February 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Truth is Out There

I've been thinking a lot about truth lately, and how accustomed we have become to accepting lies. It seems that in many ways, we receive more truth through fiction these days than we do from anything else. We seek out stories that will tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to know -- it's a cowardly way both to learn and to live. I've recently been reading in search of truth, and found some titles that have enlightened me in more ways than one. 

Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk knows all about manipulating truth -- he has seen it happen again and again from his station in the Middle East. In his new book for Soft Skull Press, People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, he blows open all the things we think we know about the region, and demands that we accept the hard and difficult choice of not always knowing. In the very beginning he writes: 

I didn’t want to write a book explaining how the Arab world could become democratic, how tolerant or intolerant Islam is, or who is right or wrong in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I wanted to write the opposite -- a book that shows how difficult it is to say anything meaningful on such as major issue as the Middle East. 

From his base in Cairo, he traveled to Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and more, covering stories of war and peace as a correspondent. It quickly became clear that while there was a narrative that his editors (and Western readers in general) sought in Middle East stories, life on the ground there did not support it. A member of Hezbollah who contributed to the tenuous situation for Palestinians and “was responsible for the children orphaned by Israeli bombardments” was delighted to pleasantly pass the time and discuss soccer with Luyendijk. The pressure to conjure up articles of oppression found him noting that the women of Egypt face stringent travel restrictions, while ignoring their casual grocery store conversations so similar to female discussions around the world. In other words, there was always more than one story to tell, but he quickly learned there was only one version of those stories anyone in the West wanted to hear. 

As he riffs on one level of insanity after another (“Egypt’s dictator is called ‘President’ even though he inherited his job from his predecessor who, in turn, used force to gain power. This particular dictator leads the ‘National Democratic Party’ which is neither democratic nor a party.”), Luyendijk maintains an attitude of wit and bemused sarcasm that will be particularly appealing to older teens. He isn’t talking down to his readers at all, but in fact is actually trusting them to be smart enough to be talked up to. This is a journalist who says: Let me tell you how it really is, even though it isn’t easy to hear. The mind reels with one revelation after another. Those all too commonly displayed images of protestors damning America, and burning its flag in spontaneous riots, that instill the conviction of “them vs. us” into our national conversation? “Guys,” he writes, “you probably think that a demonstration is something citizens use freely to express whatever they are for or against, but in a dictatorship such ‘outbursts of anger’ are often staged or are at least heavily managed by the regime.” 

Oh. Should’ve seen that one coming, right? 

With every word, Luyendijk provides a different perspective on what we think we know, and challenges head on what we are accustomed to believing. Killer smart and devastatingly direct, this is journalism at its best. A book for back pockets and backpacks, for classroom discussion and those determined to take on the world, People Like Us is not to be missed. 

Although I have reviewed books on the effects of coal mining on the environment in the past, I read the personal essays in Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining with equal parts shock and despair. A companion to the documentary of the same name, the heavily-illustrated Coal Country largely focuses on people living in Appalachia who are directly affected by this intensive method of coal removal. It is far more effective than many titles on the subject because the words here are not from distant (and so often easily-dismissed) environmentalists, but by residents who have called the region home for generations. Consider the story told by Larry Gibson, whose family has owned their land on Kayford Mountain for over two hundred years. He refused to sell, but is surrounded by one of the largest mountaintop removal sites in history: 

“We lost about eighty, well, close to a hundred headstones in the family cemetery, because every time the coal company would blast, they’d blast debris over into the cemetery. It would bust some of the headstones, turn some of them over. Then they’d send a crew of men over to clean them up. And then the old sandstone headstones that had carving on them, we caught them actually throwing them away, destroying them as well. And the simple reason behind that was to try to prove that we didn’t have as many graves there on the ground as we had. And so if they could reclaim some of the grave sites, well, the mountain had thirty-nine seams of coal. There’s a lot of wealth underneath there… And on the other family cemetery across the ridge we have mine cracks right through the graves that’s three and four feet wide, that you can see down in and there’s no casket, no body -- all that’s left is a headstone.” 

Gibson has been repeatedly threatened with violence for refusing to sell, and his dogs have actually been shot and killed as punishment. Dead family pets is a common thread in Coal Country, as more than once a dead dog is used as a stark message to sell or shut up. Essay after essay recounts struggles not only against the mining itself, but also the damage to roads, rivers, houses and the larger landscape. In 2002, “three so-called hundred-year floods happened in ten days.” The sheer difficulty of living in coal country is too much for some. Consider Debra and Granville Burke: 

First the blasting above their house wrecked its foundation. Then the floods came, four times wiping out the Burkes’ garden which the family depended on to get through the winter. Finally on Christmas morning 2002, Debra Burke took her life.

