Author: Farai Chideya

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at, which she founded in 1995.

Audio for free use from Standing Rock

I traveled to Standing Rock on December 1st for a week to cover the veteran’s deployment to the encampments aiming to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was an extraordinary week of reporting, during which a group of other reporters and I, as well as many of the veterans, were stuck onsite during a brutal blizzard and hundreds more slept on the floor at a nearby hotel. I spoke a bit about my trip and the dangerous conditions on the Marc Steiner radio show.

Native American Marine Corps veterans Bugsy Barnowski and Andrew Lowe came from Oklahoma for the veterans deployment at Standing Rock

Native American Marine Corps veterans Bugsy Barnowski and Andrew Lowe came from Oklahoma for the veterans deployment at Standing Rock

I’m planning to go back to Standing Rock and am looking for collaborators on a documentary work, likely audio but possibly video. In the meantime, I’m offering two tracks from my hours of tape for public use/under Creative Commons. I’m particularly hoping there are ways some smaller public radio stations might use the material. I’m also attaching transcripts.

On tape: Drum and voice performance by Che Jim (Dine (Navajo)) and Giovanni Sanchez (from Pennsylvania but ethnically indigenous Mexican (Mexica)). After the performance they speak in more spiritual and transformational terms about Standing Rock. In the interview-only second audio link they speak more about movement-building and also the role of the arts. They gave explicit permission for me to share this audio.

Contact info:

Giovanni Sanchez


Che Jim
Executive Director
Healing Arrows Indigenous Social Justice & Wellness

He writes: “The mission of Healing Arrows for Indigenous Social Justice and Wellness is to advocate, promote and educate on issues of social justice for Indigenous Peoples and to educate wellness approaches to healing and health.”


performance and intvu

interview-only, about the broader movement

Transcripts attached.ts-sr0052_intvuche-n-giovanni_n_xo


The Call-to-Whiteness

The Call-to-Whiteness: The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response

Note: This essay is not meant to present a unified theory of or definition of whiteness, but to point out that white identity is both a critical pivot point in American politics that remains understudied; and that we are undergoing a crisis of white identity that affects people of all races and ethnicities. As someone who reports on and engages online with white nationalists to this day, I am speaking with as much perspective as my decades of attention to these issues can offer. If you have different perspectives, I would welcome them but ask you reveal how much attention you have paid to the issues at hand.

Secondly: this is very long and somewhat discursive – definitely a draft and not a finished document. I welcome your thoughts and comments and will continue to refine it. Get a cup of tea and sit down with me. I hope you’ll find it worth the time.


Did I/We Hear the Call to Whiteness?

There are many moments from my covering the American electorate this season that, in retrospect, I realize were more significant than I perceived.

One of them was when I interviewed a woman in Las Vegas about the election and she said she had more than once been told that part of the reason to vote for Donald Trump was to avoid the dilution of the white race. As the white mother of a mixed-race (black, white, Latino) child, she reacted with anger and horror. Though I recounted her position, a section was struck from the interview where she talked about how her daughter was studying World War II and the rise of Hitler. Her daughter asked, “How could anybody ever elect somebody who feels like this?” and the mother replied that they had a “front row seat to see how history is repeating itself.”

My editor struck that section from the short liveblog post when voicing concern about how we’d look mounting such a head-on critique of Trump without a passionate Trump supporter, a voice I later found. I don’t blame him for his choice since I didn’t challenge it, and especially since I often write overly-long. I’m not sure if the World War II analogy crossed the line for him because it seemed histrionic.

That said, I now view both her statement and my quick acquiescence to our deletion of it as significant. In retrospect, I realize how deeply this woman’s perception of her own whiteness had been challenged by the conversations she was having; and how unwilling I and we were as journalists to foreground this clash over the nationalist call-to-whiteness as part of the political narrative. This horrified mother was staring white nationalism in the face, and it was staring back at her. We as journalists, myself included, did not foreground in our reporting the struggles of white voters who heard and rejected the call.

Holding this minor anecdote in mind, know that I will mount an argument below that this election represents a call-to-whiteness to activate white nationalist sentiment; plus a suppression of the importance of this call in discussing our current politics, and a troubling inability to disaggregate the call-to-whiteness from other motivations for voting for Donald Trump. I do not believe all Trump voters are racially motivated or primarily racially motivated, but white Americans, regardless of who they voted for, are now being asked to make an implicit choice in endorsing or rejecting white nationalist agendas and their integration into the body politic. There’s a good argument using a “Cinemax”/cable analogy for the “bundling” of racial animus into every Trump vote, whether or not individual voters explicitly endorsed that.

As a reporter with 25 years of field experience in covering both politics and white nationalist movements, I see the two converging in ways we are woefully unprepared to cover or respond to because we as Americans have avoided the topic out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion. I would argue we can avoid it no longer.

If you need to understand why the elevation of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, among others, as players in American democracy signals a rise of white nationalism – implicitly and explicitly – then you probably need to do a bit more research on your own before reading the rest of this article.

There has been a concerted effort — covert, overt, or both — to keep the narrative of white nationalism, including its violence and extralegal workings — out of the American eye. Much of it, I believe, comes from the inability of media and of many individuals to ascribe racial/group characteristics to whiteness in the way blackness is grouped and tracked, or, in the context of terrorism, Muslim beliefs. If blacks are a group and Muslims are a group judged on the violent behavior of some, then white nationalist violence and terrorism is much more organized and overt but gets less mainstream coverage.

The majority of the domestic terrorism before and after 9/11 was by white nationalists and white supremacists, including the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist who helped bomb and murder 168 people including 19 children in daycare, and was subsequently put to death. And then there are smaller but no less heartbreaking attacks like white supremacist Dylan Roof’s killing of nine people including Pastor Clementa Pinkney at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The alt-right is also known to use swatting and doxxing as techniques against people they dislike, disagree with, or turn on. Swatting in particular, used in online gaming feuds as well, can result in violence or threats of violence administered in person by the unwitting first responders who fail to realize this is a deliberate provocation by an unseen hand.

In other words, these are, as president-elect Donald Trump might put it, some “bad hombres.”

And now, their ideological cousins are moving into government, quite likely with an agenda to use the law to increase America’s divides rather than bridge them. This is a hostile takeover of the U.S. government by forces including people cozy with white nationalists. It is profoundly un-American — at least I think so.

The dialogues in our civic space should let us know how far the debate has gone. Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who drives an Uber in his spare time, has been engaging online with journalists and also challenging people who apparently hold white nationalist views. He responded on Twitter to one person who apparently argued that the 13th-15th amendments granting full citizenship and the franchise to black men was because “limited government failed.” (And here I was thinking it was because slavery failed — failed to live up to the unrealized promise in the first version of the U.S. Constitution.)


Sasse battled back, Tweeting, “The Civil War & its 3 amendmts are not a rejection of the Amer’n Founding. Rather…a living UP to our universal/colorblind vision of rights”. The fact that Sasse, much to his credit for doing so, needs to say this at all speaks volumes about the depths of disregard for universal human and American rights right now.


The Surge of the Pack-Mentality

Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with white nationalism, and everything to do with survival.

One time, when I was in Guatemala for three weeks doing an immersion program in Spanish, I was walking home alone after a night drinking with other students. It was a safe town near Lake Atitlan, and all of us were doing homestudies with different families. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by a human.

The road to my host family’s house ran parallel to the lake, which was about 300 yards away. As I walked down the road, with its shuttered and gated houses, I saw out of the corner of my eye two dogs way down by the river. They scented or saw me and I saw them break into a fierce run, the equivalent of a horse’s full gallop.

I had no possibility of outrunning them and no obvious place to hide. So knowing what I do of dog behavior, I kept walking slowly and steadily. Sooner than I would have liked, but just as expected, the dogs were around me, snapping and snarling. I did not make eye contact. I kept walking slowly and intently toward the side street that would take me home, with my eyes fixed on a streetlight. And after a time – how long, I will never be sure – the dogs stopped snarling and went away.

I did not act like prey. I did not act like a threat or challenge their dominance. I got home with nothing more than a bad scare.

