[Whole30] In the beginning...

If you do Whole30 and don't blog about it, does the month even exist? 

I'm starting the 30-day program on Monday, January 1. It consists of:

  • No added sugar, real or artificial. 
  • No alcohol.
  • No grains.
  • No legumes.
  • No dairy.
  • No carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites.
  • No baked goods, or junk foods.

The thinking is that some or all of these groups impact your general wellbeing, and that you feel better by removing them for a month and "resetting" your body. I don't have any specific health complaints (I'm a relatively healthy 23-year-old), I'm more interested in doing Whole30 to see if any of the above groups are causing me to feel funky without my realizing it. That and enough people have told me that they felt better after Whole30 to make it seem worth a try.

I'll report back with updates every few days. I'll tag posts like these with as Whole_30, so you can get all of them in one place.

Unrelated to Whole 30 — I have a bunch of plans I can't wait to share with you. Stay tuned.

Books on Finance

After graduating and starting an Adult Job, I realized that I needed to revisit my budget and such. I wasn't looking for anything complicated -- just a broad overview of how to manage money as a twentysomething. Two books I found particularly good were: 

A lot of the advice from articles and Quora answers is either not applicable (I'm not making enough money for investing to be relevant) or weirdly condescending. From the two books above (you'll skim through each one in an hour or so), I think I have all the theory I need to manage money in my twenties.

* Not affiliate links.

    Landmarks of Contemporary Arabic Literature

    This semester, I took a seminar on literature from the Middle East. It's fairly current, in that the books were published during or after the 1960s. The region during this time was a fascinating place, politically but also on an interpersonal level: people were figuring out their place in the world, and in relation to the folks around them. 

    A lot of people have expressed interest in the reading list, so I'm posting a list of the books we read here.

    My three recommendations: Miramar (Naguib Mahfouz), Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali), Palestine’s Children (Ghassan Kanafani).

    • Being Abbas El Abd, Ahmed Alaidy
    • I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, Sinan Antoon
    • The Golden Chariot, Salwa Bakr
    • Beer in the Snooker Club, Waguih Ghali
    • The Committee, Sonallah Ibrahim
    • Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, Ghassan Kanafani
    • Gold Dust, Ibrahim Al-Koni
    • Miramar, Naguib Mahfouz
    • Endings, Abd al-Rahman Munif
    • Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih
    • Arabesques, Anton Shammas
    • The Story of Zahra, Hanan Al-Shaykh
    • Breaking Knees: Modern Arabic Short Stories from Syria, Zakaria Tamer

    This Week in the Middle East

    (With an obvious nod to Mike Allen.)

    The Big News This Week: Trump's second Travel Ban was blocked just hours before it was due to come into effect on Thursday at 12:01am. The ban, CNN reported, would bar people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the US for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days.

    At a rally in Nashville, Trump vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court (here's a video). This new ban was blocked before it came into effect, so we didn't see chaotic scenes at airports a second time.

    Al-Hajj: Al Jazeera is reporting that Iranian Muslims can participate in the Hajj, after Iran-Saudi tensions kept them from attending in 2016. The Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, is largest annual gathering of people in the world.

    Foreign Terrorist Org? The paper of record reported back in February that Trump staff are debating whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. The group, which has several mostly-autonomous chapters in the Middle East, has formally denounced violence since 2011.

    Critics said they feared that Mr. Trump’s team wanted to create a legal justification to crack down on Muslim charities, mosques and other groups in the United States. A terrorist designation would freeze assets, block visas and ban financial interactions.

    Here's Zaid Jilani, over on The Intercept, on why that's a bad plan, noting that classifying the Muslim Brotherhood could be used as an excuse to rail against American Muslims.

    And Now for Something Completely Different: The Economist reports on a plan to build an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, which would reduce Palestine's isolation from the rest of the world. The plan, which has tepid support from some in the Israeli government, would largely depend on Netanyahu's willingness to act (so don't hold your breath).

