America in 101 euphemisms

January 8th, 2013

  1. Friendly Fire
  2. Person held to service or labor
  3. Enhanced interrogation techniques
  4. Intelligent design
  5. To misspeak
  6. A misstatement
  7. Restroom
  8. I’m washing my hair that day
  9. Adult entertainment
  10. Gentlemen’s club
  11. To take someone for a ride
  12. Curvy
  13. Full-figured
  14. Wardrobe malfunction
  15. Air support missions
  16. Senior citizen
  17. To kick the bucket
  18. Heavy casualties were sustained
  19. Engage the enemy
  20. To see a man about a dog
  21. Reaching second and third base
  22. Aisle manager
  23. Loan office
  24. Nuptial ceremony
  25. Trying for a baby
  26. Shock and awe
  27. Pro-life
  28. Pro-choice
  29. Trail of tears
  30. Pre-owned
  31. Fun-loving
  32. The Plan B pill
  33. “The birth pangs of a new Middle East”
  34. Pacification
  35. Transfer of population
  36. War on Terror
  37. “Smoke him out”
  38. The peculiar institution
  39. Mission Accomplished
  40. The Surge
  41. Security contractor
  42. Waterboarding
  43. Collateral damage
  44. African American
  45. To freshen up
  46. To powder one’s nose
  47. To sleep with
  48. Freaking gosh darn heck
  49. Freedom isn’t free
  50. Institutionalized
  51. Doing time
  52. Sanitation engineer
  53. Differently abled
  54. Coalition of the willing
  55. Insurgency
  56. Neutralized
  57. Bootlegging
  58. Dental appliances
  59. A negative cash-flow position
  60. Sunshine units
  61. Hearing impaired
  62. Visually impaired
  63. Lost their lives
  64. A negative patient care outcome
  65. Torn between two lovers
  66. To defecate
  67. To copulate
  68. Rocky Mountain oysters
  69. Drumstick or white meat, madam?
  70. Water closet
  71. Downsize
  72. Outsource
  73. Area denial artillery munitions
  74. Securing the area
  75. Surgical strike
  76. Protective custody
  77. Executive action
  78. Family values
  79. Undocumented alien
  80. Urban contemporary music
  81. Substance abuse
  82. Special renditions
  83. The birds and the bees
  84. Sanctioning
  85. Harvesting whales
  86. Kinetic military action
  87. Post-kinetic development
  88. Prolonged detention
  89. Nation-building
  90. Reaching across the aisle
  91. Separate but equal
  92. A credibility gap
  93. Hiking the Appalachian Trail
  94. Pro-marriage
  95. Overseas contingency operations
  96. Denied area
  97. 85% fat free
  98. Till the fat lady sings
  99. Dry counties
  100. Tennessee white whiskey
  101. The Noble Experiment

“Well, she was just seventeen” : Anti-gay lawyer goes pimping for porn in Canada

November 22nd, 2012

Remember Larry Craig? He was the Republican Senator from Idaho who was arrested for “lewd conduct” in a Minneapolis airport restroom in 2007 after allegedly attempting to induce an undercover police officer in the stall beside him to engage in sexual activities. After a voting record with highlights that included strong support for “don’t ask, don’t tell” and vehement opposition to gay marriage, Craig then had to deal with the eight gay men who came forward to the Idaho Statesman newspaper claiming they had each had some sort of sexual encounter with the Senator. With his reputation in ruins, Craig’s position became untenable and he never ran for office again, the gulf between his public pronouncements and private fixations having revealed a Grade-A hypocrite.

There is something deliciously dramatic and inevitable, almost oedipan, about those who arm themselves with the breastplate of righteousness in their public lives and claim divine inspiration for their work. Next time you hear some distinctly pontificating speech, complete with all the moralising bells and whistles, set your watch and wait. It is likely that in no time at all, he or she who uttered the words will be found squalid and exposed, tied up as they surely will be in a heap of threatening text messages, crusty toilet paper and a defence that becomes thinner and more ludicrous by the minute.

