What Happens Next

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles

If I want to command the attention of my friends at a bar or a restaurant, I don’t say, “Hey, I’ve got this great analysis to share with you.” I don’t ask, “Have I shown you this amazing data set?” I don’t say, “Check out these killer citations.”

No, I say: “You won’t believe what happened to me the other night!” Or: “Did you hear what happened to so-and-so?” And then I proceed to tell them a story.

Before the invention of writing, stories were a memory aid, a way of organizing material to make it easy to recount. Today, with the snowstorm of information falling all around us, stories retain their singular power to burrow into the brain.

We all know when we encounter a bad story. We stop listening. We stop reading. We cease to care about the characters. We become disengaged from the plot.

A good story, however, maintains its suspense throughout. We hang on every word because we must know: what happens next? This element of mystery is like a hand on our back that propels us forward.

At Foreign Policy In Focus, we specialize in providing analysis of U.S. foreign policy and its alternatives. But we also want to tell you stories.

Like the story of Hani.

In Visiting Hani’s House, artist and FPIF contributor Ellen O’Grady describes her visit to the house of Hani Abu Haikel in the Palestinian city of Hebron. It’s a powerful description of life in the Occupied Territories, of violence and injustice, of the encounter between Palestinians and Israelis. Accompanying the text are O’Grady’s striking illustrations, which link together to form a graphic short story.

The story begins with the artist walking along the once-bustling business thoroughfare of Shuhadda Street. And then…well, you’ll just have to click on the link to find out what happens next.

The Story of Religion

In our latest round of religion and foreign policy essays, FPIF contributor Joe Volk discusses the power of stories to persuade people. “A former member of Congress and I were talking a few years ago,” he writes in The Story of Religion. “We were wondering how advocates of so-called national missile defense systems manage to win appropriations each year. He said, ‘We opponents win on the facts of the matter. We win on policy analysis. We win on policy recommendation. But then we lose floor votes in the House and the Senate. Why?’ Then he answered his own question: because advocates of the national missile defense system have the best story. People—and law makers—go with the story rather than with the facts and the analysis.”

In other words, progressives must continue to come up with winning analysis and recommendations. But we must also learn to wrap this information in compelling packages. We must tell better stories.

On one issue at least, progressives have been telling better stories: global warming. The old story—don’t worry, be happy—has been finally replaced with a new story: wake up and smell the carbon. In Greening the Pews, FPIF contributor Cassandra Carmichael tells several stories about how the religious community is tackling the climate change issue. “Hurricane Katrina destroyed or damaged 900 houses of worship in the Gulf Region,” she writes. “It also wreaked havoc on the United Methodist Church that Rev. Cory Sparks served in New Orleans. But, it also provided an opportunity. Rev. Sparks, with a long-time interest in ‘greening’ churches, used the opportunity of renovation and reconstruction in his congregation and other congregations in the area to push for energy-efficient design and materials. He recognized a need for pastors and church leaders to get more technical information on energy efficiency and was able to secure a small grant to help resource these interested congregations in New Orleans.”

In his policy report Liberation Theology Lives On, Jason Rowe challenges the conventional account of conservatives within the Catholic Church defeating the upstart liberation theologians. The future Pope Benedict XVI “is cast as the leader of a Vatican condemnation of liberation theology in the 1980s. Striking with the ferocity of a Rottweiler, the future pope ran liberation theologians out of the church as heretics with communist agendas,” Rowe writes. “Unfortunately, this oft-repeated account gravely misrepresents the interaction that actually took place between Rome and Latin America in the 1980s. The true story is one of equal parts critique, modification, and acceptance. Far from being stamped out, the theological ideas and reflections characteristic of liberation theology have left a profound impact on the Catholic Church that endures today, not only in Latin America, but also in Rome.”

Burma, Inside and Out

Within Burma, the military junta is telling two stories at once. On the one hand it has met with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, appointed a liaison to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi, and released political prisoners. On the other hand, as FPIF contributor May Oo writes in Parallel Editing in Burma, “The increasing numbers of troops in the mainly Karen and Karenni areas are causing displacement, deaths, and starvation as the regime forcibly relocates minority villages to areas under tighter control. For example, on November 6, the SPDC troops (Military Operations Command 1 and Division 88) repeatedly shelled the rice fields in the Yeh Mu Plaw area in the Northern Karen State.”

