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Salam Shabab

In light of the readings on development communications and both presentations this week (one on reality TV in the Middle East and one participatory theater), I wanted to take an opportunity to write a blog about Salam Shabab, reality TV show featuring youth from all over Iraq competing to become ambassadors of peace. According to the website, “They can express who they are and say what they think about building peace in Iraq. Salam Shabab is a way for the next generation of Iraqi leaders to have their voices heard. The mission of Salam Shabab is to build the foundations for peace by empowering Iraqi youth to be confident, responsible and participatory citizens of their society.” Additionally, Salam Shabab uses social media to serve as an online community for Iraqi youth to discuss conflict issues. Salam Shabab is a U.S. Institute of Peace endorsed program. Here is a video about Salam Shabab.

The reality series serves an entertainment purpose, but helps to address serious issues at the same time. It combines aspects of reality TV in the region addressed in the presentation in class with aspects of participatory conflict resolution through a platform similar to theater. I think that it incorporates positives of reality TV such as imagined community building and is effective in addressing gender issues and ethnic and religious divides.

Affirm me, don’t enlighten me.

It’s true. Media, namely news, affirms, it doesn’t necessarily enlighten. You watch the stations that resonate with your views. In fact, I bet most non right-winged college students just watch the current presidential debates so they can play drinking games drinking each time Bachmann talks about her 23 kids.

If you’re French, you don’t want to read about freedom fries, but if you have your American flag waving and your guns on your wall, you may just get a chuckle out of this. I understand that this isn’t good. It may even be more important to educate yourself on the views that don’t resonate with you – but where’s the fun there?

I joke, but in reality, media is at fault here – not people. This is psychological, we can’t help it. The media, on the other hand, can. I must bring it to my group project here since it has been the focus for me. Search for Common Ground does just this – it takes stories that resonate with people and turn it into entertainment.

Why does Search for Common Ground do this? Well many of the same reasons other media sources do it. To increase audience and to make money. It doesn’t create false stories or “trash” tv. Search for Common Ground comes up with stories from real people’s lives of conflict situations solved peacefully and turns it into entertainment.

Instead of kicking the butt of the local gangster for making fun of your Muslim faith, an actor may respond with a witty retort or a meaningful conversation. The love stories are inter-faith or inter-racial, there are gays not accepted in the society. There are friendships between different classes and overbearing parents.

Why do people watch these? Because they resonate. You’re gay, and scared to come out. You’re black and your girlfriend’s white. Your best friend is rich and you aren’t. You like the humor. You think the main actress is hot. It doesn’t matter what you resonate with, you just do.

But Search for Common Ground is different from other media sources , it has different motives. Teach peaceful conflict resolution. Media which affirms, resonates – and this is not what needs to be changed. It is making this affirmation closer to something that can also be enlightening that needs to be worked on.

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What’s There New in the News?

In their article “Al-Jazeera English and Global Networks,” Shawn Powers and Mohammed el-Nawawy talk about media system dependency theory and how there is a relationship between people’s reliance on news from a particular news source (like BBC World, CNNI, or AJE) and their political opinions and attitudes. One of their findings was that people tend to turn to particular broadcasters to affirm their existing opinions rather than to change them, thus reinforcing existing cultural clichés about cultural ‘others.’ This is quite a disappointing conclusion given all the hopes for the global media to promote a more cosmopolitan and tolerant outlook. Interestingly enough, their second finding was that those people who watched Al-Jazeera English tended to be less dogmatic in their thinking.

Another recent piece of research has revealed that of all news channels, Fox News viewers are the least informed. In the study, respondents were asked questions about the recent events of the Arab Spring, widely covered in the US by almost all news broadcasters. The results of the research showed that Fox News viewers were 18 points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those respondents who were not TV viewers. Fox News viewers even scored lower than those respondents who claimed not to watch news at all!

What is more interesting, however, is that the same researchers found that 11% of MSNBC viewers believed that Occupy Wall Street protesters were Republicans, while only 3% of Fox viewers believed so. As Dan Cassino, a professor of political science, noted, “People who tune into ideological media are motivated to hear their side of the debate and so you can have someone who watches MSNBC be so used to hearing about protests coming from the right that they automatically believe that Occupy is mostly a Republican protest.”

