Silent night

December 24th, 2012

Prayer for a New Mother

The things she knew, let her forget again –
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the needless, tuneless songs to sing;
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

–Dorothy Parker, 1928

On caregiving & domestic violence

December 18th, 2012

Okay I've read Thinking the Unthinkable (reprinted elsewhere as "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"). How could I not? It was linked on social media more than any article I've seen since that tiger mother lady said she doesn't let her kids get up from the piano to pee. And now I've started reading the backlash. You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother, not to be confused with No, You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother or I am NOT Adam Lanza's Mother. There was Want the Truth Behind "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"? Read her blog (retracted, sorta, here). There was I Was One of the Scary Kids (which I found thoughtful), and For the Last Time, Stop Conflating Violence and Mental Illness (also thoughtful). And then the backlash-to-the-backlash, like Sorry Everyone, Now We Are Not Allowed To Talk About Mental Health Either. I'm sure there's much more.

I just need to say one thing.

If a woman in any other circumstance were to write that she lives in daily fear that a male she lives with might kill her, or hurt or kill her children, we would put her safety above all other considerations. We wouldn't worry about whether she's violated his privacy. We wouldn't berate her for not understanding his side of the story. We wouldn't comb through her biography for clues that she has faults, too, or why would he behave that way? We wouldn't tell her she caused his behavior in the first place. We wouldn't say yes, we get where you're coming from, but you're his sole source of financial support, so you need to tough it out for his sake. We wouldn't chastise her for giving him a reputation for violence, as if that's worse than the actual violence he is already committing. We wouldn't tell her that she needs to stick with it and reform him, somehow, through love, on her own, whatever the risk, because it's her responsibility to ensure that he doesn't hurt anyone else. If she insisted that she were committed to this relationship and that she was sure he could change and that she was going to do everything she could to help him, even at the risk to her children, we would try to gently counsel her out of that belief. If she persisted in it, we might intervene legally.

If it were her partner, her parent, an older sibling or another relative or even an adult son who was terrorizing her family, we would recognize that this woman is being verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. Of course it's different when the male in question is a 13-year-old child, and no one understands that better than the mother herself. She surmises, correctly, that no one will love and advocate for him the way she will (she's his mother!), so she can't just walk away. But when she says, "I love him and want to help him, but I've run out of ideas and I need help," the response should be, "You're right. We need to figure out a way to make this system work better, for you and for him." What you DON'T do is tag her with every woman-erasing cliche that domestic violence victims used to face routinely.

As far as the real Adam Lanza is concerned, we keep hearing that he left behind twenty-six victims. There were actually twenty-seven; the first one was his mother. I understand why we're not mourning Adam's own suicide the way we're mourning the women and children that he murdered, but it's telling that we are ignoring his mother, too, as if she's implicated equally in this crime. I'm sure some will say she can't possibly be worthy of sympathy if she raised a son like that. Others will fault her for being the one to introduce her son to guns in the first place. I wonder about these things myself, if only because his act was so horrifically incomprehensible. I've thought that it was a mercy that he killed her, because as a parent how could you live with that?

But there is no evidence that anything Adam Lanza's mother did was so heinous it merited her execution. When we dodge the fact that she, too, was a victim, the implications go beyond this one event. We are sending the message to all mothers that they are on their own with this stuff, that they will continue to serve as our scapegoat. Reforming gun laws is a political nightmare. Fixing the mental health system without (re-)stigmatizing mental illness is difficult. And challenging America's culture of violence will probably take generations. But blaming mothers, that's easy. Likewise telling women they are responsible for violence committed by a man. We know how to do that. We've been doing it for centuries.

Parenting a writer

July 15th, 2011

Via a friend of a friend, a beautiful post on being a writer, with advice to a woman who wants to support her daughter — starting with "let her be bored" and "let her be lonely."

It reminded me of Annette Lareau's article on the role of social class in childrearing (possibly available here). Lareau contrasts the predominantly middle-class style of parenting, which she calls "concerted cultivation," with a more working-class orientation, "accomplishment of natural growth." There are many differences between the two styles, but a key one is the amount of unstructured time children have. Middle-class kids have less: they're enrolled in lessons, sports, clubs, camps, and afterschool activities. Parents prioritize exposing their children to new things, and shielding them from negative influences. As a result, middle-class children have a richer variety of experiences, but less experience negotiating conflict and making decisions, weaker ties to others, and less contact with people of different ages and backgrounds: "Because most of his school events, church life and assorted activities are organized by the age (and sometimes gender) of the participants, Alexander interacts almost exclusively with children his own age, usually boys. Adult-organized activities thus define the context of his social life."

In contrast, working-class and poor kids are more connected to extended families and the community, and have much more free time.

The way families use language differs, too. Working-class parents are more likely to speak in directives ("Billy, shower."). Middle-class parents prompt their children for information and further explanations, and are more likely to view things other than health and safety as negotiable. As a result, middle-class kids develop more expansive vocabularies and feel they have the right to use them.

There are advantages to both styles. Which is not to say they're equal — it's easy to see how middle-class kids are acculturated into what Lareau calls an "emerging sense of entitlement" (as opposed to working-class kids' "emerging sense of constraint"), and how middle-class parenting values are supported by schools and authority figures (at least, when it's middle-class parents and middle-class kids who are exercising them: "talking back" can be interpreted as an act of defiance or as an example of critical thinking, depending on the relative power of the speaker).