    For the Day That's In it: Here's a good report from The New York Times on Trump's St. Patrick's Day meeting with Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny. Kenny spoke about the importance of immigrants, and in particular the ~50,000 undocumented immigrants from Ireland.

    “We would like this to be sorted,” Mr. Kenny said, calling for these people to be given a path to citizenship. “It would remove a burden of so many that they could now stand in the light and say, ‘Now I’m free to contribute to America as I know I can.’ That’s what people want.”

    “All they want is the opportunity to be free,” he added, choking up momentarily.

    It was a somber moment during a ritual that is normally as convivial and rancor-free as any in Washington. The last seven such visits by Mr. Kenny featured good-natured gibes about former Vice President’s Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s long-winded speeches or President Barack Obama’s habit of toasting the taoiseach with water-filled glasses.


    See you next week. Got something you want to see covered? I'm @tommycollison on Twitter, or you can contact me here.

    Arabic Pros and Cons

    In English, we use the same word for I wear/she wears and Wearing Prada is expensive. Arabic has a different word for each, even though they're related in the way that the English words manage and manager are related.

    This is good, in that there's less linguistic ambiguity. You almost never have the same meaning collision you have in English -- I'm wearing the shirt uses the same word in a completely different context in I find this discussion wearing

    This is also bad -- all those different words have to be learned, or at least recognized. There are a few hundred thousand English words, but a few million in Arabic. This is also due to the fact that Arabic is a simile junkie, and there are about 14 ways of saying "love" and over 100 words for "lion." There are only a handful in common use, but the rest are perfectly legal and kosher.

    It's a fun language.



    When people told me about college, they mentioned that my senior year would be the most fun -- I would be done with my requirements, I would be finding a job, and I would generally be enjoying my last semester of being relatively carefree young adult and undergrad.

    This... has not been the case for me.

    It's midterm season, so about the time when I hole myself up and do a lot of writing. Maddie is tootling around rural Jordan, and I'll see you all in a week.

    Gillette Turns 30

    Tommy Collison, a Gillette patient who traveled from Ireland to receive treatment for cerebral palsy when he was a boy, shared how his experience at Gillette helped him physically and mentally. Collison, a 22-year-old student at New York University, recently spent four months traveling in Israel. He’s not afraid to take on challenges and credits Gillette for his confidence.

    A Big Celebration for the James R. Gage Center for Gait and Motion Analysis

    Last Monday, I spoke at Gillette Children's, a hospital in Minneapolis, MN, where I had various surgeries as a child. The gait laboratory there turned 30 last Monday, and I had the pleasure of spending the day with them, and of being there when they announced a $1 million donation, which will go toward research and development. 

    As the article notes, "The funds will make it possible to advance our world-renowned gait and motion analysis research and equip our facility with the very latest technologies."

    I was glad to play my small part in the day, talking about the impact Gillette surgeries have had on my life. As I said in my talk, the surgeons and staff at Gillette had a huge impact on my quality of life. I spent the last four months traveling around Israel and Palestine, and it's largely thanks to their care and support that I have both the ability and the confidence to do so.


    What's New, Buenos Aires?

    Let's see...

    I'm in Buenos Aires for another two days. It's been a great fortnight, with good food, excellent company, and amazing surroundings. I added 10,000 words to the manuscript and got to see a little bit of South America, where I've never been before.

    I had a much longer introspective written, but decided that nobody needed the word vomit and that it's better saved in drafts. TL, DR: I think this is going to be an uncertain year -- professionally, personally, and (more widely) politically. Trump, my college graduation, a change in visa status, job searching... But I'll meet it as it comes. The odd years are always more fun than the even years anyway. 

    I fly back to the US on Saturday, and then drop up to Maine for a few days. I've never been, but I'm a fan of the cold and I have a good friend up there. Plus, it's Stephen King territory, so the winter spookiness should be in overdrive. After that, it's back to New York for my last semester.

    I'll put up some photos of Buenos Aires in a bit, but that's all for now.