But I can still remember that night vividly – the lake to my left, with scrub and rushes leading the way to the waterfront; the dark pierced by the street lights and the moon; the vector of the road that the animals sprinted down, and how I could not even afford to keep my eyes on it directly but had to peer out of the corner of my eye as I prepared to react to the threat. I remember because my life literally depended on my perception of and reaction to the threat.

Sometimes it seems like the call to American whiteness we’ve seen during this election is like the attack of those dogs: a sudden onrushing of power and energy and threat. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best first action to take is often to remain very calm and still.

No, I am not comparing white Americans to dogs. That should be obvious but in our heightened times is not. I am comparing the pack mentality of the nationalist call-to-whiteness to the ferocity of these animals. We are seeing that pack mentality in operation right now. Better late than never we must examine the pack mentality; emphasize why white Americans must awake to what’s being invoked in their names; and also why the reactions of the broader white community to “extremist” constructions of whiteness will help determine the future of our nation.

I’ve been covering white nationalists and supremacists in person for more than two decades. I once met Klanspeople in a blizzard to get part of a larger story about women in the white supremacist movement. The Klan is, perhaps, the ceremonial figurehead of white supremacy but hardly the most powerful influence and considered quite outdated by today’s digitally sophisticated nationalist alt-right. At the time I did that investigation of female white supremacists in the 1990s, I spoke by phone with a woman from a dysfunctional wealthy family who had run off to join the violent Aryan Nation, a group that was later bankrupted by civil lawsuits for violent assault. The woman described how her family, which was part of the Social Register, so turned her off with their lack of regard for nurturing their own children that she sought out a new family in white supremacy.

The woman from the Aryan nation also explained something that would stick with me throughout my reporting career. I asked why she would grant me an interview, and she said that a fraction of the people who read the article would be persuaded to her cause, and that was reason enough for her to grant an interview to someone she perceived as hostile to her white supremacist mission. While depressing in some ways, the knowledge of her beliefs – which I have come to believe as well, as an inevitable cost of doing the reporting I do – was enlightening. After that point, I rarely feared whether people who perceived me as hostile to their racial separatist, nationalist, or supremacist interests would grant me an interview, and I have found that to be the case.



Can You Be Objective If You Can’t See Whiteness?

Since then, I have continued to study whiteness as part of my reporting on American politics and culture. It has seemed a particularly important part of my work, and frankly, one that is sometimes viewed with suspicion by my own journalistic peers, as if studying something makes me unqualified to understand it rather than particularly qualified to do so.

It also gets to an ongoing debate in journalism over objectivity. I admit I am not neutral about race, racism, or white supremacy. I do not believe that disqualifies me from reporting on it as long as I am fair to those I report on. I have always found a common human bond with white supremacists I have reported on. I do not view them as demons; more as lost, confused, and sometimes dangerous cousins. I see whiteness in ways that my white colleagues often seem to ignore, as if it cannot be seen at all.

In my experience the white people I’ve met that seem most attuned to the power struggle over American whiteness are immigrants and people who grew up as working-class white Americans and moved into other circles where they were judged as different from established or powerful white norms. One friend had grown up largely in France but partly in central Florida, and he understood and acknowledged the layers of meaning people ascribed to him was different in both places. I also found common cause with people who moved to big cities and found themselves thrust into new American cultures, often Americans from rural or exurban areas. I found their “double consciousness” familiar and comforting, as it was an analogue to my own.

As context for how I do the work I do, know my childhood shaped my journalistic pursuits. First, there’s the fact that my parents were both journalists at different times and met at the graduate school of communications at Syracuse University before moving to Zambia to start a newspaper. In that sense, reporting is in my blood; but the way I perceive race was also seared into my consciousness by a childhood dis- and re-location both physical and metaphorical in nature.

The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish; my extended friend circle included Cuban-American girls who were clearly Afro-Cuban, but who were not asked to choose a side in the black/white dichotomies of American racial taxonomy. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.

When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s and 1930s wood houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war. My sister and I were suddenly chided or rewarded by other black people for “speaking proper” and viewed as small Martians by white Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, was confused as to how I could have an African father – a real actual African man with an accent and a PhD! I’ll spare you an endless string of anecdotes about moments when I understood how much and how differently I was being observed by others in my new city.

This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.

  • First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
  • Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
  • Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.


Disaggregating White Nationalism from the Trump Vote

I have spent this election observing politics, race, and the rise of a particularly passionate, disruptive, and dangerous form of white nationalism.

As people look at the outcome of the election, we are left with questions about disaggregating political behavior like voting from intent. Given the rise of white nationalism and its integration into our government, was Ted Cruz simply not Anglo enough to be a viable candidate for president? Was Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican woman part of the reason he was viewed so tepidly by Republican voters? These are questions we probably didn’t measure for at the time – and if there is research on the matter, please let me know – but in retrospect I really wish we had.

I have also not been afraid to see Trump voters for who they are, in their many forms, and realize that what I know so far, despite my reporting, is simply not enough. In some ways, the real work of understanding motivations and disaggregating voter intent and how the message hit the target is just beginning.

The other day I sat across from a woman on a crowded Amtrak train at one of their four-tops. She was black, or appeared so to me, though she later emphasized on an exceedingly loud and profanity-filled phone call that she was Brazilian (which I mention simply because she seemed to be distancing herself from American blackness in the remarks). She was wearing clubwear (kitten ears; revealing hyper-sexualized gear in more of an electronica/post-punk mode than anything vaguely hip hop); mentioned she was a bartender; and when she wasn’t on the phone spent the ride hitting on a baffled Asian-American businessman next to her and generally being an enlightening (to a reporter like me) nuisance on the train. Before I moved away to get some ear-space from her aggressive monologue on the phone, I learned that she was a Trump voter; she and the friend on the other line were mocking non-Trump voters; and she saw her vote as a flag planted squarely in the center of her identity.

What I learned from her conversation made me think: maybe this woman thought of Donald Trump as representing freedom. And what’s more American than that?

She didn’t want to be put in a box, and as she and her friend apparently mocked non-Trump voters, her rhetorical emphasis was on what a maverick her vote for Trump made her.

Hillary Clinton, for all else you do or don’t think of her, was committed to an establishment path to power. Donald Trump, vulgar by his and his family’s own admission, clearly spoke to this woman on a personal level. On some semiotic levels, Trump functions as an American antihero, someone who gives people permission to imagine themselves as just as vulgar and just as powerful, and winning not despite their vulgarity but because of it.

Listening to this young voter put together one more puzzle piece of the many reasons people, including some people of color, voted for Trump.

And I have to confess, Donald Trump has been liberating to me too, in one sense.

If a man who has settled out of court on charges of educational fraud and racially discriminating in housing can be our next white male President, I double down on my rejection of the conceit of exceptional blackness, aka “better than” syndrome.

The demanded performance of exceptional blackness is a pernicious part of the construct of American meritocracy. By “exceptional blackness” I mean the idea that blacks not only have to work twice as hard as whites, but specifically that doing so means we will be liberated from discrimination and transcend race. I may be better than white peers sometimes; and I at other times I will not be; but that alone will not change the construct of race in America. But if Donald Trump can be president, then I can at least be black and free.

Be clear that what I am rejecting is not the urge for excellence or self-improvement, but the idea that my excellence and self-improvement is a blood price I must pay to prove black Americans’ worthiness of a true meritocracy. You either believe in working toward a true meritocracy or you do not, and I will not bribe you into belief by my individual performance. Are you for equality, or are you not?


White Nationalists Challenge the Fiction of American Meritocracy

In many ways, the white nationalist crowd is calling out the lie of American meritocracy from its own admittedly ideologically bent perch. In my conversations online and off with white nationalists, they admit a reliance on the law to enforce a dominance that they then also claim a birthright to.

When a self-described white nationalist and other members of the alt-right I was in conversation with on Twitter claimed America was a white nation, I pointed out that blacks have been in Virginia since the first half of the 1600s, and that the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the nation’s oldest capital city in 1610, indicates that the oldest Americans in our current geographic configuration were Latino (Spanish; indigenous, and mixed) and not Anglo Saxon white. They then admitted that America was not truly founded as a white nation, but that laws made it so. Their claim to a white homeland is better understood, then, as a claim to their right to use the law to protect their dominance when neither history nor meritocracy is on their side. This is similar in result to European white nationalism, but with an origin story more like the claim of South African Boers to lands, which provoked the clash of power known as the end of apartheid. White Afrikaaner nationalist calls for a volkstaat, or white homeland, persist to this day.

