Tag Archives: politics

storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

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vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

vacuums and vetoes

On Wednesday, the Missouri legislature voted to become one of three states to require a 72-hour wait period before a woman can have an abortion. In Missouri and South Dakota, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Governor Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but both the House and the Senate voted to override that veto.  I’ve been covering the bill for both the Columbia Missourian and the Jefferson City News Tribune, so I was in each chamber as representatives debated the bill in the House and Democrats filibustered it in the Senate.

Here’s a lesson in breaking news, kids: when you’ve got 45 minutes to turn a story after the House votes, you can’t include every argument posed in a 90-minute debate on the floor. One representative whose words caught my attention but did not make the published article was Rep. John McCaherty, a Republican from High Ridge. Here’s what he said on the 72-hour wait period:

By the way, there are two states that have this law, South Dakota and Utah. Both of those states [laws] are in effect at this time unchallenged in the courts, just in case anybody’s interested in an actual fact instead of rhetoric. Because we hear a lot of rhetoric about what we’re doing and what we should be doing or not be doing… we’re not extending it 72 hours, we’re extending it 48 hours*. It’s a 72 hour total.

I heard that three days of thinking about it is really too much to ask. Really? I bought a vacuum one time from a salesman that came by my house and knocked on the door and came in and gave us a free clean. I had 72 hours to change my mind whether or not I wanted to purchase a vacuum. But it’s too long to decide whether or not somebody lives or dies.

And so we’re going to vote how we’re going to vote, and we’re not going to change anybody’s mind here, but let’s keep the facts the facts.

Here’s the full audio for McCaherty’s talk, if you’d like to hear it for yourself:

*True. Currently, Missouri law requires a 24-hour wait period before abortions.

missouri veto session link round-up

Rise and shine, my magnificent Missourians, because your veto session begins today! Governor Nixon (a Democrat, allegedly, with no relation to Tricky Dick Nixon, allegedly) vetoed 33 bills this year, and now Missouri’s legislature needs a two-thirds majority on each bill to override them. And guess what? Republicans just happen to have a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Guys. This should be fun. I’ll be in Jeff City, live tweeting, so you can follow me here.

For your convenience, Reader, I’ve compiled a master post on the Missourian’s website outlining all 33 bills on the table.

Loads of these bills carry a lot of weight, like the one that would triple the waiting time for abortions to 72 hours, so we decided to profile the heavy stuff before deliberations are under way. I wrote about the abortion bill here, and Phillip’s piece on teachers carrying guns in schools (welcome to Missouri, Internet friends) is here. Madi wrote about the so-called dairy bills, and I also wrote about regulations and taxes for e-cigs.

Ask me any questions via Twitter or at kekovacs@mail.missouri.edu.

Keep yourselves informed, friends.

on hiding brushstrokes: putin and public image

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been soaking up every minute of his recent place at the forefront of the American press. Russia was instrumental in the international chemical weapons deal with  Syria that avoided President Obama’s plan to go to war, and Putin knows it. He loves it, almost as much as he loves homophobia and taking off his shirt.

Although difficult to believe, an even sexier portrait of Putin has made its appearance in the world by way of Russian artist Konstantin Altunin; sexier, that is, because the painting imagines Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as women in lingerie.

A visitor takes a picture of the artwork entitled "Travesty" by Altunin at an exhibition at the Muzei Vlasti in St. Petersburg

The painting debuted in a Russian museum exhibition in August along with a few other satirical renderings of Russian leaders, and it was shut down by authorities soon after it opened. Classic Putin, asserting total control over his public image.

Putin not only censors satire and criticism but attempts to dictate a narrative of his own public image by fabricating pretty outrageous events to confirm his identity as Mr. Manly Man. Besides obsessively losing his shirt during photo ops, his publicity stunts center on mastering unforgiving Mother Nature and her wildest creatures. He’s hugged and put a tracking meter on a tranquilized polar bear (he didn’t do the tranquilizing); symbolically re-released a caged leopard into the wild; shot darts at a gray whale to collect its skin samples for scientific research; reportedly saved a film crew from an escaped tiger by tranquilizing it (this feat was conveniently not captured on camera, despite the fact that his damsels in distress were a film crew); and (my personal favorite) led a flock of endangered Siberian cranes on their winter migration by boarding a motorized hang glider while dressed in a puffy white jumpsuit.