But there is also a great deal lost in the middle-class model. As M. Molly Backes notes in the blog post above, there's little a parent can do to support an emerging writer in terms of pushing her into clubs and activities (there is no "Poet Boosters" equivalent to "Band Boosters"), but writers do need lots of time to think without distraction. That's something parents can support, but I think it's also something that makes them uncomfortable. And while facility with language is important to a young writer — something more likely to be fostered in middle-class families — there's also value in growing up hearing many different types of speakers: Grandma, the guys on the corner, the storekeeper who remembers when your mom was a kid, the local cop, creepy Uncle Bob. Contrast that with a child who scores well on vocabulary tests but can only write in the voice of Jack from soccer, Taylor from soccer, Michael from soccer, Zachary from soccer…

As with any sociological study, there is overlap between the groups in Lareau's research and many parenting practices did not correlate with class at all. But I think it's valuable to think about the reasons why some parenting styles are considered more legitimate than others, and ask when they are truly about children's development and when they're an outgrowth of class anxiety. As much as people complain about "helicopter parents," the true venom is directed at parents deemed neglectful. Naturally this makes parents feel like they're falling down on the job if they don't pack children's schedules and otherwise engage in "concerted cultivation." As Backes' post shows, though, some activities can only be cultivated through trust, which in the moment feels like neglect. That's okay. Raising a writer means being comfortable with weeds.

Social media, privacy, and branding

July 12th, 2011

I’ve started using Google+, and have been reading about its potential in the two areas that interest me most: education, and the Middle East. In the meantime I’ve been coming across lots of articles written for a general techie audience. The more I try to think through how I use the internet and social media, the more I’m thinking about the disconnect between different cultural contexts, different professional fields, and of course different generations of users. I think Google+ has the potential to bridge some of these gaps, but only if they can think beyond the needs of their early adopters.

First, some history

I first got online in the spring of 1992, when at the suggestion of a friend I joined a text-only BBS. Soon after that I was given an e-mail account by my university, but I didn’t understand why I should use that since literally everyone I knew who was online was on the BBS. I was aware that the internet could be used to share files between users, but otherwise the BBS was the internet, and I could not conceive of a world in which non-BBS people, like my parents, would use something as technologically sophisticated as this “e-mail” thing.

In 1994 the World Wide Web was born, and so was my daughter. When she was in kindergarten we took away her computer privileges for one week after learning she’d set up a web site without our permission. Back then we were still trying to be responsible parents, the kind who monitor their children’s activity online, because “online,” after all, is a dangerous place. We’ve long since given that up, of course. But what you should take away from this anecdote is that the web went from being “nonexistent” to “so easy to use even a kindergartener can do it!” in the space of five years.

Its image, however, did not change with equal speed. Well into the oughts, it was acceptable to use the internet for the occasional e-mail and light browsing, but to be one of those Internet People – someone who had a blog or web site, multiple user names, avatars, online “friends,” the whole bit – was to flirt with the “creepy” moniker. To be very clear: it didn’t matter what you did online; it was the act of being online itself that was suspect. Being able to use a computer at all meant you were some kind of freakish genius geek, but whatever bonus points you got in the intelligence department were quickly withdrawn because it meant you were also a basement-dwelling loser with no job, hobbies, friends, or social skills. Of course both these extremes were wrong; getting online took no special expertise, and just like real life, users ran the spectrum from charming and outgoing to weird and reclusive.

My daughter, now a teenager, pointed this out a couple years ago while watching the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition to noting some of the other ways in which this show was “old-fashioned” – the girls wore their pants too high; the fight scenes were boring – she thought it was hilarious that Willow was considered a super genius just because she knew how to get on the internet. “You can tell the show was from back in that time when people thought doing anything with a computer meant you were smart,” she said. “Plus Willow would just push a few keys and boom they’d have all the information they needed. People back in those days didn’t know what an internet search really looked like.”

“Back in those days” = 1999.

The internet’s PR problem

And so for the rest of the decade there was a generational divide: my daughter and other children of the ’90s were growing up having never so much as imagined a world without the internet, the way we grew up with phones and indoor plumbing; my parents and other Boomers – who have more economic power than other generations and who dwarf them numerically – were still suspicious of this new space full of pornographers and identity thieves; those in my in-between generation, the Gen X’ers who did not, technically, invent the internet but were responsible for almost all of its development, were using it in secret.

Yes, in secret. We understood this tool and were teaching it to our kids, but we were still hiding from the generation above us – our parents, relatives, professors, and most especially our potential employers. We didn’t share their skepticism of the internet but neither did we want to alarm them. The only exceptions were friends who worked in actual geek fields, as programmers or social scientists who studied the net as a phenomenon; they alone could afford to mix things up. The rest of us were careful to keep our online personas distinct from our professional lives. We wrote behind passwords and pseudonyms, turned off Google robots, and were vigilant about eliminating identifying information in public posts. Once again, what we were doing online was not (necessarily) suspect – it was the act of being online itself that might raise a flag. To name but one absurd example, a friend of mine who was working on a Ph.D. in sociology kept an excellent blog about doing sociological research. In a more rational world, it might have contributed to his professional reputation, since his work was meticulously researched and he was known to help other younger scholars navigate academia. But he knew that having such a strong online presence would only make him look like a creepy basement-dweller, so he wrote under a false name and was always worried that the tenured professors in his department would get wind of his embarrassing side project.

