrow, but I’m still wide awake and mulling over the keynote speakers at tonight’s unforgettable gala.

First, Captain Sulu — er, George Takei — spoke. He was interviewed by Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline. They chatted more than I expected about his experiences on the original Star Trek series (how many times has Mr. Takei answered the question of what his favorite Star Trek moment was? Even a lot of non-Trekkies like myself know that it’s the episode where Sulu gets to fence and save Uhura’s life), but mostly they discussed his activism on behalf of the Asian-American and LGBTQ communities. He’s currently promoting his upcoming AMC anthology series, The Terror: Infamy, described as a show that “infuses historical drama with supernatural horror.” Set in World War II, season 2 of the series zeroes in on the story of the Japanese American internment camps and is notable for featuring a large Asian-American cast and senior crew, including showrunner Alexander Woo and director Lily Mariye.

George Takei on stage with Juju Chen.

While a lot of folks know Takei primarily as Star Trek’s Sulu, he’s especially famous in the Asian-American community for his fierce and tireless activism. He helped found the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles; starred in Allegiance, a Broadway musical loosely based on his own experiences at an internment camp; and has used his hugely popular Facebook page (currently at 10 million followers and growing) to share both hilarious memes and disturbing stories about racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hate. He recently published a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, about that brutal period in early childhood when he and his family were imprisoned by the American government simply for looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Next was Congressman John Lewis, whom I’ve always known as a legendary civil rights leader, and frequent news show guest, but whom I’d never seen or heard speak in person. He radiated wisdom and gravity, and the entire, packed ballroom fell silent each time he spoke. He was interviewed by renowned broadcast journalist Elaine Quijano, and they spoke of his early work as a civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s as well as his thoughts on the current, distressing state of our fractured union. At some point he quietly said, “Silence is consent.”

The last keynote speaker was Maria Ressa, the founder and CEO of Rappler and one of TIME Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, and who is currently being charged by the Duterte administration in the Philippines of cyber libel and tax evasion. Ressa’s case gained considerable worldwide attention earlier last month when it was announced that Amal Clooney has joined Ressa’s defense team.

Maria Ressa

Ressa, never afraid to speak truth to power, is a tiny woman with a big smile and an even bigger well of courage and grace. It’s astounding that this charming, articulate, funny woman standing in the spotlight on stage in this fancy Atlanta hotel ballroom poses such an existential threat to the Duterte government that it will risk international condemnation in order to silence her. It’s also a clear sign that this clumsy, obnoxious, and brutal regional bully and strongman (oh, hell, let’s call him what he is: a dictator), who wields presidential power as if he’s engaged in a dick-sizing contest with fellow bullies and strongmen even within his own country, is making the same mistake as all other bullies and strongmen: underestimating the power of the press in general and this fearless journalist in particular.

And I keep going back to what Congressman Lewis said: “Silence is consent.” All three of these s/heroes have refused to be silent and have let their actions and words drive and inspire change. Is it possible to be silent — neutral, distant, removed, detached — and yet still be counted among those who support important humanitarian causes like freedom of speech, poverty elimination, education for women and girls, voting rights, reproductive rights, prison reform, criminal justice reform, and basic healthcare for all, to name just a few of the issues whose solutions remain elusive? What is enough? What is activism? Does contributing money but not time count? Does contributing time but not money count?

And what does it mean to be a liberal activist? If your particular brand of advocacy means outreach to disaffected and marginalized communities that also happened to have voted for Trump because they believed he was going to be their Messiah and deliver them to the Promised Land of well-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits and middle class comforts, does that count as activism? In an era when even some of the most empathetic liberal activists consider all Trump supporters — no exception — to be racist misogynists at heart, is it possible to imagine an activism that includes compassion and a desire for understanding beyond stereotypes and a simplistic view of a very complicated and human conflict?

I ask because I don’t know the answer. But I’m glad to have the question, and the lives and works of three unforgettable, inspiring and larger-than-life true s/heroes to reflect on as I pursue that answer.

Carolina On My Mind

Standard

"South Carolina State House." Photo by Mikel Manitius. Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/cirXzE.

“South Carolina State House.” Photo by Mikel Manitius. Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/cirXzE.

