Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: February 2010 (page 2 of 3)

“Terrorist” is the new “Commie”

At a lunch talk at the Shorenstein Center today, in the midst of a discussion on media influence, someone raised a question they had been asked at an event weeks prior: “Are you more afraid of terrorists or the U.S. government?”  The ensuing discussion centered on the fear mongering of the far-right media (e.g., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh).  Then, another interesting point was raised: that my generation (in this discussion undefined, but for argument’s sake, let’s say Gen Y) is generally distrusting of the media.

I got to thinking about the intersection of these two points; if it’s true that my generation distrusts media (and I tend to believe it is), then it seeks to reason that we’re equally wary of the overuse of certain terminology, memes and phrases.  Just as “commie” was tossed around in the days of yore, “terrorist” has become grossly overused, applied unquestioningly to criminals of Arab, Muslim, or seemingly Arab or Muslim persuasion.

This morning I was watching a Good Morning America report on the recent assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and noticed, with surprise, that Hamas was repeatedly referred to only as “a Palestinian group.” A quick Google of today’s headlines reflects a similar pattern.

I’m not arguing whether or not Hamas deserves the categorization, but let’s assume for a moment that they, and anyone on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations is, in fact, a terrorist group. Is the FARC subjected to the same media treatment as Hamas? A quick Google News search says no – in fact, the only times “FARC” and “terrorist” turn up in the same sentence are in reference to Washington’s designation. FARC is typically referred to in the U.S. media as a paramilitary or guerrilla group, whereas Hamas and Hezbollah are almost always designated terrorists. I’d be interested to discover whether or not “terrorist” is applied to other non-Arab/non-Muslim entities designated by the U.S. as terrorists.

There’s another, perhaps more important set of questions surrounding the use of the word terrorist: How is the term applied to a) Arabs and Muslims who commit crimes not typically considered “terrorist” activities? and b) Are non-Arab, non-Muslim people who partake in actual terrorist activities (such as bomb-making or murdering abortion providers) deemed “terrorists” in the media? (Racialicious has a good post on this)

The former question is one for which I have little to no evidence (which is not to say it doesn’t exist); the latter seems clear: Rarely are white terrorists referred to as such. Consider the 2009 shooting deaths of abortion provider George Tiller and Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns. Tiller was the victim of a shooting by an extreme-right wing, Christian terrorist, who was part of a larger movement. Johns’ murderer was a well-known white supremacist writer. Neither murderer was deemed a terrorist in initial reports (unlike say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab); and though a few subsequent reports may have used the term, by the time the news is out, it’s out…parroted reports hardly seem to matter in terms of influencing public opinion.

Another open question is whether or not the word “terrorist” (and for that matter, “al Qaeda,” often broadly used to refer to terrorist movements) has lost meaning in the nine years since 9/11. We are inundated with its use on an hourly basis (don’t believe me? Google News it). Once a word is heavily used by one network, it tends to be parroted by others–look at Media Matters’ research into the word “rape” as used by conservative pundits to refer to the actions of the Democratic party. Media Matters also looked into the use, or lack of, the word “terrorist” in Obama’s Cairo address. Obama, addressing a crowd made up almost entirely of Muslims, avoided use of the word “terrorism,” a fact which conservative pundits immediately jumped on. The New York Times noted the fact as well, but commented that it was “a departure from the language used by the Bush administration, but one that some Middle East experts suggested reflected a belief by the new administration that overuse had made the words inflammatory.” I think it’s important to view this in context: Was Obama right to avoid the use of the word entirely? Likely not, but given the overuse of the word and its disproportionate usage when referring to Arabs and Muslims, I can see why he did it. And it’s worth recalling that he didn’t avoid discussion of extremism and the ideologies it feeds on, rather, he simply avoided a word whose use has become so commonplace it’s been rendered virtually meaningless.

So this is what I’m thinking about. I’m sure the impending release of Media Cloud will be great in terms of facilitating such research. In the meantime, do let me know if you come across anyone else who’s thinking about this stuff.

As for the original question, well, I get the point, and I’m certainly more alarmed by terrorism than I am by the actions of my own government, but I also think that the media’s role in how such fears are formed is huge, and that the risks are frequently over-stated, or worse, misstated entirely.

Vive les escargots!

So much of travel writing relies on sensory memory – the aroma of spice and fire in Mumbai, the sound of crickets at dusk in Maine, the feel of still, humid Caribbean air.

Thinking back through my years there, it would seem a natural conclusion, then, to write about Morocco through the lens of taste.  The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of my life there revolved around food–much more so than here.  At home in the U.S., I’m hardly a creature of habit when it comes to food; breakfast is what’s cheap (usually oatmeal), and lunch is often what’s left over.  The remaining meal is only slightly more elaborate, but is ten times more likely to be channa masala than a cheeseburger: Americana just isn’t my thing.