And so the baton has now been handed to a certain Lisa Biron, a New Hampshire-based lawyer who worked for the euphemistically-named Alliance Defending Freedom (this firm has the distinction of containing three of the most favoured buzz words used by bigoted anti-gay groups; a token ‘Family’ would turn this ménage à trois into a full-blown foursome), a group that aims to “keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” Alas, federal prosecutors have said that Biron transported a teen girl from Manchester, NH to somewhere in Ontario, Canada, where she forced her young and presumably highly distressed kidnappee to engage in sexual acts with another, as yet undisclosed, person while being filmed by Biron. Biron has also been arrested for owning a computer stuffed with child pornography and, to top it all off, witnesses have testified that this defender of Christian values (another popular word among the dogmatic) has been found in possession of various illegal drugs.

So next time you hear those speeches, just sit and wait. The internal paranoia swimming around the minds and bodies of those purporting to do God’s work on Earth will eventually burst forth.


Why You Should Not Donate To Invisible Children/Kony 2012

March 8th, 2012

Like many people across the world, I am in the large minority that takes internet access for granted. On March 7th, millions of wealthy people who count themselves among that group watched a half-hour long video made by a group called Invisible Children.

The video went viral and ended up gaining unprecedented support via a mixture of pledges of support and video sharing, both quite innocent, and donations. The request for these donations after an emotionally manipulative video, however, is quite sinister – brazenly so. It was a tour de force in coercion, emotional manipulation and sophistry, and millions are falling for it.

I can’t tell you what to do with your money, that’s entirely up to you. But if you had not heard of Joseph Kony before yesterday and are now thinking of reaching into your wallet for some change or your credit card, stop. Stop right now, please. I can’t tell you what to do with your money, but I can ask you what to not do with it, and what you should not do is donate to this group. Let’s say you do decide to donate though, as is your right; where would the proportion of your donation that is not spent on salaries and administration go? (If you want to read beyond this point, and you should, I suggest you open the video in another tab because I will be referencing certain points of it in parentheses.)

Invisible Children does not hide the fact that it would lend its financial resources to help the Ugandan Army in its aims (19.23 and 21.47). Uganda has been led by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who has also used child soldiers and “ghost soldiers” , since 1986. Among many of its human rights violations, the regime tortures prisoners, oppresses other political parties and the press and also wishes to introduce a bill that would have ‘convicted homosexuals’ put to death.

In the mid 1990s, the Museveni government forcibly removed over one million people of the Acholi tribe from the northern part of the country to concentration camps further south. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently have some of the highest mortality rates in the world at around 1,000 per week. Both Kony’s LRA and Museveni’s UPDF have committed terrible atrocities against these IDPs.

The video says we need to pressure American politicians (why just American?) to go after Kony and try him in the ICC, but the US isn’t even a member of the ICC (21.00). It asks that people put pressure on representatives to try a criminal in a court they themselves have voted against recognising. It juxtaposes a Republican lawmaker and an ICC prosecutor. It is incoherent logic.

It also states that it is the Ugandan Army that must be supported in achieving the aim of capturing Kony, but as the video also points out, Kony is most likely no longer in Uganda (15.00). This advocates that the Ugandan Army invades another sovereign state or states when those states offer no credible threat against the invading state, going against international law. The Ugandan Army has already entered other states and exploited resources: oil, mineral reserves and rich farmland. In addition, the Museveni regime, along with ally Rwanda, initiated or helped initiate the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed an estimated 6 million people – more than any conflict since WW2.

Look at the brief montage of footage (17.26-17.38) where people are out in matching shirts with a banner declaring where they are; not one of them is in a lesser developed country or even in Africa. No Cairo, no Abidjan, no Cape Town, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi . . . All of these cities have zones with internet access. They also have walls and they also have paper, so you would think that a “global” effort to capture Joseph Kony, an African, for war crimes by putting up posters would at least entail some element of Africa in the solution, no? This video was directed solely at rich nations because they are the ones with citizens who have the means to donate by buying the action kits and posters, which retail at $30 and $5 respectively.

