Monday, July 29, 2013

Just because you saw it on Facebook doesn't make it true

    I love almost everything about Facebook, from the photo-sharing and the cute-animal videos to the free emoticons you can use in your chats. But God help us if Facebook ends up being a news source for people in a post-newspaper world.
    The potential power of a medium like Facebook can’t be overstated in this viral age. Anything I write on my page can be shared in a heartbeat by any of my 1,522 Facebook friends, whose own friends (and their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends) can then spread the word even farther afield in a nano-second.
    No harm done if we’re talking about an inspirational saying, an anecdote about our day or an amusing/heartwarming/heartbreaking video about babies, cancer, birth, death, or animals demonstrating human-like behaviour (a very popular category).  Even rude stuff doesn’t rile me up, seeing as that just reflects on the reputation of the person who posted it.
    But what passes for news on Facebook really scares me. And I wonder if any of us have even considered our role in promulgating lies, misunderstanding and even hatred through the simple act of clicking “Share.”
    A recent example from today’s Facebook postings: Photos that purportedly show an unidentified Mexican water taxi in Cabo San Lucas luring seals closer to the boat by holding a puppy over the railing. There’s one photo of a tourist holding a puppy on board the boat, with a black bar across her eyes to hide her identity, and another of a puppy in someone’s hand near the railing as a seal swims up.
     Maybe it happened that way, maybe it didn’t. I’m using it here solely as an example of how quickly a story like that is swept into the Facebook universe and becomes “truth,” regardless of whether it is.
In less than 24 hours, the post has been shared 83 times from the original site and netted 87 furious comments. Who knows how many additional shares and comments came after that as more and more people posted it to their own Facebook pages?  
    The commentators write that they are shocked, saddened, sickened, disgusted and otherwise outraged. Some are slagging Mexicans for abusing animals. Some are Mexicans pushing back with comments about Americans and Canadians trying to make a big deal out of something small when there are much bigger animal-welfare issues to worry about, like factory farming and dog fights. There is a vaguely racist tone through some of the exchanges.
      Other commentators are throwing around names of tour businesses that might be the culprits, based on somebody’s vague recollection that the boat where this happened had an orange canopy.
“I work in a job where I see hundreds of tourists each week and make many recommendations,” writes one angry commentator. “Believe me, I will show them this and let’s hope eventually [the water-taxi operator] goes out of business.”
For now, let’s not get into whether holding a puppy near a boat railing is animal cruelty. The point is, nobody in the entire comment thread verifies any specifics of the incident, and the photos could be of virtually any blonde person with a puppy anywhere in the world. The photo of the puppy at the railing could have been manipulated. We just don’t know.
Yet just by clicking Share, people verify the “truth” of the story to their Facebook friends.  The ripples can be felt literally all over the world. It’s like Richter-scale gossip, with the potential in the case at hand to damage the reputation of virtually every water-taxi business in Cabo San Lucas, cast a shadow over Mexicans in general as animal abusers, and ruin the business of some poor sod who just happens to have an orange canopy on his boat.
And that’s just one small example. Every time I see people sharing one of those all-too-common threads that purports to be identifying someone who is a criminal, an animal abuser, a pedophile or an otherwise horrible human being, I wonder how long it will be before somebody winds up dead at the hands of a vigilante because a person saw something on Facebook and presumed it to be true.
We’re all going to have to do our part here. I’m not suggesting that news via the mainstream media was ever a guarantee of truth and impartiality, but I can tell you that none of them would ever publish a vague story about a puppy that may or may not have been dangled near a seal somewhere in the world.
We’re entering into completely uncharted territory now that anyone with a computer is a news source. Each of us needs to think hard about how we’ll judge our sources of news and uncover any hidden agendas. We are all citizen journalists now, and we have to think about the potential to really hurt somebody – to foment hatred, racism and ignorance – every time we share something without a second thought as to whether it’s true.
Just because somebody’s your Facebook friend doesn’t mean they can be trusted as your news source. Next time you’re hovering over that Share button, think before you click.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Five minutes of research could have spared us this uninformed prattle on InSite

