Leave our Journalists Alone!

Cartoon by Mohammed Saba'aneh in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.

Cartoon by Mohammed Saba’aneh in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.

Long ago, I used to produce podcasts with my college radio station. Loved it. The attack this morning on a satirical publication in Paris called Charlie Hebdo had me thinking about the importance of journalistic freedom, and I wanted to put those thoughts into a podcast. (excuse a few hiccups, this is my first in a long time.) Holding in the light the victims’ families and their loved ones.

Music is “You Can’t Outrun the Radio” by Jonathan Byrd. Support good musicians, buy the album!

[transcription below]

I’m not really a journalist. No one pays me to report news, to ask tough questions, write articles and editorials, or keep deadlines. I have known people who are light-years better than I am at that game and have been doing it for years. Me, I managed to write a community newspaper in a poverty-stricken community for three months, and did student news for a bit. I’ve long fancied myself a journalist at my core, but I’m too shy, and intimidated by the standards and sheer output required by professional journalists. If anything, I’m a two-bit blogger and perpetually under-employed hack who writes as much as he can in his free hours. But damned if I don’t respect the real deal: the ink-stained truth-seekers with one hand on a pen and paper and the other on a bottle of stiff liquor, the tellers of true tales and chasers of horrifying realities in far-away lands, where the wars never seem to come to an end, whose role is to convey that to us civilians on our couches at home.

If you’ve known me a while, you know I used to do radio. These were in the starry-eyed days of college, before my reality came spinning apart. This’ll be the first time I’ve produced a radio piece for many years, and it feels good to be recording my voice again. It’s symbolic, really. Like, I’m officially reclaiming my voice again by recording it and streaming it into the aether. Best of luck to you, voice!

~~~

But, right now, it feels pretty important. There was an attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo this morning. This, coming off a year of executions of journalists, suppression of free speech, and countless lost lives in pursuit of the right to making unheard voices heard. It feels like where we in the U.S. have declared “War” on concepts as diverse as drugs, terror, and communism, folks elsewhere have taken up arms against expression.

It’s probably just the fact that I’m an absolute media junky, lost in the meandering corridors of the web, but events like this seem to blur together. I’m the modern equivalent of a HAM radio operator with aluminum foil on my head, tracing one conspiracy disaster after another from the safety of my home. But, the right to express myself freely is a pretty big deal to me, and these clear and explicit attacks on that right are far from victimless. I do not believe that violence creates productive solutions, and it is so many light-years away from my conception of religion that I can hardly even conceive what might inspire an attack like this. However juvenile the piece of writing, and whatever the depths of poor taste these writers’ jokes may have explored, no way is it worth shooting up the place. My feeling is that faith is a thing of joy and gratitude and peace. And something is awry if faith results in persecution, division, or subjugation. I’ve been through some tough stuff, and faith is what carried me through that. Never, ever, ever would I want my religion to justify brutality, even when the media can get pretty offensive.

[While studying at journalism school in Kansas, I had some experience with religious extremism.] Boasting a long history of radical politics, Kansas today is moving toward the reactionary. One of my interviews [as a student journalist] was with the guy behind a display of 20-foot-tall dead aborted fetuses. Turns out this guy was not a raving nutjob, much to my surprise and chagrin. We had the stations of the cross acted out on campus, we had evangelists screaming guilt-trips at students on the regular. Not only that, we were a mere 30 minutes away from the ultimate test of free speech, the Westboro Baptist church, only half an hour away in Topeka. Mind you, these guys have values that are about as far away from my own as it is possible to be. But grudgingly, I’ll give them their ten minutes to spit vitriol in the public space. I do have beliefs of my own, but I am also a huge believer in the power of the public forum. I have been told that that makes me ideologically cowardly. Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as being open-minded. You of course, can say and think what you want about me. I’ll do the same. Only I’ll try to be polite.

