December 2012 Archives

"What Are We Going To Do, Start Outlawing Forks?"

In Thank You For Smoking, Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel, spokespeople for the gun, alcohol, and tobacco industries meet-up to commiserate and brainstorm about public relations challenges and strategies. They dub their little group the "M.O.D. Squad" - Merchants of Death. At one of their meetings the three brainstorm about how to deal with the press in the aftermath of a mass shooting in a church. Nick, the novel's protagonist, works for the tobacco industry in a "research" organization, Polly works for alcohol companies, and Bobby Jay Bliss represents the gun industry.

Bobby Jay: To them, my ten-year-old's BB gun is an "assault rifle." He held up his fork. "To them, this could be an 'assault' weapon. What are we going to do, start outlawing forks?"
Nick: "Forks?"
Polly: Forks Don't Kill people, people kill people. I don't know....Needs work.

Later he tells his M.O.D. Squad pals about how he was listening to a talk radio show, when he heard a woman who was at the church call in to say she had a clear shot of the gunman but had to leave her gun in the glove compartment because of the laws. He realized he could use her for some PR and recounts his trip to her home in Carburetor City, Texas with a camera crew.

Bobby Jay: "I had her hairdresser come over. She wanted to do her makeup but I wouldn't hear of it. I wanted her eyes red from crying. We dabbed a little onion under the eyelids, nothing wrong with that, just to get her in the mood, get those ducts opened up"
Nick: "Onion?"
Bobby Jay: "Didn't even need it. Soon as she saw those color police photos I was holding up for her off camera she started bawlin' like a baby...she gets to the part about how she had to leave her pistol in the glove compartment. Then she looks right into the camera, right in your face, and dabs the corner of her eye -- and that was not in the script -- and says, 'Why won't our elected lawmakers just let us protect ourselves? Is that too much to ask?'"

He tells how he used the footage to dramatize a story about Second Amendment rights to combat calls for gun control. In the novel, the piece was used to urge citizens to call their congressmen.

Our National Weapons of Mass Destruction

Gun Control - Can We?

2012 has been another year of gun killings, the latest being the mass murder at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. After each mass shooting, gun control is discussed for a while, before anger and anguish peter out. As we write, just days after the tragedy, Senator Feinstein has vowed to renew assault weapons legislation. Will we actually do something this time?

If you look at people's interest via the program Google Trends1, just as a rough proxy, it doesn't look optimistic. On July 20th, a gunman in Aurora, Colorado killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater, and on July 21st, the day after the shooting, "gun control" searches peaked. They also increased after the Oak Creek, Minnesota Sikh Temple shooting (6 people killed and 3 injured) on August 5th, and after the Empire State Building shooting August 24, 2012 (2 people killed and 9 injured). But nothing ever happened. Politicians mourned before cameras, tipping their heads to wipe a tear off their cheeks, then did nothing.

GunControlTrends1
Google Trends shows the relative frequency of one or more search terms1.
The graph shows the frequency of the term "gun control" in the US for July and August, 2012.
(Google)

Of course, in addition to these mass murders, there's the baseline murder rate, the quotidian murders of bystanders, husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and fathers - thousands of deaths. Chicago had almost 500 murders this year, roughly half the murders of 20 years ago, but much higher than last year despite the 10% lower overall crime rate. Like Newtown, Connecticut, Chicago has struggled to get guns off the streets, and every attempt, from banning handguns and shooting galleries to disallowing concealed handguns, has been fought by gun owners and lobbies, often successfully.

Cord Jefferson described Chicago's struggle with gun violence last summer, and Marc Lamont Hill discussed the multifaceted nature of the problem here at HuffPost. Both suggested that there's a lack of attention to inner city high gun violence because the murders are often associated with black men and gangs. I don't doubt that.

But people's overall attention to gun violence is sporadic, like their attention to climate change. When a hurricane destroys lower Manhattan, do New Yorkers' worry more about climate change than when a hurricane destroys some island in Asia? You bet. What about when familiar, safe-seeming places like movie theaters and schools become frequent targets of mass murderers? Are we more terrorized by deranged people armed with military grade firepower intent on taking out entire pop-corn eating movie audiences than by inner-city murders? Apparently. Then Newtown, Connecticut happens. Who is more innocent and more vulnerable than children, and what place is presumed more safe than a suburban grammar school?

