Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

Originally posted on The Disorder Of Things:

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story…

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Tired of Talking To Men

Originally posted on The Belle Jar:

I am tired of talking about feminism to men.

I know that I’m not supposed to say this. I know that as a good little third-wave feminist I’m supposed to sweetly explain to you how much I love and value men. I’m supposed to trot out my husband of nearly five years, my son, all of my male friends and relatives and display them as a sort of badge of honour, proof that I am not a man-hater. I’m supposed to hold out my own open palms, prove to you how harmless I am, how nice I am. Above all, I’m supposed to butter you up, you men, stroke your egos, tell you how very important you are in the fight for equality. This is the right way to go about it, or so I’ve been told. As my mother would say, you catch more flies with honey.

But still…

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Black Men Need To Support Black Feminism

Originally posted on Media Diversified:

by Jesse Bernard

Being a black man over the past couple of weeks has been interesting, as it always is. I’ve stood in solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri – both virtually and in a march at Notting Hill Carnival. There is a long history of black women leading movements for change and the most inspiring occurrence to come out of the recent protests has been the support black men have received from black women. However with that, it revealed a harsh reality, we aren’t always there for black women.

Earlier this year, NFL and former Baltimore Ravens running back (fired yesterday) Ray Rice was indicted for assaulting his then fiancée Janay Palmer. On Sunday, TMZ leaked a video recording (without consent) of the assault taking place in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. The recording shows Palmer and Rice having an altercation, which leads to the latter…

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Navigating expat-aidland

Originally posted on aliesrijper:

In expat-aidland, you save Africa during and week and get absolutely wasted in the weekend. Now, I do like a good party myself. I was going to say “but there are boundaries” (and I know this is Dunglish), which is exactly the point: there aren’t.

Navigating ‘the expat scene’ feels like being back in high school, yet worse. Getting drunk is a way of life (not only during the weekends, by the way), using cocaine is as normal as eating peanuts and sleeping around is the new religion. People behave as if they are in some sort of eternal puberty, and no one condemns it: everybody is part of it and in expat-aidland, there are no rules (except for those liberal values and ideas we impose upon ‘the locals’ through our own development programmes, of course).

This micro-cosmos of mostly white people living it up under dire conditions has of…

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A Feminist Response to the Swimsuit Debate

Comments are closed on this post over at Aid Watch (a great blog which has also closed). I commented on the post, and another reader left an interesting comment in response to me that I’d like to respond to. But since I can’t, I’ll just write it here, after a little background on the post itself.

Professor and economist William Easterly of NYU (author of The Tyranny of Experts) said of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue in 2011, “Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.”

I said in a comment, “… I get harassed and talked down to all the time and it seems to me that it’s to do with a general attitude that doesn’t take women seriously or doesn’t value women as equals. Those people’s perceptions of ‘hot’ women in bathing suits will be different than those who are respectful of women but still look at a swimsuit cover and think damn, she’s hot.”

In other words, you can be misogynist and think she’s hot at the same time, but your perception of her (and her “hotness”) will be very different from that of a totally normal, respectful dude that also thinks she’s hot. That’s what I meant by that.

Another commenter, Brett, said, in response to me, “That’s what I find weak about Easterly’s claim. He’s basically saying that appreciating the hotness of a model on the cover of a magazine somehow inclines men to treat all women disrespectfully, and that doesn’t really follow. It’s quite possible for men to appreciate the hotness of a model and realize that that’s not exactly the everyday standard of beauty, and that you shouldn’t treat women solely by their appearances.” [emphases in original]

I really want to respond to this comment. First of all: “… you shouldn’t treat women solely by their appearances” is hardly something to stand up and applaud for. It’s the bare minimum of decency. And I should hope that sentiment goes for the rest of humankind, not just women.

But what really doesn’t sit well with me is when he says that Easterly is “basically saying that appreciating the hotness of a model on the cover of a magazine somehow inclines men to treat all women disrespectfully…”

This statement inadvertently makes the assumption that “appreciating hotness” is the same as, or tantamount to, “treating disrespectfully.” It implies that, well, of course we’re disrespecting and objectifying the models on the cover of Sports Illustrated when we ogle them. (Or in other magazines, or porn, or department store advertisements, etc.) That doesn’t mean we disrespect all women that way.

But Sports Illustrated models also deserve respect as human beings.

Renoir, "The Bathers" (est. 1918; PD-1923). Just to reiterate that "beauty" is socially constructed; assuming Renoir found these women beautiful.

