Saturday, August 21, 2010

Propaganda with a Pretty Face

Feeling like a disillusioned child who suddenly found out there's no Santa Claus (kids if you're reading this, I'm only kidding, there is a Santa), I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that my queen is not the angel she appears to be. Queen Rania of Jordan, the most recent object of my admiration and respect (contending only with my one true love, Renee Zellweger), has suddenly fallen from her pedestal; 'suddenly' only to me as I've refused to see the truth until now. And I have to admit, for me, it stings, though she probably never felt the fall, and was never aware of the precipice to begin with.

Queen Rania of Jordan has always been presented to the western people as nothing short of the Arab Princess Diana. She has spearheaded such initiatives in her country as creating socio-economic opportunities for women with the Jordan River Foundation, and she annually adopts schools in her country to drastically improve the buildings and provide much needed school supplies with her Madrasati movement. She not only grappled with culturally taboo topics such as female equality, child abuse, and honor killings in her region, but she also treks the world promoting causes such as education for all children, including girls, bridging the cultural gap between easterners and westerners, and calls attention to various issues women around the world are facing.

However, many have come to argue that, in spite of her work, the queen is more interested in publicity and awards than the well-being of her own country. The royal family enjoys a lucrative lifestyle, with private chefs, numerous staff and nannies, and plenty of vacations around the world to Italy, London, and the US. While the king travels in style on various models of the Airbus private planes (one he purchased in 2007 cost anywhere from $250-300 million, and he just received two more earlier this year), the queen makes various appearances at events around the world strutting about in designer outfits with matching pumps and purses (though she has previously claimed much of her wardrobe is donated).

Now many claim that such is the lifestyle for royalty and politicians and they live no higher on the hog (no pun intended for you anti-pork people) than any other royal family. However, Jordan is a poor country that is heavily dependent on foreign aid, especially from the US, who recently donated $150 million for Jordan's struggling budget, in addition to the $660 million we've already given this year. But, in spite of the $1.3 billion they've received in total, the majority of the people still live in poverty, struggling to feed their families, acquire safe drinking water, and survive the harsh winters. Many are angered by the monarchy in Jordan for various reasons, be it political or personal, but most notably complaining about overspending that could be put to better use for the people in the kingdom.

Unfortunately, complaints are rarely heard by the royals. Despite King Abdullah's bid to modernize Jordan and help it progress to a democracy, in the remaining autocracy it is still a crime to criticize the king or the government, punishable by 3 years in prison and hard labor. But that hasn't stopped some people, as the Washington Post reported yesterday. Rights activists were recently fired for demanding more pay for government workers, and 15 teachers were fired for organizing a peaceful protest regarding their low wages. And as the public dissent increases, the restrictions keep building. The Post announced that the monarchy intends to restrict freedom of speech on the internet, publicly claiming it's due to excessive pornography, privately allowing that they want "professional journalism" in place of the slander that continues to grow. But what is slander? The law doesn't seem to specify between spreading personal rumors such as marital discord between Rania and Abdullah or calling the king out on his poor choices that affect the entire nation.

But you would never know there is unrest or such extreme poverty in Jordan, partially due to the tight restrictions, and partially due to a fantastic PR team. The Royal Press Office releases several official photos and news stories to the public glorifying charity work and political progress. Television specials always show citizens shouting love and appreciation, but neglected the incident where a woman approached Rania and pulled her hair in frustrated betrayal. Interviews and magazines from abroad always manage to paint a pretty picture of the queen and life in Jordan. When appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006, a segment was shown depicting a day in the life of three Jordanian women. It showed clips of working mothers, women who chose or did not choose to wear the veil, women going to exercise classes and even women who ordered Domino's Pizza. However, after this show aired, many who lived in Jordan or were familiar with the typical Jordanian lifestyle were outraged, claiming the show only provided a view into the lives of the higher social classes, the wealthier who can afford to live in Amman. One poster in a forum commented "they showed people who order out for pizza while the majority of Jordan can't even afford a loaf of bread to feed their children". It was as if someone had filmed life in Beverly Hills as an example of standard life in the US, despite the fact that the majority of us are closer to the Pomona lifestyle. And the propaganda continues on promotional tours. Interviews are scripted, questions are pre-approved; the 2010 Oprah appearance bore a striking resemblance to the previous, save a different outfit. An appearance on The View gave us a look into the show if it had been run by a fascist as the panel sat nervously and sputtered out superficial questions that seemed to be pre-assigned and numbered (Sherri Shepherd nearly soiled herself when she realized she accidentally interrupted the queen and Whoopi Goldberg practically begged the queen to answer a question, as if she wasn't there for that to begin with). And ironically, the conversation always steers directly into Rania's internet usage.

