Monday, August 10, 2009

Thought for the day:

"However you define journalism — a term I generally hate anyway but have no substitute coinage for — it will still be practiced by human beings who need to pay rent and purchase food.

"Where will they get that money? And thus, how will the activity
of journalism be enabled, if not by the presently-constituted profession of 'journalism'? Especially if 'unnamed model that someone else will invent later' is not an allowable answer?"

-From TunedIn

Friday, August 07, 2009

Negotiating with terrorists.

Smack at the barbed-wire-surrounded heart of conflict resolution, this issue could sober up anybody, even at a Friday happy hour after the end of a legislative session.

The questions at hand: Did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists by sending Bill Clinton to North Korea? What does the U.S. policy "We do not negotiate with terrorists" mean - that is, what are its limits and history? And finally, should we negotiate with terrorists? What are the issues at stake, and are they issues of ethics, politics, or simply practicality?

North Korea is, technically, a legitimately governed/recognized country. Lisa Ling, TV personality, has related that her sister, Laura Ling, former hostage, concedes having been on North Korean soil "for about 30 seconds." Arresting two journalists while there does not, technically, constitute an act of terrorism. Just to top it off, Clinton holds no formal position in government, and our Secretary of State denies that he apologized to the government there.

The journalists may have been illegally held, charged egregiously, etc. etc. I in no way mean to suggest North Korea was justified. As a journalist, I am aghast at the entire situation. As a philosophical analyst, however, I'm just suggesting that a recognized government's reprehensible actions may illegitimate the ethical or moral status of said government, and certainly give them (in this case, merely worsen) a nasty case of p.r. acne, but it does not automatically turn the government into terrorists.

My second question - What is the U.S. policy, what are its limits and history - is cited because it follows, but it's a larger question than I can answer. It makes sense that a government does not want to set a precedent of rewarding illegal and despicable activity.

As one example of a prior situation, according to a New York Times article, the terrorists who beheaded United States independent contractor Nick Berg in May 2004 claimed that they offered an exchange of hostages. The article, from May 11, 2004 - the day the video of his beheading began to circulate, three days after his body was recovered - states that before the beheading, one of the captors said on camera: "For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the U.S. administration to exchange this hostage with some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib and they refused." Full disclosure: As stated in my biographical information, I live in West Chester, PA, Nick Berg's home town.

The United States government denies that any such offer was made. Would we have agreed to an exchange if it had? The U.S. government, after all, does not negotiate with terrorists.

Which brings me to the third question. In an article on, Chris Currie, a mediator and conflict management trainer since 1987, argues that we should, in fact, negotiate with terrorists. Currie, who holds a Master of Arts degree in conflict resolution from Antioch University, writes:
But doesn’t negotiating with someone whose behavior you abhor grant them legitimacy that they didn’t have before, and therefore reward criminal activity? Won’t this encourage further bad behavior because it means we have given into pressure? According to Fisher, it may confer a little legitimacy, but this effect can be minimized by involving relatively low level or non-governmental personnel in the initial talks. The effect could actually be eliminated if we had a policy of negotiating with anyone. With such a policy, no one could attain special status just because negotiations were opened.
His concluding paragraph offers the observation, "One person’s 'terrorist' is another person’s 'freedom fighter.'"

Ethically, to whom is our responsibility? To the Nick Bergs - and to some extent, Laura Lings - of the world and their families? Or to the potential, as-yet-faceless hostages who might be abducted if abduction were certain to lead to gain?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Oh apologies.

I would say WaPo seems to be acting like an irresponsible youth, but it's too old. Can I say maybe it's having a senior moment...or would I have to apologize over a beer?

Two of the Washington Post's journalists are apologizing today (following publisher Weymouth's snafu last month) for a crack which was effectively about serving our Lady Secretary a drink called "Mad B---- Beer."

And now they're in trou-ble, I relate in a singsong, as executive editor Marcus Baruchli cancels the entire Mouthpiece Theater series, a comedic - well, a comedic mouthpiece, hosted on the WaPo site and described as "Political commentary from two of the biggest maws in Washington."

To visit the "who does it hurt" bar, apparently it hurts women in action in the media. Or so one would conclude from the letter sent by the organization Women, Action, and the Media, which called the joke "sexist" and "tasteless."

What is the interplay between ethics and comedy? Comedians are the negotiators of the entertainment world, expected to push past the limit - and yet there is hell to pay when they push too far. (This problematizes the issue of a "limit," but that's the subject for another line of philosophical inquiry altogether. Or a calc class.) Or should this instead be considered an issue of the relationship between journalists - especially when venerable news organizations are their, er, mouthpieces - and comedy?

I am going to venture into dangerous territory, the territory called Speculation (you know, where all your oxen die on the Oregon Trail) and say that I think WAM (what an acronym! Wait, do I need to apologize for that?) would call the crack against H. Clinton sexist and tasteless whether it involved a mouthpiece, codpiece, any other kind of piece (especially given the implied links to prostitution and gun violence) or the lack of any piece at all.