    2016 Book Recommendations

    'Tis the most wonderful time of the year: when people post their book recommendations. Here are some of the books I read this year with comments and recommendations. I'm copying the style of on Aaron Swartz's excellent Review of Books, with books I particularly recommend up top. The links go to Amazon, but they're not affiliate links.

    My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

    Best piece of fiction I read all year. The story follows a young Hasidic Jew who grapples his love for his religion and his love of art. First-person-child-narrators as a genre often fall flat, but this is done very well.

    Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, by Simon Winchester

    ...And this is the best non-fiction I read this year. An eminently readable account of the past and present of the Pacific Ocean. The stuff-to-come bits feel slightly shoehorned in, but may we all have Winchester's comprehensive-yet-readable writing style.

    The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

    As someone said somewhere in a review, this isn't a who-done-it so much as a why-done-it. I almost went to Bennington College, which is thought to be the basis for the book's Hampden College.

    Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, by David Feige

    A fascinating look into the justice system and public defenders in general, but I found the author to be totally unlikeable, and some of the Amazon reviews take issue with some of the assertions he makes. It's a poor writer who can't write an autobiography where he comes out looking halfway decent. The cast of characters is somewhat unnecessary and hard to keep up with. Worth reading if you focus on the institutional parts and stop trying to keep track of the names.

    Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

    Ticks all the boxes of a biography in terms of comprehensiveness, but something's still missing. Not particularly compelling, which is a shame considering that the source material is exciting and meaningful.

    The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton

    A delightfully funny and surreal piece of short fiction. Read in two sittings.

    Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, by Anthony Shadid

    Compelling long-form journalism at its best. Shadid is a role-model to foreign correspondents everywhere, particularly in his attempts to understand the region he covers.

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

    Fiction at its most brilliant, and most immersive.

    Israel/Palestine, by Alan Dowty

    My go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a "how did we get to today?" primer.

    Sex With Shakespeare, by Jillian Keenan

    A little bit off-the-wall, but an enjoyable autobiography-with-a-twist. Genuine, funny, and conversation.

    And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

    This was written in 1987, and so it lives and dies by its immediacy: on the one hand, it's an honest and compelling look at the people who were on the ground floor of the epidemic. On the other, one of the book's central claims about "Patient Zero" has been disproved.

    NYU administration to look at providing free menstrual hygiene productions to students

    Last month, a student group at New York University petitioned the administration to fund a pilot program looking to provide students with free menstrual hygiene products. St petition garnered over 3,000 signatures, and this week Students for Sexual Respect at NYU reported that the NYU administration has agreed to fund the pilot program, which will report to the administration by the end of the semester.

    It seems reasonable to me that NYU should look at providing pads and/or tampons for free in public bathrooms and in residence halls, in much the same way that they stock condoms at no cost to students. Having sex is arguably more of an opt-in activity than having your period.

    I'm exceptionally proud of the college activists who pushed for change on this one — it's a big achievement to get the university to move on it. I know Josy from around NYU, and I'm very proud of the work she's doing. Can't wait to see where this goes.

    Sometimes you have to say no to your friends to say yes to your work

    It's 23ºC here in Tel Aviv. I'm sitting outside my dorm in a T-shirt and jeans, headphones in, working my way through a draft of the forward of this book.

    I think some friends of mine are going to a bar with live music in southern Tel Aviv, near Jaffa. I'm probably not going to join them -- part of it is residual tiredness from traveling all day Thursday and not getting into Tel Aviv until 5am on Friday, but part of it is that I'm working on the book. I have an idea of how I want this forward to look, and so I'm probably going to keep at it until what's on the page looks a little bit more like what's in my head.

    As I was working, I was reminded of an answer Lin-Manuel Miranda gave in an interview about writing stuff. He's asked if the idea of writing Hamilton ever got overwhelming and whether he ever thought about giving up. He says:

    Oh, all the time. All the time. And then you push through it. Like, you push through it because what’s the alternative — you’re going to just leave that idea stuck in your head forever? That sucks. The alternative is you go through life and you had this great idea and nothing came of it, because you got tired? And yeah, sometimes you don’t go to the party that all your friends are at because the idea is calling to you in that moment.
    You have to do that sometimes. You have to say no to your friends to say yes to your work. Because, what are you going to do? Lose that idea because you decided to have a drink with your friends?