Later on, in Georgia, I was asked to say a few words at a community ribbon-cutting for refugees from Darfur that I was reporting on. Seriously, though, can you believe that? I was writing an article on the event, and had the proceedings translated to me by a friend. It was one of the greatest honors I’ve had, thinking back on it. And I remember, my speech was awful. I said the first words that came to my mind, something garbled related to making people’s voices heard. A simple enough concept. But, then again, not simple at all. Folks from Darfur in the U.S. experienced diaspora, or a forced migration and loss of a historic homeland. They described it to me as a feeling of restlessness, of deep sadness, and loneliness in the face of an unknown future. A loss of identity. A loss of cultural agency, and ultimately a shattering of community. I’ve been thinking about it, and I feel like that parallels what we’re facing here with the attacks in Paris. These attacks make people fear to speak their minds.

A friend’s son [had a close friend who] was taken captive in Yemen. He was a journalist, and I recently found out that he lost his life. Eleven more people lost their lives today. More than that, they lost their futures, their stories, their identities, their cultural agency. I may not be a real journalist, but I hold most dearly and close to my heart, the right, privilege, and responsibility, to express who I am, and to do so even when who I am, and what I believe, is less than popular. So, I’m gonna say it once, and I’m gonna say it a million times: Leave our journalists alone.

Thanks for listening,

Justin

Committee to Protect Journalists is a great organization working to protect journalists’ safety and freedom of speech around the world. Here’s a some information they put together on journalists killed around the world in 2014.

Also, check out this defense of satire by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo. He says, “The most responsible thing we can do is be aware that the most likely threat to freedom will now come from within. We cannot, should not, police our own thoughts – or the thoughts of our fellow citizens. Because the First Amendment does not just protect our free speech; it protects all expression, including religion.”

Stand Your Ground and the Call to Solidarity

I know I’m not the only one feeling it. That profound pain, disbelief, grief, outrage, horror, and shock at the depths to which  our society has run off the rails. To many, it feels like powerlessness, or fear of looking the problem in it’s eye. For others, it feels like the logical continuation of a life already lived in ever-present fear. I tend to process things through music, so I’m attaching a video below that really hit close to home for me. Recorded by hip-hop artist J. Cole four days after the shooting of Michael Brown, “Be Free” was an extremely powerful piece of music that sampled a CNN interview with witness Dorian Johnson, and was a song I listened to on Soundcloud over and over again while the protests raged in Ferguson this summer.

The video pairs that haunting song with images and clips of police brutality, interlaced with statistics on racially biased police brutality, and images of the protests throughout the U.S. in the last few months. It’s a stirring video, and heart-wrenchingly appropriate today, as protesters and families of victims converge in Washington D.C. for the “Justice for All” march,  organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Like others, I’m struggling with the feeling of being a spectator. I want to do something. Anything. I want to help the effort. I want to somehow ease some of the pain. But as I was reminded this morning, right now what is really essential is to continue to listen and to engage. I feel that is likely the best, right now, that someone in my position can hope to do.

There’s a tempting simplicity to the thought of flipping over the front page of my newspapers so I don’t have to see what new horrifying headline is popping up daily, or to scroll down in my internet news feeds, to try to work and play and go on like nothing new was there. But even if we tried to ignore it, the tragedy of it will continue to glare back at us, like a beast from behind the mirror. It would be easier not to talk about it. But it MUST be talked about.

When protests ignited this summer shortly following the shooting death of Mike Brown, startlingly close to where I lived in Illinois,  part of me wanted to up and go to Ferguson. I said the same to a photographer of our local newspaper who was working on a project about Ferguson. Journalists there had their hands bound with plastic, and I was hearing a lot of disgust that the protesters and rioters were mostly outsiders; that the damage from the riots was harming the Ferguson community, and that fires and shooting had even closed the St. Louis airport.

