at the crossroads of literature and reporting

I should be studying my business reporting textbook. It’s called Show Me the Money, which is a great title, and I don’t want to be embarrassed tomorrow by showing my lack of knowledge during Business Terms Bingo.

I used to have a Tumblr, but I deleted it before journalism school required a social media peer review. Too many personal thoughts, too many journal entries, too many paragraphs that belonged in a diary instead of in the public forum on the Internet. It was strange to delete something that became a record of my Self for the past five years. I was sad, but only for an hour. Delete the baggage. On to the new. It’s healthier that way, after all.

But I miss having a space to write about my personal thoughts. Feeling stressed, conflicted, so anxious that I haven’t eaten in three days… let the word vomit spill on Tumblr, and feel a little better.

Now, I need to curate my Brand.  I’m a reporter. I need to work.  So I create an image of myself online.
It’s terribly dishonest.
I feel as though there are sharp rocks in the bottom of my stomach.

I wrote my first full-length book when I was six years old, I think. I told my father that I was going to grow up to be a writer. He said, “Do you know what a journalist is? You can be a writer, but you should be a journalist.”
And here I am. Studying for my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. Same place where my father received his PhD.

If I’m going to construct this Brand for myself, I don’t want to be dishonest. I come from a literary background. I spent my childhood in the company of books instead of other kids. I studied literature in my undergraduate years. I read novels that I’ve torn through four times before instead of copying down business terms from Show Me the Money.

Reading, for me, means visceral pleasure. So does reporting, though. Trying to write about socially significant current events in a way that doesn’t flatten them ain’t easy, but the challenge gives me an adrenaline rush.
I don’t think literature and journalism are mutually exclusive.
Literary devices create ambiguity and represent complexities in a way that the Standard Model–featuring that old friend/fiend objectivity–can’t.
I’m going to use literature to build a new kind of journalism. I’m going to figure it out. No gimmicks, I’m not a hack. I’m going to figure it out.

I’ll start here, with this blog. I’ll still write about reporting and the news, but I’ll play with words and structure.
It might even get personal. Build that Brand. Turn myself into human capital, as one might say in Business Terms Bingo.

Okay. On to the new.

linguistic weapons: ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh?

France, always the blazing non-conformist, has recently decided to stop calling ISIS by the name ISIS… or ISIL, or the Islamic State. Instead, its foreign minister recently announced that the French government would begin calling the group “Daesh.”

Why am I writing about this? A great question, my Discerning Reader. Here’s the reason: words matter, and names mean a great deal.

Let’s break it down.

  1. ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is an Arab word referring to a giant piece of land in the Middle East near the Mediterranean.
  2. ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Europeans came up with the word “Levant,” which an area in the Middle East that roughly overlaps with the territory considered Al-Sham.
  3. In June, the group dropped the last two initials from its acronym and began calling itself the Islamic State, or IS.
  4. Daesh actually comes from an acronym too, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. But even before France decided that it would use Daesh, the group’s enemies in the Middle East have been using the word since April. It’s meant to be derogatory because it sounds a whole lot like the Arab words “Daes” (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and “Dahes” (“one who sows discord”).

I’ll continue to call the group ISIS for continuity’s sake, but here’s the bottom line: By calling themselves the Islamic State, ISIS is trying to legitimize themselves as their own nation, literally taking down borders between Iraq and Syria and putting up their own.

Here’s the bit on the Vice documentary on ISIS which shows militants taking down the barbed wire that divided Syria and Iraq by way of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

(Side note: If somebody knows how in the world Vice got such unprecedented access to ISIS for this documentary let me know. Did they know people? Did they pay ISIS? I mean this is the organization that has been beheading journalists… how Vice managed to get this footage just floors me.)

Most nations and news organizations refuse to call ISIS the Islamic State, thereby refusing to recognize the group as a legitimate state. But when France, Iran and Syria call ISIS Daesh, they’re taking it one step further. It’s as if they’re mocking ISIS, spitting in its face. 