The video also depicts the Ugandan regime as honourable, wishing to deploy soldiers to hunt a war criminal but limited by technological and financial restrictions that US advisors can help overcome.  This is simply not the case in reality. They are promoting keyboard activism.  If people use this viral exposure to do something useful, such as target the political root causes of the problems – something that we, as those with access to the internet, could do – then we ought to be impressed.

But for the moment, the lack of context and the black-and-white moralist tone of the video clouds a series of highly delicate political and social situations in central Africa.  Doing some good is great, but most of the video was filmed over five years ago. A lot of the ring leaders, such as Vincent Otti, are no longer alive. Going on a revenge spree is a solution for nothing. If you chase the symptom away, fix the problem, don’t wield pitchforks and hunt. This is not Rwanda 1995 when we actually ought to have done something to stop a genocide that killed 800,000 people in under 100 days. (That’s the same as three 9/11s per day for 100 days straight in an area smaller than the state of Massachusetts.) We didn’t care then because there was no economic or strategic interest in the region at a geo-political level as there is now.

At its worst, the video manipulates a child through a highly staged mock interview (09.20 and 13.00), is neo-colonial and says that only wealthy white people can cure poor non-white people of their problems. It is Kipling’s White Man’s Burden in all its jingoistic glory. It is a real life version of Team America. If you actually want to do something in the long-term about the LRA, Kony, Uganda and Africa, then take a consistent interest in Africa rather than hopping on board because everyone is wearing the same colour t-shirt. You could start by demanding of the education system in your country that if a history course is given on Africa (usually titled the “scramble for Africa”), then perhaps it should not just be given solely from a British and French perspective and should not focus exclusively on how it affected European affairs. If you want to do something positive in the short- to medium-term after watching the video and wish to make a donation to a group doing great work in the area, you can donate to Amnesty International, MSF or War Child, among others.

People are saying “Is it better to stand by and do nothing?” – implying that doing nothing is the only alternative. This creates a false dilemma, is a logical fallacy and is intellectually lazy.

Reading this was probably a lot less fun for you than watching the video, but then again I didn’t write this to entertain you or make you feel better or worse about yourself. Did you ever watch the Simpsons episode ‘Trash of the Titans’? It’s the one where Homer becomes sanitation commissioner. During a debate, his level-headed opponent says;

“All right, fine. If you want an experienced public servant, vote for me. But if you want to believe a bunch of crazy promises about garbage men cleaning your gutters and waxing your car, then by all means vote for this sleazy lunatic.”

Homer won in a landslide after an appeal to people that they could feel better about themselves by being lazy – intellectually lazy. It takes no intellectual effort to put on a t-shirt, put up a poster or make a donation. Let’s not do the same thing the population of Springfield did. For once, let’s actually care about Africa and Africans.



Hugo O’Doherty has written on African affairs for various publications in Ghana and Ireland. He believes that Joseph Kony is a vile person who needs to be brought to justice.


Occupiers’ Garden: OWS goes to Washington, D.C.

January 30th, 2012

“You know what? They never even fucking told me. They never told me what they arrested me for,” shrieks Athena, a New Yorker whose voice is anything but that of a goddess. I was first drawn towards her because she was walking around the West lawn of Capitol Hill like someone who had been told that there was a nickel for every blade of grass she stepped on. Stomp stomp stomp. It was an unseasonably warm but soggy day, making for progressively squelchy stomps as the day wore on. She was simultaneously singing. Let it shine, let it shine. I’m gonna let it shine. All over the West lawn, I’m gonna let it shine.

It was like Marian Finnucane doing a Shakira impression, with a hint of Sarah Palin for good measure. Well, at least she wasn’t just standing there looking miserable with a ‘Down with capitalism’ sign. She was also taking dozens of photographs of people holding up a banner she had made with two simple words: ‘Occupy United’.

