Monday, September 12, 2005

On The Need For Context

I dont have a credo.

No, really. I dont.

At best I offer a muttered hodge-podge of what I think is still good and pure and funny in the world today, things that move me.

And considering the present happy state of global affairs, this recital usually takes just 10 minutes.

But I do have an idea.

And this has been the idea behind why I blog. Why I use the internet to communicate with human beings whom I haven't met previously, 3 dimensionally face-to-face.

Its an idea, that communication doesn't need a human face, but only the human mind and heart-- Those commodities that Apple cant patent [iMan?] and make even smaller, special offer on till christmas.

That people can talk communicate, countries age sex gender and ethnicity, no bar. This idea is probably the one reason I still believe there is hope; that humanity isn't going to hell in a handbasket.

Maybe it is a credo.

Lately the 'net, ergo blogs, have been used for fast and furious discussion on political issues at local and global levels. Knives have been drawn, posts have been quartered. I have seen men and women reach with claws for each other's hyper-linked nickname.

It has disturbed me.

Not that I proclaim global love and hug thy neighbour. God knows I've picked up the scythe at more than one given opportunity.

But let us start at the beginning. Which was, indubitably, a post by the worthy John Scalzi, here. Well written, gut-clenching. The man is obviously moved about the issue, namely the very real and stark reality of being poor in what is touted to be the world's richest country.

A few quotes from the Offical Big Wigs, for perspective's sake regarding the matter:

The official poverty rate in 2004 in USA was 12.7% up from 12.5% in 2005.

In 2004, 37 million people were in poverty. Up 1.1 million from 2003.

13.0 million children under 18 live in conditions of poverty in 2004.

('Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004', DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, Lee. August 2005)

Right. Contexted, dear reader? Good.
The only problem is, that Scalzi's post wasn't. Contexted, that is.
It had a date: september 3, 2005.
And a title: "Being poor".

Many read it. Pinged, ponged, trackballed, pac-manned, what you will.

One such person is the curly-haired founder of

Disclaimer: I know aforementioned founder, and consider him a true friend, worthy of my trust, which is more than I can say for most of my accquaintance. I do not know John Scalzi. But ever since I have been a witness to the.. erm.. drawing and quartering, I have read more of him and his work. I respect his drive, energy and passion. This blog post remains as stringently objective as I can make it.

Zig decided to respond to Scalzi's post, here. He titled his version of Scalzi's list-- such as it was-- "Being really poor".

Why did he write it?

A good question. I will return to this. His stated reason worked as an intro to the piece which reads as follows:

"Being Poor my arse
BoingBoing quotes [via Making Light] John Scalzi's Being Poor. And for the first time, I find myself genuinely upset with how little people in the USA know about how the rest of the world lives. Fercrying out loud, that piece is about luxury that some people in this part of the world can never aspire to.

Here, with no apologies to Mr Scalzi, is my version".

(Zigzackly, sept 4, 2005).

A follow-through occured when Scalzi visited Zig to say that:

"...see this list as complementary to, and not in opposition to, my original list, and it highlights the difference between relative poverty (which is the situation in the US), and absolute poverty (which is the situation in much of the rest of the world). Writer Nick Mamatas has also written a similar list (in this typically pungent style), which you can find here:

I wrote the list originally as something of a response to all the people who I saw having difficulty understanding why some of the poor prople in New Orleans stayed behind for the hurricane and its aftermath. It was designed to help them empathize with people who are in a similar economic situation with those people. It is by no means an exhaustive list for what it's like to be poor worldwide, just poor where I (and much of the blogosphere) live".

Thankyou for the context now, Mr. Scalzi.

Zig, in turn, said this:

"Point taken, Mr Scalzi. Thank you fortaking the trouble to explain. And yes, I'm with you on the need to get the message across to the people who wondered why New Orleans's poorer residents didn't leave. Your post didn't offer that context, and it was my first visit to your blog, so I'm sorry that I didn't get that.

Must still say, however, that I stand by everything else I said".

An interesting volley. What was most interesting to read were the comments both posts generated. Blood, guts and glory, ladies and gentlemen. I would thus like to address three parties: Scalzi, Zig and the blood-thirsty comment-posters, anonymice and otherwise.


