Thursday, December 30, 2010


Please say hello to the latest podcast episode. Either go to iTunes to subscribe, or click the audio player above. This episode is a chat with Patrick Reinsborough, the co-founder of the smartMeme strategy and training project, and co-author, with Doyle Canning, of the book "Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World."

So what's a meme and how can it be smart? Skip ahead if you're already in the know. According to smartMeme's website, in daily life we "constantly encounter pieces of culture that carry meaning for us such as customs, ideas, symbols, slogans, or rituals. All of these act as containers for cultural information that spread virally from person to person, moment to moment, generation to generation. These self-replicating units of culture that take on a life of their own are 'memes' (rhymes with 'dreams')." If I'm not mistaken, a few holiday-themed memes would be kissing under mistletoe, or making New Year's resolutions, or singing Auld Lang Syne. These little containers, or vessels, are freighted with cultural meaning. Say, the idea that we can start anew on January 1st, or, in the case of mistletoe, this curious Scandinavian legend. SmartMeme contends that these "units of culture" can be creatively used to advance progressive political change. If we live by stories -- whole belief systems that get encapsulated in "memes" like "family values" or "missile defense" or "the war on terror" -- then we can change by stories. That's the subject of smartMeme's very smart book, "Re:Imagining Change," an great read for grassroots campaign organizers. Aside from the book, the organization has various services, including training, messaging, and more. They contend that movement communications must not focus strictly on the facts -- though they must be truthful -- but on meaning. Good way to do that: stories.

Please, listen to the podcast, and go buy that book if you're so inclined!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


In my last blog post, I wrote about a couple theater traditions that are on UNESCO's list of elements of intangible cultural heritage. Today, I'm spotlighting a couple oral traditions that figure on the organization's list -- the Gesar Epic, and the Meddah tradition of public storytellers.


The video above is about the performance of the epic of King Gesar, by the Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu peoples in northern and western China. Parts of the epic are performed as entertainment, for ceremonial purposes at weddings and other such events, and as a way of communicating with the gods. The epic is just over a thousand years old, with manuscripts traced back as far as the 14th century. The complete epic contains over a million poetic lines, and, while most storytellers and singers are illiterate, they know thousands or even hundreds of thousands of lines. It's an oral tradition that, even in the age of print, has survived largely orally -- by going mouth to mouth.

In Turkey, there's a tradition of "Meddah" public storytellers that goes back 1500 years. These storytellers educate and entertain, and, at one time, would perform at inns along caravan routes. Nowadays, their function and their popularity has changed as the mass media have become more prominent -- and television sets tell stories in cafes and other public spaces where the Meddah used to predominate. While there may be fewer Meddah storytellers, and those who remain are less valued by the culture, I would imagine that the cultural current of storytelling has found other media (or mediums) through which to flow. Perhaps those television sets are transmitting compelling stories. How to safeguard such a tradition, if it merits being preserved? Certainly, an agency like UNESCO can help protect it against external forces such as a bad economy, high rent for Meddah storytellers, and so on. But another way to survive is to adapt. Would the Meddah tradition survive if the storytellers performed on television? Or if they told stories that appealed more to young people? Or if they paired with school teachers to train young storytellers?

Transforming the tradition in this way might dilute it -- or it may just be another way in which, as UNESCO acknowledges, "intangible cultural heritage ... is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history."

Friday, December 24, 2010


I'm totally stoked about UNESCO at the moment! The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has a program to safeguard the "intangible cultural heritage" of humanity -- oral traditions, social practices, craftsmanship, and other elements of culture that are not in bricks and mortar. UNESCO has worked with cultures worldwide to create a list of over 200 (and counting) such elements -- a few requiring urgent safeguarding, others not. Political factors like conquest or globalization may impinge on such culture, and, as UNESCO points out, "this intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history." On the website, you can view text, slides, and videos on all of these elements of culture. I've picked a few that relate to storytelling, and will highlight them in this post and the next one. Today's two practices are remarkable for their continuity over time.

Let's start with the video above, "The Mystery Play of Elche," performed every August at the Basilica of Santa Maria, in the old city of Elche, in the Valencia region of Spain. Like the other practices I'm posting about here, this play is not considered to be in urgent need of safeguarding; it is a centuries-old church tradition that started with the Pope's approval, and takes place in a relatively politically stable region. The play is about the death and Assumption of Mary, and is performed on two stages in the Basilica -- the "earthly" stage on the floor, and the "celestial" stage near the ceiling, on which it looks like child actors hang rather precariously! ("Spiderman" actors who've been injured in performance -- eat your hearts out!)  