GunControlTrends2
The frequency of the search term "gun control" in the US, 2004 - 2012.(Google)

After a seven year old kid was killed in Chicago last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel warned gangs to "take your stuff to the alley", but "don't touch the children of the city of Chicago, don't get near them". The nation seems to have a similar response to last week's Newtown killings. The Google Trends report for "gun control" after Newtown is off the charts compared to any other gun related incident in Google Trends' 8 year history. The question is, will the concern be sustained enough to force the slower, more tedious task of legislative action?

GunControlTrends1
The frequency of the search terms "gun control" (blue), "climate change" (red), and "kittens"(gold), in the US, 2004-2012 (Google)

Gun control will not solve all the violence, all the problems. But it's a start. We can no longer bide politicians who cower before gun money, wantonly abandoning constituents who then die in deadly fusillades discharged from automatic weapons, or survive traumatically -- the six year old girl who "played dead" under the carnage of her Sandy Hook classmates in Newtown. Journalists should examine their leniency towards the lily-livered politicians who serve up excuses for action.

The challenge will be that we're so easily distracted, and gun makers, lobbyists and politicians bank heavily on our fleeting interest. The trends work in their favor. Distractions come as competing headlines, cute kittens, and as heartfelt, canny, or vicious arguments from people who support unlimited lethal power. We get a barrage of confusing information, some of it deliberately misleading - various headlines yelling that the root cause is violence in the media, or mental illness, or misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, or that the problem is too multi-faceted and big to tackle, that laws don't/won't work, well they work but Australia is different, the NRA wields too much power...All of this mutes resolve.

But when little boys are offering to lead classmates out of a school besieged by gunfire because they "know karate", we must do more than wax eloquently about our seven-year old heroes. Can politicians be courageous? Can they be heroes? Or do we have to go to historical movies like "Lincoln" to see that? Can citizens and journalists muster the guts to hold our politicians the slightest bit accountable for our reasonable safety?

-------------------------------

1 Google Trends has been used to make predictions about disease outbreaks, here are some studies. The program has improved significantly since we last looked. Of course it has also been mocked.

Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?

Part I: Our Way of Life

When scientists predicted that the sea-level would rise 39 inches along the East Coast by 2100, North Carolina lawmakers promptly drafted legislation instructing state coastal development planners to ignore that science. The legislators said climate change was a "phobia" of scientists that would "quite frankly kill development on the coast". As one lawmaker put it, "nothing proved to me that they can prove those astronomical sea-level rises".

The audacious denial of science caused an uproar from aghast researchers and citizens. So North Carolina lawmakers revised the bill slightly, asking for further study, very slow study, with a report due in 2015. In 2016 they will consider the report, and until then North Carolina towns can act as if there's no tomorrow, as if the seas aren't rising. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue commented that she thought each town should be free to draw from their own science studies. She allowed the new law, AB 819, to pass without her signature.

This year scientists also studied the effects of climate change in two vast Inuit regions, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, and Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador. They published their findings in a 300 page report: "Time For Action To Deal With Climate Change In Nunavik and Nunatsiavut". The report, aimed at Inuit policy makers and citizens, was featured in the region's Nunatsiaq News, where the summary of findings and recommendations filled the entire front page of its online edition.

Inuit Regions Map
Inuit Regions Map (by Statistics, Canada 2007 w/ permission)

The Inuit Way Of Life

The Inuit seem to take a different approach to dealing with climate change than the North Carolinians - for one, they don't doubt it. The report describes how scientists work with Inuit of all ages to exchange knowledge and plan for climate change, although for years, while other nations argued the reality of global warming, the Inuit were busy adapting, because they had to.

They've been living through global warming changes since the 1990s, so the results of climate change are a fact of life. Spring arrives earlier each year, fall later. Berries that the Inuit harvest are being crowded out by other shrubbery. Caribou herds shrink as the once abundant animals migrate north or starve. Glaciers have lost significant mass, and the ice that the Inuit traveled over safely for generations is melting in unexpected places, sometimes killing unsuspecting hunters. The Inuit believe the climate scientists' predictions, that precipitation will increase 10-25% and temperatures will rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Perma...frost

For generations, the Inuit hunted and fished - caribou, seal, Arctic Charr, narwhal, and game birds. Children were taught to read and understand the clouds, the snow, the ice floes, the glaciers, and the animals. Through to the mid-20th century, the Inuit were nomadic, as this 1959 piece dryly depicts, and as one man recounts in the film "Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change": "As we were traveling my mother went into labor, and my father quickly built an igloo...that was the way of life".