Their admission that the law must be leveraged to protect white dominance in America also indicates a profound fear of erasure – returning to the idea of the dilution of the white race cited by the woman in Las Vegas – and a fear of a true meritocracy. For all the criticisms of welfare and entitlement programs, whiteness has been the biggest wealth-building and land-grabbing entitlement program in America.

The white nationalist stance on American meritocracy should be extremely troubling to what I call “establishment whiteness,” a construct that believes that evocations of whiteness by and large do not challenge the access to advancement of other people. These white nationalist claims explicitly reject the “post-racial” and “color-blind” putative politics of establishment whiteness.

As a journalist, after all these years of reading headlines about the crisis of American blackness, I must ask when are we going to see an equal number of journalistic explorations about the crises of both American whiteness and global whiteness? (The far-right National Front party in France has taken a once-unthinkable polling lead in the upcoming elections, and I have written about the rise of Europe’s far right parties here.) Isn’t it about time for a serious and sustained inquiry?


It is Up to White Americans to Hear and Fight the Call-to-Whiteness Being Raised in Their Name

I have learned as much about whiteness as I have because it was critical to my survival and my personal, intellectual, and professional development. The question I have now is whether white Americans feel they have a stake in understanding whiteness as well. For this call is being made in all white Americans’ names, and to claim you are a bystander is a dangerous thing to do. This is a culture war, and as in all wars, bystanders are likely to be bloodied in the melee.

American whiteness, when activated in this particularly aggressive nationalistic way, will be worse for me and my family than it will be for many white Americans. On the other hand, I am well prepared for this moment in time. Based on my upbringing and my field studies on the world, I never presumed America was a safe place for me, although I love this nation dearly.

I have studied the geography and culture of America as intently as I have studied whiteness. I am going in December to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and on that trip I intend to visit both North and South Dakota, which will complete me having visited all 50 of the U.S. states. I have family by marriage in South Dakota, and if the fates are willing I will see them on this trip. As I remain in the adoption pipeline, and my life will change dramatically once I have a child, I hear the everything-ness of America calling me to an adventure, perhaps the last one of its kind for a while.

This is my land, and no white nationalist will tell me otherwise. However, I do believe in their ability to harm me and my nation. If establishment white Americans do not recognize the challenge that the call-to-whiteness presents to their lives as well as to mine, my struggles and our nation’s struggles will be materially more difficult. But I can’t determine anyone else’s actions, only my own.

It thus remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness. You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you. The call-to-whiteness is being invoked in your name. Can you hear it now? And how will you respond? The world is waiting to know.


Black Issues Connected: Why Race Is Never Just Race

Even for a country where racial commentary is an amateur sport and racial incidents come in waves, we’ve had a strange run of racial news about black Americans, people who think they’re black Americans, and justice.

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey


There’s Kalief Browder, pushed to suicide by years of abuse in the New York jails for a crime he arguably should never have been arrested for and did not commit, juxtaposed with what is variously described as the trans-racialism or minstrelsy of Rachel Dolezal. (See Ta’Nehisi Coates’ juxtaposition of the two cases…and note which one got more media attention.) Then there’s there’s a white man murdering churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina. The church had been burnt down in the early 1800s in retaliation for a planned uprising of enslaved people organized by Denmark Vesey. That Emmanuel re-organized, re-built, and played a crucial role in the community and civil rights is its own testament to the human spirit.

Vesey was executed for daring to take action against the system of treating humans as chattel. Browder, nearly two centuries later, was treated like chattel or worse. Dolezal’s story is many things, but in light of the murders at Emmanuel, in particular, it strikes me as a man-bites-dog story that’s easy to consume when we have bigger things to think about.

For example, take the recent court ruling that says (for now) that one single Uber driver must be treated as an employee. That could up-end the company’s model, arguably undermining a financially productive, disruptive, technology-based company; or providing more security to workers displaced by disruption. How does this relate to race? In many cities across America, non-white Americans and immigrants are more likely to be drivers than white native-born Americans, in part because these hard jobs provide an economic point of entry into a society where opportunity is still linked deeply to race, class, and national origin. A ruling that stands up to legal challenges and puts more impetus on the parent company to, say, provide corporate insurance for its drivers could provide more economic leverage not only for Uber drivers but also, as market forces balance, for drivers of traditional cabs and cars.

My problem with the discussions on race we’re having today is that they’re so limited. We’re talking about race as a thing-in-itself when it’s never been just that. Slavery was about commerce and nation-building. Jim Crow was about labor economics. The inequality in the current education and prison systems set up deeper divides tracking people into futures of potential security or insecurity. Race was never just about race, but often our conversations about it are.

In my experience, being black means strangers feel free to tell you what they think about black people. I’ve had strangers in airports and newly-met attendees at business conferences quickly move from pleasantries to a discourse on why black people (sometimes Americans; sometimes globally) are incompetent, lazy, violent, etc etc. My reactions used to be shocked silence or quiet intellectual anger, followed by rebuttals of their points. Now, if I respond at all (and often I don’t), I simply respond with my own historical knowledge of how we got to where we are today — whether that includes current employment statistics on hiring bias and educational inequality, to historical analysis of wealth-building and legal justice from the colonial era through Jim Crow.

I was raised to be an information warrior — to help speak on behalf of black people to the white mainstream I was trained to go to school and work with. And while I have succeeded in some small part I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the mission. I can’t convince anyone (including black people and people who are neither white nor black) that black people are equal to white people, or immigrants to American-born. Your belief in equality is something you chose from your core. What I can do, and often do, is provide information that can inform our understanding of structures that support or deny equality-in-fact. Whether we want to know the lessons history has to share with us is completely our own choice.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton said mother would have been in foster care today

She was Senator Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she ran against Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards in South Carolina, the last state before Edwards dropped out of the race.

I spoke to her for NPR’s News and Notes, and she mentioned her mother, saying, “If she had been born at a later time, I believe she probably would have been put into the foster care system because her parents essentially abandoned her.”  Today, former Secretary of State Clinton is expected to formally announce for President, foregrounding themes of her mother.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 10.32.29 AM

The New York Times says:

Sharing that story is a shift for Mrs. Clinton, who in her 2008 campaign was fiercely protective of her mother’s privacy and eager to project an image of strength as she sought to become the first female commander in chief. And in this campaign, her mother’s story may help address one of Mrs. Clinton’s central challenges: convincing voters who feel they already know everything about her that there is, indeed, more to know, and that she is motivated by more than ambition.

But she did, in fact talk about it… perhaps not extensively, but you can still listen here (sometimes with a long page load time). It begins at 5:17.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2008, for NPR’s News and Notes, 1/25/2008, responding to why she has done children’s-rights work in her legal and political career.

I think it was initially important because my mother had such a very difficult life.

If she had been born at a later time, I believe she probably would have been put into the foster care system because her parents essentially abandoned her and her grandparents were very unwelcoming, and basically she had to leave their home when she was 13 just to go work in someone else’s home, just to have a safe place to live and to try to be able to make some way in her life.
They let her take care of her children but she had to but she had to get up and get the other children off to school, and they let her go to high school. I really saw at a very early age, that despite my comfortable, secure upbringing in my family that wasn’t the case for so many children.
It just became the cause of my passionate commitments here in public service to do what I can to give every child a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.


Kill Yourself and We’ll Know You are Human: Kalief Browder and Ota Benga

Among man’s greatest inhumanities to man is saying one is not a man — merely a beast, a prisoner, a captive. Two stories in the media this week span a century, yet end the same way: with a death that is technically a suicide, but where the hand was powerfully forced.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 9.53.59 AMPamela Newkirk’s new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga was excerpted here in The Guardian. She explores the life of a Congolese man captured in 1904 and displayed in the monkey house of the Bronx, New York Zoo in 1906. He was forced to live with monkeys and parrots; paraded around; poked, prodded, teased; later left in the cold without proper clothing; and of course viewed as a savage both before and after he rebelled against this treatment. As context, this unfolded less than half a century after slavery was abolished in America, and during the era when Belgium’s King Leopold was cutting off the hands of Ota Benga’s countrymen to scare those who had not yet been maimed into forced labor. In other words, this was a world pretending to be civilized.