And then, all of a sudden, it changed. I blame/credit Facebook. My kindergarten teacher and second-grade piano instructor – ages 95 and 96 respectively – are on Facebook. So is everyone else. Aside from e-mail, Facebook is the first internet-related phenomenon I can recall where the expectation is that you are using it, and those who don’t use it are the ones who need to explain themselves. And, of course and rightly so, those explanations are accepted. The point here isn’t that Facebook is terrific. The point is that, for whatever reason, it’s not considered creepy.

And with that – it feels like overnight – we’ve gone from a world where you have to hide your online life to one where you are expected to have one. This came home to me about a year ago when I was reading a job application that asked, as one of its routine questions, for the URL of the applicant’s “web presence.” Presumably the answer could be a Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn account or, preferably, a blog or a web site. But the answer should not be “none” and it definitely should not be “what?”

Describe yourself in one sentence, please

I welcome this change. But with it comes a new oddity – the ubiquity of branding. Branding itself isn’t new; it’s probably been with us since the biblical era. Certainly since the 1920s. But branding used to be around products. Increasingly, it’s been wrapped around people. When someone asks you what your “web presence” is about, you should be able to answer coherently. “Armenian politics.” “Women in Victorian literature.” “Race-car driving.” “The year I lived off the grid, learning to weave.”

We do this in person too, usually by having a ready answer to “What do you do?” Responding with a job title is the norm, but things like “I’ve got two kids” or “I collect model trains” or whatever are also appropriate, depending on audience. What goes unsaid, but understood by both parties, is that the person behind this short answer is also undoubtedly a complex individual with an array of unrelated hobbies and interests and friends, which you would learn about if you got to know them better.

Online, it doesn’t seem to work like that anymore. Everywhere I turn, I’m reading advice on how to advance my personal brand, my online persona. And I think to myself, “Maybe I should get one of those.” But? I just don’t want to. I’ve wrestled with it, thought about how much easier my life would be if I had a public and professional capital-b BlogTM with a URL I could put on business cards, but it’s just not for me. I have a few sporadically-updated side projects that work that way, but I’ll never be able to cram my whole self into a single topic with a description so succinct it fits within a Twitter profile. I suspect most people can’t.

And this is where the geek/non-geek disconnect still seems evident. Geeks’ personal brand can be themselves, because their interests and professional lives usually have a lot of overlap and, most importantly, geeks aren’t penalized politically or professionally for talking about geekdom online. But if teachers talk about themselves or their jobs online, we’re in different territory.

I was reading an article yesterday about how to manage your social media presence and – once again! – it was filled with advice like “don’t talk about illegal activity.” They meant drugs. As an educator, though, I’m interested in more subtle things. Does someone blog about specific kids they’ve worked with, in ways that would be identifiable to that child or their parents? Have they ever published a child’s work online without permission? If you blog a lot about your skepticism of standardized tests, will you still be able to get a job that measures your performance by them? The examples are endless. Most of all, though, can being online at all still hurt you? Imagine, for instance, a 40-year-old male teacher with an account on a social networking site. Perfectly normal. But what happens when that site – none of its content, just its existence – is discovered by a school principal who isn’t really familiar with social media and associates the site with predators and cyberbullying? And this guy wants a job working with children?

Branding is a good answer for that teacher. If he can clearly show that his “web presence” is about something like curriculum development for early readers, or technology in education, he can get away with having a light, locked-down social media presence on other sites. Yes, he’s one of those Internet People, but look at the good he’s doing in the world! But if he wants to blog like geeks do, talking about the news and politics and his job and his cat and whatever lands in his inbox today, he’ll have a harder time justifying his heavy online footprint.

For activists in the Middle East, these questions are even more serious. In the last six months people have been tortured for their Facebook passwords. Governments are not only interested in having access to someone’s information; they will log in and post as that person (“the demonstration was canceled today!”). For these folks, being online at all is still the issue, and articles warning them not to post drunken Facebook pictures or to blog about their drug use are beyond pointless. That was never how they used the web.

You may say fine, point taken, but that kind of advice was always intended for a North American audience, so whatever. But these tools are being developed in an international context and have a huge international userbase, so I’d hope that developers are thinking broadly about how these issues apply to contexts beyond geekdom.

Some thoughts:

1. Google+ should be careful how it brands itself. I’m more likely to make heavy use of a site if its offline image is more adult than MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal. The content on my LJ was smarter and more interesting than the content on my Twitter (and had many more readers), but LiveJournal’s image was too juvenile for me to associate with my real name in any professional setting. It would be nice if I didn’t have to worry about this.

2. Create groups, not just circles. Right now, if I want to talk to people I don’t know about a shared interest, we have to add each other to at least one circle and then we are inundated with all of each other’s public content. In this regard even Facebook is better.

3. Give up any remaining insistence on real names. I use mine, but I don’t live in Syria.

4. Google’s multi-stage authentication process is an improvement on standalone passwords, but it doesn’t help people in countries where you’re kidnapped together with your phone. I don’t know how to get around this one, but it sounds like a problem geeks like to fix.

5. Tying your Google+ profile to everything else you do on Google, including your Gmail account and search history, puts activists who use Google’s other services at much greater risk than if the government only captures their Facebook password. I’m guessing Google thinks this integration is a feature, not a bug, and it’s one I’ll have to live with. But this is me, registering my discontent.

