I was 27 when I re-entered academia. I left a career I loved as a broadcast journalist (public broadcasting, folks) to attempt a career I'd dreamt of since my first college class -- that of professor.
And, here I write, a little more than 10 years later, in Sweden doing some preliminary work on a possible future project after presenting research in Finland. I had a moment, a few days ago, where I was like, "What the hell am I doing here?"
It wasn't so much imposter syndrome -- I know how hard I worked, and continue to work, to be where I am -- but it was simply the absurdity of where I am in life.
My father was a person of color who didn't finish high school. Though accepted into college, my mother never realized her dream of going. Both of my parents pushed me to embrace my intellect, to read as much as I wanted, to be curious, and to be unafraid to go where my brain took me. They supported me as I left for Ohio University in 2001 and happily rushed emergency funds and supplies to me when I called home crying, not even a week (I think) into that first quarter.
I am now a tenure track assistant professor at a school that I knew I wanted to work at as soon as my interview was over. I have survived my first two years, getting some publications out, presenting my research, networking. Figuring out who I am as a teacher and as a mentor. Doing everything I should be doing.
And yet, there was a moment standing in that Stockholm square, where I felt so alone and lost.
Graduate study, good graduate study, teaches you how to manage research and teaching with as much grace as you can muster. What it does a less great job of doing is helping you figure out how to manage that on top of everything else.
For instance, how to navigate the minefield of your child's early teen years.
Or the death of your beloved father.
Grieving & Grades
My father had been ill for years. In fact, his first major health crisis erupted as I was in the midst of my first year as a master's student.
It threw me into a tailspin. I had given up a job I loved to pursue my dream of a PhD and here was my dad, virtually a cripple, and I had to decide whether to continue on. I did, but it wasn't easy. I carried a lot of worry on my shoulders. My father and I had always been close; to see him suddenly so ill, so not himself, was really difficult.
What we worried was an acute illness was actually chronic and he and my mother learned to manage it until the last few years when he seemed to be in a slow decline he was having difficulty pulling out of.
In February, not long after my spring semester started, I got a call from my mother saying my dad was in the hospital and so I rushed down to my parents' home and spent about five days with my mom. Every day we'd pack up and go to the hospital and sit with my father. The first day I walked in, Dad didn't know who I was, but the day before I left we got to take him home. He seemed better. I think there was a sense of relief that he'd made it through this crisis and hope that, with the new medications he'd been prescribed, he'd be on the mend and back to himself.
About two months later I sat in my office, beginning a day of one-on-one meetings with students immersed in work on final projects, when I got a phone call from my mother. I thought, perhaps, Dad had been ordered back to the hospital.
I was wrong and my world hasn't been the same since.
I was gone for almost a week this time, home with my mother as she took care of arrangements, spending time with my brothers and mother as we all sat with our loss; sat with the new emptiness we found in our lives.
I finished out the semester. I got my students through their final papers and final stories. I got their grades turned in and then I left for Finland.
I survived, somehow, what was my most difficult semester as an academic.
"I grow old ... I grow old ..."
The thing about death is that no one knows what to say to you. There are awkward questions. There is your attempt to engage, to be honest, but not too honest. Your failure at this.
I'm lucky. As soon as they heard the news my colleagues contacted me, asking how they could help, what they could do.
Nothing, was my response.
Because there was nothing. No one can do anything to take away the sorrow, the pain, the anger, even, I feel. In regards to my classes -- my students' final projects were all personal things they'd been working on, that I'd been coaching them through; there was no way anyone else could slip in and get them through to the end. So, keeping in mind my dad's adage that "someone else always has it worse," I got us through to the end.
And then I curled up in my bed, listening to the birds chirping in the woods behind my house, and sobbed. And then I sobbed talking to my husband. And then I sobbed in the shower. I sobbed after talking to my mother on the telephone. I sobbed after my daughter left with friends to go do something. I sobbed in an airport bookstore after picking up what seemed like an innocuous title that, when I read the back cover, was about the death of a parent.
I have sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
I sobbed on the morning of what would have been my father's 71st birthday just a few days ago. I stood alone on the back of the huge ferry that had taken me across the Baltic Sea from Finland to Sweden and watched the sunrise and sobbed as I remembered I wouldn't be able to tell my dad (who served in the Navy and loved nothing more than to be on the water) how beautiful it had been, how quiet, to be at sea as the sun was waking up.
My father's favorite poet was T.S. Eliot. Something we shared. He had a bad habit of stealing any copy of Eliot I'd come home with from college. When I finally took back my copy of the book that contained both The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I opened the little volume to find it filled with my father's marginalia and underlinings. Aggravating upon first discovery, I find it comforting now, to have that book filled with his thoughts about something we both loved.
