Jan 18, 2017 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 166


Guest Interview: Felix Biederman (@byyourlogic) discusses his investigative reporting for Deadspin on social media in Saudi Arabia, as well as the broader geopolitical future of the Gulf’s biggest kingdom and the US-Saudi alliance. Produced: Jan 15th, 2017.

Episode 166 (54 min):
AFD 166

Discussion Points:

– For marginalized people, is Silicon Valley tech a liberator from or enforcer of the status quo in Saudi Arabia? Can US consultants really modernize the kingdom?
– What is going on with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen – and US media coverage of it?
– Would a US alliance with Iran be preferable to the current alliance with Saudi Arabia?
– Is it possible to safely disentangle US-Saudi ties without blowback and catastrophic meltdown?

Articles referenced:

Deadspin: “Your App Isn’t Helping The People Of Saudi Arabia”
Al Jazeera: “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires”
The Globalist: “Does Saudi Arabia Want to Break Up Yemen?”


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Music by friend of the show @StuntBirdArmy.

Protecting students from intrusive school social surveillance

Thanks to my State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem for pushing legislation in Massachusetts to protect elementary, secondary, and tertiary public school students from intrusive social media surveillance by school administrators — and for being proactive on this before it becomes a big problem, as it inevitably would without legislation.

No student should have to turn over their passwords and login info to their school just to be permitted to get an education. We cannot develop a healthy, independent, and democratic civil society if students face omnipresent surveillance that discourages them from branching out in their views during a formative period.

I also believe such online monitoring could have a chilling effect on young people being able to examine and test their self-identity, particularly in less welcoming communities.

While students and children do not always have full and unlimited rights, they must retain a reasonable right to privacy. That principle doesn’t change just because technology does.

Valiant LA Times colonialists reach Black Twitter’s shores

If given a pen and endless amounts of paper and ink (or a computer since I live in 2015), I wouldn’t be able to accurately explain what Black Cool is. It’s ever-changing: a prism that separates into so many different cultures and subcultures. It’s extremely valuable, but the people who make it aren’t considered as valuable. It’s a coveted resource, and it has shaped Pop Culture the world over.

In the age of the internet, Black Cool travels fast. Words that used to take years to become part of the Pop Culture Lexicon now take days. White teenagers and major consumer brands adopt and discard the language like a fad, without regard for its originators or intended use. Black dances, fashion, humor, and much more have all become openly accessible to more than just Black people. That has become both a blessing and a curse.

On the internet, Twitter reigns supreme for disseminating information. The medium is proportionally more popular among People of Color than it is among White people, especially among younger users. Over the past few years more and more attention has been brought to what’s referred to as “Black Twitter.” The way it’s talked about you’d think Black Twitter was one, uniform group, much the way Black people are stereotyped. However Black Twitter itself is a prism, the epicenter of Black Cool on the internet.

And Black Twitter is being stalked.

On July 6th, it was revealed that the L.A. Times hired a reporter to “report on Black Twitter.” The release memo goes on to explain the reporter’s credentials, his schooling and his experience with social media. The memo does not say the exact purpose of having someone report on Black Twitter, other than to “create stories with and pull stories from” the Black Twitter community. Admittedly the L.A. Times could have good intentions, but the way this is being executed is unnerving.

With all of the appropriation that happens on the internet, this seems disingenuous. It almost seems as if the L.A. Times is attempting to mine Black Twitter for headlines. While news media should be looking for stories that affect people of color, and should be hiring people of color to share our stories, hiring one man to cover all of Black Twitter seems sterile. News sites like Buzzfeed — while they too have their issues at times — has multiple Twitter-active Black people on their staff. Those writers organically engage with Black Twitter often and are part of the larger community. Because of this, they have a better idea of when something crosses the line from interesting to exploitative. Also because of this, when they do cross that line or mess up in any way, Black Twitter has an avenue to check them, and many times they listen. It’s not just one person reporting back to a newsroom of disaffected people, it’s genuine, flawed, human interaction.

Black people are people, not animals in a zoo. Black Twitter is not an observatory where you can watch Black people interact in their native habitat, and media needs to stop treating it as such. This attempt to mine Black Cool from Black Twitter, by minimal interaction with it, treats Black people and our culture like a commodity. Black people deserve better representation. We also deserve to have our lives interpreted in as complex a way as our culture is. More than that, we deserve our privacy and the right to keep and protect what we created for ourselves. Our bodies and cultures are not just here for you to study. Sadly, too much of history has involved exactly that. Little wonder that the L.A. Times announcement has been greeted with such skepticism.

"The Colonization of Black Twitter by the Los Angeles Times in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen" (Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy.)

“The Colonization of Black Twitter by the Los Angeles Times in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen” (Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy.)

