Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: The YZ Prize for Peace

Our roving reporter, Steve Finch, has an interesting story today that he asked us to file under “that’s something that would really benefit humanity.”

SANTA MONICA, CA — The YZ Prize Foundation–of no relation to the X Prize Foundation–announced a new reward today which they’ve called simply the Peace YZ Prize. Like all such prizes, the foundation is offering substantial financial reward–they’ve estimated that it will be nearly five billion dollars–to anyone who can accomplish it’s objective.

The prize’s conditions for completion aren’t pinned down exactly, but the foundation assures us that it requires a substantial commitment to peace by two longstanding rivals. They suggested that the resolution in Northern Ireland is a good model for the type and stability of solution they’re seeking.

Asked where they would like this prize won, the chairman said, “anywhere that needs peace.” Pressed he offered that he’d like to see peace anywhere, and agreed that Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Darfur, Columbia, Chechnya, and Spain’s Basque regions were all viable candidates. “And of course,” the chairman said, “we’d love to reward the prize for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

When questioned as to whether those were the only possible candidates the panel admitted it’s ignorance. “Anywhere which has a substantial history of conflict and can muster a meaningful resolution to the grievances is a candidate. We’d certainly consider places other than those mentioned. A favorable solution between Ethiopia and Eritrea could certainly be considered, for example.”

The disbursement of the prize also raised some questions. The rough response was that it would be split between the two parties involved, or given as a lump sum to the government in the case of internal conflicts. This lead to some disappointment that the resolution would not go to a person, as the Nobel Peace Prize does.

Reached for comment, most observers feel that this is a good move. Said Ben Silverburg, a professor of International Relations at Yale, “I’m not naïve enough to believe that the prize will lead to a sudden outbreak of peace movements all over the world, but I do think it’s a good idea. Anything that offers increased incentives for peace is likely to, if only a little bit, lead to greater peace in the world.”

The prize has no deadline. If it takes 3, 35 350 years for this prize to have a viable winner, the organizers assert that they will get the prize. How exactly that will work is unclear. Also unclear as we go to print, is how exactly this prize will be paid for. Though some have speculated that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed the prize, there is absolutely no support on that notion.


Review: The Agronomist

The Agronomist is a 2004 film about the life of an agronomist. As you may infer from that sentence, it didn’t win large audiences. But to say it’s about an agronomist is to minimize the truth. Jean Dominique called himself an agronomist, as was his training, but this underestimates his work, his charisma, and his struggle.

A more useful explanation of the man would be that he was a Haitian journalist and activist. His story is so intimately intertwined with his country’s troubled history that the director, Jonathan Demme, understandably found it all but impossible to tell one without the other.

I’ve struggled with my ignorance about Haiti before, in my review of Aristide and the Endless Revolution, and I admit to having done little about it. Even as I regularly demand that the world–or at least the 10 people who pay attention to me–work hard to combat the easy ignorance that pervades modern life, I confess I’m rather careless myself.

But ignorance doesn’t make The Agronomist any harder to grasp. The history of the consecutive dictatorships of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier are, at least in the telling of Dominique and Demme, mercifully easy to understand. They were run-of-the-mill bullying third-world strong men. It’s an easy archetype to grasp.

And so it is against these force that the young agronomist–who never had land of his own to cultivate–began to became a journalist and a crusader. And when given the chance to purchase the radio station at which he learned the ropes, Jean Dominique jumped at the chance.

His rise to national prominence is much more presumed than presented. Being the most innovative and informative program in a country where anything other than repeating official decrees is seen as dangerous, Dominique gained prominence feeling assured by Jimmy Carter’s human-rights presidency.

Demonstrating the confounding impact of the United States on countries few of its citizens pay attention to, Reagan’s ascension allowed “Baby Doc” to violently force Jean Dominique off the air and into exile in New York. His return, after the Duvalier regime fell, is celebrated by at least sixty thousand. The violent ouster of the newly-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 also forces Dominique back into exile while his radio station is forcibly demolished.

Jean Dominique in seen, in the posthumous documentary, as the soul of Haiti. And it’s easy to understand the desire to paint such a picture: he’s charismatic, he’s charming, he’s passionate about the people. Unacquainted as I remain with Haitian history, I can not say how well that portrait meshes with reality.

The story is both interesting and important. That alone makes it a good documentary. That it’s subject is so expressive and dynamic before the camera makes it a well-told story as well. Surely there are better and more comprehensive examinations of Haiti in the world, but until I find one, I’ll tell you that The Agronomist is a best introduction to Haitian history I’ve seen.

american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.