These findings demonstrate the ambiguity of the role global media play in the promotion of cultural awareness and tolerance. It is especially important to remember the nichefication of media outlets and the emergence of highly ideological media, which tends to attract those viewers who hold extreme political views and are not looking to reconsider them. “News” presented by these media is often just a euphemism for propaganda.

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Hybridize That

The project called “Citizen Poet” was conceived of in Moscow by a poet, an actor, and a producer slightly over a year ago. The idea looked brilliant to me: the form is a theatre, the tool is Russian classic poetry, the content is acerbic political satire of the Russian “duet” (Putin-Medvedev), and—attention—the medium is the Internet. The actor reads poems that rhyme like widely recognizable and beloved pieces of Russian poetry, but the meaning is aimed at criticizing and ridiculing Russian political leadership; the performances are videotaped and uploaded on the Internet.

At first the authors thought that these videos would be seen only by a few thousand intellectuals, but the viewership of their first clip was 250,000, with 14 million clicks now, a year later. It is important to mention that the Russian government, to put it mildly, does not welcome the opposition (just like almost any government). Most of the intellectuals are either apathetic about the current political situation, or have been co-opted by the government through membership in the official party, United Russia, or by being repeatedly invited for tea and “cordial” conversation with Prime Minister Putin.

The success of this project is obvious—it was noticed immediately and the poet (who actually happens to be my favorite journalist, Dmitriy Bykov) was invited to the “tea party” with the Prime Minister. Bykov declined on the premise that he was busy. The real motivation, as he admitted in an interview, was that he does not want to lose credibility with his audience as an independent opinion maker.

What is interesting, I think, is the form the creators of the project have selected. Both of them, the poet and the actor, belong to a generation which prefers traditional artistic media to Internet-specific ones. However, by uploading their theatrical recitations on the Internet, they have increased the project’s outreach and popularity, and created, from my point of view, a truly powerful satirical weapon and a truly hybrid product, which could only be possible with new technology.

As a native speaker, I can attest that the whole thing is VERY stinging.

Here is the NYT article about the project:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/19/world/europe/mocking-vladimir-putin-with-poetic-flair-in-russia.html?emc=eta1

Cross-Cultural Understanding Through the News

Powers and el-Nawawy write in “Al Jazeera English and Global News Networks: Clash of Civilizations or Cross-Cultural Dialogue” that global news networks have two effects. 1) they can reaffirm the us versus them mentality because people seek out programs that already display their views and 2) long-term viewership of channels such as AJE help lessen the clash of civilizations phenomenon. This means that the bias AJE has because of the culture it derives from ultimately affects viewers even if they are not of that same culture.

This theory is especially interesting now, because more people outside of the MENA region became aware of AJE this year and now watch it or check the website for news about the Arab Spring. (I am making an assumption here, as I have nothing but what I’ve noticed to back up this claim.) In any case, this possible increase in Western viewership of AJE could have an effect of how accepting U.S. citizens are of Arab culture. It could help dissolve some of the issues with the “clash of civilizations” between the Middle East and the U.S.

AJE has this effect over time because it is successful in depicting universal themes, which all people identify with, specifically now with stories of the uprisings. One case of this that I think does well to show the effects is the AJE documentary about the protest movement in Bahrain, called “Shouting in the Dark.”  It takes an in depth look at the movement and clashes between protestors and government. It shows gruesome scenes of the violence protestors experienced in February and has interviews with lots of different people. Basically, viewers cannot help but empathize with the people of Bahrain, which lends to Powers and el-Nawawy’s theory.

Check out the documentary here.

Schizoid World

When I was in yoga yesterday my teacher, to paraphrase, told us to let go of whatever we are , mothers, fathers, accountants, sons, sisters, lawyers, students, yogis, foodies…the list went on. The point was to be in the moment and in your yoga practice; however, it got me thinking about the imagined communities presentation in class. I started to think, what commonalities form imagined communities.

People in class giggled when she said foodies, or yogis. Why was this? To be a father, a son, a sister etc… there is little need for a community. Every man is a son, and every woman is a daughter. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order for an imagined community to exist, there must be a need. Perhaps even a sense of minority. People giggled when they heard foody because they thought, “wow, I thought I was the only one.” People maintained a straight face when they heard son, because, well their neighbor, and neighbor’s neighbor was also a son. And again they giggled when she said yogi, because, me personally I wonder if people at work see me walk out with my yoga mat and automatically put me into this group too?