Rania first burst onto the internet scene when she created a YouTube Channel to address the increasing stereotypes against Muslims that had developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Engaging both people from east and west, videos were made, discussions took place, and bonds were built during the 4-month long initiative. But the channel was not without its drama, and many posters from both sides came to mindlessly argue, to stir up emotions, or to just insult the queen, usually quite brutally, though most comments went unmoderated. The channel garnered worldwide attention for Rania not only for the topic itself but her willingness to use technology to accomplish an agenda. She also frequently stated that she used the internet to get closer to people and hear their true opinions and thoughts above and beyond the quiet, fearful reverie that comes with face to face exchanges with a queen. However, once the initiative was over, Rania moved on to greener pastures (Twitter), and despite promises of returning to "check in" at YouTube, hasn't looked back after leaving her devoted followers in the dust. She still banks on the success of the channel in interviews as recent as April, but hasn't addressed the group that worked so hard to make the channel a success in over two years, leaving us feeling abandoned and somewhat used.

So, in spite of using the free internet to accomplish various goals, be they activism or publicity, and requesting honest, open exchanges of opinions in a place "where titles mean little and everyone is free to say what they please", Rania's husband has taken a step away from freedom and democracy and edged closer to Iranian policies of internet blackouts when discourse arises. A Jordanian citizen posting under careful anonymity on a message board stated that since the publication of the Washington Post article, at least two Jordanian blogospheres have been shut down and access to several sites have been denied, though the government claims it's due to pornography issues. However, as a result of the publication, many people with internet access, much like the aforementioned poster, are finding ways to made their voices heard on the world wide web. The Post has ignited a small firestorm in which accusations, insults, and frustrated cries for help have flown freely as people contend with past and present behaviors of the royal family. In trying to regain control of a country fed up, how far will the king go before the rest of the world catches on?

My (three) readers know how I feel about freedom of speech rights, and while it's never fun to have lies about your personal life in the papers, it's part of the territory when being in the public eye. And while you may not like being told you're doing a terrible job, it is within the rights of the affected to call you out on it. Where would we be if we weren't able to call our former president a gump-faced blown up baboon ass bastard when he significantly contributed to the failure of our economy by giving billions of tax payers' money to millionaire bankers? Well, we'd still be in a recession but then we wouldn't be able to bitch about it. Rulers and politicians that legally restrict criticism are doing so because they already know they're not doing their job. If you were working purely with your country's best interest at heart, you wouldn't need to worry about people talking trash. And if they still did, you would at least know it's because they're bastards, not because of you.

Now where Rania fits into all this, I'm not even sure myself. She has obviously contributed to the propaganda that curtains the true state of her country, and her spending (since it can't all be donated) no doubt exacerbates the financial struggles of her subjects. However, the recent restrictions of the internet are more or less the fine work of her husband, and I would like to believe she has little power in this and other major political issues of her government. But if such is the case, then Rania needs to find the voice she tries so hard to give to other women and speak up for her people. Much of the criticism that does reach Rania is brushed aside as other people's insecurities and distrust; male insecurities of seeing a modern Muslim woman in power, citizens' distrust of a non-native Palestinian queen. To a certain extent, I can't argue with this, but only a very small portion of recent frustrations can be chalked up to such excuses. All is not well in Jordan, and whether the queen is blind to the suffering or completely aware and apathetic, she needs to stay home and start addressing the issues that plague the people she is immediately responsible for. Princess Diana didn't leave a legacy by leaving her country behind.

Author's Note: As many of you know, I have been a devoted follower of Queen Rania for over four years. I've admired much of her work, her accomplishments, and mostly, her heart. Since the publication of the Washington Post article and the resulting outcry of complaints about the reality of Jordan's situation, I have been painfully disenchanted, and I struggled greatly with the composition of this post. I fought the urge to defend her, and felt compelled to simply turn away, but couldn't. As I find it so difficult to discover people I can truly look up to, I grow weary of these wolves in sheep's clothing who continue to fool me. However, I will say that whatever the queen may be, the persona she has presented to me these past four years inspired me to be a better person and to make a difference in this world, so it wasn't all for naught.

