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Posts tagged Swarthmore College

This is what I was talking about

A couple of months ago I elliptically grumbled about media coverage and analysis of the riots originating from French slums. Here’s an example of what I was on about, but from a positive angle. This is what I was talking about; this is what you should be doing.

A group of enterprising students at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, has some advice for the politically disaffected: If you find the media’s Iraq coverage unsatisfactory, pick up the phone. Don’t call the Times, or CNN, or Rupert Murdoch; call Baghdad. There are a couple of Iraqi phone books available on the Internet, and plenty of interesting people willing to share their stories directly, from six thousand miles away, many of them speaking decent English. When your phone bill starts to get out of hand, try downloading Skype, software that allows two people to talk free, from anywhere in the world, using computer microphones and a headset.

Amelia Templeton, a senior history major, estimates that she has spoken with twenty-five Iraqis over the past year, and now, as she said the other day, it’s a bad idea to ask me about Iraq unless you plan on listening for a while. One of the Iraqis she spoke with, a painter named Esam Pasha, who is a grandson of the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, has even invited her to visit Baghdad. I was told that if I came he’d pick me up at the airport, she said. Given what that road is like, how dangerous it is going to and from the airport, that’s quite an offer.

Templeton is one of the editors at War News Radio, a weekly half-hour show broadcast on the Swarthmore campus station, and podcast over the Web, where it draws as many as three thousand listeners a day. The show’s stated aim is to rediscover the voices of real people in Iraq. …

The students began, two semesters ago, by creating a homemade sound studio, using bulletin boards and egg cartons hung from ceiling pipes. Now, thanks to the college, they’ve got proper acoustic tiling, although space heaters are still required to supplement the building’s old radiator, and the reporters sometimes wear ski jackets and hats while manning the phones. They have secured interviews, in recent weeks, with the C.E.O. of the new Iraqi Stock Exchange, an aspiring filmmaker in Baghdad, and the Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi. In one broadcast, an Iraqi doctor, referring to the mood at the checkpoints, said, Everybody feels terrified; everything around is horrible, and you expect that you may be killed at any minute. (His daughter had been shot, he said, by U.S. soldiers.)

We thought we were at a disadvantage not being on the ground in Iraq, Eva Barboni, a junior poli-sci major, said. But when you hear from reporters there that they can’t even leave their hotels you start to think. The sound quality afforded by Skype, it turns out, is often better than what can be achieved over the weak landlines in the Green Zone.

If you’re working for a big American network, with a film crew following you, you’re not going to get out on the streets in Baghdad, Wren Elhai, a sophomore, said. We can do a lot from here that the networks can’t do.

— Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2005-12-19): Baghdad to Swarthmore

Is there any guarantee that by chatting up any Iraqi you happen to pick out of the phone book, you’ll get the straight story, the whole truth, or even comments that are especially interesting? No, of course not. Iraq is full of people, like any other country, and some of those people are liars, creeps, toadies, cranks, or anything else you could think of.

One drawback of the long-distance approach, of course, is that you can’t be sure whom you’re talking to. Templeton, while working on a segment about a typical Iraqi teen-ager, ended up speaking with a father she later came to suspect of being a Baath Party official. She killed the story. I thought maybe they weren’t the average, she said.

— Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2005-12-19): Baghdad to Swarthmore

But, as I said before, There’s nothing wrong with addressing statements and then giving some reasons for taking them to be insincere or misleading. But it is totally irresponsible to make loud and confident declarations about why complete strangers are doing something when you haven’t so much as bothered to ask them or to find out what they’ve said on the matter.

The fact that so many words are daily so confidently poured forth about Iraq and Iraqis, by both amateur and professional blowhards who have not done something as simple as this, whose sole or primary sources of information are newsmedia outlets that march on through reportage while resolutely neglecting to do things as simple as this to make themselves less than ignorant about the conditions in Iraq or what ordinary Iraqis have to say about the concrete effects of the Great Powers’ policies on their own day-to-day lives, should tell you something not just about public debate in general, but also about the nature of the Iraq War and the continuing occupation in particular.

You can find information on, and broadcasts of, War News Radio at the War News Radio website.

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