Without Anger There is Only Sadness: Reflections on the Killing of Mike Brown

Evocative piece by Amy Davidson

Amy Davidson in the New Yorker

I do not want to know who Mike Brown is. I do not want him to become real to me. I do not want to empathize with his family…. not sympathize, but empathize. That is: to feel a visceral connection to another, to feel a pain that is not theirs but which is yours yet shared. Mike Brown, shot dead by police; brought under international scrutiny by activists online and off. Mike Brown, teen. Dead. Unarmed. Familiar to us. Too familiar.

I don’t want to crawl into the skin that empathy wraps around me, because it demands so much. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I was younger I used to be angrier when injustice was made manifest, each incident fueling my desire to connect the dots in a journalistic way. It was productive, but I also masked pain (considered weak) in favor of argument (considered strong). I also slipped into rage — which writer Ruth King describes as “an accumulation of anger” that includes an element of shame.

Growing up in Baltimore, I had my share of seeing how race threatened to confine me and my family, as well as the way we developed a spirit of collaboration and loyalty to achieve all we could in the world. No matter that my extended family is both wise and loving, I still internalized shame when race and class somehow intruded on my life, which was pretty much every day. It was simple things like understanding, in elementary school, when I was bused to a magnet school (GATE — Gifted and Talented Education) inside a larger school (Harford Heights) why all of the non-black kids were on our floor, and everyone else in the school was black.

I remember one time my mother crying about how she never thought we girls (my sister and I) would have to go through racial injustice the way we had. My Mom was not much of a crier, at all. But when you have worked so hard to make a better life for your children, to support equal rights and justice, and you see how far we have to go, it can get exhausting. And life goes in cycles — there can be long stretches of tensions and regress before we move forward. A black U.S. Senator left office in 1881. There was not another one elected until 1967. There were many setbacks, and victories, and of course much progress in between. We can map our “now,” and surmise about our future, but we cannot know how fast change will come.

It’s worth reading this evocative piece on the emerging early details of the killing by Amy Davidson. The later actions of Anonymous in support of the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, have raised the media profile astronomically, as well as raising ethical questions about “doxing,” or pulling up private information without permission and posting it publicly. It’s worth a read through the @OpFerguson Twitter feed. Will this intervention be just another part of the media moment or a game changer? And in what way? We don’t know yet.

Yet we must have faith. If we are going to transform this society, we have to have a belief that it is transformable. That does not mean we know the time-clock or how much our actions will help in the short term. But it does mean we are committed.

The first and hardest form of committing to equality is to allow empathy to take us hard places as well as joyous ones. To get to know who Mike Brown is. To feel some genuine connection to his family and friends’ loss and our collective loss.

Where do we go from here? Inward, as well as out. Into our hearts as well as into the streets or onto the streams of social media, as well as conversations at the family dinner table. Without my old friend anger, there is only sadness. But under that sadness there is hope. There is faith. I don’t know why. Despite it all, I still believe we humans can get it together. That equality can be more than a concept. I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. The not knowing is hard — how and when and why we will change. But in the end the quest for equality has no bystanders.

Where I’m At

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For the past month I’ve been in upstate New York at a writer’s colony in the Adirondacks, working on a new novel and a nonfiction book. I drove here in blinding rain and road-obscuring fog, on roads with no GPS coverage, with a tank quickly running out of gas. I left the city seven hours later than I originally intended, running smack into Friday rush-hour traffic; a torrential downpour; and a subsequent traffic jam just to get in to the Holland Tunnel. After the strip-mall feel of the highway in suburban New Jersey, I entered different areas of rustic beauty… just as night fell. The rest was a comedy of going slowly on rural roads with yellow road signs of leaping deer warning me not to speed. Not that I could…. It was far too foggy for that. I had to pace myself and forge on as steadily as I could, while the fog crept in around me (for which high beams just create brighter fog, not clarity) and I wondered why and how the road I drove was both 28 North and 30 South. In other words, I was heading towards something (in this case, a physical location) that I knew existed but had never seen; taking a winding and confusing path; with fogs which seemed (though they were simply nature) engineered to confuse and confound.

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I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for writing, particularly for fiction writing. You know in your heart there is a story, or, if not a traditional structured story, something to be explored and told. Something (you think) needs to be said (you truly think) and consequently you set out in a downpour of ideas; creeping through the fog of writer’s block; sometimes stopped entirely by downpours of new ideas that threaten to wash away the old ones. At the end, if you reach your goal, your destination, your work is influenced by your journey. Aside from the most banal writing, and perhaps not even that, writing requires staying focused on the goal (of producing a viable work) while dealing with distractions of time, new data or emotional input, and life. Life? (Could you be more specific, my inner critic says….) Yes, life intervenes. Deadlines; family crises; family joys. Money. Travel. Sometimes illness, yours or others’. Your energy level. Yet somehow, like wending your way down a country road in a fog, you see signposts of what might be up ahead, and remain engaged and alert as possible so you don’t miss the mark.

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The greatest gift of my time here has been time. For years, I worked a 9-to-5, which in my case was often more like a 10-to-8, or sometimes (ugh) a 4am-1pm, and on top of that more work later or earlier in the day on other projects. I’m not saying my work was/is unworthy of the time I spent on it, but my attitude was not always healthy. I let myself get sucked into work-frenzies both to accomplish goals (an article, a book, a radio or television piece) and also because it was what I thought made me worthwhile. I can’t speak for other countries, though I have hints as to how work functions in some of them, but Americans generally have a whole matrix of emotional values that we apply to how we work.

