My friend Omar Mullick is in the process of finishing the making of what is shaping up to be a fantastic film. “These Birds Walk” is a “portrait of contemporary Pakistan is created through the eyes of an ambulance driver and a runaway boy who call a dying humanitarian and his struggling organization home.”
Folks, apologies for the light posting recently – I’ve started to blog over at UN Dispatch and have been focusing my attention on creating content for that platform. (I’m also away on vacation til next week…)
If you don’t already have UN Dispatch’s RSS feed, you can grab it here.
Not that I mean to dwell on this, because it’s not worth indulging their sense of grandeur, but the “Vice Guide to Liberia” received a couple more responses that I think are worth sharing here.
First is Myles Estey’s response – he was the co-producer/fixer/field producer for the documentary. He blogs over at Esteyonage – check out his latest post and his reaction.
Second is Sean’s hilarious “letter of admiration” on his blog Journey without Maps. I’m loving the snark and utter sarcasm – really, a perfectly crafted response to Shane Smith and his Vice-rs.
A lot of people commented on my previous post – an open letter to Shane Smith – and the only negative comments were those of people who are very clearly Vice fans and who claim that my childlike reaction proved that I didn’t “get the point”. Well, fair enough. Perhaps this isn’t meant to be a serious investigative documentary about Liberia, and perhaps all of us who care about Liberia overreacted. But when you work day in and day out with people who are trying to shed years of violence and war and move forward, it feels like a huge set back when a widely-viewed documentary portrays the worst aspects, the most vile of situations and attempts to frame it as “reality”. Anyway — enough disgruntlement. Moving right along….
(Shane Smith is the co-founder of Vice Magazine, a publication which, until recently, I enjoyed reading for their snark and incisive commentary on modern life)
You recently traveled to Liberia to produce a “Vice Travel Guide to Liberia.” What a great idea, I thought at first. In spite of a difficult post-conflict phase and of the many challenges it has faced in recent years, Liberia is on the move. Its lush tropical rainforest, its incredible beaches and its growing service sector are all assets that make the country an increasingly attractive one for tourism. I know you worked with Myles Estey, a Canadian journalist who works for Journalists for Human Rights and writes an interesting blog about his time in Liberia. Myles has written for Vice before, and I’m sure he gave you a good primer on Monrovia and Liberia. Why, then, Shane, must you produce a video where you portray Liberia as full of heroin addicts, blood-thirsty ex combatants, whores and criminals? What kind of drugs were YOU on? Did you even open your eyes between the times you were in a heroin den and when you went to visit General Buttnaked at the church where he officiates?
Shane, I’m trying to understand how exactly your video is a “travel guide”. If it were an actual travel guide, perhaps you would have wanted to include actual places to visit – I wouldn’t have held it against you if you wrote about Liberia’s surf culture, like 90% of foreign journalists who come to Liberia and think they’ve stumbled upon an untold story. I might have rolled my eyes a bit if you recommended the Kendeja, the new multi-million dollar resort that caters to rich expats, as “the” place to stay. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had chosen to visit the Ducor Palace, a former luxury hotel in the capital, which was completely destroyed and looted during the war, and offers stunning views of downtown Monrovia*. But, as Liberia expert Shelby Grossman wrote on her blog about your travel guide, “it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid. It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary.”
What kind of editorial choice was it to only show images of people getting high, cemetaries and church services held by former warlords? You must realize how completely off-base this is. Did you not meet any friendly, funny (and peace loving??) Liberians? And by the way, Shane, which hotel did you stay in when you were in country? Please don’t tell me you stayed at the Mamba Point, the Cape Hotel or the Royal Hotel – otherwise I’m going to be really pissed that you failed to mention their sushi bars, well stocked bars and wi-fi! I suppose you did not have a chance to meet Seanan Denizot or Menipakei Dumoe, who created WOW Liberia, a tour company that offers custom trips in different parts of Liberia. Did you not pick up a copy of Liberia Travel + Life Magazine? Maybe next time you come to Liberia, instead of hanging out in the slums, you could pick up a copy when you go to one of the three or four high-end supermarkets in the capital – it’s the same spot you most likely purchased overpriced Doritos.
Your video stirred a lot of debate among people who care about Liberia. The consensus, it seems, among people who know Liberia, is that your sensationalist, naive and utterly narrow take is not only misguided, but also really doesn’t help improve the country’s reputation. I’m sure a lot of viewers of the Vice travel guide will end up thinking that Liberia is a crazy place with crazy people, and only crazy freaks like Shane Smith would ever dare visit! Shane Smith is such a badass! (Yawn, Shane, yawn.)
I wasn’t going to join the “let’s-criticize-Vice-for-their-idiotic-travel-guide” bandwagon, as many eloquent, well spoken Liberiaphiles already responded to your absurd video. However, this morning I woke up to an email with a link to your interview in the Huffington Post. And what was originally mild contempt became indignation. Dude. Where do you get off talking about Liberia in the way you do? Excerpts:
Q: “The situation in Liberia, whether it be the violence or the poverty or the mounds of rotting garbage that are everywhere, appears pretty bleak. What surprised you most about the country during your time there?”
A:”Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, ‘Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.’ Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like ‘oh, yeah, yeah.’ And cannibalism is just something you never experience, or talk about over dinner; it’s never a discussion you’re used to having. And when you talk about it all day with everyone you meet, it starts to get a little bit unsettling. I’d say 90 percent of my conversations had some sort of cannibalism in them.”
Excuse me, Shane, but who are you speaking with that your 90% of your conversations involve cannibalism? I don’t think I discussed cannibalism a single time during my two months in Liberia – and maybe a handful of times in the three years that I’ve been working with Liberians. With everything that’s going on in Liberia, especially in lively Monrovia, the “most surprising thing” to you was talk about cannibalism…. That’s incredible. Literally.
