Friday, December 15, 2017

On the road and in the air in 2017

Almost to the White House
The Ajamia-Brown family covered a lot of territory in 2017 - on five continents! Looking back on the highlights, I have to start with my trip to DC for the Women's March in January: what an amazing experience to be part of a movement of hundreds of thousands of women and men in DC - and millions more worldwide - marching for human rights.

We knew we were part of something big, but did not know then the degree to which this movement would empower women to speak up about the many ways they have suffered at the hands (literally) of abusive men who believed that they were above the law because of their money and position. #speaktruthtopower 

Mazzin's mortarboard
Mahmoud traveled to Palestine in April because his mother was ill. Fortunately she recovered and is back in her home in Ramallah. #nomuslimban

In June we went to San Luis Obispo for Mazzin's graduation! He interned for three months at Phase Four, a spacecraft propulsion company, signed a contract for a permanent position, and then took two months off to travel in South America before starting his job after Thanksgiving. #proudparents
On the pier

Meanwhile Xavi came back to the Midwest and spent the summer as the head of Camp Echo's Waterski Area. He returned to UCSB for his junior year and hopes the fires are extinguished before winter quarter begins. #climatechangeisreal

The extended Porter-Brown clan met in Elkhart, Wisconsin for a family reunion and 80th birthday party for Margo over Labor Day.

At the Dune du Pilat
near Arcachon
In October, I traveled to Ghana and France with Rotary and after my meetings were done, Mahmoud met me for a week in Bordeaux. In November, I went to Tucson for the Ride to #End Polio and then swapped houses with the California Porters and met Mahmoud, Mazzin, Xavi, Stephanie and Haley for Thanksgiving in Los Olivos.

In December I flew to Florida for my annual after-birthday-before-Christmas visit with my mom & B. Xavi flew home earlier than planned because of the wildfires and Mazzin flies home next week because his office closes between Christmas and New Years. We're thrilled that both boys will be home for the holidays and wish you and yours the merriest of celebrations and 

          Happy trails to you in 2018!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The United States Border Wall

We don't need to build a border wall in the United States. We already have one. 

Thousands of miles long, we have an invisible wall dividing this country along red and blue lines. Our border wall is constructed with an unusual material: it is almost impenetrable on one side and quite permeable on the other.

The permeable side allows people and information to pass through. Residents on this side of the border have contact with people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The danger, of course, is that exposure to new ideas can cause one's own ideas to evolve. This evolution has the potential to be disruptive.

The other side has been carefully constructed to protect residents and prevent such exposure. It limits contact between residents and people not like themselves and restricts access to new ideas. Leaders on this side of the border fear that access to potentially conflicting information may lead to cracks in the wall and those cracks could ultimately shatter the bubble that keeps their residents safe from change. For this reason, they work around the clock to keep out real news, science, and especially people that could change perceptions and alter preconceived notions. 

Of course, no border wall is perfect. Despite their efforts, #factsmatter. As it did in Berlin, the wall will fall.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Whaddya know?

A true sign of intelligence is awareness of how little we know. 

The more you learn, the more you know you don't know. 

If the converse is also true, then the less you know, the more confident you are of your knowledge. (Because you don't know what you don't know.)

In the current political climate, it certainly seems that those who don't know what they don't know also don't want to know anything that would challenge their assumptions.

And, those in power are happy to take advantage of that.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bubble Reflections

Happy International Women's Day, 2017. Fourteen years ago today, I was in DC for the first Code Pink March to attempt to prevent the Iraq war...and we know where that led. Meanwhile, it's been a few weeks since I've blogged. I admit to being utterly discouraged by my failure thus far to engage others, particularly supporters of the current administration, in a productive dialogue. I started this effort shortly after I rode one of hundreds of buses from all over the country to join the Women's March on Washington and stand up for women's rights (= human rights) and against the threats to our democracy posed by the "alt-right". And yes, there were significantly more of us in DC (and around the country and the world) than there were the day before, watching the inauguration of the 45th president.

Many of the women and men on my bus were actively trying to understand them, the people who are excited about 45. In my blue bubble, we saw the Republican nominee build a movement based on hate and fear: hatred of Mexicans, fear of Muslims, disdain for LGBTQ people, and disrespect of strong, confident women.

And yet, some of my own extended family live in the other bubble, the red bubble. They are good people. They are not haters and until 2016, I would never in a million years have believed they could support a candidate that is so inarticulate and  so offensive and continually spews such hateful rhetoric that his campaign was enthusiastically embraced by people like the KKK and skinheads.  
We are not quite two months into this very rough ride and into my attempts to understand them. These are my preliminary ideas.

People in both the blue and red bubbles have "confirmation bias" and seek out news and information that reinforce their blue or red world view, filtering out information that conflicts with that view.

