President Bush, famously not a big newspaper reader, is evidently not much of a film buff either. In today’s “White House Letter” in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller reports that the president has seen only three films so far this year, despite a private screening room in the White House and the ability to request any first run film, on 35mm stock, from Hollywood studios. (In fairness, I’ve only seen about twice that many films this year, and I saw most on airplanes. Maybe the president needs to travel more.)
What’s interesting is what three films the President has watched: “The Aviator”, “Paper Clips”, and “Hotel Rwanda”. The second is a documentary about high school students in Tenessee who collect six million paperclips to help understand the enormity of the Nazi holocaust. According to Bumiller, Bush was “pestered” to see “Paper Clips” by the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
It’s unclear whether anyone encouraged President Bush to see “Hotel Rwanda”, the story of Paul Rusesabagina, Rwandan manager of the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali, who used the hotel to shelter hundreds of Tutsi from the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsi and ripped Rwanda apart. What’s very interesting is that Bush was so effected by the film that he asked Rusesabagina to visit him in the Oval Office.
Rusesabinga flew from Brussels, where he now lives, and visited the president at the White House on February 15th. According to Bumiller, who interviewed Rusesabinga after the meeting, the president asked Rusesabinga detailed questions about decisions he’d made that saved the lives of his family and hundreds of others. The conversation then turned to Darfur, where Rusesabinga reported that “he’s interested in what is going on in Sudan, and he’s committed to finding a solution,” though the president gave no indication of what he might be willing to do in terms of intervention.
All of which leaves me thinking about what my friend Joi Ito calls “the caring problem”. Joi – who I’m having dinner with in Madrid tomorrow night – believes that it’s very hard to get people to care about what’s going on in other nations without some sort of a personal or cultural “hook”. Joi believes this is why so few Westerners look for news about Africa, Central Asia or other undercovered parts of the globe – while we may consciously know that news from these parts of the globe is important, it’s very hard for us to care about events in these nations because we have few personal relationships with people living there, and little understanding of how news and events effect the lives of people we care about. (Conversely, I care a lot about both Africa and Central Asia in no small part because I’ve travelled to both regions and have many friends effected by events there.)
In retrospect, I realize that my work with Geekcorps was all about addressing the caring problem. By putting geeks on airplanes and sending them to parts of the world most people know nothing about, I helped expand – a tiny bit – the set of geeks who know and care about Africa. (Indeed, Geekcorps probably did a better job of this than it did assisting geeks in developing nations.) On a much larger scale, programs like the Peace Corps are responsible – quite literally – for creating most of the population of the United States that works in the developing world. Ask anyone who works for USAID or a US-based international development group where they did their Peace Corps tour – two out of three times, you’ll find out that the person is an RPCV (returned peace corps volunteer).
Putting people on airplanes doesn’t scale very well. And it’s hard to get business and government leaders to travel to Rwanda or Mongolia. Which leaves those of us who believe that it’s critically important that Americans understand more about the developing world wondering how to use different forms of storytelling to bridge the caring gap. Unfortunately, not every story gets told with Don Cheadle playing the leading role – and that story got told over a decade too late to help the 800,000 people killed in the genocide.
Joi, I and everyone working on the Global Voices project hope that weblogs are a new tool for storytelling that helps bridge the caring gap. When Salam Pax started writing from Baghdad about American bombs falling in his neighborhood, it personalized the US’s invasion of Iraq for me and helped me understand, a tiny bit, what the experience must have been like for Iraqi civilians. When Jeff Ooi talks about his fears of being put in prison for hosting an open discussion on his blog, it personalizes the struggle for free speech for me and makes me care in a way that’s more powerful than my concern when “free speech” is an abstraction. When Ory Okolloh goes home to Nairobi and is infuriated by widespread government corruption, it helps me understand the mix of hope and frustration my African friends face in trying to turn around their long-suffering nations.
It’s a long road from these global storytelling weblogs – “bridgeblogs”, as some of us have taken to calling them – to the president’s screening room. While weblogs have demonstrated their strength in tearing down political and media figures, it’s not clear that people are turning to weblogs to meet people from other countries and hear their stories. Yet.
All of which helps explain – to me, at least – what I’m doing on a plane to Madrid. Starting tomorrow, the Club of Madrid – a group of 55 former heads of state of democratic nations – is hosting a summit called “the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security”. A small group of netheads (including Joi, David Weinberger, Rebecca MacKinnon and me) have been invited for a daylong discussion of terrorism and the Internet. And, while there’s no doubt that a robust, distributed, potentially encrypted communications medium is a powerful tool for terror, it’s my contention – and hope – that it’s an even more powerful tool for personal connection, storytelling and international understanding, all of which are longterm ways to attack terrorism and increase security.
All of which may be true. But it may be a hard sell in Madrid on the first anniversary of the 3/11 train bombings.