Next up, here's a video about Kumiodori, a form of musical theater in Okinawa, Japan. The tradition began when the area was the quasi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 to 1870s). When the first king was installed, he welcomed a visiting Chinese delegation -- the so-called "herald party" -- with performances of music, dance, and drama. However, it wasn't until the 13th king appointed a minister of hospitality, Chokun Tamagushiku, that the Kumiodori tradition was formally begun. Chokun wrote five plays for the herald party of 1719, and it took off. Other plays were added to the tradition later, and they started to be performed not just for herald parties, but for other, more ordinary community festivities. The Kumiodori tradition lost stature after the fall of the Ryukyu kingdom and later World War II, but has been resurrected by the Japanese government.  

In the next post, I'll feature a couple oral traditions that UNESCO is working to safeguard.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Memorializing past human rights crises serves vital functions: It can validate the victims or survivors of such disasters, generate ongoing dialogue on human rights, and perhaps mobilize people to action to protect human rights in the future. Those most deeply affected, and their allies, may feel compelled to pay witness; they must testify about their experience. And yet, sometimes, I can't help but feel that the books, films, museums and other projects that document human rights travesties don't do much good, that they're just more horror stories for concerned people to tut-tut over after the horror is over. Genocide in Rwanda? The U.S. and other countries didn't do as much as they could have at the time to stop the butchery, but we may be happy to support a documentary film or memorial about it today. It's not just governments, but citizens, all of us, that are implicated.

Even when documenting a contemporary human rights crisis, a book or film may take so long to produce that the crisis is over by the time the book is ready, thus rendering it a form of memorialization, rather than a tool for action. And even if a book or film is produced in a timely manner, it's hard to create something that will not just move readers/viewers emotionally -- but move them to action.

That's why I'm impressed with the work of Voice of Witness, which the website describes as "a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. Voice of Witness was founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, and is the nonprofit division of McSweeney's Books.  

The series effectively confronts the challenges of making worthwhile media by documenting contemporary and ongoing crises in the U.S. and worldwide -- the perennial problem of wrongly convicted prisoners, the enduring legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and the longstanding human rights disasters in Sudan and, in the most recent book, Zimbabwe. That book is called "Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives." In the video above, the volume's co-editor Annie Holmes introduces then reads from one woman's tale of egregious abuse. 

The publisher goes beyond just documenting current crises, but also smartly puts books in the hands of people most likely to make use of them -- educators in schools and colleges, and national advocacy groups such as the Enough Project, STAND, and the Save Darfur Coalition. By starting with the proposition that the books must serve a public good -- and so choosing the subjects and their project partners carefully -- the publishers and editors have made it that much more likely that hope will not be further deferred, but fulfilled.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The original BBC report on Lennon's murder.

Video montage over the Lennon-Ono song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"

A few notes on the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. Today lots of people are hearing stories of Lennon, or sharing their own.

John Lennon's Facebook page has tons of posts -- more than one every minute for the last few hours at least. The official John Lennon website has some nice videos, a biography, discography, and more.

A New York Times piece of readers recalling the stories of where they were when they heard that Lennon had been killed. Each person placing themselves in relation to the historical moment.

Another New York Times piece about killer Mark David Chapman's occasional parole hearings, and how he recounts the murder each time he goes before the parole board. I wonder if this sort of "rehearsal" of the event fixes the memory in his mind, or perhaps makes him truly more penitent, or is now just an empty ritual. That article also links to the transcript of Chapman's most recent hearing, this past September 7. The NYT write-up is pretty thorough; the one thing of note that it leaves out is that Chapman says "My life has changed because of Jesus Christ," and, "Without him I am nothing, I would have been an even bigger nobody."

Sunday, December 5, 2010



This time on the podcast, a conversation with John O'Neal, who has spent a lifetime in social justice theater. He was, in 1963, a co-founder of the Free Southern Theater, which was conceived as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement; he is also founder and artistic director of that organization's successor, Junebug Productions, now celebrating its 30th year. Junebug is based in New Orleans, and gets its name from Junebug Jabbo Jones, a character created by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to represent the wisdom of the people.  Junebug is looking for a new artistic director, as John is looking to return more seriously to writing -- the reason he got involved in the theater in the first place. Listen to the podcast on the player above (or click here to listen on iTunes) to learn more about what he's got in the works, and his reflections on theater as he prepares to retire from Junebug.  

Tomorrow (Monday, December 6, 2010) John O'Neal will be part of a panel discussion sponsored by the Open Society Institute, called "Unleashing the Power of Art, Culture and Media to Transform Black Communities." Click here for the live webcast of that event, 5:30-8:00pm Eastern Time.  

Photo by Carlton Mickle of John O'Neal (right) and Teresa Holden (center), longtime collaborators on Junebug's "Color Line Project," which collects stories about the Civil Rights Movement and its continuing influence on the struggle with racism. This work won the duo a 2002 Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award