Humans – the bad ones and the best

As I am writing a code of ethics for the news media in the digital age as part of my Master’s thesis, I found this recent CNN article on the burning story of Japan of particular interest. It’s asking an intriguing question:

March 15, 2011

Why is there no looting in Japan?

Posted: 05:00 PM ET

FROM CNN’s Jack Cafferty:

(extract) In the wake of Japan’s deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant explosions, we have witnessed the almost indescribable chaos that follows a disaster of this magnitude: loss of life, severe injuries, homelessness, lack of water, food and proper medical care, the physical destruction of towns and cities, and a growing fear of radioactive contamination from power plants that seem beyond anyone’s ability to control.

But one heart-wrenching byproduct of disasters like this one has been missing in Japan, and that’s looting and lawlessness.

While I found that the author’s reasoning made a lot of sense and also found much truth in the readers’ comments, I cannot help thinking that the Western media’s representation and reporting of these disasters wittingly choose to focus – and I even suspect emphasize – the looting that goes on in certain places, typically located in or associated with ‘the South,’ to use a broad term – countries and communities where you will find ethnic minorities or (again broadly speaking) you will find ‘non-white’ residents. Stories of looting, various petty crimes and lawlessness made the headlines on the front pages of The New York Times and the like during the Katrina disaster (which affected mostly African-Americans), the earthquake in Haiti (which affected mostly Haitians), etc., and in the same vein, the Arab populations currently revolting in the Middle East and Northern Africa, even when they are doing so for the good purpose of demanding change and democracy, are not depicted in particularly endearing terms by the US media and immune from accusations of noisy, messy, chaotic and even violent acts and behaviors in the cities concerned. Often, those who are spared such suggestive descriptions are those activists and young urban dwellers who are equipped with- and ostensibly using (US-designed) technology and services such as cell phones and Facebook, as the lavish and encouraging recent coverage of such uses in the US press and online media attests – – to name but one.

For all the truths about national and cultural differences highlighted by the CNN Blog’s author – which I do believe to some extent – I find it hard, however, to believe that as human beings facing adversity, we can naturally, instinctively behave in starkly different ways, depending on our culture, nationality, upbringing or other environment-based factors. I am also extremely hesitant to label and declare an entire nation, society or even smaller community as ‘good,’ or somehow morally superior than another.

Even if the Japanese government, education system, traditions and social institutions do a more effective and successful job at defining and encouraging moral behavior in its citizens than their counterparts in other countries, I still believe that no human being, race or nationality is naturally, intrinsically morally better than another, even when challenged to the extreme. And while such differences and variations in moral conduct and outward behaviors certainly surface at the individual level, applying them uniformly, indiscriminately to an entire group of people, not to speak of a nation, is simplistic and dangerous.

Judging by the coverage of American and European journalists on such challenging events and how the people they affected coped and reacted, the US and Western mainstream media often seem too happy to focus and report on crime and its corollaries during such emergency situations in the Southern hemisphere, and to jump on every opportunity to show, for example, a Haitian man ‘stealing’ bottles of milk from a dilapidated store so as to feed his family, as I recall The New York Times reporting. Even though the paper acknowledged that it was in order to save lives, it still used the word “steal” in a story prominently placed in the print edition. Given that in cases of near total destruction, there is no more such things as functioning trade and business – or even a normally functioning economy, as in places like Somalia – I am not even sure that the concept of ‘stealing’ is still technically speaking feasible.

Yet Katrina, Iraq, earthquakes and mudslides in Peru and other reports in similarly located places inherited the same type of morally admonishing news coverage.

I just doubt that not a single bottle of milk was ‘stolen’ in the devastated Japanese cities…

Perhaps such violating behaviors – which I would still consider somewhat ‘normal’ and natural in such circumstances of survival – jar with the white elitist mental images and notions of sparkling clean, economically efficient, sushi-like cute and tech-savvy Japan.

In any case, my take is that biases and stereotypes are far from a thing of the past in our ‘new’ digital journalism.


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Saving the world, one barrel at a time

It’s amazing what a little oil under your territory can do for er… freedom and democracy. Check it here, one among many other front-page world reports of this March 21, 2011:

Allied forces strike Gadhafi compound; leader’s whereabouts unknown

By the CNN Wire Staff

March 21, 2011 3:48 a.m. EDT


Indeed, compared to such giants as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, Libya is not such a huge player in the global oil industry, contributing only about 2 percent of the world’s daily oil production.