    The Syrian Civil War

    The current conflict in Syria is in news a lot, but often without much context. What's the situation, and how did it come about?

    In the last months of 2010 and at the beginning of 2011, antigovernment demonstrations shook some Middle Eastern regimes, with protestors demanding jobs, freedom, and national dignity. In Tunisia and Egypt, these so-called "Arab Spring" protests succeeded in bringing down the Ben Ali and Mubarak governments. Major protests also rocked Algeria, Libya, and Iraq.

    Syria, however, is a different story.

    In this column, I'll briefly outline the Syrian situation, how things devolved in 2011, and what the future might hold.

    * *

    To understand what sort of country Syria was in the months approaching 2011, we have to go back to its foundation. Syria's story as a country as we know it begins in the mandate period I talked about two weeks ago. The country achieved independence from France in 1945, ostensibly becoming a parliamentary republic.

    It was never going to be easy to govern Syria. The republic is home to communities of Alawites, Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Christians. Its early years were marked by a series of coups (including four in 1949 alone), an unsuccessful invasion of Israel, and a short-lived political union with Egypt.

    Despite making up only some 12 percent of the population, the Alewites were a powerful minority. In 1963, the Alawite-led, explicitly socialist Ba'ath Party took power and established a police state. A member of the party, Hafez Al-Assad (father of the current president, Bashar Al-Assad), seized power in 1970 and became president the following year. He ruled for some 40 years before his death in 2000.

    Syrian GDP growth, 1960-2007. Notice the spike beginning around 1971.

    Under Hafez Al-Assad's rule, Syria saw impressive growth, although the regime was quite repressive. GDP rose, and the country was stable for the first time in its young history.

    After the death of his father, Bashar Al-Assad promised reforms but it quickly became apparent he had no commitment to or interest in meaningful change.

    These tensions reached boiling point in early 2011 following demonstrations in other Arab countries. The arrest and subsequent torture of a group of teenagers who were protesting —using graffiti and other measures of civil disobedience— led to more protests, during which security forces opened fire on large-scale protests, which resulted in the deaths of police officers and protestors alike.

    Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising. —Louai al-Hussein, Syrian writer, March 2011. (Quoted by BBC News.)

    The country was in civil war.

    Summer 2011 gave way to armed opposition groups clashing with pro-Assad forces, with some of the opposition being made up of Syrian military officers who had defected. The refugee crisis began in earnest as people fled the violence. Refugees spilling over the border into Jordan and Turkey prompted an international response. The UN imposed sanctions but has stopped short of passing a Security Council resolution concerning potential intervention, in no small part because Syria's ally, Russia, has blocked attempts four times. (Russia has long been close with the Assad regimes, having provided military and economic support for decades.) Various militia groups, funded by a variety of countries and groups, continue fighting.

    The US has long looked impotent with regard to Syria. Part of this has to do with some curious comments made by Obama in 2013.

    “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” (As quoted in the Washington Post.)

    Obama's "unscripted" remarks were described by The New York Times as being made "to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from."

    But he said it, and evidence that Assad had indeed "utilized" chemical weapons was strong. At the beginning of September 2013, Obama sought Congressional approval for a military strike which he looked very unlikely to get.

    How he got out of the situation with his credibility intact is one of the biggest curveballs I've ever seen in politics.

    It starts with John Kerry being asked on September 9, 2013, what Assad could do to avoid a US military strike.

    “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. [...] But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.” (Quoted in the New York Times.)

    But Kerry shouldn't have counted his chickens. Because it could be done. The State Department stressed that Kerry's comments had been rhetorical in nature, but evidently that wasn't a view shared around the world. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he supported the demand. ABC News then reported that Syria "welcomed" the proposal.

    Fast forward to late September, and the unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118. Then, the world woke up on June 23, 2014, to the BBC News headline "Last of Syria's chemical weapons shipped out."