For some of us, like in my family, the striving of work is done as a collective empowerment, the betterment of the family and the neighborhood and the race as well as the country. You are, then, judged on whether you live up to a high work ethic, and how adept you are at circumventing others’ misperceptions of you (racial, gender, otherwise) if you run into that vein of power play. You are expected to give back with your work, and not just get. Some families and cultures/subcultures judge you based on income, regardless of what career you choose; and others would prefer you be highly educated in a field where you might earn less rather than judging you on what you bring home. The good part of the work-ethic I grew up with is a spirit of both individual and collective achievement and also an embrace of creativity. The bad part is (a common, I think) subcurrent of feeling that whatever you do is not enough — that the world is filled with holes that need to be plugged or pits that need to be dug and if you weren’t always cranked until 11, you probably weren’t working hard enough.

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While I’ve been up here in the mountains, kayaking and hiking; cooking; and learning from the other writers and artists in residence, I’ve slowed down a lot. First off, cell phones are forbidden; and even when you pull one out to check the time there are too few bars to actually get a call or sometimes even a text. That radically changed my daily behaviors, which included so much checking of my device (I’m not such a big phone talker; but I love my mobile interwebz) I started to get knots in my shoulder. So — strike a million micro-interruptions of my thoughts off the table. Then, the internet here is crawlingly slow. I have been editing my podcast and unwisely I did not download all of my raw tapings before I came up here. With failed tries due to poor connections, it took me two days to download 5 hours of tape. Technology, aside from basic email; plus using my computer for writing and curating photos; was mainly off the table. This allowed me to sink deeper into my work than I have in a long time.

I also let this earth sink into me and my work. The novel I am working on includes a long sequence in the woods. Originally, it was meant to be in Virginia. Now I moved it to the Adirondacks. I’m here. I know what the weather is; how maddening it is not to scratch a blackfly bite and how beautiful it is to kayak in the early mist of morning. I know what the lichen looks like on these birch trees, and what the local chipmunks and loons and mohawk-sporting ducks look like. I know what it is to meditate at the waterside, see the shimmering of the lake reflected on my closed eyelids; hear the water splashing the dock, with an effect like hands clapping slowly and softly.

Being here has helped me take risks with my work. For example, with the fiction, which was mainly revisions and reconstructions, I wrote forward until I was 3/4 of the way through the book, then started writing backward from the end. My first and only novel, Kiss the Sky, has what I consider a weaker ending than I would have liked. I was exhausted from the process of putting the puzzle together and wanted it done. With this one, I want the end to be as strong as if not stronger than the beginning. With my nonfiction work, I’ve been focusing on new ways to structure dense material to make it reader friendly — material on work, the economy, and global shifts that affect concepts of security, family, and achievement.

I’m grateful to have had this time, and a more conventional work-path wouldn’t have given me the chance to experience this. To reclaim a sense of being as well as doing is a powerful gift.

I’m starting a new podcast… and I need you with me!

Hi friends, family, colleagues and all around good people:

I’d like you to sign up for information on my forthcoming interview podcast, One with Farai from PRI:

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But first let me explain a bit.

I’m in Paris right now (hardship duty, right?) doing what I love, which is reporting.

Over the years, I’ve had a most adventurous and wonderful life being a reporter/host/broadcaster. Occasionally, being in media has been heartbreaking. I remember when the NPR show I hosted, News and Notes, was dropped during the 2008 recession. We had known for over a year we would probably be cancelled. But every day of the year of our dead-show-walking, we made the doughnuts (i.e., our live hour-long radio show), as gracefully as we could. I’d like to think most of listeners couldn’t “hear” that we were under the axe.

Here’s a bit on the media economics of that moment. I knew News and Notes had a fan base. I asked to fundraise for the show to keep it alive. Apparently that wasn’t allowed. We also got a grant directed to our show from a major foundation. We were told that grants had to be split with the general operating fund. In the end, the grant was completely redirected so our show saw none of it.

These memories come back to me because today I learned that Tell Me More, the only NPR show currently solo-hosted by an African-American — Michel Martin — was cancelled. Once again, like the demise of News and Notes, it was part of larger budget cuts. But I wonder there could have been an entrepreneurial model in place that allowed listeners to support Tell Me More, or other canceled shows like News and Notes and Talk of the Nation, even if they became more stripped-down independent productions.

In the five years since I left NPR, I have applied a lot of mental energy and a fair amount of my own resources to figuring out Media Economics 101 . Through a mix of hard work and fortuitous connections, I found a way to put my voice back on “air,” i.e., digitally, via a podcast. I’m teaming up with PRI (Public Radio International, distributor and co-producer of shows including This American Life, Studio 360, The Takeaway and The World) to launch “One with Farai,” a series of extended interviews with world-changers from disciplines from diplomacy to visual art. We have a financial model which starts small and can scale larger, with your help. Down the road, I’d love to turn this podcast into a show, and also do live events around the country. I’ll be able to post a link to our first podcast later this week. But given the news of today, I want to tell you I am launching this new venture, and I will need your support to make it grow.

