March For Our Lives (Again)

The recent uptick in mass shootings in America has made me as angry and disgusted and numb and frustrated as it always does. I struggle to write about it because 1) so much academic research on the U.S. gun debate tries to be “neutral” and I cannot be neutral on this topic at all, and 2) because when I see the arguments put forward by the “other side,” I lose all hope of change ever happening. There’s no reasoning with them–they don’t care about the facts and they clearly value gun rights over the right of children not to get shot in school. They made that decision in 2012, and after every shooting since Sandy Hook, they’ve just doubled down.

I started my research on the U.S. gun debate after the Parkland shooting, so I’ve read a lot of analyses about the March For Our Lives movement, their 2018 march on Washington, and the incredible organising and lobbying work of the Parkland survivors and victims’ families.

Today, they marched again. Some 450 rallies were organised around the US, and tens of thousands showed up in Washington, D.C.

I wish they didn’t have to keep doing it, but I’m so proud of them and inspired by them for their continued fight against gun violence.

As I’ve written before, these mass shootings and the cult of the Second Amendment are America’s Embarrassment. The U.S. looks crazy to the rest of the world. When Trump or George W. Bush were in charge, the lack of progress on gun control was understandable. But under Obama after Sandy Hook in 2012? Now, with Biden and a Democratic-majority (in theory) Congress? Biden tweeted his support for the March For Our Lives demonstration today, and asked Congress to do something–but surely there must be more that he can do? Why is the President considered so powerful if they can’t even keep the American people safe from gun violence at elementary schools, churches, supermarkets, etc.?

Canceling Student Debt

(Sharing the letter to President Biden I just sent via Student Debt Crisis Center)

Dear President Biden,

I have a ridiculously high amount of student debt because I was told all my life that education was the way to get a good paying job. I graduated undergrad in 2008 and went to grad school because, surely, that was the right thing to do during a recession when I couldn’t find a job. Student loans were “good debt,” right? And then after my Master’s, I struggled to find a job and decided that I loved academia and wanted to get a PhD. I got a partial scholarship, but had to take out loans for the rest.

Now here I am, nearly 8 years post-PhD, muddling through life with part-time, short-term contracts, struggling to find a job in academia. I work 3 part-time freelance roles in teaching, proofreading, and data analysis. None of them use my expertise. I feel like a failure. And that failure has cost me $260,587.78 (currently–with over $32,000 of that being capitalized interest).

I will never live to pay it off. On my income driven repayment plan, I’m currently not being asked to pay anything. Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’m worth more dead than alive, because at least when I die, my loans will be forgiven (I know that’s not the message Capra intended, but that line hit close to home).

Please forgive as much as possible. My situation is not unique. The majority of the people who would benefit from loan forgiveness are women and people of color–the people who voted for you. The people who were told all their lives that education was the answer, that student loans were “good debt.” It’s not. We’re drowning. Please help.

Dr. Molly Bettie, PhD (might as well use the title when I can…)

Exchanges and Embargoes: What’s the deal with Cuba?

Cuba: Bigger and closer than most Americans realize…

Last week, the White House announced plans to ease US-Cuban relations, with more flights, looser restrictions for U.S. travelers, and a lifting of limits on the amount of money people can send from the U.S. to Cuba. This isn’t surprising–like many Biden policies, the move is a continuation of Obama-Biden era policies and a reversal of Trump-era policies. Obama lifted some of the decades-old embargo restrictions in 2014, then Trump reinstated them in 2017. Is Cuba just a pawn in this partisan game, or are there bigger issues going on?

Cuba is not a strictly partisan issue. Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle are critical of efforts to normalise relations with Cuba. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both Cuban-Americans, signed onto a joint statement with other Republicans condemning what they called Biden’s “appeasement” and “rewarding” the Cuban government. Cuban-American New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez serves as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he reacted to the announcement this week, saying, “I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism…To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

This is a brilliant contemporary example of the debates that have been taking place for the past 60+ years over the ideas that underpin exchange diplomacy. Does it work? Does intercultural interpersonal contact win hearts and change minds? Did the “Cuban Thaw” have any measurable impact?

One interesting angle is the idea that opening up US-Cuban tourism might encourage democracy in Cuba. Looking at Cuba’s tourism statistics over the past couple of decades, there’s been a significant rise in international tourism, but no corresponding political shift.