The fact is, Mr. Scalzi, Zig and all those hundreds of bloodthristy comment-posters:

a) if Katrina hadn't happened, Scalzi would've never posted about being poor. Not with this sense of urgency. Not with this grit.

b) There is such a thing as relative poverty. For those suffering from it, it feels absolute. You sleep on the street in downtown Portland? Aight. People live next to garbage dumps, factories. And not just in India. Try eastern Europe, for one. Yes, they dont have a tv, often. And then there are those that do. One might think that having to use the computers at the library coz one doesnt have one's own pentium M purring along is a sign of poverty. To me its the sign of being an international student here in the U.S of A. Others might think its stealing tampons, or making do with Ramen. Done all that. And yes we all shop at Goodwill. Why not? Its cheaper. Again, welcome to the life of a college student. Perhaps not one at Brown or Yale, but there are more students and more colleges yes? But its not about comparing. It never was. It was however, about the need for perspective.

c)Scalzi, put your post on walls-- graffiti it in big cities and small ones. Put it in the Times, the Post, every Journal and Sun you can find. Have radio hosts read it out in America. Have people yell it from roof-tops, and not just figuratively. Take it to the people. Because yes, the post is good at getting a reality check across the country. But do it there. And add a “this is your people” tag to it. Mr. Scalzi, if you make generalizing posts about world issues, understand they will be read by a global public. Like it or voo-doo doll it, thats whats great about blogs: country and ethnicity no bar. Make a claim about "being poor" and be prepared for a "retort", a "response" or even perhaps, a certain extended finger, unless the context for it is fixed. Dont passionately post an absolutist "being poor" because for every 200 posts saying thank you for writing this and hey, heres my version-- there's at least 1 saying, dude thanks. Now lets pause the comment-posting, and actually go out and do something and enough of the walowing. The one person might suggest a Bake sale. Writing a letter. Taking a picture. Setting up a makeshift memorial. Anything. And minorities matter, yes?

d)Anyone seen the flight that fought back?

For those who didn't, it told the story of flight 93, the only people on that day who had a chance to react to what was happening to the world as they knew it, and took that chance. 40 people. A crashdown in shanksville, PA. Ordinary people in an impossible circumstance, who made a move for themselves and a higher cause.

People have died, as they have in history and will again, in the future. But when some react to bad situations with self-respect and helping others, how come others choose to spend time online, writing about how they feel and @#$!ing others who don't feel the same?

e)Hail ye pack of scowling wolves, ye rabid mice-— Get this: its not about how poor you have been, or are. And I say this, without dragging up my own family’s rough life story. Its not about your addition to Scalzi’s list of what it means to be poor. It IS about taking what John wrote and telling your neighbour about it: the guy smoking in the alley, the check-out lady, the local council, the senator. He wrote it with a goal to open people’s minds and hearts to the suffering happening as I type this. Don’t take this and turn it into a personal moment. Tell people, tell people in real life, not just online. Tell people who will then put their money and energy in a place where the victims of Katrina can benefit from it.

Don’t indulge in blog-rage. Its in bad taste, its misplaced.

I repeat: The reason why the internet is so great is because it allows free speech. There are sites cracking the funnies about out-sourcing jobs to India, which instead of pointing at the American legislature take to Indian-bashing. Yet I don’t go shooting down people even if they happen to be stupid farts, pardon my french. So back off. Try. Again, I repeat-- stop insulting each other online. There is no security camera here, no SSN to track you with. If only for decency's sake. Not while the tragedy is so fresh.

Zig, I see where you're coming from. Yes, an online notice from microsoft or apple will always get more hits than an online notice/post from an aid blog or organization, especially if the issue demanding aid doesn't affect any of the 50 states. That cannot be helped, unless the people themselves want to change it. It began with Washington's farewell address: no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. This is a country that exists alone in its strength this side of the hemisphere. It has never shared its toys, though it has donated its old ones to charity. Scalzi wrote that post assuming only Americans would read it, or even if others did, they would relate immediately to what esoterically drove him to type it out. No, he didn’t bother with contexting. It happens. Should you have corresponded with him before shooting that post off? Maybe. Perception is something we all need to take care of. That said, I would’ve done exactly the same thing. And I stand by your point— Poverty is relative. Fact remains that these people are in misery, and Americans aren’t used to its poor gaining the spotlight. Only rags to riches stories, the thing that sells movies and books. As long as you and Scalzi are squared, leave the rabid bunnies at the gate.