The lines, "I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," from Prufrock have always reminded me of Dad for some reason. It might have been his obsession with discussing what kind of old man he'd be and the fact that, for most of my life, my dad wore painter's bibs. I have the memory of watching him roll them up, which I'm not even sure is real, but I think the things together, and his obsession with water, might explain the reason those lines stick with me.
I can hear him reciting them to me over the telephone, while making one of his huge Sunday morning breakfasts, as a reminder to me that he, and I, were aging.
I feel, therefore I teach
I teach because I believe in the power of learning and of education. I embrace barbaric yawps (I know there's some academic out there who is going to tell me how terrible Dead Poet's Society is; I don't care, both Dad and I loved it). I embrace feeling and emotion.
I am not a distant academic. Who I am walks with me into the classroom. I probably curse too much. (My dad was a sailor, I come by it honestly.) I talk about my kid, my cats, about pop culture things I love, why I think journalism is amazing, and my deep, and abiding, love of tacos and corgis.
I don't give tests, generally. I make my students read and write and talk. The talking sometimes they resist, which is fine, I did too when I was in undergrad (and sometimes even when I was in graduate school). But I want them engage with what we are learning -- and what we are learning is not always to be found in the readings they've been assigned for that day.
I end almost every semester with presentations. The final day, I try to carve out about fifteen minutes for myself. I show them a short animation of part of David Foster Wallace's This Is Water and then go into some soppy spiel about how education is about more than grades and memorization; it's also, and I would argue most importantly, about giving you the material to decide who you want to be in the world.
Your grades matter now, I tell them, but what matters when you leave here are the choices you make about how you treat people.
This last day happens after I've gotten them to complete student evaluations. I do not want to make some sappy speech about the importance of living a full life before I ask them to grade me as a teacher.
This was especially important for me this semester because I decided to tell them about the death of my father. He'd been gone only two weeks at the time and, while I managed to make it through my morning class without tears, when I was talking to my freshman later that afternoon I could feel the tears welling up.
"I don't want this to be maudlin," I told them. "My father always said, 'There are assholes everywhere, all you can control is whether you're going to be an asshole, too' and if you take anything from this class, I hope it's that salty seaman's mantra."
I teach because I believe in what I do. I believe in curiosity and kindness; empathy and intellect.
I stress to my students to not get so caught up in what's coming tomorrow, of whether they should study abroad or do that internship or take that class three years from now, that they lose sight of the beauty of the moment they are living in.
I believe assholes are everywhere and my choice is to not be one and so I share and I'm open, even when I'm tired and sad and angry and want nothing more than to sobsobsob my guts out listening to Leonard Cohen.
Graduate school prepared me to handle rejection and research; it did not teach me how to navigate that while dealing with the emotional tsunami that comes with being a middle aged adult with aging parents and a sassy-mouthed child.
I choose to be both human and academic, I just wish there was a Google Maps for how to do this.
*My apologies to The Killers.
(FTR: There is no one way to be an academic or a teacher. This is who I am. There are countless, valid, ways to be in the world. This is the way I've chosen.)
As I write this, Cleveland police are searching for a man who used Facebook's video feature to broadcast his murder of 74-year old Robert Godwin Sr. In the video the suspect talks about how he's always seen as a bad guy and so he's going to kill some people to prove how bad he is -- he also claims to have killed people before the death of Godwin.
I know about this story because NBC Nightly News came on after I checked the local weather and their top story was about the shooting. It showed a large chunk of the video leading up to the murder of Godwin, freezing the moment the murder suspect raises his gun on Godwin and then cutting to an image of Godwin on the ground.
It made me sick.
British filmmaker David Puttnam gave a TED Talk several years ago I use in my Introduction to Journalism classes to begin our conversation around ethics and a journalist's duty to serve their community. In it, Puttnam argues that, when covering political stories, journalists have a duty to inform their audience, not inflame it. They should not sensationalize stories.
Though it is a story about a crime and not politics, the use of the Cleveland murder suspect's execution video is the worst type of inflammatory reporting.
[Update Monday morning: A number of non-broadcast news outlets are also sharing the video, including the Washington Post, this morning. The suspect remains on the loose. Several news outlets have reported that he claimed to have killed as many as 14 or 15 people on Easter, but only evidence of one murder has been found.]
There is nothing news worthy in seeing the gun drawn nor in seeing Godwin's body on the ground. And, yet, that's what was shown on a number of television news broadcasts -- the moment just before Godwin's murder frozen over and over and over again.
He raises his arms to shield himself and you feel his terror and it is the most cruel and callous violation of a man's final moments.
Among the mandates set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, is the idea of minimizing harm.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Showing the moments before Godwin's death shows no respect to him or to his family.
Showing his interaction on the video with his murderer shows no respect to the man nor the life he lived.
It does little but shock the viewer.
In Puttnam's terms: The video inflames, it does not inform.
