Tag Archives: politics

Federal Research Dollars: Bailed Out By Philanthropy?!

In the wake of highly controversial bailouts aimed at bolstering our struggling economy over the past few years, I found it bitterly ironic that news of this year’s cancelled Fulbright-Hays DDRA funding precipitated this move by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now some of the world’s most heavyweight philanthropists are bailing out the federal government? Strange days indeed. It’s been a week since I heard this, and still I’m not sure what to think. Is it yet another move toward the privatization of virtually everything? Can it be as temporary as Mellon and IIE claim it is?

One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more with the Mellon Foundation that international language and area studies funding constitutes “an important investment in the nation’s intellectual infrastructure.” With that in mind, let me put forth some unabashedly partisan encouragement on this matter. I hope with these benevolent grant makers for wiser decisions in coming years, I urge readers to contact their relevant representatives urging them toward the restoration of Fulbright-Hays programs, and I applaud the Mellon Foundation’s efforts to mitigate the devastation that these cuts foist upon doctoral candidates whose research promises a brighter future for the nation and the world. Given the federal government’s recent heavy investment in “critical languages,” this about-face for grant funding comes as a shock. Here’s hoping the cuts can be perceived as a senseless deviation from smart policy and swiftly corrected for the 2012-2013 funding and subsequent cycles.

 

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Ugandan Journalism and the Production of Power

You wouldn’t have to be living under a rock to have missed what was going on in Uganda over the last two weeks.  Major North American news outlets provided lackluster coverage in rather inconspicuous places, and it seems the largest networks now have bigger fish to fry jerks to gawk at.  Admittedly, I’m a bit more closely tuned in to Ugandan news than the average American, but I’m no less interested in a concept we have in common with Uganda: free speech is supposed to be a cornerstone of both constitutional governments.  Permit me this temporary departure from strictly artistic concerns in favor of a concern that many artists share.

Uganda is a tricky setting for examining this issue, because on the surface, major media appear to be reporting the facts.  This seems to be the case even when police make outlandish claims about how many citizens can suddenly get a hold of illegal firearms (note: while it’s true that a small number of firearms were stolen from police stations, that doesn’t seem to add up as the sole cause for the total number of people injured and dead).  Good thing that by Sunday, things appeared to be back to normal.  President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni must have cleverly used that magic “combination of political might and political nuance to handle the situation” as his supporters put it (via Voice of Africa).  It’s the ratio that’s really troubling; Museveni seems to lean more toward might all the time.

French intellectual Michel Foucault famously wrote in several different ways about the relationship between force and authority.  For the purposes of examining the contemporary Ugandan situation, we can boil Foucault’s observation down to this: true and effective authority cannot rest on force, brute strength, or military power (the power over life and death) alone.  Museveni apparently knows this, which is why he also makes every attempt to control something else Foucault wrote extensively about: the regime of truth.

Evidently Museveni thinks he will be able to control the flow of information to bolster his government during turbulent times.  His supporters think along the same lines, making it hard to believe that every journalist held for any charge was held on Museveni’s orders.  He may in some cases be an unwitting accomplice to his loyal followers power hungry police brigades who, while attempting to restore order to the streets of Kampala, have violated journalists’ constitutional rights.  However, if current reports about the growing importance of citizen media or indeed the increasingly sophisticated commentary of the blogren are any indication of things to come,  neither Museveni nor the police will be equipped to quell social unrest by controlling mass media outlets and the journalists who write for them.  Dare I ask what their next steps would be?

Museveni is no fool.  While for various reasons his government has not put a stop to an LRA conflict that remains rather distant from the capital and the state house, he has been in African politics long enough to know that there’s a difference between an extended bush war and an all-out civil war that plays out in urban violence.  For now, an already war weary Uganda seems to be finding ways to keep the peace even at the cost of many of its independent news media.  Museveni has played a role in making this a one-sided conversation during the past week, and perhaps people accept this on the surface as they draw on all too recent memories of the role that radio played in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s.  Citizen media, on the other hand, behave on their own terms.  People can blog or microblog anonymously, and Ushahidi maps crises like this one outside the scope of any single government’s reach.  Then again, I haven’t seen any tweets or blogs on these issues from those I follow on those media since about five days ago.  Have things really calmed down that much, or are we seeing a new caution among the blogren borne out of fear, censorship, or both?