“New Year’s morning, I was arrested. In 2012 I started off my new year in jail,” she says, reliving memories of the NYPD slapping the cuffs on her slender wrists in Zuccotti Park. No fireworks, no midnight kiss, so not such a great way to enter a New Year, one would think.

“It went great. I was held till about 7am, but it was actually really fun because I was in the Paddy Wagon for a couple of hours with a bunch of other Occupy women and, with teamwork, we were able to hook up our live stream to text message whoever the hell we wanted to and we just did not feel limited. So actually it was a lot of fun.”

Athena spoke while snapping away, then abruptly asked for my card. My card? I’ve been in America for one day and have had a phone for about an hour. I made my apologies on the card front and made a mental note that calling yourself a journalist in this country and not having a wad of shiny cardboard slips on your person is akin to calling yourself a snow remover who carries only a miniature bucket and spade. You may as well not turn up. Even people with McJobs probably have cards. Junior vice-burger flipper supervisor.

This is Occupy Congress, a one-day extension of the Occupy movement whose focal point is Occupy Wall Street. That’s three Occupies in one sentence, and why not? The word is everywhere here, just a couple of hundred feet from one of the most iconic buildings in the world on the day Congress reconvenes. Congress, with its 11 per cent approval rating; that’s like if the population of California all said ‘they’re doing an okay job’ and every single other person across the other 49 states said ‘they’re doing a terrible job.’

So does Occupy have a political aim? “Oh it has a political aim,” states Athena, emphatically.

“I don’t think the Occupy movement should have any political aim and in itself will never support any political candidate,” states Mike, with equal fervour. He’s a fresh-faced man, no more than maybe 23 years old, who sat on a train for 60 hours to get here from Reno, Nevada. I didn’t seek him out, he just came up to me and said “you’re awesome.”

The disparity between Mike and Athena, between East and West, between urban and rural, perhaps even between male and female, reveals what many commentators believe to be the fundamental weakness of the movement – it doesn’t know what it is. But that could also be its strength. It’s an open shop as long as you obey one commandment – the perceived cuddliness of politicians and corporations is fundamentally wrong and needs to be done away with. If you agree with that, you’re in.

Wildebeest, a Bostonian, is one of those loud, serial high-fiving types who could only be from this continent. At first I assumed he was using a pseudonym, but then remembered that this is a place where two men called Mitt and Newt are vying to becoming President. “Mama took one look and said this boy is gonna be trouble,” he declared when asked about his name.

As Wildebeest roamed across the lawn, his large Stars and Stripes flag waving upside-down from a pole, he started shouting and pointing “party on that lawn right there.” Why there? “The cop told me to get off the sidewalk and on the lawn so that’s exactly where I’m going.” Touché.

He did have one relevant question to raise though: “You know what I’m distressed about with the police? It’s that they’re gonna die in the same tax bracket as all of us. And the fact that they don’t believe that is a joke. They need to wake up.” This is a far more salient point than merely having a party. If American history has revealed anything, it’s the consistent use of police by lawmakers within divide and conquer politics. The paradox of how Occupy is developing is that the police seem to be helping to wind it down while also providing the fuel that keeps people angry enough to continue turning up.

Sam, a Floridian living in South Carolina, is one of those who has loitered within the movement in spite of a lack interest where he lives. Occupy Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto state, has had – at most – 12 people. They could have just had a game of six-a-side, but instead got the bus up to Washington for this rally, so commitment is not an issue here. He was not here to party, but to make some rather strident points: “You look at all these laws that are being put into effect – the only ones that are being put in effect are the ones being paid for by the corporations. You look at any other bills, they get lost for months at a time in limbo because nobody’s paying the congressmen to bother voting on them.

“There’s so many things that I just can’t understand why people didn’t even just look at it for a second and go ‘wait, no! No! That’s not how it’s supposed to be!’” What Sam exposes here is that the issues are probably far too big to be resolved by simply occupying public spaces. What he said also happens to be the basic mantra of the Tea Party movement, Occupy’s supposed ideological opposite.