As Newkirk points out:

In the sober opinion of progressive men of science, Benga’s exhibition on the hallowed grounds of the New York Zoological Gardens was not mere entertainment – it was educational. They believed Benga belonged to an inferior species; putting him on display in the zoo promoted the highest ideals of modern civilisation. This view had, after all, been espoused by generations of leading intellectuals.Louis Agassiz, the Harvard professor of geology and zoology, who at the time of his death in 1873 was arguably America’s most venerated scientist, had insisted for more than two decades that blacks were a separate species, a “degraded and degenerate race”.

When Ota Benga took his own life, he had been out of the spotlight for years, but even the outreach of caring men and women could not reconcile his soul with the loss of his country and culture.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 9.51.45 AMFlash forward a century and you find Kalief Browder sitting in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island, the notorious New York jail. For years. In fact, he spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. The police changed their story when they couldn’t find evidence of the crime, and still charged him. Browder refused to plead guilty, even as his teen years became a pastiche of assaults by guards and prisoners, and months alone. Some of his fellow inmates thought he was insane not to plead out, to take time served; to absorb a criminal record in exchange for the chance to be free. What is truly insane is that he was pushed into a fetid cul-de-sac of a justice system and left to rot because he insisted on his honor. His mental breakdown began in prison, and continued after, until he hung himself at his parents’ home.

Pioneering journalist Jennifer Gonnerman documented Browder’s story here at length; and followed up with video evidence of the assaults; and finally news of his death.

Browder’s life has already had an impact on policy. As the New York Times put it:

[New York mayor Bill] de Blasio’s administration in December did away with solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds, citing the damaging effects that prolonged isolation can have on their mental stability.

In a statement released on Monday, the mayor said that “Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts” at Rikers.

“There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal,” he added, “and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need.”

Are we now a civilized world, or a world pretending to be civilized? Will we listen to the echoes of the dead and vow to change, or think we have already achieved the humanity we claim? Over time — including this time, our time — society has denied some men and women their humanity; then paused to reflect if and when they “prove” their humanity by snuffing out their own lives. A caged beast snarls. A caged man sometimes takes his own life, especially if the cage seems to follow him even once he is nominally free.

When we consider these men’s lives, is this just the final “spectacle,” or something more meaningful — a chance to truly reflect on the world we have built, to take man-made systems of science and justice gone terribly wrong and re-form them to make them right?

Free-Range Workers Crossing the Highway of Life

“Free-Range” has become a buzzword applied to everything from poultry to children. And in its broadest sense it applies to today’s workers too.

via Huffington Post

via Huffington Post

I spoke with a man recently who told me about looming layoffs in the financial sector (see this; plus this about the oil industry; and this NYT list of its articles about layoff big and small). He said companies in his arena were shedding people in response to future uncertainty about the Eurozone, among other issues. It doesn’t solve long-term finance industry problems to cut workers, but it does address the balance sheet.

This may sound completely durh to many of you, but in listening to him I thought… We’re out of the Great Recession, but we’re still in a period where people are getting laid off, sometimes en masse, to solve balance-sheet problems they only superficially have anything to do with. In other words, you may end up doing the best you can at a job you like and still have to hit the road through no fault of your own.

Most Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to tide them over in periods of unemployment. Nearly half of the country couldn’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, let alone a month’s rent without income.


I’ve spent time over the past three years interviewing employees and entrepreneurs about how they see the job landscape today. There are more jobs, though often with less stable employment terms and wages, though that may change. (See global trends.)

So what are most of us? Well, free-range workers, which means we are free to run as fast as we can or to get creamed crossing the highway known as the current day job market. Whether we are employed by a company big or small or self-employed, most of us will have to spend more time monitoring the health of our industry and our company if we don’t want to be caught unawares by huge shifts that, on the surface, have nothing to do with our performance.

You can be doing the best you can at Job A for Company B, but if either A or B becomes vulnerable, then your income stream is vulnerable too. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn has written about developing new compacts between employers and employees that take into account more mobility and volatility. That applies most easily to geographically mobile, information industry workers and companies that need and attract them. How does it work for people who can’t or won’t move from their hometown for family reasons, or those whose skills are considered more pedestrian?

We came together; and we left the same way

We came back for our reunion, some of us eagerly and others skeptically. Twenty-five years after graduating from Harvard (nearly 30 from arriving) we returned to the nest of our adult years. We superimposed layers of vivid recall from crucial stages of our development on the physicality of the present: brick walls with ivy; columned library towers; Memorial Hall fancified into something akin to Hogwarts. And add to that the people we were and have become.


We can’t read each others’ minds, at least I think not, but if we could I think a lot of us would have arrived at the Yard saying let’s just see how this goes. As in: my friends are great but what if everyone else is an asshole? Or judgey? Or a master of the universe when I’m not; or unwrinkled when I’m not; or… My hair has left my head; too much hair is on my chin; or my chin has doubled, as has my waistline. Etc, etc.

We seem to have pleasantly surprised ourselves by growing into the people we hoped to be in generosity of spirit, whether or not we feel the same way about our bank accounts, spouses/children/lack thereof, or jobs and additional diplomas. I personally can tick off a long line of regrets, not having children chief among them, mitigated by my feeling (after a midlife troth) that it’s not too late to grow and try for new things. When (not if) I try and fail, my friends will be there for and with me.

While I was on campus I saw some graduates from the class of 2015 who I taught three years ago while on a fellowship at the Institute of Politics. They were sitting as part of a circle on the lawn in front of Adams A-entry, having a bittersweet farewell to being kicked out of university housing. (It happens rather abruptly.) I reassured them that everything would be okay in a kind of awkward, likely patronizing, 25th reunion-y way. But what I should have said is: keep your friends close. Befriend those you didn’t know. The journey through life is the building of an extended family, and you might be surprised who you are related to. Grow in fondness, and journey well.

Five Ways to Start that Book You’ve Always Wanted to Write

1. Read, read, read. There is no good writing without deep reading. Find books that mirror some aspect (stylistically or topic, for example) of what you want to do.

2. Carry a notebook, or use a digital note-taking system (like on your phone) everywhere at all times. The germs of ideas come when they want, not always when you want them to.

3. Research and use analogue or digital ways of organizing your content, from paper notecards to the program Scrivener (my fave), which allow you to group and re-mix clusters of ideas.

4. Find a work-flow (writing on weekends; or daily at certain hours; or a daily page limit) that works for you. Some people carve out time in every day to write; others carve out chunks of time (weekends, vacations) and write deeply and thoroughly only then. It’s not as important what you choose as whether you follow your own system, and are willing change that system if the first one fails.

5. Don’t just talk the talk. You can jabberjaw all day about the book you want to write, but in the end you have to sit down alone with the page (or computer) and get cracking. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you’re doing, but don’t mistake talking about writing for actually writing.

Next: The mission-driven memoir: blending personal history and big idea.

Is This Joke About Police Killing Black Men Racist, Funny or Both?

So today I retweeted this joke, with a line at the top about the bitter humor that arises from the news.:

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.57.38 AM

Then, I deleted my tweet. I was scrolling through the (many offended) responses to the joke, and I thought this was a chance for a bigger conversation.

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This is in response to the latest police killing of a black man, Walter Scott, shot five times in the back as he was running away. (I hate the term “unarmed” — although accurate, how many times do we have to use it to make the point?) There is a distinct set of moral and ethical lessons that are positive to come out of this grim story. A bystander who didn’t want to get involved turned over video despite his own fears. The police department reacted by firing the officer. An anomaly? A sign of progress? A police department scared of a Ferguson-style backlash? Whatever the reason, this was a situation where the shooting was treated as a serious breach of moral and ethical behavior as well as of good police procedure.