Why? Because you deserve to hear a variety of viewpoints and perspectives as you listen to audio/radio. Because your vision is expansive and the world is big. Because listening to the people I am very lucky to get a chance to speak with will broaden your knowledge and make your brow furrow … and then make you smile.

Here’s a conversation I had with Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC (who I also interviewed for my podcast) on Saturday about media economics and the New York Times leadership transition. I also speak to the broader point of why the era of new media startups needs more diversity.

As far as my podcast goes, we will launch later this week. We’ve already taped people including broadcaster/professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Tokyo-based documentarians Shizu Yuasa and David D’Heilly, author and former diplomat Alec Ross, and actor Delroy Lindo. We have a lot more fascinating people lined up.

Over the past few years, I’ve researched ways to make compelling content in a lean and sustainable way. Shortly I’ll give more details on what our long-range plans are, how we plan to fund them, as well as how you can listen listen to our work.

In the meantime, (reminder!) you can sign up to get notice of the new podcast, One with Farai:

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I need you with me on this journey. I need you to listen; to spread the word; to financially support this when you are able. More specifically, I need you to sign up today by email to get more information on our program. If we want better media, we need better models for making it, ones that are sensible fiscally and also support ongoing production of work that has a fan base.

Today I’d like to honor the work of Tell Me More host Michel Martin; her team; and the team that worked on the show I hosted, News and Notes. I believe our travails are not in vain, but part of an evolution of media which, with your help, can produce better and more diverse content.

Post-Post Racial

Another post-racial America moment: small-town law enforcement called the President the N word; refuses to apologize. I am noodling over the idea of doing a 20th anniversary edition of my book Don’t Believe the Hype, on race/politics/culture/media. I am not depressed about race relations today; rather, I think we have another chance to turn the lens on ourselves and examine our incredible capacity for perpetuating stereotypes. What the past 20 years have taught me, among many things, is that no legal equality alone produces societal equality. We as humans have to change. How? For one, we better get over the concept of being post-racial, posthaste.

Make Your Own Pack

Reading Fast Company’s profile of Troy Carter, the man who until recently was Lady Gaga’s manager, is both enlightening and inspiring. Here’s a man who seems to take setbacks as incentive; is diversified in his approach to businesses (he’s a tech investor as well as a music industry ace); and who is combining having a robust family with running a business of which his wife is also the CFO (chief financial officer). Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 11.20.59 AM Carter’s life exemplifies one of the axioms of the modern career: Make Your Own Pack. No matter what industry you are in, however high or low on the food chain, you can choose to broaden your own set of contacts. It’s more critical than ever to have a networked career, in which you take the time to cultivate relationships across industries and over the years. In some cases, these relationships produce business opportunities or job leads (worth referencing: this research on “weak ties”). But whether or not that’s the case, having a diverse group of friends and acquaintances with whom you discuss work provides a framework for you to understand your own progress, challenges, and the opportunities around you. Most people I’ve met (both during my travels as a reporter and in my personal life) have multiple packs. For many of us, our family is our first pack, and our continuation or severing of family bonds throughout our lifetime shapes how we experience other groups. A job or jobs may give us an instant pack — but downturns can also shatter entire workplaces, or at least eliminate your position. By creating your own pack of honest supporters (people who champion you, but who can tell you the truth when you’ve done something wrong or are missing an opportunity), you create a flexible, evolving set of relationships that sustain you and increase the ways in which you can display your skills and creativity. As the Fast Company article puts it about Carter:

[A]s Gaga rose to fame, Carter methodically prepared to live without her. He doesn’t put it that way; he speaks of diversification, of curiosity, of building a stronger business. But that’s what it is. He’s an investor in more than 50 startups, from Uber to Dropbox, and has elevated himself to a fixture in the tech scene, now one of the best human bridges between the complicated frenemies of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. He’s ­acquired heady titles like Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellow and UN Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council member.

Not everyone has the business acumen of someone like Carter, but we all have choices about how we cultivate opportunity. The old saying that who you know is more important than what you know should get a new spin. Who you know is related to the art of human curation — selecting the environment of people in which you circulate. Learn how to remain respectful and consistent (i.e., not pushy) with people who intrigue you and who you respect. Some of them — perhaps more than you expect — will choose to remain in contact with you. Rejection, on the other hand, should not be taken personally. Everyone has lives; and every life has finite time constraints. Don’t rely on keeping a circle of yes-men/women around you, or just staying in contact with people who can do you favors. Curating people with whom you have shared connection and curiosity is a critical part of today’s career, as well everyday life.

Take The Right Work Survey

via Rivasolutionsinc.com

via Rivasolutionsinc.com


For a couple years now, I’ve been gathering stories and data for a book called The Right Work, about how you can serve your best interests as the job market and the very notion of careers evolve.

Right now I’m running a survey going out to a nationally representative sample of Americans, asking about factors affecting work and life/work synergy. I’d also love you to give me your two cents. You can do so here.

More soon… I’ll give an update on some of the findings.

