Cambodia’s Canals

A story this morning about the restoration of Cambodia’s irrigation canals by Thomas Fuller in the New York Times brought back memories of my first experience in Cambodia. It was around canal reconstruction following the genocidal regime of Pol Pot known as the Khmer Rouge.

The canals were destroyed by the secret carpet bombing carried out under the Nixon Administration. When Pol Pot fell to the Vietnamese in 1978, the world learned how extensive was the destruction resulting from the combination of U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge genocide. The country was reduced to near stone age conditions according to some who first entered after the Vietnamese occupation.

The whole of its modern infrastructure had been dismantled. Electrical grid, paved roadways, gasoline powered vehicles (including deisel-powered water irrigation pumps), the school system, modern businesses. The cities were emptied and residents forced to join rural communes where they were forced to engage in agriculture, whether they knew what they were doing or not.

The goal was to re-create an idealized communitarian agricultural-based society free of the exploitation and sins of industrialized societies. Nearly one-quarter of the people were systematically killed. It was this era that gave us the chilling descriptive phrase “killing field” to describe those places where people suspected of being counter-revolutionary were killed and buried in mass graves.

Anyone could be so indicted for the flimsiest of reasons–being educated, wearing glasses, having been accused of someone (including their own children) of making a statement against the revolution. It was one of the horrific nightmares of modern Asia.

After the regime fell, Church World Service, under the leadership of Dr. Paul McCleary, sought to send veterinarians and hydrologists to Cambodia to help vaccinate the national herd and begin canal reconstruction. The needs were obviously enormous and food production was foremost. Healthy draft animals were essential to assist in cultivating the fields and the irrigation canals had to be repaired to deliver water to rice paddies. It was urgent to rebuild infrastructure to re-establish reliable food production.

But this was not so easily done as might appear. First, it was still controversial, even if the world was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Cambodian people. The U.S. had not resolved its own conflicted feelings about the results of the war in Vietnam and was unable even to consider that the effort there had led to a communist takeover of the the South.  To provide aid to this region was highly inflammatory, and among some it was considered traitorous.

During the war, Cambodia was viewed by the Nixon Administration as a staging area and safe harbor for Viet Cong troops coming into South Vietnam from the North and thus, it was targetted with mercilous bombing by U.S. warplanes, bombing that was kept secret from the U.S. public for several months.

After the war, the U.S. continued a trade embargo against Vietnam prohibiting the transfer of equipment or commercial services directly from the U.S. In this atmosphere many in the U.S. felt any attempt by the church to engage either Vietnam or Cambodia was, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Dr. McCleary, however, was committed to reconciliation between the peoples in the region and in the U.S., and many, including the U.S. government, were open to humanitarian efforts, if not normal relations.

As I recall, the negotiations to get personnel in place were complex and circuitous. First, everything was done legally. The U.S. government provided the necessary licenses. The Vietnamese, who occupied Cambodia and, therefore, were in control of the government also agreed. But each imposed specific conditions, so you can begin to anticipate what a complex knot of relationships would be required to pull this off.

The Polish Christian Council, an ecumenical organization, and the Cuban Christian Council, another ecumenical group, would provide the personnel. Equipment, medicines and seeds would come from Europe and, under certain restrictions, the U.S.

I recall the first of many conversations that led to the agreement. We sat around a table with ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Poland in addition to several NGO executives, and probably UN staff, I can’t recall. The questions and explanations circled around the table. English to French to Polish to Spanish and sometimes to Vietnamese. It was laborious and time-consuming. But it was fruitful and months later I was sent to Cambodia to document the work in film.

And the work was well underway. National vaccination programs had made significant headway in protecting the herds and an added benefit was that the cold chain necessary for animal vaccinations was equally suitable for human medicines.

The topologists had trained several survey teams who were conducting a national survey of the topology to provide hydrological information to the engineers. And many canals were already well along in the reconstruction process.