And the reason why I was so upset last night.

Humans, whatever country or economic bracket you belong to-- these people in N'orleans are people. Forget about other categories. There's space for that election time—At which point, please god, speak, rage and post comments all you want. For now, what about devoting your time helping out in Katrina relief efforts, with money or time or prayer, or all three? Give them hope. Forget about class issues, welfare issues, medicare issues, till everyone down there at least has a dry bed to sleep in, and some food at meal times.

This is a terrible calamity. And there's no FBI or CIA to blame for not forseeing it. And even if they were sufficiently warned, there are many who could not move at all because 1) who ever took a weather warning seriously? Who ever felt a hurricane hit N'orleans? and 2) when you're living paycheck to paycheck, who has the money to buy a bus ticket? boxes to pack? a place to go?

No one is rejoicing in the suffering. There are people who will offer help when and if required, and are doing so.


The bigger question is, why wasn't/isn't there a government policy that takes care of its poor? Why are they allowed to be invisible till a flood flushes them out?


1. Fear and anger are the greatest instigators of responses to blog posts these days. That, and being passionate about a sport.

2. However worthy Mr. Scalzi's aim is, his post ended up as a space to vent angst about one's individual lot. Many many stories told in those comment boxes. Kudos to him for creating that-- Its been a long time coming. Im not so sure how many said "gee, thanks for saying this: Now I *know* how important it is to organize that fund raiser for Katrina- Thanks". But then hey...

3. Its scary when something happens to a downtrodden class in a first world country, and those around the world-- including other first world countries-- first react with shock at what is happening [such as the scenes of abject anarchy and despair]immediately followed with comments levelled at the government or that country's self-perception. Dont assume this is an issue of spite, of ha-ha tag now you're it. Don't assume this is third world angst. In fact, the UK, possibly the closest ally of the US, is voicing definate anti-aid opinions: the BBC has it all here.Worry instead, about the fact that people, not the government, claim that the U.S after all its hegemonic swaggering, should handle this themselves, and not have to require foreign aid.

Thankfully there are people, their fellow countrymen, who immediately put that idea down, stating the undeniable fact that-- in ANY crisis of this size, it is impossible for the aid to be self-contained. No one is ever prepared for such a catastrophe. Everyone needs help. And that has nothing to do with Bush politics.

4. While posting congratulatory notes on a page, people will leave their name and url. While ripping apart another person's opinion [and why not? Since the gladiators have been gone, we need some entertainment yes?] or typing in absolute red-eyed rage, people choose to be Anonymice. How many Anonymice scurried across zig and Scalzi's page. Less on Scalzi's of course: he wasn't the one being battered for an opinion. Oh and-- all they said about free speech online?

And those who said its sick wasting time online in such discussions?

You're right. You're god damned f-king right.


John Scalzi said...

Re: Context:

Entertain the possibility that I offered it up without context because I wanted people to approach the piece in an unmediated way. I explained some of my motivations later in comment threads, mine and others, where I thought it was appropriate as part of the larger discussion. But I chose to have the piece initially approached in an unframed way, quite aware that its potential readership was global.

I think the choice was a positive one on balance because it engendered some excellent commentary and debate, across a number of points of view -- I don't think that "Zig" and Nick Mamatas would have created their quite worthwhile posts had I been more explicit, nor would have there been as much other commentary and discussion. The response created the framing and context of the piece, which as a writer I find quite interesting.

I don't think posting a comment on a blog precludes other, more direct action in reponse to poverty or the other issues surrounding this post, and I think you'd probably find that many if not most of the people who responded to the piece on my site and other places have been engaged in poverty issues and in disaster relief. One's presence in the blogosphere is not the totality of one's being or one's actions, which is something I'm sure you already know.

Re: Publishing it elsewhere -- as it happens, the piece has made its way into a number of newspapers here in the US, and it's been interesting to see the essay's second life in print venues.

A Hairy Snail said...

this seems to be a very large debate, involving two writers i really admire, but i just wanted to add one bit here...

why not do something actively about poverty as a whole? instead of cribbing about relative poverty and jargon that most people shy when talking about, why not see that the countries who can do something to change the worldwide poverty scenario don't want to? a few half steps that have been is literally insignificant.

my two pennies.