Liberating the Liberator

They say photography liberated painting from the need to be representational, freeing it of the task to show things as they are. Less than two centuries from the birth of photography, we need to consider whether photography needs to be liberated from itself. What photography excels at, its phenomenal ability to record the visible, is perhaps its Achilles heel. Not for doing it badly, as many practitioners do it phenomenally well, but because of the weight that bears down upon its shoulders. The burden of trust, rather than the erosion of it, lies at the centre of the drama, for drama is what it is. If the world is a stage then the photographer is the scribe, the choreographer, and sometimes the script writer, but rarely the one directing the play.

Bird in stormy sky 1998

Ironically, it is the entity that is blamed for the demise of truthful photography, the digital sleight of hand, which is perhaps the true liberator. What photography did for painting, the computer has done for photography. Not by replacing it, but by removing the mask. Photography, like any other medium, is what its proponent makes it to be. Its fidelity makes it neither more honest nor more ethical. Those attributes continue to reside with the author, both the one with the camera and the other author, the one who sits at the editorial table. The photographer selects the frame, the editor selects the frame within which this inner frame exists. The selection of the image, the cropping, the juxtaposition with text or graphic or advert or headline, the sequencing, the timing and the hierarchy within the news pyramid, makes the photographic image the putty with which the truth is massaged. Its unintended veracity, the very tool, which others in the news-chain exploit with abandon. Continue reading “Liberating the Liberator”

Desperation

The selfie sessions have now become a part of my life. Ever since coming out of Keraniganj, and possibly more, after becoming Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, I’m stopped in the streets, in shopping malls, bookstores, roadside cafes, at restaurants and weddings. The most recent spree was at the National Press Club on the 11th, where there was a public hearing of parliamentary candidates who were victims of election fraud. I have no idea who this guy is, but Blitz has again come up with a howler.

Posting on Blitz of selfie taken on 11th January 2018 by unknown person when I was at National Press Club on the 11th, January 2019, where there was a public hearing of parliamentary candidates who were victims of election fraud

They’re getting somewhat desperate in their smear campaign. Not having been able to come up with anything vaguely credible, they are now getting quite ridiculous. First I was a Mossad Agent. Then ISI. Then they tried the Hizbut Tahrir poster. Now I’m a Jamaati! I’d better be careful. I’ve been photographed with the President, and several cabinet ministers. They’ll accuse me of being an Awami Leaguer next. Now that would ruin anybody’s reputation!

 

Who needs facts? We appear to be in the Post-Information Age now

Evidence? Ha. That’s for humanists, scientists and who knows what other dangerous-ists. It’s all about how we feel now

Guardian

S consulate compound in Benghazi attacked

A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi. Photograph: Str/AFP/Getty Images

Remember the Information Age? That was such an interesting period, when digital technology and the thirst for understanding converged to give the human race unprecedented access to heaps of revealing data, contemporaneous and historical. All you had to do was analyze the information without prejudice and the secrets of the world unfolded before you – from the human genome to weekend crime in your town, from the value of the two-out stolen base to the origin of the universe.

But nothing lasts forever. Objective analysis is just so 2013. Facts are over, replaced by feelings and free-floating certainty. Sure, so-called Big Data will get bigger still, but only in service of targeted diaper advertising and spying on citizens. For everything that matters, as of now, we are smack in the Post-Information Age.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 33% of Americans believe that evolution is a vicious rumor, opining that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. Genesis is their story and they’re sticking to it.

Not insignificantly, rejection of science over religious mythology is distinctly partisan: 48% of Republicans, versus 27% of Democrats, “just say no” to Darwin. This explains a lot. The GOP failed four dozen times to undo Obamacare, but they’re that close to repealing the Age of Enlightenment.

Evidence? Ha. That’s for humanists, scientists and who knows what other dangerous–ists. Governance has become a faith-based initiative. When it comes to the most critical issues of our society – the economy, climate change, gun violence – it matters only what you believe in.

As the mid-term elections approach, watch as the square pegs of reality are pounded into the round holes of ideology. We saw a sneak preview last week after a 7,000-word investigative piece in The New York Times revisited the 11 September 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the administration ascribed the violence to anger over an anti-Islam YouTube video titled “The Innocence of Muslims”. House Republicans smelled a rat, accusing to White House of covering-up an al-Qaida connection to the attack, one which might have neutralized the political benefit of Osama bin Laden’s scalp in President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Like the official State Department investigation before it (pdf), David Kirkpatrick’s exhaustive reporting – sourcing diplomats, eyewitnesses and many Islamic militants with zero interest in protecting the White House – found plenty of intelligence and security failures, but no evidence of al-Qaida participation.

The immediate reaction of the conservative press? Attack. They offered no counter evidence, merely summary dismissal. Since Kirkpatrick’s analysis did not comport with the GOP’s narrative as propounded by Congressmen Darryl Issa (R-California) and Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), there could be but one explanation, per the Fox News website headline: New York Times’ Benghazi article a shameless bid to send Hillary to White House in 2016.