But in Morocco, food for me becomes emotional.  I suppose it happened on my first day there, when I drank a small cup of black espresso for the first time, pretending it was no big thing; espresso became my defense mechanism.  My first Friday couscous established a ritual: I would spend the whole week looking forward to Friday, the best and most filling meal of the week setting off the weekend.  A cup of café nous-nous became something I’d leave home early for on my way to work; a treat to sip in silence while preparing my lesson plans.

Harsha, those small, round semolina pancakes that can’t possibly be that hard to make, have always been my favorite.  I bit into one for the first time in Ifrane on a hot late-May afternoon, thinking it would taste like cornbread.  It didn’t.  Still, I fell in love and each day would try it with different toppings.  Harsha avec miel? Yes, please.  With La Vache Qui Rit? Absolutely.  With maple syrup brought to me from Canada?  Hell yes.  There was this small harsha shop around the corner from my first apartment that kept weird hours.  The woman who worked there was tall, blonde, gorgeous, not Moroccan-looking at all (whatever that means), and I remember being surprised to discover she spoke not a word of French.  I would pop over after an early class, fingers crossed.  I would buy one or two harsha cakes and a little packet of cheese and eat it standing there, still hot.  Later, after I’d moved to a new apartment, I was pleased when a little harsha and melwi shop opened about halfway between my home and work.  Vive le coincidence.

And that new apartment?  It was located directly above a bakery.  On hot summer days, I’d get up as early as 4 am, unable to sleep, jarred awake by the overwhelming aroma of baking bread.  Khubz.  I’d wait until the shop opened at 6 or so and would run downstairs, djellaba tossed over my pajamas, for a loaf and a couple of pastries.  Oh, how I lived on pastries!  I could never do that in the U.S., but somehow in Morocco weight never seemed to be a problem.  I’d stuff my face with chocolate croissants all morning then stuff my face with couscous at noon, and never gain a pound.

It wasn’t just pastries and huge lunches, it was everything.  What in hindsight looks magical was likely just the “magical” metabolism of a 23-year-old.  I drank regular soda, ate cones of almonds, took my coffee with three sugar cubes.  A marrakshia, that beast of all pastries, chocolate on the outside, something kind of like Bavarian cream but thicker on the inside…and usually the size of your hand, was barely a force to be reckoned with (fun fact: in the last edition of the Lonely Planet Morocco, the author thanks me for showing him around Meknes and bestows upon me an imaginary marrakshia).

Nostalgia through food.  Foodstalgia.  I haven’t been back since 2007.  I’m quite sure that the food hasn’t changed a bit, but the places, the names, the faces most certainly have.  I hear there’s a Pizza Hut now.  I hear Chinese food is taking off.  With globalization always comes crappy food.

One last story.  When my parents came to visit, I was eager to show my daring father Morocco’s culinary delights.  One evening near Place Hedim, as we were looking for a taxi to return home, we stumbled across a man selling snails.  His setup couldn’t have been more rudimentary: he was seated on a bucket in front of a small table, on which a giant pot bubbled atop a small sterno flame.  The bubbling pot, of course, was filled with escargot, which you were expected to eat by stabbing them with tiny safety pins offered by the seller.  I could tell from the look on my dad’s face that he was icked out by the hygiene (or lack thereof), but daring is daring, and so he did it.  As we snacked on snails (much to my mother’s horror) in the middle of a busy street, it occurred to me how ordinary such things had become, and I realized that what makes a place feel like home is your comfort level with the food.  If you can’t eat like a local, you’ll never fit in.  Vive les escargots!

A Minor Encounter

I was sitting on the bus yesterday morning, reading with headphones in, hood up, lost in my own world, when the woman sitting next to me accidentally elbowed me. She apologized, then in a deep southern drawl, asked, “Whatcha readin’?” I, headphones, still in, flipped the book closed to show her the cover:

She paused to read it, then said, “Wow.  I think that’s just so important.  It’s like one group of people were treated like crap and bullied and then they turn around and do the same thing.”  Her voice was loud, and in my typical public shyness, I could feel the eyes of everyone else on the bus burning into my skin.  I timidly responded, “I’m trying to learn everything I can.”  She said, “Good for you!” then let me get back to my reading.

This book is not my first stop in learning about the history of Palestine and Israel, nor will it be the last–in fact, I read Abunimah’s book a year ago; this is a re-read, an attempt to answer lingering questions.  It is not a simplistic book, whatsoever; Abunimah addresses each possible objection to the creation of one state built on equality and justice, then effectively counters every one.   His is a call for a peaceful solution, an end to violence from both sides.

For those of you to whom the idea one, equal state built on justice and equality, inclusive of Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians alike seems self-evident, it is still worth reading–For me, it’s not a matter of being persuaded, but of gaining a more complete understanding of history and of the possible future.

But this post is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a book review, rather, it is a simple musing on a small encounter on a bus that surprised me.  I’ve ordered a second copy of the book, and if I run into that same woman on the bus again, I’ll be handing it to her.

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