Beyond that, I’m really pleased with the potential here. As lots of people have noted, the privacy features are easier to use, more reliable, and easier to customize than on any site I’ve used since LJ. There are no space limits to status updates, so already some folks are treating it as a blog. Happily, I can add strangers to my circles without feeling like I’m stalking them – in that sense it’s like Twitter; there’s no expectation of reciprocity as there is on Facebook. And like LinkedIn, I can add all my education and employment history, as I would in a professional profile, and then make that available – or not – to selected people in my circles. I haven't used photos or video chats, but I'm told those work well.

All in all, it seems like a space that can meet many needs simultaneously. How well it will translate in practice for those outside nerd world and outside the U.S. remains to be seen. But I'm mostly optimistic.

How Egypt did it.

February 13th, 2011

It's difficult to write about a moving target. People are going to be studying this revolution for years, and I know anything I say now risks becoming obsolete within hours as new information comes to light. I want to write this down, though, because these are my immediate impressions. As time goes on, frames will change, facts that seem big now will be forgotten, and things that seem trivial will loom larger in light of future events. (I'm looking at you, Algeria, Yemen, Syria.)

Beyond that, I'm writing through a haze of exhilaration so strong there have been times I couldn't type. I know so many people who have wanted this so long, and so bad, that seeing their euphoria makes me a hater when I read calmer voices deliberating about what's next. I plan to join them later, no really, but for the time being I'm still bouncing around the house like I'm nine and it's my birthday.

Anyway. Mubarak resigned about 48 hours ago. This is how I see it now.

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"Leave already, my arm is hurting"

The revolution was a popular uprising, but it was not a spontaneous one. For the first two decades of Mubarak's rule, the only real opposition came from the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past decade that started to change, when pro-democracy organizations, mostly but not entirely youth, began coordinating with labor. These groups aren't Islamist, but what's interesting to me is that they've avoided slamming the Muslim Brotherhood and have even worked with some of the younger members in tactical matters. I assume that's because the Islamists have more support in the baladi neighborhoods, where people aren't on Facebook. ("Pro-democracy activists" here means activists opposed to both Mubarak and the Brotherhood, although the Brotherhood also supports democracy.)

The last time I was in Egypt, just after the April 6 demonstrations, I posted this story and this op-ed from Al-Ahram. Someone else posted this article in a comment; all three are from 2008 and in retrospect they predicted current events (although Al-Ahram also emphasized Facebook's silliness which some believe was part of the government's strategy, to make protesters seem young and dumb — Al-Ahram is state-controlled).

At the time I was skeptical. I thought the "Facebook activists" were too middle-class to get popular support in working-class Cairo, much less Upper Egypt and among the fellahin. They were strategic about it, though, emphasizing economic concerns in neighborhoods like Bulaq and democracy and human rights with educated youth online. Lots of people are comparing this to Iran (both v.1979 and v.2009) but April 6 organizers were trained by the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević.

I think the youth movement in Iran did have some influence. Then there were larger demonstrations last summer after Khaled Said's murder. (Mona Eltahawy wrote about them in June.) And then, just before a planned demonstration on Police Day (January 25), Tunisia happened. This wasn't the impetus, but it was the tipping point. The organizers' strategy depended on getting spontaneous participation from the neighborhoods, because if they'd gone out alone they wouldn't be able to get past police barricades. This also became important later when they occupied Tahrir. Judging only from the pictures, the square was filled with every demographic during the days, including lots of middle-class youth, but at nights it was older, middle- and working-class men who actually set up tents and slept in front of tanks. Tunisia provided that spark.

On nonviolence:

Egyptians aren't unfamiliar with violent attempts at overthrow. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, launched a terrorist campaign that went on through most of the 1990s. I was living there then and it was frightening. The difference between then and now is more qualitative than quantitative. Al-Gamaa killed hundreds of people, and hundreds of people were killed in this situation, too. What was different was the mood on the streets. In the 1990s, you learned to distrust the people around you, and to wonder if they were distrusting you. Although statistically speaking there was a low chance of getting hurt, every shop, hotel, school, cafe, and apartment building initiated security measures that had you constantly on guard. I developed an irrational fear of parked cars and unattended rubbish bins that is still with me today.

This time around, one of the main driving forces of revolutionary sentiment was the feeling that people could count on strangers. The mood was overwhelmingly one of love and acceptance and the goosebumps you get from realizing you're on the exact same emotional page with thousands of people around you. That is the polar opposite of the feeling Al-Gamaa produced. Nonviolent strategy was crucial to that.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicAt the same time, though, this definition of nonviolence wasn't passive. It meant nonviolence against people, not property. Activists understood that one of the goals was to shut down the economy and make Egypt a non-functioning state. To that end you saw graffiti, broken windows, burning cars, blocked roads, thousands of people breaking through police barricades, and (my favorite) the KFC in Tahrir "liberated" and turned into a makeshift health clinic. These are actions that are typically called "violent," at least in the U.S., because they create temporary chaos. Civil rights leaders were accused of it, too, when they boycotted segregated institutions and by virtue of their numbers, not their actions, filled jail cells and sent the police into the streets. The final straw in Egypt was the nation-wide labor strike the day before Mubarak resigned. He'd survived the closing of the stock market and the banks, but when work shut down there was no way he could convince foreign investors and Egypt's ruling elite that he was saving the country from chaos. Earlier, he had literally told activists in Tahrir to "have fun," i.e. that they were nothing to him. He could survive peaceful protests but he could not survive the collapse of the economy.

