Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “The Guardian”

Why It Has To Be Fiction

Last month, I was invited to address a very politically aware audience about my novel, The Accidental Activist. I spent considerable time describing the McDonalds’ libel trial that transpired in London throughout the 1990’s This is the the court case upon which The Accidental Activist is based.

I was deeply inspired by the trial at the time and meticulously researchedMcLibelas it became known. My fictional timeline corresponds exactly with the real trial and many of the events in The Accidental Activist parallel what transpired in the real court case. In fact, many of the more infamous quotes from real-life witnesses just happened to find their way into the mouths of my characters.

I allocated a fair part of my talk to the idea of writing for social justice, to help empower people to create a better world. This is a consistent theme throughout my books, and here on Left Coast Voices – so it begged someone to ask the question: Why fiction?

My answer was not very impressive. I mumbled that John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian in the UK, had done a great job of writing the definitive book on the case and even had a copy on hand to show them.

But there is more. I believe fiction allows the writer to reach more people and on a deeper level than non-fiction. We open ourselves to the emotions of the characters, the smell of the place, the textures of color, food, or wine. We become invested in their challenges.

But most significantly, we read fiction to identify with the characters, particularly the protagonists. Often we align through gender, life experience, fears, or loves. I have heard from women who were deeply affected by my character Suzie’s ideological drive for a better world. Men can understand how Matt felt driven to step outside his comfort zone and find a way to defend his woman.

If we can create a bond between character and reader, we open the opportunity for the reader to create an environment in which to undergo a similar transformation in their own life.

I believe relationships are what drive people to step outside their safe space. I believe people were able to relate to then-Senator Obama’s (and/or Michelle’s) drive for a better America, for change we can believe in. This was what motivated so many to get involved and head to the polls four years ago and, I hope, what ultimately will bring them out to vote again in November.

When we relate to a person we admire, whether in fact or fiction, we consider on a conscious or subconscious level whether we can emulate that person and make a similar, courageous decision. Perhaps this will empower us to believe that our actions can create a better world.

Have you ever been inspired by a book to take action? Has a fictional character ever helped you change your life? If so, please share in the comments below.

Good Writing,

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Denying The Denial in Durban – Neil Goldberg (Guest Blogger)

You would think that when high level delegations from 200 countries, as well as thousands of civic organizations (NGOs), and countless scientists descend on a conference to inform, discuss, propose and negotiate factors widely believed to be a threat to human existence, it would be newsworthy. Thousands of people gathering to build social and intellectual networks so that they can be prepared with proposals for solutions – in policy, funding, infrastructure, technology and programs to deal with the threat.

Such a gathering is in fact going on at this very moment at the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa,   and has been for over a week. The shocker is, I can barely find mention of it anywhere in the MSM (main stream media), let alone screaming from banner leading headlines as I would expect it to be.

After all, whether one agrees that global warming is human caused or not, even most rabid right wingers and deniers are coming around to accept the evidence that the earth is in fact warming up. And to such a degree that it appear almost inevitable that it will cause major disruptions in the world economy and possibly an epochal shift in human culture.

I’ve been looking around for coverage, and finding very little. Certainly no screaming headlines in the vein “LARGEST THREAT TO HUMAN SURVIVAL SINCE NOAH RODE OUT THE FLOOD”. or, “OOPS”.

Not a single mention in my Yahoo newsfeed, which includes an AP feed (10 stories), NPR (5 stories), USA Today (5 stories), SFGate (5 stories) and The (British) Guardian (8 stories). And when I clicked through to the home pages of each of these venerable media outlets, I found – you guessed it, not a single mention of the conference. Not a single mention of global warming. Not a single tear jerking human interest profile of people struggling and winning against adversity. Not a single hero story. Not a single story about the massive amounts of money to be made on climate change generated business opportunities.

Of course there is room for stories of earth shattering import like “With His Past an Issue, Gingrich Spars and Parries” (NPR), and “Megachurch’s Future Uncertain After Pastor Leaves” (AP) and “Cain Accuser Bialek Say She Feels Vindicated” in the “Nation and World” headlines on USA Today. It’s such a busy newsday that important discussion about the imminent upending of human society just can’t make the cut.

I did a Google search for “Coverage of  climate conference, Durban”. Top item is an Adword (paid advertisement) for “Knowledge.Allianz.com”, the blog site of a major insurance company with extensive coverage on things like “Climate”, “Energy”, Mobility”, “Microfinance”, etc. But not a major journalistic organization.

Second was a piece called “What can Durban Climate Conference Achieve?” from ABC Online (their blog); a piece from Reuters India, one from Environment and Energy Publishing and another from a Canadian blog site called rabble.ca – News For the Rest of Us.