The shootings in Charleston have been on my mind quite a lot lately, not least because I lived there for several years in the late ’90s, both for graduate school and for a couple of years of work after I finished my studies at the University of South Carolina.

I’ve always thought the genteel, quietly elegant and polite society of South Carolina was far more sophisticated and mature than just about any city I’ve ever visited or lived in here in the United States. Outsiders only see the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds, but while the black heart of racism clearly still beats in this otherwise verdant state, and deep, crippling poverty afflicts a shockingly high percentage of the population, there’s so much more to South Carolina that can’t simply be reduced to what you see in the national headlines.

There is, of course, so much genuine kindness, compassion, and generosity overflowing in every city South Carolina. The outpouring of forgiveness and unfathomable grace that the community of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston extended towards the killer during his appearance before a judge last week is but one example of just how much that city has truly earned its moniker, The Holy City. There is also hate and there is plenty of resentment. There is a deep well of grief and sadness with roots woven tightly into family histories dating back generations. There is ugly racism, social inequality, and the ever present shadow of vicious hate groups devoted to the denigration of other races.

But during my four years in Columbia, where my route to and from school was within the shadow of the Confederate flag when it still flew over the capitol dome, I also met some of the finest, most welcoming people, many of whom later became dear friends. I worked at a private college that was surrounded by a predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken community, and the administration was (and is) active in breaking down the barriers between “town and gown” that often afflict institutions in similar settings. I lived in the same neighborhood myself, and I and a close friend often ran for miles through its maze of dark streets at 5:30 am and never once felt unsafe.

I’m also not white, in case that’s not obvious, and while racial relations in South Carolina was and still is defined largely along black/white lines, I was welcome to attend and participate in panels and workshops that addressed the ongoing struggle to move beyond the struggles of the civil rights movements of decades past and forge a better future. And yep, there was plenty of discussion, plenty of words spoken, lots of handouts distributed. Outsiders assume that, as in many parts of the country, South Carolina doesn’t know how to — and doesn’t want to — face the intractable problem of racism that still exists in the Palmetto State, but the truth is that it does and wants to.

It could certainly move much faster, and clearly, as the events of the past week have demonstrated, there remains a lot of work to be done. But the way that Charlestonians and South Carolinians everywhere have come together to grieve and honor its dead, and how swiftly Governor Nikki Haley and other elected officials of both parties called for the removal of the Confederate flag after years of ignoring the issue, demonstrate just how much things have changed and will continue to change, and that no one will be ignored, whatever their skin color.

Nicholas Kristof, you're my hero

Standard

I first heard about Kristof when he became the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. I was living in Japan at the time and read an interview with him and his wife and colleague, Sheryl WuDunn, in the Japan Times. He now writes a biweekly column for the Times about humanitarian crises around the world, frequently traveling from Africa to Asia in his quest to uncover and highlight some of the most egregious acts man has ever committed against his fellow human beings.

Yeah, he’s my hero. In an interview with Guernica magazine, he briefly touches on the challenges of balancing his responsibilities as a journalist with that of being a private citizen who cares about people. When is it appropriate to “cross the line” between being a reporter and being an activist? If you read any of his columns over the last few years, you’ll quickly realize that Kristof doesn’t appear too bothered by this delicate balance. He’s written passionately about the crisis in Darfur and the sex-slave trade in Cambodia. He’s also produced videos about his work, including a response to reader questions about how they can help out with some of the issues he addresses in his columns. He’s not just filing the facts; he’s also vocal about the need for Americans — both ordinary citizens and our political leaders — to become more personally involved in some of the most horrifying crises facing our world today..

I’d love to see my own little column in the Free Press do just that. I’ve always positioned myself firmly in the left side of the political spectrum and have never apologized for doing so in my column. Still, the idea of using the column as a platform for highlighting issues that are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media appeals to me. Not that the issues I tackle (immigration, feminism, minority rights, etc.) are necessarily under-the-radar, but I am tired of seeing the same five people speaking on behalf of millions. Especially if those same five people are the same five white, privileged people.