   It almost felt good to experience the righteous rage rising in me this morning when I read that uninformed column by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald trying to draw a link between the overdose death of actor Cory Monteith and Vancouver's supervised injection site. I'd forgotten how much I love to hate lazy, ignorant commentary, so deliciously wide open to being torn apart by anyone with the slightest understanding of the issue at hand.
    How long would it have taken for Corbella to have gone to the Insite web site and learned more about the services, the clients, the lives saved - five minutes, maybe? Ah, but she didn't want facts. She wanted to make her very strange case that Cory Monteith overdosed because he was in Vancouver, at a hotel close to the "cancerous lesion" that is the Downtown Eastside, and that he might still be alive today if he'd had the good sense to visit a different Canadian city.
    Reasoning that the Glee actor surely wouldn't have brought drugs across the border, Corbella writes that he either bought them in Vancouver or "had a gofer do it for him by visiting InSite..." Can she possibly believe that a project as controversial as one that helps people with heroin addictions inject safely would risk it all by selling heroin to anyone, let alone a celebrity's "gofer?"
   "Proponents of safe injection sites argue that such harm-reduction strategies save lives and that’s inarguably true. After all, if an injection drug user overdoses in the safe injection site, then a nurse is on hand to offer assistance and call an ambulance. This has happened numerous times," writes Corbella. (True, Licia - 1,418 times to be precise. But then, you would have known that if you'd visited InSite's web site.)
  "But no one ever asks how many people have died of drug overdoses who use the safe injection site as a legally safe place to procure drugs," she goes on to say.
    Well, Licia, that's because you can't buy drugs at InSite, legally or otherwise. And while I hate to belabour a point, you would have known that had you bothered to do one damn bit of research into any of this.
    Sometime in the 1990s, it appears that Corbella met a sex worker in Toronto who was unable to find heroin one night. Corbella has concluded from this incident that this must mean drugs are very difficult to buy in any city other than Vancouver.
    "Would Cory Monteith still be alive had he been visiting Halifax, Toronto or Calgary instead of Vancouver? In my view, it’s highly likely," she writes.
    That is such a profoundly weird thing to say that in fairness, we should probably just presume Corbella was feeling the pressure to pad out her scant column and threw that thought in at the last minute just to bump up the word count.
     But if she truly believes that all of Canada's drug use is concentrated solely in one city in one province, perhaps she should browse through the RCMP report on illicit drug use and note that in fact, it's fairly evenly distributed from coast to coast. 
    As for heroin specifically, port cities like Vancouver have traditionally had more access to it, but that hasn't stopped the proliferation of heroin substitutes being widely available in other cities. One Toronto hospital says it sees 300 overdose deaths a year from oxycontin alone, the prescription drug known as "hillbilly heroin." I suspect poor Cory Monteith could have found what he was looking for regardless of where he was that night.
    Were Licia Corbella just some wacky blogger throwing her wildly uninformed opinions around, no big deal. There are a million of them out there. We're all going to have to be much more careful about where we get our information from, because we're falling headfirst into a scandal-sheet world where anyone with an internet connection can represent themselves as a "news source."
    But Corbella is the editorial page editor for the Calgary Herald. I stand on guard for freedom of expression, but that's not what we're talking about here. This is about a disturbing level of factual error. It scares me to think that the editorial page editor for a major daily newspaper wrote something so careless, sloppy and inaccurate, and scares me even more that her bosses just stepped out of the way and let it run.
    As for the Downtown Eastside being a "cancerous lesion," I was there in April at the Army and Navy sale and was struck by how much better the neighbourhood looked. May Corbella and her family never have to experience the poverty, addiction, disability and trauma that have created the DTES, but in the meantime she'd do well to open up those half-shut eyes of hers and see the cheery, resilient community that exists against all odds on those tough streets. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

A hot day for democracy

The Honduran Congreso Nacional came to town yesterday, part of a mobile-meeting plan for the legislative branch of government that gets the politicians out of the capital once in a while to hear from "the people." Apparently President Porfirio Lobo was here, too, but all I know of that is I heard a helicopter coming in for a landing around 2 p.m., such a rare event in Copan Ruinas that it had to mean something big.
    Congress met in the municipal hall near Parque Central, so I wandered down to the park yesterday morning to see what I could see. Not much, as it turns out. They'd set up a giant screen in the square so people could see what was going on inside, but you couldn't actually get into the room without an invitation. Let me tell you, sitting in the scorching sun watching a giant screen is less fun than you'd think, so after about an hour and a half I packed it in.
    Even without the big screen, any observant Copaneco would have recognized that something was up in the square yesterday. Way more military presence, for one thing. But I thought the bigger giveaway was the Honduran man in shorts and sports sandals that wandered in and out of the meeting. A Honduran in an outfit like that in Copan Ruinas - well, it just doesn't happen. A man dressed like that is making a pretty clear statement that he's not from around here.
    Overall, the men inside the room were notable for their white guayaberas - the popular cotton dress shirts that men of higher ranking wear in Latin America - their good haircuts and an overall healthy glow. The men outside the room - sitting in the square with me, watching that big-screen TV intently in hopes of hearing something that might bring better roads, more jobs, help for their ailing coffee crops - were notable for their well-worn jeans, shellacked cowboy hats and sinewy skinniness.
Business as usual for passing vendors
    As for what they were talking about inside that room, I saw a lot of well-groomed Copanecos talking politely about the state of the roads, plans to reawaken the moribund tourism industry, the impact of the coffee-rust fungus on local crops. And I saw members of Congress politely thanking the presenters and quickly moving onto the next item of business.  I went to a public cabinet meeting of the B.C. government a few years back when they were really enthusiastic about doing such things, and yesterday's event looked about the same.
     Was democracy served? Hard to say, but you have to appreciate the effort. I won't be holding my breath for results, but there's something to be said for just showing up.
    And if nothing else, it brought the insecticide trucks out the night before to blast away the bug population (and anyone foolish enough to have opened their front door to see what all the hissing commotion was about). When the Congreso Nacional shows up in town, the cockroaches better run. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Sound of Sangre: Let's help these guys tell a good story

