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July 25, 2010 12:18 PM   Subscribe


 
See also How To Write About Africa. I would have skipped right over the link if I weren't looking for it.
posted by Tesseractive at 12:24 PM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Where's the link to "How To Write An Obnoxious, Dismissive, Holier-Than-Thou Article That Reads Like A Grumpy Toddler Wrote It"?
posted by nathancaswell at 1:00 PM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not a great post.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:01 PM on July 25, 2010


Actually, I take back "Grumpy Toddler", it's more like "PreTeen Who Has Just Discovered Sarcasm".
posted by nathancaswell at 1:02 PM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am far more compassionate than all of you, and my total grasp of these complex issues makes you look like a blundering bigot.
posted by WPW at 1:06 PM on July 25, 2010


Where's the link to "How To Write An Obnoxious, Dismissive, Holier-Than-Thou Article That Reads Like A Grumpy Toddler Wrote It"?

Kind of a harsh assessment considering he's mostly right about the coverage.
posted by nola at 1:07 PM on July 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


Fuck that, he's not just making generalizations about the quality of the coverage, he's making vast, sweeping generalizations about the journalists and their motives.

Stay in the same expensive hotels. Don't live close to the people. Produce lots of stories and make money. Pull up in your rented SUV to a camp of people who lost their homes, still living under the wind and rain.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:11 PM on July 25, 2010


If you must mention Haiti's history, refer vaguely to Haiti's long line of power-hungry, corrupt rulers. The 'iron-fisted' Duvaliers, for example. Don't mention 35 years of US support for that dictatorship.

In fairness, if one were to start educating news consumers about the atrocities of the American empire and its allied strongmen, there would hardly be an end to it.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:14 PM on July 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


He forgot to add "Write self-aggrandizing, condescending articles about how You Get It and are One of the Enlightened White People while stealing wholesale a witty, insightful essay by an African writer which you passionately misunderstood".
posted by clockzero at 1:14 PM on July 25, 2010 [12 favorites]


Yes, coverage of Haiti (and Africa) is riddled with cliches, prejudice, thinly disguised racism and stock characters. But writing like this is almost as bad - the journalists depicted are paper-thin, the generalisations are vast, the lack of concern for the depth and complexity of the situation is noticeable. It's just a quick shot of self-satisfaction for a cynical audience. A single link to an example or named culprit would mnake this more of a call for action - as it is, it's a call for jaded mental apathy. And the problems affecting Haiti (and Africa)? Well, they're just far too subtle and complex and multi-dimensional for you to begin to understand, or for anyone to explain on deadline and inside a word limit, so let's not bother thinking about it too much.

Quite entertaining to read though, and the problem it describes is real enough, not that this piece is likely to do anything to change that. It makes me very thankful that I'm not a world news reporter, whose place, it seems, is behind the wheel of a rented SUV and in the wrong.
posted by WPW at 1:25 PM on July 25, 2010


Fuck that, he's not just making generalizations about the quality of the coverage, he's making vast, sweeping generalizations about the journalists and their motives.

Those are all linked aren't they? Quality of coverage, and journalist. Or do you think the media has done a good job covering this disaster? I'm honestly asking, because I don't think that's crazy talk if you do. It just seems like he hit the nail on the head in a few places, but that's just how I see it from where I'm sitting. *shrugs*
posted by nola at 1:26 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Those are all linked aren't they? Quality of coverage, and journalist. Or do you think the media has done a good job covering this disaster?

I think you can be a crappy journalist and still be a decent person, not some dickhead eating Snickers bars drinking Perrier inside an air conditioned SUV with black tinted windows.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:32 PM on July 25, 2010


The man who wrote "How to Write About Africa", Binyavanga Wainaina, also wrote a sequel, of sorts.

Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa. They want me to tell them what I think, how they did. Be frank, they say, be candid. Tell it like it is. I have considered investing in a rubber stamp.
posted by zabuni at 1:51 PM on July 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


Part of what makes "How to Write about Africa" an effective piece of criticism is the tone. It reads like a well-written "how to" guide - matter-of-fact, objective and authoritative. It takes a couple sentences for the critique to sink in - it doesn't come out swinging, though it doesn't pull its punches. The author of "How to Write about Haiti" totally misses that tone, and it's making it hard for me to read his piece, which is a shame because he raises some important issues about how the media deals with poverty, and who is held up as an authority, and the bubble the mainstream international media tends to occupy.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:53 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day.