Yeah, Kristof is a white, privileged journalist. (His wife, WuDunn, recently left the Times to become a wealth advisor at Goldman Sachs. Yeah, that Goldman Sachs. So no, they’re not doing too badly.) But I like that his columns are reminiscent of the articles that Mariane Pearl is writing for Glamour magazine. Pearl profiles a prominent woman activist in each of various countries around the world, and her columns are decidedly liberal and activist in tone, as befitting her subjects. Kristof does the same, albeit in a much larger forum, with an even greater and more diverse audience than Pearl commands. It’s a sad fact of life that the privileged classes are more likely to listen to a voice if it belongs to one of their own, but at least that voice is committed to speaking out about the forgotten majority. The un-privileged, if you will.

Nicholas Kristof, you’re my hero

Standard

I first heard about Kristof when he became the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. I was living in Japan at the time and read an interview with him and his wife and colleague, Sheryl WuDunn, in the Japan Times. He now writes a biweekly column for the Times about humanitarian crises around the world, frequently traveling from Africa to Asia in his quest to uncover and highlight some of the most egregious acts man has ever committed against his fellow human beings.

Yeah, he’s my hero. In an interview with Guernica magazine, he briefly touches on the challenges of balancing his responsibilities as a journalist with that of being a private citizen who cares about people. When is it appropriate to “cross the line” between being a reporter and being an activist? If you read any of his columns over the last few years, you’ll quickly realize that Kristof doesn’t appear too bothered by this delicate balance. He’s written passionately about the crisis in Darfur and the sex-slave trade in Cambodia. He’s also produced videos about his work, including a response to reader questions about how they can help out with some of the issues he addresses in his columns. He’s not just filing the facts; he’s also vocal about the need for Americans — both ordinary citizens and our political leaders — to become more personally involved in some of the most horrifying crises facing our world today..

I’d love to see my own little column in the Free Press do just that. I’ve always positioned myself firmly in the left side of the political spectrum and have never apologized for doing so in my column. Still, the idea of using the column as a platform for highlighting issues that are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media appeals to me. Not that the issues I tackle (immigration, feminism, minority rights, etc.) are necessarily under-the-radar, but I am tired of seeing the same five people speaking on behalf of millions. Especially if those same five people are the same five white, privileged people.

Yeah, Kristof is a white, privileged journalist. (His wife, WuDunn, recently left the Times to become a wealth advisor at Goldman Sachs. Yeah, that Goldman Sachs. So no, they’re not doing too badly.) But I like that his columns are reminiscent of the articles that Mariane Pearl is writing for Glamour magazine. Pearl profiles a prominent woman activist in each of various countries around the world, and her columns are decidedly liberal and activist in tone, as befitting her subjects. Kristof does the same, albeit in a much larger forum, with an even greater and more diverse audience than Pearl commands. It’s a sad fact of life that the privileged classes are more likely to listen to a voice if it belongs to one of their own, but at least that voice is committed to speaking out about the forgotten majority. The un-privileged, if you will.

V-Day in New Orleans, Pinay-style

Standard

Ever see Eve Ensler’s fascinating, over-the-top, and unabashedly in-your-face multi-character performance piece, The Vagina Monologues? B. and I saw it with a couple of our friends a few years ago at my alma mater, and boy, was that…interesting. Not in a bad way, but definitely in a thought-provoking, what-the-hell-is-this, hmmm-this-is-awful-awesome-heartrending-terrifying-utterly damning kinda way. You can’t walk out of it without your head spinning one way and then another, like the earth out of orbit, whacked out of its own axis. A million variations exist, as each company that performs it inevitably — hopefully — takes it apart and puts it back together again with its own unique interpretation. But it all comes down to one single, singular theme, that of reclaiming that which makes us women, that center of our bodies and souls that terrifies men, inflames passions and provokes war. Yeah, we’re talking the vagina here, but more than that, it’s about the woman who possesses it and the power she holds but is often too afraid to wield.

Check out the V-Day Web site of the New Orleans staging of the show. Jane Fonda, Ali Larter, Rosario Dawson, Jennifer Hudson, Faith Hill, and many other celebrities joined thousands of New Orleans current and former residents to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Vagina Monologues. Many women of the so-called New Orleans diaspora returned specifically for this event, and the site showcases dozens of photographs of the event and the parade. Plus, bonus here: renowned Filipina stage actress Monique Wilson (who served as understudy for Lea Salonga in the original London/West End production of Miss Saigon) performed alongside three other international actors in a segment praising — in four different languages, including Tagalog — Cunt (Engish)/Cono (Spanish)/Fica (Italian)/Puki (Tagalog). You can see the video here.