More Than A Hairstyle: The Resurgence of Natural Hair

It’s hard for some to believe that something so simple as hair could be so political. It’s something we all have, and seems to be a topic more fit for fashion magazines than serious debate. However for Black people, the subject of hair can be a very sore topic. From tignons to hot combs to chemical straighteners, Black women have been at best enthusiastically “encouraged” and at worst lawfully obligated to alter or even hide their hair to be considered acceptable in society.

Recently, with the rise of YouTube videos and loads of resources on the internet, many Black women have decided to ditch the straighteners and go back to natural hairstyles. ‘Locs have made a comeback in a big way, but more Black women are increasingly enjoying their unbound hair, in the form of twist-outs, braid-outs, wash-and-go’s, and many other different styles. You can find tutorials on YouTube for specific styles, natural hair care blogs for maintenance, and ever ask for advice on Twitter about dying or temporarily straightening your ‘fro without doing the extensive damage that would happen before.

More and more Black celebrities are also showing off their natural hair to the world. Artists like Janelle Monae and Solange are known for their long coils and have no shame wearing them out in public for all to see.

Solange Knowles proudly sporting natural hair at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (Credit: Georges Biard / Wikimedia)

Solange Knowles proudly sporting natural hair at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (Credit: Georges Biard / Wikimedia)

Although more Black women are embracing their natural hair, there’s still a stigma about whether or not it is considered presentable or professional. In 2012, after responding to a racist comment about her wearing her natural hair on television, Rhonda Lee was fired from her job as a TV anchor. In 2013, a girl in Florida was told that she would have to cut her afro or be suspended from school. Last year, U.S. Army regulations that seemed to discriminate against natural Black hair types for female troops also earned a scathing Daily Show segment by Jessica Williams, before they were revised.

Most recently, the French magazine Public referred to Solange Knowles’s afro as “coiffée comme un dessous de bras” which translates into English as “hair done like armpit hair.” The article went viral on Twitter, and user @huegolden started the hashtag #TwitpicYourCheveuxCrepus encouraging people to post pictures of their natural hairstyles. Both English- and French-speaking Twitter users shared pictures of their hair, sending the message to the public that Black hair types are just as beautiful as any other hair type.

But it isn’t just Black hair styles that is the problem; the actual problem seems to be the bodies that the hairstyles are attached to. Earlier this year two starlets wore temporary “faux ‘loc” styles and got two very different responses to them. Kylie Jenner, one of the younger sisters of the Kardashian clan, revealed her temporary ‘locs on her Instagram page and was immediately lauded as a trendsetter for her “edgy” new look. A few weeks later at the Academy Awards, Zendaya, a young Black actress, was mocked for her decision to wear faux ‘locs to the show.

The idea that Black hair is unprofessional, unpresentable, or even dirty stems from racist stereotypes and a complete lack of understanding about Black hair. While you can go almost anywhere and find a salon that works with straight hair, salons that work with Black hair textures are almost impossible to find outside of Black neighborhoods, and salons that work with natural hair and not just straightened Black hair are even more niche. It’s that level of isolation that leaves most White people clueless about and prejudiced against the many different kinks and coils that make up Black hair.

It seems, though, that the tide is turning in favor of natural hair, as more and more women elect to wear their curls out, and more and more companies are coming out with products for non-chemically straightened Black hair.

#BringBackOurGirls: US will send hostage team to Nigeria

If you want to see a multi-national popular pressure / “awareness” campaign that has actually made a difference, you’ll want to check out the #BringBackOurGirls effort all over social media in the United States and Nigeria.

The northern Nigerian separatist extremist group “Boko Haram” — background briefing here — recently kidnapped over two hundred girls from a boarding school as child brides for their members and sympathizers (and as a source of revenue). The Nigerian government, which has been more or less overwhelmed in the face of wave after wave of massive terrorist attacks by Boko Haram in the past several years, initially responded with relative indifference — essentially writing off the girls as just more unrecoverable casualties of the terrorists.

This prompted very justified outrage within the country — which is Africa’s largest economy, most populous nation, and the biggest power in West Africa — and within the major Nigerian diaspora population in the United States. This led to the creation of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign targeting three groups of people: Nigerian government officials, U.S. media and celebrities, and U.S. officials. After a slow start at the beginning, it caught fire and has gone viral. Tonight in particular, it is finally blowing up on Twitter, especially among celebs, although fortunately the two governments had begun grinding into action already.

The first and third groups of people are, of course, the ones most empowered to do something about the situation. But the celebs and U.S. media are key in force-multiplying the pressure on the U.S. officials. And that’s what we’ve finally seen happen, at very high levels.

Reversing course, Nigeria’s government and (very sizable) military have vowed to make an active effort to rescue the kidnapped girls — which is a huge improvement over the plan to do nothing.

And rather than ignoring the situation (or trying to find a way to bomb the problem away), the U.S. government is making specific and useful commitments to help bring the girls back, by sending a team of experts in hostage negotiation and recovery. According to Thompson Reuters reporting:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the American embassy in Nigeria is “prepared to form a coordination cell” that would include U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations.