But in my blue bubble, people are actively trying to reach out to and understand the perspective of those in the red bubble. In my blue bubble, we consume a wide variety of media produced by professional  journalists that adhere to high ethical standards, fact check their stories and sources, and rush to publish corrections if so much as a single letter or digit are incorrect. 

From where I sit on the third coast, deep within the "coastal elite", dark blue, urban metropolis, I see no evidence that red bubble denizens are interested in learning about or engaging with us. I find that depressing. When it comes to entertaining diverse perspectives, I imagine the people supporting the administration putting their hands over their ears saying, "I can't hear you. La-la-la-la-la." I would love to find out that I'm wrong about that.

Meanwhile, taking a page from Marketing 101, I've come up with three red "personas" based on my encounters:
  1. We expect 45 to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who will undo Roe v Wade and (even if I disagree with everything else he says and does) nothing else matters.
  2. Our team won! Rah! Rah!  Ha ha! 
  3. The scariest group (that I optimistically believe to be the smallest) actually supports the agenda to destroy the environment, gut public education, and make America hate again.
I'm hoping to see a fourth persona emerge: as the excesses of 45 and the power behind the throne become too much to bear for reasonable folks in groups one and two, many will move back toward the center.  Of course, for that to happen, they have to have access to real news and information. #factsmatter

What do you think?

Monday, February 20, 2017


One month ago today, January 20th, I was on a bus bound for DC to participate in the Women's March. It was during the bus ride that I decided I really wanted to engage in conversation with the "other side". I watched my fellow marchers devouring books, seeking information, desperately trying to understand these people who feel so differently about the direction of our country and our country's institutions.

I haven't been particularly successful at stimulating dialogue on the blog but I have had ongoing conversations with some of my more conservative family members on their Facebook pages. I am discouraged and dismayed by what I hear, but determined to keep the conversation going as long as they are willing. (No one has unfriended me yet.)

I started this invitation to dialogue with these questions: where do you get your news? what sources do you trust and why? A handful of my liberal friends have responded but I can't get any response from conservatives, on the blog or in private. This exchange yesterday left me dumbfounded:

The media works overtime to make up bad stories about Trump, and swoon over Hillary. ...
I've been trying to reach out and learn more about how we get our news and information. When I read what you say about "the media" it makes no sense to me. But it's equally clear that what I say makes no sense to you. I have a few blog posts on this subject. Please read and comment on the blog (you can be anonymous if you prefer). I really do want to understand.
You really can't see how biased the media is? Even liberals talk about how the media always sides with the left.
"The media" is not one monolithic entity which is why I'm posing the question. "The media" is tens of thousands of journalists writing & producing for thousands of print, video and digital outlets. Our democracy depends on this activity: scrutinizing, questioning, demanding transparency. When 45 suggests that all media that is not favorable to him is "fakenews" and lies about everything from the size of his electoral victory to what he said the day before (on tape, in front of dozens of journalists), we should all be very afraid. It is a nail in the coffin of democracy.
No, the media does not determine democracy and we are a republic not a democracy. The majority of the mainstream media is biased and that is a fact. 

This is pretty consistent with what I'm seeing in my (admittedly limited) "conversation" with conservatives: I can't get an answer to the question about what they read or where they get their information, only attacks on professional jouranalists. From 45's mouth to the ears, via sensationalist videos (carefully edited to remove any clarifying context).

This is what we're up against, friends. It really is an alternate reality where anything that doesn't fit the limited world view simply isn't real.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Information, Misinformation, and Child Marriage

I was recently asked to respond to a video showing a wedding celebration of an 80 year old man to a 12 year old girl. The person who shared this video held it up as an example of the abuse of Muslim women and children under Sharia. I decided to respond on my blog as a way of engaging more people in the conversation and hopefully putting a few more cracks in the walls that form our own echo chambers.

Dear friend,

About 18 months ago, we laughed together at the irony that we found ourselves on the same "side" of an issue because we don't often agree about much of anything political. We both thought that Trump's candidacy was a disaster and you posted something on Facebook like, "I can hardly  believe Kristin Brown and I actually agree about something political!"

So, I want to begin my response to the video from that place: the place where we agree. We have a lot in common. We are both middle-aged white women who grew up in the Midwestern United States in Christian families. Both of our families of origin are relatively conservative although I believe your upbringing was more conservative than mine. And yes, we both find the idea of an 80-year-old man "marrying" a 12-year-girl abhorrent. 

The video you shared raises (at least) three issues that I will address:
  • Child marriage is an abhorrent practice and should be prevented. The practice is not associated with any particular religion.
  • The Internet is a source of both information and misinformation. 
  • Context matters. Don't fall prey to the campaigns to present "sensational" stories as "information". Check the sources. Make sure you get the whole story. #FactsMatter
Child Marriage
Child marriage is an abhorrent practice and should be prevented. Child marriage is not a practice of a particular religion. Rather, it is a practice that is found around the world and is associated with poverty and low levels of education. Educating girls is the most effective deterrent to child marriage (as well as sex trafficking and other forms of violence against women and children). There is a wonderful documentary, Half the Sky that addresses this issue comprehensively.