And I would be inclined to agree. First of all, there's just so much more to make fun of when it comes to Clinton and beer. Am I the only one who remembers Clinton's shot-of-whiskey-with-a-beer-chaser photo op (warning: link is actually a video) while on spring 2008's campaign trail? Or that Obama responded, "Around election time, the candidates, they just can't do enough. They'll promise you anything, they’ll give you a long list of proposals. They'll even come around with TV crews in tow and throw back a shot and a beer."

But secondly, and more seriously, while I don't curl up with a political correctness blankie at night, nor do I think serious media organizations can or should ignore social movements still working to correct centuries-or-millenia-old inequalities. A responsible media recognizes that it's not just about the political backlash, but the social backsliding possible and implicit in jokes about gender, sexual orientation, and race.

Though I must admit it's a tough line to draw. After all, I did briefly consider how AA must have felt. Our president issues a public invitation to drink beer? What's next, swatting flies?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

'Twould be remiss of the Philosophy Kat, I think, not to philosophize on Bill Clinton's recent triumph. But first, a note on the philosophizing itself.

Today I spoke with an...administrative person, shall we say, at a well-known NGO, about establishing a relationship with the NGO and a certain university. She inquired what department I was most associated with, and I told her, "Philosophy."

Her voice nearly dripped with disdain (though not, I must admit, real ill-will) as she said, "You do understand that we undertake to promote sustainable and practical skills?"

I laughed and assured her that the department most likely to establish a program was the illustrious and semi-ubiquitous department of education. She was much relieved.

However, this is, to an extent, the problem. A grounding in philosophy prepares one to grasp the essence of a situation, and to adapt quickly to various circumstances. Skills are the clothes in which theory is dressed. The entirely fair question, I must admit, is: "How? How, Philosophy Kat, does a grounding in philosophy prepare its young lisping learners to grasp the essence of a situation and adapt quickly to various circumstances?"

Let's apply it to the question of Mr. Clinton's little trot over to North Korea, which the New York Times called a "riveting tableau." Frankly, I can't disagree. But what makes it so riveting?

The man was a popular president for eight years; yeah, he was disgraced and impeached and all, but he was followed by such a spectacular flameout that, let's face it, many of us secretly wished for a prez with a loose zipper rather than a loose budget. Nostalgia knows few bounds even without an unpopular war based on specious evidence and followed by an economic meltdown. Anyway, most of us out there, nowadays, like Clinton. We know Clinton. We trust Clinton. Like some real-life superhero (Hey, uh, has anyone ever seen Clinton and Batman in the same room?) he orchestrated a crucial negotiation, and while in general the populace is relieved, it's hard to call us surprised.

The level on which this little play is fascinating, aside from its hero-in-shining-suit aspect, is political. Clinton once wore the crown; his wife battled for it like a...well, no simile that would be, er, politically correct is coming to mind. Which may sum up the point. Anyway, post-battle, Mrs. Clinton is now Secretary of State - NOT her husband - and, by the by, she just headed off for a bit of a P.R. tour in Africa. Which has now been completely eclipsed. There are delicate issues of state at stake! Of pride and visibility! And, more to the point...power.

Ah, here we come to it. Who has the power to represent and speak for the American government, and by implication its people, and in what capacity?

How to make decisions about the appropriate exercise of power, lesson 6 in your textbook for...what class, again? Teaching? I see a review of linguistics, a few courses on writing lesson plans, but nothing about POWER. How about Agriculture, or Health, or Biology? No?

Oh, there it is. A few courses on other cultures in some social disciplines (also widely regarded as an impractical degree), some in political science departments (mostly reviewing history) and a whole slew of studies of human rights, ethics, moral history and theory, theory and use of power, and the developments in how that power has been applied, from Plato to Locke (and beyond, of course). And...for the grand finale...examination, from Philosophy 101 onward, of the relationship of one school of thought to another.

In other words, exactly what one would need to perform such a negotiation. Or, as is more likely in the role of the citizen, to make a decision about whether or not it was handled properly and what to say about it and to whom and how it will affect one's voting in the future.

This consideration is only strengthened when applied to the media. A journalist has the responsibility of portraying the information accurately, to convey the concerns of those in power and how they may or may not align with the desire of those to whom the power ultimately belongs - in other words, citizens. And citizens must interpret the event and the media's coverage of it.

I'm not necessarily saying that without training in philosophical thought - that is, investigative critical thought and prior examination of the deeper issues, freeing one to attend the issues at hand with a firm grounding - people are unable to create good journalism or vote well (although, I sort of want to say that. Anyone who does these things is applying philosophical skills, even if they didn't pick it up in a philosophy class).

I believe philosophy is fundamental. If you think this is a weak argument, please, give me the opportunity to develop it. Because that's something else philosophy has taught to combat stagnation and its eventual result, groupthink.