September 25, 2006

Is Everything Bad Really Good For You?

What if it turned out that playing video games didn’t rot your brain after all? What if all those hours rescuing princesses or dissecting NFL defenses actually made you smarter?

This is precisely the thesis put forth by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making You Smarter. Johnson has developed what he calls the Sleeper Curve, by which despite the purposes for which we seek out popular culture – distraction, entertainment – the very act of absorbing that culture in the form of video games, television, movies, and the internet carries along hidden cognitive benefits.

Johnson attempts to distinguish content from cognition, insisting that it is not what we’re thinking as we immerse ourselves in pop culture, but how we are forced to think while doing it.

Take video games. Today’s increasingly complicated video games require traits that translate to the non-video game world – decision-making, persistence, creativity, flexibility. The hours of concentration and frustration required to master these games cultivate these cognitive skills even as gamers think they are having fun.

Johnson applies a similar argument to television, film, and the internet. He compares the plots of The Sopranos to Hill Street Blues, and Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, concluding that today’s viewers are forced to follow more characters, more settings, and more storylines – and that we are smarter for it.

I’m willing to accept Johnson’s premise that today’s pop culture is more complex and demands more attention and thought than pop culture of the past, but I’m not sold that this is a good thing.

First, looking only at the how of popular culture while ignoring the what makes for an incomplete evaluation. The most vocal critics of popular culture are not concerned that pop culture is making us dumber, but that it is making us immoral or violent. Johnson acknowledges as much: “Popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter.” A full evaluation of whether pop culture is truly good for us would look at all its potential effects and determine if the good outweigh the bad. Johnson does no such weighing.

However, the largest gap in Johnson’s thesis is that he does not address the need for moderation. Although he acknowledges on the afterword’s penultimate page that his book should not be mistaken for an extended justification for gluing oneself to a screen, Johnson does little to drive this point home. Johnson admittedly would not endorse a regimen that included playing video games to the exclusion of all other activity – exercise, homework, social interaction, household chores – but you would not know it from his book.

In fact, the very characteristic Johnson champions in today’s pop culture – complexity – makes it less likely that we will be able to pull ourselves away. It is because so much thought is required to crack a video game that a player must spend hours upon hours playing. It is because following The Sopranos requires such a full understanding of the plot and characters that we must watch, then TiVo and rewatch each show, buy the DVD of previous seasons to catch up or refresh, and check internet chat sites to discuss the plot permutations and hidden jokes.

I’m not saying that video games, television, and the internet are bad for you. I like all three. But Johnson’s book provides an incomplete evaluation of their pros and cons before boldly declaring that they are good for us. After all, what good are sharper cognitive skills if they will only be used to better consume pop culture?

September 15, 2006

Dallaire's New Mission

When Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire speaks of Rwanda, his voice quickens. His tone hardens. The room he is in becomes silent as his audience can feel the emotion barely hidden beneath the general’s tough exterior. He poses unanswerable questions about the decisions his soldiers confronted in Rwanda. He spares no party – including himself – in assessing how the world failed to act to stop the Rwandan genocide. On other topics, Dallaire can be charming, even humorous, but on Rwanda, there is only passion.

Underlying Dallaire’s persistent frustration, perhaps even shame, about the inaction of the global community is a belief that, as he puts it, “no human is any more human than any other.” He believes this despite the glaring contradictions in resources committed to confronting crises around the world. He believes it despite his own experience in Rwanda, where the slaughter of 800,000 was deemed unworthy of the risk of casualties from peacekeeping nations.

Dallaire tells of a young boy he encountered on a road in Rwanda amid huts filled with decomposing bodies. Fearful of a trap, Dallaire approached cautiously. Beyond the malnourished body and filthy rags, Dallaire recognized in the boy’s eyes the same thing he had seen in his own four-year-old son’s eyes when he had departed for Rwanda. They were the eyes of a human child. In the boy’s eyes and those of his son, Dallaire recognized a common humanity that sustains his belief that no human life is worth more or less than any other.

Today, Dallaire’s beliefs are being challenged, again in Africa. Although the global community has been more active in Darfur than it was in Rwanda, the results have been modest.

At the end of this month, the African Union force that has been monitoring the situation in Darfur, Sudan, will officially run out of funds and abandon the region. Although no one believes that the African Union force is adequate to fully stop the violence in Darfur, their removal would result in even greater lawlessness and suffering. The United Nations has approved the deployment of a mission in Darfur – a mission far short of the 44,000 peacekeepers Dallaire recommends – but that mission will not deploy without the consent of the Sudanese government. The Sudanese government, of course, has been complicit in the effort to displace or eliminate the African tribes suffering the most in Darfur, and the government has steadfastly refused to accept any non-African troops.