Having said this, the oil Libya produces is an important component of Europe’s supply, and of Italy’s imports especially. According to the EIA, in 2009 Libya supplied Italy with 31 percent of its needs, contributing the most of any nation. It also supplied 8 percent of Germany’s net oil imports, and 7.6 percent of France’s.

As for the United States, Libya exported an estimated 80,000 BOPD to the US in 2009. Despite the sharp decrease since the highs of 117,000 BOPD in 2007 due to the economic slowdown and drop in demand, companies like US-based Exxon and Chevron made million-dollar deals in Libya, together with others, such as Total, BP and Shell. And for all the drive and violent efforts now to oust Gadhafi out of power, it’s only a few weeks ago that the US and Europe were all on much nicer terms with the Libyan dictator and rubbing shoulders with him on behalf of oil corporations which were seeking to do business in the country.

So even when we have passed the point of peak oil, continued production from Libya will remain key to maintaining balance between supply and demand.

Now, it doesn’t take a PhD in political sciences or international relations to see why, with so many internal armed conflicts around the world, Libya got ‘miraculously’ selected by the UN, US and EU as the place for them to step in.

Far from me the idea that the people of Libya do not urgently need humanitarian aid and deserve all the help they can get to ensure the respect of their human rights. With this in mind, the Western mission’s stated goals of protecting the Libyan people and facilitating access to humanitarian aid, as it goes about its military air offensive, are certainly noble goals. Only, if Western powers are so concerned about these issues, what are the chances that the spoils of Libyan oil will not drain but to a select few, as they have done in the past? The oil money faucet has done very little practical and useful for the people in the region, and now that it is slowly ebbing, I do not see this situation changing for them any time soon. At least not while strongmen and other corrupt types are wrestling control of oil – the main, if not only, source of income in the region.

The ideal, healthiest, and perhaps even life-saving strategy for the Libyans to get their act together would be to better handle their oil economy, guarantee higher returns from it, and invest it in the diversification that will be so much needed when oil prices drop and the gravy train ends. This will take working on their own long-term self interests – which may not necessarily align with those of the United States and the West…

For now, and especially since the start of the airstrikes, the Libyan economy looks more like a rickety train heading in the opposite direction and likely to derail and crash any minute.

Which leads me to the airstrikes. When it comes to the use of military force in foreign policy and international conflicts, my stance is pretty simple, not to say simplistic. It has its roots in my childhood: When my big brother would tease me as a child and teenager back home in Belgium, telling me I was fat and had hairy legs [being dark-haired, I think he had a point about the latter!:)..], I would start tightening my fists and getting ready to hit him, upon which he would tell me: “Defend yourself with your tongue, not your fists,” i.e. with words, not violence. That brotherly philosophy has defined my own thoughts on foreign [and other] relations for life: I’m all for debate and negotiations and 100 percent against the use of force and violence in any situations. And this goes also for US foreign policy.

To keep applying this logic on the most simple, even superficial level to the situation in Libya, it becomes quickly clear that US and European involvement, not to say through military force, is an incredibly bad and risky idea.

For the United States, barely coping with foreclosure and unemployment crises among other economic woes while spending $700 billion a year on defense, going into a third world conflict must sound like a bad joke to the ears of its citizens.

But ‘joking’ apart, there are real risks. With memories of her parent’s accounts of World War I and her own experience of the five years of World War II still fresh in her mind, my 83-year-old mother predicts that this Western intervention and Libyan war could well spark World War III.

While this prognostic may sound a little extreme, one cannot but acknowledge that the whole Mideast region is currently boiling with revolutionary ire, with the whole world’s eyes on it. And now, with American forces and ships already based nearby Libya and plans to deploy fighter-bombers, tankers and other weaponry along Europe’s southern borders [according to AP], with the Obama administration’s less than clear schedule and end date for the attacks and US involvement, and Gadhafi himself publicly vowing retaliation and that this would be a long war, promising “We will fight you if you continue your attacks on us,” my mother could be excused for her dramatic thinking…

In any case, some in Washington or other places seem to be asking for it… After all, The New York Times in a March 21 front page report specifically quoted an unnamed [but interestingly selected:)] rebel in Libya, identified only as “a doctor” as saying “If the international community takes care of the supply lines, I assure you that we can take care of whatever is inside Misurata. (…) We want the international community to go all the way to bomb this bloody dictator into submission.” And the same article cites United States Africa Command Head Gen. Carter F. Ham as saying that “he expected additional countries to join the operation ‘in the coming days’,” and French and American militaries as saying that “Quatar would join the military operation.”

