Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thinking about 9/11 and media

As the 10-year 9/11 anniversary approaches, I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of the media post 9/11 in encouraging what I believe was a rush to retribution. The stampede to embrace war rather than even considering peaceful alternatives was fueled by the media, I believe.

I am working on a column next week on this subject, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out this fascinating piece about media complicity in terrorism.

Literary Agent Blues, or, Rejecting Rejection

From the Parkville Luminary

I can’t string together three words without some fatal syntax error. I write like a glue-sniffing seventh grader. I never saw a cliché I didn’t like.

OK, the feedback I’ve been getting from literary agents hasn’t been that bad. It just seems that way.

For the past month or so, I’ve been shopping around my book, Professor Komagum: Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda, to literary agents in hopes of getting them to represent me. It’s possible to get a book published without an agent, but very, very difficult, perhaps akin to selling one’s house without a realtor.

This agent acquisition process is more painful than a root canal, more tedious than a city planning and zoning commission meeting, and more degrading than fraternity initiation rites.

The process begins with a query letter wherein you grovel (without outwardly begging) for representation. In one page, you’re supposed to catch the agent’s attention, summarize the book, and provide a brief bio of yourself. This is the first part of my query:

“During the 10 months I lived in Uganda, I was almost flattened by a startled two-ton rhino and menaced by swooping bats in a tree house in the middle of the jungle. I also taught hundreds of Ugandan journalists how they could lay a foundation for peace by utilizing the techniques of peace journalism. In addition, I met, befriended, and became surrogate father to a half-dozen orphans. Oh, and I also ate some dried ants. (The wings were removed, since these are apt to get stuck between your teeth).”

My letter’s opening is probably too cute by 50%, but it does get their attention, at least I thought so. However, I have no idea if my query is any good from an agent’s standpoint because agents pretty much refuse to communicate with prospective clients.
I’ve sent out 30 queries. I have received three actual responses—one from an agent who said she’d like me to send the rest of my book (woo-hoo), one from an agent who wanted me to clarify if my book is a travel memoir (yes, it is), and a third from an agent who gently rejected me. This kind agent wrote, “Thanks for letting me take a look. I'm afraid this doesn't seem like the right project for me, but I'm sure other agents will feel differently. Best of luck placing your work.” Kudos to you, Liza Dawson, for taking two minutes to send me a nice note that lifted my spirits and renewed my hope for my literary career and mankind in general.

Unfortunately, Liza Dawson seems to be the exception in the literary agent world, where they’ve discovered that it’s easier to email a form rejection letter than to actually engage in messy human contact. You know it’s an auto-rejection when you see the words, “Dear Author”. This phrase is usually followed by a direct “no thanks” line. This is my least favorite let down, although it does offer some comic relief: “Alas, the query wan't (sic) quite intriguing enough to inspire me to offer representation or further consideration of your project.” Hey agent: at least have the decency to spell-check your snarky form rejection letter before you send it out! (WaSn’t)

The most irritating auto-rejection line is “please forgive the impersonal nature of this response.”

Dear Agent: I do NOT forgive the impersonal nature of the response. Take two minutes, write two or three sentences (like Liza), and tell me that my query is stupid, or my book is unmarketable, or that my writing is idiotic. If you don’t have time to respond to queries, then don’t accept them. But if I have taken the time to write to you, common courtesy dictates that you write me back.

Of course, I’ve received no response whatsoever from 23 out of 30 agents to whom I’ve sent queries. Suddenly, the robo-rejections don’t look so bad, at least the ones where everything’s spelled correctly.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Humanitarians bring hope to the hopeless

They dig ditches, help the elderly, empower the poor to create their own wealth, teach the underprivileged, and show the world the true American spirit of friendship and camaraderie.

They are America’s 8,655 Peace Corps volunteers spreading goodwill in 139 countries. They deserve our support, our thanks, and our congratulations on World Humanitarian Day (Aug 19).

Over 200,000 Americans have served their country in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961. While most are young people, 7% of the volunteers are over 50. My wife and I, in fact, are future PC volunteers. According to Peace Corps data, 37% of the goodwill ambassadors volunteer in the field of education, with 22% working on health/HIV/AIDS initiatives, 14% on business development, and 13% on environmental projects. I have witnessed their efforts firsthand (including organizing a youth baseball league in rural Moldova and teaching in isolated Uganda), and have been amazed by their enthusiasm and by the impact they have on the world.

These Peace Corps volunteers, of course, represent only a small percentage of the angels who are engaged in humanitarian efforts worldwide. As we commemorate World Humanitarian Day, spend a moment to reflect on how they make the world a better place. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it best when he wrote:

“On World Humanitarian Day, we honour these aid workers and thank them for their dedication. And we pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice – in Afghanistan, Haiti and beyond. Too many have died, or suffered their own loss, in the course of duty. We pledge to do all we can to ensure the world’s humanitarians are kept safe to do their essential work.

This is also a day to examine our own lives and consider what more we can do to help -- to reach out to people enduring conflict, disaster and hardship. Let those we honour today inspire us to start our own journey to make the world a better place and bring our human family more closely together.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Classes to begin; Students brace for dull lectures

Classes begin Aug. 15 at Park University. I'm really looking forward to seeing my students and getting back into the classroom. I hope they'll interested in hearing about my Uganda peace journalism project. If not, it couled be a long semester.

Political homophobia thrives in U.S.A.

From the Parkville Luminary

Despite society’s belated recognition of homosexual marriage rights, political homophobia is still alive and well in America.

Exhibit A is a press release that found its way into my email in-box, leaving a slimy trail in its wake. This release is from Larry Klayman, founder of Freedom Watch and Judicial Watch. Freedom Watch’s website is equally fascinating and alarming. In one spot on the site, visitors can view a documentary that “exposes the ‘new world order’ that is being pushed on to humanity, a world order that will destroy national sovereignty in favor of a one-world government.”