Plus, I also found Washington, DC-based Code Pink’s blog. Code Pink, of course, is a global, grassroots peace movement with the goal of ending the war in Iraq and “all future wars.” I found the DC site primarily from my Google Alert for “comfort women,” and found a lengthy report of Ret. Col. Ann Wright’s speaking tour of Japan. I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says — I think that Japan’s Article 9, while admirable, won’t work globally, if only because there will always be rogue state leaders and military honchos who will take advantage of another country’s lack of defense (that’s the realpolitik student in me coming out) — but I understand the appeal and still believe in its principles. I suppose as a young ‘un I would have been right up there alongside Col. Wright as an ardent pacifist, but now I prefer to think of myself as a peace activist, one who would like to see a world governed by wise stateswomen and -men with the intention of maintaining peace at all costs but without succumbing to the naive belief that it can be achieved solely by a unilateral laying down of arms. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

I was happy to see, though, that she also met with representatives working on behalf of the Japanese comfort women, and that she has singled out in particular the horrendous abuse inflicted on the local Okinawan population by the American military. I was living in Japan in 1995 when the gang-rape case involving American servicemen and a 12-year-old school girl exploded all over the news media. I’ve no idea how much attention it received here, but it definitely dominated the Japanese media for months. From what I understand, it’s still very much a raw wound in Okinawan society today.

For more info on this case and many others like it involving the US military on Okinawa, check out the link to Wright’s travel report above.

Two in one!

Standard

I got two bylines in the local paper today: my regular weekly column and a feature article on Frank R. Hayde, a friend of mine who recently published his first solo work, The Mafia and the Machine: A Story of the Kansas City Mob. (He co-authored a book about Zion National Park a few years ago. It’s available for sale at all U.S. National Park bookstores as part of the Story Behind the Scenery series.) Frank’s currently a park ranger at Colorado National Monument but had somehow managed to find time to research and write a history of the Kansas City Mafia and its ties to local politics.

And I complain about not having enough time to do everything.

Had a fantastic conversation with Tom Acker, a professor of Spanish at Mesa State College and a well-known immigration activist. KEXO, the only local station that broadcasts Spanish-language programming, is threatening to pull all of that if they can’t bring their advertising revenues for the programs to $15,000/month. They’re asking for a monthly “sponsorship” of $500 from at least 20 businesses in order to keep the lights on for Alex Martinez and Esmeralda Martinez, the two DJ’s who run the shows. Acker is a fantastic resource for just about anything you want to know about immigration and the local Hispanic community; I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue, the fact that — according to Tom — 20% (!!) of the local population is Hispanic (when I thought we were talking single-digits here) and that they’re so invisible, despite their purported numbers.

I hope to learn more as Tom introduces me to others in the community familiar with the issues at stake. I have a feeling there’s a huge amount of information about minority issues in our region that remains hidden — deliberately or not — from the rest of us.

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights: Responsible Philanthropy

Standard

The brilliant Deborah Siegel over at Girl with Pen wrote a post today about the Bloggers Unite for Human Rights challenge today, in which bloggers are encouraged to write about a particular human rights issue on their sites. I’ve seen the Web site and have read through some of their articles but have yet to really delve into it. Still, I love the idea and am hoping that others will step forward and promote the cause. The immediacy of blogging, the global reach of the Internet and the passion with which so many bloggers write can only help to shine the spotlight on some of the more egregious violations of human rights around the world.

My own “pet” causes revolve primarily around the human rights of women, whether we’re talking about violence against women (in peacetime, in the home and during wartime), poverty, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and a myriad of other injustices waged against 50% of the world’s population every single day. For today’s post, though, I’m going to focus on responsible philanthropy. I wrote a comment on just this topic on Deborah’s post but will reiterate and elaborate on it here.

