Wednesday, January 11, 2017

D&Q: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts

The defining element of Gonzo journalism, as originated by Hunter S. Thompson, was that the illusion of objectivity was cast aside in favor of an acknowledgment that the journalist, in reporting the story, becomes part of the story. This is not to suggest that journalism, even Gonzo journalism, doesn't have its own rules and even standards. However, it is a way of letting the reader know that this was a specific set of circumstances interpreted in a particular way by a journalist. Making this acknowledgment is a way of cutting off at the knees the possibility of making an argument by way of anecdote, which is the weakest yet most common rhetorical method of argument. It puts the lie to the notion that the journalist has special knowledge or insight. All the journalist can hope is that their account, bias and narrow scope and all, is compelling enough not to give the reader all the answers, but to give them enough information to start asking more questions.

In Sarah Glidden's first book, How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less, Glidden clearly had the journalist urge without the journalistic tools to address her Birthright trip to Israel. She knew going in that Birthright was at least in part a propaganda exercise, but she was surprised at how emotional so many aspects of that trip made her. The weird artificiality of the setting made the book feel staged at times, even if she was trying to resist that staging. The book wound up being more memoir than a work of journalism, though the seeds were clearly planted to follow up later. In particular, she wanted to talk to people directly who didn't have a particular, prescribed political agenda they wanted to peddle to her. In the end, she was no less clear about her feelings and opinions about Israel than she was when she started, but she stayed true to that conclusion and did try for a pat answer.

That desire to talk to others, a curiosity about the nuts and bolts of the actual journalistic process, and a constant slamming on the metaphorical breaks regarding any kind of smooth narrative that emerged on a trip to the Middle East make up the bulk of Glidden's new book, Rolling Blackouts. This book is a work of meta-journalism, as she followed members of the Seattle Globalist to Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Syria and documented their process. Throughout the book, there are two separate dynamics: the dynamic between the Globalist crew and the people they interview and use as contacts, and the dynamic between Sarah Stuteville of the Globalist and her friend Dan, an ex-marine who saw time in Iraq who happened to be one of her oldest friends. Glidden stood as an outsider in both sets of dynamics, in part because she didn't want to interfere with the work the Globalist journalists were attempting to accomplish. While Glidden was obviously a character in this book, she very pointedly noted that this wasn't a memoir. She got to shape it the way she wanted and wasn't obligated to share her feelings about anything in particular. As such, we never hear Glidden's feelings about being an American in the countries they traveled to, nor how she felt as a Jewish person in those countries. Indeed, her ethnic background wasn't brought up a single time in the book. Glidden the person in this book is a very intelligent and perceptive cipher, and that's as it should be.

It was interesting to see the differences in what Stuteville did and what Joe Sacco does in his comics journalism. Sacco inserts himself into the scene but never hesitates in making friends with the locals as he often stays in one place for months. There are also times when he's as ruthless as he needs to be in finding the story he's looking for, as depicted in Footnotes In Gaza. Stuteville is a more traditional journalist, as getting to spend a lot of her time with her subjects is unusual and there's not always the opportunity to engage in social interaction. It did happen on occasion, where Stuteville attended parties at people's homes and danced, or went out to get drinks. Glidden depicts Stuteville as professional but empathetic, probing but kind and a mix of supreme confidence and self-doubt. Some of her subjects were happy to talk to an American journalist, while others took the opportunity to use her as a vessel for venting their hatred of what the American army did to their country. In both instances, Glidden depicted Stuteville as almost infinitely patient and unflappable, always allowing her subjects to vent without once trying to justify what had happened. In almost every case shown, even the most vociferously hostile subjects would calm down and realize that it wasn't her fault and recognized that she was there to hear their stories.

By way of contrast, the way Stuteville interacted with Dan reflected the full weight of their history and the ways in which she no longer understood him. As media-savvy individuals, they were both going after certain stories and were aware that the other was trying to shape the story in a particular way. For Dan, who had been as peace-loving as anyone in high school, he viewed enlisting as a way of trying to personally influence events in Iraq. It was a way of doing more than just protesting; in his view, it was a way of effecting real change. What Stuteville was looking for was him starting with perhaps that narrative and then seeing that narrative change when he met people who had been affected by the war. His immediate reaction, which he repeated again and again, was to say that the war hadn't affected him negatively at all, he was glad that he performed this service, didn't regret his actions at all and didn't feel any guilt. He was answering questions that weren't even asked, which immediately caused Stuteville to want to chase down the things he denied.

