Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: September 2011

Where I’ve Been: M100, OVC, and Blogs & Bullets

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling to various events, and the rest of autumn looks about the same; in two weeks, I’ll travel to Brussels and Tunis, then a few weeks after that to Istanbul and possibly Brazil. Then comes Canada, and perhaps a few small trips that I haven’t nailed down just yet.

Though some of my speaking is publicly streamed or otherwise covered, much of it isn’t, and so I figure that, from now on, I’ll attempt to do a better job of accounting for my away time. Whenever possible, I’ll continue to liveblog, though most of my recent travels have unfortunately included pathetic Internet connections, making that frustrating at best, impossible at worst.

M100 Sanssouci Colloquium, Potsdam

The M100 Sanssouci Colloquium is in its seventh year. Designed for cross-cultural dialogue and held in the beautiful UNESCO heritage site of Potsdam’s Sanssouci Gardens, the colloquium attracts top German and international journalists, as well as observers from the area.

This year’s subject was, unsurprisingly, lessons from the ‘Arab Spring,’ and included a variety of speakers from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region in addition to international speakers such as myself. I’m afraid that, two weeks out, my notes aren’t particularly good, but stuck in my memory are the words of Fathy Abou Hatab of Al Masry Al Youm (“Egypt Today”). In a speech on his paper’s move to digital, Hatab said, “I didn’t realize until recently that the plural of media was medium; what really matters in respect to media is the medium.” He then went on to share his experience in Tahrir Square, calling it “one big social network,” and noting the importance of connectivity amongst people for changing the media landscape.

Also notable was the awards ceremony in which Chinese journalist Michael Anti was honored (press release here). Anti gave a brief speech in which he talked about his own reasons for fighting for free expression, noting that companies entering China (or other authoritarian countries) should “always stick to [their] values.”

Open Video Conference

At my first-ever Open Video Conference, I was fortunate to be invited as the keynote speaker on the first day, to discuss the role of video in the ‘Arab Spring.’ I’m secretly hoping there’s no video of my talk, because I said “um” more than usual (I was horrifically jet-lagged, having spent only 36 hours in Germany and arrived in NYC the night before), but I’ve uploaded my slides (which include ample video, that seems to only work if you download the presentation) for sharing.

I started by showing a series of iconic videos, videos that I remember either from youth or from seeing them on retrospectives. From the Kennedy assassination to the Challenger explosion to the YouTube post seen ’round the world, the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, video is seared into our memory, becoming iconic.

This weekend marks the 29th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, an horrific event perpetrated against Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists and overseen by the Israeli Defense Forces, in which a minimum of 328 people were murdered (various sources put the number as low as 328 and as high as 5,000).

Like the Hama massacre of that same year, it is an event of which I am grateful video does not exist, but it is also an event which seems to have largely slipped out of international public memory (an interesting piece on that). On the other hand, and particularly with the advent of YouTube and citizen video more generally, we are able to relive again and again the events that haunted our youth, as well as those that we never saw; we’re also now able to witness events that we never would have seen otherwise: the excitement of Tahrir Square, the desperation of protests in Bahrain, the brutal murders of Syrian opposition.

I argue that the sheer act of witnessing is wherein the power of video lies, an argument that organizations like WITNESS are well aware of (their report, Cameras Everywhere, which I’ll be blogging about this week, is a must-read).

Witnessing may not always have immediately apparent effects — in other words, lives may not be spared in the short term — but I predict that our loss of innocence, our ability to step outside of our sheltered American lives, will have lasting effects in the next generation.

Sifting Facts From Fiction: The Role of Social Media in Conflict

Last but not least, I spoke at the US Institute of Peace, in their beautiful new dove-adorned DC building, on the role of social media in conflict. The third meeting to accompany the Blogs & Bullets initiative and corresponding paper, this event contained several panels in which the paper’s authors, as well as folks like Andy Carvin and Sultan Al Qassemi, discussed the role of social media in the ‘Arab Spring.’ It was particularly interesting to see how our views have changed (or not) since the first meeting in August 2010, several months prior to the onset of the region’s uprisings.

I was on the last panel, and seated between GWU Professor Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) and Alec Ross, with Clay Shirky coming through the audio waves. Our segment mainly focused on those “newly empowered at the edge of the network” (as Ross so aptly put it), with thoughts on how those voices should be leveraged, listened to, and conversed with.

As you all probably know, I have complicated feelings about the role of government (any, but with an emphasis on my own) in all of this. And so, when first question (“how should we harness this?”) was posed to me, I couldn’t help but point out that I was the outsider on the panel, and that I continue to be surprised when I’m invited to events like these (Lynch and our moderator, USIP director Sheldon Himelfarb, responded by saying that’s exactly what I was invited). I then went on to say that there’s a real risk of marginalizing voices; that while the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have shifted the balance of power, that balance is still incredibly lacking online. We hear the voices of Egyptian elites, but there are entire swaths of voices that we ignore, and that in doing so, we risk further exacerbating conflict, rather than reaching a point of real discussion. In other words, I talked about Palestine without talking about Palestine.