I think knowing the context of the case is important to evaluating the joke, but YMMV. More broadly, I think about the old saw that when a bear is chasing you and your friends, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just your friends. And in a time of fear, you could react by thinking your job is to just outrun someone else dealing with the race/class/income dramas of our nation. I believe part of the reason race is surfacing so often these days is economic anxiety, just as some of the xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-semitism in Europe is emerging for the same reason. The economy, though slowly recovering, has been a bear 90 percent of families haven’t outrun in the past decade. More specifically, inflation-adjusted wages dipped and are just returning to the levels they were ten years ago. Does a joke like this dive into the rampant fear that so many people feel, not necessarily about race but about the future? Some people take fear as a chance to tend and befriend. Others take fear about the future as a chance to shove someone else under the bus.

I first heard about comedian Rob Delaney not on Twitter, where he has a huge following, but on the tragicomic, well-produced podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Once you listen to Delaney talk about how he ended up slipping out of a wheelchair in prison after wretchedly injuring himself passing out driving drunk, somehow deriving both sobriety and humor from the situation, you can understand how his humor runs a little dark.

Oh, you wanted me to answer the question of whether this joke is racist, funny or both? Nah, I’ll leave it up to you.

The Election of 2060: Or, how do we start a conversation about American stewardship?

Turning off the spigot known as the Colorado River, which waters Western cities and agriculture; whether to allow parents to choose micro-editing of their embryo’s DNA; and whether drone warfare is acceptable in domestic settings — those are just some of the issues we may debate in the election of 2060. Each one is based in on plausible extensions of current technology and trends as they intersect with our society’s fiscal and moral judgments. Of course, 2060 could be way off base. If anything, these issues will probably come to a head sooner.

From the New York TImes

From the New York TImes

The question for this start-of-election season: how can our society evolve to deal with long-range questions before they become short-term crises? Technology has given us greater powers of divination than ever… not the absolute power to predict the future, of course, but to see trends and vectors, from climate change to the collapse of the traditional gold-watch job trajectory and the rise of the episodic career. So, what are we doing with that information? And does a Presidential election season, paradoxically, make us less likely to look forward?

With Ted Cruz now the first official candidate of 2016 (and Donald Trump threatening to go Full Birther on him), shadow campaigns are materializing into fully-fledged, and -funded, entities. The early journalistic conversation is focusing on money raised; political staffers hired; and whether the Democratic left or the GOP right will distract the front runners from staying on message. While people in politics may get a hot flush knowing who’s been named which candidate’s social media director, we can forgive the public at large for not giving a shit. Lacking a real resonance with issues affecting their daily lives, political news at this point in the cycle only hits when it involves a cartoonish, social-media-ready outrage. Even among citizens with the best intentions of staying abreast of what’s right for their country and family, the dynamics of political reporting make that difficult, intensifying a focus on personality; bleeps and blunders; and, when it comes to issues, the very near term, not the long-range.

Campaigns are, of course, about electing politicians; politicians govern for the duration of their terms; but beyond governance, there is stewardship – the long-range, multi-decade, intergenerational caregiving that America needs. In an election year, pollsters often ask people what they want from a candidate and an election; but how often are citizens asked what they want in terms of stewardship? A functional America in 2060 will have dealt with problems in 2016 that we, frankly, are barely talking about.

Let’s return to the scenarios at the top. Will Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or farms lose out as the Colorado River dries out? And beyond the Colorado or other interstate water agreements, will the Federal government begin to exercise greater domain over aquifers under private land? How many Congressional votes; Presidential vetos; and Supreme Court rulings lie ahead on that score?

You want to talk about designer babies? While Dolce & Gabana are decrying IVF (so 1990s), there is a genuinely provocative debate over DNA editing. Well, imagine a world (not hard) where many children are having physical and neurological problems as a result of environmental toxins. And imagine, also, that you can design your child to be less sensitive to toxins. How much would you pay for that? And if it was successful for those who could pay, would that diminish the collective political will to solve the problem of the toxins for the benefit of all?

Domestic drone warfare… well, that’s fairly easy to imagine. If there were riots of any magnitude for any reason — an urban police shooting or, say, a violent rural protest over the cessation of water services — it could be argued that drones are a safer form of crowd control than risking human officers. And it could also be argued that, as with drone strikes abroad, the lack of human contact can also allow for lethal action without the same ability to make nuanced judgments or the same capacity for empathy.

The election of 2060 is a shorthand I use for keeping my eye on the future. I’ve raised a bunch of dilemmas, because they seem to get us humnans more focused than utopian visions. But there are many future vectors that lead us towards truly family-friendly work policies; greater (and cheaper) opportunities for lifelong learning; and health interventions that make for not only longer but better lives. We certainly can’t forecast what will happen half a century from now, but we’d be fools not to think about it; to study the trend lines in our economy, our environment and in technology. Election years are times where everyone likes talking about the future. But that political future is often so short-term, it almost seems like the past.

#AmtrakResidency — The Kissing Motorcycle Reverend and Mobile Audio

The Amtrak observation car is a parallel universe to the bar Cheers — nobody knows your name, but they’ll ask politely, and even if they never ask your name they’ll tell you their life story anyway. Rev. Johnny Brandt’s card says “Weddings. Bike Blessings. Ordained Minister.” He offered to talk to me after I whipped out my mic to speak to a pair of sisters traveling from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Hawaii by train and boat. The sister Rev. Brandt is kissing refuses to hop on an airplane, but that doesn’t stop her from traveling. (I’ll upload their story separately.) Meanwhile, here’s a tiny snippet of audio [sorry, a bit muffled] from the Reverend — or as I nicknamed him, having gotten a smooch myself, the Motorcycle Kissing Bandit.

I’d hoped to upload more audio by now, but I’ve been learning as I go. For the first time, I’ve been recording on two different platforms on my iPhone, instead of a stand-alone audio recorder. I’m now in Los Angeles, where I had some additional mics delivered — a new lavalier and a stubby little omni mic with a port for headphones. I’ll use those on the last leg of my trip. In some ways, I wish I’d brought a regular audio recorder because I had some challenges transferring the audio from my iPhone to the computer. Plus I had to re-download the entire Adobe creative suite because I’d gotten a new computer, but not properly outfitted it, before leaving New York. It all plays very well into my plans to teach iPhone recording on Friday when I get back to the classroom.


The train is marvelous but I stayed a couple extra days in LA and am actually flying to New Orleans and meeting a reporter from MSNBC. I’ve been seeing friends and doing yoga and working through the inevitable knots of mainly sitting for 48 hours of long-distance train travel. (I’m the kind of person who actually uses a standing desk a lot of the time.) Off to New Orleans tomorrow; then back on the rails to NYC.

Amtrak Residency: The Writing and the Railing

SunsetLimited_poster Right now I’m listening to the whistle of an approaching train, and the laughter of ‘tweens a couple of roomettes down the hall. They’re adorable, part of an extended family traveling together — three girls and two women who give off an auntie/Godmomma vibe — a little permissive, but definitely in control. A different pair of women wait in matching flowered PJs, holding their toothbrushes, for the showers (rooms have their own; roomettes do not); while a couple sits reading in their cabin with the door closed against noise, but the curtains open so others can view their tableaux. My curtains are drawn on the side facing the hall, and open to the mainly dark exterior. Occasionally there is a passing train or, every now and then, a grand house rising out of the countryside between Houston and San Antonio. Of course, even less often, there’s a town, the kind with a Dollar General store and a gas station but not much else near the noise of the tracks. But mainly from where I sit there is the dark; a few lights in the far distance; the whisper of air through the vents and the rocking of the train.CrescentPoster

As the Amtrak Residency hinted it might, the rails have been good for writing. I’ve been noodling with a TV treatment, a new genre for me. Book edits. Taxes. Arranging interviews for a travel article, and actually doing the reporting, some of it by phone on the train; some on my stops. I break my time into chunks by project and never find myself bored or mentally trapped, although I do sometimes feel a bit physically confined. (You cannot do sit-ups in a roommette without putting your legs on one of the chairs that becomes the lower bed.) The scheduled pit stops where you can stretch your legs are often eaten up by delays. Freight trains don’t care that you want to do lazy woman’s yoga. But this was my choice.
Amtrak’s generous offer to writers was that we could, for free, take a roomette (with meals included) up to four legs on two connecting train routes. I could have gone round trip on one train — 3 days of travel back and forth on the LA to Seattle Coast Starlight, for example, which is supposed to be beautiful. But I chose 8 days of cross country train travel plus stops along the way in New Orleans and LA, for a total of 12 days. Specifically, I took the Crescent from New York to New Orleans; spent three nights and two days there of reporting and seeing friends; and am now on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and will spend 3 days and 2 nights there, reversing to head back to New York with a brief pit stop in New Orleans. The roomettes on the Crescent are roomier than the Sunset Limited; but the Limited is a double decker and has better views. I am fascinated by the scenes of both historic and dying towns; of industry and industrial decay. I’m Instagramming photos as MissMetropolis.
This blog post has become about the mechanics of the trip. I wanted to talk about the extraordinary conversations I’ve been having, but I’ll have to save that mainly for another time. In the dining car, unless your party naturally forms a four-top, you’re seated with strangers. Something about trains and the people who take them make for good conversations and conversationalists. I’ve had very deep and friendly encounters with people who pretty clearly don’t share some of my cultural and political perspectives, but as we listen rather than debate we find we have much in common. There’s something about the train that seems to create an expansive space for intimacy amid the physical confines.