If you like documentary film, folk music of a very original kind, or Latin America, this project to find a mysterious Honduran band that plays narcocorrido music is worth checking out.
    The two U.S. men spearheading the project, Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold, taught in the Olancho region of Honduras and kept hearing talk of Los Plebes de Olancho, one of the bands in the country that does the very tricky work of sitting down with narcotraficantes working in the cocaine industry and documenting their hair-raising, dangerous stories in songs.
    The bands keep a pretty low profile, but Chris and Ted hope they'll be able to track down Los Plebes and tell the band's own story if they can scratch up the $38,000 they need to make their documentary. They've raised almost $9,000 in a matter of days, so are off to a good start, but they're trying to reach their goal within a month and head back to Honduras in October to start the hunt for Los Plebes. Get your pledge in before the Aug. 16 deadline.
    The result won't be your typical rockumentary - the men hope to use the film to explore the theme of violence in Honduras, and whether narcocorridos glorify the tremendous violence in the cocaine industry or in fact just document what it's like to work in one of the world's most dangerous businesses.
    I'm fascinated by the whole narcotrafico thing now that I'm living in a country where the business is a fact of life and probably an important economic driver if people were being honest about it. So I'm hoping the guys get their documentary off the ground just so I can learn more, seeing as it's one of those things that's kind of hard to quiz people about.
    Copan Ruinas is located a mere 10 kilometres from the Guatemala border, and thus a key point for those who move cocaine for a living. I'm pretty sure the money from that business funds fancy truck purchases and repairs, real estate investment, big dinners at high-end restaurants, hotel getaways, a whole lot of construction in town, and private-school tuition for the kids.
   The industry is completely integrated into "normal" life here. Nobody likes to talk about it, but you'd have to be blind not to see the impact it has on the local economy. It's just not possible to draw the line where legitimate income sources stop and drug money begins - in Honduras or anywhere that illegal drug production and distribution takes place. (Like in my home province of B.C., where marijuana production and sales generate a reported $6 billion a year.)
   Good luck, Chris and Ted. Hope you find the money, find the band, and tell a story that's overdue to be told.
     Here's a link to the promotional video for The Sound of Sangre. And check out Los Plebes de Olancho on YouTube.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Feeding the fire in the most dangerous country in the world