Witnessing the lack of will by the developed world to sustain the attention and pressure necessary to take effective action in Darfur, Dallaire recognizes the same double standard he encountered in Rwanda. Where, he wonders, is the rule that says it is OK to send 63,000 troops to the former Yugoslavia to contain suffering there, but it is completely unreasonable to send 44,000 troops to Darfur? Who makes the decision, he asks bluntly, that it is not worth a single soldier’s life to save thousands of lives just because of where those who will die live or what they look like?

Perhaps Dallaire is being naïve. After all, it is self-interest that drives foreign policy, not some overriding altruistic concern for humanity. Yet, how could Dallaire be naïve after witnessing the most horrific consequences of strictly self-interested foreign policy, the most rapid genocide in human history? To Dallaire, these consequences are morally unacceptable and he has made it his mission to call the world out on its policies.

When Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire speaks, people listen. We listen because Dallaire refuses to remain in the comfortable world of pragmatic foreign policy, wading instead into the complex realm of morality. We listen because we all know that on a fundamental level, he is right – no human life is more valuable than any other. But mostly, we listen because although Dallaire has seen the very worst of humanity, he refuses to surrender hope of a peaceful future and offers us tools with which to get there.

Check out my article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal previewing Dallaire's visit.

September 14, 2006

Facing Horrors of Rwanda Offers Crucial History Lesson

(published in Memphis Commercial Appeal - September 14, 2006)

Twelve years after the Rwandan genocide, Romeo Dallaire is still on a mission, and tonight he will bring that mission to Memphis.

Rather than allowing himself and his traumatic experience as military head of the United Nations mission in Rwanda to fade into history, Dallaire insists on reminding us of the fastest genocide in human history, a three-month period in which 800,000 Rwandans were murdered. By refusing to let go of his horrific memories from Rwanda, Dallaire has embarked on a new mission: to force the global community to confront the reasons for and consequences of inaction in the face of unfolding genocide.

In 1993, Lt. Gen. Dallaire, a Canadian officer, was deployed as head of a multi-national United Nations force charged with enforcing a fragile peace in Rwanda, an obscure African country he could not locate on a map. In early 1994, Dallaire began to understand that rather than working to sustain that peace, some elements within Rwanda were instead plotting the "extermination" of the country's Tutsi population. Dallaire pleaded with his superiors for the authority to act early to impede this genocidal plot, only to be told that such action was beyond the scope of his mandate.

Several months later, as extremists ruthlessly executed the very plot of which Dallaire had been warned, Dallaire was constrained by limited supplies, manpower and authority to effectively confront the perpetrators. Despite the limitations imposed upon him by others, the result, 800,000 murdered Rwandans, weighs heavily on Dallaire's conscience.

After leaving Rwanda, Dallaire attempted to return to a normal life, but how could he return to the world he knew before, knowing that it was the global community who forced him to sit with his hands behind his back as 800,000 human beings were slaughtered in front of him?

The immediate effect upon Dallaire was a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder that ultimately led to a medical discharge from the Canadian military and even a desperate suicide attempt. Fortunately, Dallaire has emerged from this dark period with the energy to face the history of genocide in Rwanda and apply its lessons to crises of today.

When Dallaire speaks, it is not simply to recap the history of the Rwandan genocide, although he certainly has a unique perspective and unflinching willingness to discuss the horrors he witnessed there. Instead, Dallaire tells his stories from Rwanda to expose the flaws in the global response (or lack thereof) to urge his audience to act to address those flaws and prevent their repetition elsewhere, such as in Darfur, Sudan.

In this way, Dallaire is an embodiment of the mission of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization aimed at using events of history as a lens to examine problems confronting students and communities today. Through teacher training, student symposia and community events, such as the visit by Dallaire, Facing History encourages individuals to understand how human behavior and individual choice play a critical role in shaping history.

Facing History has even reached Rwanda itself, having been part of an effort to create a curriculum for teaching Rwandan history despite a moratorium on teaching that history imposed in the aftermath of the genocide. Facing History is now charged with training Rwandan teachers to instruct students on this most sensitive topic in a way that lays a foundation for a future generation that will not have to endure such crimes. Thus far, Facing History has trained an ethnically and geographically diverse group of more than 150 Rwandan teachers, demonstrating its understanding that while the world can learn a great deal from the genocide in Rwanda, it is Rwandans themselves that must most directly confront their own history.

In the case of Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire is at once the history we must face, having played a critical role in the Rwanda narrative, and a powerful, moral voice on how that history applies to today's world.

His continued refusal to fade away serves as a living, breathing testament to what can happen when the world sits idly by in the face of crimes against humanity. This is Dallaire's current mission and the world is fortunate that he remains strong enough to accept it.

September 08, 2006

Still Haunted

There has been much talk from liberal commentators during this anniversary week that the “new normal” that was supposed to follow the attacks of September 11 was either short-lived or altogether illusory. I could not disagree more. Five years later, I remain haunted by that morning and I do not think I am alone.