It was a remarkable story in light of historical circumstances and the limits the people faced. There was still no reliable electrical service and the entire grid had to be re-created because the Khmer Rouge had removed the copper wiring.

Stability was uneven, despite the Vietnamese presence. Gunmen attempted to storm our hotel late one night and at least one was killed and as daylight dawned his body lay on the median strip on the street.

While we traveled the country, with Vietnamese and Cambodian escorts, we were to start two hours after sunrise and to be in a hotel two hours before sunset.

Standing in a field overlooking a mass grave I was eaten up with mosquito bites. Despite protective clothing and repellent, they got through. And it was here I first contracted malaria. A few hours later, feverish and mostly out of my head, my colleagues got me to a physician who dosed me with sulfa drugs and got the malaria under control. And we completed our filming.

As I read the story in the Times it reminded me how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to build a nation. After winning independence from 100 years of colonial rule by the French, Cambodia endured four years of carpet bombing by the U.S. and eventual annexation into the U.S. war with Vietnam. A decade of national strife led to civil war won by the Khmer Rouge. They ruled for three years before Vietnam invaded and took control. Vietnam remained for ten years. (See a helpful timeline here.)

The children playing in the irrigation canals probably have little if any awareness of what it has taken to give them a swimming hole.

Michael Moore and The Transportation Bailout

Michael Moore’s letter about the bailout of the big three automakers hits the target when he proposes conditions Congress should impose if they are to get the money. Moore writes: “The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.
He’s also on target when he says the problems of depending on carbon-based fuels have been well-defined and ignored by the auto executives for at least thirty years.

Here in Geneva the first thing you notice when the metro bus pulls up is that it’s clean and graffitti-free. An eye-catching LED sign flashes the route number. And, as most buses today, it’s wheelchair accessible and the driver can lower it pneumatically for those needing the extra assist. Step inside and a wide aisle makes it easy to maneuver and the cloth-covered seats positioned along the outer wall are also clean. Oh, did I mention that when you register at a hotel you are given a transportation card for free access to the city’s public transportation system for the duration of your stay?

In addition, Geneva has light rail and electric trolleys, all equally accessible and inexpensive.

Observe traffic and you see mostly small, compact autos, a huge number of motorscooters, bicycles and motorcycles. Smart Cars, those two-seater battery powered city scamps, roll past as well. And Geneva isn’t alone in its transport system. Nearly every major city in Europe and industrial Asia has similar transportation capabilities.

This relates directly to Michael Moore’s point. Fuel-saving alternatives exist and are in use outside the U.S. Among governments that view it their responsibility to save energy and the environment, and also to move people about, enlightened transportation practices have been in operation for decades. It’s the U.S. and our automotive industry that is behind, embarrassingly, maddeningly behind. And now the taxpayers are being asked to bail them out due to their own recalcitrance and short-sighted resistance to change.

If the government does agree to shell out our money, the least lawmakers could do is require the automakers to behave in the interests of the public that’s saving them and the environment they have so callously disregarded for three decades and more.

Did the News Produce Terror?

A story on CNN International today discusses the influence of non-stop coverage of the Mumbai incident and asks if wall-to-wall coverage contributed to prolonged terror and created “celebrity terrorists.”

The terrorists had sufficient explosives to do more damage in a shorter time, the story reports, but speculates they took more time and extended the terror–even took hostages but made no demands–because media coverage advanced their aims, among which were to impress upon the public their ability to wreak havoc.

While it didn’t occur to me that the coverage was creating celebrity for the terrorists, it did seem, as I watched in sleepless jet lag in Geneva, that frequent references to “baby-faced gunmen smiling as they sprayed bullets” along with produced packages of graphics and repeated video loops framed the occupation of the Taj Hotel in manner almost surreal.

At times the intro to live coverage seemed indistinguishable from promos for upcoming documentary coverage. I found myself tuning out when the promotion of an upcoming program on genocide and another promo on CNN’s global news coverage of disasters appeared.