The U.S. “coordination cell” also would include people who could provide expertise on providing victim assistance, Psaki said.

It’s a reasonably small and easy commitment to make but it could make a very real difference.

Keep up the pressure. This effort has affirmed, in my mind, that a persistent social media campaign with clear, narrow, and specific goals to mobilize government resources in multiple countries is possible. And it’s a much worthier cause than some of the other viral campaigns we’ve seen.

Unfortunately, the New York Times reported today that Boko Haram has kidnapped more girls in a new, smaller attack. Let’s hope the U.S. effort will result in everyone coming home as safely as possible.

Beyond that and the immediate Nigerian government response, the only true countermeasure in the long-term to the overall terror campaign raging across northern Nigeria will be to inject substantially more development aid and investment into the country’s north. That can provide jobs to disaffected and disenfranchised potential recruits, discouraging them from joining such terrible organizations.

Want to put names to the numbers? Here are 180 names of those girls kidnapped in Nigeria in the initial attack.

Guest Post: Our hung parliament

Matt is currently a university student in Britain, but he attended high school in the US with the co-editors of Starboard Broadside*, and he has provided us with his reaction to the inconclusive results of yesterday’s general election.

Well, Nick Clegg has said he won’t be giving any more speeches today, and after those of us who weren’t shut out of the poll station at 10 p.m (which wouldn’t have been a problem but for the bloody Labour government having all pubs shut at 11p.m.), there’s a prevailing feeling that our votes were denied a definite result. One generally expects when they go out to vote to know who’s running the country the following day. However, as exciting (read: worrying) as the results are, they were far from unpredictable. The “yellow tide” of Cleggmania may have fell short of a tsunami, but that’s only because of the very electoral system which Clegg has been critiquing from the start.

The system in the UK is confusing even to us, but to put it simply for American readers, the Lib Dems did do well for a third party, achieving 23% of the national vote (only 6% less than Labour), but the only thing that matters is the amount of seats that are won. In this “First Past the Post” system, whoever gets the most votes in each particular constituency goes to Parliament and the rest of the votes are thrown away. This is how the Liberal Democrats have only 2 million less votes than Labour but 200 less seats in the House of Commons, and this is why Clegg has been demanding electoral reform from the start. The reason this election is so exciting is because of the very issue of electoral reform which it has brought to the forefront, and which will play a decisive role in how the new government is formed.

Indeed, the chairwoman of the Electoral Commission has described the current system as “Victorian” and demanded an overhaul. While we claim with great pride that the voter turnout increased massively, the country was unable to handle this, and polling stations shut voters out after 10 p.m., leading to sit-ins at polling stations around the country, and even demands for another vote to be held.

The anxiety over the current state (or non-state, rather) of the UK government has negatively affected the British economy, with sterling falling from $1.4732 to $1.4678 during Cameron’s speech – this could not have been more badly timed given the current economic happenings. The fact of the matter is that while this country is currently in need of a strong government, we are now left with a minority one that will rely on either small-scale policy compromises between two parties who’s manifestos are on polar opposites, or something even scarier and more revolution-worthy such as a Labour coalition (and we grow tired of Mr. Brown) or a defunct parliamentary minority. While we may wonder who it was that the country really voted for, we can guarantee it was not a Conservative-Lib Dem quasi-coalition. This election’s most defining aspect is that it has disproved the reliability of our current system, and Britons are demanding change.

From his speech given this afternoon, Cameron is in no way proposing an official coalition, but rather, to use his own words, a government which will “try to find new ways in which Liberal Democrats can contribute” – i.e. making the coffee. Expect a cartoon to surface on the internet within a few days of (forgive the cheeky British banter) Clegg with a big “57” painted on his chest kneeling down and doing rude things to a wryly grinning Cameron sporting an even larger “305,” with a caption somewhere along the lines of “Cameron spurns coalition, opts for ‘special arrangement’ instead.” No one expects this government to last for more than a year (in the UK elections can be called at any time, there are no fixed terms). Cameron has, however, said that he will sate the appetite for electoral reform with an all-party Electoral Inquiry Committee, but anyone who has been following Conservative agenda knows that his only desire is to have constituency borders proportional to population size, which – while still progressive – does not address the issues posed by this election.

And if that prospect doesn’t seem uninspiring enough, we are all faced with the fact that Gordon Brown is still in office! In the situation where there is no clear majority, it is up to the prime minister to tender his resignation to HM the Queen and it is Her role to then invite a new prime minister to form a government. This might mean that if the politicians can’t sort it out themselves, then Buckingham Palace will have to make its own decision.

All in all, between a resurgent monarchy and a weak coalition, the results (or, as of yet, lack there-of) of this election have confirmed our anger with the electoral system and lead the way to a United Kingdom that is even less able to deal with either the ongoing or the impending financial crises.
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