VBK-PUTIN_1200697f

We can’t forget, of course, the great archeological incident sure to inspire even Indiana Jones in late 2011 when Putin went on a diving expedition in the Black Sea only to discover fragments of ancient Greek ceramic mugs. When critics stated the obvious statistical improbability of a few pieces of Greek artifacts laying in plain sight on the ocean floor for over 2,000 years, a spokesperson admitted that the discovery was a hoax. The fragments had been planted there.

Putin might be attempting to mold his Public Image into a superman powerhouse, but he’s clearly doing a terrible job. Public Image is a form of narrative. In fact, I understand public image through theory of the relationship between reader and writer in terms of stories. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with Roland Barthes, French literary theorist and critic and inspiration for the name of this blog*.  Barthes claimed that the author is dead. In fact, he named one of his most seminal essays “The Death of the Author,” published in 1968. Barthes thought that to assign one interpretation to a text based on the author’s intentional message is t0 limit its possibilities in meaning. Instead, readers impose a certain context upon the text, and thus the significance of the text changes with every reader. There is no longer a writer, but  a scriptor, who produces the content of the text, but not its meaning. The reader has the ultimate say in determining meaning.

Public image also has an author–for instance, I am the author of my own public image–but I cannot control the how people read my behavior and choices. Therefore, I can attempt to create a narrative for myself, but it is not entirely in my command. Moreover, I am a different person for different people, based on my various relationships with those people.

However, I attempt to create myself as well. My choice to wear a chambray button-up shirt underneath a black leather jacket is thought-out, every political tweet I send out is intentional, and what I choose to blog about has meaning both because I believe in its importance, but also to create a brand for myself as a writer. In the first season of Mad Men, Betty Draper tells her friend, “My mother always said, ‘You’re painting a masterpiece, make sure to hide the brush strokes.’”** I am working to paint a picture of the Kasia that I project to the world  with brushstrokes so tight that they can’t be deciphered. Ultimately, though, the world gets to interpret what I project.

Putin certainly thinks of himself as a masterpiece (though perhaps a masterpiece without lingerie), which is problematic considering that he is truly awful at hiding those brush strokes. His attempts at total control over peoples’ perception of him are painfully obvious and embarrassing, as he cannot control another party’s interpretation of him. He seems to be in total denial of the power of his observers (his readers, so to speak). Vladimir Putin is the selfie incarnate in human form, painstakingly edited to perfection and then tagged #nofilter.

And here’s the rub: Putin’s obsession with controlling his image has political consequences. His fear of association with anything effeminate or homosexual might not be the ultimate reason for the repression of gay rights in Russia, but the two are undoubtedly connected. In fact, the so-called “anti-gay propaganda law” in Russia is the reason that painter Altunin’s exhibition was shut down. It also compelled Altunin to flee St. Petersburg for France in order to seek asylum and avoid arrest.

“My wife is in tears and my 2-year-old child keeps asking where daddy is,” Altunin said. “What kind of PR can we talk about here? Of course, deputies simply have nothing better to do than close exhibits and confiscate pictures. This needs no further comment, really. Such a situation is possible only in Russia.”

Putin’s attempt to stifle any critical dialogue is not just some ideological or theoretical problem. It has very real material repercussions not only for Altunin’s family, but for the queer community who are stigmatized and denied rights, and for women–the fact that Putin was so disgusted at being rendered in a female body implies that women are somehow disgusting or of lesser value than men, which is a tacit but pervasive understanding of gender that carries a load of cultural weight.