As compelling as events were in Mumbai, this framing coupled with CNN’s ever-present split screen text crawls of other stories actually diminished coverage for me.

The crux of the CNN story, however, is a question: Did extended live coverage provide a platform for the terrorists to manipulate public opinion? And further, did this platform lead terrorists to extend the occupation, engage in even more carnage over time and behave in ways to hold the attention of media?

This raises other questions. How media savvy were the terrorists? Were they effective in manipulating the media to achieve their own ends?  Did wall-to-wall coverage, however unintentionally, involve journalists in the story as enablers, even contribute to it?

As the post-mortem of Mumbai occurs, the role of media should be a significant part of the examination. The answers will not be simple or clear. The solution is not censorship. Management of media as practiced by the U.S. government in Iraq is not exactly the model, either. Mumbai will surely foster much serious discussion about how such events will be covered in the future.

The Gospel of Wealth:Televangelists, Culture and Authority

As I travel, I continue to be impressed with the global reach of television evangelists based in the U.S. propounding the gospel of wealth. I also reflect upon the cultural context in which these evangelists bring their messages. More often than not the message and the context are totally out of sync. The places I’m in are vastly different from the U.S. context and its economic realities, even considering the extreme stress the U.S. economy is presently experiencing.

The occasion for this reflection came when I turned on the television while in Geneva and up came a program by a televangelist in the U.S. He was mining the New Testament with a mix of behavioral psychology and scriptural explication that connected the sacred text to support for creating individual wealth. When I hear this it is so far removed from my understanding of scripture and faithfulness to it that I think I live in a parallel universe to the televangelist.

When I’m in Africa, the distance seems even greater. The culture of a televangelist in the U.S speaking about the gospel of wealth to African audiences living in grinding poverty, for example, is strikingly fantastic. It presumes that by individual initiative alone an individual can overcome the systemic chains that keep people locked in economic inequity and drag down, if not prevent, upward economic mobility. It places upon people who are already burdened with huge disadvantages yet another weight, that of individual responsibility for what are clearly social and systemic constraints.

Hope and optimism are precious motivators and one should not deny either to those who yearn for a better life. To do so would be cruel. At the same time, to hold people individually responsible for circumstances that are structural and  systemic is also cruel.

For example, to achieve successful participation in an economic system an individual must have access to the system itself. This requires a system open to individual initiative. Many systems around the world are not open. They are based on patronage and cronyism. They require capital and knowledge that an individual may not possess.

Meaningful participation occurs when people have access to training, capitalization to allow them to be competitive, market information, marketing and accounting skills and a host of other tools, including access to credit and fair trade policies and pricing. (Mohammad Yunus lays out a blueprint in Creating a World Without Poverty that puts the challenge and the incredible potential into focus. His proposal leaves the gospel of wealth in the dust as it puts structure and system to work on behalf of individual entrepreneurs.)

Thus, it seems to me narrow and short-sighted to advance a gospel of wealth theory based on individual initiative rooted in Western entrepreneurialism resting on the claim that this is the Christian gospel. The hope raised by the gospel of wealth preachers is just that convoluted and circuitous, it seems to me.

If it is not rooted on scriptural authority, it’s reasonable to ask what gives authority to the claim? The televangelist will most certainly object to the critique that his theory is not scriptural. But that claim is only possible by ignoring the historical tradition of Christian theology and the accumulated body of scholarship that defines the gospel as a call to discipleship and servanthood, a far cry from market capitalism and behavioral psychology. It is a tradition that recalls the graciousness of a loving God manifested in human form, a God who, according to the apostle Paul, emptied God’s own self and took upon the fragility and pain of human life in order to offer healing, wholeness and meaning.

This is a far cry, I think, from the pleas of a televangelist for funds to sustain a television broadcast that enriches the broadcaster and offers an ephemeral hope to the audience.