    But that's just the beginnings of the civil war. Next week, we'll get into the various warring factions, US involvement, and the million-dollar question: what happens next.

    ISIS, Terrorism, and Religious Differences

    To claim that religious differences is a root cause of tension in the Middle East is to ignore much of what’s going on in the region today.

    Are religious differences irrelevant? Not a chance.

    ISIS wants to bring about an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. The heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict lies in primordial, irreconcilable differences between two groups. Sunni and Shiah Muslims are locked in a sectarian battle to the death.

    We've heard these sentiments before, but are they true?

    The more one studies the Middle East and its interweaving political disputes, the more apparent it becomes that differences often have more to do with economics, territory, and regional power grabs than with 1400-year-old theology.

    Let’s start with ISIS, who continue to dominate news headlines, presidential debates, and Google search trends. While the group is quick to stress their religiosity (something which Western media outlets are more than happy to repeat, largely unchallenged), it’s important to ask how indicative ISIS is of the larger Muslim umma, or community.

    The answer? Not very.

    ISIS’s interpretation of Islam is largely grounded in the Quran, but one which the vast majority of Muslims reject. It’s a bit like Jews and Christians ignoring the sections of Leviticus which ban seafood, wearing clothing made of more than one kind of cloth, or working on the Sabbath. Nobody but the ultra-orthodox would question their religious devotion.

    Most Muslims have no problem —and no cognitive dissonance— denouncing the actions of ISIS and remaining devout, practicing Muslims.

    * * *

    The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is another arena where Western pundits are quick to frame the dispute as an "age-old" clash of civilizations, an intractable ethnic conflict. But this isn't accurate either. The debate is a geographic and political dispute more than a religious conflict, with two sides laying claim to the same parcel of land. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, is quoted as saying that “We and they want the same thing. We both want Palestine." [1]

    The conflict has also gone through different stages, which point to it being a nuanced conflict with specific triggers and stages rather than one long period of sustained violence.


    The chart above shows the variation in the death toll since late 2000. What's the cause for the variation? What was happening during the high and low points of this chart? What political decisions were being made? The answers to these questions would give us a better understanding of the dispute, and disprove the idea that it's an age-old vituperative conflict with no solution.

    * * *

    The last idea, that Sunni and Shia Muslims have irreconcilable differences, is also one which is not well-founded in reality. This video from Al Jazeera makes the case well.

    The current chaos in the Middle East "is "about power, not piety. It's a recent phenomenon, not an ancient one — we're talking 40 years, not 14 centuries."

    Many media outlets looked at Saudi Arabia executing the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and saw it as an example of renewed sectarian tensions, since Saudi Arabia is a Sunni country. But when the Iranian government denounced the killing and the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked, that was less a centuries-old conflict playing out than a geopolitical rivalry: for years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a tense relationship, with both countries vying to be dominant regional powers. In Syria, Saudi Arabia supports Suuni fighters, while Iran backs the Assad regime, part of the Alawi Islamic sect, which follows a branch of Twelver Shiism. In this context, however, such regional conflicts become less about religious differences and more closely resemble old fashioned proxy wars.

    If all this sounds complicated, know that entire theses and books have been written on the subject, and this column is primarily designed to make you think about the nuances of the soundbites we hear in the media. Academics, journalists, and indeed anyone who wants to be informed about the situation must shrug off simplistic models of the world and see the specifics.


    [1] Dowty, Alan (2013-08-26). Israel / Palestine (p. 82). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

    Churchill's Hiccup, and the Modern Nation State

    The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, at the heart of the modern Middle East, occupies what has been called "a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe." Its neighbors are Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine, and so it plays a central role in the politics of the region. It remains one of only two countries in the region to have a peace treaty with Israel (the other being Egypt).

