Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: October 2010 (page 1 of 9)

“Democracy Defenders” Urge State Department to Meddle with Palestinian Online Conversations

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies has released a study on Palestinian social media entitled “P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media.”  Researchers analyzed Arabic-language blogs, news sites, forums, and other resources, the majority of which were said to have originated in Gaza and the West Bank, in an attempt to take a temperature reading of Palestinian public opinion.

As Mondoweiss pointed out last week, the report puts forth the (rather unsurprising) findings that Palestinian social media users are educated and primarily use Arabic online, and that the Palestinian Internet is largely uncensored.  All true, certainly.  The report also found that, generally, Palestinians have an overwhelmingly negative view of Israel, that Israel has no genuine interest in the peace process, and that the two-state solution is “on its deathbed.”  Also unsurprising.  There were, of course, more specific findings, but I’m more concerned about the policy recommendations.

The first two recommendations acknowledge that the Palestinian online environment should not be taken lightly be policymakers, and suggest that more intensive study of the environment should be undertaken to get a better feel for what Palestinians think.  Fair enough.

The third recommendation, however, is incredibly troubling when looked at in detail.  The researchers recommend that the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team become more engaged in Palestinian online discourse.  I had the pleasure of meeting one of the people involved with the team at this year’s Al Jazeera Media Forum.  I was pleased, actually, to see such an attempt to engage with them.  What the Outreach team does is engage in conversations online in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu in attempt to “correct misinformation.”  They sign all of their messages with “digitaloutreach@state.gov” and are required to be transparent in their conversations.  Though I’m personally not a fan of this approach–I can’t imagine it’s terribly effective at changing people’s minds–I also think it’s relatively harmless.

The Foundation’s researchers, however, would prefer the Outreach Team not identify themselves a la China’s 50 cent army:

FDD’s research found that, during the nine-week observation period, the State Department’s efforts to influence the online discussions were largely ineffective. This may stem from the fact that the team is small in number, and cannot possibly challenge even a plurality of the views expressed on sites where sentiments run counter to U.S. objectives. However, it also may stem from a process whereby the engagement team has the odds stacked against it. Indeed, the Digital Outreach Team identified itself in every online interaction, which nearly always drew fire from users with a pre-existing bias against the United States.
To be effective, the outreach team must not advertise its presence. More importantly, it must launch a broader campaign to limit and discredit violent messages, expose Palestinian extremists on the Internet, and thwart their ability to gain credibility. This will require a more aggressive approach than the one currently employed. It may also require additional personnel.

The Digital Outreach Team should also be viewed as an important source of intelligence. Indeed, they regularly assess sentiments expressed online in the same way that Foreign Service Officers assess political sentiments on the ground. As such, they can add an additional window of understanding into the Palestinian political landscape. To this end, they could participate more actively in conversation threads and pose specific questions on a range of topics. This will allow them to assess opinions on a range of issues with a higher degree of focus, nuance, and specificity more commonly gauged by polling.
State Department decision-makers can benefit from these findings. For example, if anti-peace sentiment is running high online, an understanding of these sentiments could inform the decisions of State Department officials responsible for advising the White House and briefing Congress on peace talks or other diplomatic initiatives.

Let’s ignore for the moment the disingenuous definition of “anti-peace sentiment” and focus solely on the recommendation at hand.  What we have here is a lobby group that purports to promote democracy suggesting that the United States government manipulate Palestinian conversations in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of the Palestinian people…secretly.

The fear, of course, is that the State Department might take this seriously; after all, FDD credits itself with pushing them to shut down Al-Manar broadcasts.  Were the State Department to implement such practices, they would follow in the footsteps of Israel and China.  Incidentally, there is already plenty of suspicion in the Arab blogosphere that the U.S. does pay commenters to surreptitiously engage in discussion, so were it to actually be implemented, it’s possible that Palestinian netizens would be wary enough not to fall for it.

I don’t see how this is in the spirit of democracy.  It seems to be that an institution that claims to defend democracy would consider it wise to honor Palestinian agency, but hey, what do I know?

Did firing Juan Williams shut down a conversation about Muslims in America?

I don’t believe I live in a country where Muslims are seen as ordinary human beings.  It’s nearly impossible for the media to have a serious discussion of Islam in America; when they try, they’re seen as “sympathizers.”  Journalists with bigoted views toward Muslims are allowed to say whatever they want with impunity; just look at Bill O’Reilly, Marty Peretz, the cast of Fox News.  And it’s only gotten worse since this summer, when the media machine lost its mind and decided that Pamela Geller was a reliable source, thereby catapulting the otherwise fairly-unknown “issue” of Park51 into the mainstream.

That’s why I was fairly surprised when, last night, NPR fired commentator Juan Williams, for bigoted anti-Muslim remarks made during an appearance on Fox News.  Before delving into a discussion of whether or not NPR’s decision was justified, let’s examine what Williams said:

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot.  You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

The first question is whether or not Williams’s comments were bigoted.  I would argue that yes, they were.  Surprisingly, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s assessment:

What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims — I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin — have committed acts of terror? . . . The literal defense of anti-Muslim bigotry on Fox is becoming endemic. It’s disgusting.