Source: World Bank

Pre-pandemic, Cuba was receiving over 4 million international tourists each year from 2016-2019. The Obama-era easing of restrictions in 2014 boosted tourism from 3 to 3.5 million tourists between 2014 and 2015, but the 2017 reversal by the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have reduced numbers. So, why aren’t these policy shifts more evident in the data? Because the figures are not just American travelers–Cuba is a tourist destination for millions of people around the world. I never realized this until living in England, but it’s a thing–there are deals for flights to Havana in travel agency windows all over the UK, right alongside Jamaica or the Bahamas. Over a million Canadians visited Cuba each year from 2015-2019!

The fact that so many people from democratic, capitalist countries like the UK and Canada visit Cuba does somewhat undermine the suggestion that intergroup contact can bring political changes. There’s a tendency (a relic of the Cold War) for Americans to think of Cuba and the Cuban people as being isolated and to assert that the communist regime would surely lose its hold on power, if only the people could be exposed to the ideas of democracy and capitalism.

This Cold War mindset ignores 2 things–1) Cuba is already open to most of the rest of the world, and 2) the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, state control of information just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. We’re seeing some interesting stories about Russia’s state media and the war in Ukraine, for example, but many Russians do know the reality of what’s going on. They’re protesting in the streets, or even choosing to leave Russia altogether. In China, too, where state control over media is quite strong, people know how to get around the Great Firewall, and how to talk about taboo subjects on WeChat and Weibo using codes and memes.

Overall, I do hope that Cuba can have a friendlier relationship with the US, if only for the benefit of the families that are divided between the two countries and the Cuban-Americans who would love to be able to visit. It seems crazy that a million Canadians a year go to Cuba, and yet the Cuban-Americans living in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami can’t travel the short distance to real Havana!

What I’m Reading: Atlas of the Heart

I should actually call this post “what I’m re-reading and still trying to wrap my head around”—Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart isn’t a one-time quick read. It’s like a big beautiful coffee table book, filled with deep insights that make you go away and come back to it later. It’s been visually designed for that, with quotations highlighted and featured like they should be up on your wall or mirror as a daily reminder (apparently her house and office are full of post its with words of wisdom on them).

The theme of my life in recent years–unmet expectations. I’ve been feeling a lot of bitterness about unmet expectations.

-My generation was told that we had to get a good education to get a good job—and we are now the most educated and lowest paid.

-I was told that I was gifted and I expected that to translate into a successful career. It hasn’t.

-I expected to be able to establish my career within the first 5 years after finishing my PhD. Now I’m nearly 8 years post-PhD and haven’t even managed to keep my foot in the door.

-I expected to have a lovely maternity leave with Paul, meeting up with other mom friends over coffee while George was in school. Instead, we were stuck at home, juggling distance learning and baby care and pandemic survival.

Everybody’s had a terrible time over the past couple of years, of course, and it makes me feel like I shouldn’t complain–my close friends and family have all survived, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, etc. At the same time, how can you not complain when you’re trying to process all of…this? The politics, the climate crisis, the pandemic, the gun violence, the racial reckoning, Brexit, Ukraine, the cost of living, wage stagnation, food banks…Comparative suffering doesn’t help anybody, but it’s hard not to go down that route.

The main point of Atlas of the Heart is to develop our language around emotions. Using more precise language can help us better understand our emotions, and those of others, too. I really liked the disambiguation pages, where she explains how different terms relate to each other. On p. 54, she explains how feeling discouraged is about losing confidence and enthusiasm, whereas if you feel resigned, you’ve already lost your confidence and enthusiasm. It’s a step further down that path.

As long as I apply to jobs and get rejected, I’m discouraged, but once I fully give up and stop applying, then I’m resigned. At the moment, I still have academic job applications pending, so I’m not quite at the point of feeling resigned, no matter how discouraged and frustrated I might feel.

Knowing these definitions and understanding that distinction between different shades of disappointment, discouragement and resignation actually does help to make sense of it all.