On emotion:

This entire experience has made me less critical of people who are reluctant to participate. Once a revolution becomes historical fact, it's easy to go back and see those who were on the fence as being in league with The Man or something. But following it as it happened was different. Egyptians were talking about real, human worries: from small things like the lack of proper toilets in Tahrir to big things like the fear of being gunned down in the streets. There was a shortage of food in the shops. Transportation was impossible. One of the looters was captured by protesters and sobbed in fear as he talked about the money he'd taken from the regime to say he loved Mubarak; he said his mother was dead and he had no other way to support his brothers. People understood this — it's the Egypt they know. There was very little of the I'm-smarter-than-you posturing that seems endemic to political movements here. People were patient with each other.

Some Egyptians actually worried about this. They said the emotional level was so high in Egypt that if Mubarak showed up and looked contrite, people would be eager to forgive him, not only to get back to their regular lives but because they felt real sympathy at seeing him so degraded. When Nasser lost the 1967 war with Israel, he cried on television and resigned, apologizing for failing his people. The people rose up and demanded he return, which he did. Some were expecting a moment like that. This is why I think the timing of the Wael Ghonim interview was so crucial. People were waiting for tears and apologies from Mubarak, and instead they got them from one of the prominent activists. Meanwhile Mubarak and Suleiman went on being the gruff patronizing angry dads they always have been.

On imagination:

Three other groups that provided unplanned but crucial support were the Arab expats, the Christians and Muslims who supported each other in prayer, and what I'll call the civic activists who swept Tahrir and formed neighborhood watch groups.

The expats held solidarity marches around the world and put pressure on foreign governments to stand with the Egyptian people, not Mubarak. During the internet blackout they transcribed phone messages from Egypt and uploaded them to Twitter. They gave interviews to the international media. They blogged. They translated the chants on YouTube videos. They set up Tor networks to let Egyptians in Egypt communicate anonymously. The night of February 2 will haunt me forever, the night of the government's worst attack on the protesters. I stayed up all night just listening to Al-Jazeera and watching Facebook refresh, as Arab friends in Canada, Malaysia, New York, Indonesia, Italy, Dubai, and of course Egypt itself kept up a steady stream of re-tweets and status updates, coordinating in English, French, and Arabic to monitor which escape routes out of Tahrir were clear and which ones were blocked, where to get medical help, which streets were burning, and which hospitals needed blood. As the sun came up in Cairo one Palestinian friend posted, "I can't do this shit anymore." His exhaustion was palpable. It was a long night.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Christians were forming human chains around Muslims in prayer and Muslims formed human chains around Christians during Sunday mass. For years Mubarak had exploited tensions between these two groups, and I realize they won't magically disappear. But this act provided a vision for what a new Egypt could look like.

The same goes for the people who cleared trash from the streets. Aside from the demonstrations themselves, I think people talked about this more than anything else. Culturally, Egyptians have always had a sense of duty towards each other, but civic responsibility has been zero. And why not? They've had no voice in the bureaucracy or institutions of their country, so there's been no incentive to participate. Seeing people clean the streets "because this is our country now" was a powerful sight. So, too, were the neighborhood watch groups that formed after the regime opened the prisons and paid off the thugs and looters. In Alexandria, I heard groups of teenage boys walked through the streets at night chanting, "Sleep, Alexandria, we are your sons, and we will protect you."

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Good links:

How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak:

"The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate. For example there were maps to the protest locations and how groups should move and who should be in the front row," says Dalia. "This gave some sense of safety for the participants. In other words, it was not a random or spontaneous upheaval. No, it was well planned and organized." This web-based planning was critical, given that the vast majority of people on the "We Are All Khaled Said" page—and those who entered the streets on the 25th—were not veteran human rights activists and bloggers.

The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising:

Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labor rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.

The Road to Tahrir:

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution—for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor—such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, in this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story.

Into Egypt's Uncharted Territory:

Throughout the wave of protests, the youth coordinating the efforts, notably the April 6 movement, have offered opposition leaders no blank checks… Besides protecting their movement from outside opportunism, the protesters have steered it away from the ideological differences that have fragmented organized opposition political activity in the past. Avoiding and sometimes suppressing religious slogans, the demonstrations have maintained an image as a national uprising of patriotic Egyptians — nothing more and nothing less.

Al-Ahram English has a special revolution edition with lots of articles.

"People & Power," an Al-Jazeera feature of the April 6 movement, which I think was put together during the internet blackout (sorry about the eyeball – blame YouTube):

And this — which isn't about activism but is too awesome not to post — demonstrators in Alexandria meet below Khaled Said's mother's apartment after hearing that Mubarak stepped down. They recite the first surah of the Qur'an, a gesture of respect when there's been a death, and then sing the national anthem and chant his name:

Why military rule is okay for now.

February 12th, 2011

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source: unknown

"The army took over. It's replacing one dictatorship with another."

No. I've been hearing this on the streets (and by "streets" I mean Facebook and blogs), but that's not what's happening in Egypt right now.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking over is a good thing, actually more than the demonstrators had hoped for. The options for power transfer, from bad to less-bad, were as follows:

Option #1 was Mubarak staying in power and slaughtering the protesters until the demonstrations stopped. Obviously that's the worst case scenario, but it's important to remember that just three weeks ago that was the expected outcome. It's what's always happened in the past.