After sunset, Athena, Sam, Wildebeest, and Mike joined about 1,000 others around a stage in front of the Congress building. A rather terrible comedian somehow managed to lose the crowd as a chorus of “March! March March!” rang out. And so they did march, some to the Supreme Court, some to the White House, some to the Capitol – all to reconvene later back where they started. This could be seen as speaking volumes about Occupy in general; people meet, people splinter off, people meet again back at the starting point. Movements ought to move, but this one is close to walking, quite literally, around in circles.


Feminism and women in the GOP and CNN

December 31st, 2011

‘As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover  material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan (1963)

It is now four decades since Betty Friedan wrote these simple words. Since then there have been 12 Presidential elections — we are now on number 13 — and as a cast of relatively well-to-do, senior, white men (Michele Bachman aside) line up to present their candidacy, we must ask ourselves: what has changed?

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and his wife Ann this week (the US is surely the only place where men called Wolf and Mitt can have a conversation and nobody questions how ridiculous their names are). This is what Ann had to say (skip to 8.00 in that link);

“It was also Mitt that got me through those really tough years raising five really quite rambunctious and at times quite naughty boys, where he would call home and remind me when I was quite exasperated while he was travelling that what I was doing was more important than what he was doing. My job, in his eyes, was more valuable than his.”

The first three questions asked of Ann by Wolf were:

‘Do you ever think about being First Lady of the United States?’

‘You haven’t said I’d like to be like X or Y, like Hilary Clinton or Laura Bush?’

‘Did you like being First Lady of Massachusetts?’

With opening questions such as these, we are not far beyond Cindarella- or Jane Eyre-esque aspirations whereby a woman’s goals cannot be much more than to find the right man. The training of passivity in women is a continuing process, one in which acquiescence to male domination is often done unconsciously. For Michele Bachmann, such submission is both conscious and good:

“My husband said, now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law. Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that?

But the Lord said, ‘Be submissive. Wives you are to be submissive to your husband.’ And so we moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I went to William and Mary Law School there, for a post-doctorate degree in tax law. And I pursued this course of study.

“Never had a tax course in my background, never had a desire for it, but by faith, I was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband.”

The image of the woman as mother, as wife, living through her husband and their offspring, through her children, possibly even giving up her own dreams for that – is something that is often portrayed as a noble act. Blind selflessness is seen as a virtue. A strong independent streak is also lauded, but only because the woman is independent yet female, instead of independent and female, or just independent. The independent woman who does not also conform to societal expectations is viewed as dangerous.

The most obvious extreme example of this, at least in the popular imagination, must be Diana, whose efforts to feign a real loving interest in her husband were ultimately abandoned. Jackie Kennedy described her own marriage to JFK as “Victorian or Asiatic”, meaning that independence was neither expected nor sought.

There is no overt anti-feminism in society, not because sex equality has been achieved, but because there is practically no feminist spark left, at least not in the mainstream. Of course, if it ever happens that we have a potential First Man in the White House, he’ll no doubt have to be portrayed as uber-masculine with a sort of comic book macho quality. On the campaign he will be shown going rock climbing and lifting heavy things for no apparent reason before kicking back with a bottle of beer and playing catch with his son. There’s a sort of inevitability about it.


The One After 9-9-9: Herman Cain and Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan

November 25th, 2011

A friend once confessed an anecdote to me while we were discussing the subject of job interviews. A potential employer asked him a moderately tricky question that, according to him, he answered so dreadfully that he got up, shook the interviewer’s hand and said ‘sorry, I know I won’t get the job now’ and walked out of the room. Arrogance and ignorance were swiftly followed by humility.

Whatever my friend said, however, cannot possibly have been as utterly atrocious and mortifying (in the strictest sense of the word) as Herman Cain’s effort to respond to a basic, yet moderately tricky, question about President Obama’s handling of the Libya situation this year. Cain should have just said ‘sorry for wasting your time’ and walked away from pursuing the job as most powerful person in the world.