Here's how this video might have been used:
And that's it. You set the stage for what happened and then you tell your viewer it happened. There is no need to show that final interaction nor Godwin's body moments later. There is no way to ethically, compassionately, or empathetically cut that video so that seeing Godwin's body does anything but shock; anything but sensationalize.
Just because the video exists does not mean you must show it to your audience.
This is not a new argument, of course; debates have raged for decades over when, how, and where to show images of death. I generally tend to lean in the direction of showing, not telling.
Human beings generally process visual information more quickly than other kinds. Photographs and videography are powerful storytelling tools. They have the ability to create intimate moments that build empathy and compassion and help an individual emotionally connect with a story.
But not everything captured should be shared.
Here's the question I tell my students to think about when they are considering what multimedia elements will go into their reporting: What work is the element doing for your story? What is it helping your audience understand?
If you can't answer that question, then it's unnecessary.
The image of Robert Godwin Sr. throwing his arms up, a shopping bag in one hand, communicates terror. But it is not necessary to make the audience feel a connection to the victim; it is, frankly, a cheap visceral moment. One that, to me, feels like a violation of a man's last moments on this earth.
A friend of mine, a colleague from my graduate program, posted on Facebook asking individuals to stop sharing the video of Godwin's death because "You are helping achieve the very thing he [the suspected murderer] was hoping for" -- exposure.
SPJ suggests that journalists should "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
I would argue that social media has made it far too easy for journalists to overlook that suggestion. Whether it is the personal photographs of a student who died of alcohol poisoning, Facebook posts by suspected criminals, or live videos of criminal acts as they happen -- journalists far too often given in to lurid curiosity. They scoop up what they find, sometimes contacting loved ones in Facebook or Twitter as their grief is warm in order to get a photograph or a quote; sometimes scooping up videos or photos a user thought were private and making them public in the name of little more than getting some detail another news outlet did not.
A man is dead. Murdered as he walked down the street on a warm April day in Cleveland. He had a life. He had a story. Robert Godwin Sr. deserves more than to have his murdered body broadcast across the world as his family, his friends, and his community grieve.
Americans' opinions of journalism are incredibly negative. Americans don't trust journalists for a lot of different reasons. I would argue that sensationalizing the murder of an innocent man and giving exposure to a possible mass murderer who, on the video, seems to say that he's doing this to get attention is a failure of journalism's duty of care to the public it serves.
Towards the end of his TED Talk, Puttnam says, "The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? Because in the end, it comes down to a combination of trust and leadership."
Why should we expect Americans to trust news media when we can't be trusted to pay attention to our own ethical guidelines?
I cry on airplanes. I've done it ever since I started flying. I throw on headphones, click play on music -- anything from Ryan Adams to Neutral Milk Hotel to Patty Griffin -- and I think and I cry; sometimes, I weep.
I have always been someone who manages her emotions. I don't bottle them up so much as I quarantine them until I can deal with them later. Unfortunately for the people sitting near me when I fly, I often deal with them on planes.
There's something about being trapped on this tin can in the sky surrounded by strangers -- you feel both so isolated and so surrounded. No one knows you. No one will judge you for crying into your ginger ale and Biscoff cookies.
Or, if they do, it doesn't matter because you'll likely never see them again.
I sat between two men when I flew home from Boston yesterday who were very uncomfortable with my tears. But, this time, I wasn't crying for myself or because Jeff Mangum was singing about a two-headed boy -- this time I was crying over the life of a man I'd never met.
The man in question is John B. McLemore and he lived in a small Alabama town he referred to as "Shit Town." An Alabama town I have been to as it's not far from Birmingham where I worked for four years as a host/producer for WBHM FM.
John's story was told in seven parts in a podcast called S*Town that you've likely heard of if you are at all internet savvy.
I was hesitant to listen to the podcast at first. I grew up in Appalachia and I lived in Alabama and I am all too familiar with the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about those places in media. The fact S*Town was produced by Serial and This American Life gave me so hope, but I was still wary after listening to the first chapter.
After the second chapter, however, any wariness was gone and I couldn't stop listening.
I'm not going to give you an overview of the podcast because you really should listen to it. I will say that I haven't come across anything so deeply felt in media in a long time. The reporter begins work on the project thinking it's one thing and then the story changes in a profound way. Each time you think you know what the story is about, who John is, something shifts.
There are questions being raised by some about the ethics of the project and, while I understand where they come from, it's clear the reporter approached the story from a place of deep care and concern.
Empathy & Emotion
In the introduction to journalism class I am teaching this semester, my students and I are currently waist deep in a discussion of empathy and emotion. Last week we read and discussed one of my favorite pieces of recent journalism -- The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck -- and explored the ways emotion is used in the piece to make us feel a connection to the people in the story ... including the individual who would be the villain in a less skillfully reported piece.