So, plenty of plans to keep the Libyan Battle going.

Anyway, it’s good and reassuring to know that should events take such a turn as towards a Third World War, we in the West will all be in capable, protective and high-technologically equipped hands. Indeed, just a couple more years to go, and NATO’s brand new mega-sized headquarters, currently being built in front of the existing one in Brussels at an estimated cost of 1 billion euros, to cite NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaking in a Feb. 7 press conference, will be ready to accommodate the staff of about 4,000. According to NATO’s Web site:

“The new Headquarters will be designed around staff needs. A state-of-the-art building will ensure maximum flexibility so that working space can be configured in different ways to suit individual and collective needs. New restaurant, leisure and support facilities (shops, banks) will bring working and living conditions closer together and provide staff with better overall services on site.

(…) Nations agreed that NATO needed and deserved a new building for the new millennium to reflect its success as an organisation and its new missions and activities.”

According to French military news website Secret Défense, France is the fourth contributor to the project, with 110 million euros, or 10 percent of its total costs, behind Britain, Germany and the United States…

No doubt the new structure will be instrumental in helping allied members to develop better defense and global security, but also ultimately, er… freedom and democracy.


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The scoop

CNN cameraman faces gun, has camera smashed in Libya hotel

By staff
March 27, 2011 5:37 p.m. EDT

Government: Libyan woman who alleged rape to journalists released

By the CNN Wire Staff
March 27, 2011 6:22 p.m. EDT



A journalist/news organization’s ultimate dream come true: the super, horrifying breaking news story rushing into your lap.

How lucky!


Not only does this Libyan woman have the ultimate source’s experience/report to tell, but she is also willing and able to tell it to the world [able despite the trauma of a gang rape], and she happens to know where the foreign press resides, AND she is strong enough to break into the building, past security and all [SuperWoman, truly], AND she happens to know English enough  to recount her story to the foreign press.

No really, how fortunate all this is, all things considered.

Is it just me, or our news media is feeling increasingly like spectacle?…

[Please note, CNN could not independently confirm her story].

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MIT sweeps USNWR graduate science/engineering rankings

MIT took the top spot in nearly all science specialties and many engineering specialties in U.S. News and World Report’s recently-released 2012 graduate school rankings. MIT was ranked #1 in overall engineering and also took #3 in business, behind Stanford in first and Harvard in second.

Notably, MIT’s graduate programs ranked #1 (including ties for #1) in chemical engineering, aero/astro, computer engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, and mechanical engineering. MIT placed among the top 10 graduate programs in nearly every engineering specialty.

In science, MIT earned the top spot (counting ties) in chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, mathematics, and physics – every science specialty except biological science, where MIT was second to Stanford, and statistics.

In the humanities and social sciences, MIT tied Harvard, Princeton, and UChicago for first in economics, took ninth in political science (tied with Duke), and 11th in psychology (tied with UPenn). MIT was also ranked #28 in history.

The full rankings can be found on the USNWR website.

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Afterhours with Cathy Drennan (Bonus Question)

I had so much fun chatting with Professor Drennan that I couldn’t even fit our whole conversation in the newspaper. She had an excellent story about her secret hobby, but unfortunately it didn’t make the cut.  Read on for this special bonus question.

Maeve Cullinane: What is something that most people wouldn’t know about you?

Catherine L. Drennan: Most people don’t know that I’ve done a lot of fly-fishing.

MC: Is that something you grew up doing?

CLD: Yes

MC: Do you still do it?

CLD: Not so much. I think maybe when my daughter gets older and we do more camping and other things ….I used to do a whole lot of backpacking, canoing, and camping. When I grew up, my father was an avid fly-fisherman and we would go camping all over the united states and I did that all through college and grad school, but I haven’t done too much since then.

MC: So what’s the coolest place you’ve ever been fly-fishing or went camping?