I deliver newspapers overnight as a second job nowadays, which has given me lots of late nights in my car listening to the radio while I drive through the neighborhood my routes are in. This morning I happened to tune into a show on the Portland community station with a few young white people my age trying to sort through the issues at play in these protests. It was hard to listen to at times, and certainly not an easy subject to tussle with. But it was comforting to me to hear other young people my age talk about it on a public forum, and to open it to callers.

They expressed many of the feelings I share: Frustration at attending march after march, and protest after protest, and not seeing concrete results. Wrestling to check our privilege and own that we, as white people, don’t truly understand what communities of color are experiencing. Hunger for some kind of change, but uncertainty as to what it will amount to. All that, and a good deal of outrage at the idea of a “colorblind” culture, and rejection of the emergence of All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter.

So I called the radio line, and spoke briefly with them. It was good just to speak to others who felt the same way I do. They, like I, want to support the communities that are pushing to make their voices heard, while treading the delicate line of learning to listen and teaching ourselves when not to speak. I don’t know what my place is in this movement, but I want it to be grounded in a place of solidarity, not privilege. I want to encourage voices like that of J. Cole, and that of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, whose passionate preface to a show in St. Louis recently also ranks, for me, among the most emotionally poignant listening out there on the subject of police brutality, racism, and the current protests. I think the best thing that I can do right now is open my ears, not my mouth. Listen, closely, to what these voices are saying about how life is experienced today by people of color in the U.S.

The deaths of these men has brought us to our knees, and chilled us to our bones. We’re now incarcerating more black men than any other subgroup in America, and the wealth gap by race is greater in America today then in South Africa during apartheid. Check out this article by Nick Kristof for more (and regardless of your take on his politics, it’s hard to argue with the numbers he’s giving us.) There’s a breakdown in the justice system, that no one seems to know how to fix.

Most importantly, I think that we shouldn’t fear what might happen, and what we might find out, when we do open ourselves up to these voices. Coming to terms with privilege and institutional racism is not supposed to be easy, finding the strength to address it will be even less so. But don’t let that cause you to shut down. I felt so much healthier this morning when I spoke what I was feeling, to someone, anyone, even the young people sitting in a radio station somewhere, and allowed myself to make mistakes and then correct myself, and opened myself to learning a few things.

These times are scary, but I think what we are seeing in the U.S. right now is a call to challenge ourselves. The movement is growing. And know that it’ll be a struggle. But, know that you’re not alone.

My thoughts about what’s happening in Israel

In the past several days, peace activists in Boston, Atlanta, here in downtown Carbondale, and elsewhere have gathered to mourn and pray for peace, and to protest the killing of more than a thousand Palestinians, the bombing of a hospital, not to mention the blockading of supplies and forced settlement of Palestinian lands. These actions for peace by my friends here in the U.S. give me hope in the face of the pain and violence I see in the news.

After working in a tiny town in the outskirts of Atlanta called Clarkston, the location of resettlement of refugees from around the world in the mid-’90s, for the non-profit organization CDF, I learned and still believe that building connections across faith, cultural, and political divides is the only way to heal and repair long-term conflicts.

While there, I attended meetings of the Clarkston Interfaith group– a group comprised of people from many faiths and political backgrounds. We would sit together, talk, and learn about each other’s traditions and beliefs. As a result, I have many friends with varying political and faith perspectives, and friends on both sides of the conflict. The escalating violence in Gaza and the West Bank undertaken by the Israeli army is very painful for me to see. I personally met Israeli soldiers when I traveled there, and they were very kind, decent people.

Escalation of violence in Israel is not a productive course, and my support for a government that continues to betray the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in spite of calls for peace by Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is admittedly difficult to defend. The State of Israel is losing support internationally, as was made obvious by the mass protests last weekend in the streets of Paris, where protesters threw tarmac at French police.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was a great example of people bridging a seemingly impossible historic chasm of oppression, abuse through conversation and shared experience. While I continue to support the State of Israel, I cannot support many of its actions: the blockading of necessary resources from Palestinian families, forced settlement of Palestinian lands, construction of walls and transportation checkpoints, and the killing of civilians and children in response to Hamas’s aggression.