   No one in the world is at greater risk of violent death than a Honduran.
   Every 73 minutes, a Honduran is murdered in this country. That breathtaking fact not only signifies a tremendous loss of men in their prime economic years, who account for 92 per cent of the victims, but a life turned upside down for the thousands of women and children those dead men leave behind.
   Those of us who live in Honduras hear the murder rate so often that it starts to become meaningless: 85.5 violent deaths per 100,000. But you need only take a look at violent-death statistics in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to get a sense of just how over-the-top that homicide rate really is.
   In Afghanistan in 2011, for instance, 3,021 civilians died violently. In Honduras in that same year, more than twice that number died violently – 6,239. Last year in Iraq, 4,753 civilians died violently. Last year in Honduras, there were 7,172 homicides.  In any given 18-month period, Honduras records more violent deaths than the total number of Afghanistan military and police forces killed in a decade of war.
   How can this be? Where is the global outrage? Everybody’s quick with the scary travel advisories, but those do little but add economic woes to the plight of Hondurans who are living in a country devastated by murder. How might the world react if, say, 20 citizens of London, England (which has about the same population as Honduras) were dying violently every single day?
   Violence in Latin America tends to be a subject that gets a shrug from the developed world, as if the tired stereotype of hot-blooded Latins is enough to explain the insanity going on in Honduras. We shake our heads, put on our sad faces and lament a “violent” culture.
   Ah, but the developed world is so complicit in the violence. We of the enviably low homicide rates are the profiteers who sell the guns to Honduras, and the buyers of the 200 metric tonnes of cocaine that pass through the country every year on its way to markets in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. They do the killing, but it’s our money and our arms that make it possible.
   It's striking to see just how many peace-loving countries make big money from manufacturing and exporting guns. The U.S. leads the world with $845 million or so in gun exports every year, followed by Italy, Germany and Brazil. Canada, Finland, the UK, Spain and Japan are all “Tier 3” countries that have had annual exports of $100 million at various times over the last decade.
   An argument could be made that a country experiencing as much violence as Honduras would find a way to kill people regardless of whether guns were readily available. But the fact that they are certainly makes things easier. Almost 85 per cent of the violent deaths in Honduras are the result of firearms.
The country imported more than $13 million in small arms in 2011. Mexico considers Honduras one of its best customers for small arms, as does the Philippines. An AK-47 here sells for a mere $200, compared to $500 in the U.S.
   As someone who has lived here for a year and a half without fearing for my life, I want to stress that the violence in Honduras is almost exclusively focused on Hondurans. Even though there are virtually no statistics kept that might clarify who is most at risk, I feel confident in saying that those who work in the cocaine-distribution business, associate with anyone in that line of work, are gang members or live in gang-controlled barrios in the big cities are disproportionately affected by the violence.
   But given that you really can get away with murder in Honduras – the result of an overwhelmed and compromised justice system – there are also those who kill as a way to settle scores or retaliate for real or imagined crimes against them or someone in their family. Virtually everyone I’ve met here has at least one friend or family member who was murdered in recent years. In the last five years, murder has somehow become “normal” in this deeply Christian country.
   The problems require a much bigger global response than just more development aid. Funds to help rural Hondurans grow more food, prepare for the next flood or understand domestic violence are all good things, but they’re not going to resolve mass murder. You can come on down to put a new roof on a school or distribute eyeglasses to grateful campesinos, but they’re still going to be living in the most dangerous country in the world.
   Hondurans aren’t killing each other because they’re poor, hungry and uneducated (although those are all justifiable worries in their own way). They’re killing each other because the entire country is neck-deep in an illegal industry that countries like mine and yours fund, and armed to the teeth with guns that we sell them.
   What can be done? First, take responsibility. If we’re buying the drugs and selling the guns, then this terrible violence belongs to all of us. The developed countries of the world have an ethical responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hondurans in resolving this crisis.
   Does the country need a truth commission? An international intervention? A revolution? An end to the destructive, stupid belief that we can “just say no” and drug use will go away?
   Perhaps all of the above. But first and foremost, we the privileged need to step up and take ownership of this tragedy that we have wrought. We got Hondurans into this. They need our help to get out.