Shane Smith: At any time, anywhere you would go, you’d be surrounded by 30, 40, 50 kids, and young people and whomever, and they all wanted money, they’re all starving. And if we didn’t have generals with us we would have been totally fucked up and if we hadn’t quite frankly lucked out a couple of times we would have been fucked up.
Q: You mean they would have just jumped you?
A: Oh, for sure. The crime rate in Monrovia is astronomical. The crime rate in West Point [a notorious slum] is even higher. If you have 80 percent unemployment, you can do the math: 80 percent of the population is doing something criminal then just to survive. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to get cash, so if some guy comes in with a car and a camera and a fucking nice pair of shoes, it’s more money than they’ve ever seen. So that part was scary.
Shane – really?? Are you really saying that 80% of the population are criminals? What’s absolutely baffling to me is that Myles – who helped you produce this video – is responsible for writing a series of well-researched, interesting and insightful blog posts entitled “Gettin’ By“, where he challenges the 85% unemployment rate figure (at least get your facts straight.) In this series, he talks about the t-shirt sellers, water vendors, or cell phone card vendors and other various occupations which are not taken into account when official statistics are produced. What he shows, in his series, is exactly the opposite of what you say. Not only are these 85% not criminals, they are courageous entrepreneurs who attempt to make a decent living for themselves, for their families, in the face of adversity. Oh yeah – and don’t forget to leave your “nice fucking shoes” in your fucking fancy hotel room if you don’t want people to eye them with envy, ok?
You really miss the point, Shane. I guess this is a vanity project, and you probably feel so cool that you came back alive from West Point and your adventures with General Buttnaked. I can’t wait for you to visit Vladivostock, where they, as you say, “make this huge mountain out of garbage and then just shove it into the sea.” Sounds like you know your stuff! I’m sure I’ll know everything there is (not) to know about Vladivostock after you visit it.
I wish you had met the Liberians who are working so hard every day to improve their country. Those are the Liberians I know. I, like many others who reacted to your video with disgust, have the privilege of working with a lot of truly inspiring people in Liberia. Maybe you could meet the parents of the little boy with permanent brain damage from a vicious attack during the war (no doubt, that would interest you) who created the first center for children with disabilities. Maybe you could meet some of the women who work with Robertsport Community Works, and who are picking themselves up by the boot straps to improve their lives. Maybe you could get in touch with the locals who write for CeaseFire Liberia or pick up one (or even two!) of the many newspapers to see what’s actually happening in the country (hint: it very rarely involves incidents of cannibalism). Maybe, Shane, you can just open your eyes and your mind. Drop your prejudice and your romanticized notions of what you’d like Liberia to be. Maybe, then, you could actually produce something that is more than an appallingly substandard “travel guide”.
* my bad – Smith goes to the Ducor in part 4 of the series. But, of course, fails to mention it by name or discuss any part of its history. Sigh.
Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter:
Per usual, I am multi-tasking – reading, blogging, watching TV, doing laundry, etc. I normally wouldn’t bring up what I’m watching on TV here (because, seriously, who cares?), but Christiane Amanpour is on CNN right now, talking about Christianity in an investigative documentary called “God’s Warriors”. Anyway, she just said the following things: 53% of Americans believe in creationism, and 1/3 of Americans would like to see evolution replaced by creationism in schools.
I would like to find comparative survey results for say, France. But I’m pretty sure no one is bothering asking this question there – while I’m sure plenty of people believe in creationism, it’s unfathomable to imagine 30% of french people wanting to see this belief taught in school. I know the US is a very religious country (if you have not yet watched Jesus Camp, you must), but come on…
Now this guy, Ron Luce, is telling us that women should wear skirts below the knee because, well, you know, you don’t want to tempt the guys. That reminds me of women having to wear burqas so as not incite men – where do you draw the line?!
IRIN, the UN news wire, put out a piece called “Humanitarian work – it’s the new black” today. It starts off with this joke:
At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.
At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”
An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”
Pretty funny stuff, eh?
But the rest of the piece, much to my dismay, doesn’t really attempt to answer any questions concerning celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes. This is the bottom line, according to the author:
The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.
I emphasized the verb “know”, because that is my main qualm with celebrity activism. What do people actually know about these issues? Very little. Raising awareness is great, but when complicated issues are boiled down too far, it creates a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, which, ultimately does not serve the cause. And unless the “knowing” is accompanied by the “doing”, what’s the real value?
The other issue, that my prof Rony Brauman had raised, is that the crises or issues that are chosen by celebrities to be covered do not necessarily reflect the highest level of need. For instance, not a lot of celebrity activists are standing up for the distribution of rehydration salts which help children with diarrhea survive (2 million children per year die of diarrhea – that’s 6,000 children every day – if I were a huge cynic, I would point out that that represents a sh*t load more victims than the Darfur conflict.)
Mainstream media already does a pretty poor job of coverage – so many issues that are crucial in terms of human security (diarrhea), or regional security (the ongoing conflict in Somalia) for example, are sometimes brought up but never given the kind of attention that other “pet” issues have received. When you add another layer that determines coverage worthiness (is someone beautiful talking about this in large public gatherings?), then the reasons for which a crisis is covered in the media become increasingly less objective.
That being said, we should definitely differentiate between Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya and the real commitments made by the likes of Bono. Clearly, the two operate at very different levels of engagement, and their actions have different motives and consequences. Still though, to come back to the IRIN piece, how much more do people really know thanks to celebrity endorsements?