The way I see it, peace can be reached in this conflict if both sides are willing to meet with each other as equals in an environment of mutual respect and discuss conditions of a long-term ceasefire. That is the only way I’ve seen such conflicts resolved. It must be deliberate, it must be reasoned, and it must be non-violent. I pray that this will be possible, because I do not want to see another person die.

Across the Universe

The Needle on Vinyl

Imperturbable, quiet beauty in the midst of chaos

First things first. This video is downright classic. I’m honestly not sure I’m entirely worthy to write about it. I’m not sure anyone is. Let’s get that out of the way. The song and its video is better than me, it is better than you, and it is better than any of us are likely to be. 🙂 This is a Fiona Apple cover of the Beatles’ timeless hit “Across the Universe,” originally released in 1999, for the film Pleasantville, and the video is an unmistakable and genuine, perfect, and timeless accompaniment to a brilliant recording. Bravo.

The only piece of color in the entire video is a piece of cubist stained glass artwork adorning the outside a 1950s-style soda shop, which we see in the opening shot. The camera moves close lazily, deliberately, following along with the slow, intentional, tidal rhythm…

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“Same Love” : A Call to Allyship

A couple weeks after Macklemore won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album earlier this year, a number of old friends I grew up with and I launched into a fiery debate on Facebook regarding the song “Same Love”. The song and its video, which emerged as one of the popular Seattle rapper’s most socially-conscious and politically significant offerings, spread virally following its release in 2012. With lyrics openly supportive of same-sex couples’ right to marry, Macklemore simultaneously paints a portrait of a man struggling with his own sexuality and tussling with the stereotypes and stigma associated with homosexuality.

For those who don’t know, Macklemore is a prominent white rapper who, like Eminem, very quickly ascended the ranks of popularity and success in the hip-hop genre. “Same Love” was a song created explicitly to express support for the right for same-sex couples to marry. Today, gay marriage is slowly but surely becoming a reality in more states.

Significantly, the song includes heavy criticism of the reluctance in religious circles to embrace the gay rights movement. I remember first hearing the song and watching the video, and I remember how it made me feel. The song brought me to tears. Anchored by Mary Lambert’s soothing refrain- “My love, my love, my love, it keeps me warm,” the song is organic and warmly textured, with gentle piano reined in by strings, horns, and an upbeat drum track.

I remember sharing it in my feed, and commenting at the time that this, to me, was an example of modern hip-hop at its most resonant and emotionally poignant, not to mention politically significant. It brings modern conservative Christianity directly into its crosshairs, saying firmly and directly it is wrong to preach hatred and stigmatize those who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer. Macklemore raps:

“When I was at church they taught me something else

If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed

That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned

When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless

rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen.

I might not be the same but that’s not important.

No freedom til we’re equal… damn right I support it.”

In the months following this, a variation on the song emerged from the upstart Detroit rapper Angel Haze. Also called “Same Love”, the song has the same chorus and loosely, the same song structure, but with lyrics intentionally altered to reflect the point of view of a person who had experienced the struggle for gay rights from the perspective of the oppressed. Several of my friends claimed vociferously that Angel Haze’s song was the stronger and more significant piece.

Angel Haze identifies herself as pan-sexual, meaning, in her words, that she conceives of love as a concept that transcends physical differences and lines of gender identification. “Love is boundary-less,” she said in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, “If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you.” Her version of the song describes the rejection she faced from her mother upon coming out of the closet, and the ensuing suffering inflicted upon her by a parent who was neither understanding nor accepting. Like Macklemore, her voice is anchored by Lambert’s refrain- “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” Angel Haze rejects “every single hand that chooses” and asserts that love is central, and that love is not something to be treated, transformed, or controlled regardless of what shape or form it may take. Her song is about self-acceptance on your own terms, regardless of the scars you might be tending to or the crosses you might bear.