    The nation of Jordan, as we know it today, officially came into being in 1946, but between 1921 and 1946, it was a British mandate. Following World War I, the imperial powers of Britain and France divided land in the Middle East (which had been previously administered by the ailing Ottoman Empire) and created the nations we now as Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

    This mandate system was organized by the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization founded at the Versailles Peace Conference which ended World War I. Under its auspices, "advanced nations" were to guide and administer "those colonies and territories" which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Why? Because those colonies and territories "are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world," according to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

    (If all that sounds like a thinly-veiled retelling of The White Man's Burden and the mandate system sounds suspiciously like colonialism, well, I wouldn't say you're wrong. In reality, mandates legitimized —legalized, even— the blatant usurping of sovereignty.)

    Britain and France, then, created states and borders which had not previously existed. The historian James Gelvin points to Jordan as an example of how the borders of these new states were sometimes lacking in rationale.

    "If you look at a map of Jordan, for example," he writes, "you will see a strange indentation in its eastern border with Saudi Arabia. There is no reasonable explanation for that indentation. No river runs through the area, no mountain range forms a natural division between the two states."

    Serving as British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill drew Jordan's borders at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Years afterwards, he is said to have bragged that he "created Jordan with the stroke of the pen one Sunday afternoon." (1) This much is known, but here's the piece de resistance — the robust colonial secretary, known for large lunches, is reputed to have been drawing Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia when he hiccuped, and his pen moved off the straight line he was drawing, creating the deviation. Some Jordanians refer to the line as "Churchill's Hiccup" to this day.

    The contrived nature of the state of Jordan's borders has several impacts.

    "Jordan can be seen as among the most artificial states in the modern Middle East, with a highly contested national identity," writes Curtis R. Ryan, author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah, although he goes on to acknowledge that the adjective "Jordanian" is meaningful to many Jordanians. (2)

    But more generally, it's significant that the region doesn't really have a history of nation states. The region was organized into longstanding authoritarian regimes, of empires Ottoman, Abbasid, and Qajar. These empires were often distant, not playing a large role in the everyday lives of their citizens.

    As I mentioned last week, identities based on religious or ethnic lines were often more important. Syria and Palestine are, according to Bernard Lewis, names from antiquity which "hadn’t been used in the region for a thousand years or more before they were revived and imposed—again with new and often different boundaries—by European imperialists in the twentieth century.”

    He goes on to point out that, in the Arabic language, there is no phrase for Saudi Arabia. Rather, "present-day Saudi Arabia is spoken of as 'the Saudi Arab kingdom' or 'the peninsula of the Arabs,' depending on the context." (3)

    In short, the Middle East before 1900 was a region of empires rather than nations, where multiple identities were more important than nationalities as we understand them today. When officials and pundits talk about the Middle East, they neglect to mention that many of the region's borders are artificial. When Western pundits question why "they" can't be more like "us", or why they can't all "get along," absolves us from the responsibility the West had in creating some of the problems in the region today. Our action's their reaction, our cause is their effect, to some extent. In the same way that ISIS is a direct result of Iraq's instability following the 2003 invasion, we have to examine how many of the region's longstanding problems can be attributed, in part or in whole, to the artificial borders bestowed on them following World War I.


    Some of the ideas in this essay come from lecture notes from Arang Keshavarzian's Fall 2015 class, MEIS-UA 750, “Politics of the Middle East," at New York University. 

    (1) Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015, pp 202.

    (2) Ryan, Curtis R., “Jordan” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East. ed. Angrist, Michele. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2013. Print, pp 336.

    (3) Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004. pp 16.

    NYU Local, Disability, Representation

    NYU Local is an independent news site at NYU. I write for Washington Square News, NYU's independent student newspaper. Note: this is a personal blog and I'm writing here in a personal capacity, outside my position as Opinion Editor with WSN. 

    In one of my first journalism classes at NYU, my professor organized a short panel and Q&A on the subject of diversity in journalism. One of the speakers referenced this 2009 NY Post cartoon comparing Obama to a dead monkey.

    Talking about how such a racist cartoon saw the light of day, the speaker highlighted the lack of reporters of color occupying high-ranking positions in the newsroom.