Tractors, Tanks, and Propaganda

With a tractor-obsessed two-year-old, tractors have become a big part of our lives. We’re surrounded by tractor toys of all scales and we watch a lot of tractor videos on YouTube (sugar beet harvester videos are a personal favourite). Every time farm traffic goes past our house, we stop what we’re doing and look to see what kind of tractor it is and what they’re hauling. With all of this tractor talk, our family enjoyed the recent viral video of a Ukrainian farmer towing a Russian tank with a tractor. There have been a few similar videos, racking up millions of views across all of the major social media platforms.


The video got me thinking about propaganda and psy ops, and my former mentor Phil Taylor’s book Munitions of the Mind–it’s also the title of a blog belonging to his colleagues at University of Kent’s Centre for The History of War, Media and Society. On the blog, I came across this piece. Mark Connelly does a great job of concisely explaining the symbolic value of tanks. They are a symbol of war and power, of military might and threat. He cites the examples of the iconic protestor vs. tank moment in Tiananmen Square, or the tanks on the Champs Élysées as the image of Paris under Nazi occupation.

These Ukranian tractor vs. Russian tank videos represent a new twist on the tank’s symbolism: a David and Goliath message of underdog resistance and victory. That narrative explains why they’ve gone viral. In a conflict that defies so many of our established ideas of what’s right or fair, there’s something amusing and even encouraging about seeing the people get their own back.

The videos also evoke messages of peace, “swords into ploughshares”, with the visual juxtaposition of weapons and farming equipment. Tractors represent a significant feature of peace-time Ukrainian life, as agriculture is Ukraine’s largest export industry and 70% of the country’s land is agricultural. Likewise, it could be argued that the tank represents the current state of Russia under Putin’s leadership. Showy display of military might on the outside, but complicated and fragile on the inside.

The whole war can be summed up in the image of tank vs. tractor, as things currently stand. Putin surely did not expect the Ukrainian resistance that they’ve encountered, nor the surrender of Russian troops and abandonment of tanks resulting from insufficient supplies and low morale. The phenomenon of the videos going viral is also a good summary of the world’s reaction to the war–people are closely watching the conflict, cheering on the underdog, and they can’t help laughing when the aggressor’s tank breaks down. It’s a brilliant form of pro-Ukrainian propaganda, made and distributed by the people.

Let’s hope the war ends soon and the tractors can get back to their spring planting.

These refugees, not those refugees

(Disclaimer: This is not my post to write. I’m white and privileged, I’m not an authority on race or refugees. But that never stops other people from sharing their views, so I should speak up…I’m an authority on media, and this is a media bias issue)

I haven’t said anything about Ukraine on the blog because there’s so much to say that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m also reluctant to say anything because the sheer amount of attention that it’s been getting is also upsetting, in and of itself.

The other day I heard on the radio that the UK Government was paying people who would take in Ukrainian refugees, and that there’s been an unprecedented amount of support for them, with people offering to open up their homes. On the one hand, this is absolutely lovely and right and good, and I don’t want to detract from what is a wonderful humanitarian effort. On the other hand, why is this unprecedented? Why haven’t other groups of refugees received this much attention and support? Why didn’t the UK Government pay people to take in Afghans or Syrians?

Why do these refugees get an unprecedented outpouring of love and those refugees don’t?

One of my favourite writers/thinkers/people, Ijeoma Oluo talked about this at the start of the Ukraine invasion. Of course it’s right that people are upset about Ukraine and want to help the Ukrainians–but where is this empathy and love and support for refugees outside of Europe?

Trevor Noah also confronted some of these ideas on The Daily Show.

In this piece in the Independent, Nadine White does a brilliant job of discussing the racial bias in media coverage of the Ukraine crisis. She cites many examples of journalists commenting on how shocking it is to see this happen in Europe, how they “look like us”.

Peter Dobbie on Al Jazeera English was quoted as saying “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East […] or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

“On Friday, Sky News broadcast a clip of people making Molotov cocktails – effectively bombs – explaining in intricate detail how to make these devices as effective as possible. Can you imagine if these were Syrians or Palestinians? They’d quickly be branded as terrorists.”

Nadine White, 28 February 2022, The Independent

What are we supposed to do with this information?

-Hold people accountable when they make comments about these refugees being “like us” (because all refugees are like us, actually)

-Urge your political leaders to support all refugees and to aim for peaceful, diplomatic methods of conflict resolution

-Donate money to organisations that help on a global scale (IRC, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, etc.)