Their way of life changed in the mid-20th century, when they established permanent communities. They still hunt, know their ice floes and live close to the environment, but they're no longer nomads, building igloos of frozen snow blocks in the winter and erecting tents in the summer. Instead they build homes in towns, often on permafrost. Permafrost was once a sound foundation, but it's now affected by climate change, as residents of Pangnirtung, Nunavut were abruptly reminded one spring.

A river runs through Pangnirtung, and one morning residents awoke to thunderous rushing water that tossed boulders ahead of it, raucously carving channels through the permafrost down to bedrock, causing river banks to cave in, and taking out two bridges that connected the town. As one person described the chaos:

"Every single night there was a new event. There was a new crack opening, stuff collapsing. It was amazing to see, just fascinating. It looked like an earthquake. There were a lot of elders down there, and they were really upset. There is a lot of history in pieces of the river for them. They would clean sealskins there and polar bear skins, and they would remember people being at those places, and those places don't exist anymore. There were elders in tears."

Kids in Pangnirtung wrote about that event, the melting glaciers, the falling bridges, the sewage that had to be dumped into the ocean.... The kids don't wonder why it happened, don't ask whether this particular event is from global warming, they write: "This is what happened in Pangnirtung...because of climate change. We really need to stop what we are doing to this planet."

The Royal We...Who Suck It Up

In the US, climate change seemed to sneak up on us more slowly. Many people live and work inside and only glance occasionally at the weather out their windows. We've always had storms, so it was hard to say whether any one was a harbinger of climate change or not. Hurricane Andrew in 1992? Hurricane Katrina 2005? Irene, 2011? Sandy, 2012? The fires in the West, the floods in the Midwest, the tornadoes in the Southeast?

AnsgarWalkBabyCarriage

Mother with Baby Carriage
Cape Dorset (2002) by Ansgar Walk (WikiMedia Commons)

Although we've had plenty of warnings from scientists as well as obvious weather changes and events, the US has been disastrously slow in acknowledging climate change. Maybe this is why the extreme weather of the past few years has seemed abrupt and shocking to citizens as well as to politicians surveying the damage with pathos. When North Carolina was hit by 92 tornadoes one Saturday afternoon in April, 2011, devastating towns and communities, Governor Bev Perdue told the New York Times that she was "nearly in tears touring damaged areas".

Legislators like those who lead North Carolina argue their right to ignore science. They help constituents ignore science too, by facilitating efficient mop-up and rebuilding in the wake of ever more severe disasters. After the tornadoes Governor Perdue assured people via the New York Times that, "she had been in contact with President Obama and anticipated that a federal state of emergency would be declared by week's end"...and had also "met with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)..." Many farmers lost their crops and machinery and buildings and may not have had insurance; many families' lost their homes when tornadoes blew them to bits. But North Carolinians were stoic, Perdue said: "We understand how to face adversity and suck it up".

The Inuit may be in an even more precarious position, sucking-it-up-wise, than North Carolinians. As one Inuit said: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive...." The Inuit cannot control the carbon emissions of Canada and the US, or those of burgeoning emitters like China. They must muster whatever mitigation measures they can, such as those suggested in one government pamphlet: "The Homeowner's Guide to Permafrost".

They can also cajole and plead, as they did at Doha, for reduced carbon emissions and compensation from emitters to help with mitigation. Inuit leader Mary Simon has said: "If we think small, our actions will be small, like decisions made by children. But now, our world has to think like adults. We must act more intelligently. Our world leaders must do the same."

---------------

(To Be Continued...)

Rent-Seeking & The Fiscal Cliff

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner mentioned on several Sunday morning shows last week, that one program targeted for spending cuts was direct payments to farmers, which would total about $46 billion over ten years and could contribute to the large cuts needed to negotiate away from the "fiscal cliff".

WikimediaCommonsAlfalfa

Alfalfa, Alicante, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

The government initiated direct payments to farmers in the wake of the Great Depression, as a way of encouraging farmers not to abandon rural areas for the cities when the price of crops decreased because of surpluses. The practice quickly caught on, as Joseph Heller described in his 1955 book Catch-22:

"Major Major's father . . . was a . . . God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . .

His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major's father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any man in the county."

--Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), p. 93 (first published in 1955)

[From the back cover of Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 3 (June 2008) Published by: The University of Chicago Press]

World AIDS Day, 2012

Today is 25th World AIDS Day, so more people than usual spent time last week reading about the world's progress conquering AIDS. In good news, deaths from AIDS have declined. In Sub-Saharan Africa they have declined by 32% in the last 5 years, continuing an excellent trend. But how do we perceive the progress? We wrote on World AIDS Day, 2009 about how Google tried to correct our search "HIV infections decrease", to "HIV infections increase".

