Cafe Witness

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why Should We Care?

Brian Conley (right) with Jeff Jarvis at the
2006 Video on the Net conference in Boston.

Brian Conley, creator of the videoblog Alive in Baghdad and a tireless campaigner for human rights, was reportedly detained in China after filming (and webcasting) a street protest for Free Tibet.

This comes just days after internationally famed artist James Powderly was arrested and detained for a similar display of pro-Tibet dissent during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

As of this blog post, I don't believe either man has been heard from since his detention.

And yet, if you read the comments from either link above, you'll notice that the majority of the commenters make the same case: these guys are either too dumb to realize they'd be jailed for protesting in China, or they simply got what they deserved.

Funny, I always thought the ideals of the West were built on the concept of freedom of speech and sticking up for the oppressed.

So, in a cultural climate of zero support... why bother?

And, more importantly, why should we care?

Technology Trumps Humanity Every Time

The world has always had its fair share of corruption, violence, war, famine, human rights atrocities and general self-destruction. But now, thanks to the internet, news of these disasters and tragedies can travel around the globe instantaneously.

Instead of making us all give a damn, however, this overwhelming surge of negative news is simply making us all more jaded.

Now, instead of caring about how one person (or government) is destroying the lives of innocents, we lament that this negativity is ruining our day. Harshing our mellow. Making us aware that the world is not always a bright, shiny (and stark white) iPhone commercial.

We resent that.

We're now so much more aware of just how shitty a place the world can be, I think we're all subconsciously tuning out anything that doesn't provide us with an escape from that reality.

We also have to earn so much more money during this troubled economy just to keep up with our comfortable level of consumption, we don't have the time, energy or resources to care all that much about anything that isn't adding to our coffers or providing us with relief and amusement.

And, even if we did develop the urge to care about something, we still have to cultivate the strength and awareness to take action -- and to know HOW to take action. That requires research, which is time intensive, and often requires sacrifice -- none of which really fits into our modern schedule.

This explains the proliferation of impassioned blogs and tweets about every meaningless technological ripple under the sun -- every new iPhone model, WordPress plugin, or beta test invitation -- and the comparably deafening silence whenever the subject changes to sociological issues. (Except politics. Every LOVES to let the world know what they believe, even if that belief doesn't necessarily translate into action.)

So where do we go from here?

Web 3.0 as Lightning Rod or Escape Clause

As the web gets more intelligent (both the services and their users), we have a choice: we can use this worldwide connectivity and instantaneous data transfer to accomplish more progress faster than any other generation has previously...

... or we can use it to distract ourselves from the horrors of reality, which seem to be ever-growing in number and degree.

I don't blame people for not caring. I don't even blame them for thinking that we should string up the people who DO care. After all, the people who care make the rest of us look bad.

When we hear about the actions taken by people who care, we run the risk of realizing that we probably could have done something more productive with our day than whatever it was we actually did do -- populating databases, animating spinning logos or selling goods to be purchased solely with discretionary income.

If only everyone would just settle down and stop caring, we could all get on with our lives.

And yet...

... would we need to distract ourselves from the terrors of the world if there weren't quite so many?

And would there be so many if those of us who did care actually... took action?

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6 Comments:

  • It takes a lot of guts to take on the power of the state, be it during the Dem. National Convention during the last election cycle, or in China right now. I personally am not willing to get arrested here or overseas. I just don't want to pay that price, but I fully support people who are willing to put themselves on the line like that. In the case of Brian and James in particularly, I know them personally and have a lot of respect for them. I hope they get sprung soon and get home safe.

    By Anonymous jonny goldstein, at 11:20 AM  

  • The reason that so many of the comments can be summed up as "What were you thinking?" is... well, there really couldn't have been a different outcome, except disappearing outright and never being heard from again, period, which may have been a possible outcome had the Olympics not been happening.

    China can do whatever it pleases IN CHINA. Taking on a contrary cause in the opposition's home territory when they have all of the power and you have none is probably not the most effective strategy, brave though it is in a Don Quixote sort of way.

    With luck, we'll see Brian and colleagues declared persona non grata and put on the first flight back to the US very soon. Ironically, though, he may have made his own journalistic inquiries much harder in the future by being deported now, making Alive in Beijing a much more unlikely prospect.

    By Blogger Christopher, at 12:55 PM  

  • Chris: In theory, you're right, except for one aesthetic issue: Why is it that China should be allowed to do "whatever it pleases" IN CHINA?

    By that rationale, if any country were to commit heinous crimes against its own people, that would be fine -- as long as it was done within its own borders.

    If a country wanted to lock up dissidents and deport them -- or even execute them -- they could, as long as it was done within its own borders.

    And if any person, or country, wanted to point out any of those atrocities to the rest of the world, they could be viewed as enemy combatants in war, because they'd be violating the sovereignty of the nation in question.

    I believe countries have the right to make their own laws regarding property, finances, etc., within their own borders, but human rights and freedom of expression are, sadly (for some), universal truths that should be recognized around the world. Granting a government the power to do whatever it wants IN ITS OWN BORDERS means we're all isolationists with diplomacy and war as our only recourse.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 1:06 PM  

  • Perhaps a bad choice of words. In China, China can do whatever it wants because we have zero leverage. A healthy chunk of items on store shelves comes from China and an even bigger chunk of our national debt is subsidized by China, which gives us effectively no power over them. Protests and individual voices are good, but until we as a nation shape up and get our national policies in alignment with the values you espouse, we're pretty much pissing into the wind.

    ... and China knows this.

    By Blogger Christopher, at 1:51 PM  

  • Brian should also be glad this is likely not his fate:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/21/sports/olympics/21protest.html

    By Blogger Christopher, at 2:14 PM  

  • Chris's last URL was cut off in some browsers; it's supposed to be this:

    http://tinyurl.com/632t86

    Very valid points about America's inability to lead by example in this (or most) case(s), at least at the governmental level. But just because our government is bankrupt in numerous ways, it doesn't mean individuals can't step up and lead the way. In fact, that's precisely what *should* happen.

    When you (or your government) allow politics or finances to get in the way of acting out against oppression, whether that act be a protest, a boycott or simply disseminating information, you've set a pathetic precedent. Who knew how right our parents were when they cautioned us as children to always be mindful of our reputations?

    As for the elderly Chinese women sentenced to "re-education," if that doesn't speak volumes about China's POV on human rights, what does?

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 2:32 PM  

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