In the end, positing public image as a form of narrative can be helpful in understanding the interplay between self and others, but it is also dangerous to suspend identity in the form of narrative or language. Narrative and politics are intertwined. Art and politics are intertwined. This investigation into Putin’s public image is not a push to promote a certain ideology, but to explore the nuances in the relationship between theory and materiality–nuances that Siberian crane leader and nightgown model Vladimir Putin just cannot seem to acknowledge.

*The Pleasure of the Grotesque is based on Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text.

**Betty Draper’s quote is used in a totally different historical context than my blog post does (she is ashamed of her anxiety and domestic problems, and attempts to hide them from the world). But, as a viewer of Mad Men, I’m appropriating the quote for my own reasons and interpreting it within the context of my post. See? Barthes in action!

50 years after king had a dream, racial disparities remain

“Do you know why today is super important for American history?” This was the question I asked each of my students before classes began.

Most responded with, “No,” though one cheeky girl guessed, “hump day?”

“Close,” I said. “It’s actually the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech.”

“Oh,” said one of my second-graders, a feisty lady with dyslexia and perfect blonde curls. “So black kids can play with white kids and everyone can ride the bus together, right? I learned about it in the first grade.”

“I’m glad you did! Do you think we still have racism in America?”

“Nope!” she said happily.

She’s a sharp kid, but she’s wrong, of course. Race has reentered the national conversation in a big way within the last few months alone, from the murder of Trayvon Martin, for which neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was tried and found innocent despite killing an unarmed black teenager, to Miley Cyrus’ recent appropriation of black culture in her MTV Music Video Awards performance, during which she showed off her twerking skills and used black women as accessories on which to gyrate and bodies for consumption. Equality is clearly still a dream to be realized from a cultural perspective, but economic disparities haven’t much improved either. Consider this: on August 28, 1963, the demonstration led by King in D.C. fought demonstration was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

tumblr_ms0qjaE3uG1s3ggdno15_r1_1280

 twelve-year old Edith Lee Payne at the March. photo courtesy of the Library of Congress by Rowland Scherman

So, fifty years later, how about those”jobs” and that “freedom”? Last week, the Pew Research Center released some pretty discouraging data in light of this question.

ST_13.08.22_RaceinAmerica-WEB_littlechanged

The gap between the number of blacks and whites living above the poverty line has barely decreased, while the gap between the percentage of people who claim homeownership as actually widened a bit.

Plus, the unemployment rate for backs has consistently remained at double the percent of the white unemployment rates since 1954 (today, 13.4% unemployment rate for blacks and 6.7% for whites):FT_13.08.202_BlackWhiteUnemployment

Some gaps have actually widened, such as in the case of median household income, median household wealth and the marriage rate.

ST_13.08.22_RaceinAmerica-WEB_widened1Gaps have narrowed a bit in some areas too. More students of both races are graduating from high school, life expectancy rate has risen, and the 2012 presidential election witnessed 67% of eligible blacks cast their ballots, whereas 64% of eligible whites cast theirs. A bright spot, but far behind where we should be fifty years following “I have a dream.”

We’ve got the numbers that prove equality is illusory, and further, to claim color-blindness is to become complicit in a system that favors the majority.  Wrestle with that one for a bit.

tumblr_ms0qjaE3uG1s3ggdno12_r1_500 tumblr_ms0qjaE3uG1s3ggdno14_r2_500 tumblr_ms0qjaE3uG1s3ggdno17_r2_1280tumblr_ms0qjaE3uG1s3ggdno18_r3_1280 (all photos from the Library of Congress. Warren K. Leffler, photos 1, 4; Rowland Scherman, photo 2; Leonard Freed, photo 3)

welcome to america, al jazeera

Tuesday, Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera launched a 24-hour American news channel, the first since Fox News began in the mid-nineties. It replaced Current TV, a progressive media company founded by Al Gore that had been struggling with ratings, with promises to report substantive, in-depth news coverage as an alternative to the flashy but vacuous networks that currently dominate television news.