In S*Town, Brian Reed and his producers manage emotion in a way that feels genuine and human. We care for the people who are in John's life and, as with the Phoebe story, people who seem like villains seem less so when given the space to speak; when treated with care and with respect.
That was the draw, for me, to public broadcasting. I grew up listening to it and, when I was in college and realized it was something I could actually try to get a job in, I ran toward the industry as fast as I could.
The beauty of public media -- particularly programs like This American Life or Radiolab -- is that they provide space for stories to breathe. There's not a feeling of rushing to get to the next story or to get to the point the reporter is trying to make -- instead, the stories most often are meditations on life and relationships. They make us feel, deeply.
What more can you want as a reporter or writer?
That's part of the reason I have been so angry about the proposed federal cuts to Corporation of Public Broadcasting spending. The CPB provides funding to public radio's member stations. It's never a huge amount, but it's significant.
While working at WBHM I was able to report on stories about mental health, addiction, the AIDS epidemic, and homelessness -- all in a way that, I hope, helped the listener see, understand, and empathize with the subject of my story.
Empathy, being able to understand the feelings of another human being, fuels connection. Connection is what we should strive for in all we do. Connection helps us, personally, feel less alone; connection, too, can help us approach difference in more thoughtful way.
To empathize with someone is not to agree with the choices they make, or to even like them; it simply provides a way to understand another person.
In my class last week, I took my students through an exercise where they stare into a partner's eyes and imagine their whole life cycle -- from birth to death to birth again. When I asked the students how they felt, they often pointed to a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort.
"Good journalists," I told them, "are striving for something like that in their stories. Obviously, it can't be as profound as what you felt, but if we can't find a way to make our audiences sometimes feel vulnerable or, at times, uncomfortable, and then leverage that into understanding for someone else, then we aren't really doing our jobs."
Public media does that.
Public media provide spaces for empathy and understanding; vulnerability and discomfort. Programs like This American Life, Frontline, and now S*Town open up the world to the audience, open up ways of being in the world, and ask you to sit there in your vulnerability and discomfort.
Ask you to sit and be and feel.
As I listened to S*Town, there were moments when I cringed. Moments when no one seemed sympathetic and moments where everyone seemed sympathetic. There were moments when I recognized people I knew, people I loved; moments, even, where I recognized something of myself.
That ability to produce empathy, to make an audience feel deeply for a story and its subjects and to connect to them, that's the power of public media.
That's the power of S*Town.
It's something we should celebrate and support; not something we should be defunding.
I have not stopped to breathe since starting graduate school in the Fall of 2007. Productivity has been my name, with each year more productive than the one before.
This year I've taught two new preps, I've prepared an edited volume for publication, worked to pull another edited volume together, and begun building the scaffolding of a solo authored book. I've written and revised journal articles and reviewed others for publication and conference presentation. The syllabi for the classes I teach have been finished long before they need to be and I've wrapped up grading before some of my friends and colleagues have final projects in.
I have been busy. I have been productive. And while I am starting to feel the edges of burn out creeping in, I still wonder if I am being productive enough.
Graduate school trains you to always be working. In class you are working to make sure your professor knows who you are and that you have mastered the material. You work at home pulling together research papers. You also work on collaborative projects or, if you are a TA, on grading. Graduate school trains you to feel like you are always behind. You are the cyclist in the Tour de France who can see the peloton, but who is not part of it.
You are productive and sweaty from the stress of it.
The hoped for result of all this sweat and stress, of course, is gainful, fulltime tenure track employment at an institution of higher education.
A result I realized beginning Fall of 2015.
My first year and a half has flown by as I worked to find my place at the university -- both physical and otherwise. I've taken on service commitments that are deeply meaningful, taught classes which stretched my students and myself, and worked on research that is important to me.
Although I have plants growing in my office (I hope they are still growing; I haven't checked on them in a week), I haven't taken the time to stop and smell them. I barely remember to water them sometimes.
I like feeling productive but, at the same time, I think I need to slow down some. I need to be unafraid of letting the peloton get a bit farther ahead of me so I can catch my breathe.
My dear friend, and sometime research collaborator, Jessica Birthisel (who is on the tenure track at Bridgewater State University) published this blog post about her resolve moving into 2017. As always with her writing, it is thoughtful and thought provoking.
It provoked in me a consideration of how I want to approach 2017 as an academic. Which brought me back to my own blog and this post which I started writing in August but abandoned because I got too busy. While I certainly have a host of things I plan on working on in my personal life in the coming year, here is my plan for reconsidering productivity in 2017.
1. Be more mindful about what I say "Yes" to.
I don't think anything I'm suggesting for the new year is groundbreaking, but for me it's all going to take such a conscious effort. I don't stop. Really ever. I like the buzz I get when I am busy, when I'm being productive.