If authority does not rest in scripture, the next best thing I see is the legitimating role implied by being on television, and by the support base of a local congregation who believe the claims being made by the preacher. This isn’t much. It’s a pretty thin reed, but in the world of global media and uncritical theological reflection, it’s enough for him.

Obama TV

Reaction to the Obama TV program has been revealing. On the one hand it was described on MSNBC immediately following as slick and professional. On the other hand, it didn’t take us to our emotional depths–not exactly feel good, merely feel better–said Tom Shales. He wrote that it relied on stories of real people and was absent facts and figures.

I wonder, however, if the critics represent the attitudes of the audience. It’s beyond comprehension to me that anyone would criticize “slick and polished” production values. We live in an image rich culture and we expect high production values. Even in a YouTube culture, it’s second nature to expect polished production if you’re attempting to influence an audience.

And what, exactly, would be an alternative–shooting out of focus, not using a tripod and waving the camera around the room, not setting the white balance so the color is off? We accept amateur footage when tourists capture an incoming hurricane or we are watching sensational chase footage from the police cruiser, but we don’t accept it when we watch a sports event or an inspirational story on Oprah.

We are programmed to expect quality and lack of quality leads us to question the veracity of the content. So the issue isn’t merely one of production value, it’s also about believability.

As for the use of the stories of everyday people struggling against economic hardship and lack of health care, my hunch is these stories resonated with the audience because they are authentic. Who did not grasp the pathos of a 72-year-old retiree returning to work at Walmart in order to afford arthritis medication for his wife, or the desperation inherent in the story of a father who defers leg surgery in order to continue to provide food and shelter for his family?

These are people with whom we can identify because they’re going through the same things we are. The stories were not maudlin, did not overstate the heroism of the individual struggle, nor manipulate us emotionally. The producers could have done so but they refrained from taking us there. I suspect the audience is adept enough to see through emotional manipulation via the media anyway.

One commentator remarked the program–he called it an infomercial, which is a telling descriptor in itself because it implies the only frame we have to describe an informational television program is that it’s a commercial enterprise–was absent facts and figures. That is only partially accurate. There were facts and figures, but they were minimized and it’s understandable. Television is ill-equipped to present facts and figures in a compelling way and well-equipped to tell stories.

Television relies on images and storylines to convey information. Depending on how you assess it, this is either a strength or a flaw. But however it’s assessed, the fact remains the medium has inherent strengths and weaknesses and television’s strength is the ability to tell stories that evoke emotion.

Having produced a fair amount of television and video, I listened to the critiques with bemusement. One commentator said the program was carefully constructed and meticulously edited to tell Obama’s story, as if this were sinister. I kept coming back to my days as a producer. I’ve sat in an editing room and worked and re-worked an edit quite literally frame by frame to achieve an out point that worked visually and was so transparent it did not call attention to itself and get in the way of the story. Was this manipulative, calculated and sinisterly meticulous?

Or was it just an attempt to tell the story well, ensuring that the message got precedence over the flaws in the medium itself?  Is it sinister to work hard to tell the story well? I don’t think so. It demonstrates respect for the viewer and for the story content.

Obama used the medium effectively and with finesse. John McCain also has a compelling story to tell. I can imagine as a producer how that story might be told with integrity and veracity had he not despoiled his image with the shameful tactics employed by his campaign.

If there is an assessment to be made about how television was used in a political campaign, it should be that Obama used the medium well to set a context, demonstrated how he would address the problems rooted in that context and told his own story. Conversely, imagine what an evening it would have been had we been treated to an equally compelling presentation by John McCain laying out a vision for the future, setting a context as he sees it, and reminding us of his remarkable story.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Where Are You When we Need You?