A Very Buddhist Christmas

Sitting in my mother’s home in Baltimore, Maryland — the state named for the mother of Jesus, by the many Catholic co-founders of the colony — I listen to Barbara Streisand sing the divine melodies of Ave Maria. It’s deliberate, serene, rich with gravitas and promise, with the vocal flourishes only Babs can provide. I am technically no more a Catholic than Streisand is, at this point in my life. But things weren’t always this way.

via http://shambhalatimes.org/2013/08/09/jesus-and-buddha/

via http://shambhalatimes.org/2013/08/09/jesus-and-buddha/

For most of my childhood, I went to Mass every Sunday. I did the CDC religious instruction classes. I had my first communion, followed by many; and first confession, which to be honest, was my last. I never quite believed in all the dogma, but I loved the community and the ceremony. I just wasn’t sure, even as a child, that this was my path to God. As a small child, I created a pantheon that included the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Greek and Norse gods, and superheroes. Hey, why shouldn’t saints have superpowers and capes?

Some of my family has stuck with the one true Catholic and apostolic church; others have become Protestants; atheists; or, in my case, someone who practices Buddhist meditation. I started the non-theistic spiritual practice a decade ago. With a friend’s encouragement I began to attend regular meetings at different sanghas, a word that sometimes means a community of monks and nuns, but in America is often used akin to “congregation” in Christianity. I would not call myself a strict Buddhist. But as Alice Walker, who also meditates in the tradition said, “The whole point of anything that is really, truly valuable to your soul, and to your own growth, is not to attach to a teacher, but rather to find out what the real deal is in the world itself. You become your own guide.”

I have questions about Buddhist teachings as I did about some Catholic ones. Some call people like me religious dabblers, or people who choose a buffet plan of spiritual options. I prefer to embrace the teachings that stir my heart, no matter where they are from. From Buddhism, I seek ways to calm an over-active mind; to watch my thoughts and emotions as one watches clouds cross the sky, rather than getting caught in the inevitable thunderstorms of life. I have made some progress, and have far to go. You start a meditation practice in the hopes of gaining wisdom over time, with patience. You embrace kindness towards yourself and others, building the strength not to take everything personally and to gain compassion for even those who treat you badly. To me, the central teachings are very practical. Life includes pain — illness, injustice, death. Suffering comes when we cling to an “if only” mentality: if only I was physically well; or wealthy; or if racism disappeared. Happiness and freedom come when we release these “if only” cravings, and live fully in the moment, embracing all of its joys and pains.

Few of of the people I’ve practiced with grew up Buddhist. There are the Batholics, like me, and the Jewdists and every other silly name you can come up with for people who are internally interfaith, or at least started with one notion of religion and ended up in another. A lot has been written about inter-faith families and how they blend or respect traditions. But you don’t have to be in a relationship to be inter-faith. We all grow and evolve. How do we relate to the divine, if we choose not to do it in the way we once did as a child?

A revelation for me came when my grandmother was dying of cancer a decade ago. I audiotaped interviews with her, which I eventually edited into a CD for my family. She was the core of our Catholic practice, although she had grown up a Protestant. She raised her children with a strong sense of faith, gathering the extended family together for supper many Sundays after Mass. Her house was adorned with crosses and small figurines. And yet, as she lay dying, when I asked her about the afterlife, she said: “I don’t know. Who really does?” The fact that someone so devout could be honest — and not in a fearful sense — about the mysteries of life and death inspired me.

I’m listening to Christmas carols right now, with my mother humming along as she wraps gifts. I can respect and learn from Jesus without believing a Christian faith is the only path. I also respect those who choose Jesus or another divine figure as their one true savior. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher who convinced Martin Luther King, Jr., to oppose the Vietnam war wrote: “The moment I met Martin Luther King, Jr., I knew I was in the presence of a holy person…. On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors … When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own.” In that spirit, I pray to Jesus too.

I have a deep appreciation for religious choice, and for all faiths practiced with integrity. Any religion can be twisted into violence and vengeance or practiced with absolute love. And if Jesus taught us anything, it was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He said nothing about what faith (or lack thereof) that neighbor was. It’s a teaching that could be applied in a Buddhist context, or a secular one, or many of the world’s religions. And to me, that is the deepest meaning of Christmas, a holiday I will always treasure for its belief that we humans can embrace our divine nature.

High Impact: What the Puma Britdoc Awards Teach About Making a Difference

Good art; good deeds. There are many times when people try to link the two, and the result is failure or awkward mediocrity.

The Britdoc Puma Impact Awards are the exact opposite of that — a celebration not just of fine and creative documentary films, but also of the changes they make in the world.

SusanSarandonThe ceremony itself was great fun — especially considering the sobering topics of the documentaries, from false imprisonment to military sexual assault to genocide. The filmmakers of Give Up Tomorrow managed to save the life of a man on death row for a crime he didn’t seem to have committed. (He has not been formally exonerated, but after being harshly incarcerated for a double murder, he is now in a minimum security prison during his appeals.) But while the filmmakers were being feted, one also was taking a snapshot of the impeccably dressed Susan Sarandon, one of the judges and presenters. That sort of fun marked that not only is this work important, it can aos be done with joy and panache.

This wrap-up report on the Britdoc Puma Impact Awards has links to video from the films, and an impressive roster of outcomes the films and their campaigns have produced. In the case of the winning film, The Act of Killing, an entire forgotten genocide in Indonesia was brought to light — using some of the perpetrators to re-enact their crimes in the filming.

The Britdoc Puma Impact awards are a powerful model for any organization of any genre seeking to demonstrate not only excellence, but how that excellence transforms the world.