Jon Stewart described the skin-crawlingly bad answer as “it’s like he’s trying to download the answer but it’s just the little ball is spinning and he’s just buffering.” The Cain camp blamed his slow reply on his busy schedule and lack of sleep, and assured us that the potentially most powerful man in the world is well up to date on international affairs.

Let us grant Cain and his team that and give him the benefit of doubt. His unease under pressure? His lack of basic knowledge on the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi? The way his only aim throughout the humming and hawing is to position himself on the opposite side of the President? Take all that, and put it down to having a bad day and a poor night’s rest, for Cain had already proven that it is not a lack of knowledge that makes him unworthy of Presidential status, but rather an open celebration of said lack of knowledge.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network a few weeks prior to the Libya question, CBN host David Brody asked:

“Are you ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy? Like, who’s the president of Ubekistan (sic)?

Cain replied:

“I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?

Cain followed this by saying his priority – his only priority – is to create jobs. What he effectively seems to be saying is ‘I don’t want to talk about foreign policy; I want to talk about jobs.’ Well, perhaps it ought to be pointed out to Cain that he doesn’t really get to decide when someone asks him questions on foreign policy.

The addition of multiple extra syllables into the country’s name seems to show that Cain is annoyed by its very existence and reveals a flippant attitude towards the world. This might play well among a minority within the American electorate who give the impression that they admire lethargy in international relations, but is in reality incredibly condescending towards a very large number of Americans who do want a well-rounded, knowledgeable and creative president, willing to learn more about the world both at home and abroad.

What is important in this interview is that Cain is quite proud of his lack of knowledge. The interviewer didn’t even ask him who the president of Uzbekistan was, yet Cain was happy to tell us that he didn’t know. It wasn’t even close to being a ‘gotcha’ question, yet Cain was very much got.

As I said in an article recently published in Trinity News, American exceptionalism or ‘manifest destiny’ is alive more than ever within the GOP. Christopher Hitchens recently penned a good article on this subject, only weeks after I had made the same argument (are you watching me, Hitch?). The two most recent debates – on foreign policy and national security respectively – have shown this to be the case.

The basic rule among the candidates (with one or two exceptions) seems to be: if you are struggling to answer a question, just praise the United States and label it exceptional and all will be well. The audience claps, you smile, and we move on.

Some of the words uttered by these ostensibly serious candidates are outright bizarre. Michelle Bachmann, perhaps the most vocal exponent of American exceptionalism, labelled Pakistan “too nuclear to fail”. Rick Santorum called Africa a country before praising US aid efforts to fight AIDS because it helps curb Islamism — would fighting AIDS not be a worthy end in itself? Rick Perry appears to be in the Cain camp of not really giving a damn about foreign affairs; rather, he tows the ‘exceptional’ line and maintains the policies held by almost every other establishment Republican. Ron Paul is different; his foreign policy seems to be not to have one at all. Jon Huntsman, erstwhile Ambassador to China and speaker of Mandarin, is consistently ignored. Perhaps he doesn’t shout loud enough. Mitt Romney said US aid could “bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th century for that matter.” The new tactic to win over wavering allies is to patronise them, or so it would seem.

Newt Gingrich was almost lynched for suggesting that “church-going” illegal immigrants with families who have been in the country for a quarter of a century ought to have a path to citizenship available. Church-going? It would seem Newt wants to perform a merry dance on the corpse of the First Amendment. The superficially domestic issue of illegal immigration spills across the Venn diagram into foreign affairs because what is being mooted by the majority of candidates is mass repatriation of people and families to other states. The favoured policy du jour is ‘root ‘em out and send ‘em home’. That’s right; a forced migration of perhaps 12 million people. It’s like the Trail of Tears never happened. Or rather, that it never mattered.

Very few of these candidates are prepared to have any nuance, creativity or imagination on international matters; everything is black and white. If this stakes were not so high, this might even be funny. But the stakes are that high.


We’ve neglected Somalia

September 17th, 2011

The following article will be published in next week’s Trinity News

At the precise moment that I sat down to write this article, there was no article on The Irish Times website homepage or world news page of that same site about the escalating famine in the Horn of Africa, primarily Southern Somalia.