Renoir, “The Bathers” (est. 1918; PD-1923). Just to reiterate that “beauty” is socially constructed; assuming Renoir found these women beautiful.

Being physically attracted to someone is not the same thing as disrespecting or objectifying that person (is that really such a hard distinction to make?), and “hotness” is relative; men in the US generally have a much more diverse sense of what “beautiful” is than our media culture would have you believe.

Another problem SI has is that the corollary of only featuring women on the covers of swimsuit issues is an assumption that only hetero men (and, maybe, LBTQ women, though I doubt SI execs think of them as a market) are interested in sports. I think this is a gross miscalculation. Maybe the next SI swimsuit issue should feature 18 – 21 year old boys, in skimpy swimsuits and revealing Speedo briefs, with svelte abs and flawless skin and soft sultry eyes and impossible physiques, and in poses as homoerotic as the cover of this last one. It would be a nod to their hetero female readership, who are interested in sports but also enjoy a little eye candy every so often.

But that is a childish reaction on my part. I know that constraining beauty standards for men, putting pressure on them, and sexualizing them in similarly harsh ways is not the way to move forward. And that doing something like that may serve to make many male SI readers — the homophobic ones, anyway — even more uncomfortable than they already are with their own sexuality (although maybe that would be a good thing). I’m aware that there are a host of problems with this idea.

But, really. (I mean really?) We are like a nation of teenagers who still haven’t figured out how to tell the difference between sex and love, or between attraction and disrespect. Maybe turning the tables once in a while will make the absurdity become a little more visible and help us us figure it out.

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6 Ways Congo Wins

I’ve seen a few stories in the news the past few years that proclaim the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be the worst country in the world for fill-in-the-blank. Indeed, in 2011 DRC ranked last in UNDP’s Human Development Index (though taken on its own, it rose between 1980 and 2012).

While Congo certainly has major problems, some of these proclamations are based on data from only the most troubled provinces (or even highly specific locale) and extrapolated to apply to the whole country; and most of them are made based on or in conjunction with preconceived notions about DRC — in search of sensationalist headlines and/or donations.

Since I moved to Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu in the DRC, about five months ago, it got me thinking about some of the ways in which Congo — well, actually wins.

Here are six ways Congo, in my humble opinion, is the best.

1) Re-using

People don’t just re-use things for pragmatic reasons (like plastic shopping bags, which they do). The whole system of buying soft drinks and cases of beer is based on re-using. You don’t just buy the beverages, you also pay for the glass bottles from the “depots” or outlets of the company. Most re-sellers won’t sell you bottled drinks unless you have an empty bottle to exchange for it in addition to paying for the drink (unless you ask nicely and they trust you to return the bottle in mint condition). Re-using bottles doesn’t just eliminate that much waste, but also eliminates the cost of recycling.


Near Kinshasa, on the Congo River

2) Giant beers

In the US, you might order a 12 or 16 ounce Budweiser at a bar. In the UK, you might order a pint of ale, at 20 ounces compared to the US’ 16 ounce pint. But in Congo when you order a beer, you receive a beautifully grand bottle of Primus or Tembo or Simba or Nkoyi — at 72 cL, or a whopping 25.34 ounces. And usually for about $3.50 (less than £2) at an upscale restaurant. $1.80 if you know where to go. Cheers!


3) Fresh food

In South Kivu if you want food, you go to the market or a street stand where the bread was baked that morning or the tomatoes were grown not more than a few miles away. In the restaurants when you order fish for dinner, it’s likely it was caught that very afternoon in Lake Kivu or Tanganyika. And if you want chicken, there are no refrigerated, shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store. You find the lady on the street with a sack of live chickens on her back, buy one, let it walk around your garden for a few days, and hope you can find someone not as squeamish as you to cut its head off and pluck it. Then there’s the pilipili. Flavorful pepper that packs just the right amount of heat, whose juices you squeeze over your lunch or make into a tasty dipping sauce.


Fish and chips, Uvira style

4) Christian-Muslim harmony

In a place where politics are explosive and ethnic identity a contentious fulcrum around which violent conflict turns, religion is by comparison a complete non-issue. And it’s not because people here aren’t devout — in fact, religion plays an enormously important role in people’s lives. Yet on a day to day basis I see Christians and Muslims mingling in shops as though their religions were invisible. Mosques and churches coexist in the same neighborhoods and no one seems to think much of it. The few people I’ve asked: “So, are there any problems between Christians and Muslims here?” have basically answered me with a statement along the lines of, “Not really. Why should there be? They believe what they believe and God loves us all. It’s the same God.” When I wrote the Freedom House report for DRC in 2012, I had to improve the religious freedom score because after days of research I could not find any reports of religious discrimination. In day-to-day exchanges, anyway, the DRC beats the United States and much of Europe in terms of Christian-Muslim harmony.


Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Bukavu. Photo by Timothee Rolin

5) Music and fashion

While in the UK and US I hear new and re-mixed crap being played everywhere, here people actually have good taste in music. From the latest regional dance hits to the always popular Bob Marley; American hip-hop; Swahili hip-hop (for example, this); and love ballads, the mix that drifts over the lake into my apartment on Saturday nights is melodic and pleasant and often includes some old school rumba tracks. The latter is considered perhaps Congo’s most significant contribution to world culture. On top of that, people have a keen sense of fashion. Whether donned in smart business casual, the bright patterns of kitenges/pagnes/kangas, or a touch of vintage 90’s grunge — people here know what they like and being well-dressed is important even for a quick trip to the market to pick up some onions.


Mama Ada




In Uvira, after a very long journey from Baraka

6) Smoking

You hardly see anyone smoking cigarettes here, at least in Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka. It’s sometimes associated with militants or armed groups; occasionally with intellectuals. But mostly, it’s an expat thing. That is to say, Americans and Europeans smoke. But rarely Congolese. Billboards fifty feet long may grace the border advertising the local brew, but you will see no such advertising space allotted for tobacco. After being here for a time, it’s almost startling to see someone smoking on the street.


DR Congo is certainly a country that is dealing with a lot. From a dismal colonial legacy that left the country with (among other things) 19 college graduates at independence, a government structure dependent on patrimonial networks, and citizenship policies that are still the source of conflict today; to the assassination of their first democratically elected prime minister with help from Belgium and the acquiescence of the United States; to decades of mismanagement by an authoritarian regime propped up by Western-funded lending institutions and diplomatic and military support from the West; to media censorship; flawed elections; violent conflict complicated by lack of sufficient security sector reform and the presence of some 30 local and foreign armed groups — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the DRC has a way to go before it gets to the point where it is truly flourishing the way it should be. But they will get there.



Considering all of that, it is a country not only rich in natural resources but rich in human capital; with a population that is clever, hustles to get by, and works hard to make ends meet despite all the challenges. I so far have not met one illiterate person, even in remote villages. Indeed, according to a study by the African Economist Magazine, Congo’s literacy rate stands at 67.2% (ranking 25th out of 52 African countries surveyed), relatively impressive compared to other countries with similar assessments in terms of indicators like PPP and insecurity.

And as a recent article in The Guardian was headlined, “Telling countries they’re the worst doesn’t help them.”


Lake Kivu, in Bukavu

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When Satirists Make Better Intellectuals Than Scientists

Recently a friend of mine (hat-tip to @dalliasd) tweeted this opinion piece by Glenn Greenwald over at The Guardian. The piece was a reaction to the stances of Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and popular public intellectual, on Islam. I won’t re-hash all the arguments here. The Greenwald piece, which is worth a read, lays them all out.

Suffice to say, Harris argues that Islam is fundamentally different from other religions, as quoted by Greenwald: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” This strikes me as a surprisingly naive, melodramatic, and ignorant statement coming from someone who is supposed to represent contemporary rational thought.

I wanted, for the purposes of this post, to hone in on one statement in particular, regarding the proposed building of a mosque and Muslim community center at Ground Zero back in 2010; again, quoted by Greenwald:

“The erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory — and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. While Harris probably thinks he’s framing the mosque as one battleground in a conflict between religious fundamentalism and liberal secularism, it is glaringly about politics, not religion. What Harris is doing is categorizing Muslims (in general and in particular) as being in opposition to “the liberal values of the West,” and creating a dichotomy in which these two categories are mutually exclusive.

Most obviously, the statement should sound absurd to anyone who’s spent any kind of time in New York City. People of all stripes, including approximately 600,000 Muslims, live, work, and worship in the city. There are already mosques all over the place, as there are temples and churches and synagogues. I don’t want to paint New York as a utopian melting pot, as it certainly has its problems with discrimination and racism and inequality. But, deep in its Lazarus-ian (and, as it happens, liberal-Western) heart of ideals, it is supposed to be a place where anyone can go to work hard and pursue their dreams; regardless of their background. It’s been that way for ages. And people of all backgrounds continue to flock there.