Why Are Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren In the Same Political Party?

The New Republic, and many other outlets, believe there’s possible war for the soul of the Democratic Party between Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — known as a crusader against financial industry misdeeds and for working families — and former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, known, simply, as one of the most powerful people in the world.

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This is a putative feud, the kind of things political folk noodle about while waiting for the plus/minus 18 months of intense Presidential election coverage. But it underlines a persistent issue with American politics: we simply don’t have enough choices. Multi-party European democracies are messy, but they do offer a range of ideological options, and, in many cases (as with the recent German elections) the possibilities for coalition governments that bring together a greater ideological range than any single party can.

We see the problems of a two-party system quite clearly on the GOP side, which is tearing itself apart over race/class/immigration. But as the New Republic’s piece points out, the Democratic coalition also has its fissures. President Barack Obama, for example, favored Larry Summers (who I wrote about here) to lead the Federal Reserve. More liberal minds on the Dem side said hell naw, which is why Janet Yellen is heading to confirmation hearings this week.

Converting the American two-party system to a multi-party democracy is far harder than converting a Hummer to biodiesel. But that’s not the only option. Fusion voting, which is allowed in 10 states including New York, allows third parties to also endorse candidates of the two major parties. It was outlawed in many states because it was too successful at holding the major parties accountable to their constituencies. In a parallel universe, Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney wouldn’t be in the same party; nor would Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. And if that parallel universe included fusion voting, American voters could decide without the “spoiler” question that confronts third parties today.

I wrote a chapter in my 2004 book Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters which has quite a bit of information on fusion voting. That chapter is attached to this post. Read on if you’d like to know more.

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Yearning to Be Free: Why “12 Years A Slave” Is Essential Viewing

In one understated, key scene in the new film “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northrup, played by Chewitel Ejiofor, stares off camera and you see a play of emotions cross his face. They are all despair. Angry despair; hollow despair; frightened and horrified despair. After living a prosperous life in New York with his family, Northrup is several years into bondage, after having been kidnapped into slavery. You might imagine a scrim of two lives before Northrup’s face — one of his life-as-is, with it’s brutality and adrenaline; and one of life-as-was, with family and community and comfort. Northrup was a real man, who wrote a book about his life.

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The fact that director Steve McQueen rests long enough on his actor’s face to convey the wordless message is one of the many things that distinguishes “12 Years” from more earnest narratives about slavery, like Spielburg’s 1997 “Amistad.” I don’t mean that “12 Years” isn’t serious. It’s deadly serious. But it’s not earnest, in the sense of being overly on-the-nose to convey a moral message.

Steve McQueen is an art star whose newest film takes him on a Hollywood trajectory. With a movie co-produced by Brad Pitt (who has a key turn) and scripted by John Ridley, the director is hitting a broader audience. Michael Fassbender continues his run of key roles in McQueen’s films with a turn as a rabidly distempered “n***er breaker” of a slave owner. Fassbender’s childlike glee (though quickly changeable) at the world he inhabits reminded me of “A Clockwork Orange.” If you imagine one function of slavery as procuring free labor; and another one as breaking the spirit of the laborers to get whatever you can from them, isn’t that just “the old ultra-violence” taken to its extreme?

Unlike “Django in Chains,” there are no comedic interludes to break the ratcheting tension in “12 Years a Slave.” Every scene of violence in “12 Years,” and its heartbreaking sex scenes, are aesthetically impeccable. These visceral scenes get under your skin. There are so many ways in which minds and bodies are manipulated by force and will, whether cruelly (a la Fassbender’s character and that of his wife, played chillingly by Sarah Paulson) or more gently (with Benedict Cumberbatch as the “good master,” for what that’s worth in the end).

The story is not just about slavery, but the perils of freedom in a world that is not free. Part of my family history is when my great-great-grandmother told my mother that as a child, she had to dive into ditch to avoid the “paddy-rollers”… the “patrollers” who made no distinction between capturing runaway slaves and taking free men, women and children into bondage. And what was that distinction, anyway? How could black folks have lived the antebellum years of American history as free men and women, knowing that thieves really did lurk in the night…literal body-snatchers? Well, they did. And so many of us, including me, are here because of the men and women who lived with and sometimes thrived despite the uncertainty about how free they actually were. “12 Years a Slave” is an extraordinary, must-see movie. I want more from this time period that doesn’t conform to what’s already been done before.

The Smorgasburg Future of Journalism

Pierre Omidyar's Photo from Twitter (@Pierre)

Pierre Omidyar’s Photo from Twitter (@Pierre)

Billionaire and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar has announced a new media business venture that may just be the best thing since sliced artisanal gluten-free bread. (Forgive the food metaphors. There will be more.) He’s gotten key journalists who have their own distinct and often controversial media brands to sign on to a fledgling and as-yet unnamed media venture that will provide support and exposure.

First on deck: Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who worked with former Federal contractor Edward Snowden to reveal the US government’s surveillance practices; and author/documentarian/investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, bestselling author of Blackwater and of both the book and documentary Dirty Wars. Clearly, Omidyar is not going for milquetoast journalism. Omidyar seems to be looking for people who have their own verticals, their own audiences, and a clear sense of mission.