    "There weren't enough voices in the upper echelons of the paper stopping that cartoon," Frankie Edozien, the speaker, said at the time. "Nobody was saying 'this will cause you a problem.' People in privileged positions have to be aware of their blind spots."

    NYU Local published a profile of a disabled burlesque performer at NYU. She has the same disability as me — cerebral palsy.

    Here's an archived version of the piece as I read it for the first time. This is how it began:

    Initially, she seems like the typical NYU student. Coffee in hand, sitting in the Tisch Lounge, consistently distracted by various friends yet still somehow getting things done.

    But then she gets up and saunters across the room to the door. It quickly becomes clear through how she walks that she is not like the rest. Is she drunk? Injured? Winner of an award for clumsiness?

    Hey, it's really obvious that this student walks capital-D Differently. She's at NYU and an arts student and interesting or important enough to be the subject of a profile, but the most important thing you need to know about her —beyond the coffee and being easily distracted— is that she is "not like the rest" because of how she walks. We're even treated to the writer's stream of consciousness, her guesses as to, jeez, what is wrong with her?

    The jibe that physically disabled people walk drunkenly is nothing new, but it's still completely out of line for NYU Local to publish it.

    NYU Local and the WSN have long been rivals. We're competing in the same space to be NYU students and professors' first call for NYU news -- I get that. Back in August 2014, I commended them on a story about the NYU Secrets admin. I'm happy to give them credit both here on this blog and on social media when they do right.

    But when they screw up, I'm gonna call them out on it.

    Those lines should never have made it into the final version. I don't have any insight into the internal workings of NYU Local, so I don't know how many people read that piece and gave it the green light. I also don't know how many people with disabilities are on senior staff at the news site. But I guess the answer to the second question is zero. I genuinely can't comprehend how someone who knows people with disabilities (as friends, not as subjects of profiles -- y'know, real, complex people with lives outside our drunk, clumsy walks) could have okayed that piece.

    It reminds me of the chimp cartoon I mentioned above. People familiar with disabilities, who had some insight how this would read to someone unfamiliar with the performer, either don't exist in senior positions at NYU Local or aren't being listened to when they do raise concerns.

    And that sucks.

    In the time after I posted about this on Facebook, the article was amended. The second paragraph has been removed. You can see it here. It also now includes this line at the bottom:

    Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article contained language that was offensive and discriminatory to those with CP. NYU Local regrets the error. 

    Obviously, it would've been better if NYU Local had caught the offensive, discriminatory language prior to publication, but I appreciate how quickly they moved to change the article when it was brought to their attention. I wasn't the one who did —I don't have a rapport with either of NYUL's editors in chief nor the writer of the piece, although I do know the performer— and we haven't spoken directly about any of this.

    I didn't write this piece as a call for an apology -- I'm just glad the damn line has been taken out. Journalists hold a privileged position, though. We have a responsibility to call out this sort of screw-up when we see it. I hope people call me out when I fall short, and I'll continue to do so when I see journalism that can do better.

    Facebook real name policy must go

    Every few months, a story surfaces of someone being kicked off Facebook for refusing to adhere to a little-known, sporadically enforced policy that requires users to use their “real name” in their profiles. The summer saw two high-profile cases of blocked Facebook accounts: Laurie Penny, a British journalist who uses a pseudonym due to the rape and death threats she regularly receives; and Zip, a former Facebook employee who had used her name for six years through her employment, both had their accounts deactivated. However, German regulators have forced Facebook to stop enforcing the rule, claiming that banning users from using alternate names and pseudonyms violates German law. This is a step in the right direction, but change must come from within: Facebook should drop their real name policy entirely.

    Facebook’s rationale for the policy stems from their belief that real names push up user engagement on the site. Facebook is inherently less valuable if you cannot easily find your friends or the cute person you just met at a bar. But not only that — Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg cannot fathom why someone would have two names. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. He has also said that privacy is no longer a “social norm” people care about. This is a belief that benefits Facebook but is incorrect and should be abandoned.