The Washington Times, having done no reporting on the ground, went back to House Republicans to reiterate their suppositions. No evidence has surfaced putting foreign elements at the scene 11 September, but undisclosed classified intelligence, in the words of House intelligence subcommittee Chairman Lynn A Westmoreland (R-Georgia) “just leads you to believe, or to know that [the attackers] were al-Qaida-related”.

Believe. Know. Same difference.

What makes this all so dangerous is that it not only corrupts policy debates, it undermines serious journalism – and science and history and all other rational disciplines – by rendering their output mere arguments, no more or less credible than someone’s dogma, superstition or gut hunch. We snigger at conspiracy theories abounding in the Muslim world, blaming Israel for September 11 and sharks in the Red Sea, but how they differ from, say, climate-change denial, is lost on me.

Not to say faith-based politics is the exclusive province of the political right. Such organizations as Project Censored exist to call attention to, for instance, the “Top Censored Stories Corporate Media Won’t Dare Touch” – pretty much all of which, of course, have been plucked from the corporate media. Yet the idea of Big Media protecting and shilling for The Man is as much a commonplace of progressive ideology as “liberal bias” trope is on Fox.

Why? Because it is comforting to construct a personal reality when actual reality will not do. That is where astrology came from, and voodoo. Also Area 51 and supply-side economics. That’s why we’ve slid into the Post-Information Age. It’s going to be a rough patch for Darwin.

And even worse for Voltaire.

The day a Cockburn set the White House aflame

Sunday 2 September 2012

World View: Two hundred years after the US was humbled by Britain, our leaders still pass off defeat as victory
As a correspondent in Washington 20 years ago, I received occasional calls from local television stations on the anniversary of the burning of the White House by a British force in August 1814. The reason they wanted a comment was because the raid was jointly led by my distant ancestor, Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who took a fleet into Chesapeake Bay in the last months of the war that had started in 1812.
The intention was for Sir George and his fleet to seize horses in Virginia and Maryland for the cavalry. Instead, the sailors found it far more profitable to plunder tobacco warehouses on the creeks running down to the Chesapeake. Continue reading “The day a Cockburn set the White House aflame”

A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!

How automated journalism and loss of reading privacy may hurt civil discourse.

By?|Posted Monday, March 19, 2012, at 7:11 AM ET

Automated journalism like that produced by Narrative Science could perhaps save media jobs, but it can also hurt civil discourse. William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

Can technology be autonomous? Does it lead a life of its own and operate independently of human guidance? From the French theologian?Jacques Ellulto the?Unabomber, this used to be widely accepted. Today, however, most historians and sociologists of technology?dismiss it?as naive and inaccurate. Continue reading “A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!”

A Beginner's Guide to Democracy

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Rahnuma Ahmed

I don’t often get brainwaves. But there was something about David Miliband?s interview, shown on a private TV channel, that inspired me. I don’t often watch TV either. It was just fate, I guess.