There was, however, a Somalia-based news item that concerned itself with a Danish family being freed by Somali pirates having been held since February of this year. The New York Times website on the same day was the same – no homepage or world news page article about the famine, but a story on the freed Danes made the editorial cut.

Let there be no mistake about it – the story of the freed hostages is worthy and of great importance, but what is clear is this: the non-death of seven Danish people is more important to us than the real deaths of thousands upon thousands of Somalis every day, most of them children.

One of the ways in which we – potential donors to international aid organisations – manage to convince ourselves that we are powerless to help is by believing the myth that drought is the cause of this famine. This is a falsehood. The causes are almost entirely anthropogenic, caused by human factors such as war, corruption and religious fundamentalism. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest are the causes of famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause as a catalyst of famine. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

Al-Shabab has reached an unsurpassable level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. Until we care enough to try and understand what is going on, this is as sure as the sun rising in the morning.

When one considers that the escalating levels of starvation are almost entirely caused by humans and not by nature, as well as being perpetrated by one group upon others, the situation becomes more like Rwanda in 1994 all over again, with a slow wasting death awaiting victims instead of the point of a machete. This time, however, we do know what is going on and we do have the resources to tackle it, but we just choose not to. We may want to help Somalia and Africa, but we can’t do so without learning about it. We can’t learn about it without demanding news about it. News won’t be published unless we demand it.

What makes Somalia particularly unique is that the West has close to absolutely no economic or strategic use for it. There is no commodity to extract or even a central government to coax, nor is there much of a formal economy to speak of. If Africa is the continent that the rest of the world doesn’t care much for, then Somalia is the country within Africa that nobody cares for. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the place. It can be left to rot and crash.

It must be noted that we cannot blame newspapers, news websites and other media outlets entirely for their lack of coverage. Editorial decisions are usually arrived at after two questions are asked: will I get sued, and will running this story make money? We, the people, are the ones primarily to blame. When a story about a handful of alive Danes is far more important to us than a story about potentially millions of acutely malnourished Somalis, we have reached a very sad and potentially dangerous place.

It should not go unmentioned that, contrary to The Irish Times and New York Times, The Globe and Mail – Canada’ national newspaper of record – had an entire section on the famine linked from the homepage on the same day that the other newspapers carried no news at all on the issue. This meant that after one click, no less than ten articles directly related to the famine were available to readers of that site. There is hope.

Say the word I’m thinking of: Headline writing in USA Today

August 26th, 2011

Headline writing can be an onerous task. How does one draw the reader or passer-by into reading even the first line of an article while staying within the parameters of space, line decks and characters? Sub-editing is easier said than performed.

But at least get the grammar correct. Today I was walking to my departure gate at Charlotte-Douglas airport in North Carolina and saw a copy of USA Today. The headline above the page fold read: ‘Libya oil industry may fast recover.’ That’s bad. It reminded me of a friend in Ireland who used to ring and ask “do you want to go for a fast swim.” I honestly thought he meant that we would swim quite quickly and not that the activity would not take up too much of our day.

Would it have been too difficult for the sub-editing team at USA Today to write ‘. . . may make fast recovery’ or ‘. . . may recover quickly’? Additionally, would one write ‘Britain fish industry’ or ‘France wine industry’? Of course not; one would write ‘British’ or ‘French’, so why ‘Libya oil industry’ in today’s USA Today? Here we have three nouns coming together, so let’s get an adjective (I suggest ‘Libyan’) in there.

Children at your feet

June 15th, 2011

Watch this. It’s a video of last night’s New Hampshire Republican pre-primary debate. The main battle seemed not to be over healthcare, the military, education, jobs or the economy, but over who was responsible for bringing more American children into the world. Michelle Bachmann thought she had won with 28 — five to which she had given birth plus 23 fostered — until Ron Paul came in with over 4,000. It’s a truly bizarre debate.

Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble…

February 8th, 2011

In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.

First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack.  Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national.  And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”

So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?

The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.

The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.

That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.