When Klayman’s not pushing paranoid conspiracy theories, he’s spouting anti-gay hatred. His press release, titled “Political Hererophobia and its Consequences”, is classic political propaganda. Certainly, the last thing we need is more inflammatory language fueling the raging flames of what used to be known in polite circles as political discourse. It’s vital that we expose the haters on both the right and on the left for what they are—demagogues who at minimum seek to divide and frighten us to advance their political agenda. Toward this end, let’s take look at Klayman’s email (my comments are in parenthesis):

The press release begins, “In an effort of destroy the presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann, the only true Christian conservative (who defines true Christianity or conservatism?) in the Republican primary race, the activist ultra left gay and lesbian "community" (they’re not a community?) has sharpened its vicious (demonizing language) talons. Garnering the complicity and support of the leftist mainstream media (at least he didn’t say “lamestream”), they have been foaming at the mouth (dehumanizing language) about her candidacy, which they see as a threat to their agenda - which in large part is to indoctrinate (brainwash) our children into the normalcy and thus "advantages" of a homosexual lifestyle. (Do people choose homosexuality, or are homosexuals born that way? Do you, Mr. Klayman, get to decide what is normal?)

Before I go further, let me make one thing clear. I am not a homophobe. (Nixon: I am not a crook; Clinton: I did not have sex with that woman). I know and work with gays who are nice, decent, intelligent, hardworking. productive and respectful people. (And some of my best friends are black). While I do not endorse or condone their lifestyle (joining a garden club is a lifestyle choice; sexual orientation is not), my gay friends (I’d love to speak to one of them) do not try to push their unfortunate situation - which is obviously both difficult and painful for them and their families - on others. (Difficult primarily because of discrimination and derision from right-wing society)… God intended sex to be between a man and a woman. (Did He tell you this?) Otherwise, He would have equipped us differently…When man has strayed from this anatomical fact of life, bad things health-wise have happened; AIDs is just one example. (This is a Golden Oldie—a vengeful God striking down sodomites. Question: does your God also hate those who contracted HIV through transfusions, or babies born with the virus?)

Michele Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, have for years tried to help homosexuals find their way to the Lord (Rep. Bachmann: Do you subscribe to the views in this press release?)…If truth be told most gays and lesbians, if their communities allowed them to speak out, would probably praise the Bachmann' s efforts...” (Absurd)

A few paragraphs later, Klayman writes, “It is because we have been in an intense culture war in this country; the left - now led ironically by its pro-Muslim (implied-Muslim=evil) president, Barack Hussein (this middle name must mean that he’s a bad person) Obama, wants to squeeze the teachings of the likes of Jesus and Moses from our public schools (where they obviously belong) and our society in general. By pushing government as our God (down on your knees before the altar of Obamacare), and having the government condone and endorse the homosexual lifestyle through such institutions as "gay marriage," they want to…hand over our mores and values to the devil. (who is gay and Muslim and wants to raise taxes).”

In 20 years, society will look back on Klayman and his allies with the same disdain with which we now judge civil rights opponents from the 1960’s—as foolish, narrow minded bigots.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Please forgive the impersonal nature of this response

Ending week 3 in my search for a literary agent for my new book, Professor Komagum—Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda. A couple of nibbles (“this is interesting, send me a couple of chapters”), a couple of automated rejection letters (“please forgive the impersonal nature of this response”), but mostly silence thus far. For an impatient person, this is indescribable torture.

Update from Ugandan correspondent

Just received an interesting letter from our intrepid Ugandan correspondent Tabu, who is one of the smartest, most well informed people I know, despite the fact that he continues to stubbornly support Uganda’s corrupt president Yoweri Museveni.
Some highlights of Tabu’s dispatch:

Weather and witchcraft: Worse of all the rains were accompanied with thunder and lightening/ Schools were much affected. One school 5 kids were struck dead at ago-at another 6 and teacher struck dead. Most of the schools were affected and in Gulu. 30 kids were struck dead recently- terrible- terrible. But right now it is back to very hot sunshine. Grass trees, withering. Some people here who still believe in witchcraft were interpreting the lightening deaths as spells inflicted and induced by evil spirits. Some of us still live in/with Stone Age ideas.

Peace journalism: (In reference to post below from July 18) It is surprising Steve despite his efforts there are still those in the U.S.A who don’t see how their reporting can be detrimental and talking about mob- justice, you have seen nothing about it (compared to Uganda). Nancy Grace has only to visit Uganda and watch one of our local TV’s, she will revise her reporting almost instantly. (Regarding mob justice), on T.V we see no less than five people being torched to death (by a vigilante mob) using blazing tires. This is on only suspicion. The police have tried to sensitize the public on not talking justice in their own hands to no avail...

Thanks, Tabu. Stay safe and well.

Bloggers put themselves at-risk during Arab Spring

Also getting my attention this week was a survey commissioned by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.. The key findings from the survey, conducted in May, were:

1. The survey respondents, primarily bloggers residing in the Middle East and North Africa, experienced a remarkably high incidence of security incidents related to their online activity over the past year, including cyber attacks, personal threats, arrest, and detention.
2. Survey respondents reported a wide range of methods employed to mitigate the risks of online activity, including self-censorship, obscuring their identities, and writing in ambiguous language.
3. Design and ease of use, rather than security-related features, are reported to be the most important considerations in choosing online platforms.
4. Even within this set of at-risk bloggers, only a small number reported that they understand or implement best practices related to online security.

The survey clearly demonstrates the need to integrate security issues and best safety practices into trainings for online journalists. I know in my seminars, I have begun to broaden my discussion of journalists’ safety.

For a complete look at the IWPR survey, click here.