The Discipline of Travel

Travel is the maze around my heart, the path that I keep following to find myself. Since my mother got me my first passport when I was four, to visit my father’s family in Zimbabwe, I’ve hit the road for destinations far-flung and near. They promise to teach me more about the world and my fortitude for living in it; I promise to listen.

Jewelry as comfort; literary festival entices; microphone to capture.

Jewelry as comfort; literary festival entices; microphone to capture.

Creature comforts and tools of the trade must be boiled down to essentials. I am a chronic overpacker, and jewelry reminds me of home and friends; notebooks, camera/phone, recording devices capture the journey; and I gather local event flyers and ephemera to turn into artwork at later dates. Flat is not digital, but it’s hard to so overstuff luggage with paper that you can’t carry it.

The metallic bassline of the tuba; couples, friends and strangers swaying on a street corner as a man from the band passes a metal pail for cash; a refined bowl of bouillabaisse at Galatoire’s — this was my entry into New Orleans after two days on the train at the start of my Amtrak Residency. New York to New Orleans: stop, enjoy, report. New Orleans to Los Angeles: repeat. And then, return. To think, to see. To be in my place and out of my place. What is my place? These are the questions that travel allows me to ask, if not always answer.

A Voter’s-Eye View of Clinton and Bush’s Emails

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out today about her email woes, goaded smugly by fellow prenominee Jeb Bush, who emailed reporters reminding them that he’d released his email records. As if that was a good thing.
Well, it should have been. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics. If you follow political news, you know that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a private email account, rather than a Federal one, as she conducted U.S. diplomacy; and that she was, in fact, adhering to the letter of the law (the “spirit” of the law being rather vaguer); and that she has offered a data dump of emails she deems relevant from her personal servers to pass on to Federal officials, and urged them in turn to pass those on to reporters and the public. But neither of America’s prenominees have proven themselves visionary leaders when it comes to navigating the syclla, charybdis, and Blue Book of security, privacy, and legal policy when it comes to encrypting and archiving sensitive government emails.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 5.46.14 PM

Oh — prenominee? That’s the term I use for former Senator and Secretary of State – and, yes, First Lady – Clinton; and for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the latter of whom commanded $100,000 per plate for appearing at a fundraiser before he actually has announced his candidacy for president. (In other words, to be read in a pharma-ad-speedy voice: “Disclaimer- – `prenominee’ denotes being the front-runner in a race which hasn’t officially started. It is not a presumption of actual victory.”)

So what are we to make of the digital hygiene of the prenominees, and the outraged-slash-befuddled coverage of it? New York-based technical architect Max Whitney is familiar with email protocol, having run email for a large private university. “Let’s break the issues here into two pieces,” she says. “One: should people [specifically public officials] be running their own email servers? And two: should they have been sending unencrypted emails?”
Secretary Clinton was using a private email server that reportedly was registered to, but not necessarily housed in, Chappaqua, New York,where the Clintons own a home. Whitney says that it’s unlikely that Clinton — or Bush, who also ran his own server, registered in Texas— “made the decision to both identify a [qualified] mail administrator and pay them what they would be paid.”

Of course, not every mail system is the same. Sendmail, which encompasses the widely used SMTP mail protocol, is notoriously eager-to-please in matching email-to-receiver, says Whitney. “Sendmail was not created to be a secure information exchange method. Sendmail was created to survive a nuclear holocaust.” In other words: upside: robust. Downside: the birth of spam. And a Microsoft Exchange-based system needs two admins minimum, no matter how many users are on the system, because as Whitney puts it simply, “Everyone’s gotta sleep sometime, and when email stops, everything stops.” The average pay for an Exchange admin is $68,000/year, according to And following secure encryption protocols (or should that be secure-ish?) takes both knowledge and time — time that not everyone is willing to spend.

“Anything unencrypted that Hillary Clinton sent as Secretary of State, anyone on the internet could have picked it up,” says Whitney. “People who were motivated could have picked it up [right away], but people could have picked it up and not even known what they were looking for until now,” when the email addresses that Secretary Clinton was using were revealed. (Gawker did publish the Clinton address in 2013.) “Anything sent unencrypted via email,” Whitney adds, “is available to anyone.”

That brings us to the question of “the server under the desk,” which is the nickname for a home or private server, regardless of whether it’s on a kitchen counter or a closet or in a garage. Whitney has a couple different takes on this. Regarding encryption and security, “The server under the desk, if not well-run, is dangerous. Are the encryption keys in plaintext next to the files? Is there a likelihood that security protocols were open to question?”

But then there’s the point about the delays, inefficiency, and general kludginess of Federal secure mail servers raised by Clay Johnson of Blue State Digital in Medium. “I’d imagine Secretary Clinton at some point emailed the White House,” Johnson says. “I made the mistake of emailing the White House from my personal account once (!) during my term, and managed to get back a nastygram from Counsel about it. How or why didn’t the White House tell Hillary to use her official .gov email account? It could be that they knew the entire classified and unclassified email system was compromised and decided that the smartest thing to do was for her to use her personal email instead.”
So Whitney adds, “The State Department has to balance between being able to communicate quickly and effectively, and being able to communicate securely. The most secure way is to have face to face communication in room you know is not bugged with a translator you know is trustworthy.” She adds, “It’s a bad idea to have everyone in the world listening in on signals between state leaders, but this was not a problem created by email.” So just as the Kennedy-Krushchev hotline got the two Cold War-era leaders beyond “signaling in big ways, but they couldn’t [clearly] communicate; I think [modern] statecraft is advanced tremendously by being able to give high fidelity signals to who you are opposing or negotiating with in a timely manner,” says Whitney. “Security should not make that impossible.”

Although Secretary Clinton currently has the spotlight, let’s not forget about the inauspicious digital debut of Republican prenominee Jeb Bush, who took a bold lead in disclosing emails from his years as governor of Florida as part of his pre-campaign. But that didn’t turn out quite as expected. Governor Bush used a personal account for constituent services while in office. As proto-candidate of his party, he released a dump of selected emails, many of them seeming to depict him as attuned to the human suffering of his constituents. Of course, he then published the suffering of his constituents in full, not seeming to care if their personal tragedies became a political sideshow…or if their identity was compromised, as it was in cases when people included their social security numbers and other markers ripe for identity theft in the emails. In one case, which I will summarize so as to not to publicly re-identify the individual, a woman appeals to Governor Bush based on, in order:
1) unemployment
2) struggles with addiction
3) past criminal conviction and desire to avoid future ones
4) Christian faith
5) terminally ill husband

And that’s just for starters. The email goes on to detail several more personal tragedies and medical conditions; appeals for the Governor’s help; and ends with the petitioner’s social security number and full name.
How did this information go public? And make no mistake: it’s still public on many servers, even though the former Governor’s team has since ordered the files redacted.
Perhaps the better question is: in a world where the distinction between the public and private email accounts of officeholders is blurred at best, how should an officeholder have acted responsibly with some of the most private revelations and identifiers of private individuals?