Semantics, everyone. Words working as weapons.

how to define “barbarian”: a case study on ISIS

A few days ago, I retweeted this from a fellow Mizzou journalist (ignore the fact that he’s a national correspondent a the L.A. Times and I’m a first-semester grad student–we’re essentially colleagues):

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Oh boy, this got people talking. “As if they have to be mutually exclusive” responded one Twitterer. “Tech savvy barbarians are still barbarians,” said another. One girl asked, “I’m just curious, what would you deem ‘barbaric’? if beheading with a knife isn’t such an act.”

I’ve got a bit of a long-winded answer to that, Ms. @bileej897.* Here’s the thing about words: they don’t exist as entities by themselves. They’ve got no “true meaning” separate from interpretation. I’m going to take a page–well, a passage–out of linguist S.I. Hayakawa’s book Language, Thought, and Action on how dictionaries are written. It’s

a task of one’s recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. (original emphasis)

So let’s imagine that we are dictionary writers, and we’ve gotten through our As. “Authentic” was difficult to define, but we finally did it, and after celebrating with champagne and balloons, it’s time to define “barbarian.” First question we need to ask: how has this word been used in the past?

We start with the Bible. In Corinthians, we find a passage, “I would they were Barbarians..not Romans.” Okay, so a barbarian is anyone who’s not Roman. …We look at each other skeptically. Are you and I Romans? No. Does that mean we’re barbarians? Of course not! We smile and tell our friend, “Wow, orange is definitely your color!” when that tangerine dress looks hideous on her. A barbarian would never have such great manners. But, hey. This version of the Bible was published in 1607, and it’s dealing with a historical time period thousands of years before. Phew. Moving on.

If we’re not going with the Bible, why not make a 180 degree turn and take a look at Darwin. How did he use the word barbarian in An Origin of Species, published in 1869? “Geologists believe that barbarian man existed at an enormously remote period.” Looks like he’s talking about people who have yet to discover reading, tacos, Breaking Bad: you know, uncivilized.

And let’s please not forget that Joseph Conrad text, a staple of every English major’s education, Heart of Darkness (1899). How does the British Charles Marlow describe the so-called barbarians he sees in Africa?

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.

So we’ve discovered that the word “barbarian” has come to mean a wild, savage person–no, not even a person, an animal who seems human-like. Colonialism has framed it this way, that ol’ classic Us vs. Them, Domestic vs. Foreign, or in this case, Civilized vs. Barbarians. When Europeans viewed Africans, Arabs and Asians as barbarians, it became much easier to take over their livelihoods and artificially split up their lands. It became the Europeans’ moral duty to tame the beasts and evangelize.

You might protest: “No, no, not all foreigners are barbarians. You’re talking 100 years ago, but we know better now! Barbarians are people who are cruel, who are murderers.”

But even those connotations come out of a history of colonialism, dehumanizing the Other. We cannot separate words from their historical contexts. With regard to Matt’s tweet, it’s not simply that the words are “old.” They are vestiges from the violent language of imperialism.

This response gets it right:

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Language has the ability to flatten people. If we consider ISIS monsters, barbarians, savages, demons, we risk losing any understanding behind their motivations. I’m not in any way defending ISIS. The group is responsible some of the most horrific murders and ethnic cleansing in memory, not to mention the severe subjugation of women among other atrocious acts. They need to be stopped, somehow.

But calling ISIS barbarians isn’t going explain their extreme religious devotion which has caused them to force ethnic minorities to choose to convert or suffer beheading. Calling them monsters can’t explain the cyclical oppressed-becomes-oppressor pattern that history can’t seem to shake.  Indeed, using the language of imperialism to define the Islamic State certainly won’t stop them from becoming their own brand of 21-century imperialists in Syria and Iraq. That’s irony, my friends.