I really enjoy working.
But I like living as well.
I don't imagine my level of productivity will be all that different if I can do at least some of these things, but I do hope that fear I have of never catching up, of falling forever behind, will ease up a bit.
Now if you'll excuse me, it's still 2016, and I have several things to check off my to-do list before the new year rolls around and I actually have to try to embrace this.
As a child, I hated my name. It felt too big, too old, too heavy. In a sea of Jessicas and Kellys and Lindseys, I was the lone Rosemary. Then I grew up and worked in public radio and the name 'Rosemary Pennington' was a very nice public radio moniker. 'For WBHM, I'm Rosemary Pennington' sounded nice rolling off my tongue. I'd practice saying, 'For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Pennington' so that it would feel natural when I finally got to say it for real. (Once. Only once.)
It's not a terrible academic name, either. A bit old-fashioned, but the weight I hated as a child seems appropriate to me now as I teach and research and chase tenure. My name is mine. Even if its Victorian sound obscures my multiracial background.
What I'm trying to say is that my name sounds as though it belongs to a white woman -- maybe some nice old grandma crocheting blankets or a British school teacher sighing over a cup of tea after a long day herding children (which is like herding cats). It does not sound like the name of a woman who grew up in Appalachian Ohio to a dark skinned dad and a white mother.
Maybe that's why white supremacists have been using it on a website.
I know. I buried the lede. But I have said 'I am not a white supremacist and I have not written for a white supremacist outlet' so many times in the last few months that I decided to change things up a bit.
As my name once did, this situation weighs heavy on me.
Not only am I a multiracial woman who has struggled with that identity because her name obscures her background as does her light skin, I am a scholar who researches minorities in media with the express purpose of countering stereotype and prejudice.
That is who I am. That is what my name means to me.
I am not linking to the website where my name shows up, but I will tell you that the writer has published articles claiming 'blacks aren't human,' an article on German men not wanting to have children (and why this is a terrible thing for the 'European races'), and an article stating that white Brits refuse to 'mix' with (as in have children with) other races.
First, I have traveled a lot to Germany and have conducted research on German media representations of minorities. Second, I have also traveled to the UK and done research on British media. So, the fact my name has been applied to those two articles does not seem to be coincidental.
Third? This is all terrible. Which seems obvious, but bears repeating.
It's terrible. And, again, the author of the articles or anything else appearing on that particular site or in any other white supremacist media is not me. It is someone who is using my name.
I have worked my guts out since I was 13, working four jobs at one point in undergrad, to get to where I am today. I sacrificed years of my life to get a PhD and am living my dream of teaching journalism to college students. I have managed a successful multimedia project, the Twitter account of which has more than 100-thousand followers, and I have published journal articles and edited a book.
My name means something as a journalist and as an academic. My reputation is built upon it. I kept my maiden name when I married because -- yeah, feminism! -- but also because I was already 'Rosemary Pennington, Journalist' when I met my partner. To have racists using it to publish hate speech and bigotry fills me with anger, frustration, and nausea. (There is nothing like getting an email or a tweet asking if you are the author of hate speech to make you immediately want to vomit your guts out.)
The stealing of identities by white supremacists is not new, apparently. In trying to figure out how widespread this is, I found this article from the Guardian in which a man discusses how white supremacists stole his identity to get a rabidly anti-Palestine piece published in the Times of Israel. On the site that's been using my name, I've also seen the name of another scholar from my PhD institution who is certainly not a white supremacist. So, this is happening. How to stop it becomes the issue.
The emails and the tweets I've gotten about this are not from white supremacists. Frankly, I don't know how people are coming across these writings, but they are.
I do not want my name associated with this bigotry and hate speech. I'm looking into how to move forward; trying to figure out what I can do about this situation.
But, for now, I just need you to know this is happening. And I need you to understand that I am not a white supremacist nor have I ever written for, nor will I ever write for, a white supremacist publication of any kind.
*Quote from (and theme of) Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief.
We see their faces, caked in blood and dust and history. We see their bodies lying on sandy beaches, waves seeming to peacefully lap at the shore. We see their bodies carried from bombed out buildings. We see them clutching tattered blankets or stuffed animals as they cry for their mothers or fathers.
We see them, over and over again, and we say, 'How terrible' or 'How awful' or 'That poor child.'
How can you not see those tiny, vulnerable bodies hurt or dead and not feel a deep sorrow and anger?
The problem lies in what we do with that sorrow or anger. It's often nothing.
Research has long shown that media cannot make you do anything. It can influence attitudes and opinions, but it's not going to make you eat healthy or get more sleep or donate money to a charity that will help children like those we see on the news.