To be honest, it wasn’t only Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. There have been others. From Britain. From the US. From Australia. From Canada, Germany, the European Union. Some have been visiting dignitaries. Others were diplomats, some of them still posted here. They have given us a steady stream of advice. Some of it was sought, much of it volunteered.
On what to do. How to do. The practical steps involved. The people required. The mechanisms needed. The institutions that must be in place. The values to inculcate.
As a recipient of this sudden surge of Western interest in Bangladesh, a poor, hapless nation, led often enough by wretched, self-serving leaders, as a recipient of endless lectures on democracy, often embellished by locomotive metaphors (‘democracy derailed,’ ‘getting democracy back on track’), I have been at a total loss. So much is being expected of us. What are we to do? And, being part of the derailed ‘us’, what am I to do?
It was Miliband who showed me the way. I knew what I had to do before the interview was over. The relationship between Bangladesh and Britain should be a two way street. We should not only take, we should also give. It should be a modern relationship, as befits a modern world. We should be partners, that’s what he had said.
The mind works in strange ways. Suddenly I remembered Mohammod, a Palestinian friend of mine, from my Sussex days. The three of us, the third being my American flatmate, had been chatting in the kitchen. He had been invited for dinner. “You western people, you are People of the Book,” he had said. “How to cook, how to garden, how to mow the lawn, how to take pictures. For everything, you people have a book. You follow the instructions 1, 2, 3 of your little book.” His laughter had been irresistible. We had joined in. I myself less grudgingly.
Write a How To Do on Democracy? Or A Beginners Guide to Democracy? But why on earth? Why me, and for whom? Dare I?
I got hold of a CD copy of the interview, I transcribed it. I read the transcript several times. It’s not a lengthy interview, only twenty minutes or so, but of course, it’s quality not quantity that matters. It’s a question of having the right attitude, of having a positive frame of mind. I quickly marked out Miliband’s check list for Bangladesh: (i) full, free and fair elections this year (ii) buttressing institutions of a strong civil society (iii) an independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor (iv) a strong media that asks tough questions, and also (v) strong systems of education, health and local government, since the latter are important supports to the formal institutions of democracy.
Miliband was not asked tough questions. The interviewer was not a recognised journalist. Knowing English seemed to be more important. Being able to read questions off the cue card seemed to be more important. I don’t know how these things work, but the end result was there for all to see. No ruffles, no stress, no strain. No curiosity. Just sheer complicity. In the path to democracy project, a project in which Bangladesh is the eager learner, and Britain, as represented by its Foreign Secretary, has all the answers. Tempered, of course, with the appropriate dash of modesty (‘I have been in Bangladesh for six hours, I have to be careful about pretending to be an expert on Bangladesh’).
Complicity doesn’t just happen. It is an act of creation, and there is no reason to assume that a lot of effort isn’t involved. What were the ground rules at work in Miliband’s TV interview? My guesses are made on the basis of the effect that was achieved. That made it so tidy.
Rule 1: Take everything at face value. When Miliband says, British citizens of Bangladeshi origin “look very closely at developments in Bangladesh. They have family here, they worry about economic, social, political issues,” do not ask whether they are similarly concerned at developments in Britain. At the increasing loss of liberties. At Islamophobia. Do not ask how they are contributing to the movement for democracy in post 9/11 Britain, a Britain decidedly less democratic than it was earlier. Don’t take up the “two-way process” seriously.
Rule 2: Ask self-evident questions, these help to elicit self-evident answers. “What are your views on the road to democracy for Bangladesh? Or where are we on the roadmap for democracy?”, this is a good instance. It helped the Honorable Foreign Secretary come up with the checklist I mentioned above. Do not engage with his answers. When he speaks of Britain and Bangladesh’s “shared interests,” do not ask him whose interests he’s talking about. Whether that of the Labour government, or that of the British people. Do not ask him whether the Blair, or the present Brown, government genuinely represents the interests of the British people. Do not breathe a word about the million strong anti-war demonstration held in London several years ago.
When Miliband speaks of trade relations between Britain and Bangladesh, of Britain as an investor, do not raise the issue of Asia Energy (re-named Global Coal Management). Do not bring up the issue of Phulbari, of the strong and vibrant people’s movement against Asia Energy, against open pit mining. Do not quote the British High Commissioner’s statement, “Many of you will be aware of UK-based Asia Energy Corporation?s contract to mine coal at Phulbari, but may not know that other British investments in coal and power generation are also waiting for the green signal from the Government here. These new projects, when implemented, would double the value of the UK?s cumulative investment in Bangladesh.” Nor this one, “Yes, I will continue to lobby for new British investments particularly in the energy sectors in Bangladesh” (same speech).
When Miliband speaks of his passion for the environment, do not ask him why energy corporations do not calculate carbon costs when they declare their assets. When he says, “Don’t repeat our mistakes,” do not ask him whether that impacts on Asia Energy’s push for open pit mining. (Do not mention conflict of interest between the government and people of Bangladesh. Especially avoid mention of Dr. M Tamim, the Advisor’s Special Assistant for Power and Energy Ministry and his private consultancy).
Rule 3: Do not mention instances to the contrary. When Miliband says, “So the road to democracy first of all, needs to have full, free and fair elections,” ” the elections are seen to be a credible expression of the will of the Bangladeshi people,” “help make sure that democratic voices are heard through the ballot box not outside it,” do not raise questions about the overthrow of a popularly elected leader in Iran in 1953. Do not raise any questions about Hamas. Do not ask why 36 of the 39 Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members that the Israelis abducted in 2006, are still detained. Why some of them haven’t even been charged. Do not say the un-sayable, that more Palestinian legislators are in prison than legislators from all the other parliaments in the rest of the world put together. Do not ask tough questions.
When Miliband speaks of the necessity of an “independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor, a strong media that asks tough questions,” do not bring up the Hutton report (2004) on the BBC, regarded by several national newspapers as an “establishment whitewash.” The report was considered to be uncritical of the government. Don’t mention former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s name either, and why Britain had refused to extradite him.
Rule 4: Treat history as irrelevant, trivialise it. Use it as a decorative word, as having no content. You can utter the words, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom share a very strong historical linkage, but steer clear of what that “linkage” involves — British colonialism, exploitation, historical struggles, injustices, movement for freedom.
Rule 5: Treat what is happening in the world as irrelevant. Do not talk of the blockade of Gaza, of Israeli settlements, of the West’s refusal to talk to Hamas, Israel’s apartheid practices, its land thefts, slaughter of Palestinian children. Of the slow genocide that it is inflicting on defenceless civilians, bulldozing houses, torture and assassinations. Of voices of protest. Of Rachel Corrie. Do not talk of Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Do not mention that a recent report cites as many as 6.6 million post-invasion excess deaths in Occupied Afghanistan as of February 2008. That post-invasion excess deaths in the Iraq War are now about 1.5-2 million.
Absolutely do not mention that UK playwright Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech urged the arraignment of Bush and Blair before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. He had said, “How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?
Postscript:
In a recent address before an audience at Oxford University, in honour of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, David Miliband has said, “the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project.” He refused to categorically rule out military action against Iran.
The road to democracy in Bangladesh as chalked out by her western partners seems to be signposted with the messages: Take everything at face value. Do not ask tough questions.
First published in The New Age on 4th March 2008