Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Congressional Problems are DC Problems, Too

Last night I attended a Happy Hour/meet up pitched by an outreach advocacy group called Women, Action, and the Media. The organization's stated object is to combat the still-shockingly vast degree of gender inequality that exists in the field and in so doing move towards complete parity. Moreover, the gathering was designed in particular to network, as the group itself notes, media makers, activists, academics, and fundraisers. I agree very strongly with the sentiment, so I decided to attend in order to see what other people had to say. My hope was that I might have some interesting, enlightening conversations. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed. Yet, I nonetheless began to get a greater picture of the challenges facing not just women's rights but also those of all those who are a part of the media to some degree or another. Many of these pitfalls standing in our way have nothing to do at all with sexism and or even the Old Boy's club of the mainstream media.

Welcome to Washington, DC, a world of think tanks, non-profits, and journalistic enterprises. One could also call it paradise for the Type A personality, the person who enjoys regimenting his or her life with military precision. It is heaven for those who enjoy having each and every hour in the day filled with something and who learn to divide his or her attention between the task at hand while periodically glancing downward at a Blackberry. In this town, it often seems like everyone meets someone for a drink after work, but only for an hour or so, since there's always something else terribly important to do after that. Many of the movers and shakers present were very much indebted to that sort of lifestyle, the basis of which I have frequently been critical because it seems designed to produce inevitable burn out, if not a heart attack. But I digress.

To qualify, my skepticism is not directed towards those in attendance whose energetically articulated vision was to change the world, which was true with just about everyone I encountered. We need more people who love what they do and are enthusiastic about it. Instead, my reservations focus squarely upon organizational structure. These sorts of outfits build whole galaxies of worthy initiatives, training seminars, and important-sounding programs that manage to exist in complete isolation, totally unknown, to the other 5,000 similar organizations covering much the same ground. True networking does not involve finding ways to achieve a higher paying job or padding one's nest. Rather, it takes into account the idea that by combining forces and getting on the same page with those running over the same relative territory, gender justice can proceed forward and efforts to encourage it might become a reality.

These days I am not easily impressed when someone rattles off for me the particulars of whatever they're working on right now. I know they're not trying to impress me, of course, and I know they really do believe that their initiative to say, encourage media participation for women in third-world countries is going to make a huge impact. On a very limited basis, it will do good, but unless paired with other forces, the plan will be a mere drop in the bucket. Unless serious efforts are made to reach out and build bridges of communication, whatever gets set forth and put into action is just another dot in a sea of similarity. DC, after all, reflects the nature of Congress, whose own esoteria and minutia often end up submerging worthy bills and legislation under the deluge of statutes, procedural measures, and utterly useless proposals.

Sometimes I think the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is meant to illustrate this point. These organizations, like the Tower itself, grow taller and taller and taller, but they don't grow outward that much, and in so doing don't easily reach out to others. Instead, they are in love with their own language, just as much as those in the story used their own lingua fresca to serve as a common basis for organization. The Tower of Babel was not built for the worship and praise of a higher purpose but was instead dedicated to the glory of humanity, to "make a name" for the builders. I don't believe that that DC organizations put forth their agendas with malicious intent, but they nonetheless mirror the way things have always been in Washington, a course of action which has proved to be not especially effective in the long run, a viewpoint currently shared by a majority of Americans. One can work purely to climb the ladder or work to advance humanity's understanding.

I took liberty with one other issue. Some in attendance last night were well-connected employees for Mainstream Media outlets. They talked excitedly about the ways that newspapers had adopted New Media tactics and as such were hiring lots of bloggers to keep pace with changing times. Again, do pardon my skepticism. I myself have never seen any of these jobs posted anywhere and the few somewhat like it that are advertised are quickly snapped up by those who have impressive credentials. As it is with so much, these sorts of positions are the domain of the well-connected and often the well-heeled, further casting doubt on a system supposedly predicated on the idea of meritocracy. One mustn't forget that blogs sprung up in opposition to attitudes such as these and for a very good reason.

The system itself is flawed in lots of ways, from the Old Boy Network, to hiring practices which insist a person have exacting credentials to even be considered, to tactics which feign to introduce citizen journalists into the picture while more or less keeping the status quo intact. The intersectionality which we seek within our own movements must be that of both action and intellect, else our own hard work and idealism produce frustratingly minimal results.

But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falls.

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