    There are plenty of reasons people may not use their real name online. Facebook is positioning itself as the gatekeeper of our social interactions: if everyone at NYU knows me by a nickname and not “Tommy,” it should not be Facebook’s decision which name I use on the site. Alternatively, users could be transitioning, closeted or victims of stalking or domestic violence who want to use the site for support and outreach without leaving themselves vulnerable to their abusers. They could also be Native Americans, whose accounts have been suspended by the social network in the past. Facebook seems to have a pre-existing idea of what a name should be, and “Dana Lone Hill” does not fit the idea. Suspending accounts for this reason in no way Facebook’s jurisdiction, and this odious practice must stop.

    On an iPhone, if you ask Siri how old “Bruce Jenner” is, it will correct you and say that Caitlyn Jenner is 65 years old. If you type “Bruce Jenner” into Wikipedia, the site redirects you to the article on Caitlyn Jenner. These subtle shifts, prompting users to refer to and see Jenner by the name she has chosen, is an example of how technology is not neutral, and can shape our realities. Last year, Facebook introduced custom genders, allowing users to identify as genders other than “male” and “female.” They must now take the next step and end their toxic real name policy.

    This column originally appeared in Washington Square News.

    Thoughts on the Outing of the NYU Secrets Admin

    Background: NYU has two main newspapers -- the print Washington Square News and the digital NYU Local. NYU Secrets is a Facebook page where anonymous "secret" updates were posted, written by members of the NYU community. The page is curated by an anonymous administrator, and given that NYU is a decentralized, campus-less university, the NYU Secrets page did serve as something of a community. Today NYU Local published This Is The Man Behind NYU Secrets:

    The founder and administrator of NYU Secrets is senior Aristotelis “Aristo” Orginos. A frequent Redditor, Orginos also participates in the Men’s Rights movement. [...] Outside his duties as administrator, Orignos posts in the Reddit group r/mensrights. The men’s rights movement argues that men are oppressed and disadvantaged by women, a view that lends itself to bitter misogyny in some circles and has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to describe the movement as a hate group.

    The discussion that the NYU Local article prompted has centered on two main areas: whether the admin being an MRA makes him a bad fit for NYUS admin, and whether or not the journalist had any right to out his identity. I'm more interested in the latter question, because it has to do with journalism ethics. The NYU Secrets page, which has 30,000 likes, is a public page. The identity of the admin, who periodically would comment on secrets and make announcements, was of much interest and debate.

    To my knowledge, the page isn't sanctioned by NYU but the administration has been known to follow the page and look into particular secrets. Considering that the topic of cheating on finals comes up, this doesn't surprise me. But the NYUS admin has no fundamental right to privacy. Whether or not his identity remained a secret seemed largely contingent on how good his operating security was. I'm sure I'm not the only one who did some digging to find his identity and satisfy my curiosity. It's the classic game of cat-and-mouse -- the admin wanted to remain anonymous, the NYU Local journalist wanted to find out his identity. Hackers and infosec types play these sorts of games all the time. The NYU Secrets guy has no fundamental right to keep his identity anonymous. The journalist owes him nothing, and certainly has no responsibility not to publish.

    Questions of whether or not the journalist should have done it is a totally different question, but even there I'm leaning towards the school of thought that says, hey, they had a good story and they're rightfully getting attention for it. In debating this on Facebook the afternoon, I was asked why I held the above views considering I'm so privacy-conscious. Of course people don't have a fundamental right to privacy -- it'd be a different question if the journalist posted the contents of the admin's e-mails, or his medical records. Those are details the NYU Secrets guy, since he's a private citizen, does have a fundamental right to keep private. To briefly touch on whether a supporter of such an odious movement deserves to edit a page famed for diversity and inclusion, I largely agree with the NYU Local journalist:

    "But the fundamental problem with a college secrets page remains the same: in filtering the voices of a diverse student population through a single anonymous administrator, the results are necessarily limited by what that anonymous administrator (in this case, a white man) chooses to publish. We’re drawn in by the illusion of vox populi, the voice of the people, when in fact what we see is “10-20%” of that voice, as curated by one person with their own biases — intentional or not."