Option #2 was Mubarak's early "concession" speech, in which he said he would not run again in September. He'd then have seven months to crush the movement, and anyway he's said this before. The protesters didn't accept this and held Tahrir.

Option #3 was giving more power to the vice president, Omar Suleiman, who was appointed all of two weeks ago. On Thursday night Mubarak was expected to resign, but did this instead. It was a joke.

Option #4 was Mubarak resigning and giving all power to Suleiman. This was the expected outcome Thursday night, and would have been considered an important victory because Mubarak, at least, would be gone. The people would not have accepted Suleiman as a legitimate successor but the mood seemed to be that he would be easier to oust than Mubarak. If they had even gotten this far down the list, it would be considered a revolution, not "unrest."

Option #5 was following the Constitution (which has been suspended since Sadat's assassination 30 years ago, but it does exist) and giving power to the speaker of parliament, in this case Fathi Surur, who is no better than Mubarak or Suleiman. This Post article explains the constitutional process.

Option #6 — and this is what happened — was Mubarak and Suleiman both stepping down and interim power being handed over to another person or organization while activists worked on developing political parties and the political process. The question was who? ElBaradei's name came up a lot in the Western press, but he's been living in exile for years and he's not this Nelson Mandela figure for Egyptians. They also could have also chosen Amr Moussa or one of the heads of parties who've run against Mubarak in the past, like Ayman Nour. But it was unlikely that Mubarak would appoint a former rival, and even if he had, it would have caused problems later as parties begin to move towards democratic reform. If the new head of the government had long-term political ambitions, he'd be tainted by being Mubarak's hand-picked successor, and without a working constitution or functioning parliament there'd be no check on his power.

The army is distinct from the police. Most of the violence in the past weeks has come from the police, who are trained by and loyal to the regime. The army is much larger, comprised of men from all over Egypt, since all Egyptian males do military service. The leaders of the demonstrations communicated early with the military's top brass, agreeing to peaceful protests and asking the army not to fire on the people. The army did not always comply and there are reports that they've been responsible for some of the human rights abuses, including torture, of demonstrators. As a body, though, they remained officially neutral throughout the conflict, which was one of the first signs that Mubarak was on his way out. He called in the army to "restore the peace" after the police presence wasn't sufficient to stop the protests, but this was welcomed by ordinary Egyptians, who saw the army as being of-the-people. Demonstrators greeted soldiers with "my son" and "my brother" and asked for help in stopping the looters (i.e. government-paid thugs). Although the military wasn't on the side of the demonstrators, the fact that it wasn't against them was astonishing to outsiders like me who were watching this all go down, but Egyptians themselves didn't seem surprised and in fact keeping the army neutral was part of the official coordination by activist groups like April 6.

Most importantly, the Supreme Council is a group, not a person, and it has no political ambitions the way a single individual would. They announced this morning that they would be meeting the demonstrators' demands, including the formation of a transitional government and holding free elections to form a civilian government. They also said they will honor all existing international treaties, including peace with Israel. Of course these may be modified by whatever new government comes in, but it's a positive sign for now because it shows the military understands its place isn't to be making political decisions.

This entire situation is atypical. Usually when an army takes over a government it's because the revolution was orchestrated by the military itself. In this case, the military was caught off guard, and have only stepped in at the request of Mubarak and with the consent of the people. If, in a few weeks or months from now, some of its leaders get power-mad and decide use their positions to reinforce the status quo, then you can talk about military dictatorship. Right now, though, that's not what's going on.

ETA: Why Mubarak is Out — A detailed analysis of the many different players in Egypt's security state

18 days.

February 11th, 2011


Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

January 25 – February 11

February 11th, 2011

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"The Chair Carrier"

February 9th, 2011

Short film with English subtitles. Directed by Tarek Khalil.

More women of Egypt.

February 8th, 2011

In children's books, Rosa Parks is portrayed as a middle-aged woman who was too tired to stand up and yield her seat on the bus to a white man. This version has some poetic appeal to it — one woman standing, er, sitting, alone, against the institution of segregation — but it ignores Parks' history as an activist and undermines the work of the many people who organized with her.

Asmaa Mahfouz is likewise being portrayed as the girl who started the revolution in Egypt, by uploading her vlog (see below) to YouTube and Facebook. But Asmaa is not a "girl"; she's a 26-year-old woman with a BA in Business Administration from Cairo University. She also did more than upload a vlog. She was part of the April 6 movement, a grassroots youth organization that has been active in Egypt for the past two years. To treat her like she's Joan of Arc, a young girl "knowing neither A nor B," appeals to those who want to see Egyptian activists as sympathetic but ultimately disorganized and naive. While it's true this is not a top-down movement, and its success seems to have surprised everyone inside Egypt and out, it's also unfair to ignore the groundwork in democratic organizing that has been laid by activists for the past five years, including the April 6, Khalid Said, and Kifaya movements.

Read an interview with Asmaa Mahfouz here.

Wael Ghonim interview.

February 8th, 2011

Last June, Khalid Said,* a 28-year-old Egyptian man, was beaten to death by police officers outside an internet cafe in Alexandria. His death sparked protests last summer, and another young Egyptian, Wael Ghonim, set up an anonymous Facebook page called "We Are Khalid Said."** Ghonim is Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. On the Facebook page he referred to himself only as "El-Shaheed" ("the martyr").