CLD: I think the mountains of New Mexico were pretty neat. Like, above Santa Fe, because you don’t really think of New Mexico as having places for having fly-fishing, but there are some really wonderful places there. It’s just gorgeous.

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Another one – Democracy Now! this time

After Lara Logan (who according to her own news organization, CBS, was attacked in Cairo in mid-February – which, as I wrote in my previous post, was widely reported by the U.S. media despite lack of evidence or confirmation from other sources), here is another Western journalist under pressure:

Democracy Now!By Amy Goodman

Journalist Returning from Abroad Has Notes, Computer and Cameras Searched and Copied by US Authorities at Airport

Independent journalist Brandon Jourdan had all of his documents, computer, phone and camera flash drives searched and copied upon arriving at a US airport.

So, to sum up: the “independent journalist” doesn’t seem to have had anything [any articles] published online, as my search revealed (but sure, he is a videographer), and he is being interviewed by the host of the organization he works for (Democracy Now!). Doesn’t that make for a view of the story and situation that is possibly just a little bit one-sided? Just asking… :)

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The unseen street assault

Not exactly a comment, but just a few questions crossing my mind as I read about the attack on CBS Correspondent Lara Logan in the streets of Cairo last week – – the main one being: has anyone seen anything?

I mean, are there any photos/videos out there of this attack on Logan? [sorry, but no time for much search/research in this busy thesis-writing phase]. The only thing I have found on the Net is the announcement of the attack itself and of her hospital stay by various media outlets. According to the CNN report, CBS said it would not comment further, and that her family requested privacy. So, no info.

So are we then to believe that the thousands of cell-phone-wielding and Twitter/Facebook/social media-empowered Egyptian street protesters [if to believe the descriptions in the US media] have recorded and posted online just about everything that went on in the streets of Cairo, EXCEPT this one attack on the CBS correspondent – not one second of it?… and despite the fact that it was a prolonged attack?… Where were the scores of ‘citizen journalists,’ amateur videobloggers and mobile tech-savvy youth and activists the US/Western media have been trumpeting about? A crowd of 200 beating and sexually assaulting one lone woman – it must be hard to miss…


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T Accident in Central

A red line train has struck and killed a man at the Central Square station, reports WCVBTV Boston. Service has been halted through the station, but bus service is being provided between Park St. and Harvard stations.

Click here for the original article.

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Oscar Nominated Short Films

Do you know that we can watch all of the short films nominated for the Academy Awards 2011 this week?

Kendall Square Cinema:
-Animated Short Films
- Live Action Short Films
(Reduced price for students available)

Coolidge Corner Theatre:
- Documentary Short Films

Let’s take a break from our P-set world for a little walk, an award-worthy one.

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Chris Matthews Just Dropped Several Points in my Book

Here is a recent video of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews offering a point of view that, in my opinion, is so beyond the pale that there is virtually no conclusion to draw except that he is a complete moron when it comes to foreign policy.

If I can be blunt, Matthews is wrong on two counts.  The first is that foreign policy SHOULD BE transactional.  The classically American error in foreign policy is to designate people friends or enemies and heap carrots on our friends and sticks on our enemies.  Real foreign policy applies carrots and sticks to both friends and enemies, it incentivizes other actors to behave in a way that comports with our interests.  In fact, the very idea of friends and enemies, in a foreign policy context, is pretty much circumstantial– our friends are those with whom we share interests, and our enemies are those with whom we have conflicting interests, and everything else is of second order importance.

Secondly, consider the man that Matthews believes we owe an allegiance to; Hosni Mubarak is a strongman who has ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades.  Our relationship with him is transactional in virtually every regard– certainly Mubarak has seen his relationship with us as transactional.  Does Matthews seriously believe we owe our friendship more to Mubarak than the Egyptian people?  This man’s only redeeming quality to us has been his position as the dictator of a country.

How does Matthews even conceive of international relations?  I can’t think of a single major world view that can come up with this collection of views he seems to hold.  Neocons, even if they weren’t rabid pro-democracy types (and a cynic might claim they aren’t), are foreign policy realists and don’t attach sentiment to folk like Mubarak.  Liberal types might buy the relationship part, but are definitely too pro-democratic and human rights oriented to think that Mubarak gets access to this tier of friendship.  Paleocons abhor the idea of entanglement with a man such as Mubarak.

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