Friday, January 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #26: Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden

I don't know what it feels like to work on a major project for years, and then see the world turn sour and make it all moot immediately. I think Sarah Glidden does, now. I think she wishes she didn't.

I think most of us wish she didn't.

Rolling Blackouts was published in October of 2016. It reports, in comics form, as faithfully as Glidden could make it, on her trip through Turkey and Iraq and Syria in late 2009, along with two reporter-friends, founders and prime movers of the journalism start-up Globalist, and their friend, an ex-Marine named Dan. It's about refugees and the legacy of the Iraq war, about guilt and responsibility and how to rebuild things that have been shattered, about coming to terms with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and millions of displaced people, about knowing your country did this and finding ways to tell the story of the refugees and survivors and children of war in ways that are honest and true and that people will care about.

And, just a few weeks after the book hit, the USA collectively said Fuck All That Shit. And we've been fucking all that shit ever since. What Rolling Blackouts sees as a bad, broken situation that desperately needs to be improved is now a lost utopia for a country besotted with walls and deportations and demonizing anyone darker than our spray-tanned leader. And Europe is only slightly better: the Iraqi refugees interviewed here, who never wanted to go to the US, the country that got their entire families killed, didn't get a much warmer reception there.

Glidden visited in the era where Iraqi refugees were living in Syria and Turkey, leaving about a year before the Arab Spring erupted across the region. Not too long afterward, Syria fell into its own civil war and massively increased the refugee crisis. Again, this is a situation that looked bad at the time, until we all learned that it could get even worse.

Rolling Blackouts is also deeply concerned with how to do journalism right -- how to tell stories clearly and transparently, how to understand a situation to describe it carefully while not being captured into one view of that situation, how to find an audience without twisting the story to suit that audience. Globalist seems to be plugged mostly into the left side of the spectrum; they talk several times about how getting a story on NPR would be a big win. And, of course, that means that a third of Americans would call everything they do "fake news" and ignore it entirely. (Well, those Americans aren't likely to care about Muslims or people they keep confusing with Muslims, so it might be a moot point to begin with.)

This is a depressing book to read at the beginning of 2018. It's nearly a decade later, a decade and a half since the US marched into Iraq to break it apart, and things have continued to get worse. It's almost as if random military adventures do vastly more harm than good! Even more depressingly, a huge swath of American opinion has religiously ignored or denied that the US has any responsibility at all for the things we broke.

That's all stuff external to the book, though. If you aren't plugged into the news, Rolling Blackouts will be only mildly sad, as Sarah and her traveling companions talk to various people across three countries. Some of them (especially the Kurds, whose territory they travel through early in the book) are in better situations because of the US war, but most of them are not -- and that's leaving out the still-argued-over number (definitely no less than a hundred thousand; possibly over a million) of Iraqis killed because of the war.

Glidden and her friends are serious and committed to seeing what is actually true and communicating that as clearly as they can -- there's a lot of talk about "finding the story," but it's all in the context of reporting on what happened, not twisting to suit some particular slant. That's gratifying and encouraging; it would be more so if Globalist weren't three people and a couple of cameras in Seattle.

This is true and real, and you should read it. Especially if you think the Iraqi war was justified -- not because it will change your mind (Dan the Marine will be mostly on your side throughout), but because you need to see what actual Iraqis say about it, and how it shattered their lives.

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