Jay Rosen, a media-maker and critic who is a professor at New York University’s journalism institute (where I also teach), was consulted by Omidyar and wrote a fascinating blog post about his plans. (Rosen calls the unnamed company NewCo for convenience.) He writes:

In the spring of this year, Pierre Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if he decided to build something from the ground up….. Omidyar learned that Greenwald, his collaborator Laura Poitras, and The Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill had been planning to form their own journalism venture. Their ideas and Omidyar’s ideas tracked so well with each other that on October 5 they decided to “join forces” (his term.) This is the news that leaked yesterday. But there is more….

At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.

By “support” Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors…. Also included: strong back end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team because the kind of journalism NewCo intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world. Omidyar said NewCo will look for “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following.” He suggested that putting together a team of such people means understanding how each of them does his or her best work, and supporting that, rather than forcing everyone into the same structure.

I wonder if what Rosen calls “the personal franchise model” is akin to what I think of as the Smorgasburg model. For hipster Brooklynites, that term probably needs no explaining. But for everyone else: Smorgasburg is a wildly successful artisanal foods market. The founders set up a flea market-style weekly bazar, and individual vendors bring wares from their own companies. So these individual food producers each have a business; and a following. But Smorgasburg provides an umbrella brand that can increase sales and brand recognition for the vendors, much the way NewCo will provide an additional umbrella brand for media producers like Scahill and Greenwald, the latter of whom left the Guardian to work on this new project. Smorgasburg had been focused purely on providing space and brand-building, but its latest adventure — a Goldman Sachs-backed multi-use space — will also include a “food incubator” for burgeoning businesses. In other words, rather than its existing model of curating the food bazar and charging vendors for space, Smorgasburg will also begin to cultivate and grow brands.

I’m more than intrigued by the possibilities for journalism. Over the past few months, I’ve been in wide ranging conversations with individuals and organizations to see what a public radio incubator might look like. How could you pool smaller amounts of underwriting to develop sustaining support for new programming by people who are perhaps too edgy for typical public radio development, particularly to bring younger, more gender-balanced, and more racially diverse voices and new content styles into the medium?

Of course, I have a vested interest in starting the radio conversation. I don’t usually get into the sausage-making of independent media, but let me pull out my meat grinder for a moment. This summer, I had a radio pilot project fall apart when — despite having acquired funds to pilot — my potential station producing partner changed its mind right before the window to use the money was up. I thought, from some earlier experiments in independent radio documentary production, that after having a solid idea and team, getting money was the biggest hurdle to producing new broadcasts. But as I’ve learned, having a truly committed production home, with the editorial infrastructure and a commitment to executing in a timely matter, is just as important. The experience was powerfully informative and motivating for me. I’m no less committed to producing great work, and also willing to explore content production options that lie outside of traditional television and radio. Everything in media is changing all the time. The array of options for independent producers is, if anything, broader than ever… but also perilous, especially when it comes to constructing the right infrastructure and agreements.

You can always build that infrastructure yourself as an independent journalist. But there’s an opportunity cost to that. In my time running Pop and Politics, a journalism and training nonprofit I founded and ran until 2010, I was torn between business and editorial. I already had a full-time job, hosting NPR’s News and Notes. So when it came to the nonprofit (of which I was an unpaid employee) I found working with students on project including covering the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions; then doing a series of extensively road-reported radio documentaries on the 2010 midterm elections; was hard to balance with the fundraising, paperwork, and logistics of running a small nonprofit. Not everyone was built to run their own organization. For some journalists — particularly those independent of spirit but focused on editorial goals — a Smorgasburg approach would work well.

I’m one of many people eager to see what the new Omidyar venture with Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill produces. And as we as a society and economy experience more “alternative workstyles” — including episodic careers; parallel work within a company and as an entrepreneur; and a focus on seeking synergies with rather than clashes between work/family/life — we need new models that allow people to produce and market their best work. In journalism, perhaps the rise of the independent media producer will lead to the rise of the interdependent media producer — someone who functions both as an entity-in-self and as part of the larger whole, hopefully for the greater good.

Stratfor’s analysis of the shutdown

The mainly international-relations-focused intelligence service Stratfor gave an interesting historical analysis behind the Federal Government shutdown. The take puts political leaders into the categories of  [party] bosses, who seek power; and ideologues, who seek to push a specific agenda. (Caught between them are reformers.) As the article puts it:

 

Bosses were corrupt, and in that corruption they were moderate through indifference. Contemporary politicians — not all of them but enough of them — live within a framework of ideology where accommodation is the epitome of lacking principle. If you believe deeply in something, then how can you compromise on it? And if everything you believe in derives from an ideology where every issue is a matter of principle, and ideology clashes with ideology, then how can anyone fold his cards? You can’t go back to voters who believe that you have betrayed them and expect to be re-elected…..It is not ideology that is the problem. It is the overrepresentation of ideologues in the voting booth. Most Americans are not ideologues, and therefore the reformist model has turned out to be as unrepresentative as the political boss system was. This isn’t the ideologues fault; they are merely doing what they believe. But most voters are indifferent. Where the bosses used to share the public’s lack of expectation of great things from politics, there is no one prepared to limit the role of ideology.

What do you think?

Soul Train and Pain: Don Cornelius Deconstructed in New Book

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 3.08.52 PMIn her new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show, Soul Train, author Ericka Blount Danois does more than a pop-chronology or even a look behind the scenes. She gets deeply into the history and sociology of a man and a media movement that reshaped how America looked at race, self-expression, and culture.