For my generation, September 11 marked the first time our country had been stung and it carried with it a new and disturbing sense of national vulnerability. For the first time, I began to question American dominance in more than just a theoretical way. No longer were we impervious and untouchable. The safety that was taken for granted as I went about my life could no longer be taken for granted. After all, the attacks were aimed at civilians, just like me, going about their daily routine. The attackers were aiming at all of us.

I remember sitting alone in my apartment that morning in utter shock, spending the entire day glued to the television. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and checking the news with hopes that the whole tragedy had been somehow imagined. My law school classes were cancelled the next day, leaving me with nothing to do but worry and wait, growing more aware by the minute that the certainty of September 10 would not be returning any time soon.

What I remember most about the immediate aftermath was the unnerving sense that anything was possible. At that point, we did not know if September 11 was only the beginning of something even more diabolical. We did not know then that the next five years would pass without another attack on American soil.

In the five years since September 11, the events of that day have been used by various individuals and groups for all sorts of purposes. Both political parties have used September 11 to suit their political needs; the government has been particularly successful in capitalizing on the patriotism that followed the attacks to push various items on its agenda; a terrorism industry has sprouted; the 9/11 commission sought to provide a definitive account of what went wrong; lately, Hollywood has weighed in with movies.

But through all this, for me at least, the core of raw emotion unleashed that morning remains.

I am reminded often of the attacks – every time I see a skyscraper or an airplane, certainly every time I’m on an airplane – and each time I am returned to the fear of that morning. I find myself shaking my head, still in shock at such a traumatic event. Making the national trauma personal, I have had several dreams relating to the attacks and I have great difficulty watching coverage of the attacks.

So while it may be true that my every day life has returned more or less to September 10 normalcy – at least on the days when I am not at the airport, from which convenience departed long ago – it is not at all true that the “new normal” that followed September 11 is gone. I am still adjusting to living in a country that is vulnerable and in a world where people who know nothing about me or my beliefs want to kill me.

Five years later, I am still haunted by September 11, 2001.

September 01, 2006

Why Katrina Hurts

The past week has brought us countless stories on the state of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast one year after the most devastating natural disaster in American history. That superlative is not only appropriate based on the terrible loss of human life, displacement of entire communities and enormous damage to property, but also because with its blistering winds and unquenchable thirst for destruction, Hurricane Katrina bruised the American psyche in an unprecedented way.

Though certainly Katrina was a monster storm, it was not the first hurricane to bring extensive damage and death to American shores. The names Hugo and Andrew still make citizens in Charleston and Miami tremble. But Katrina and its aftermath cut deeper, affecting not only those along the Gulf Coast, but all Americans. Why does Katrina hurt so badly?

In one week, Hurricane Katrina exploded myths of American ingenuity and craftsmanship and exposed inequalities many of us willfully ignore, forcing us to confront the reality that we, as a country, are not exactly what we think ourselves to be.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Americans imagine our country to be one of boundless opportunity where everyone has the chance to hit the lottery. The gap between wealthy and poor, however, continues to expand and threatens to create a permanently impoverished and undereducated class of citizens with a very low ceiling on what they can achieve in the United States. Although most of the time, the elements of the community stuck in this rut are confined to certain parts of the city and heard from only on the local news when being interviewed regarding a neighborhood crime, after Katrina, all over the country Americans were forced to confront the poverty that our nation tolerates. For several weeks, the individuals our society does least to protect were brought out from the shadows and onto their rooftops with pleas for help.

The way Katrina's human toll cut along racial and economic lines exposed for all to see the second America that John Edwards so eloquently brought to life with his "Two Americas" speeches. During Katrina, the haves, the have-a-littles, and the have-a-whole-lots got a glimpse of the have-nots struggling to get by in this country. Katrina brought America face-to-face with its greatest vice, inequality, and many Americans were shocked and repulsed. In this land of supposedly boundless opportunity where anyone can make it through hard work, Katrina drove home the fact that some Americans have it a whole lot better than others.

In addition, the completely bungled response by all levels of government to the unfolding disaster exposed all that is wrong with a current leadership class that is focused more on elections than on governing, more on appearing to help than on actually helping. Such bogus leadership escapes unmasking until a moment of crisis comes along, at which point the empty heads and suits in leadership positions are reduced to impotent spectators. Katrina did a heckuva job of lifting the mask on all levels of government failure.

Add to the leadership vacuum Katrina exposed the extreme slowness and inability of the government to either protect or rescue citizens and you get a genuine national embarrassment. Here we were, the most powerful country on the planet, unable to reach our own citizens in a major city several days after the storm.

And then there was that group of citizens, themselves embarrassing the country by taking advantage of the anarchy of the times to rob, loot and threaten for their own pecuniary gain. They reflected a culture of selfish thuggery where crime is a badge of honor and laws and law-abiding citizens are inconveniences that would best be disposed of. They are not the majority of Americans, but they are part of the American underbelly exposed by Katrina.

Why does Katrina hurt? Because it slaps us in the face with the reality that we are not doing as well as a nation as we think we are. A year later, that reality still stings.