The first search phrase, ending with "decrease", yielded only 1,940,000 results in .22 seconds, whereas the second, ending with "increase", gave 3,550,000 results in .18 seconds.

If Google was tracking a trend, they were wrong, because by 2009 HIV infections had decreased by 15% in 10 years. But we in the world were very accustomed to bad news about HIV infections and AIDS, as Google documented. Today, three years later, there's even better news for HIV/AIDS - on the drug development front, as well as on detection, treatment, and prevention fronts. That was an example in 2009 of how false bad news overwhelmed positive news (via a Google algorithm)

Today, the bad news is that people still die of AIDS all over the world - in Russia, China, Asia, Africa, and the US, where public health officials recently recommended that people ages 15-64 be tested for HIV. African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan countries, still have the most cases of HIV infected people, and many of people aren't being treated for what is basically affordably treatable. But how should we talk about this bad news? That is the subject of this post.

But the Bad News, How Shall We Put It? Shalll We Ignore It?

In the past few years an interesting conflict has arisen about news in Africa. Critics complain that Western media can't take its eyes off the cliched, ailing, and violent aspects of the African continent, thus giving an inaccurate, un-nuanced and harmful view of its many countries. Nicholas Kristof is a popular target.

The group Radi-Aid released a parody video urging Africans to give money to send radiators to Norway ("frostbite kills too"). Produced by Norwegian students, it mocks this so-called "poverty porn" in the style of the 1984 Band-Aid fund raiser. It's a charming video and relays a potent message. But realize that the Radi-Aid video mocks something that's 25 years old - as in, what can't you mock from 1984?

But beside that minor quibble, of course, I see their point, I think anyone can. If you've ever traveled, you've probably run into inaccurate media portrayals of your country that are just crazy. I remember reading an English paper in Asia that had only bizarre stories about the US, things like - Woman in Tennessee Found Herself In Closet Stomping Beetles. What? You had no idea where they found it -- could they have just made it up? Based on American TV shows, little kids would ask me if I ever got shot in a gunfight - NOO?

Cultural misconceptions are legion and universally perpetuated. I'm sure small towns in the Mid-West that occasionally get besieged by floods and tornadoes feel betrayed by the mainstream media too - Hey wait! we have great potlucks here and there's the most amazing other stuff too! New Orleans must have felt that way during and after Katrina. C'mon! Shot after shot of all those people in the stadium? It's not only Africa that's the subject of inaccurate, negative media portrayals, it's every other country, town and borough, and all subjects too - science, math, economics, election polling, women...they all have their bad day via the media and press.

Aid Solicitations, In the Eyes of The Beholder?

For African countries, a lot of so-called poverty-porn starts with international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). INGOs do use sympathy for fund-raising -- large-eyed children dragging teddy bears, or gathered around looking up at the camera pathetically, or forlorn in barren, monochromatic surroundings. To me it gets a little gross, but they use what works, what gets people to reach into their pockets and give money. These images get picked up or pushed upon the media and used as news. Here's a clear example of how deceptive this imagery can be. But these stories don't comprise all the news of any country.

Some commentators have pointed to what they say are "better" portrayals of Africa that could be used to fundraise. In one, a cute kid in a video acts out an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, interspersed with the movie's gunfight where "2000" people get killed. The video describes him as smart and articulate, without mentioning or questioning as far as I could tell the especially violent part of American culture that the ~5 year old is copying so very, very accurately. So clearly, different people find different solicitations using kids appealing. Some people take offense to a small child holding a bowl up, but have no problem with a small child acting out extreme violence with a pretend gun followed by a plea for donations. Personally, I have as much problem with the second as the first, and would also ask while we're at it -- shouldn't we question the ethics of using a child for fund-raising at all? Or is it ok as long as the child is wearing a shirt and not holding a bowl? (Then there are whole factions of international development that abhor aid altogether and they also have some good points that I'm not going to talk about here.)

Maybe News About Malaria Shouldn't Focus on Africa, Where 90% of All Cases Occur?

To their point, many other countries, India, the US, China, have crushing poverty, but aren't necessarily defined by it, as critics claim Africa is by Western media. That may be true, but when it comes to preventable infectious disease, 99% of people who die from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB) live in the developing world, and the center of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of all new infections among adults and 91% of new infections among children occur. Malaria kills about 780,000 people each year, and 90% of malaria cases are in Africa.