The most many do is change a social media avatar or claim to be praying for the country the child came from. Both things are forms of communication that are important, but they're never enough and they will never be enough. Sure, they help raise awareness, but aren't most of us aware of the tragedies unfolding before our eyes?
Scholar Birgitta Höijer has written about how this type of mediated witnessing helps produce two things -- global compassion and indifference. She notes that 'in international politics as well as in the media, many victims never qualify as worthy victims.' Children, women, and the elderly are often framed as 'worthy victims' -- victims who are worthy of our sorrow. Worthy of our compassion.
Höijer also points out the compassion we feel toward victims such as Aylan Kurdi, the young refugee child whose body was photographed on a beach last year, and for Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy who was pictured covered in grime in an ambulance, is often dependent upon those visual representations.
This is spurred, in part, by what Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites suggested is a desire of the audience to 'see themselves' in images. That's why the concept of the worthy, or ideal, victim can be so important -- we were all once children, or have children; we all have elderly people in our lives we love. Ideal victims can form a bridge between the near and the far. Barbie Zelizer as well as Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski have suggested this bridging helps us feel closer to victims. Helps us feel, too, as though we better understand the violence which causes such suffering.
That bridging, though important, still does not resolve the lack of action such images produce. (Although it's being reported that the image of Omran Daqneesh has so disturbed Russia that the nation is looking to broker a 48-hour ceasefire in Syria.) What are we, collectively, to do with all this suffering? All this sorrow? Particularly as it pertains to victims who are physically so far away from us?
Every time I see a photo of a new Aylan or a new Omran I feel a deep nausea. It is fueled partly by the sorrow I feel at the sight of such suffering, but also by the knowledge that, so far, such suffering has meant little.
Aylan Kurdi's death seemed to open up the doors of Europe to refugees fleeing violence in MENA, but how quickly his death was forgotten as a journalist kicked a refugee and as refugee shelters were set on fire. Now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are once again framing refugees as, at times, less than human and certainly as not deserving of our compassion.
The image of 5-year-old Omran sitting caked in dirt and dust is not something I'll soon forget. He, like Aylan, are our Ghosts of Conflicts Present -- carrying condemnation and judgement in their little bodies.
How many more? How many more until we go completely numb and the action we choose is to simply avert our eyes and refuse to see?
That's my fear. That our compassion will turn into indifference.
In February there were reports that casualties in the Syrian Civil War, the conflict which produced both Aylan and Omran, had reached 470,000. So many of them children. So many of them unseen.
How many more?
I feel anger over the sight of little Omran sitting alone in the back of an ambulance. But I feel anger, as well, over the fact that his suffering, and the suffering of so many others, has meant so little.
Elie Wiesel famously said, 'The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.'
Birgitta Höijer suggested the opposite of global compassion is also indifference.
I often find myself paralyzed as I try to figure out how to leverage the one in order to avoid the other.
And, then, what next? How many more victims, how many more Aylans or Omrans before we finally turn our compassion into action? How many more before someone who changes an avatar decides to give to a relief organization? How many more before someone using a hashtag decides to vote? How many more before our collective paralysis is finally overcome?
My fear is that it will be far, far too many.
Each time I see another image, another photo of a dead or suffering child, I think of the painting 'Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind.' I ask myself if tiny Aylan Kurdi's body didn't shame us, if Omran Daqneesh's vacant dust covered stare doesn't shame us into not just feeling but finally doing something with our compassion and with our empathy, then what will?
Ignoring an outbreak of infectious disease is like letting a fire rage unchecked.
That's the perspective of Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases (GSID) Executive Director Dr. Don Francis. Francis has been fighting to prevent and eradicate disease around the world since the late 1970's. He became a household name in the United States after the publication of Randy Shilts's And The Band Played On, one of the earliest books focused on the AIDS epidemic. In the HBO movie based on the film, Francis was portrayed by actor Matthew Modine. In both, Francis appeared as a CDC researcher pissed off, frankly, about the morass those fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic found themselves in during the Reagan administration.
The anger over that situation is still with him today.
'You don't have a fire department and then just let a fire go,' Francis said.
I've heard that comparison of disease outbreak to fire before.
In 2006, I interviewed Dr. Jacques Normand, Director of the AIDS Research Program at the National Institute of Drug Addiction, about the possible link between meth abuse and the spread of HIV.
'As soon as ... the prevalence level reaches a threshold in the population it’s gonna, it could spread like wildfire,' Normand said then.
Francis says fighting the spread of HIV in the early days was like fighting a wildfire without a fire department, 'or even a hose.' This even as there were public institutions, like the CDC, in place that could have made inroads in AIDS prevention if it had been made a national priority.
It wasn't, due in part to the most visible early victims being gay men and IV drug users.
Francis said he put together a 'modest' plan that would have cost 20-30 million dollars to help prevent the spread of HIV, but there was no political will to fund the fight.