Putting it on the internet is an odd way to accomplish that.
posted by jonmc at 1:55 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know what, please disregard my contributions to this thread. I'm tremendously cranky this evening, something that isn't the fault of Pope Guilty or the author of that Haiti piece or anyone else.
posted by WPW at 2:02 PM on July 25, 2010


Fuck that, he's not just making generalizations about the quality of the coverage, he's making vast, sweeping generalizations about the journalists and their motives.

it would be nice if someone (maybe you?) could point to journalists doing an actual *good job* in Haiti - maybe that would help dispel his apparently groundless accusations - otherwise, why should anyone assume their motives are good ones?

I think you can be a crappy journalist and still be a decent person

well, if you're not doing your job and then drawing a paycheck while sitting in a country known for the oppression & near unrelenting assault it has suffered at the hands of imperialist fuckwads for centuries, then no, you do not qualify as a "decent person"
posted by jammy at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black...

How to write about white people. They are always fat and lazy. Or they are greedy and entitled. White people will never get it, no matter how hard they try. Etc.
posted by one_bean at 2:07 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


How to comment in a MeFi thread. Take the meme suggested in the initial comment and beat it to death within minutes of birth.
posted by jonmc at 2:10 PM on July 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte.

It's unclear how he discerns whether somebody is 'blackish' or not from an e-mail.
posted by one_bean at 2:15 PM on July 25, 2010


The hostile response to this piece is interesting. I didn't have that response at all, but admittedly, my exposure to stories about Haiti have been mostly from mainstream media outlets like CNN and MSNBC, and those stories have felt shallow, clichéd, and told from a comfortable remove. I didn't read this as a cynical or self-aggrandizing piece -- self-righteous, certainly, but this doesn't bother me if the argument is indeed correct -- so much as a call to journalists to get closer to their subjects and not settle for easy, obvious reportage, and for media to give more of a voice to the actual people involved in disasters in places like Haiti.
posted by Pants McCracky at 2:53 PM on July 25, 2010


Dropping all irony, my advice is: to write about Haiti, write like Paul Farmer (The Uses of Haiti, 1994).
posted by homerica at 3:03 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


jonmc, according to its sequel, the piece about Africa wasn't originally meant for publication but started out as a letter to the editor of Granta.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:19 PM on July 25, 2010


started out as a letter to the editor of Granta.

Letters to the editor tend to get published on the "letters to the Editor' page.
posted by jonmc at 3:46 PM on July 25, 2010


Which would be why he said "started out as" and not "was from start to finish".
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:03 PM on July 25, 2010


Is prejudice prior to perception? I knew a person who lived in the mountains of Haiti.


In the early nineties, after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti, I was an undergrad in a cultural anthropology course in a mainstream US university. The professor had a PHD in anthropology and a law degree. When he wasn’t teaching he helped poor people with legal issues. The TA was a woman who had spent a year or so in rural Haiti for her master’s project.

She was adamant then about people walking for miles out of the mountains over switchbacks and goat trails to vote for Aristide, and Aristide, got something like 98% of the popular vote back then.

Then the US, under Bill Clinton, decided to depose him and, from most accounts, Clinton is trying to make amends now.

The earthquake devastated Haiti as did centuries of colonial oppression.
posted by Huplescat at 4:29 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think this is the smartest, most insightful thing ever written, after all it's a clear and intentional reference to the previous essay about writing about Africa, but still, everything he says is pretty much right. So it seems worth paying a bit of attention to.

I especially feel angry at how mainstream journalists have depended on outside "experts" instead of emphasizing the perspectives of Haitians, or even Haitian Americans. This has been true since the day of the quake. If anyone's interested in more specific and footnoted critiques, FAIR is a good start. Or you can support grassroots recovery efforts here.
posted by serazin at 8:24 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the links to the "How to Write about Africa" article and double thanks to zabuni for the second article which makes you realize that liking the "How to Write about Africa" article is almost as bad as any of the bad writing it's railing against.
posted by straight at 10:13 PM on July 25, 2010


I used to think like this after listening to people coming back from their first visit to a remote Aboriginal community in Australia. I just wanted to strangle them.