While I identify as heterosexual (or ‘straight’, as we tend to say), I sympathize strongly with the gay rights movement and try to the best of my ability to do my part, as an ally, as often and as consistently as I can in my daily life. This is not by any means an easy position to take, seeing that our culture has for so long placed such powerful stigma and negative association upon homosexuality, queerness and transexuality, or even upon the intimation that one might associate, sympathize, or experiment with these identities. I strive to believe in the Kinsey-an concept that sexuality falls on a spectrum, and that these labels we place on ourselves, including those I place on myself, have very little real value except to box in and pin down our conception of sexuality, as though it were a butterfly that could be described scientifically, named, and classified. My own sexuality is anything but simple or one-dimensional, and I doubt that it is  for anyone, regardless of their identification.

I found myself thinking about the two versions of “Same Love” last night, as I sat in a coffeeshop in Dupont Circle, here in Washington D.C. It’s a spot well-known for its nightlife, for the presence of an active lobbying voice, and for its openness and acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ through yearly events in the neighborhood. Though I am a relative newcomer to serious analysis of hip-hop, I do try to keep up with the rappers who become celebrated and prominent, and particularly with those who write songs that offer meaningful commentary on issues of social, civil, and political import.

To my mind, Macklemore’s song was a statement of solidarity with and affirmation of the movement to achieve widespread acceptance and approval for the rights of same-sex couples in the United States. To others, and particularly to those who can legitimately claim to represent the voice of the oppressed communities, the song came across as the imposition of an outsider, and that Macklemore was undeserving of one of the most prestigious awards in the music business. That he was just another straight, cis, white, male appropriating the culture of a marginalized community whose struggles and experience he could not have possibly understood. What’s more, they argued that he was profiting from his stance, and that he was unworthy of the prestige associated with the award.

But for me, Macklemore’s song was equal in importance to Angel Haze’s, if not even more inspiring, considering my particular relationship to the issue. To hear a white, straight male show support and “come out,” unequivocally and inspiringly, as an ally and supporter of gay rights, in spite of the struggle it took him to reach that place, gives me the courage to raise my voice in support of my friends and loved ones I care for who identify themselves in that way. It gives me the will to be vocal and persistent in my allyship, and to speak up when I see my gay and lesbian friends marginalized, abused, dismissed, or disregarded. And ultimately, I think Macklemore’s statement is interwoven with that of Angel Haze, who speaks of a reality I prefer to embrace. She is rapping about a world where labeling and arbitrary division is irrelevant in the face of a love that overwhelms fragmentation, whether it be along racial, class, or sexual lines. She put it best in her lyrics:

“No I’m not gay.

No I’m not straight.

And I sure as hell am not bisexual.

Dammit I am whoever I am when I am it

Loving whoever you are when the stars shine and whoever you’ll be when the sun rise.”

What’s more, I think that the faith community needs to recognize that acceptance and inclusiveness to the broader LGBTQ community is integral to success in the 21st century. As long as Christianity is associated with images of hellfire and damnation for those we arbitrarily consider “sinners,” the church is going to lose more and more young people. Forward-thinking denominations today actively minister to LGBTQ issues, and I personally would like to see this trend spread to the evangelical community and to the more orthodox circles of other religious communities, and particularly to more synagogues and mosques.

Today I am lobbying the office of Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero and staunchly progressive legislator from my home, Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to make my voice heard to an American hero, who displays the audacity and integrity to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, even when his actions put himself and his fellows at risk. Just as Congressman Lewis made a stand for the sake of future generations in the 1960s, so will it take the voices of brave souls like Angel Haze and allies, like Macklemore, to achieve equality and justice for the LGBTQ community, and for other oppressed communities.

It is patently wrong to preach hate, and I, for one, will no longer stand for it. To me, that is what it means to be an ally, and to live out this definition today. The music of brave artists like Macklemore and Angel Haze should inspire us, in our efforts at civic engagement and positive contribution to political society, to create the world we want to live in, no matter our background or orientation.