Almost one-quarter of the world's population is Muslim. It is therefore not remarkable that many countries that have high levels of poverty and correspondingly low levels of education also have large Muslim populations and that some of them practice child marriage. UNICEF's data show "rates of child marriage are highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where around 4 in 10 girls marry before age 18; about one in eight were married or in union before age 15. This is followed by Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa, where 24 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood."

Islamic law, or Sharia, does not encourage or support child marriage. But yes, there are communities that identify as Muslim and allow child marriage. That does not make child marriage a "Muslim practice" any more than burning crosses on people's lawns is a "Christian practice".

For more information on Sharia for the layperson, I found this 2008 article in the New York Times, Why Sharia? and this 2016 academic essay, The Myth of “Sharia” and Child Marriage by Megan Luckenbaugh. 

Moreover, lest you think that sex trafficking is not a problem in the US, I urge you to see this February 4, 2017 article, Flight Attendants Train to Spot Human Trafficking.

Fun fact: Evanstonian Frances Willard and the WCTU led a worldwide campaign in the early 20th century to raise the age of consent from as low as 7 in Delaware. "By 1920, every state in the union, with the exception of Georgia, had raised the age of consent to 16 or 18 years of age."  

Information and Misinformation
Since the dawn of the Internet, it has been as much a source of information as of misinformation. A lot of misinformation is shared by well-meaning people who unwittingly spread the most recent urban legend. Internet and email scams abound. More recently, spreading misinformation has unfortunately become big business. Sensationalism sells. It is more important than ever to have a healthy skepticism about whatever you read online. I have always appreciated sites like, devoted to debunking or verifying stories trending online.

In previous  posts I've asked my readers where you get your news and what sources you trust. Personally, I appreciate getting information from a wide variety of sources representing diverse perspectives. I trust major news outlets like the New York Times because they employ hundreds of journalists committed to researching, fact checking, and are held to high standards. That said, every writer has a point of view, whether they are identified as an "opinion" or a "news" columnist. When I lived in Europe, I remember being impressed that major cities had a dozen newspapers that wore their political party identification on the masthead: there was no pretense that news is not subjective. In contrast, major American cities typically have a single major paper.  

Now, when someone shares a link to story, the first thing I look at is the source. If I don't recognize the source, I look for more information before I click the link. A lot of online sites make money off of clicks, so I avoid clicking links that may enrich those that are spreading #fakenews or sensationalist stories. 

Context Matters
I didn't click the link my friend shared showing the child marriage. I know her to be a good person who is sincerely concerned about the treatment of women and children. I believer her when she says the video shows people celebrating the marriage of an 80-year-old man to a child and, as I said above, I agree with her that it is abhorrent. 

However, I didn't recognize the source, "Louder with Crowder", so I looked it up. The first thing I found was a story about how Crowder lost his position with Fox News in 2012 for editing a video to remove the context for a point he was trying to make. He is described as a conservative "pundit and comedian" who considers himself a leader of the "alt-right". He dropped out of college after two semesters. In other words, he is an entertainer who has turned his opinions into a successful business. As long as his audience understands that are being entertained, that is fine. However, it is dangerous business if they believe they are being informed.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

An Invitation to Dialogue: Part 2

I've been an inconsistent blogger over the years, but I've often wondered why no one comments, ever. Finally, this week, I think I've learned why: when I created my blog, I checked the box to use "Google comments" and unintentionally limited the ability of the vast majority of readers to participate. I reset it today to the "blogger" defaults.

Recently, I have tried to use my blog to engage in a dialog about the current political climate. Starting last August, I wrote an open letter to Republican friends and family to try to find out where they stood. (Four years ago I wrote about our shared values.) I sent it to my family and shared it on Facebook. Several family members emailed me very thoughtful replies but no one commented publicly on the blog. I just discovered that no one could!

Meanwhile, since the election, I have had an on-again, off-again private dialog on Facebook with some of my more conservative family members. I can't say it's been satisfying, but I think it's at least a little bit useful: I'm trying very hard to listen to what they have to say (and it is hard because we disagree strongly about most things). BUT, at least we are communicating. I don't know if they would say they're trying hard to listen to what I say or not. However, neither "side" has shut the other out.

In my original Invitation to Dialogue post I tried to start a conversation about where people get their news. I've tweaked the settings on my blog and I believe that now anyone can comment, even anonymously. For now, I do not intend to moderate the comments, but will do so if I (or my readers) feel like people are behaving badly. So, please reply to this, or any of my previous posts and let me know what you think.

Where do you get your news? What sources do you trust? Why?