What Williams has done is equate religiosity with terrorism which, as Sullivan describes, is the very definition of bigotry.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, Williams’s comments were “suffused with falsehoods, not facts.”  Every single Muslim who has thus far committed an act of terror on an airplane was wearing Western clothing, not “Muslim garb.”  And wearing traditional clothing does not necessarily imply putting one’s religion before other identifiers – hijab, for example, is (though there’s certainly plenty of debate around this point) prescribed by Islam, therefore, it seeks to reason that anyone wearing it is simply fulfilling their religious duty.  A Muslim woman wearing hijab is just as normal as a Jew refusing pork: a part of the religion, not the be-all, end-all.  Not the foremost identifier.

To those defending Williams’s comments, I also wonder where they draw the line.  One person argued to me that this was “different from racism,” because “Muslims choose their religion.”  I would beg to differ; the racialization of Muslims is an important concept to understand.  It’s why Arab Christians and Sikhs suffer the same treatment in airports as Muslims.  You can’t simply justify that by calling it “fear.”

I also have to wonder what would have been the reaction if a commentator had said they fear for their children in the presence of priests, or that they move to the other side of the street when they encounter a black man.

But in the end, was NPR still right to fire Williams, based on that single incident?  Greenwald hits the nail on the head:

I’m not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks, especially isolated, one-time comments.  But if that’s going to be the prevailing standard, then I want to see it applied equally.

Over the course of the past year, we’ve witnessed the firings of Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, and Shirley Sherrod, all of whom were fired for sharing their personal beliefs, however controversial.  More recently, Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN for “criticizing his employer,” because of a suggestion that CNN was run by Jews (oddly enough, NPR called it a result of bullying).

The firing of Juan Williams is, in the broader context, justified.  Fundamentally, however, should any of these people been fired?  A few people, such as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, have suggested that it would be better to talk it out:

Jarvis unfortunately wouldn’t answer my question as to whether or not he held the same opinion in respect to Thomas, Nasr, or Sanchez.

I think that’s a question worth asking: Would it have been better to have an honest discussion of the origins of Israel than firing the White House’s oldest correspondent?  Would it have been better to talk about why some people have respect for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah?  Would it have been better to have a real conversation about whether or not Jews today are a persecuted minority?

Frankly, I would answer yes to every one of these questions.  Fundamentally, I don’t believe that firing Thomas, Nasr, or Sanchez was the right move (nor Sherrod, of course, but let’s stick to journalists for the purpose of this discussion).  It most certainly would have been better to hold honest discussions on tricky subjects, but every time, for fear of offense, there has been refusal to do so.

At the same time, I don’t believe for a second that we can have a productive conversation about the American fear of Muslims in this country, let alone one lead by anyone at Fox News.  Judging by Williams’s comments, I don’t believe he’s ever spent much time with Muslims, and I’m positive that O’Reilly hasn’t.  Even the more sensible of American television commentators, Christiane Amanpour and Diane Sawyer, have been criticized heavily for their recent framing of discussions about Islam in America from both sides of the line.  Many people saw Amanpour’s framing of the question (“should Americans fear Islam?”) as feeding into the hands of the Right, while those on the Right saw her handling of the debate as biased in favor of Muslims.

So where do we go from here?  How can we have a reasonable discussion about Islam and Muslims in America when so many Americans are unwilling to admit that Islamophobia is not so different from racism? More importantly, how can we foster better understanding when so many Americans are unwilling to open their minds?

A Brief Comment on Massachusetts’ “Child Safety” Proposal

I’ve about had it with Massachusetts.  Seriously.  I can’t buy wine on Thanksgiving or in the supermarket, happy hour drink specials are outlawed, and boy, that law about not being able to use tomatoes in clam chowder really gets me.

In all seriousness, a law proposed earlier this year really makes me angry.  From the ACLU:

Signed in April by Governor Patrick and effective June 12, the law, Chapter 74 of the Acts of 2010, imposes severe restrictions on the distribution of constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The law could make anyone who operates a website or communicates through a listserv criminally liable for nudity or sexually related material, if the material can be considered “harmful to minors” under the law’s definition. In effect, it bans from the Internet anything that may be “harmful to minors,” including material adults have a First Amendment right to view. Violators can be fined $10,000 or sentenced to up to five years in prison, or both.

I’ve written about the slippery slope before, most recently in August to debate a point someone else had made: that “normal people” should take action, and request that their ISPs filter pornography.

Like Carol Rose, whose On Liberty column from yesterday is a must-read, I don’t take kindly to lawmakers hiding behind the guise of “protecting our children” to justify broad extensions of government power.  And that is just what this is: a broad, in fact vague restriction on anything that might be harmful to children.  Beyond the potential banning of any pornography (which I wouldn’t agree with anyway), this law could potentially ban all sorts of things: sites about marijuana, sexual health, guns, R-rated movies.  The law feels purposefully vague, and we have to question why that is.

Of course, the government lawyer has already stepped up to say that “prosecutors promise to prosecute only those cases involving ‘something more than posting to an audience that may or may not include a minor’” but is that really enough?  Just trust the government?  I don’t think so.

Fortunately, several groups have stepped up to challenge the law, among them the ACLU, of which I am a card-carrying member.  The groups have filed a suit to have the new law declared unconstitutional, an act which I fully support.  As a Massachusetts resident, I am truly concerned for the chilling effects this law could set into motion.

For more information, the ACLU has an excellent resource page set up (and of course, a Facebook group).

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