An economist on Marketplace this morning referred to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s worldview as a familiar frame of reference for both presidential candidates. Niebuhr’s view of ethically ambivalent individuals yearning for perfectibility, yet caught in a sinful state and working in a fallen world, is found in the attitudes of both John McCain and Barack Obama, according to the Marketplace commentator.

Niebuhr’s theology was formed in the Great Depression and he taught applied Christianity in the New Deal era, a time that saw the depths of human depravity and greed, as well as the heights of sacrifice and service. He brought theology into the wider public conversation as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and as a social activist. He helped found Americans for Democratic Action and was politically involved throughout his life, giving particular attention to the rights of workers.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. asked in a 2005 essay in the New York Times why Niebuhr isn’t remembered and provides an overview that demonstrates why his worldview remains salient.

Schlesinger cites Neibuhr’s cautionary view of religion in public discourse: “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Never the less, Niebuhr also saw the religious claim of human willfulness and fallibility as a corrective to the modern argument that things were “getting better and better in every way.”

Niebuhr understood our capacity for evil is matched by our capacity for good and claims to moral behavior are a corrective necessity, and more.

Schlesinger says the tragedy of 9/11 revived the “myth of  our national innocence,” a concept Niebuhr called into question with substantial critique based on religious teaching.

Since Schlesinger’s essay, Niebuhr has received increased attention, mostly because Barack Obama has referred to him. It’s striking that a theologian who died in 1971 remains relevant on social analysis thirty years later.

Perhaps it’s because Niebuhr brought perspective to individual responsibility and the state of human fallibility as well as insight into the way we organize systems that perpetuate injustice and privilege. This tension between individual culpability and systemic injustice has been largely overlooked in the emphasis on extreme individualism that is found across the culture in the U.S. The evangelical right has focused on individual responses to a few key issues of moral concern, the so-called culture wars issues, and the mainline has been largely absent from the public dialogue or torn apart internally so it didn’t reach outside its own walls to engage in public discussion.

Niebuhr operated from a position in the academy and he was not seen as having an affiliation with a denomination. His relative independence gave him the room to engage in social movements and offer commentary free of the institutional constraints that denominational connections impose.

He also wrote in a pre-electronic age. Television was in its infancy and the written word remained influential. He edited The Christian Century from 1922 to 1940, for example. His ideas, while provocative enough to attract attention in their own right, did not face the kind of competitive overload we face today.

But this begs the question why we don’t have a theological basis for mainline dialogue today. In the final analysis, Niebuhr engaged the culture he found and spoke to people in language they could understand. He connected with people who had real issues that called for the application of theology in a practical way. And finally, he used the tools available and he acted. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Forgetting the Global Food Crisis

As the global financial crisis deepens the world risks forgetting the food crisis that is becoming even more severe. That’s the word from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The number of seriously malnourished persons is up from 848 million in 2003-2005 to 923 million in 2007.

Asia and the Pacific region has more people facing hunger than Africa and Latin America, according to the FAO.

Through its Initiative on Soaring Food Prices, the FAO is assisting local farmers to purchase fertilizer, get training and grow food for local consumption. Because of the financial meltdown donor countries have been slower to respond to UN funding requests with the result that more people are going hungry.

Global Warming: Water and Disease

Global warming will drive significant increases in waterborne diseases around the world, according to a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported in the Washington Post by Kari Lydersen.

According to scientists, weather events will become more extreme which means heavier rains triggering sewage overflows, contaminated water supplies and more standing water among other things. It will also result in more mosquitoes which carry West Nile virus, malaria and dengue fever. And it could result in contaminated fresh produce and shellfish.

The report portends more events similar to those that have already occurred and that are not limited to a particular region. Lydersen writes heavy rainfalls have already resulted in drainage overflows in Chicago and Milwaukee in recent years resulting in contamination of Lake Michigan waters and the deaths of 54 people in Milwaukee from cryptosporidium.