In the news: Fulbrighter Spotlight

Just a quick post to share this NPR story about Joy Buolamwini’s work on algorithmic bias. Her research is fascinating and so important! I included her in my chapter about women in the Fulbright Program in the edited volume, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power, and Ideology. She was a Fulbright U.S. Student grantee to Zambia in 2012, where she launched Zamrise, a technology programme for youth. She was later a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Dr. Buolamwini recently earned her PhD from MIT.

What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Lewis

Another brilliant read from another Brené Brown podcast guest! These podcasts really have been responsible for most of my to-be-read pile over the past couple of years. Just like other books I’ve heard featured on the podcasts and read, like The Body is Not an Apology or Burnout, The Rise was thought-provoking and inspiring.

It’s also not a book I would have picked out otherwise–Dr. Lewis is a professor of art history and there’s an emphasis on aesthetics and creativity that isn’t something I would ordinarily seek out. I don’t think of myself as creative. In school, I always loved writing but I needed a prompt–I could rock a book report or an AP history document based question, but I struggled to come up with ideas for fiction or poetry assignments. I took a couple of art history classes in undergrad, but I thought it was just for fun. I didn’t see much value in the discipline–I saw majoring in art history as something for rich white kids who don’t need to study vocational subjects because they don’t need to worry about getting a job after graduating (case in point: the Duchess of Cambridge was an art history major).

Sarah Lewis changed my mind about that. In one of her examples of the power of images, she talked about how the diagram of the Brookes slave ship contributed to the abolitionist movement because it vividly showed the inhumanity of the slave trade. That was the kind of real-life, tangible impact that convinced me something more was going on than just memorising names and dates, artists and titles of paintings, etc.

My favourite chapter was on the Deliberate Amateur, which talked about the value of having an outsider’s perspective, and the importance of play in creativity. It’s something that Brené Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfection, and it’s even part of Ted Lasso. Part of the show’s whole premise is that he doesn’t know anything about soccer, but he knows how to coach and inspire people to believe. He brings an outsider’s perspective and creativity, like when he used trick plays to create chaos and throw off Man City.

The section on Samuel B. Morse was also fascinating. I had no idea he was a failed painter! His legacy has been completely associated with telegraphy and Morse code, it’s incredible to think that he had a completely different ambition, and struggled with his lack of success in his painting career. Such an unexpected story! It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s advice to Oprah about her legacy–that you have no idea what your legacy will be. Your legacy is every life that you’ve touched. For Morse, it was the changes wrought by his innovations in telegraphy–this short National Geographic article did a lovely job of summarising it–rather than the legacy he wanted and expected, that of being a great painter.

In my low moments, when I’m despairing of my failed academic career, I look at 2 things to remind myself of the partial legacy I’ve already created. Firstly, I look at comments my students have made about me in their dissertations’ acknowledgement sections, where they thanked me for my support, my kindness, my patience, etc. Things I thought were just normal were actually unusual amongst the staff, and they appreciated it. Secondly, I google my name and see the works that I’ve been cited in. My research has been referenced in other people’s research. It’s not many, but it’s some, and it’s proof enough that people have read my work and used it for its intended purpose. It’s been useful. Maybe it’s all the episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine I’ve been watching over the past few years, but I appreciate being useful.

The Soft Power of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year celebrations in London–Photo by Lalitphat Phunchuang on Unsplash

A few years ago, when I started my Twitter analysis, I was surprised to see that most of the US Congress members posted about Chinese New Year. Some broadened it out to Lunar New Year, but most called the holiday Chinese New Year, and most indicated which year it was in the zodiac (i.e. Happy Year of the Tiger, complete with a tiger emoji 🐅). It’s been a bigger thing in the West more generally in recent years–noticeably in terms of marketing, as the supermarkets advertise Chinese takeaway meals with “Chinese New Year” labels. M&S goes as far as indicating that it’s the Year of the Tiger on its packaging. It’s an annual Google doodle. My son’s primary school class celebrates it every year, with arts & crafts (paper lanterns, dragons) and stories about China. While I think I was vaguely aware of it as a kid, maybe through Sesame Street, it seems that the holiday is an increasingly recognisable and well-regarded part of Chinese culture in the West, extending beyond the Chinese diaspora.

