Friday, March 11, 2016

What Hillary should say regarding her Reagan & HIV/AIDS misstep

For fun, I like to think about how I would handle various PR disasters. Yes, for fun, I do that. I love to write the response that some political or corporate executive or offending celebrity SHOULD give to try to recover from a major screw up, rather than saying “I apologize if anyone was offended” or “I apologize for misspeaking,” two statements that just make the disaster worse.

At the funeral of Nancy Reagan - not sure if it was before or after the ceremony - in an interview with MSNBC, Hillary Clinton said:

“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s,” Clinton said. “And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted to do anything about it. And, you know, that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, hey, we have to do something about this too.”

This is not a misstatement. Hillary Clinton did not misspeak. These were very thoughtful statements. And these statements are either a profound misunderstanding of history, or a deliberate attempt to rewrite it in order to woo Reagan Democrats. There is absolutely no other reason for these statements. She has to own one of those reasons if she’s going to survive the fiasco. So here’s what Hillary Clinton needs to say, ASAP. You can thank me later, HC:

It’s hard to put into words the devastation that HIV and AIDS has caused, and continues to cause, worldwide. Science has made incredible strides regarding treatment for those with HIV and AIDS, and humanity has made incredible strides regarding how it treats people with HIV and AIDS, but there is still so much to do. 

In an interview regarding Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, someone for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration, I did not accurately state how she and President Reagan publicly responded to the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s. In the moment of that interview, I believed those statements to be true. The outcry that has followed has me not only revisiting my statements, but revisiting my understanding of the history of HIV and AIDS and how our country has, and has not, responded. 

There are so many issues, many of them controversial, that I have been proud to be a strong advocate for, like children’s rights, women’s reproductive freedom, and affordable, accessible healthcare for all Americans. But even a very passionate advocate for human rights can have areas where he or she needs to improve her understanding. And, obviously, I am not as up-to-speed on the complete history regarding the government’s response to HIV and AIDS as I should be. I remember well when the crisis began in the 1980s. Like so many Americans, the first people I knew that died from AIDS were celebrities, like Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury. I mourned those deaths, but, like so many other Americans, AIDS still felt somewhat remote from me and my life. When the disease began to affect people I knew, personally, as well as family members of friends, it was at about the same time when the Reagan’s began talking about the disease. That is how I remembered their response to the disease. But the reality is far different. The silence of the government in the 1980s regarding HIV and AIDS, despite thousands of people dying, inspired the “Silence = Death” campaign and the organization Act UP. I should have known that, and I didn’t. And I apologize for that. 

I own my mistakes. This was a mistake. But let me be clear: I am fully aware that HIV and AIDS continues to affect millions of people worldwide. It’s something I have been regularly reminded of as First Lady, as a US Senator, as a Secretary of State, and especially, as a friend. There are things we need to be doing globally and there are things we need to be doing right here in the USA both to prevent its spread and to get people affected by the disease the treatment, care and respect they absolutely deserve. I will consider it a priority in my administration to continue to address the realities of HIV and AIDS. 

You're welcome, Hillary.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thanks, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Yes, in fact, I did enjoy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I just read a scathing review of the movie on Buzzfeed. The review is full of all the proper fashionable chastisement and outrage about the inappropriate portrayal of Afghans and war and career women and blah blah blah. I'm sure there are lots of other, similar reviews, attacking the film for various cultural oversights and its insensitivity to this or that.

Well, here's my perspective:

Spoiler alert: it's not a documentary. It's a fictionalized account of a memoir of one American woman's perspective. It comes with all of the limitations of that one woman's perspective. Just like what I write.

I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan for six months, in 2007, which would have been a year after Tina Fey's character leaves the country. My experience there was, very often, just as absurd as what you see in the movie. I was just as absurd in my reactions to what happened around me, at least at times. I watched the movie and gasped at how many scenes and experiences portrayed in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot were things I witnessed or experienced in Kabul - right down to egg boy and one of my co-workers watching donkey porn.

No, the movie doesn't explore the consequences of war on the people of Afghanistan. But, did anyone else realize it's not meant to? The movie provides only glimpses into the life of people in Afghanistan and the consequences of war, and this is probably because that's not the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, probably because they in no way felt they had the background or knowledge to produce such a story. I certainly don't have the background or knowledge to produce such a story. The movie doesn't fully illustrate the beauty and nuance of the Afghan people, and has no Afghan female characters? Correct! And it's not meant to! Because that's a movie for someone else to make - preferably, someone who is actually from Afghanistan.

That "over-the-top" performance of the Afghan government minister, as the BuzzFeed reviewer described it? Wow - what a shame when I faced something VERY similar, from a Pakistani co-worker, I didn't say, "Oh, silly man, you're being over-the-top, you're acting like a caricature, you can't possibly really feel this way, it's so disappointing, so please stop with the romantic/inappropriate advances and be your not-outrageous, respectful self that you really are." I'm sure that would have changed everything.

So many things in the movie were exactly my experiences as well: the freak out on the first night, finding out my first week that Friday was my only day off, looking over and seeing a blood-soaked sidewalk outside a butcher shop, having to pee so badly I was in tears - but couldn't go because there was no where to do so, at least not for a Western woman, a translator purposely mistranslating conversations in order to keep everyone in the room, hearing "dog washer" as one of the worst insults that could be said to someone...