'Conservatives just didn't want to give us money to do this,' Francis told students enrolled in my Sex and the News class April 14th. 'The epidemic was full of extremes.'
Francis was on Miami University's campus at the invitation of The Mallory-Wilson Center for Healthcare Education and the University Honors Program. My class was the first of many interactions Francis had with students. His visit culminated with a public talk which skipped over much of his work on AIDS.
'I know that's what you've come here to hear about,' he told a packed audience in Benton Hall, 'but I still feel a lot of anger over what happened and it's sometimes hard to talk about.'
His anger over his experience with the early AIDS epidemic hangs on, in part, what he calls the overall 'appalling' U.S. response to the outbreak.
'You can't deal with an epidemic slowly,' Francis told my students. But that's exactly what happened at the national level in the fight against AIDS.
Francis says local institutions had much more success in putting together educational and prevention efforts and so he asked to be sent 'back home' to California where he served as CDC liaison on the AIDS epidemic with the state government as well as an advisor to the mayor of San Francisco.
Francis would eventually leave the CDC, but he hasn't left the field of public health completely. He worked for some time on trying to develop an HIV vaccine and has also been involved in efforts to eradicate smallpox.
At the end of his public talk Francis urged the students in the audience to follow their passions while they can, telling them that 'there's not much profit to be had in public health, but I can't imagine doing anything else.'
I have tried, for months, to put into words my experience of Istanbul. I traveled there in December for a conference and spent a week crossing the Bosphorus, balancing tea on my knee as the ferry rocked back and forth, watching the city, and the seagulls, move past the boat's windows.
It has been a dream of mine to visit the city for as long as I can remember. A voracious reader as a child, I read stories of the Byzantines and the Ottomans and longed to see the city that spanned two continents. I devoured TV documentaries that told the story of the Hagia Sophia and the film Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul only made my hunger to see the city for myself stronger.
Istanbul is, in a word, overwhelming. How could it not be as it spans past and present; Europe and Asia; land and water?
There's an Orhan Pamuk quote I keep going back to as I think of the city: 'I came across humanity in Istanbul.'
People are everywhere. On the ferries. In the markets. On the sidewalks. They chat with friends over coffee or rush to catch a tram across town. There are women in headscarves and tight skirts; men in leather jackets and long black coats. There are children and old men and old women. Some nibble warm chestnuts as they slowly maneuver the city's streets while others stare straight ahead, walking with purpose. They rush to get home and they take time to feed gangs of the city's stray cats.
The city throbs and hums with people. I would find myself not knowing where to look or worried I wouldn't be able to see everything. The faces, the voices, the laughter; it was all so wonderful.
I did not have enough time there, but I wonder if you would ever have enough time in Istanbul? I ate simits and olive spread; tiny fish and baklava. I shopped in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and an open air market way out of the city center where Turks go to buy every day items. I heard the call to prayer in a shopping district, in Sultanahmet, and in the cafeteria of a university. I walked along the water and saw green parrots in a tree.
I was tired when I left, but sad, too. Sad I hadn't been able to see and experience more.
I don't know when I'll be able to go back, but go back I will. I just wonder how much Istanbul will change between then and now? Turkey is in the midst of political turmoil and things seem fraught and on the edge of change.
But change of what kind?
Istanbul has withstood onslaughts of Crusaders and colonizers. It is a city that survives and evolves in large part due to the love the people who live there have for the city. It is a city that begs you to return.
'If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.' -- Alphonse de Lamartine
Has a Super Tuesday ever been more terrifying? Not that I can remember in my lifetime.
There are a lot of reasons to not like particular political candidates -- lack of experience, lack of understanding of world problems, holding opposing views to your own on things like education, welfare, or abortion.
Then there's bigotry. I know, someone somewhere is shouting 'PC Police' or 'Social Justice Warrior' and I do not care because I do not think believing in equality for all people, working to challenge prejudice and stereotype, or having empathy for people who are not like me is a bad thing.
Social justice warrior me all you want -- I do not care because having an honest discussion about bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and prejudice is sorely needed this election cycle.
But wait, you might say, aren't we talking about Donald Trump enough?
Sure, I'd say, but this is bigger than Donald Trump.
Trump's rhetoric of fear and hate, of xenophobia and of building walls, did not come to him from the ether. It did not emerge fully formed like Athena from the depths of his mind.
It is the product of years of fear being paraded about by politicians of all stripes as a battering ram. For instance, people considered both liberal or leftist and people considered the paragon of conservatism have spewn Islamophobic stories of the Middle East or of who Muslims are without anyone really challenging them. Or, without those doing the challenging being labeled ill-informed or simplistic.
From Muslims to refugees to African Americans to women we have allowed various discourses to circulate that build imaginary walls between people, discourses that frame all of the above as threats to something America is supposed to stand for, discourses that turn Muslims and African Americans and sometimes even women into beings to be feared.