The devastation wrought by Mother Nature on China and Myanmar the last two weeks have galvanized millions around the world to send donations to the region and to charities involved in the relief efforts. It reminds me of the outpouring of support and grief that followed the Asian tsunami in December of 2004. Even B. and I tried to get involved at that time. We immediately donated money to Doctors Without Borders but also wanted to do much, much more. As someone who’s worked in nonprofits for most of her professional career, I knew that what charities needed most of all was money, so rather than piling bags of rice and food into shipping containers and spending hundreds of dollars and expending tons of fuel to transport them across the oceans to Southeast Asia, we instead decided to organize an art show, with all proceeds to be donated to the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. After two months of frustrating red tape with B.’s church (the pastor of which had originally agreed to host the event), we ended up having to abandon the idea because of fears by the church elders of liability, logistics, blah blah blah. Their council ultimately rejected our proposal, and by then it was months after the event. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to stage the event as well as we would have liked had we chosen to hold it elsewhere, given that months had already passed since the tsunami and people’s attention would be focused elsewhere. The sense of urgency had passed, even if the need was still great — if not more so — and we didn’t have the confidence that we could still “sell” the event to artists and the community.

What the church did instead, however, was organize a food drive that included tons of bottled water, among other things. Now, if you’ll remember correctly, the Red Cross and other aid agencies had managed to restore safe sources of potable water supplies within weeks after the tsunami hit. Still, that didn’t stop well-meaning but misguided donors from continuing to throw millions of water bottles to the region. Much of it ended up cluttering the warehouses.

The church wasn’t the only one to practice irresponsible philanthropy. Reports evaluation donor response after the tsunami revealed countless other examples of useless donations by donors from outside the region who bypassed the aid agencies intimately familiar with the disaster and instead directly sent whatever they “felt” the victims needed. Some sent used clothes and expired medicines. Others sent teddy bears, ostensibly for the children affected by the tsunami, but there was little thought or consideration of whether or not the items would actually be welcomed by a culture not familiar with the toy, much less whether they were appropriate, given the more pressing needs for permanent shelter, medical assistance and psychological evaluation.

When you consider the amount of money required to transport these goods — whether via air or sea — from great distances, you’re looking at potentially millions of dollars that could have been used to provide the victims with the assistance they really needed. Months, even years after the fact, many tsunami victims still have not been able to build permanent homes for themselves. The devastation tore families and communities apart — the post-traumatic stress of such a disaster required considerable psychological counseling, but not everyone was able to receive it. Aid agencies well-versed in the logistical, social and economic needs of the communities affected by the disaster would have been excellent sources of information on what the people really needed. Unfortunately, many donors chose not to use them and instead sent whatever they felt the victims needed based on their own flawed, ill-informed judgment.

This isn’t to knock America’s well-known and well-deserved reputation for philanthropy. We’re the most generous nation on earth, and for that we should be commended. But I urge donors to any disaster to consider the impact of their donation, and whether or not it is truly needed. If you’re not personally familiar with the situation on the ground, please don’t succumb to the knee-jerk reaction to just do something for the sake of doing it. What aid agencies need the most is money. Their experience dealing with disasters has provided them with the knowledge on how to best handle relief and recovery efforts. (A friend of mine who once volunteered with the American Red Cross had to undergo weeks of training in order to be familiar with the process of disaster relief.) Relief isn’t just a matter of throwing things at a catastrophe and hoping they’ll find a good home. It involves intricate coordination among dozens, if not thousands of other charities, government agencies, the military, and yes, the affected communities in order to ensure that much-needed supplies and assistance reach those who require them the most.

So before you gather up your used clothes, Star Wars action figures, water bottles, half-empty aspirin bottles, chocolate bars, and winter jackets to pack up and send to remote China or Myanmar, pick up the phone and call any of the established agencies already working in the region and coordinating relief efforts. Ask them what they need. If they need dried beans, rice or Viagra, they’ll tell you. If they need compact fluorescent bulbs, high-heeled shoes or battered old suitcases, they’ll tell you.

What they will always tell you is that they need money. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “donating money” is a lower form of philanthropy. (How that idea took hold, I’ll never know.) Unless you’re an engineer or medical professional or someone else with the skills critical for rebuilding the region, the best thing you can contribute to the relief effort is money. The aid agencies can best determine where the funds will go and how to maximize its impact. No amount of teddy bears and canned fish can replace that.

Three well-known, well-established and experienced organizations you might consider donating to are:

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres

International Committee of the Red Cross

Save the Children