Yes, the ex pat parties really could be that crazy in some guest houses as the movie shows. Aid workers, like journalists, often drown their stress and anxiety in post-conflict zones using lots and lots of alcohol. In case you're wondering, no, I wasn't a party girl. I went to university in the 80s, that was enough for me, thanks. I went to a few not-so-crazy parties, even L' Atmo, but on Thursday nights, the start of my one-day weekend, I preferred watching pirated movies in my room with Kabul kitty and some Afghan Fried Chicken (AFC) or having a quiet dinner with friends.

In praising the book by Kim Barker on which the movie is based, the BuzzFeed reviewer notes "Every page, every description, is another opportunity for Barker to come off as clueless, privileged, or quietly prejudiced." She's praising the book for that. But then claiming the movie doesn't do that, or maybe criticizing the movie for the same thing - it's hard to tell. I thought Fey brought to life a character every bit as clueless, privileged, prejudiced as I was when I was in Afghanistan, and that's why I found her, and the movie, so endearing.

The BuzzFeed reviewer even criticizes the movie for "brownface", because the Afghan minister isn't portrayed by an Afghan. Oh how I cringed at that statement, as the Afghans and Pakistanis I have known do NOT consider themselves "brown." In fact, I am calling them Afghans and Pakistanis, but they call themselves Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, and other tribal names. They consider those tribes their ethnicities. When they check their ethnicity on a Western form demanding they identify with a racial group, they choose "white" - at least the Afghans I know and talked with about it. Want to truly outrage an Afghan? Have a Pashtun character played by a Tajik, or vice versa.

The movie provides only a fleeting, absurd look at Afghanistan - and that fleeting, absurd look is all I got when I was there in 2007. I got much, much more time with Afghan women than the character in the movie, and it was time that I relished and I cherish. It was my absolutely favorite part of being in the country. One of my favorite moments was when I got to go on a field visit in Panjshir, and got to sit in a room and share a meal with a group of local women, women who had been covered in burkas up to that point. That's something my male co-workers never got to experience.

I guess I'm going to be accused of cultural appropriation for wearing clothes I bought in India sometimes while working in Kabul. It was, in fact, culturally appropriate - finding things that were appropriate for the Afghan workplace was a struggle for me when I first got there. THAT is my only criticism of the movie - that Fey's character didn't have a butt cover.

The reviewer has a particular problem with the protaganist having an affair in the movie, saying that that story line suggests "in a not-so-vaguely insulting way, that the only way to make people interested in a serious subject is if there’s a love story mapped on top of it." Bollocks. I found the movie's acknowledgement, without apology, of a woman's longing for sex refreshing. The words love or romance are never mentioned in the movie. And I loved that the protaganist wasn't even sure how she felt about the guy she kept sleeping with - because that's often the reality, not love and marriage, but, "Is this going somewhere? And do I want it to?"

Um... this is probably the point I should note that I'm happily married, and I was a nun in Kabul. Sometimes a drunken nun on Thursday night, but a nun none-the-less.

It's not a great film, but I found it a very enjoyable one. And I want to thank my husband for comforting as I bawled afterward, thinking of all my brave Afghan fixers and drivers and co-workers, like the fixer portrayed in the movie, who faced unbelievable dangers and provided amazing care for me while I lived there. The fixer in the movie got me - I knew half a dozen of him. I'd love to see just his movie.

If you didn't enjoy the movie, that's fine too. If you worked in Afghanistan, and didn't find the movie at all relatable, that's fine too. But to imply that your perspective is the ONLY one about a place or an experience - yeah, that's privilege.

I hope other films come along, out of Afghanistan itself, that explore the violence between tribes, the violence against children, the plight of women, the beauty of Afghan music, the tragic power and fear of gossip among Afghans, the bravery of so many Afghans, the grace and courage of so many fixers (which the film does touch on), and on and on. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was never meant to do that, and has nothing to apologize for.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

One week in February in Cuba

Cuba, sí!  For my 50th birthday (well, a month later), I went to Cuba! Why? I list all of the many reasons in my travelogue! I also write in such a way that I hope it will be helpful to anyone planning a similar trip.

Also, since it's become oh-so-fashionable to condemn Westerners for writing about their travel abroad experiences, play "gotcha!", etc. I offer this disclaimer: This is my experience in Cuba, in February 2016. I'm a 50-year-old white women, originally from Kentucky, now living in Oregon, and that's my filter. I've been to more than 35 countries - and I still don't at all consider myself worldly, wise or even mostly appropriate. I wrote this travelogue from a place of honesty and sincerity and my personal perspective, never from a place of unkindness, and it is, no doubt, rife with my prejudices, misunderstandings and ignorance about oh-so-many things - because I'm human, not a machine. I made no attempt to be comprehensive about Cuban life or culture or history - I wrote about what I saw, experienced and felt in one week there. This is account full of opinions, and I make no claims to being impartial. This is Cuba through my lenses, and when you go, or if you live there, or if you lived there, please, by all means, write about it through your lenses.

If you want to skip the travelogue and go straight to the photos, feel free, but the photos have no descriptions on them, at least at the time of this blog's publication - just too busy!
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