Ready for this shocker? I’m a news junkie. I listen to NPR whenever I’m in my car, click on every link tweeted my way from the BBC and The Daily Beast, pick up the New York Times whenever I have a chance, and spend an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through news blogs. However, if you ever were looking for an effective way to torture me (shame on you), you could lock me in a room and surround me with FOX News or CNN or MSNBC and I would crack within one hour of listening to this staged banter between anchors and piffle masked as news. I’m precisely the type of viewer that Al Jazeera hopes to snag, except that I don’t own a tv. Still, the idea of a news network that spends more than 90 seconds on a story and reports and analyzes the news from an unbiased perspective–which should not be a revolutionary concept in any way–is pretty exciting.

However, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) was riding the wave of criticism before it even aired this week. To begin with, it is based in the Middle East, which, of course, isn’t a problem in and of itself. But many people have made the connection between Al Jazeera and their own Islamophobia–although the network seems fairly optimistic that it will play a role in revising Americans’ perceptions of the Middle East. In an interview with NPR’s On The Media, CNN transplant and current host of AJAM’s Real Money Ali Velshi compared the network to Japanese cars in the sixties and seventies.

“You were gonna get in a lot of trouble from your neighbors if you pulled up in a Toyota or a Honda,” Velshi said. “We were not that far removed from a very bitter war with Japan. These people were considered enemies to many Americans, so it was culturally a problem. So when you look at Al Jazeera today, it’s a lack of familiarity and a lot of Americans who think that we are culturally in a different place than a media organization based in the Middle East.”

I can easily dismiss the objections that are based solely on xenophobia, but the allegations against Al Jazeera actually might hold some weight. Consider this: during its much-criticized coverage of this summer’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, twenty-two staffers resigned. Many people blamed this on Al Jazeera’s intentional pro-Muslim brotherhood angle in its reporting.

Politico’s Blake Hounshell claims that there is editorial direction with Al Jazeera from the Qatari government, and that it comes from the top.

“It’s not gonna be, you know, people walking down to the newsroom and saying, okay, the Emir wants you to do this and not that. It works, I think, a lot more subtly than that,” Hounshell said, and then recalled Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring. “During the Libyan uprising, there was this kind of musical introduction to all of their Libya coverage, and it was extremely over the top, really just propaganda glorifying the Libyan rebels. There wasn’t a lot of critical coverage of, just who are these people really, and what’s gonna happen after Qaddafi?”

Kate O’Brian, another transplant (from ABC news) and current Al Jazeera president, disagrees.

“I frankly wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that this is an editorially independent media company and channel,” she said. “The formats, the talent, the producers will be American. That’s why Al Jazeera America is different from Al Jazeera English. That’s an international channel. This is an American channel.”

Furthermore, O’Brian adds that the Qatar base is actually an advantage.

“We will be able to tell stories from places that our competitors will not be able to… It’s a resource issue. It’s a lot easier for a cable channel to put up a trial that has essentially pool video rolling all day long. You don’t have to be spending money and resources doing other things. We are so lucky in that we have the resources to be able to tap into stories that are happening all over the world and all over the United States.”

I’m waiting until I can watch full stories on Al Jazeera’s website before I can provide any review on its news reporting, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t have full access to the network. In light of all of this controversy, AT&T U-Verse dropped Al Jazeera from its programming (although its official reason was “an inability to come to terms on a new agreement and due to certain breaches of the existing agreement”; I smell law-speak). This reduced the number of potential AJAM viewers from 48 million to 45 million, so now Al Jazeera is suing AT&T.* It hasn’t exactly been a smooth start.

What has struck me more than anything, however, is Al Jazeera’s claims to report serious, straightforward news without bias, but there is very strong evidence that they are guilty of bias and, moreover, that it was politically motivated. The well-known post-modernist argument contends that nothing exists without subjectivity and thus objectivity in news is impossible. But is it not necessary to have nonpartisan reporting of fact to make informed, conscientious judgments about the world in which we live? I’m both a journalist and surrounded by the news, and I have yet to decide my stance on these questions. What are your thoughts?

*I had AT&T’s wireless service for a week before my connection went out at my new place–and now I’ve been waiting for another week to get it back. Need any help suing U-Verse, AJAM?