The first major news forum represented in my search is a story from LA Times who are reporting on…oh wait a minute. They’re reporting on what NPR previously reported in a story titled “NPR reports Kyoto Protocol in trouble in Durban”. I guess LA Times didn’t see fit to actually send their own reporter to Durban. What I particularly love about this story is in the opening paragraph, which sort it all:

“You may have noticed that news coverage of the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, has been minimal, at best, and that’s clearly because -– just like in Copenhagen last year -– there has been almost no mention of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was put in place to set reduction targets for important greenhouse gases. Without a big, juicy target, the conference lacks the drama to merit mention on even the eco-blogs.”

So there you have it. Not worth reporting on because nothing is happening there. But I would guess, nothing much is happening there because by now, everybody believes the issue has gone away due to, well, lack of attention in the main stream media.

How DO you spell D-E-N-I-A-L!

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Neil Goldberg developed his political perspective growing up in apartheid South Africa which he left in 1982 when it seemed that democratic change was impossible. He is a designer of a wide array of products, environments and services. This experience has taught him that the limitations of imagination are the only thing standing in the way of just about any problem. Since becoming a father 12 year ago he has become convinced that a loving heart is the ultimate spur to imagination.

London Riots 2

So yesterday’s article was a tad whimsical and here is a more serious  perspective. The question is who were the rioters and who is to blame.

Firstly, there is no excuse for vandalism and looting. There are laws and there are legitimate and more effective ways to express discontent. I almost stepped on a landmine speaking to a friend in the UK about this. In a time of economic distress, these actions have put a lot of good hard-working people either out of business or in more debt than they already face. Attacking the local ‘bobby,’ the policeman, with every intent of wounding him or her, is never justifiable.

For many, there are fingers being pointed to sheer greed and opportunism. The advertisers pound us with messages that we must have this electronic device and where these absurdly priced jeans or we are not cool is a terrible message to give a young, unemployed person, who is already suffering from low self-esteem and alienation.

The question is how to rein this in? The companies are just as desperate to sell their products to a public that can’t afford them. Business is business, but there is a larger price that all British taxpayers are going to pay for the millions of dollars of damage.

One of the owners of Big Green Bookshop, Simon Key, maintained that this was more about economics than pure consumer desire. “The people who were doing this were mainly going for phone shops, high fashion shops and HMV, looking for stuff that they could sell on,” he told The Financial Times.

Today, as the rioters spill into Britain’s courthouses, we’re gaining additional insight into who the young, enigmatic looters are and what motivated them to wreak havoc on England’s streets. The AP says that “the 1,000-plus people who have been arrested–some of whom are as young as eleven–share a deep sense of “alienation.” One 19-year-old looter who did not appear in court explains, “Nobody is doing nothing for us–not the politicians, not the cops, no one.” The AP adds that “the rage has appeared to cut across ethnic lines, with poverty as the main common denominator.” A BBC infographic today suggests the rioters are primarily young–anywhere from 15 to 24–and male.

An 11-year-old having his day in court - he was caught stealing a garbage bin. News.com.au

The New York Times points out that while the majority of those arrested are an “underclass of alienated young people, with no jobs and few prospects,” quite a few are affluent, middle-class, including “a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, and a forklift driver.”

Sky News highlighted a student from the University of Exeter and a daughter of a successful businessman. She reportedly stole $8,000-worth of goods from a Comet store (electronics). Sky also notes that many of these were first offenders.

I’ll finish with a story from The Guardian. When one looter saw a fellow looter reach for a hand-stitched wedding dress from a local fashion boutique, “an angry young black woman berated one of them. “You’re taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she’s built that shop up from nothing. It’s like stealing from your mum.”

Race, class, alienation – it is a sad lose-lose episode and one which leaves us all seeking a glimmer of optimism. One final thought – if most of these stolen items are going to find a market, will the same people who have criticized the looters have the principle not only to not purchase one of these bargains. Perhaps if the looters can discover that there is no market for stolen goods, they will think twice about taking this path in the future.

A final thought – why did this not spread to the continent? Why only in England? Any ideas?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Books that Matter – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial – John Vidal

McLibel is the story of the remarkable trial wherein McDonald’s sued two young activists for libel in London during the 1990’s and, unlike every newspaper, magazine and TV show, they refused to back down. Due to archaic laws, libel is the one area of law where there is no legal aid offered.

A friend of mine put up what became the first interactive advocacy website at a time when most of us were still using telephones and letter to communicate with each other. Both the David .v. Goliath aspect of what became the longest court case in British history and the role that the website took on, fascinated me.