Because Coal Country is focused on individual voices telling their own personal stories, it humanizes the difficulty of standing up to Big Coal in a way that will cut through to readers no matter where they live. It also does an excellent job of explaining why there is so much about coal mining, and why, even in the face of such strong environmental damage, it still has a following among people who need industry jobs to survive. A lifetime of supporting coal mining starts young here, as activist Shannon Elizabeth Bell explains: “Because of special coal education materials and curricula created by the West Virginia Coal Association, schoolchildren throughout the southern coalfields are taught the ‘many benefits the coal industry provides in daily lives.’ Students of all ages are encouraged to enter projects in the Coal Regional Fair which awards cash prizes in the categories of science, math, English/literature, art, music… etc.” All of those projects must, however, be about coal.  

Energy is a huge topic in our national conversation, and it's not going away. For all its emotional weight, Coal Country is a clear, bare-bones look at what coal costs, and who is paying. Other books have tackled this subject effectively as well, but few can approach the immediacy of a man discussing the disappearance of his ancestors’ bones. One of the bigger lies to have been propagated against the American people is that of cheap energy. The editors of Coal Country sweep that away in an instant. This is incredibly timely and significant writing. All high school teens living on the grid need to read it. 

Historically, some journalists have gained enormous fame for telling the truth, and one of the most acclaimed was Elizabeth Cochran, otherwise known as “Nellie Bly.” In her new photobiography of Nellie, Bylines, author Sue Macy tracks her life from a childhood in western Pennsylvania to professional success in New York City. Elizabeth was born in 1864, when there was little opportunity for a young woman to achieve financial independence. She was educated, but more importantly, curious and bold. Living with her mother (who took in boarders to make ends meet), Elizabeth took issue with the opinions about women expressed by a columnist in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She wrote a letter to the editor -- a very good letter, in fact -- and was offered a job. Her first published words appeared on January 25, 1885, and she never looked back. 

Nellie is most famous for a piece of “stunt” journalism. She chose to mimic the adventure of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1889. With only a single bag and no chaperone (scandalous!), she departed New York with promises to update her readers as frequently as she could along the route. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World carried her dispatches and made her a celebrity. By the time she returned, Nellie had made her mark, and easily written her way into history. 

And yet, for all the drama of her great trip, as Macy explains, there are other things Nellie accomplished that are far more admirable. She had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York for ten days so she could document the abusive treatment suffered by inmates (many of whom were not insane at all, but rather did not speak English). Her subsequent exposè on the facility resulted in immediate improvements, and marked her as one of the period's “muckraking” journalists. She investigated murders and police corruption, interviewed radical activist Emma Goldman and women’s rights crusader Susan B. Anthony, and traveled to Chicago in 1894 to cover the violent Pullman Strike. Even after she married, she continued to work and ask questions and do whatever she could to directly change people’s lives. She was fearless and tireless and dedicated. Her fame might have been due to a stunt, but her worth was found in her unflinching honesty. Macy does her great credit with this heavily-illustrated and lively volume, and hopefully (oh please God) it will find its way onto the desks of the next century’s crusading journalists as well. We could all do a lot worse than to emulate Nellie Bly. 

On another historical subject, in the wake of recent discussions by the Texas State Board of Education on textbooks, which, due to the state’s education market, have national implications, I have become a bit obsessed by Senator Joe McCarthy. There has been movement from some of the Texas board’s social conservatives to rehabilitate McCarthy in the texts, and show how he has been “basically vindicated.” My recollections of teaching McCarthy included no way in which his methods could ever be deemed admirable. Fortunately, James Cross Giblin recently completed a thorough investigation of the senator, now published as The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy -- and now if teens are subjected to incorrect information by dint of Texan buying power, they will have a highly readable title to turn to for the actual historical truth. 

After a brief prologue introducing McCarthy as, at one point in his career, “more powerful than the president,” Giblin then goes back to the senator's humble Wisconsin beginnings, and provides an excellent exploration of his childhood, education and decision to embark on a law career. He also shows the long roots of McCarthy’s daring approach to life’s challenges, and his penchant for raising the stakes in card games -- habits that would later serve him well in politics.  

As it was such a significant part of his personal biography, Giblin pays special attention to McCarthy’s World War II experience, and the manner in which he embellished his military record. Then things turn to politics, and the book takes off as McCarthy lands in the capitol during the height of the “red scare,” and embraces the mission of fighting communism infiltration, real or imagined, in the government. It is this mission that would make him one of the most popular and infamous leaders in U.S. history, while simultaneously destroying countless lives, and ultimately bring about his own downfall. Giblin knows all this and he shows it, but he does it with very personal stories, both of those who were McCarthy’s innocent targets (the case of Annie Lee Moss is particularly riveting) and those who worked by his side. It’s fascinating and terrifying history, not only for what McCarthy accomplished, but how the echoes of his fear-filled attacks can still be heard today.  

