June 10, 2009

Egg All Over Our Faces: It’s Not Just Nick Griffin

Posted in Culture Wars, Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 am by M L Clark

When you realize what’s missing in mainstream coverage of the election of two British National Party (BNP) candidates to European Parliament, you shouldn’t be able to stand all at once. Really, the omission should stun you. And if you can’t laugh aloud at it, out of shame and awkwardness at the absurdity of the thing, you might never be the same again. I won’t tell you what it is right away, though: I’m curious to see if you reach the same conclusion — and how quickly you do. In the meantime, let me lay out the story at hand, as it’s been reported throughout the mainstream British and North American media.

After Nick Griffin and Andrew Born became the first members of the BNP, which has a “restrictive membership policy” refusing entry to blacks and asians, to attain such levels of legitimate power, there was much talk of public reaction, and justifications for their election in the first place. Within hours, Griffin had egg on his face — literally — as protestors shouted “Off our streets, Nazi scum” and held up banners condemning the party as fascist. Meanwhile, broadcasters resigned themselves to giving him airtime — a perk necessitated by his new position, but entered into cautiously because of cultural reluctance to give forum to concepts like racism and xenophobia.

And there are indeed both here. While Geert Wilders, of the Dutch Freedom Party — and another member of European Parliament — claims his issue is with “Islam as an ideology, not the colour of people’s skin”, Griffin managed to change his party into something more approachable without veering from “core values” like the following, shared on BBC Radio 5 Live after his election:

“All indigenous people all over the world have certain rights and one of those is to control their own borders so their bloodline and their culture remains dominant in their country without being hostile to anybody else. It is a basic human right.”

He is, of course, also a Holocaust denier (his adolescence in the National Socialist Movement, a group honouring Hitler and responsible for cases of arson on Jewish property, he typifies as “youthful indiscretion”), though he’s cleverly sought to downplay perceptions of anti-Semitism in his party — and why not, when clearly the menace of Islam is such that a few Jews kicking about are small peas in comparison?

So the “global warming is a hoax” shtick he also forwards — condemning an exploitative liberal base for using this issue to over-tax hard-working citizens (see? people who support immigration are just all around jerks to decent white British folk!) when the real issue is clearly peak oil (read: our need to stop being dependent on foreigners for anything) — is really just the cherry on top of one enormous shit sundae.

More interesting still is how the BNP was able to gain so much traction so quickly — a multifaceted development that leaves some thankful they only received two seats in total (Ed West of The Telegraph, writing about the need for a less polemic debate about immigration, reports that some were predicting five, or even eight, handed off). On the one hand, the BNP exploited the hell out of a recent expense claims scandal in British parliament, with Griffin deftly culling the working class vote from the Labour Party after lax rules allowed such expenses as the following to be billed to a nation already struggling with the impact of global recession:

NYT — For the Tories, the worst embarrassments lay in charges for the clearing of a moat, a shipment of horse manure for a garden, the maintenance of sprawling woodlands, the installation of a miniature “duck house” in a country house pond. The more mundane needs of Laborites and Liberal Democrats were met by claims for nonexistent mortgages, dry-rot repairs at the house of a Labor M.P.’s partner, and a Liberal Democrat’s trouser press. Before he resigned over the scandal, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, claimed thousands of pounds for a chauffeur-driven car that drove him about his Glasgow constituency, one of Britain’s poorest.

Consequent displays of “breathtaking arrogance” didn’t help, either:

Anthony Steen, a 69-year-old Conservative, told a BBC reporter that $135,000 in claims for the upkeep of his country home were nobody’s business. “Do you know what it’s about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It’s a merchant’s house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive. It just does me nicely.”

So if it weren’t for the fact that the party turned to in this time of great public anger, resentment, and disillusionment, is itself one of anger, resentment, and disillusionment (to say nothing of being racially motivated in its manifestations of all three), you might even say the House of Commons had it coming.

But then again, the victories weren’t garnered solely on account of the expense claims scandal; Griffin himself said there was “an enormous correlation between high BNP votes and nearby Islamic populations.” Which leads to the other part of their winning strategy: Making the threat of immigration quantifiable, by highlighting how it directly targets the children of good, decent, white British folk.

Enter the high profile subject of Muslim “grooming” of white girls for sex, and the presentation of a calmer, more reasonable-seeming Griffin on the BNP website, where he introduces a series of three “deeply shocking” videos with such moderate caveats as “We’re not putting these up because we want to alarm people or be sensationalist, but because we want to draw attention to a really serious and growing problem in our multicultural society.”

