Who is Worth Saving?

12.10.13

The New York Times profiled an 11 year old homeless girl Dasani. Dasani is different. She’s smart and fast and she’s the de facto caretaker of her seven younger siblings. She lives in s shelter with her parents and siblings where they play host to vermin, roaches and mold. Indoor plumbing is iffy, Dasani’s mother Chanel is unpredictable and her biological father absent.

Maybe Dasani isn’t so remarkable? It’s clear that Andrea Elliot has fallen for the slight 11 year old child and her obvious love for her becomes it’s own character in the series. How could anyone not root for this child to overcome a very difficult childhood? How many Dasanis live in New York City? How many Dasanis are in Los Angeles?

Does living below the poverty line imbue children with strengths that would otherwise never develop?

If one can set aside some time to read the five part series on just one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless children it’s impossible to not want to do something. How can eight children live in third world filth two blocks away from $1.5 million apartments and $700 bottles of wine? How can we as a nation pity the poor children of emerging nations while tossing expired formula at our own? How do we fix this? How did we allow this to happen?

Great societies are measured by how they treat their poor, their children, their elderly and infirm. I’m not sure how we’d currently measure America. We try but we’re massive and the cracks that people can slip through sometimes seem like the Grand Canyon.

In the New York Post this week we met an attorney. He’s not a very good attorney. John Scarpa was defending Rasheen Everett who choked to death a trans woman he met on Craigslist. Unfortunately for Everett, Scarpa called Everett’s first wife to the stand where she testified that she and Everett split up after he strangled her. Just a few days later The Post reported:

“A sentence of 25 years to life is an incredibly long period of time judge,” John Scarpa said Thursday as he asked a judge to go easy on his client, Rasheen Everett, for killing hooker Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar in 2010.

“Shouldn’t that be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?”

Then, taking callousness to a new level, he said: “Who is the victim in this case? Is the victim a person in the higher end of the community?”

And because there are good people in the world (with neither Everett nor Scarpa being included among them) Everett was sentenced to 29 years in prison and the judge had tough words for Scarpa reminding him that we value every human life.

In reading headlines I wonder if we do. I know that we want to intervene and bring the Dasanis of the world out of poverty but I wonder if anyone wanted to save Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar from a life of prostitution and risk.

What if Andrea Elliot had profiled another child. Maybe one with fetal alcohol syndrome or ADD and crooked teeth? What if shelter kids are just average? How do we decide who is worth profiling or saving? Who tugs at our hearts and why are they required to tug? Is it enough to just exist? Will that ever be enough to make us want to care for people or do we need to save the exceptional people first?

What if the New York Times profiled an ugly child with a terrible story and even worse skin? Would we be abuzz and horrified and demanding that the system change or would we just look away? No one’s freaking out that a transgender prostitute was murdered. In fact you’re probably calling her a him and noting that hooking up on Craigslist is risky behavior. It’s okay to admit it to yourself, you don’t have to say it out loud but you do have to acknowledge what we’ve become.

I mean, we basically look away right now. Maybe it’s just more of the same?

This American Lie, #Kony2012 and the Problem With Messengers

03.16.12

There are many good journalists in America. There are talented documentarians too. Great journalists and biographers aren’t typically found in social media. Sure there are some, but not the majority.

This weekend This American Life will spend a full hour unwinding a previously aired story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. In this episode Mike Daisey chronicles mistreatment of workers in factories that make components for Apple products. In a particularly ironic turn this episode became the most popular of all downloads in the iTunes store. A petition was started and national media picked up the story… I know… another petition. But this time Apple responded by hiring a third party to audit working conditions in the factories in China.

Something good happened. Maybe.

Concurrently a video went viral. It’s about a man named Joseph Kony. Kony is the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and has abused tens of thousands of children in Uganda turning them into sex slaves and killers. It is absolutely indisputable that Joseph Kony is evil personified. What is in dispute is whether or not this video is helpful for the people of Uganda. Further, Jason Russell, cofounder of Invisible Children (the non profit behind the video), has had some sort of emotional break. Among other things he was seen naked and agitated on a street corner midday. The police got involved and he is currently hospitalized on a 72 hour hold.

None of this makes Joseph Kony less evil. None of this makes children (many of whom are now adult) less harmed.

As Mike Daisey astutely points out there is a difference between entertainment and journalism. Sometimes we as consumers of content get confused, and this is where we can take some power back. We can use critical thinking to determine if we are consuming journalism, activism or storytelling. The days of passively reading a newspaper and trusting all sources are over.

We need to understand that activism isn’t balanced and doesn’t purport to be. The video that Invisible Children put out doesn’t have to be 100% factual it’s meant only to make us uncomfortable. It’s meant to provoke activism or at the very least slacktivism (sharing the video on your Facebook page and signing a virtual petition). The video isn’t meant to enlighten the people in Uganda nor is it meant to be a comprehensive documentary. It’s like a blog in that it’s meant to plant a seed, it never meant to be the tree.

Is it a bunch of rich white Southern California men trying to affect change in Africa? Yep, it sure is. Does that make their message less palatable? Yes, for some it rings of colonialism, narcissism and the great white savior. Others see it as white privilege and a fabulous use of the gifts bestowed upon men. I think I see it as both with the caveat that I assign no value good or bad.

Mike Daisey clearly  saw human rights abuses in China. Does his embellished storytelling make Foxconn less culpable? Kai MacMahon wisely points out that 17 workers at Foxconn killed themselves last year. When This American Life apologizes for getting a story wrong do these people, these young humans, magically come back to life?

 

17_Foxconn_workers_killed_themselves_

There’s a blurry line these days and sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at propaganda, storytelling, journalism or advertising. Sometimes you’re looking at all three. With fragmented media and the birth of online news the onus will be on the consumer for the foreseeable future.

Ask yourself if it matters that Mike Daisey embellishes a story. He isn’t a journalist, but he is reporting something to us that needs to be heard. If every word isn’t true we can’t dismiss the fact that our yearning for cheap electronics is paid for in both health and sanity by factory workers half a world away.

Does it matter that Joseph Kony’s reign of terror is winding down? Is it a story that still needs telling? Does the US need to be the world’s police force? Yes. Yes. I hope not. Was the video manipulative? Of course it was. Is manipulative a bad thing? Not always.

The problem we are seeing with social media and ridiculous amounts of transparency is that we are placing too much value on the messenger and not enough on the message. People can get an awful lot of stuff wrong and still be very right.