Giblin includes a personal touch from his school years in his narrative, slightly buried but easily discovered through checking the copious back matter. Mostly he stands back, however, and lets McCarthy tell his own story --  which is plenty to freak out the average reader. I do wish he had relied less on Wikipedia -- but his candid admission of this resource is a minor quibble. If Texas wants McCarthy as a hero, that's their choice, but Giblin makes clear how wrong such a decision would be, and how much the rest of the country should resist it. 

In case you wonder just how far a nation will go to keep the truth from its people, consider the perspective on Iraq presented by journalist Ahmed Mansour in Inside Fallujah: The Unembedded Story. Mansour is a reporter and talk show host for al-Jazeera, and was lucky enough (if you want to call being an unarmed reporter in the middle of a war lucky) in 2004 to get around a U.S. military blockade and into the town of Fallujah before a battle took place there between American troops and “insurgents.” He backs up a bit and explains some of the history of Fallujah, its often contentious relationship with Saddam Hussein, and how and why it became a specific target of the U.S. Readers might question a few of Mansour’s assertions about how things were playing in America before the attacks (he is a fan of Nancy Pelosi, which conservatives will almost certainly dismiss) but his perspective on America is important, because it represents the viewpoint of millions of other people. Most of the book focuses on Fallujah itself, however -- on how Mansour got in, where he stayed, and the reports he filed. Mansour’s story is significant because no other reporters got into the city, and thus while the U.S. military controlled the story in the American press, Mansour was able to send out a very different look on who the victims were and how the fighting went. 

One of the most frustrating things for me about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is the very different ways in which they have been covered from past wars. Teenagers who grew up watching these wars on the nightly news likely have no idea how direct media coverage used to be, and how the whole notion of being “embedded” goes against journalistic integrity. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather made his career in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, which is was what journalists used to do. With few exceptions, this level of journalistic integrity is unheard of in the twentieth century, and we have all suffered for it.  

There has been pushback on the canned reports that became all too common in recent years, but reading Mansour’s story is one of the biggest in-your-face rebuttals to accepting at face value any official government response you are going to come across. Journalism keeps government honest (consider the street journalism in Iran last year), and Mansour, through his credible coverage, is able to bring a great deal of honesty to what we now know was a bungled mess that involved a devastating convergence of politics and military might, with tens of thousands of people stuck in the middle with no way out. For readers concerned that the author will be one-sided in his approach, be aware that Mansour is not an Iraqi, and he often speaks quite highly of different Americans he met and interacted with. He could have made this a book that wholeheartedly blamed the U.S. military, but instead he ponders the egomania of U.S. politicians and leaders (Paul Bremer in particular) who sought to punish the masses for the crimes of a few. He is stunned by what he sees but records it so we, years later, can see it too. A lot of young men, both Iraqi and American, were wounded or died in Fallujah, and he saw many of them and recorded the horrors of all of their deaths. This is what journalism is all about, and it proves why one side of a story is never enough. 

Finally, Olive Branch Press has released a new updated edition of Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. This is a staggering look at films dating back to the turn of the last century, and includes brief plot overviews and bulleted lists of inaccurate and racist portrayals of Middle Easterners in American cinema. Some of the entries are short, as in The Fifth Element, a science fiction film that begins with a brief ten-minute segment set in 1914 Egypt, with “lazy children and a frightened high priest.” Much more detailed are the nearly endless stream of entries for B-movie action flicks that relied heavily on scary pseudo-Arab terrorists. Analysis of Delta Force fills more than two pages (for reasons obvious to anyone who ever sat through the Chuck Norris flick) but the more recently released Mummy trilogy with Brendan Fraser doesn’t do too well either. 

The book is eye-opening on multiple levels, both in the blatantly racist aspects of many films from the past, and in the more subtle moments that many moviegoers have likely not noticed. (I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to note Arab mice dressed in fezzes for the Disney cartoon The Rescuers, however.) Reel Bad Arabs is a book for paging through (the entries are alphabetical after a thorough introduction from Shaheen), but for cinemaphiles and film students, it is an enormously valuable text. You don’t need a “best of” book when you are serious about movies; what you need is a book that will alter the way in which you watch film. Shaheen accomplishes that and more here, with a straightforward, analytical, quote-heavy text that is unbelievably well-researched. The man has done a lot of work; if you are a student of pop culture (or cultural studies), then you need to see what he has discovered.