As I watch the pundits and journalists on Morning Joe sputter over Donald Trump's political ascendency, as I listen to analysts on NPR talk about the anger his campaign has tapped into, as I look at photos of journalists and protestors being manhandled at Trump events all I can think is that this is on us.
Trump is on us.
It's on those of us who used the fear of everyday people as a tool to aid in our own grabs at power; it's on those of us who laughed as people we thought were fringe or extreme came to power; it's on those of us who chose apathy over action; it's on those of us who treated Trump like a joke.
It's on all of us. We are all complicit in the rise to power of a candidate who claims everyone loves him while saying terrible things about women and people of color and demeaning things about other candidates in the race.
So as you shout in frustration about Donald Trump's stumble over David Duke and the KKK (I will shout with you) don't lose sight of the fact that we all enabled this current political environment.
No one can save us from it but ourselves.
It's natural, when something terrible happens, to want to find something or somebody to blame. Most prejudices and hatreds are spurred by this urge to blame other people or other things for the problems we face. Increasingly, the other things we want to blame are new media technologies.
If there's anything Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus taught us, it was that the monsters we create are simply extensions of ourselves.
In Virginia a family is mourning the death of their 13-year-old daughter. A young woman who reportedly sought friendship and companionship online. Reporting seems to suggest that desire for connection may have ultimately lead to Nicole Lovell's death.
In reporting that frames Nicole as a young woman seeking a friend, the accused murderers are framed as 'stars' and 'bright students.' This is fairly typical framing in stories about violence against women and girls -- the victims are often framed by their desire to be loved or cared for while their abusers and murderers are framed as good kids/men/women gone wrong.
It shows up in the reporting on Nicole's death just as it showed up in the reporting on the Steubenville rape case. Also similar in the reporting on both cases was the way social media and new communication technologies have been framed.
My colleague (and friend) at Bridgewater State University Jessica Birthisel and I studied news coverage of the Steubenville case. We found reporting that blamed the victim for her attack and framed her rapists as promising kids who just made a bad choice that night.
In our study we also uncovered a framing of mobile communication technologies which seemed to blame them -- seemed to blame YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and text messaging -- for the assault. Rarely were the rapists blamed. The issue of rape culture was almost never addressed.
Something similar seems to be happening in the case of Nicole Lovell's death. A column in the Washington Post, which seemed to take a strange joy in portraying Nicole as a lost and lovelorn young woman, portrayed social media as the thing to be concerned with.
'Parents,' it seemed to scream, 'Don't let your kids use technology!'
'Parents,' it yelled, 'Be vigilant hawks and give your children no freedom!'
Here's the thing: Technology did not make the young men in the Steubenville case rape a 16-year-old woman. Technology did not make Nicole Lovell's murderers kill her.
Technology is not Nietzsche's abyss. It is not staring back at us.
You know what is staring back at us?
The problem lies not in the technology, but in our relation to it and our relation to each other. It lies in the way we produce and reproduce a culture in which women and young girls are told they are things; a culture which tells young men that to be masculine is to be a sexual beast; a culture that suggests this is the only normal and anything else is deviance.
To quote Mad Max: Fury Road -- We are not things.
We are not stories waiting to be written. Our insecurities are not waiting for a writer to come along to use them to paint a picture of how forlorn and lonely we must be.
We are not things.
Just as important: Technologies are not things that exist outside of us.
Rape culture is reproduced and remediated in new media. Unhealthy relationships that have existed as long as there have been people are reproduced and remediated in new media. Hatred, bigotry, misogyny are reproduced and remediated in new media.
Everything we are offline we are online. It all goes with us. The good and the bad.
There is nothing wrong with seeking companionship online. In my research I've found evidence that sometimes online spaces are incredibly important to individuals looking to create communities and to find spaces to feel themselves.
What is wrong is that people prey on those they imagine are weak online. But, again, that exists outside digital spaces.
The scary thing is that new media technologies make it much easier to see all the ugliness.
Bullying existed before Whisper or YikYak. Rape culture predates Facebook or Instagram.
They were just much easier to ignore before videos and texts and photos could go viral. (Did we learn nothing from The Burn Book in Mean Girls?)
Social media and other forms of new media technologies make it much more difficult to ignore the things we find ugly or troubling or problematic. When something horrible happens and we find ourselves staring into the abyss we get scared, we pretend it's the technology staring back from the depths when it's really ourselves.
If we don't recognize that and begin to address that, it won't matter how much we work to change technology or how many parental controls we put in place or how many restrictions because those unaddressed issues will just seep into other spaces, other dark corners. And there will be other Nicoles and other Steubenvilles and other paper tigers we'll find to blame.
The fault, dear Reader, is not in our media, but in ourselves.