On January 27th, two days after the major protests began, Ghonim went missing. After 12 days in prison, he was released on Tuesday and gave this interview. Everyone is talking about this today, and with good reason. I really, really recommend you watch.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

*Alternatively spelled Khaled Said or Khalid Saeed.
**Ghonim's page was in Arabic. There is a separate English page on Facebook with the same name. Both are devoted to the same person and the same cause, but they are managed/monitored by different people.

Note from the management.

February 8th, 2011

Ironically, as I was writing about free speech, all the comments folks have been making were going to my spam folder, so I was unaware of them and therefore didn't approve them. One friend politely asked if there was something wrong with what he said, at which point I became aware that something was amiss. I'm not trying to stifle dissent! Usually! 🙂

Situation has been corrected, previous comments approved, gmail slapped on wrist, and further comments welcome. I am keeping minimal moderation on just to avoid real spam, and the occasional weird/abusive comment. But I've enabled anonymous commenting now, which I've never done before, because I know people are reading this from Egypt. Please don't take advantage of that. I want to protect people's privacy, not encourage trolling.

Now back to the revolution.

Rumors, conspiracy theories, and the inequity of information access.

February 6th, 2011

One of the challenges of the Egypt demonstrations has been controlling the rumors. Obviously that'll happen when you have a movement of over a million people. Shutting off the internet (that still sounds funny to me) probably controlled some of the worst misinformation, but it also closed down avenues of quick communication, allowing false information to spread.

This isn't new, though. Egypt, and the Arab world in general, are famous for propagating rumors and conspiracy theories. Many of these stories involve Israel, and more generally "the Jews," which maps so perfectly onto Europe and U.S. experiences with antisemitism that it's rare you'll hear any other explanation for it. Arabs just hate Jews. They hate them!

Arab hostility to Judaism is often exaggerated, but no one would suggest the region is a bastion of tolerance. Historically there was less animosity between Muslims and Jews than between Christians and Jews, but Israel's occupation of Palestine has eroded a lot of good will. Nevertheless, when it comes to conspiracy theories, I think there's more going on.

Conspiracy theories thrive in societies where the press can't be trusted. This really came home to me five years ago while visiting Romania, where I saw the same attitude towards rumors, and indeed some of the exact same conspiracy theories that are alive and well in Cairo. When you live under dictatorship, the one thing you do know, for sure, is that you're being force-fed bullshit. But it won't all be bullshit. So you have to sort out on your own what's reality, what's spin, and what's a lie. Sometimes you'll get it wrong. Your real source of news will be other people, not the television. Unfortunately sometimes they get it wrong, too. And just like anywhere, you'll have some friends who only give the most melodramatic version of any story, and that one uncle who is skeptical of all of it (which makes him just as unreliable, because sometimes the sky really is falling), and your mom who doesn't want to hear anything upsetting and your brother who's apolitical and your teachers who can't tell you what they really think without risking you'll inform on them and basically the whole information system is in disarray. But you won't be able to debate it openly.

Meanwhile, what to Americans seem like Hollywood plotlines are, in your country, normal historical events. The CIA really did help overthrow the democratically-elected president of Iran. The Mossad really does assassinate its enemies. Islamist groups really were plotting to take over your government. When Egyptians claim the Israelis are behind something, there's a chance it's their own paranoia and there's a chance that the Israelis are, in fact, behind it.

The Egyptian government, of course, exploits this. It encourages fears of Israel, of America, of unnamed "agents," because it deflects attention from themselves. It also makes ordinary Egyptians less credible when they talk about repression and torture they've experienced. It's happening right now; the government forcing protesters to appear on state television and say they were paid to do this by some foreign entity. Most people won't buy this, but some will, and even more will decide not to join the demonstrations because they don't want to risk getting caught and having to go through this humiliating ritual themselves.

There's nothing so blatant in the U.S. but we have the same inequity in information flow, where some peoples' stories are considered more worthy of attention than others. To name one bland example: A couple weeks ago there was a snowstorm that knocked out power for days in some parts of the Midwest, leaving people without heat and water, but the national news spent more time on the complaints of New Yorkers whose streets weren't plowed as soon as the mayor's was. When I moved to Boston I was amazed that I often couldn't tell whether I was listening to local or national radio, because the concerns of people in my city were represented in both. That never, ever happened when I was growing up in Iowa.

For historically oppressed groups, this isn't just annoying, it has real consequences. You can't rely on official channels to get information you need, and the fact that you are invisible or dehumanized by the media makes it easier for other groups to ignore you. I think one of the starkest differences between white people and people of color is that people of color are more willing to say, "I don't know you or your history, but I'll hear you out." With white people, there's skepticism. "If this thing you're saying really happened, I'd have heard about it. After all, if it happened to me, you'd have heard about it."

Thankfully, Al-Jazeera and new media are eroding some of this imbalance in information. It was easier to ignore Egyptians' oppression before you had video of them being beaten and shot, of security men on camels and horseback riding through the streets with swords, swinging Molotov cocktails over bridges, and driving over protesters with police vehicles. The torture still takes place behind closed doors, but now it's more likely that those who say it happened will be believed.

It's wrong to say this is a Facebook or Twitter revolution in the sense that social networking is responsible for it. Obviously there were revolutions before Facebook, and even in Tahrir the biggest events happened while the internet was down. This obsession with Facebook gives the demonstrators too little credit. But I think it's also wrong to discount the role of ordinary people having control over what the world gets to see about their country, and what they are able to tell each other about their country. One of the many many reasons I hope the revolution succeeds is because it has the potential to bring these stories to light. Mubarak can't compete with this.