Now I just wait. After a few visits they're as jaded and cynical as I am, and we can all swap war stories about 'real life' and 'the real world' over complementary gin and tonics in the Qantas Club. Because we 'get it'. We're down with poor people, but in the cool way, not that other way.

*slurp*

Do you reckon they'll upgrade us to business?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:15 AM on July 26, 2010


I've spent a few years now working all across Africa, and in Haiti as well. I've met countless people like this Ansel kid, and I like them just a bit less than the Wainaina type, who I already hold a fairly low esteem for. You can see these guys coming a mile away, and if you happen to be blind, they don't have to get out more than about half a sentence before you can tell you're dealing with one of them.

They are the very worst types you'll run into here, and that's saying a lot. They're worse than the corrupt police insisting on your bribe, worse than the callous embassy folk who consider their time here a sheer annoyance, worse than the generations-long colonialist Brits / French / Portuguese / etc. who still have a de facto run of the place. They are low people who seem to subsist wholly on the lowering of others.

One thing I've always been pleasantly surprised about in almost every country I have worked in - but particularly in Kiswahili-speaking east African ones - is how I hardly ever catch a local person talking about me in front of me, in their native language, assuming I can't understand. In learning a new language I am always keen for that day when I will be able to surprise and embarrass them with the act of catching them being rude to me, telling them that this muzungu, akasema kiswahili nzuri sana (this white person, he speaks swahili just fine). But that day never comes. These people are too polite, they wouldn't do that. You know who does do that, though? Who does carry on a smug and conspiratorial conversation about an ignorant foreigner right in front of the person's face? These types. That's the kind of guys these guys are. And frankly they're not the ones I would bother tipping off that I actually know what they are saying about me. They aren't worth the time.

Its worth noting that this kid speaks from a platform of expertise based on his whopping 10 months of on-the-ground experience. Granted, its much more than many of his journalistic counterparts, and more than any average American will ever see, but all in all - its not even a year that he's been there. I know people who have been working in Haiti for years or even decades who wouldn't begin to presume what he's doing here. Its rather blatantly shameful. At the end of the day I'm led to somewhat grimly conclude that while it may be ironic, people like this are less connected with the local pulse than the journalists they are deriding.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:32 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I thought the Frontline episode on aid to Haiti was okay. They didn't get very rural, but they did talk to ordinary Haitians. They actually talked to people up and down the rice supply chain, and you got at least a sense of where money was going, and what some of the poorest urban Haitians thought. Sometimes Frontline has a weird focus, like you can tell it's reporting on the kinds of things that affluent Americans would worry about, and not necessarily the most critical problems in whatever society (e.g. bacha bazi is fucked up, but not nearly the biggest problem in Afghanistan). That said, for whatever subject they pick, they do a good job and they'll go talk to the actual people involved.

I've stopped watching network/cable news because it's just intolerable, for largely the reasons outlined in the FPP link. Remember when right after the quake, all the big-shot network news anchors were reading the news from within Haiti? Suddenly they had anchor teams, so all the big-shots from different air times could all get a chance to get on air and talk about how terrible everything was (e.g. everyone from NBC on the same show). Every time I see one of those guys putting on their air of "gravitas" while basically engaging in disaster tourism, I just see a ghoul feeding on the dead. I imagine that if I lived in Haiti and was serious about it, those guys would piss me off even more. As is, I just don't watch them. Evidently it's possible to do way better on a fraction of the budget.
posted by Humanzee at 5:33 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Its worth noting that this kid speaks from a platform of expertise based on his whopping 10 months of on-the-ground experience. Granted, its much more than many of his journalistic counterparts, and more than any average American will ever see, but all in all - its not even a year that he's been there. I know people who have been working in Haiti for years or even decades who wouldn't begin to presume what he's doing here. Its rather blatantly shameful. At the end of the day I'm led to somewhat grimly conclude that while it may be ironic, people like this are less connected with the local pulse than the journalists they are deriding.

and again, it would be really great to get some links or sources for these journalists he is unfairly deriding...