The names “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” are used interchangeably in the West, with the latter being used to acknowledge that it’s celebrated by other countries in East and Southeast Asia, such as Korea and Malaysia. The name “Chinese New Year” dominates in terms of usage, however–a Google search for Lunar New Year produces 2.4 billion results, while Chinese New Year produces 4.2 billion. #ChineseNewYear trends over #LunarNewYear on Twitter, and of course the use of English and the platform Twitter indicate that these are generally not Chinese people talking about it. The association of the holiday with China specifically, rather than Lunar New Year more generally, makes it part of the nation’s soft power–it’s a cultural resource that makes China attractive to the rest of the world.

Chinese New Year presents an opportunity for China to showcase a range of different cultural aspects–its history, traditional folklore, food, music, dance, etc. Confucius Institutes around the world take advantage of increased interest in the holiday to share Chinese culture and traditions.

Do events like Chinese New Year actually influence people’s perceptions of China, though? This post on Modern Diplomacy from 2018 emphasises the positive aspects of Chinese New Year as a cultural showcase, but some of its arguments reveal the limitations of one-sided celebrations of culture as a soft power tool. It suggested the emphasis on pandas and harmony with nature in Chinese culture was evidence of the country’s eco-friendly credentials. The authors claimed “the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.” This has been shown to be untrue, as China’s development has generated huge amounts of pollution. According to a piece on Statista, “China released 10.67 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, making it by far the largest world’s largest polluter that year. While most countries experienced dramatic emission reductions in 2020 due to COVID-19, China was one of only a handful of countries where emissions increased.” It’s still nowhere near the overall levels of pollution from the US, but these figures contradict the above statement about China’s rise being eco-friendly.

In addition to the environmental concerns, there is the matter of human rights abuses in China, from silencing journalists and activists to the genocide of China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghurs. No amount of celebrating cultural traditions can counteract the negative impact of its human rights abuses and climate destruction. It’s like expecting American-style Christmas traditions to make up for U.S. military aggression and drone strikes in the Middle East, or making up for colonial legacies in Africa (i.e. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). Soft power without policy substance is ineffective.

So, we had our dumplings and egg fried rice and fortune cookies (an American invention), and George showed us his lantern and dragon crafts from school, and we looked up our horoscopes for the Year of the Tiger. But we can balance this celebration of Chinese culture with an acknowledgement that China’s government is responsible for some terrible things. It’s what many people around the world have done with the West for decades–they can enjoy Western films and television, eat Western foods and wear jeans, and love and respect individual American/British/French etc. people, while condemning some of the actions of Western governments and militaries. It’s a very grown-up, nuanced way of looking at the world, and something that exchange diplomacy can promote, by giving people that blend of policy and cultural knowledge.

Feedback

I sent that one (& only) paper I wrote last year into a conference, and I just heard back from them–another rejection. I wasn’t that surprised, as that paper had been rejected by two journals, but it still hurt. My plan all along was to submit it just so that I could get some feedback. Being out of academia has also meant not having colleagues around to give me feedback. I was never great about letting anyone else read my work, but after a couple of rejections, I figured it would be helpful to have some outside perspectives on it.

I made the mistake of looking over the feedback in the morning, quickly on my phone while I tried to drink a cup of coffee amongst the chaos of getting two kids ready for school/playgroup. I should have waited to look at it until I had time to focus and really think about the comments. Instead, I just got the sting of criticism without allowing time for any constructive feedback to sink in.

Four reviewers read my work, and all of the comments were pretty painful. Some were contradictory–the literature review was “very limited” for one, “adequate” for another, and another suggested that it “could be revised to be less of a ‘review’ and more of an argument for why looking at congressional tweets help us understand moments in US political discourse.” That sounds like a justification for the study, rather than a lit review…

More than one reviewer commented that the scope was too narrow and “wondered if it would be interesting to an international audience”. The thing is, I know my paper is US-centric, but school shootings are US-centric.

I’m just so fed up and depressed about it all–it’s not just the conference, although that would have been a nice, much-needed networking opportunity. It’s the cumulative effect of one failure after another. It’s the job applications that go unanswered and the failed interviews that got my hopes up. It’s the hours and days and weeks I spent researching and writing this paper, all wasted. Is this all just a complete waste of time–the PhD, the mountain of student loan debt, the effort wasted on publications that will never see the light of day?