More:
Gladwell gets it wrong on social media (NPR) "We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution."

Tunisia and the New Arab Media Space (Marc Lynch) "Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information — they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves."

During the internet blackout, Arabic-speaking volunteers around the world translated Egyptians' phone messages into tweets. There's a video of the spreadsheet updating in real time – fascinating. The resulting archive is here.

On a sadder note, the list of martyrs is also being updated on a shared Google doc. There are names, pictures, sources, and causes of death for the world to see.

"This is not chaos. It is planned strategy."

February 5th, 2011

This is what they're willing to do to foreign journalists, ones with international name recognition, at a time when the story is being covered, live, across the planet. Now imagine you're an unknown and unconnected journalist or activist trying to tell your story three months from now, under the same regime, once the world's no longer watching.

The human rights implications are obvious. But so are the free press implications. The world is covering Egypt right now because events are astonishing and dramatic. Three months from now, hearing a politician talk pedantically about his party platform will be a yawner. Hearing two activists debate ideas in Mansoura or Ismalia isn't going to be breaking news on CNN. But those kinds of debates, boring though they may be, are inherent to democracy. You need and free and open LOCAL press for that. It doesn't matter how free and open Al-Jazeera is because Al-Jazeera covers Egypt, not Shubra. Opposition papers are widely available in Egypt but clearly it's not a fair debate when one, and only one, party has round-the-clock access to state television.

Mubarak is selling this idea that there will be free elections in September, but "free elections" aren't (only) about election day itself. Democracy needs to be institutionalized well in advance for the process to take shape. In some countries you have a clear opposition leader to rally around. In Egypt that's not the case. I submit that is a GOOD thing, because it fosters discussion and debate instead of hero-worship. But you can't have the media be status quo for seven months and then expect a real choice in the election.

The U.S. will support Egyptian democracy. If it has to.

February 4th, 2011

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else."
–Winston Churchill

The U.S. does not want global democracy for its own sake. That's where American conservatives are wrong. But progressives are wrong when they say the U.S. hates democracy for its own sake. This is a forty-year-old analysis that had its place a generation ago, but it's no longer a valid way of looking at the situation in Egypt. Yes, democratic regimes are harder to control. But the American government isn't doing that well with its dictatorships, either.

The U.S. government's only concern is stability in the region. It wants oil from the Gulf, cheap labor and cheap resources from poor Arab countries like Egypt, and it wants the entire region to be safe for American investment, shipping, military bases, and other economic and strategic goals. If it can get that by buying off a few dictators, great, we're rich and that's an easy way to get what we want in the world. I'll give you A BILLION DOLLARS to like me. Yay.

If that doesn't work, though, the U.S. likes regional stability so much that it is willing to support democracy as Plan B.

One example: Two years ago in Cairo, I was talking to a German businessman who was visiting Egypt because he was considering setting up shop there. I met him at the end of his tour, and he told me he'd decided against it and was now going to check out India. Egypt, in his opinion, was too stagnant and full of corruption. He needed to employ 300 people, and he didn't think products of Cairo's corrupt educational system would make innovative workers.

I'm not sharing this story because I have sympathy for a guy who's traveling the world trying to find cheap labor. He's just some dude I ran into at a restaurant. But the American version of this guy is the sort of person U.S. foreign policy is looking out for. The U.S. does not care about the freedom of Egypt's poor, but it does care about this kind of guy, and Mubarak's regime is no longer serving that guy's interests either.

This is why I say America cares about Egypt, the country, not Mubarak, the person. I don't mean it cares about the Egyptian people. I mean it cares about not losing Egypt the way it lost Iran. A generation ago, when Third World human capital was of the Charles Dickens variety, supporting dictators was more appealing. Today it's just produced state after bloated state full of educated youth who want real opportunity, but can't see their way towards it. The U.S. is uninterested in their struggles from a human rights point of view. But it does see them as a resource to be tapped, and to that end these stagnant dictators are outliving their usefulness.

I expect the U.S. to throw massive support to whatever party looks viable once Mubarak is gone. That party will probably not be the Muslim Brotherhood, but if it is, the U.S. will suck it up and fund them, too. Once again, with feeling! The U.S. likes regional stability so much it will support anyone who can make good on that. Even if means supporting democracy, something it's normally loath to risk. Even if it means supporting the Brotherhood, something that would make for incredibly bad PR at home. The United States government would support a stuffed rabbit or Paris Hilton if it meant making the Arab world safe for economic investment and keeping the Suez Canal open.

One last thing. Assuming the revolution is successful, we will hear a lot of self-congratulatory nonsense about this being the work of Americans. Democrats will say Obama's trip to Cairo was the decisive moment when everything changed, or his support of Tunisia in the State of the Union address just as things started to break in Egypt. Republicans will say no, it was Bush's invasion of Iraq that laid the groundwork for democracy in the region. This is all noise. There have been NO modern American presidents who have made the Middle East a better place. George W. Bush was the worst, but Clinton was a close second, with his ghoulish support for Iraqi sanctions, a policy that killed thousands of people, most of them sick children who could not get access to medical treatment. And as for Obama, I notice there are still drones flying over Pakistan.

The only people who deserve credit for this moment are the millions of Egyptians who finally said, enough.