Richard Cardran is a digital strategist based in Los Angeles. He identifies a series of steps that Governor Bush’s camp could have taken to truly protect constituents while still dealing with the need for disclosure and transparency. “Strategic redaction is an imperative for anyone in [Governor Bush’s] position. However redaction needs to be done by a third party to have any credibility–otherwise all redacted information is suspect by one’s enemies,” Cardran says. That deals with the data dump of information to the public after the fact. But what about inbound missives? “You can’t protect people from themselves, but you can protect yourself [as a politician],” he adds. “Make all public email submissions happen through a contact form with explicit warnings about public visibility. Or have staff destroy suspect emails when received with an auto-responder to alert emailers to resend minus the personal information.”
Governor Bush’s email did have a signature which read: “Please note: Florida has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from state officials regarding state business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure.” That’s not nothing, granted.

Imagine if the disclaimer said: “If you just emailed us your social security number, we must destroy this email to protect you from possible identity theft, because this email may become public record. Please re-send your email, and remember that even if you remove your social security number, you may end up publicly humiliated if your email is later published in the newspaper. Do you want your Mom reading this?”

Despite revealing far too much of his constituents’ personal lives, did Governor Jeb Bush show a pattern of helping them? Did his family’s deep political ties manifest in his electronic correspondence, in ways benign or noteworthy? Did Secretary Clinton, despite the complexities of this digital era, manage to keep a clean house in terms of sorting digital correspondence related to her personal life; U.S. Diplomacy; and the Clinton Foundation — and more importantly, were her emails revelatory about the separation or blending of those roles? (She says she deleted emails related to family deaths and weddings. Anything else?)

Given the way these emails were managed, it will be extremely hard to generate anything close to a definitive record. That’s a real detriment to the public’s knowledge.

We Are Explorers: #AdviceforaYoungJournalist

Never forget you are on an adventure, whatever your tools – pen/laptop/audio-/video-recorder. You are on an adventure that is a gift of your craft. Like all quests, this one has rules, and one of them is to speak truthfully of those you encounter on your way.

Shinjuku, Tokyo, 2012

Shinjuku, Tokyo, 2012

That does not mean you won’t make mistakes or speak incorrectly. (Every time I get a correction it pierces my heart.) It means that fundamentally you remain committed to true communication, which delivers a parcel of information about the human condition from one person to another…. really, from one-to-many.

Last week was a bad week for journalism. Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, who covered Israel extensively and was held captive in Iraq for 40 days, is killed in an auto accident. NBC anchor Brian Williams gets suspended for six months (at least). And the New York Times’ David Carr, who survived addiction and lymphoma, dies of lung cancer and heart disease at age 58.

I didn’t know David Carr but his death really touched me. He is (I can’t bring myself to say “was”; and through his writing he is still very much an “is”) an inspiration. Not a “should-be-inspiration,” an overly saintly version of what you think is good. David Carr was an ass-kicker and an experimenter and, from what I hear personally as well as things documented, a great mentor, and a flawed but triumphant man, and an amazing writer. And he died in the saddle, the night he hosted a conversation about the chilling documentary Citizen Four. Anyway, it hurts even from afar. And I’m sorry to all his friends/family/colleagues/circle.

What Brian Williams did was disrespectful to the truth and those involved, including veterans. If you want to quest badly enough, tall-tale-telling should be unnecessary. If you are a journalist, and want to have adventures and are doing your job right, you will have them. Maybe not always as often as you like nor, certainly, paid as well, but you can still make journalism an outsized career in terms of transcendent and/or terrifying moments. Again… if that’s what you choose. But are you willing to live on a fluctuating and often low income to be, say, a freelancer on the US/Mexico border? Or in Provence, France? Or in your hometown? What does journalism mean to you? How often do you want to be behind or away from a desk? What technical skills do you already have that could help with your quest, or what do you need to acquire? (I can’t help, here, imagining that everything from “digital photography” to “German proficiency” to “data viz” and “app design” are like little game-play icons you can win.)

I tell stories about my career often, so I get the impulse for sure. The stories I tend to go on about are ones where I learned something fit for print and also something that I took away personally. When I went to a park-n-ride in Frederick, Maryland, after a blizzard to interview people from the Klan, I had already interviewed one of them before and done a lot of research to ensure they were a group committed to the rhetoric of hate but not (to date) actual physical crimes. I found out, to my surprise, that Ocean City at that time (the 1990s) had a far more dangerous group of the Klan than many others in the state.

For print, I wrote (for a larger piece) just about interviewing a female Klan member that day. But I’ve talked many times about larger lessons and funny-weird moments, like my friend Thomas musing that by driving me to the appointment we weren’t scoring any points, because we were race mixing. (Thomas is a white Southerner, and was gutsy and a great friend to drive with me. Thanks.)

Journalism should allow those of us who choose to walk away with great stories. But they should be true. (See: David Carr.) If you want to tell amazing true stories but your journalism outlet isn’t letting you, then at some point you want to migrate to where you can do the kind of stories you want. If you want to anchor, you may not have as much time to field report. When I haven’t been able to do field reporting I have really missed it. I’ve gotten to report from various points abroad, but mainly explored America, and feel like I know it in an entirely different way than I did as a child. I’ve grown from going to New Mexico; or the Crow Reservation (and its visionary college) in Montana; or coastal Oregon or Kansas City (MO and KS) or, of course, New Orleans and Miami and Chicago (where I spent two three-month stints). Journalism should grow you. And there are many ways that can happen – reporting, editing, working in the newer fields of data and design (visual and product). But whatever it is you set out wanting to do in journalism, do it, or it’s not worth it.

On the other hand, detours lead to wide paths. I can’t say I was thrilled to start being a fact-checker at Newsweek. It was the standard entry-level job but was too much desk-based and cleaning-up-other-peoples’-messes for my taste. At least at first. But I learned so much from going to Newsweek’s research library, with its incredible librarians, who knew history and how to find and make sense of the documentation of history as done by the news. But working to fact-check other reporters’ stories fundamentally gave me an entirely new skillset in my research, and made me a better reporter – in large part because it introduced me to a wide variety of reporters and their methods and personal approaches to work. It was a great training ground. (And of course, once I became a reporter, the fact-checkers were cleaning up my messes.) My first book , Don’t Believe the Hype (on race and the media) was definitely born of my time as a fact-checker.

This is a death-birth time in journalism and media broadly. Many of the old models are sunsetting, or diminishing audience in order to share space with new models for producing and distributing news. Over the past few years I’ve worked to get a basic sense of how revenue models work in media, for different platforms at different levels of maturity and in different corporate forms (C Corp; nonprofit; B Corp, for example). For better or worse, part of your job as a journalist today is to understand where the money comes from and goes for what reason and whether the pipeline will keep flowing. Your career can depend on your good judgment in staying with or leaving an institution; or broadening your skill-set.

Of course, the number one thing that will help or hurt your career is your bond with other people. I used to think this was some kind of tragic inequality – purely about nepotism and alumni clubs and personal alliances. I still think a lot of that rules journalism, and just about every profession where people work for glory as well as pay. But I also think a well-tended garden of alliances, which has often led to barriers and biases in journalism, can be used to re-form it as well. There are new alliances forming between journalists who want to see more diversity in the field; find new models of making journalism financially viable, creative, and ethically sound; and reach a wider audience, among other fine things. As I found while doing a 20th anniversary edition of Don’t Believe the Hype, race and the media is still a bit of a shitshow. (And yes, that is the scientific term in my book.) But as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

So: what are your demands to power? Don’t pretend you don’t have them. One of my demands is that we deal with diversity in employment and storytelling, because it’s just right but/and also leads to more historically accurate and more genuinely creative journalism. Perhaps your demand is, “I want to be the (wo)man in the anchor chair.” Or perhaps it’s, “I will revolutionize storytelling about my community.” Or perhaps “I will revolutionize how multimedia stories are told with the still image and the recorded word.” Or it could be, “Under extreme financial pressures, I am a key part of a functional newsroom.” You don’t have to stick to just one mission your whole career, but if you don’t have one, journalism is a lot less interesting and frankly, makes a lot less sense to do. Truth-telling is a complicated and perilous business, and a fantastic universe for a life quest.

Paris: Murder, Immigration, Race, Islam and “Islamic Terrorism”, Neo-Nazis and the European Right Wing.