So it makes little sense to assert that millions of Muslims would see the building of a mosque near Ground Zero as a kind of ideological victory when there are already mosques in that neighborhood (indeed, there was a Muslim prayer room inside the World Trade Center itself). Furthermore, Middle Eastern and Islamic culture and cuisine ubiquitously weave throughout the buzz of lower Manhattan, amid kosher food carts and Indian restaurants and West African music shops. Is Harris also afraid that the increasing popularity of halal cuisine is going to be touted as a moral victory by Islamic fundamentalists?

An estimated 60 to 70 Muslim New Yorkers died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. But Harris’ rudimentary “us-them” dichotomy precludes him from realizing the possibility that a Muslim spiritual center at Ground Zero might play some kind of positive role in the healing process for Muslim New Yorkers who lost (Muslim or otherwise) friends or loved ones there.

Muslim New Yorkers counter-demonstrate at anti-mosque demonstration.
Photo by David Shankbone. Creative Commons license.

Another logical inconsistency rendered invisible by Harris’ false dichotomy is that the West’s liberal ideals, particularly in the United States as embodied in the first amendment, include religious freedom and the right to practice one’s religion free from government interference. How can the building of a mosque be a victory over Western values when freedom to practice your religion is itself a “Western” value?

By a complete coincidence, I was unwinding watching clips from old episodes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart when I saw a report on the mosque by correspondent Wyatt Cenac. I’ll highlight some of the dialogue for those who can’t access the clip.

Stewart introduced the report: “As you know, this proposed Islamic center down in lower Manhattan has caused quite a bit of controversy. The terrorists hate us for our freedoms; is this any time for us to be exercising those freedoms?”

As if going through my critique point by point, Cenac investigated the Muslim threat in lower Manhattan. And coming to the frightening realization that there were Muslims everywhere (!!!), he says: “Perhaps most chilling, they’ve already created a spicy ring of deliciousness near Ground Zero.” In an interview with a halal food cart vendor, he broaches the topic of the mosque:

Cenac: I noticed there are a lot of halal carts around. Is this your nefarious plan to get us all satisfied and full and tired and logy so that we can’t resist when you take over with the new mosque?

Vendor: We started here before they had the idea of building the mosque already. This is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You know why? Because here in America, it is teaching one thing to the whole world. You know what is that?

Cenac: God is great?

Vendor: Freedom of religion. Christian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, whatever, anything.

Cenac: But mainly Christian.

In the report’s closing analysis, Stewart tries to reason with Cenac:

Stewart: You realize, uh, none of what you uncovered is… is real. Or a threat.

Cenac: [laughs] They might not be now, but they will once this mosque is built! And that is the last thing this neighborhood needs.

Stewart: Yeah, I understand. Do you know what it is you’re standing in front of right now? You’re down near Ground Zero…

Cenac: Uh, I don’t know, it says Masjid. Is that a Jewish magic shop? Ooh, I’m gonna make a golem!

Stewart: No… [laughs], it’s— they don’t make golems, it’s not a magic shop, Masjid is a mosque. It’s a mosque.

Cenac: Wait, that’s a mosque??

Stewart: Yes, that’s right.

Cenac: But we’re four blocks from Ground Zero!

Stewart: Yes, I know, that mosque actually is in the neighborhood I live in, it’s been there for forty years. It predates the World Trade Center.

Cenac: Holy crap, Jon! Two mosques near Ground Zero? Now I get it!

Stewart: You get what, Wyatt? What do you get?

Cenac: That’s their plan! That’s how they’re going to take over. They’re going to build a mosque every two blocks, until the city’s completely covered!

Stewart: Wyatt, I think you’re thinking of Starbuck’s.

I may be over-stating this, but I think Jon Stewart and the correspondents and writers at the Daily Show are really the popular public intellectuals of our time. (Not the first time satirists have filled this role; see Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, George Orwell, and The Onion, among many others.) In between the base silliness and college humor, there is an earnest and critically analytical curiosity driving the headlines, reports, and interviews.

At the same time, it goes beyond Socratic gadfly-like feigned ignorance and confronts audiences and guests alike with well-informed and well-constructed arguments, which sometimes take the form of what I would call high sarcasm. I personally don’t always agree with the arguments, but I can at least see the logic behind them. I can’t say the same for Harris, who, as a “real” public intellectual, I would expect to circumvent obvious flaws in logic; think a little bit harder about the issues he analyzes; and be conscientious about how he articulates his positions. Now what I’d really like to see is a response to Harris from Bassem Youssef.

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