One Month Blogging (and other things)

In which your writer reflects on a month of writing and shares his thoughts on Syria and reporting on an NYPD initiative.

The now previous day of May 30th marked a completely unimportant occasion in all manners aside from my own ego. This is the day that Another Note in the Cacophony surpassed a month of active publication. This of course is a nice moment for myself as I feared I would get tired of writing this in a week (as occurred with many a writing project in the past), and because this blog has actually gotten some attention in its microscopic—even by online standards—lifespan.

One of the pieces on here, my reflection on the slow-burning crisis at Bronx Science was republished by the New York based education blog Gotham Schoolsand prompted a response from the school’s administration,while a recent piece on media coverage of conflict gained attention from the media watchdog group FAIR. While I’m writing this blog more for my own health than for any of the small morsels of recognition I might stumble across, it is good to see that my content is appreciated. There are some interesting topics I have in the works for the coming month, which you will find out as soon as I get the out-of-the-blue idea to write about them.

But enough about myself. Here are some things that stuck out for me in the first half of this week.

Cheers: Public radio brings a new angle to an old story.

I came across an excellent piece on WNYC radio Tuesday (disclosure: I have done volunteering for the station) about the NYPD’s’ notorious practice of “stop and frisk”. That there is news coverage of the practice is not news; a Google news search of the phrase brings just over 3,000 results, but this story puts a  new spin on it. Reporter Ailsa Chang decided to illustrate the heavily skewed statistics of the stops by actually interviewing teenagers (would you believe that?) at two New York high schools.  It is a story that is conceptually simple in hindsight but does a major service in illuminating the issue. The first teens we hear from are at Stuyvesant high school, an elite public institution that uses the same entrance exam as my own alma mater Bronx Science. That school is mostly Asian and Caucasian, and none of the students the reporter asked experienced any stops. Statistics bear out the anecdotes, as the area around the school received 20 stops last year. The reporter then went to a almost exclusively black and Hispanic high school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the few parts of New York that still can be considered fully “dangerous”. There students told of being stopped two to three times by police, with a member of the reporter’s own focus group going as high as seven times. The story also came with an excellent overlay map (prepared by the station’s newsroom staff, it seems) of police stop raw data by census tract in the city.

Among parts of the city that I have experience with(living in and going to school), there are hotspots of police activity/harassment in the Amsterdam Houses, a housing project in my old neighborhood of the Upper West Side (perhaps because of its well-off surroundings, the project is much cleaner and safer than your stereotypical public housing complex). Walking though the projects from my apartment building on my way to and from the Lincoln Center subway station, I did notice NYPD vans almost permanently parked on the walkway. Another hotspot was around the campus of Martin Luther King Jr. high school, another mostly minority school across the street from both the opera houses of Lincoln Center and a prestigious arts school.

Other “warm” areas (the stops are so heavily skewed towards Brownsville and Bed-Stuy blocks that most other notable tracts in the city show up as moderate areas by comparison), blocks of Harlem (despite the area being far safer than reputed), and areas in Manhattan Valley (where the gifted middle school I attended shared a building with a—you guessed it—low income minority school). Surprisingly, the area around Bronx Science—the span from the Jerome Avenue Reservoir to Grand Concourse, is the dull shade of beige on the map—representing stop numbers in the mid to low double digits—that most populated areas of the city have. This is despite the not-so-subtly raised fears by many prospective BS parents about the “safety” of the neighborhood. A great map to compare stop/frisk incidences with would be the locations of housing projects in the city. There would likely be a strong correlation.

Jeers: CBS This Morning asks failed military strategist Donald Rumsfeld about military strategy. In the Middle East, no less.

There are too many things wrong with the way this segment turned out.

I tuned in again the past morning to the respectable CBS This Morning, a several month old experiment by the network to create a morning newscast that isn’t full of bullshit. While the program does have strong reports, I was dismayed by an early guest on today’s edition, Donald Rumsfeld. Even worse was the setup; while a picture of his last book was in the studio background, the “peg” for the interview was the situation in Syria. Specifically, what a certain leading western nation should do about the situation there.

My problem is twofold; the fact that he is on television and held up as an expert in the first place mildly disturbs me, but the other is that there was little criticality in the questioning, even on his Syria advice. To use a courtroom analogy, he was treated by the hosts (Charlie Rose and Erica Hill) like a prosecutor would treat a bland but vital prosecution witness in a trial (an upstanding family doctor, perhaps), when he should have been treated like the defendant him/herself. Sure, I don’t expect a whole Anderson Cooper style Keeping Them Honest segment badgering him on Iraq WMD intelligence, or them to go all Frost/Nixon on him, but at least recognize that even as a military strategist Rumsfeld’s Iraq record should discredit him alone, let alone the plausible claims of the invasion being illegal under international/UN law.

Final thought: Syria rhetoric and the west as savior.

I leave for today with some more thoughts on Syria. I’m not a foreign policy expert, which is why this blog wisely talks about it only through the lens of media coverage. That said, I am struck by the sort of rhetoric we keep hearing on the subject. That we “can’t stand by” while innocents are massacred/slaughtered (it’s always those words). Here is former presidential candidate and Republican foreign policy mainstay John McCain saying that in as many words on CNN several months ago.

This is staggeringly awful logic. The fact that bad things are happening in the world does not compel America, or anyone in the west, to do anything at all that “our” own interests do not also force us to do. This whole “we have to save them” logic is, if one takes it to the reductio ad absurdum, a modern version of the “White Man’s Burden”, to a “t”. Let’s just think about all of the bad things in the world that have happened where the west was content to issue declarations and diplomatic cudgels but not use military force—there are too many to count, though it is instructive what the earlier mentioned senator had to say about the situation in the Cote d’Ivoire last year. I’ll spare you a full summary, but this was one in which the US intervened diplomatically and the French—the West African nation’s former colonial occupant—only bothered to use force when they remembered that they had their own citizens under threat in the country. That interview was several months after the crisis began, and he told Howard Kurtz of Newsweek/Daily Beast last year that:

“While McCain opposed the U.S. military actions in Lebanon and Somalia, he is sympathetic to humanitarian missions—and would even consider sending troops to the war-torn Ivory Coast if someone could ‘tell me how we stop what’s going on.’”  

(emphasis very much my own)

I flag this passage for two reasons—and it proves my point twofold. First it shows that US military actions motivated by humanitarian reasons are not always considered worth supporting by those who tend to champion them. That proves my “willing to allow terrible things to happen” point. But more importantly, McCain’s lack of knowledge on “how we stop” strife in the Ivory Coast goes to a deeper problem with western “humanitarian” interventions. It’s that if western leaders do not know what they are doing (or have a cadre of intelligence analysts who are on the ball), they inevitably make the situation worse. Again, too many places for me to discuss here, such as arming a certain Afghan unit of Mujahedeen a few decades ago.

So go on cable news and stir the pot for Syria intervention if you must, but don’t tell us we can’t sit by. The west is more than willing to sit by in many instances, and even interventions that are truly motivated by the best of intentions tend to make things worse when the commanders have not done their research.

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