Warmer temperatures have already resulted in mosquitoes moving from lower elevations in mountainous regions to higher locations, bringing with them exposure to mosquito-borne

It’s abundantly clear that the health of the environment is intimately and inescapably interconnected with the health of the human race and all other living creatures. The challenge the world faces is both urgent and far more significant than the individual crises we become so concerned about such as the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Values Votes

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is ambivalent about making absolute religious claims in the mix of faith and politics. He notes a few conservative Roman Catholic bishops and megachurch pastor Rick Warren set out a list of “non-negotiables” that were raised around the time of the event Warren hosted for John McCain and Barack Obama.

In contrast, actor Martin Sheen on the Matthew 25 Network website points to his religious roots in the Roman Catholic tradition as the source for his progressive activism.

Of the evangelicals, Wallis writes, “None of them even included the word “poverty,” only one example of the missing issues which are found quite clearly in the Bible. All of them were also relatively the same as official Republican Party Web sites of ‘non-negotiables.’”

He questions what is non-negotiable for Christians and asks why so many prominent and clear biblical claims for combating poverty and ending injustice were not included in the lists of the bishops and Warren.

Sheen’s comments are less absolute, but no less resolute. His lifetime commitment to progressive positions is widely known, as is his long-time willingness to speak from his faith perspective. It’s a positive contribution.

Mixing the geography of faith with the political process takes you into pretty complicated, if not murky, territory, one that calls for far more care and far less boisterous rhetoric than what we’ve heard the past eight years.

In place of non-negotiables, Wallis offers a list of “faith priorities” and calls on each of us to do the same. We would do well to consider his suggestion and reflect deeply on our own faith priorities, or values, and decide for ourselves how they will influence our choices at the intersection of faith and politics. It would be more than startling if we were to take the biblical injunctions about poverty and well-being and apply them to social policy. This would take us far beyond the culture war issues very deeply into the territory of social change.

On Digital Natives

I’ve been having conversations recently about digital natives and digital immigrants. I’m an immigrant, as are all people born before the Internet.

The nature of the conversation is how we inhabit different worlds depending upon when we came to the digital  terrain. I noted several years ago that broadband access and, later, cellphones were so much a part of the lives of younger persons they considered them much as I consider air and water, a part of the natural world.

To me they are not. They are tools. They are external to my reality, something outside my thoughts that must be incorporated into life. Not so for digital natives. They are seamlessly integrated. There is no other reality, certainly not a set of tools that must be integrated into one’s life. The fact is these “digital tools” have always been present and available to the natives.

Recently, we had a speaker at our organization discussing new media. I was unable to attend and received a text message reminding me of the presentation. Later, I asked if the presentation had been captured so I could see and hear it. While it was streamed live it wasn’t captured because none of us thought to do this in advance. Now, this isn’t criticism of anyone, but it is illustrative of a simple fact.

To digital immigrants it’s likely that something as common as digital documentation requires prior thought. To the native it just comes naturally. That’s because content production has always been a part of the use of digital tools, whether that means capturing and sending photos or audio files, taking images with a cellphone or reporting via text message and saving the transcript. It doesn’t require second thought. Everything is recorded for posterity.

That’s one way we inhabit different worlds. Media that must be mastered in the world of the immigrant is part of the native’s environment. And our understanding of each other is surely affected by our worldview.

The Digital Natives website offers a range of discussion and other tools that shape the digital world. There’s an interesting discussion, for example, about the development of content by digital natives and how it is empowering. The site links to a youth-produced radio program on KUOW, University of Puget Sound, illustrating the value of content production.

The story of Bryce is one of many compelling, well-produced first-person accounts that illustrate the value of giving voice to a young person. But it also points to something more. Bryce is compelling because he’s thoughtful, authentic and articulate. And he’s fluent with the medium of radio.

I’m starting to look more widely and deeply at the digital divide between natives and immigrants, and how we perceive the world because of our proximity to digital media. If you have suggestions for sites, books, resources, or a story to share, I’d like to hear from you.