I’m taking a roundabout way here to explain my thoughts; however, what I’m getting at is that an imagined community comes around when there is a need for it. The question is: when does this need become so great that a community arises? When do you need to join the “yogi” community – and trust me, this is a community. Or the “foody” community? Is it when normal people just don’t understand?

It seems to me like if you need a community you can find it. Perhaps that idea of the melting pot isn’t so accurate. Nobody really needs to melt into a certain community; they can just moderately adjust, but go home at night to their own community that keeps them comfortable.

It’s a schizoid world out there. You can be a part of so many different communities that it’s hard to just choose three, like we were asked to do in class yesterday. Me, I’m a fundraiser, a yoga practicer and a woman. But let me tell you, I can’t tell you the number of times I accidently try to go to work in my yoga pants!

The Story of One Encounter

In the summer of 2010 Muscovites and people in several regions around Moscow were literally suffocating with the heavy acid smoke coming from the forest. The temperature that summer was abnormally high for this latitude—up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—and forests rich with peat were burning like a stack of dry hay. There was a general resentment about the efficiency of the local and country authorities who were dealing with this natural disaster. At times, there was a feeling that they were not dealing with it at all, letting the unlucky ones whose houses were in the danger zone deal with the raging natural disaster.

The Internet that summer was full of indignant blogs, as well as calls for volunteers for the fire fighting teams organized by local residents in different villages.  The editor of one of the major radio stations in Moscow was looking for information about the fires and the fire-fighting situation in different regions.  Because this radio station didn’t have correspondents in all these regions, the editor was reading what people from those regions were writing in blogs. He found a good one: a blogger who named himself top_lap wrote that he had a vacation house in the region that was beset with fire and he was blaming local authorities for the inefficient management in his situation. The blog was loaded with curse words directed at the authorities, but in general it was well written and juicy. The blogger’s irritation with the local bureaucracy quite naturally evolved into a frustrated monologue about the state of things in general:

“Where is our [tax] money being spent?” he exclaimed

“Why with every passing year are we hurtling towards a primitive social order?”

“Let us live the way want, and we want to live well and happily. We do not rely on you because we understand your life principle: everybody around owes you something, but you are wrong about that: it is you who owe us, and you owe us a lot, believe me.”

In the end, the blogger demanded the return of the alarm bell that had always operated in his village in Soviet times, and disappeared in the mess of the transition. He said he didn’t need the phone, which was not even working, but instead wanted local authorities to dig out special fire ponds, which would make water available in case of a fire, so that local people could prevent its spread quickly and efficiently.

The editor copied the blog and pasted it in a special box named “write to the Prime Minister” on the government’s site, not even hoping to get a response. He felt like, as a member of the media, he at least fulfilled his duty in letting the government hear the “voice” of at least one angry citizen.

Surprisingly, the next day Prime Minister Putin himself wrote a response in a soothing and slightly ironic manner, praising the author of the blog for his literary style. He promised that the local authorities would deliver the anonymous blogger the alarm bell he so passionately demanded.

This story of Putin’s response to some anonymous blogger made it to all the major news channels and was covered in the foreign media. To this day this, exchange of messages is considered to be the first (and probably the last) of Putin’s direct dialog with “the members of civil society,” who openly express their dissatisfaction with authorities, even if with obscene vocabulary.   Here is the BBC’s article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-10872840

The blogger was even invited to the talk show on the radio station, which made him famous.  In the interview he announced that he would keep posting and that he is glad his writing produced such a powerful effect.

This story looks like a good example of how regular citizens using telecommunications are empowered now and are able to put additional pressure on authorities and hold them accountable for their actions. But there was more to this story.

On December 25, 2010 it was announced in the news that police searched the blogger’s house and confiscated  his flash drives and a hard drive. Later he wrote in his blog: “It looks like they are really going after me…” Then he wrote that there was some inspection at his mother’s workplace. His last post was, “Busted.” The journal was soon deleted.

So who is willing to be the next brave “concerned” citizen?