Sunday, August 23, 2009

Learning to walk the thin line from "The Wire"- a tribute

I am an unabashed fan of the series, “The Wire.” It is by far one of the finest “video-ethnographies” I’ve ever seen. It has the potential to offend at a glance…far from being politically correct, it does not seem afraid to break convention and start and continue with a multitude of stereotypes: of African-Americans in the drug trade, their lives wrapped with dysfunctional schools, corrupt politicians, apathy in family life, not so “maternal” mothers, violent teenagers, and deadbeat and racist cops. It’s almost entirely an African American show. Yet, scratch the surface and sit through this show and you will start to understand how this all comes together…it humanizes violence…shows how the violent are victims too; shows how ingenious these children are who in spite of their circumstances learn to survive…it makes you realize that if you were in their position, you would probably be compelled to take to the drug trade, violence, and seems the smartest and sometimes only path available in such desperate contexts. That for sure takes guts to portray. This show does not allow you to comfortably see through one lens of a main protagonist that you can relate to; it shifts lenses almost with every new series… characters come and go until you’re left on your own to experience this complex phenomena. In truth, the most difficult aspect of investigations, of ethnographies as such, video and otherwise, is to take upon a hotly contentious topic, say race, and combine it with the cliché correlation of drugs and violence…most investigators fail to come out of it unscathed as the danger of perpetuating a stereotype is high. Hence, few venture into this terrain and those that do, tend to point their lens to “success” stories, to show that not all is “lost” or perhaps the good old potential for “reform” where by highlighting a desperate situation, makes the case for urgent rescue. “The Wire” however takes us through their day to day lives to see how larger systems of schooling, security, politics, and economics play at the ground level. You cannot walk away with judgment…try condemning a cop for his racist moves and you realize how he is very much a victim too of higher orders for “stats” for the upcoming election, for pressures from the community, from his fear of his own safety and more; try condemning a drug addict and neglecting African American mother and you see how desperate her situation is, her loneliness, her lack of safety nets and more; the story keeps thickening..

Talking of sensitive subjects such as race, I have just moved to Rotterdam, Netherlands, as the event of the firing of the Swiss Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan by Rotterdam city council and Erasmus University unfolds. He is accused for his refusal to stop working for an Iranian backed TV channel as he was hired to be a key advisor on integration issues. The argument goes that his credibility is undermined by his association with the Iranian regime. That said, at a glance, one may condemn him for his association with the Iranian regime especially at a time when mass street protests against the regime are unfolding in Iran; or perhaps one may condemn the city for its “racist” move…and so the story continues without an actual understanding of what the forces are that compel such action. What we do not know is why at this moment in time, does a scholar affect city officials? How does Ramadan negotiate his need for critical scholarship with the dealings of the Iranian sponsored Press? Who is the audience for his program in Iran and worldwide? What’s the nature of his association and its impact? Who funds his position at Erasmus University and what are the real constraints on the university in his hiring and firing? What is the economic and immigrant climate in Rotterdam currently and how does that play into this action? Rather than making this about “Islam,” we should take a moment to see how we can approach this from multiple perspectives before forming a quick judgment. Who says TV is an idiot box? The Wire surely can show some guidance here…

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Digital textbook euphoria...

Sure it’s more convenient…who wants to carry around heavy books when a kindle would do. Sure its more comprehensive…why go through text in a linear rote fashion when hypertexts allow you to journey through multiple websites, course materials, videos, visuals and more with a click of a mouse?Digitalizing textbooks make sense but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Curriculum is still the same, dictated by the politics of the system. Digital or not, if a book is not engaging on paper, the chances are that its appeal will barely enhance through its electronic counterpart. So let’s not confuse convenience for engagement. Digital euphoria can only go this far…

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The future of the past: Digital evidence or new media fabrications?

If only the dead could talk, they would tell us what really happened… and sometimes they do. Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer in Guatemala was murdered on May 10th 2009 by an unknown gunman. However, he continues to talk through YouTube, channeling his blame towards President Alvara Colom and others for his death.

This digital expose of claimed corruption and conspiracy is becoming a common phenomenon. In India, the Tehelka news magazine revealed tapes implicating Gujarat minister Narendra Modi and other politicians for the mass killings of Muslims in the infamous Gujarat riots in 2002 through their taped confessionals.

On a less grisly note, who could forget the Mexican Zapatista movement, an armed revolutionary group in Chiapas, Mexico that brought their movement into the international limelight through the strategic use of the Internet. Their desire for indigenous control of their local resources became an international topic of contention seemingly overnight.

Yet the proof is not necessarily in this digital pudding apparently…authenticity of these videos is being questioned and continues to be questioned by the accused. That’s not surprising really. Legally, digital evidence seems to have less impact that one might expect. We know that not all that goes into print is “truth” so why should digital media be any different? Yet it is…the feel of authenticity through allowing us to relive moments of the past, of allowing us to transport ourselves to the moment of confession, of recognizing the humble efforts of the “small” guys in this drama is no small feat. While the legal battle continues, the seeds of doubt have been planted. But is that enough really? How can new media become powerful tools of justice? What does it really take?