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Biden Balks While Palin Performs

Sarah Palin gave the performance of her career during this evening’s Vice Presidential debate.  Right from her initial “Can I call ya Joe?” she disarmed an initially cocky Biden, who took the first twenty minutes of the evening getting his balance to get off the defensive.  But even his easy smile and his tendency toward verbosity could not overcome this disciplined Senator.

If you’ll excuse the punny heteronym, Biden let some of Palin’s more offensive tactics slide.  Maybe he thought a tougher approach would have been tantamount to picking on the slow kid in class.  Tonight, however, Palin turned ditzy into dazzling with her newest talent show feature: “I can debate, too!”  That was just the problem.  She did all of the things a high school debate coach would tell her to do.  She broke the third wall, looking directly over the moderator to both the live and television audiences (the people in their living rooms on mainstreet, as she would have it).  Biden’s *aw, shucks* charm and toothy grin as he prepared rebuttal notes languished too long into this own remarks for the first part of the debate.

This blog is about art of all kinds, and if this campaign was about performance artists, Palin would have won tonight.  But wait . . . what about the issues?  Her well-rehearsed mantras about a “country first maverick” only went so far before Biden’s rebuttal demanded something more substantive.  Where he subtly challenged her on the issues, she consistently changed the subject or missed the subtlety entirely.

Diamond Joe came into this debate all-too-confident that he could first do no harm.  Mainstream punditry painted this tonight as a loss for the Senator on the grounds that confidence blinded him to how well-prepared Palin’s offense was.  Palin may have saved face by recovering from a disastrous CBS interview, but a good performance could not hide the vacuity of her thoughts on the issues.  An Alaskan lemming might make a pleasing Veep candidate for McMaverick, but she won’t do for thinking Americans.

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The Art of Great Leadership

Regular readers of this page know that I purposely conceptualize art in the broadest possible sense here. Today I pay homage to a man whose greatest masterpieces include ending apartheid, establishing a consensus government in South Africa, and establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nelson Mandela turns ninety today, and his cry for freedom still resounds well beyond the borders of South Africa.

Several mainstream media journalists have already highlighted Mandela’s legacy in birthday pieces. Ann Curry did a predictable interview with pulitzer-winning photojournalist David Turnley this morning. No doubt his new book contains some wonderful images from Mandela’s lengthy incarceration and subsequent rise to the presidency in South Africa, but the Today show piece felt dutiful rather than laudatory of Mandela. Richard Stengel’s brilliant article in Time, on the other hand, offers some not so subtle advice to presidential candidates and other up-and-coming leaders from the annals of Mandela’s wisdom and experience. This is the highest of praise for Mandela’s leadership skills.

Among Mandela’s most inspiring habits lie his tendency toward calm rather than fear and his staunch belief in consensus at all costs (both of which Stengel nuances in his own way). At the end of an American administration that has manipulated the American public through fear, Mandela’s ability to stand firm in the face of fear and violence is well worth emphasizing. This ability relates directly to the notion of consensus. As a politician, Nelson Mandela surrounded himself with friends and rivals alike. He didn’t have to agree with everyone in his cabinet in order to know that their opinions mattered to some sector of the population. Abraham Lincoln did this, too. It’s a policy of leadership that reflects a willingness to face one’s foes, despite the fears they might inspire, in pursuit of the most democratic of principles: consensus. Great artists and performers take huge risks like this too, and it often similarly results in heightened popular opinion. The necessity to use fear to manipulate people reveals insecurity and vulnerability, but the conquest of fear lies at the heart of great leadership.

Today we celebrate a leader who has known great fear. Rather than use it to his political advantage, however, he led his people into direct confrontation with it. It took a truly great leader to affect a country that was so very polarized to face its demons and come to terms with them. As Mandela moves forward, he is asking the wealthiest people in the world to face some of their greatest fears: giving up some of that wealth to those who need it most. He also denounces those who rely on fear to control people and get their own way. Like timeless art, the inspiration of great leadership knows no temporal limitations. Happy birthday, Madiba.

For more information on Nelson Mandela, see NPR’s piece on his pivotal moment, check out an audio history of his life, or take a look at this video montage from NBC news. For more on his current philanthropic and humanitarian work, refer to his foundation website or check out the 46664 project.

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