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March 13, 2013

[2b2k] Events are not the facts

The Tunisian newspaper Tunis Afrique Presse ran a story on the four priorities announced by that country’s new prime minister. It’s a straightforward story, and it is told in a factual, straightforward way.

But now I want to understand it. I know that some of the people involved in the revolution were disappointed that the new government was so Islamist. I know a moderate politician was assassinated there recently, which has destabalized the coalition government. But that’s about it for me. (I’m an American.) So, I read the four priorities of the new prime minister in the Tunisian article, and they seem positive from my point of view. But are they? Perhaps they are disappointing, or fail to address some key point, or are code for repressive policies. I don’t have enough context to know.

So, I go to Google and find a BBC article that fills in much of the context that I need. For example, I didn’t know the country has both a president and a prime minister. I couldn’t have told you anything at all about the coalition government, other than that it’s led by an Islamist party. To understand, we have to be just far enough away.

But what I really needed came from an “analysis” by Jim Muir embedded in the BBC article. Muir’s first paragraph says:

There was little in the announcement from Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh to inspire Ennahda’s [the ruling party] many critics to drop their opposition to the Islamist-led establishment in Tunisia.

Aha! Now I understand!

Of course, I’m assuming that Muir and I share some basic values, and that he’s attempting to give a sincere and honest assessment. I assume that based on cues: It’s the BBC, it’s marked as “analysis” and not “opinion,” the rhetoric isn’t obviously skewed away from my own views. To understand we need to have a lot in common with the person we’re learning from. I would thus be foolish to seek out, say, a Jihadist as my first source, although it might be quite interesting to read such a source as a second source.

We are right to learn what happened from people with whom we share values and assumptions because that way we don’t have to initially dig through a whole bunch of stuff that is either wrong from our point of view or incomprehensible to that point of view. But there’s also another reason:

I want to know what happened. But what happened in Tunisia was not that some personage uttered some words. What happened was that the Islamist party failed to forge a coalition that is likely to bring that country stability. In the same way, what happened last November was not the aggregated sum of factual accounts of how people marked X’s on ballots, and was not even the county-by-county vote tallies. If you started to tell me all of that, I’d be shouting until blue in the face, “But who won the election????” because that’s what happened. Events happen, and events have meaning, which means they only show up from a point of view. Events at the level of knowledge are not a mere recital of facts.

Newspapers for a long time have realized that much of their continuing value comes from the analyses they provide, not just the reportage. But the newspapers’ culture still tends in the other direction. And if you’re not sure that’s right, ask yourself why the analysis was a sidebar to the reportage, instead of the other way around.

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July 23, 2009

Khat in Somaliland, but not here

The Global Post has an interesting and brief report by Tristan McConnel (sponsored by the Pulitzer Center) on the problem in Somaliland of khat abuse. The comments raise the inevitable issues of cross-cultural understanding.

Isn’t it odd that this drug hasn’t crossed the ocean and taken root (so to speak) in the West? I can’t think of another that’s used so widely on one continent that hasn’t shown up in the West. On the other hand, my knowledge of cultural psycho-pharmacology is pretty much limited to what’s in The Encyclopedia of Things You Already Know.

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July 3, 2009

Coup Coup Catch You?

Ethan is once again knowledgeable and provocative, this time about what it takes for a coup to get some attention in this country. He compares the media’s interest in Honduras’ institutional coup (as a guy called it last night on The News Hour) with the almost complete ignoring of various coups in Africa.

Ethan concludes (but read the whole thing):

So why does Honduras get the Iran treatment, while Niger is ignored like Madagascar? Proximity? Strategic importance? (though Niger’s got massive uranium reserves – you remember yellowcake, right?) It’s not population – Niger’s roughly twice the size of Honduras. Expectation? Perhaps we’re sufficiently accustomed to African coups (Madagascar, Mauritania and Guinea in the past year) that Niger’s not a surprise.

Or perhaps all the pundits are still trying to figure out which one’s Nigeria and which one’s Niger…

Ethan conspicuously leaves out racism — the soft racism (as that ol’ phrase President George W. Bush once put it) of not knowing, not caring, and not bothering to develop a narrative.

(By the way, be sure to click on the link in the quote from Ethan. It leads to one of The Onion’s funniest videos ever.)

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November 13, 2008

Obama running in Ghana

Ethanz has a backgrounder (or get-up-to-dater) on the elections in Ghana that closes with the unexpected presence of Obama on (well, near) the ticket.

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September 28, 2008

Ethanz on Africa in Amsterdam at Picnic

Ethan Zuckerman is doing his usual raise-the-bar conference blogging, this time from Picnic in Amsterdam. See his roundup of the “Surprising Africa” day at Picnic. And that’s preceded by a post about an African architect, Francis Kéké, Ethan has long admired. Ethan is always an eye-opener.

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