Soul Train’s impresario Don Cornelius committed suicide in 2012. Today (September 27th, 2013) would have been his 77th birthday.

I got a chance to ask author Ericka Blount Danois how and why she so deeply explored Soul Train and Cornelius’ life.

Q: Your book includes vivid and visual detail of Don Cornelius’ early days in Chicago; his heyday; and his decline. How did you as a writer go about capturing the spirit and scenes of the book? What was your research process, and what did you choose to achieve with this book?

A:  I actually physically went to a lot of the scenes that I mentioned to get a feel for them (though many places have changed), I interviewed over 100 people—people who worked on the show in Chicago, people who went to school with Don, partied with him, family, old friends, dancers, artists on the show, etc. I had people with great memories to re-create scenes. I read everything about Soul Train and Don and books about the time period. I read books about the artists. I watched episodes, many that are not licensed to air as re-runs, (but I wish they would get them on-air because they are fantastic!). A few months after I got the contract, Don committed suicide and I covered the funeral and interviewed people there. I interviewed the detective that covered the suicide. I just became immersed in the world of Soul Train for a little over two years. Soul Train has such a rich, nearly 40-year history that the learning process is ongoing. After gathering all of the information, I then reconstructed the story using a narrative, non-fiction approach.

I wanted to begin to uncover the reasons why Soul Train had this lasting cultural impact around the world. What was it about the show that allows it to continue to resonate for so many different kinds of people? And what was Don’s personal story—how did he persevere as a black pioneer in television? Who was he behind the cool pose we witnessed on television? How did these two things—Don’s personality and the phenomenon of Soul Train–come together to create the longest running first-run syndicated show in television history? And how did it come together to create a lasting cultural phenomenon?

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 3.08.36 PM

Q:   There are many pivotal moments, but one is where Cornelius’ trusted secretary turns out to be embezzling. Much later in his life, and in the book, the scene where Don Cornelius won’t pay towards Lil Joe Chism’s headstone is heartbreaking. What do you think he owed his dancers? Do you think his trust issues (and generosity issues) extended past business travails into something more internal?

A: Great question. On the one hand I believe spiritually that to whom much is given, much is expected and a few hundred dollars to pay for the headstone for a loyal dancer that helped to build the success of the show would have been easy to do. The dancers, most of whom came from the same circumstances that he did, also looked up to him and many just wanted recognition from him that they were a huge part of what made the show tremendously popular.

Dick Clark didn’t have the same kind of expectations in terms of helping people– particularly the dancers– that Don did. But Don was a pioneer. A black pioneer in a television industry that was not very welcoming. So I think there is definitely a different set of responsibilities that comes with that. There is the responsibility in giving back in more ways than are just financial. The debate with Belafonte and Jay Z speaks to this—can collective advancement come from one’s own personal advancement? I personally don’t think we’ve arrived at that point yet.

I think for Don personally the burden of celebrity may have eventually affected his psyche. Maybe he thought the only time that people turned to him was for money. Maybe he started feeling used.

Don Cornelius, with the persona he created for the show, seemed to try to create this distance between him and the world. I think that persona prevented him from making a lot of personal connections. Maybe that’s the way he wanted it. Maybe personally, he felt imprisoned, as many celebrities do, because he had to constantly be on. It’s possible, from a purely business perspective, that he felt that he gave dancers an opportunity, a platform, to showcase their talents and that exposure was its own reward. Personally, maybe the price of taking on the persona of Don Cornelius was that he became indifferent.

He was very complicated. You mentioned his generosity at the same time as his refusal to pay for a headstone for a few hundred dollars. When he believed in someone there was no price he wouldn’t pay to have them succeed as I detail in the book about some of the artists he managed. Maybe he didn’t want to lose money on people he didn’t bet on—a very narcissistic way of thinking. But no one that I talked to made the claim that he was a nice, warm person—it was quite the opposite. Most talked about him as a private person with this Dr. Jeckyll, Mr. Hyde personality. He kept a lot close to his chest, including the Soul Train brand. He refused to name one of the theme songs for the show, MFSB and the Three Degree’s hit, “TSOP”, after the Soul Train brand. He regretted it after the song became a huge hit, but that’s how protective he was of the brand and that translated to his personal life as well.

Q: The show gave life to an era. What is your favorite on-air moment, and why?

A:    I have many! But there are two that stand out.

One is the episode with Marvin Gaye on February 16, 1974. This was his first televised appearance since his hiatus from touring after Tammi Terrell died. Marvin Gaye was explaining to the Soul Train dancers that were gathered around him why he hadn’t toured in so long and how he had lost a close friend. Tammi had multiple surgeries to correct a brain tumor, and there were questions looming about royalties that Gordy had promised the family that potentially could have offset costs. Gaye was becoming wary of Motown and had become a recluse. He was struggling personally, his finances were in disarray and his marriage was crumbling. He was melancholy and consumed with the war and social issues of the day. But he seemed genuinely thrilled to be in the company of the dancers and for Soul Train to be his re-entry back to show business.