Reuters

ISIS. Photo Credit: Reuters

*Twitter handle has been changed, slightly.

**Note: Definitions of “barbarian” from the Bible and Origin of Species from the Oxford English Dictionary. And I wanted to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness to find a passage where he actually uses the word “barbarian,” but my books are stacked in piles on my floor. Looking for that book is a lot more physical labor than I’m willing to do for Joseph Conrad’s sake. So I found this quote on GoodReads.

by way of books: accidental peeks into strangers’ lives

A year ago, I discovered Strand’s Tumblr, a corner of the Internet curated by employees of the 18-mile long used bookstore in New York. People who sell their books to Strand often leave behind pieces of themselves in the books, whether through notes scribbled in the margins or postcards used as bookmarks. Strand finds the best of these and posts them to this sort of online archive with bits and pieces of personal histories.

Take this passage, a boxed paragraph on page 76 of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

zora

At one moment in time, a person was reading this book, and whatever infrastructure determined her sense of self, and whatever thoughts crossed her mind that day, and whatever emotion she felt while reading this passage, caused her to pause, grab a pen and make not of these words. I want to know what images she had in her head when she read this passage–I want to know which person she was picturing as she drew this wavy blue line.

Sunday evenings are meant for scrolling and reading, so I’ve collected some tidbits of insights into others’ lives.

Underlined dialogue from The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, page 97:

theassistantpg97

And here’s an underlined passage from Chekhov, Five Plays, page 29:

chekhov

Photographs are sometimes left behind in the books’ pages…

…As are postcards with sweet notes.

This postcard was found in A Happy Death by Albert Camus.  “Remembering how I felt that day on the plane back from Paris….Set me at ease with my fears. Forever & ever, Ronny”

I hope Ronny found contentment in Miami Beach.

Strand also posts weird and fascinating books that are sold to them, like Interesting Origins of English Words…

…or This Noble Flame: An Anthology of a Hungarian Newspaper in America.

Here’s another that might catch the interest of any fellow: a promotional pamphlet for the New York Times in 1969.

So there you have it. Your annual update on Strand, from Kasia Redux to you. Go to their website for more. And–perhaps this is more a note to myself than my readers, but so it goes–slow down a bit. It’s Sunday evening, and pausing life is all right.

vacuums and vetoes

On Wednesday, the Missouri legislature voted to become one of three states to require a 72-hour wait period before a woman can have an abortion. In Missouri and South Dakota, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Governor Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but both the House and the Senate voted to override that veto.  I’ve been covering the bill for both the Columbia Missourian and the Jefferson City News Tribune, so I was in each chamber as representatives debated the bill in the House and Democrats filibustered it in the Senate.

Here’s a lesson in breaking news, kids: when you’ve got 45 minutes to turn a story after the House votes, you can’t include every argument posed in a 90-minute debate on the floor. One representative whose words caught my attention but did not make the published article was Rep. John McCaherty, a Republican from High Ridge. Here’s what he said on the 72-hour wait period:

By the way, there are two states that have this law, South Dakota and Utah. Both of those states [laws] are in effect at this time unchallenged in the courts, just in case anybody’s interested in an actual fact instead of rhetoric. Because we hear a lot of rhetoric about what we’re doing and what we should be doing or not be doing… we’re not extending it 72 hours, we’re extending it 48 hours*. It’s a 72 hour total.

I heard that three days of thinking about it is really too much to ask. Really? I bought a vacuum one time from a salesman that came by my house and knocked on the door and came in and gave us a free clean. I had 72 hours to change my mind whether or not I wanted to purchase a vacuum. But it’s too long to decide whether or not somebody lives or dies.

And so we’re going to vote how we’re going to vote, and we’re not going to change anybody’s mind here, but let’s keep the facts the facts.

