Bob Garfield, the host of the NPR program On the Media, interviewed me yesterday about how the media works in this globalized age.
He'd seen my glocal journalism and wanted me to explain it a bit.
Sitting in a high-tech sound studio with a large clock silently ticking overhead, I sometimes felt tongue-tied. Later, as I drove home from the interview, I mentally replayed my discussion with Bob in a bout of "l'esprit d'escalier," i.e. all the brilliant answers I could have given but which didn't occur to me until I'd left.
For example, Bob had asked me why I liked the word "worldplace."
What I wish I'd said was, worldplace defines something for which the English language has no word, which is the mental image one has of the place and role in the world that one one occupies. This image necessarily combines aspects of one's local place, such as one's knowledge of the geography of one's home town and region, with one's knowledge of the wider world.
How do these fit together? Is there a big gap between them? Just where in the world do we as individuals fit?
The artist Saul Steinberg's famous drawing of New York City, with the United States scrunched up in the background in absurdly missized portions (e.g., New Jersey the same size as the Pacific Ocean), is a picture of a worldplace. It accurately reflects a New Yorker's fantasy of the world, not the real world.
The idea of glocal journalism is to modify our worldplace mindmaps so that increasingly they reflect the real world, as opposed to reflecting our imaginative worlds that are composed primarily of whimsies and fantasies, dreams, wishes, prejudices, and comfortable mental routines.
Ecologists, epidemiologists, meteorologists, geographers, and some novelists have highly developed notions of worldplace. The idea of an "ecosystem," for example, defines a global model that links to specific locales at many places. Individuals at specific locales within an ecosystem, trained as ecologists, can define and explain local phenomenon in terms of causes located at a great distance.
The same goes for all the categories above, including novelists who use their moral imaginations to link human causes in one part of the world to human effects in another. Think Dr. Zhivago, Moby Dick, Herzog, or Huckleberry Finn.
Yet ordinary citizens don't really have a workable idea of worldplace in mind. Ideally, readers and viewers of news stories in the United States would as quickly link events in their hometowns to events abroad, just as quickly as scientists would link a flu outbreak in Minneapolis to the chicken farms in China were the virus was bred.
Glocal journalism tries to nurture that kind of thinking by offering models of it in journalistic form.
Three other "words from the staircase:"
1. Bob's best question to me (from memory not a transcript) was, "How knocked out should I be with your articles on the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia?"
I liked the first sentence of my answer which was, "Putting modesty aside, pretty knocked out, I think." I would have liked to follow that up with: "After all, I uncovered an unknown genocide in Africa without leaving Minnesota, using nothing more than a telephone, a PC, and an Internet connection."
That's the bottom line. I'm proud of this work, yes. But more than that, the Anuak story really shows, I think, how empowered stand alone reporters can be who work from anywhere in the world.
The Anuak story is an example of international reporting that's much along the lines of the domestic reporting done by the Powerline bloggers, who unseated Dan Rather from his high perch at CBS. All that I used against the Ethiopian government were the honest facts -- and they were enough.
2. I wanted to say on air that the idea of glocal journalism fits much better into a public-minded than a commercially-minded culture.
People so often remark to me that it's hard to grasp the essential idea of glocal journalism. Yet it would not be so difficult if journalism in America were more connected to its public service and social crusading roots -- e.g., the muckraking tradition of newspapers, and the public broadcasting tradition of TV and radio.
Today the idea of consumership, not citizenship, rules. We know a lot more about choose the best sneakers when we go shopping, than we do about choosing the best candidates for political office. The ideal of public service journalism lives on in our culture but it's on life-support, barely maintaining a pulse while being fed on drips of occasional high-quality journalism in newspapers, along with public TV and radio programs (like On the Media) that run against the general cultural tide.
My bottom line as it relates to glocalism: citizenship is about how we define membership in society, but also about re-membering society. When we re-member we include, we populate our group of familiars, we define the boundaries of our enclosing social circle. This circle includes the beings we decide we care enough about, and are dependent enough upon, to devote our lives to loving and supporting.
That circle today should be drawn around the entire globe. Glocal journalism re-members the circle that defines the rightful boundary of our lives.
3. I told Bob my favorite glocal story, but I didn't give the moral.
The story is about a middle-aged Minnesota civil servant who traveled to China on a sabbatical to teach English. One day in a discussion, a student turned to him and said "Teacher, you are fat." Crestfallen, the teacher immediately felt angry and started to fantasize about how rude all Chinese people were.
But then another thought came to him, which is that his student knew only a few words of English and had taken the risk to simply use what words he knew in a conversation. And this, after all, is why he had come to China, to give young Chinese people just that opportunity.
"I realized," the teacher told me, "that it was not about me, it was about them."
That, to me, is a heck of a moral. Travelling to foreign countries, if done correctly, is a 24/7 excercise in humility. It's about learning ones limitations in many directions. It's about the discomfort of reaching intellectural, emotional, and physical limits. And it's about the risk of exposing one's long-cherished prejudices and notions about yourself and about the world, to the great likelihood they will wither and die once exposed to the foreign and the unknown.
On the flip side of course, this gives a traveler the opportunity to truly learn and grow as a human being.
Glocalism to me is an attempt to recreate these transformative experiences in the literary form of journalism. It's not as good as being there, but close.