John Vidal records an accurate account of what transpired in the Royal Courts of Justice in his book – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, and there is also a DVD by the same name produced by Geoffrey Giuliano.

KIRKUS REVIEW (McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial)
A lively account of the food fight that became the longest trial in British history. When a flyer entitled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s” circulated around London, the burger giant took umbrage and sued Helen Steel and Dave Morris, members of London Greenpeace (an environmental group not affiliated with the international organization Greenpeace), for libel… see below for full review.

My latest novel, The Accidental Activist, is a fictional account of the trial. I keep very close to the true time line, but I have substituted an oil company in place of McDonald’s (so as not to get sued for libel myself!). I tell the story from the perspective of the guy who put up the website. I have a common theme throughout my novels to spotlight the transformational potential that we each possess to effect positive change.

A self-absorbed, successful computer yuppie goes out on a few dates with a woman who suddenly gets arrested and charged with libel. He utilizes his talents, initially to help her, but gradually gets more involved in the issues and the need to hold big businesses accountable.

While the court case closely resembles what really transpired, the characters and sex are all from my overactive imagination.

KIRKUS REVIEW – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial.
A lively account of the food fight that became the longest trial in British history. When a flyer entitled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s” circulated around London, the burger giant took umbrage and sued Helen Steel and Dave Morris, members of London Greenpeace (an environmental group not affiliated with the international organization Greenpeace), for libel.

Here Vidal, who covered the trial for the London Guardian, recounts some of the issues addressed and the difficulties faced by the two underdogs who, without benefit of a court-appointed lawyer or funds from legal aid, acted as their own attorneys in facing the corporation’s crack legal team in a bench trial (they were denied a jury). British libel law required that Steel and Morris prove the accuracy of virtually every statement made in the flyer.

The company may since have come to regret their suit: The pair, assisted by a network of volunteers, did a very credible job of tracking down information in support of the flyer’s claims. This effort leads Vidal to discussions of the nutritional value of McDonald’s food; whether or not that food contained any beef raised on former rainforest land; the corporation’s treatment of workers; and its reactions to employees’ efforts to unionize.

By the time Vidal is finished with such subjects, the Golden Arches look a little tarnished. But his account would have benefited from waiting for the verdict that was handed down this summer, and from concluding with more rumination on the case and less grandstanding on the evils of multinational corporations. Still, Vidal’s blend of human interest and sheer outrageousness make this a ripping legal yarn. If the case itself hasn’t already given Ronald McDonald indigestion, this book might. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) — Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Why Fiction?

While addressing a group about my novel, Oilspill dotcom, I apparently spent considerable time describing the McDonalds’ libel trial that transpired in London in the 1990’s, the court case upon which I had based my book.

I had been deeply inspired by the trial and meticulously researched ‘McLibel’ as it became known. My fictional timeline corresponded exactly with that of the real trial, motions in Oilspill paralleled those of the real court case, and even the more infamous quotes from the real-life witnesses found their way into the mouths of my characters.

I also allocated a fair part of my talk to the idea of writing for social justice, for a better world. This is a consistent theme of my books, and features heavily on my website – www.alonshalev.com – so it begged someone to ask the question: Why fiction?

My answer was not very impressive. I think I mumbled that John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian in the UK, had done a great job of writing the definitive book on the case.

But there is more. I feel it is possible to reach more people and on a deeper level when they, we, read fiction. We open ourselves to the emotions of the characters, the smell of the place, the textures of color, food, or wine.

But most significantly, we seek to identify with the characters, particularly the protagonists, often aligning by gender. I have heard from women who were deeply affected by my character Suzie’s ideological drive for a better world, and men who can understand how Matt needed to find a way to defend his woman.

If we can create a bond between character and reader, we open the opportunity for the reader to create an environment in which to undergo a similar transformation in their own life, outside the realm of fiction.

I believe relationships are what drive people to step outside their safe space. I am skeptical that so many people were propelled to go and vote in an African-American democrat because of the policies he advocated. The debate over the health plan probably illustrates this. I believe people were able to relate to then-Senator Obama’s (and/or Michelle’s) drive for a better America, for change. And this is what motivated so many to head to the polls.

When we relate to a person we admire, whether in fact or fiction, we consider on some conscious or subconscious level whether we could emulate that person and make a similar, courageous decision.

And when that happens, the potential for a better world seems almost obtainable.

Have you ever been inspired by a book to take action? I’d like to hear what the inspirational book was.

Good Writing,

Alon

http://www.alonshalev.com/

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