They are upsetting, too, so consider yourself forewarned if you watch them (Part I, Part II, Part III). And they speak to a nation-wide crisis Britain has at present with exceedingly low conviction rates for rape in the country, alongside a systemic problem with cases being dismissed “by officers with a ‘Life on Mars’ attitude based on making snap judgments about the credibility of the victim,” according to The Guardian.

And it’s precious, too, that in follow-up to his comment about the demographics of his voters, even Griffin explains how “the reason for [this correlation between voters and geography] is nothing to do with Islamophobia; it is issues such as the grooming of young English girls for sex by a criminal minority of the Muslim population.” A criminal minority, did you see that? And yet the BNP’s advertising campaign would prey on the country’s horrific overarching track record for sexual assault to demonize the entire British Muslim population. Clever, isn’t it?

But what’s cleverer still — if you haven’t noticed it yet — is that for all the nuanced analysis of causality, and consequence; for all the articles about whether or not Griffin will attend the Queen’s garden parties now, or how the media will handle having BNP members on their shows, or even what kind of public outcry the election of Griffin and Bron has yielded, you will find nothing — NOTHING — in mainstream media articles detailing any measure of comment, expert or personal, from the groups most affected by these elections: the British Asians, and the British Blacks, themselves.

And though we can preach until the cows come home about how offensive Griffin’s election is, and how offensive such xenophobic and racist beliefs are, until we realize that our very discourse on the subject implicitly talks around, instead of including, the very people the media claims are equal and full citizens of the British commonwealth, we are all just as guilty of perpetuating the dangerous myth of “otherness” that presently threatens the very fabric of European unity.

June 8, 2009

100,000,000 Missing Women

Posted in Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , at 11:09 am by M L Clark

Two years back I happened upon the Global Media Monitoring Project, a survey conducted every five years to determine who makes the news, and who makes it into the news, on the basis of gender. The 2005 iteration of this survey received data from 76 different countries, monitoring 12,893 news stories (radio, TV, and print), including 25,671 sources, and presented by 14,273 news personnel; and the results were profound:

  • Women are dramatically under-represented in the news

  • Only 21 percent of news subjects — the people who are interviewed, or whom the news is about — are female. Though there has been an increase since 1995, when 17 percent of those heard and seen in the news were women, the situation in 2005 remains abysmal. For every woman who appears in the news, there are five men.

  • Women’s points of view are rarely heard in the topics that dominate the news agenda.

  • There is not a single major news topic in which women outnumber men as newsmakers. In stories on politics and government only 14 percent of news subjects are women; and in economic and business news only 20 percent. Yet these are the topics that dominate the news agenda in all countries. Even in stories that affect women profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice (64 percent of news subjects) that prevails. [emphasis mine]

  • As newsmakers, women are under-represented in professional categories

  • such as law (18 percent), business (12 percent) and politics (12 percent). In reality, women’s share of these occupations is higher. For instance, in Rwanda — which has the highest proportion of female politicians in the world (49 percent) — only 13 percent of politicians in the news are women.

  • As authorities and experts women barely feature in news stories.
  • Expert opinion in the news is overwhelmingly male. Men are 83 percent of experts, and 86 percent of spokespersons. By contrast, women appear in a personal capacity — as eye witnesses (30 percent), giving personal views (31 percent), or as representatives of popular opinion (34 percent).

  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims:

  • 19 percent of female news subjects, compared with 8 percent of males, are portrayed this way. News disproportionately focuses on female victims in events that actually affect both sexes — accidents, crime, war. Topics that specifically involve women — sexual violence, domestic violence, cultural practice — are given little coverage.

    And the list goes on.

    Now, I have read much in the past two years that confirms women’s issues are not solely the domain of women writers — that men can, in fact, write stories about matters that profoundly affect womankind. Jeffrey Gettleman’s “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War” was a devastating and desperately needed piece about the under-reported incidence of rape as a weapon of war. Alex Renton’s “The Rape Epidemic” provided an outsider’s account of systemic abuses in Haiti. And for all The Globe and Mail‘s sensationalizing of the case, articles like Robert Matas’ “Week 24: Pickton demonstrated how he strangled prostitutes, witness says” made sure we knew full well who Robert Pickton was, and just how many lives he destroyed.