That led to a series of ever-more-frustrating, passive-aggressive interviews. Stuteville was constantly trying to figure out a way of circling around and drawing him out (even chastising Glidden for directly questioning him on some sensitive material when she didn't think it was an appropriate time). Every time, she would get stonewalled. Ironically, it wasn't until the very end of the book, when Dan heard some Iraqi refugees in Syria decry America, that he admitted that coming to Iraq was a mistake. The irony was that he told this to Glidden, not Stuteville, and Glidden was incisive in her analysis: Dan was looking for absolution from someone, anyone, and it would never come. Stuteville later talked about the mistakes she made in trying to interview Dan, acknowledging that she was simply too close to the subject to be truly objective. This interpersonal conflict added some spice to what was otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative. Many of the stories presented were interesting, but what the reader saw was the bare bones of that story that would later be turned into something more coherent. It was the equivalent of watching an unedited film, which was interesting up to a point but repetitive after a while.

The book picks up when the crew meets Sam, an Iraqi native who had lived in Seattle for a number of years before being deported. Technically, he was deported for falsifying aspects of his application, but the reality is that he was seemingly connected to a key Al-Qaeda member who helped mastermind the 9/11 terrorist attack. Sam claimed innocence and ignorance, which seemed fishy to the group until they actually spent a lot of time with him. This was an interesting bit of give and take, as the group sensed that while his story had some inconsistencies, the essential truth of him being innocent felt true to them. The amount of time spent with him in the book, small touches like him being obsessed with being able to have access to American snacks and his sheer lack of guile gave the reader the same kind of intimacy that the group felt with him. Glidden really shines in creating these scenes, creating a sense of ease on the page that was casual but also weighed with the seriousness of the charges and the sadness of Sam being separated from his wife and children. Glidden also gets at the idea of a sticky truth where it's impossible to know all of the factors that went into the arrest, like the politics influencing the US officials.

The final segment of the book in Syria is closer to what one would expect about a book set in the Middle East: focusing on human misery, the ramifications of war and individual tales of despair and hope. As grim as the refugees' lives were in Syria, the reality of Syria today is far more upsetting, given the horrific civil war and genocide. Entering Syria meant encountering state-enforced admiration of Assad, which was amusing for a while until it became clear that state surveillance was a real thing. There were moments of humor in this book, to be sure, but it was laughing in the dark. The title of the book refers to a phenomenon in Iraq where they were planned, brief blackouts at night, because there wasn't enough power to keep the city lit all at the same time. It became Glidden's metaphor for journalists facing long periods of uncertainty, often foisted intentionally on them, followed by moments of insight. It also refers to their perspective as Americans, and Dan in particular. The last big blowout argument between Stuteville and Dan took place during a blackout, where Dan makes the case that someone needed to stop Saddam Hussein, and Stuteville counters that it wasn't our place to do so, especially without any real sense of how to fix what happened next. The lights blinked on after that moment as the argument ended, a moment of enlightenment or at least having one's cards all out on the table achieved.

Whereas Joe Sacco combines incredible skill with a pen and a sense of when to bend naturalism toward a more cartoony style, Glidden keeps everything sketchy and loose. Her use of color is key to the book, as mellow pastels dominate backgrounds and keep the book on an even keel in terms of tone. No matter what kind of story is being discussed, Glidden's consistency in this regard gives the book cohesion and adds a sense of restraint to the book. This makes sense, because the book is less about the Middle East than it is a book about process and craft. Glidden balances that discussion of process with interpersonal relationships, which was crucial in preventing the book from becoming too dry or academic. The book does drag here and there, and there are a few story tangents that don't quite go anywhere, but for the most part Glidden is able to turn quiet moments into important ones because they flesh out interpersonal relationships. Glidden does a fine job overall of humanizing a difficult job, providing context and understanding of how an important job is done, and explaining why it's as important as it is.

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