Monday, July 08, 2013

The fine line between culture and stagnation

Where is the line between cultural differences and bad practices? That question has weighed on me the most in my time in Honduras.
    A foreigner rightly needs to come into a new country prepared to respect the culture of the place. The world doesn’t need any more people who show up dragging all their developed-world baggage behind them and expecting everything to be just like it is back home.
    But just because something is part of the culture doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. We’ve all worked in places – or perhaps grown up in families – where the culture was a problem and needed to be changed. That’s true in Honduras, too, but it’s much more challenging for me as a cultural outsider to identify what’s a “negative” and what’s just different from what I’m used to.
    The workplace, for instance. Part of the culture, at least here in Copan Ruinas, is to have long lunch hours and many more social encounters over the course of the day than would ever be tolerated in a Canadian work environment. The manager in me thinks a lot of time gets wasted as a result of that, but I’ve also come to see that socializing and family time are such a part of Honduran life that you can’t really judge those long, chatty coffee breaks by the same standards I use to define workplace efficiency.
    So we’ll chalk that one up to cultural differences, and I’ll just have to adapt. But there are other work practices that I think are actually holding the organization back: Disorganized and pointless meetings; poor hiring practices; a manana mentality that jams up project flow; no processes for identifying and resolving problems within the team; a rigid hierarchy that stops grassroots creativity and innovation. They are problems common to my particular office, the organization overall and – from what I’ve seen – many other Honduran workplaces.
    Just to be clear, my role here in Honduras as a Cuso International volunteer is to help a small Honduran NGO get better at communications. Full stop. I have not been sent here to analyse the organization and report back on their management practices.
     But being a manager changes your perspective forever, and I can’t stop myself from seeing the problems. More and more I’m looking for opportunities to talk to my co-workers about such things – practices that would reduce frustration, staff turnover, and general office malaise, strategies for moving the organization toward better salaries and longer-term contracts for more stability.
     Sometimes I fear I’m fomenting rebellion and pushing my own cultural values as “better.” But ultimately, I think I’m right. Unless Honduras wants to be a developing country forever, it’s going to need to adapt its work culture to follow the lead of developed countries in creating efficient, effective workplaces that can hold their own in a global market. And that includes little NGOs, too, because trying to get your hands on scarce international development dollars is a competitive business.
    Then there’s education. For all kinds of reasons, education is not a cultural priority in Honduras. Partly it’s because nothing about getting an education is easy here – it’s expensive, logistically difficult, often unavailable, a low priority for a hungry family, and notoriously poor quality to boot.  But I suspect it’s also because parents who have had little formal schooling themselves simply can’t understand the importance of a good education.
    On the one hand, Hondurans have all sorts of life skills and abilities that have developed in the absence of formal education. Most of them have no choice but to get down to the business of life at age 12 or even younger, while Canadians will often be in their mid-20s or even their 30s before they finish up school and enter the workplace permanently. As a result, most of the young Hondurans I’ve met are much more responsible and competent than people of the same age back in Canada, and the whole country is unbelievably resilient.
    On the other, the undervaluing of education (and the underfunding of it) is a cultural practice that has to go if Honduras ever hopes to get past this crushing poverty and endless lurching from one crisis to another. It’s not just about knowing how to read, write and work with numbers, it’s about all the things that a good general education gets you: an informed world view; exposure to new ways of doing things and different ways of thinking; an appreciation and desire for a functional society and how one goes about creating that.
    I could go on. Tortillas, beans and Coca-Cola: Endearing cultural practice or nutritional suicide? Children essentially raising themselves: A living example of that maxim about how it takes a village to raise a child, or bad parenting? Indifference and neglect of animals: The hallmark of a culture where domestic animals exist for work rather than pleasure, or just plain cruelty?
    You get the gist. I need to adapt, but so does Honduras. “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification," said Syrian writer Publilius Syrus way back in the 1st century. (Never heard of him, but his quote suits my argument.) Here’s to cultural diversity, and to knowing when it’s getting in your way. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Gay rights is part of a development plan too

   As crazy as this sounds now, I didn’t think about the existence of gay people until I was 24. My high school class at school had a couple of really great teachers who we all knew had been “roommates” for decades, and perhaps I had a few thoughts about such things at that time. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Courtenay bar in 1981 with a very pretty male friend of mine that it sunk in, what with all the male attention he got. |
   It was one of those, “Wow, really?” moments that changes your world view in an instant. I had to rethink everything I thought I knew.  But from the get-go it never occurred to me to judge anyone solely based on the gender of who they choose to love. So after that first jolt of understanding, I never considered it a big deal - or anyone's business - that someone was gay, let alone an excuse for denying people basic rights.
   As a Canadian, I’m very proud to hail from a country that now recognizes that working up a sweat about sexual orientation is not only pointless, but harmful and offensive. I got to thinking about Canada last week while writing a blog for July 1, and realized that the country’s efforts on behalf of gay rights is one of the things that makes me feel proudest about being Canadian.
   But now I live in Honduras, where you’d have to be one brave soul to step out of the closet.  It’s like stepping back into 1950s North America, all repression and denial. While nobody talks about any of it, my impression is that marriages of convenience and extremely low-profile trips to secret gay-friendly enclaves are about as good as it gets for people here, and all of it undertaken at huge personal risk.
   Maybe a month ago at my work, a big stack of 2013 datebooks arrived that had been put together by one of my organization’s major funders, a European NGO. All the big European funders have got it going on around gay rights, so the datebook included a sweet story out of South America about a lesbian couple whose farm was thriving thanks to help from one of the projects the funder supported.
   Well. My co-workers, who are generally lovely, caring people, were completely scandalized by that story. They are very, very Christian, and conservative in their thinking. For that reason I usually steer clear of subjects that I know we’re going to disagree on. I couldn’t let this one go, of course, but I could tell they were just gritting their teeth through my rant and waiting to get back to feeling shocked and disgusted.
  Why, why, would anyone want to make a big deal about something that’s essentially about love? I have no idea. Yet living here has reminded me of just how much hatred and misunderstanding still exist in so many countries. I appreciate the sensitive language that international funders put into their contracts in Honduras to try to bring home the idea of equal treatment for all, but this place needs a lot more than that to get past its deep prejudices on this issue.
   Send down the gay-awareness squad and let's get this thing done.