The news today is that terrorists — broadly Muslim or Islamic terrorists — killed 12 people (at last count) in Paris, targeting a satirical magazine. I feel sorry for my Jewish-Parisian friends; all Parisians; all Europeans; and all of humanity, roughly in that order.

I recently reported on multi-ethnic Paris, its richness and some of its political discontents.

As I posted on Facebook:
This makes me incredibly sad.
Sad for the loss of life — living humans killed.
Sad for their families and co-workers and friends.
Sad for Paris.
Sad for the rise of the neo-Nazi parties, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia in EU elections.
Sad that we have a world where we are being squeezed by both “Islamic Terrorism” (a very broad descriptor) and people like the Norwegian right-wing killer who killed 70+ people in 2011.
Sad that Europe is seeing a fight between extremists and extremists.

I remember being with an acquaintance who is black American and white-American-Jewish by parentage. We were discussing racial tensions +/vs anti-Semitism and he began singing “everybody hates the Jews,” a key line from Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week.” I had never heard the song before.

I’m worried that everybody hates everybody, but in different ways and senses. Some people are corralled into faux-homelands and deprived of liberty; some are sought out and exterminated; some are proscribed from earning an honest living; in some cultures, women are prohibited from almost everything except being good wives and mothers, deprived of self-agency and choice even if what they want to be is a married mother. In some cultures, LGBT people have the legal right to everything heterosexuals have, but are murdered; in others they have less legal rights.

I haven’t give up on us, “us” being the human race. But if you don’t know your past, you can’t know your future. Are we even interested in having one?

Pleasing the God of Kickstarter: 5 Tips to Boost Your Campaign

First of all, this blog post has been reverse-engineered, as I deconstructed all of the things I did wrong with my own campaign for the podcast One With Farai. Although it succeeded in reaching its goal — for which I am deeply, deeply grateful — I learned a lot along the way. Friends and family were the biggest donors:

Successful campaign!!! Thank you!

Successful campaign!!! Thank you!

(If you want to know why this is titled Pleasing the God of Kickstarter, or why there’s a picture of a taco, you must listen to this hilarious Podcastle fantasy podcast on crowd-funding a god. A fairly vengeful one, too. Quite possibly the only fantasy story depicting a crowd-funding campaign.)

Happy Taco by JC Ferrgy

1. Be Clear. VERY Clear.
Some people will know what Kickstarter and crowd-funding are; some will not. Some of you will go uh-huh. Some of you will go — nooo! Who doesn’t know about crowd-funding? Well, what about your relatives who never answer their email? Or the friends who boycott social media on moral/intellectual/privacy grounds? (I have some; don’t know about you.) You have to know how to reach everyone.

And, uh (she hems and haws, admitting one of her many weaknesses) you have to be clear about your intent. What are you selling? Make no mistake, Kickstarter requires selling. My campaign included ideas about: the future, diversity, live events, and work/life synergy. That’s three too many ideas. Stick with one. (That said, we do have them all, and during the campaign got a great opportunity to do a live podcast in April at Harlem’s amazing Schomburg Center.)

2. Time Your Campaign Wisely.

I ended my campaign on the first of the month, just as some people who get paid monthly (like me) get paid. And I should have run it longer. Every email I get that says “Oh I wanted to but I missed it” drives me mad. It takes a while to hit liftoff and don’t cut your campaign too short unless you are really sure or set a really low bar.

Try not to launch a campaign after a bigger, better one; or, if you do, be sure that your pitch to compare favorably to them holds up.

Our campaign came after radio and podcast campaigns by Glenn Washington and Radiotopia. I thought about postponing it, but there was also an argument to join the wave of audio on crowdfunding. I could have surfed that wave if I had a surfboard, but…

3. Somebody’s Gotta Drive the Bus

… This has been a 2.5 book year for me (3 worked on; 2 completed). And I teach. And I wrote about Ferguson. And it’s been one of my hardest, best, biggest personal growth years. So I wasn’t driving the bus. I didn’t hire a publicist. By the time I figured out I needed to, most were booked. I’ve run other peoples’ campaigns more successfully than I ran mine. Because….

4. You have to plan, plan, plan.

When I ran another person’s campaign — for an album — Kickstarter was a juvenile. Now it’s a grown wo/man, a king or queen. You need to bring it hard to make a campaign succeed, or risk crowdfunding fatigue. When I ran my friend’s campaign, I hosted a live event on a rooftop; lined up big donors; managed invite lists. I did some of that, but not much. See point 3.

5. But also be flexible. Not TOO flexible though.

I made a fundamental mistake in running both a tax-deductible and non-tax-deductible campaign simultaneously. We had very good luck with small family foundations. But the tax-deductible fundraising should, honestly, either have been structured as a match-for-donations (everyone gets a little flushed at that) or saved for later. (I wish Kickstarter had that option, hint hint.)

Hope this helps your campaign! There is much wisdom out there on the internet. Meanwhile, I helped fund the Zen Habits campaign. He is VERY CLEAR about what he offers. (And Leo, I’m a fan.)

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 6.21.41 PM

By the way, if you want to make a tax-deductible contribution to our podcast-in-evolution, you still can. Just send a check noting a contribution noting a donation for One with Farai to:

Aubin Pictures
C/o Jessica Ruffin, Projects Manager
138 Grand St, 5 E-F
New York, NY 10013

And if you want to summon The Holy Folded One (see: why the taco?), then I think, sadly — or gladly — that dangerous fictional Kickstarter is closed.

#OneWithFarai — Alec Ross on Middle-Class Woes in a Global Economy

We’re bringing you highlights from the One with Farai podcast as we continue to ask for your support for our Kickstarter campaign. Our podcast brings you diverse, visionary voices about the future of America and the world… the kind of information you need to be an informed person and citizen.

Alec Ross, former diplomat and globalization expert

Former Diplomat Alec Ross spoke to us about the pressures on working-and middle-class Americans in a globalized economy. He served as Senior Advisor for Innovation at the State Department; grew up in West Virginia and now lives in my hometown of Baltimore

Listen here:

Alec Ross, in his own words:

“It’s never been more difficult to be working class or middle class in America going back to the 1930s. I say that not as a polemic but just as a matter of statistical fact. The degree to which there is not just stagnation but the steady erosion of well-being, purchasing power, quality of life for everyday working Americans is real, and it’s rooted in fact. Globalization cuts both ways. On the one hand, it creates opportunities for very quick upward economic mobility for people who have the skills to compete and succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. But it really hurts those who lack those skills.

You know, the ability to get a job based on the strength of your shoulders with which you can feed your family and for which you have health insurance—those good old union wage jobs are largely gone, and I really don’t see them coming back for the most part. Even advanced manufacturing jobs—and advanced manufacturing is certainly back on the rise here in the United States—those require a set of skills that you’re not going to get with a vocational education degree from high school. So I think that in a global economy made up of 7.2 billion people from 196 countries, being American does not advantage you in the way it did in decades past because of the nature in which competition for labor, competition over human capital is now global.

People in Baltimore are not competing against people in Pittsburgh and Cleveland for jobs. People in Baltimore are competing against people in Bangalore. And so what this means is that education needs to become life long—it’s not just something you do in high school or college. It also means people have to be comfortable with increasing mobility in their work lives. And the sum of it is that life is only going to get more difficult for working class and middle class Americans as our economy grows increasingly interconnected and increasingly global.”

Please support our Kickstarter campaign so we can keep bringing you the most important information that shapes our future, our nation, and our world.

Thank You For Your Service, Veterans

I want to thank all the veterans in my family for their service (and there are quite a few), and also for teaching me about their world through their different perspectives on military life and war. Two of my uncles served in Vietnam, in different capacities, with very different experiences. Sitting at the dinner table when they told their stories, and sometimes disagreed deeply, helped me think more thoughtfully about sacrifice, morality, the ability to reflect on and understand the past.

To my knowledge, someone related to me on my mother’s side has been in every major war back to the Civil War, when my grandmother’s then-young grandfather was a water boy. I don’t pretend to know what war or military service are like. But I listen. And I’m glad they speak and help me learn. Thank you, for everything. And to all the veterans today, thank you as well.