The international community is scrambling to find a solution to the standoff in Burma, also known as Myanmar. FPIF contributor Haseenah Koyakutty describes these efforts in Myanmar, the UN, and ASEAN, and offers a novel comparison. “Gambari has not fully spelled out his political blueprint for Myanmar yet, though he claims there will be incentives to persuade the government to make meaningful concessions,” she writes. “So far, Thailand has proposed four power talks that involve the UN, China, ASEAN, and India. Yet others want to form a ‘Core Group’ consisting of the Five Permanent Security Council Members, Japan, India, Singapore, and Norway that has long taken a traditional interest in Myanmar. Missing from all this is the Indonesian model, which has received too little international attention so far. Gambari’s discussions with the authorities in Jakarta could form the basis of future negotiations. The Indonesian model represents an in-house prototype for political transition and reforms that could most influence the junta, which is averse to ‘neocolonialist’ intervention.”

Pakistan and Vietnam

There’s a dictator in a far-off country who receives huge armfuls of U.S. weapons. Washington has not done much to address his human rights abuses or departures from democracy. That’s because he has promised to fight the communists terrorists in his midst. U.S. policy toward Pakistan bears an eerie, and depressing, resemblance to U.S. policy toward South Vietnam 40 years ago.

As FPIF contributor Michael Shank writes in Pakistan Tempts the Democrats, the opposition party is clueless about what to do with “our man in Pakistan,” Pervez Musharraf. Desperate to demonstrate that they too can act with authority, the leading Democratic presidential contenders have advocated a show of force. Obama has recommended bombing terrorists in Pakistan even if Islamabad begs to differ. Hillary’s response is not much better. She challenges the Bush administration for diverting “resources and attention from the fight against terrorism on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, while inciting radical elements inside Pakistan.” Shank points out, however, that “there is no diversion from the border fight, but rather a too heavy-handed approach. The indiscriminate shelling of border villages by Musharraf, aided by American intelligence, finances, and equipment, is helping radicalize locals against the government. Clinton’s showing of cards with this quote, gives clues to how she might fight the war once president: bomb the border better.”

We’ve been there before. And Philip Jones Griffiths has the pictures to prove it.

Griffiths is a storied war photographer whose many shots of the tragedies of the Vietnam War have become iconic. FPIF contributor Carmela Cruz talks with the photographer and former head of the Magnum agency about Vietnam, Burma, and U.S. empire. He also has this to say about the pros and cons of digital photography. “Instead of shipping 100 rolls of film to an editor to select the few that will get published, the photographer becomes the one who decides what the magazine should see by transmitting only the most relevant images,” Griffiths recounts in the interview, which features several of his photos. “The down side with digital capture is that there is no negative to refer to when proving the authenticity of a dubious image. The other aspect of digital photography is the democratization of image-gathering, and uncontrolled dissemination, the Abu Ghraib pictures being a prime example. To counter this, the powers-that-be are submitting the world to a tsunami of images on the principle that they will learn nothing as they drown.”

Shock, Lead, and Wedge

Naomi Klein has a new book out on the effects of economic shock therapy on the world, and FPIF columnist Walden Bello reviews it this week at FPIF. “Klein combines the journalist’s eye for the arresting detail, the analyst’s ability to spot, surface, and dissect deeper trends, and a talent for telling a spell-binding story, to prove once again that a masterful journalist can often illuminate social realities far better than the best-trained economist or political scientist,” Bello writes in Power, Passion, and Neoliberalism. And yet, Bello wonders whether some of these stories are a little too alluring…

The massive recall of toys made in China that contain lead paint has generated headlines here in the United States. FPIF contributor Alec Dubro is also worried about what that means for Chinese workers who are producing these toys. “You can imagine what it’s like in the more marginal factories in the South China industrial belt,” he writes in Heavy Metal Peril. “Protective clothing and respiratory equipment? Forget it. Blood testing? Rarely. Union protection? No. Government inspector? Bought off. Western journalists have loads of video footage of Chinese workers, some still children, breaking apart lead-soldered circuit boards. Foundry workers and, undoubtedly, paint makers, work in air that’s thick with lead dust.”

And finally, Latin America is refusing to accept the story that the Bush administration is attempting to force upon it: that there is a good left and a bad left emerging in the region. “Instead of driving a wedge between the various elements of Latin America’s post-neoliberal ‘pink tide,’ Washington’s strategy has been met by a further consolidation of the region’s disparate left-wing forces,” writes FPIF contributor Rubrick Biegon in Hemispheric Hypocrisies. “This is illustrated not only by the refusal of Latin American leaders to join the White House’s attempt to isolate Chávez but also by the growing movement toward economic integration, as demonstrated by the newly-created Banco del Sur, a regional alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).”

Please check out the initiative of our friends over at the Movement Vision Lab, run by the Center for Community Change. It features blog entries from FPIF colleagues like Marie Dennis and our very own Saif Rahman.

FPIF, November 21, 2007

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