Here’s the full audio for McCaherty’s talk, if you’d like to hear it for yourself:

*True. Currently, Missouri law requires a 24-hour wait period before abortions.

missouri veto session link round-up

Rise and shine, my magnificent Missourians, because your veto session begins today! Governor Nixon (a Democrat, allegedly, with no relation to Tricky Dick Nixon, allegedly) vetoed 33 bills this year, and now Missouri’s legislature needs a two-thirds majority on each bill to override them. And guess what? Republicans just happen to have a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Guys. This should be fun. I’ll be in Jeff City, live tweeting, so you can follow me here.

For your convenience, Reader, I’ve compiled a master post on the Missourian’s website outlining all 33 bills on the table.

Loads of these bills carry a lot of weight, like the one that would triple the waiting time for abortions to 72 hours, so we decided to profile the heavy stuff before deliberations are under way. I wrote about the abortion bill here, and Phillip’s piece on teachers carrying guns in schools (welcome to Missouri, Internet friends) is here. Madi wrote about the so-called dairy bills, and I also wrote about regulations and taxes for e-cigs.

Ask me any questions via Twitter or at kekovacs@mail.missouri.edu.

Keep yourselves informed, friends.

on reading steven sotloff and james foley

One of today’s New York Times headlines: “After Beheading of Steven Sotloff, Obama Pledges to Punish ISIS.”

The story came after the militant group ISIS in Iraq put out a video showing the execution of Sotloff, the second hostage journalist in the past month to be beheaded. The first was another freelancer, James Foley. In the most recent video, Sotloff tells the camera that he is “paying the price” for Obama’s actions against ISIS in Iraq.

James Foley in Tripoli, Lybia in 2011. (Jonathan Pedneault, Free James Foley Facebook Page.)

James Foley in Tripoli, Lybia in 2011. (Jonathan Pedneault, Free James Foley Facebook Page.)

Steven Sotloff, in the black helmet speaks with Libyan rebels in 2011. (Etienne de Malglaive, Getty Images)

Steven Sotloff, in the black helmet speaks with Libyan rebels in 2011. (Etienne de Malglaive, Getty Images)

I haven’t watched the videos, and I don’t plan on it. There’s something so undignified about the voyeuristic position into which viewers of the ISIS videos are pegged. Don’t turn Sotloff and Foley’s deaths into Google Analytics hits.

And then, proximity makes the videos all the more terrifying. The beheadings are too close to home–not literally, of course, as I am currently sitting at my desk in Missouri–but professionally. I’m studying for my master’s degree in journalism, with an emphasis in investigative and international news reporting. My goal is to tell stories from abroad, to convince people to becomes more informed citizens beyond national borders, at a global level.  A large part of my identity is rooted in my work, and I know that the brain exaggerates the likelihood of the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless: right now, it seems as though I’ve chosen a career that moonlights as a death trap. 

I commend the bravery of Sotloff and Foley, who traveled to the most dangerous parts of the world to tell stories that would otherwise be lost in silence. The two journalists might have been killed, but their words keep going and going, existing in their own right, playing a role in public conversation long after the reporters’ deaths. 

Instead of watching the videos, read the pieces that Sotloff and Foley lost their lives to write. Here’s one from Sotloff about soldiers and bread lines in Syria, published in Foreign Policy in December 2012

Hamid Shloni is on this stalemated front line. He’s 27, and once worked in a cement factory; he joined the fighting last spring, when men began mobilizing in his village. Every 20 minutes or so, he pokes his Kalashnikov out the window and lets loose a barrage of bullets. “Need to keep them awake,” he says with a beaming smile that reveals a wide gap between his teeth. “They are not here for a vacation from Damascus.” Fighters sitting on the floor appear not to hear Shloni’s routine wakeup call and the commentary he offers to justify it. Utter boredom, or the cold, has paralyzed these men, who huddle around a cell phone looking at pictures of famous female Arab singers.

He reported from other dangerous places as well, including Libya and Egypt. James Foley also wrote from Libya and Syria, and you can find a lot more of his work at the Global Post website