    Moreover, for all the benefits of having a woman talk to other women about sensitive cultural and personal matters, there are the practicalities of a war-torn world to consider, too: Some are simply not safe for foreign women (let alone local women) — and though all journalists can be expected to run grave risks when visiting difficult countries (as Euna Lee and Laura Ling, sentenced to 12 years hard labour in North Korea, recently discovered), those risks are markedly higher for women — both in terms of being targeted in the first place, and in the context of just what can be done to a woman, once targeted. We stand out. We’re generally smaller, with less comparative strength. We can become the personal property of our captors, married off or forced into lives of prostitution. And we can be raped into pregnancy, or else gang-raped for months until we perish. These aren’t just sickening possibilities: they’re maddening ones. And if the gentlemen’s club of inside intel wasn’t enough to make reporting on many parts of the world hard enough, these facts make it damn near impossible to have women representing women with any degree of equality in matters of extremely gendered global conflict.

    But as I read yesterday’s cover story for The Toronto Star, “How did 100,000,000 women disappear?” I found myself too numb for anger, too numb for tears. 100 million women — not all lost at birth, no, though so many cultures kill off female children as often as they can; and not all lost from “accidents” inflicted by families forcing the newlyweds’ to pay their dowry debts; and not all lost from violence most heinous and inhuman; but so many lost over the course of a lifetime from basic, gendered neglect, and the prioritization of access to aid to the males instead.

    Such sweeping and senseless losses, in such sweeping and senseless numbers, makes the true message of the GMMP all too clear: If our primary coverage of women is as victims, then all we will find are more victims. Many, many, many more victims.

    And while there are justifications, yes, for why women do not do more to report on the suffering of fellow women worldwide, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for why we do not do more to report on the empowerment of women worldwide. It needn’t be so blatant as this; one needn’t write that a woman’s career was a win for all women — but talk, at least, of that career: follow it. Report on it. Introduce more female experts. Cover subjects that preoccupy women throughout the world. It’s not rocket science, but it requires dedication, and patience.

    It’s so simple, in fact, it’s almost painful to state it: Women are victims because of how little they are valued, and how easy it is to devalue them.

    Change this perception, and you change the world — too late, perhaps, for the 100 million dead and gone in the world today.

    But in time, perhaps, for the next 100 million. Or more.

    May 26, 2009

    War Journalism vs Reporting on the Military, Part 2

    Posted in Business & technology, Military matters tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by M L Clark

    When I wrote last Friday that all investigative reporting carries with it a measure of risk, but no kind more so than war journalism, I hope I stressed enough that the ability of most all other subjects to destroy reputations, companies, job prospects, jobs themselves, property values, and even whole livelihoods is still quite considerable. Even in these realms, lives too are sometimes lost.

    Thus it was with little surprise, but great sadness, that I read this past weekend of South Korea’s president Roh Moo-Hyun, who threw himself off a mountain after enduring what has been typified as “relentless” pursuit by the media following allegations of bribery in the past year.

    Sadness, because I do generally believe in the redeemable life, and for someone so sensitive as to realize and react to the weight of his indiscretions must especially be seen as having had in him the capacity, also, to apply awareness of the past to more positive future actions. More disconcerting by far, for me, are those will not even make allowances for the possibility of error, and so forward the argument that, as George Santayan once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    Yes, this matter of reflection brings me right back to my original thesis, on the need to treat war journalism and reporting on the military as distinct tasks, and in this way overcome the limitations on truth-telling during a time of armed conflict.

    But so too does a quotation from the aforementioned article on Moo-Hyun:

    NYT — “It has become a bad political habit for presidents in South Korea to try to gain support by punishing the former president,” said Kang Won-taek, a politics professor at Seoul’s Soongsil University. “What happened to Roh Moo-hyun shows that it is time to break this habit.”

    The tendency to define a presidency by the failings of the one that came before took root as the country struggled to redefine itself in the early 1990s as a young democracy after years of dictatorships. Many Koreans were exhilarated as the first democratically elected governments punished the men who had resisted democracy for so long.

    No good, in other words, comes either from denial of the past or the outright demonization of all that came before: The former leaves us no room to learn from our actions; the latter, no room to accept that the same seeds of indiscretion and abuse lie in us just as much as they did in those who came before.

    What remains, then, is the need for nuance; and any journalist will tell you nuance only emerges when there is consistency and longevity to the issue being addressed. Here, then, lies the primary distinction between war journalism and reporting on the military: war journalism exists so long as the conflict does, while reporting on the military would extend across conflicts, and through the long stretches of peace besides.

