In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.


“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.

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One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.

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And a few more points: Continue reading

Endgame taking shape in Libya

Although I have a ton of work to do, I. cannot. pull. myself. away from Libya news. The latest whoa nuggets:

- Last night, the Libyan military sent text messages to Benghazi residents telling them the city would come under assault today.

- NYT journalists Lynsey Addario, Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks, and Stephen Farrell have been missing for two days and were last heard from just before the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya fell to Gaddafi’s forces. On facebook, my Benghazi-based friend Louis described the disappearances as a “gut check.”

- Human Rights Watch wants to be really damn clear about where things stand.

“What everybody is focused on is drawing a line, literally in the sand, around Benghazi, to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from capturing the city and staging a bloodbath,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “If Qaddafi wins, it could kill the moment in the entire Middle East.”

- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) moved its staff from Benghazi and Ajdabiya to Tobruk, farther from Gaddafi’s onslaught.

- Guy Verhofstadt, a member of the European Parliament and former Belgian prime minister railed against EU inaction [also from the Al Jazeera March 16 live blog].

“This makes me sick of the EU. We have learnt nothing at all of  history. When Gaddafi is back shall we say business as usual? Are we going to close our eyes again? Will we add one black page more to European history?”

- The International Crisis Group says a no-fly zone won’t help at this stage, and is advocating instead for an immediate ceasefire backed up by the credible threat of military intervention, a peace process for political transition, and an Arab and African-led peacekeeping mission.

- The UN Security Council is expected to come to a decision regarding Libya on Thursday morning EST.

My friend Louis at Libya’s ‘Revolution Media Center’

My friends Louis Abelman and Brian Conley are in Libya working on a crisis mapping project for their innovative new media company Small World News. Louis tweeted this badass photo from the media center of the rebel headquarters in Benghazi.

Louis, man, you're too fuckin' cool.

By the way, I just wrote a piece for UN Dispatch about what might prompt a foreign military intervention in Libya.

Looks like those policemen in Ghazni didn’t defect to the Taliban after all

Last week, the New York Times reported that the police force of Khogeyani district in Ghazni defected to the Taliban. The claim was backed up by statements from pseudonymous Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and Mohammed Yasin,  the district police chief of Khogeyani.

[…] the Taliban, it appears, have reintegration plans of their own. On Monday morning, they claimed to have put them into effect.

In Khogeyani, a volatile area southwest of the capital, the entire police force on duty Monday morning appears to have defected to the Taliban side. A spokesman for the Taliban said the movement’s fighters made contact with the Khogeyani’s police force, cut a deal, and then sacked and burned the station. As many as 19 officers vanished, as did their guns, trucks, uniforms and food.

Even the local police chief, who missed the attack, said he suspected a defection en masse.

“This was not an attack, but a plot,” said Mohammed Yasin, the chief of the Khogeyani police force. “The Taliban and the police made a deal.”

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the Afghan officers decided to defect after “learning the facts about the Taliban.”

“We never force people to join us,” said Mr. Mujahid, whose name is fictitious. “The police joined us voluntarily and are happy to work with us, and to start the holy war shoulder to shoulder with their Taliban brothers.”

The article instigated hand-wringing on the part of Afghanistan-watchers over what a mass defection of police officers from a front line province said about the strength of the Taliban at this point in the war, and what the prospect of more defections would mean for the future of the Afghan security forces.

But it now appears Yasin was wrong and Mujahid was, as is usually the case, peddling bullshit to the press.

Pajhwok reports that the “defectors” are turning up dead.

GHAZNI CITY (PAN): Dead bodies of five policemen and two unidentified men have been found in Ghazni and Maidan Wardak provinces, officials said on Saturday.

The bodies, said to be of the policemen captured by the Taliban fighters during an attack on the Khogyani district in Ghazni, were found in the Sibki area of Chak town of Wardak, the governor’s spokesman said.

Shahidullah Shahid told Pajhwok Afghan News police had been ordered to shift the bodies to the district headquarters. Of the 17 policemen seized by the Taliban five days back, the bodies of four were found in the Khwaja Omari district on Thursday.

Although the fighters said the police surrendered to them soon after the assault on the district headquarters, they have not yet commented on the killings.

Update: Via Twitter, Josh Foust reminds that “they still could have defected. We have no idea really.”

That’s true. One possibility (among several) is that some of the policemen really did defect, and set up their colleagues to be captured during the defection. In this scenario, it’s possible that the real defectors were then asked to kill the captives to prove that they had truly gone over to the side of the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s photography problem

Google ‘Afghanistan.’ I just did, and the photos that showed up? These:

A map of the country, a photo of an American soldier with villagers in the background, Bamiyan city, Steve McCurry’s famous photo of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, and…more soldiers.

I’m surprised there weren’t any photos of women in burkas or unwashed, frightened-looking little boys in this first lineup. Those are wire service favorites.

Afghanistan, like Africa, has a photography stereotypes problem.

More soon on why this is a problem. And thanks to Glenna Gordon for more blogging inspiration.

Amrullah Saleh’s fortress of solitude

Jerome Starkey’s prose makes me laugh at horrible situations:

In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman in his mountain bolt hole, Amrullah Saleh compared the Taleban to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and accused the government of being “ultra soft” on the brutal, mediaeval insurgents.

“Mountain bolt hole.” Oh dear.

OMFG Karzai cabinet purge. Or not.

So….

According to the Globe and Mail, Karzai is expected to keep only five of his 26 current members. Replacements will be chosen “based on merit, rather than clout.”

HUUUUUGE. Unless it isn’t true.  Half a day on from when the Globe and Mail broke the story, no one else is reporting it.

That said, Shukria Barakzai and Khalid Pashtun aren’t exactly renowned rumor-mongers.

Suspicious.

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.

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Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.

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Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.

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Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.

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The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.

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The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.

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From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”