We also discussed the value of testimony, in parallel to my talk at OVC, with Lynch noting that “testimonies have value on their own,” and that hearing them isn’t always about changing the course of things, or intervening in foreign conflict. Shirky added that “local documentation matters,” a point that explains in a nutshell why organizations like Global Voices even exist, as well as why the work that Andy Carvin is doing is so important. Ross tackled the question of whether the State Department’s ask to Twitter (to temporarily hold off servicing their equipment) in 2009 was a good thing (“It was,” he said, “and it wasn’t a ‘decision’ so much as Jared Cohen just making a call without following processes”), and we all hit on points about whether propaganda still works (“traditional propaganda is toothless,” said Ross, while we all agreed that nonetheless, propaganda on social networks can have silencing effects).

Lastly, Shirky made some excellent points about the so-called global zeitgeist; “People are self-consciously referencing Tunisia and Egypt,” he said, calling this current moment a time of “psychological synchronization” and positing that “events will add up to a greater whole.” This brought forth the question of whether young people — my generation, really — sees itself as different, with Shirky asking, “To what degree do the people using these tools see themselves as part of a global generation?”

Interestingly, that’s an issue I’ve been hoping to tackle for a long time in my writing, but which I’d held off for lack of a strong framework. In light of Shirky’s comments, perhaps I’ll delve into it soon!

-marginalization (my own experience +)
-the role of research
-the proof in the framework (http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2011/03/blogs-and-bullets-breaking-down-social-media.html)

Personal Reflections on a Decade

I hadn’t planned to write about 9/11. In fact, I’d planned to avoid commenting on the day entirely, instead choosing to reflect quietly as I have each day since 2001. It’s not that I oppose public reflection, no, this year it’s quite the converse: I’m by chance at a conference in NYC this weekend and all around me are tragedy pilgrims, posturing on the television, even fascists here from Germany (I sat behind one on a plane Friday) here to espouse hatred toward Muslims.

Truthfully, I find the day difficult to write about. I was 19, had just entered a new university in (upstate) New York as a transfer student, and knew no one. I was suffering from what remains the worst heartbreak I’ve ever experienced and that, compounded by my loneliness and general late-teen angst, made the day even more difficult and frankly, hard to take in. I went through the motions, donated blood, made tea for classmates who awaited news of loved ones, but my depression at the time was so deep and my lack of personal connection to the tragedy–in contrast with those around me–made tears seem like an impossibility. And so I did what I could to take care of others instead.

My first semester at Binghamton was incredibly difficult, for all of the above reasons and more. But, like undoubtedly so many others, the horrific acts perpetrated on September 11, 2001 sparked a desire for understanding and a thirst for knowledge that–for lack of a better term and without any melodramatic connotations–saved me from myself. Two days later, I returned to my courses (among them one on women’s rights in the Arab world, taught by an Egyptian professor) with a renewed desire to learn. Between that course and my own realization that my lack of knowledge on Islam and the Arab world was…well, vast…I was struck by the notion of pursuing that line of study, eventually majoring in sociology, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. It was through that pursuit that I met one of my favorite professors, who advised me to go to his native country, Morocco, which I then did–first for a short-term study of Arabic and later for two years.

I wish that I could tell you that I understand why a group of terrorists felt as though targeting more than 3,000 innocent civilians was justified. Many simply blame Islam, but both my studies and my experience belie that theory and in fact, such rhetoric has only served to separate us further apart (both globally and within the context of the United States). Others blame the actions of the United States in the region, but nor is it that simple (as Reza Aslan so succintly writes: “Only a fool would think that the hijackers believed their actions would bring peace to Palestine or result in the removal of American troops from Muslim lands.”) No, in truth I don’t feel as though I will ever understand, just as I will never understand the resulting Muslim-bashing cottage industry.

Instead, I learned, as Roger Ebert wrote just days later, that the events of September 11 were “not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world.” I learned that most of the time, we are far more alike than we are different. And sadly, I also learned, as Sultan Al Qassemi so aptly wrote today that “the result over several years was the real winners of 9/11 were none other than the extremists who had inspired, encouraged and supported the action.”

Though in contrast with what one might hear in speeches today at Ground Zero, and in the rhetoric of conservative politicians, I believe Al Qassemi is correct. The subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 800+ revenge attacks on Muslim-Americans, and what seems like an ever-deepening cultural divide in the United States are all evidence of that. At the same time, the unconscionable treatment of first responders, as well as the near-obsession with Shari’a law and the national reaction to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” all demonstrate to me a populace more preoccupied with rhetoric and politics than with bridging these very real divides.

The fact is, whether one’s views on Islam are favorable or not, we must not continue to allow terrorism—both past and threatening–to impede our ability to live together on this earth as humans. There is no anti-Islam rhetoric that will further that cause.

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