Such illness and death devastate families, workers, and economies. When mining companies in South Africa started treating workers for AIDS and malaria, they had a business goal, stop lost productivity. Similarly, in our global economy, Asia's and Africa's problems and successes affect the world. That means that how African nations attend to public health influences our own public health and impacts our companies that invest in Africa.

Reporting on Africa is not just about Africa, it's about us in the West too. Reporting is not a selfless endeavor. We absolutely should be reporting on Africa's "bad" news (not exclusively of course). Our public health problems (e.g. infectious disease, antibiotic resistance) derive from and are dependent on not only our own public health systems, but also those of developing nations. Our health depends on the policies, laws and regulations all nations produce and uphold for preventing and treating disease, and for drugs and pharmaceutical companies.

We understand that Africa knows investors want stable countries to invest in. African nations naturally want to discourage negative foreign media. But is it the job of responsible media to protect the image of nations? Or is it the job of responsible media, say American or European media, to report on issues that might impact (or interest) its citizens - like public health environments in countries like Africa or Asia or wherever that might promote pharmaceutical regimes that foster antibiotic resistance for instance, or public health environments that allow pandemics to spread for example?

Progress of International Development

For close to a century, international development has sought to raise basic standard of living the world over, not just Africa, but South America, Asia, Central America and parts of North America. Driven by various agendas and business interests and research, we've compiled a long history of what has worked and not worked. For many reasons, what seemed to work in Asia, South America, Central America, etc. didn't work well in Africa. In addition, various national tragedies bogged down progress there. No sooner was apartheid defeated in South Africa, for instance, then AIDS struck. Journalists weren't wrong to cover these events.

Journalists reporting these stories have also sometimes brought needed attention that often benefits the subjects. For instance media outlets reported on the 39 pharmaceutical countries that sued South Africa when it tried to import affordable AIDS drugs at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The companies eventually dropped the suit. When President Mbeki refused to acknowledge that HIV caused AIDS, the media was there. The media now has more opportunity to report positive AIDS news.

Prosperity To Spare

Recent prosperity in the west gave people the means to donate money and ideas for aid organizations. Take the Gates Foundation, founded in 1994. This 2001 Seattle Post Intelligencer article writes about how Bill Gates started slowly learning about international development and health needs in 1998:

"I had no idea," the Microsoft co-founder said. "I learned a lot about the whole vaccine miracle, about how effective they are and yet millions were still dying from these diseases.

"So we decided, jeez, the impact we could have by getting vaccines to these children and getting more funding for research into new vaccines could be just incredible."

That was only about fifteen years ago. A world business leader "had no idea" about preventable diseases in Africa. It's easy not to realize how many advances have been made in the past few decades, in part because what was unheard of in 2000 has now became common knowledge to everyone. Globalization of business has brought increasing attention to development issues that are no longer "a world away". But make not mistake, most of these ideas have been around for decades, like the fact that women's education is key to development. Vaccines have long been (albeit controversially) considered the ideal solution to diseases.

What's new is that foundations like the Gates Foundation are increasingly media savvy, and the media is increasingly in tune with the goals of development. This environment made it possible for Kristof to start writing what he did, and in many ways his articles were in synch with US development goals and rhetoric. (Part of the rational for invading Afghanistan, for instance was women's education.) But many of the most popular articles, for instance Kristof's, also opened readers' eyes to both positive as well as alarming stories outside of their mostly elite, privileged self-indulgent New York Times world view. Not a bad thing. Increasingly, global connections have eased people's ability to travel to different countries, increased curiosity about different cultures, and along with that, encouraged inclinations to want to help (I'm not going to argue whether the burgeoning aid industry is good or bad, but some of the 'wanting to help' inclinations, are selfless).

So Does Media Portray Africa Too Negatively?

A recent BBC program asked the question at a conference in Kampala, Uganda: Is media propagating negative stereotypes of Africa? The opinions were very interesting, ranging from a couple of people who that said African leaders themselves inflate problems in order to get foreign aid, to those who said that Africa was seen not as a problem but as an investment opportunity for many countries.

Of course there should be positive stories about African countries. But don't ignore the good that comes publicizing problems. While South Africa struggled with its AIDS crisis with the world advocating for its citizens, countries like China for years suppressed news of its AIDS epidemic. Other alternatives exist also, reporters and columnists who ignore and glaze over tragedy, and focus only on business that privileges the elite, and ignore those who are not in the elite. You can find those stories anywhere, if you would prefer them.

follow us on twitter!

Archives