With great apprehension, I will be sending a link of this blog to Rania through her Twitter account. Though I believe she never reads my writings, if perchance she discovers this one, I would like to encourage her to provide a response, one way or another, if anything, to help me understand.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Today's Youth: Fighting for a Voice to Save Tomorrow

Yes, as they say, children are the future. And as the younger generation slowly marches toward adulthood, the tides and traditions of the world are being reinvented. Attitudes and values are changing, and not always for the worse, as the Leave it to Beaver generation would have you believe. Yes, today's youth seem to be a little more disrespectful, a little more hedonistic, and seem to walk about with an air of entitlement. However, today's youth also seem to be less discriminatory, less judgmental, and less ignorant than our archaic predecessors. And, in those fleeting moments when they set down their cell phones and iPods, they have in their hands the fate of our world. It may prove to be a promising fate, but do they have the time to fulfill it?

We've all been there, shaking our heads in those frustrating daily moments when you've run into some hormone-driven youngster who's done something annoying or atrocious, attesting to what we believe is the downward spiral of society as we know it. They may shoot out in front of your car on their skateboards, or curse loudly in the store next to the elderly and young children, or you may see a girl too young to wear make-up with an 8-month old belly protruding from beneath her shirt. Whatever it is, we find ourselves wondering what the world will be like when they're old enough to vote, old enough to know better but perhaps never growing old enough to care.

But on the other hand, with the unprecedented exposure to information, opinions, and the outside world in general thanks to the internet, tomorrow's leaders have been groomed to be less capricious in their world views. Kids today seem to be more anti-extremism, whether it be political or religious. They shy away from far right or left wingers, they care not for the religions of last century that breed hatred or demand unquestioning unwaivering devotion. They seem wiser about war, and the reasons (or lack, thereof) for pursuing it and are more invested in the suffering of those in places far removed from themselves. They seem to be less hateful and more open-minded about their peers and people in general who are different.

The generational gap is expanding and people are polarizing. As the older generation seems to hold tighter to the wisdom of past generations and deeply rooted old-fashioned values, the younger generation seems to be rebelling by taking a more relaxed approach to significant issues today. While the older generation is burning holy books and protesting soldiers' funerals, the younger generation is joining in conversations about diversity and tolerance. While the older generation is still trying to justify this war, the younger generation knew it was a ruse all along. And while the older generation is trying to speak over them, the younger generation is finding their voices. But who's listening?

Despite the heavily utilized cliche of children being the future, far too many people ultimately ignore, brush aside, or shush the younger generation, rebuffing their opinions and thoughts as the nonsensical rantings of emotional naive children. Now granted I'm 26 years old, and depending on your personal opinion, caught in between the two groups; too old to be considered a "youth", too young to be considered wise enough to matter. However, in a recent heated debate with an "oldie", I was informed that I was young, inexperienced, and ignorant of the world and therefore my opinion was of virtually no consequence. So, I think it only fair that I categorize myself with the younger generation. And I can only imagine how many like me have had similar experiences.

But as we're being swatted aside like some gnat who's made a nuisance of itself, the oldies, self-proclaimed omniscient leaders of today are driving our world to ruin. Greedy, wayward politicians and fat cats have single-handedly sunk the world's economy. Hypocritical religious leaders incite moral contention upon so-called sinners and opposing faiths while protecting their own ravenous wolves. War mongers driven by anger, power, and blighted eyes kill innocent people without remorse. We see it all for what it is, we see the sorrowful state of things, and yet we are gagged by ageism and our hands are bound as we stand on the sidelines and watch our future go down in a fiery inferno.

The oldies refuse to listen. They refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming simplicity of our proposed solutions just because they're ours. And yet, they will, as people do, die one day, and all the decisions they made, the disjointed paths they followed will leave the world in such disarray, and we will inherit it. Like a sack of manure thrust into our hands, the mess will be ours, but we were never given the chance to prevent it. Why are we good enough to clean it up, but not good enough to stop it before it worsens?

So, though our generation and the ones after us have their faults, we have some fantastic strengths as well, and it seems promising that the gifts in our hearts will surpass the bad habits we've collected along the way. And just in case you were wondering, here's our answer: Enough is enough. You have enough money, you have enough land. You've had enough anger, you've had enough hatred. We need more compassion, we need more altruism, we need more understanding and more love. And above all, nothing, absolutely nothing, be it religion, emotions, values, or aspirations should supersede your sense of humanity. If this solution seems too simple, it's only because you are making the problem too complicated.

Are you listening yet?