Two Kinds of Wrong at UC Berkeley

Posted on March 4, 2010

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I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m a forty-one year old UC Berkeley Senior. Not your typical UC Berkeley student, and that’s not the only reason. With that in mind, I wanted to write a little bit about two incidents that really depressed me about our media and political discourse that occurred on the same day.

Pamela Constable, a Washington Post foreign correspondent addressed our “Understanding J0urnalism” class today.  Constable wrote a book, which we are required to read for the class, Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia. On many levels, as one would assume, its a fascinating book. Constable was in Afghanistan for two years during the original Taliban regime, and her observations and stories about life under the regime should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Taliban, and the political environment into which the US arrogantly thrust itself at the beginning of the decade. As the title implies its a very human look at the intersection of human fortune and politics.

Given this, I was quite surprised at the level of overt bias that Constable radiated during her short talk. Right off the bat, Constable took a tar brush to blogs, insisting that they were all inherently un-researched and without basis, and just people waking up in the morning stating their opinion. I knew I would only have one question to ask, and so I didn’t ask her what she based her generalization about blogs on. I saved my question for one of the most jaw-dropping statements made by Constable.

Constable assured us that the US mission in Afghanistan had the best intentions, and that the biggest problem with civilian deaths caused by our military in Afghanistan was that the Taliban were so adept at propagandizing them, and—-I’m quoting here—-“brainwashing” the populace into hatred of the US. When I questioned her on this, pointed out that it wasn’t really propaganda if it was true, and that one didn’t need to sell hatred of the US over the murder of civilians, because that hatred sells itself, she replied with even more obvious biases. She first averred that the number I had used for civilian casualties, five hundred or so at present per year, were actually deaths caused by the Taliban. I responded that those were UN figures, and, indeed are available here [page 5]. She then stated that we were there as the guests of the Afghan government, a ludicrous assertion, since the current Afghan government remains in power through an electoral fraud so well-documented that both the UN and US have acknowledged it, though they maintain that there is no way to have credible elections.

Not surprisingly, she cut me off to give someone else a chance, which I hold no grudge about, though I was disappointed at the failure of any students to follow this line of questioning. Later, another student asked her if it wasn’t a better idea to have native correspondents in foreign bureaus, rather than sending lone agents who often don’t know the language or understand the culture. This question should have been a softball. While it may be a legitimate criticism for a country such as Ghana or even India, there are very good reasons why going solely with natives in a country like Afghanistan or Pakistan would not be such a hot idea; the foremost being the vulnerability of said journalists to a capricious justice system and state-sponsored censorship. An Afghan journalist, for example, without the protection granted by a Western passport and diplomatic machine, would never have been able to do the kind of reportage that Constable was able to do with very little risk to her personal safety or freedom in the Taliban nineties. But, ironically, it was actually Constable’s very different answer to this question that revealed just how unabashedly biased she was—-and indeed, how incredibly unaware she was about her biases.

Constable offered that, indeed, correspondents like her rely on native journalists for almost everything [without giving them a byline]. But what a bad idea, it would be, argued Constable, to let them do the original reporting, because–and this was so shocking that I snickered out loud–they were too biased to do accurate reporting. The image of a woman who revealed the most strident pro-US biases: that Taliban who killed civilians were evil, but that our “boys” had the best intentions; that our government was doing good work; that there was a functioning Afghan government that had “invited” us to the region; that the Taliban caused civilian deaths by hiding in civilian populations; and, of course that everyone else is biased but Americans; claiming that native Afghan journalists are too biased to accurately report news of the region to the Washington Post was about the most absurd thing I have witnessed.

I left class a little early, I suppose in a tepid display of protest, after our professor turned the discussion over to Constable’s love of animals. The most disappointing aspect of the entire affair, actually, was how apathetic and apolitical the rest of the students were.

But then again…today, March 4, is a state-wide protest on Cuts in Education. There’s a strike which I’d like to honor, and I do in spirit, but I put too much on the line to jeopardize my education. On another level, my biggest problem with these demonstrations has been how campus centered they are and how unable they are to articulate the source of the problem or any solution. Meeting the protesters halfway, I circled around their picket line, and came back up around them and ended up getting into a conversation with a kid wearing a red face mask [made out of a t-shirt sleeve]. I told him that, if he found the time, he might suggest to his comrades to actually find a catchy way to articulate issues and solutions [and in defense of smart protesters, I did see a good one, “chop from the top”]. I told him to look at it from the perspective of an average person, who might actually feel a bit of antagonism to people who have the freedom to be out in the middle of a beautiful spring day, rather than work. That they would have to talk about things concretely and to actually address solutions. Where do you cut, when you have to cut? Why are the cuts so awful? Who are they affecting? What about the other centers of education, our high schools, our Community Colleges? I would say that the Community College issue is a bigger fire, given that the cuts can’t be offset with endowments as UC Berkeley has done.

All through my old man-ifesto, he nodded his head respectfully, and every time a cheer or whoop would go out from the crowd behind us, his eyes would light up and he would look back, like a kid being scolded by his mother at the edge of the playground. As I left, the crowd cheered, “Whose campus? Our campus!”

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