The other is one that most people only saw on its first run. It was one of the shows devoted to a national dance contest. Soul Train execs flew in dancers from all over the country—small towns in Alabama, inner-cities, country towns. It was really amazing to see the diversity of the dancers and the various regional dances. These were literally kids off the street who likely had never been on a plane before. Probably the most amazing soul train lines I have ever seen.

Q: I have danced in Soul Train-style lines at everything from weddings to the NABJ (black journalists’) conference. It endures. Why do we still want to capture that moment in time?

A: Well, before television we were dancing in soul train lines in basement parties. It’s been part of the culture for awhile. But I think that the Soul Train line has endured for so long and spread to so many different cultures because of the power of television and television’s power to form memory and ritual and legitimacy. Soul Train captured what was already going on and spread it to “people all over the world,” as the theme music reiterated.

 

 

The Act of Killing: Syria, and Our Moral Dilemma

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend I went to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, an author and Buddhist teacher who, among many things, encouraged Rev. Martin Luther King to take a stand against the Vietnam War. That war was vastly different from any possible U.S. engagement in Syria, but at the end of the day, all warfare comes down to killing – killing as an act of aggression, and killing as an act of indirect mercy, when perpetrators of a greater violence are eliminated. Even many Buddhist teachings, which generally forbid killing, acknowledge that a moral circumstance may arise where it is necessary.

The questions about Syria that have bedeviled the President and Congress have tended to blend questions of morality (when is killing justified?) with those of national interest (when will intervention help America?). Let’s parse out a few of these different lines, and who espouses them. The first two are pro-intervention; the second two, against.

One – This is the new Rwanda. We can’t sit out a genocide.

President Obama appointed Samantha Power US Ambassador to the United Nations. She is the author of A Problem From Hell, a landmark and Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide. It certainly jibes with the moral argument made by the President when he stated “People who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say, ‘How terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, and why aren’t we doing something about it?’ And they always look to the United States. ‘Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth? Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?’” He added “And then if the international community turns around when we’re saying it’s time to take some responsibility and says, ‘Well hold on a second. We’re not sure,’ that erodes our ability to maintain the kind of norms that we’re looking at.”

(These very graphic and disturbing videos released by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Syrian citizens — including children — convulsing, dead, and dying from what appears to be a chemical gas attack.)

Two – This is a regional cascade and Iran will be emboldened by American inaction.

AIPAC (the biggest Israeli-interest political action committee in America) has put its muscle behind pushing Syria action. As Politico put it:

They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group. “History tells us that ambiguity [in U.S. actions] invites aggression,” said the AIPAC source who asked not to be named. The source added the group will now be engaged in a “major mobilization” over the issue.

Three — We’ll just make things worse. Plus, intervening while our own government is a mess is fiddling while Rome burns.

This is an opinion shared by both some Democrats and some Republicans. Via Politico: “Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), a retired Army colonel, said he believes a “military strike will make matters worse and it could potentially Americanize the Syrian civil war.” He added, “At this time of sequester, the parties need to be working together on a pro-growth, fiscally responsible replacement for the sequester.”

Four – We can’t win.

The Washington Post ran an article titled “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” From the piece:

Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry. The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.

How and when and why the United States kills is a topic of broader debate. (Note the fight over US use of drone warfare.)

But in the end, the fight over Syria intervention boils down to this: Americans are fatigued by our involvement in un-winnable wars. A majority of the nation sees intervention as a decision to wade willingly into a quagmire. And even with all of the moral arguments for intervention, those who champion going into Syria have to convince the American public that killing in the name of peace will actually achieve it.

End(ers) Game: Art vs. Artist

Very belatedly catching up on the controversy over Orson Scott Card, author of the book Ender’s Game — coming to theaters near you in October. It’s a book that influenced me and also is used in the US military as a think-piece on virtual warfare. (This I found out in a military briefing in a past journo-job… surreal to say the least.) The book is morally complex and important but in real life, author Card dabbles in recreational xenophobia including homophobia and imagining President Obama as Hitleresque.

Articles like this one call for a boycott of the film.

Articles like this one call for a boycott of the film.

Some fans are calling for a boycott of the movie, largely based on Card’s long-time, vocal, and virulent opposition to same sex marriage. Now, as one friend of mine puts it, if you screen out art based on the morality of the artists, the world would be a much more drab and lifeless place. That said, there is a whole sub-narrative to how the film is being marketed and the dance of denial the studio seems to be doing. If Card had been born 200 years ago, and thus was dead, it would be easier. But he is living and breathing — firebreathing all over the release of his film. And the studio has given him a producer credit. So I’m fascinated that this author not only writes fiction at odds with his fact-ion, but also begs (as his own words endanger the box office of his film) for “tolerance”.

Wired notes how NFL player/geekologist Chris Kluwe is processing the issue:

I don’t understand how you can write such a great book on the meaning of empathy, on understanding and loving another species, and yet at the same time not carry those lessons over to your actual life … I don’t get the cognitive dissonance that that requires in order to have that worldview. I’m not going to go see the new Ender’s Game movie … because I don’t feel that I should be supporting a person who is actively working to harm our society … So whenever I talk to people about Ender’s Game, I say, ‘Yes, it’s my favorite book. I love the message within it. Find a way to read it that doesn’t require you paying Orson Scott Card.’

I’m not sure if I’ll see the movie. I’m disinclined mainly because it won’t live up to the book. But the author also doesn’t live up to his own book. Isn’t that just another paradox of writing?