    An analogy might lie in the chronicling of small mining towns: During production booms there would be plenty to report upon, in terms of speculation, quality, corporate practices and corruption, union issues, housing markets, immigration, and emergent family issues pertaining to social services, community development, opportunity costs, and secondary job fields. But at times of little to moderate production output and community growth there would seem to be fewer dramatic matters to comment upon. And yet there are still issues — there are always issues: from the impact of employment and poverty levels on drug and domestic abuse rates, to the disintegration of a social net, to the rise of hunting to offset low wages, to reduced educational opportunities, health matters, religious communities, and impossibly high relocation costs.

    So it also is with the military, and I would even go so far as to say that what’s omitted from our reports on the military during peace time, or what systemic comparisons we neglect to construct between different armed conflicts, considerably weakens our overall understanding of the role and culture of defense in contemporary society.

    Take, for example, our treatment of military rape — a topic much on my mind since the New York Times‘s Bob Herbert wrote an opinion piece entitled “The Great Shame” back in March. Herbert notes a lot of the most difficult aspects about military rape that go under the radar in current reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — specifically, that the soldiers rape both citizens and their own. Last year alone, according to Herbert, saw a 25 percent increase in reported rapes of female soldiers. Considering that rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in our society, it chills me to the bone to wonder how much deeper these offenses go.

    The column furthermore put me in mind of a piece I read in 2007, on Salon.com, entitled “The private war of women soldiers.” Though a strong, culture-building piece, its position in an online, sociology-leaning magazine sadly made sense at the time: I had difficulty imagining the same emblazoned as a features news story on the cover of most mainstream print newspapers — even though, were we to treat rape with the same severity as business coverage, it would be.

    Which is why Herbert’s piece was so striking. How was Herbert able to tackle an issue this demoralizing and potentially demonizing to troops presently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, when so many suicides, friendly fire incidents, and criminal behaviour in the same context and region were barely addressed outside of hard news reports?

    The answer, I’m convinced, lies in his approach: Herbert started with an incident with no clear date stamp, and few to no concrete details. He wrote broadly, wedging a couple pertinent facts about current rises in rape statistics amid a vaguer, more expansive discourse about how rape in the military manifests, why, and what can be done about it. By couching the subject in so many generalizations, he was therefore able to draw this stinging conclusion:

    NYT — The military is one of the most highly controlled environments imaginable. When there are rules that the Pentagon absolutely wants followed, they are rigidly enforced by the chain of command. Violations are not tolerated. The military could bring about a radical reduction in the number of rapes and other forms of sexual assault if it wanted to, and it could radically improve the overall treatment of women in the armed forces.

    There is no real desire in the military to modify this aspect of its culture. It is an ultra-macho environment in which the overwhelming tendency has been to see all women — civilian and military, young and old, American and foreign — solely as sexual objects.

    Real change, drastic change, will have to be imposed from outside the military. It will not come from within.

    And you know what? I’m okay with this approach, so long as it produces serious discussion and follow-up. After all, do we really need to drag every rape victim in the military out into the open in order to bare the truth of its existence? I should think not — especially as that in and of itself can impose undue added harm on the victims. Similarly, do we need to parade every suicide case in order to prove it happens? Must every soldier who accidentally shot one of his own in a high-stress combat position be splayed across the papers of the nation?

    No. The rules of war journalism are understandable: In reporting on any immediate conflict, writers and photographers need to minimize their negative impact on the sources at hand — the soldiers, primarily, but also any alternative sources they might seek out from the region, civilian or otherwise — while simultaneously conveying the essential facts of any one news story.

    But we journalists still have meta-data, spanning this conflict and many others besides, at our disposal. And to report once a month on suicide rates, reported rapes, friendly fire incidents, mental health walk-in clinic figures, tour extension numbers, and other such statistics — both at home and abroad, and kept in close relation to a study of historical statistics as well — would in and of itself go a long way to entrenching a dialogue on military culture that no one can perceive as a direct threat to our soldiers overseas. No extensive parade of bodies and names needed!

    Because, really, all this reporting on the military isn’t meant to be a threat: rather, it’s meant to help eliminate those threats most often propagated by ignorance; and ultimately, to help the rest of us truly understand. Not, perhaps, so that one day the entire sub-culture will no longer be needed — that’s far too much a pipe dream for even a young’un like me to humour. But at least so that, one day, we can apply this distinct sub-culture to the relief of inevitable global conflicts with the full knowledge of just what it is we’re giving up in the pursuit — we hope — of a greater common good.

    Post Script:

    *Apologies for the lateness of this entry: In all honesty, my cat deleted the original yesterday — ironically leaving in its place only the letters “un.” She evidently doesn’t quite agree with my position on this issue, a disagreement I hope she understands I can end swiftly by denying her supper. … Then again, who knows what she’d delete in retaliation. Best not to chance it!