Remember when right after the quake, all the big-shot network news anchors were reading the news from within Haiti?

yeah, i remember this - the way they would stridently warn against upcoming unrest, about lawlessness & riotous looting, in front of lines of Haitian people patiently waiting for a goddamn cup of water - and even better, the sophisticated way they would shout their questions at the local folk in French
posted by jammy at 8:30 PM on July 26, 2010


it would be nice if someone (maybe you?) could point to journalists doing an actual *good job* in Haiti - maybe that would help dispel his apparently groundless accusations - otherwise, why should anyone assume their motives are good ones?

This (fwd to 44:18) This American Life piece is one of the most transfixing bits of journalism I've ever heard.

C'mon, painting this guy with that brush is just not fair.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:51 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


@ allkindsoftime.

In insisting that the East-Africans don't badmouth you, (they appreciate your virtuous deeds, and that you are trying to save them from god-knows-what) I find that same shade of patronizing attitude that plagues people who do what you do. From your post it seems that you believe wholeheartedly in what you do. However, I surmise that you do not believe these people as being conscious of this phenomenon that has been so well satirized.

If you are indeed a journalist in EA as suggestive of your post, who is the audience of your news? Is it the Bantu people to help bolster their democracy and educate it's populace? or is it the de-facto colonizers as you mentioned? I am weary of the long line of globe-trotting, ineffective, delusional aide workers who wear the experience as a badge, so forgive me if this is a affront to your profession, I have no doubt of your good intent.
posted by Student of Man at 1:51 PM on July 27, 2010


I just watched That Frontline report and... you know what, it is entirely fair; and surprisingly shallow for PBS! The reporter Adam, presents the same kind of calculated journalism that presents itself as investigative while avoiding the real issue! seriously I'm shocked, I always respectd FRONTLINE.
posted by Student of Man at 2:51 PM on July 27, 2010


If you are indeed a journalist in EA as suggestive of your post

I'm not sure where in my post you ascertained this from, but it is incorrect. I'm not a journalist.

I'm sorry you've only been exposed to a long line of globe-trotting, ineffective, delusional aide workers who wear the experience as a badge. While these people exist in spades, you should also be aware that there are many effective, non-deluded aid workers who care more about bringing real results to the field than they do wearing any badges.

In the first 180 days in Haiti, my organization has:

- Provided a total of 16.8 million litres of clean water since the January 12 quake. We continue to provide 2 million liters of treated water weekly in 23 camps.
- Implemented water and sanitation activities in 28 camps, including constructing hundreds of toilets and showers and promoting hygiene.
- Provided ongoing support to some 120,000 people, distributing tarpaulins, tents, kitchen sets, blankets, mats, foot lockers, and other household items.
- Distributed food to more than 1.86 million people.
- Assisted 7,730 children each week in 22 Child-Friendly Spaces in camps in the greater Port-au-Prince area, the Central Plateau and the border area with the Dominican Republic.
- Opened five mobile and five static health clinics, serving 15 camps and more than 11,000 people.
- Registered more than 760 children separated from their families during the earthquake through the family tracing and reunification unit; more than 80 children have been reunited with their families.

That's not a badge, and its not ineffective either. That is results. I'm sorry you think aid doesn't work, but I've seen it work, first hand.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:42 AM on July 28, 2010


Student of Man, I think you misunderstood allkindsoftime's point. He wasn't claiming that East Africans never criticize him or his organization's work.

He was saying that they usually aren't rude enough to talk about him, in their own language, while he's right there in front of them in the room, assuming he just won't understand what they're saying.

He's also saying he's seen expatriates do that all the time: people who will talk in English about an African who is right there in the room, assuming the African won't understand what's being said about him.

I've seen Norteamericanos do it in Latin America as well, and it's really stupid and rude. Heck, I've seen people in the United States do it right here in this country in front of a person they assume only understands Spanish, which you know is probably not the case.
posted by straight at 9:30 AM on July 28, 2010


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