Aaron Barlow's blog

Answering the Obama Challenge

  • Posted on: 19 March 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

My reaction, on reading Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech yesterday, was that he has offered us and our presidential candidates the chance to raise the level of debate in America to a level not reached for more than thirty years. This morning, The New York Times, in an editorial, agrees: “

We can’t know how effective Mr. Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race. What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy — he raised the discussion to a higher plane.

Adult Supervision

  • Posted on: 25 February 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Does a delegate go to a political convention to lead? To represent? To decide?

I had always thought their task was to represent and, based on that, to decide. After all, the very word “delegate” itself implies a transfer of power, a representation—and not duties of leadership. In today's New York Times, however, Geraldine Ferraro tells me that I'm wrong.

Helplessly Hoping

  • Posted on: 2 February 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

One of the legacies of colonial rule in Africa is the modern nation-state. Before the European colonists imposed their preconceptions on Africa, there were no “countries,” as we in the West know them. Instead, there were areas of influence and prerogative, borders being gray areas of negotiation and understanding often without specific geographic delineation. With fairly light population, there was room for everyone.

"Mother of Mercy, Is This the End of Rudy?"

  • Posted on: 30 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

In Mervyn Leroy's 1931 film Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson plays a crook named Caesar, nicknamed Rico. Belligerent and ambitious, Rico claws his way to the top, but his best friend betrays him and the media turn on him. He dies, shot down when he has nothing left, uttering one of the most famous lines of early sound cinema.

Rico Giuliani has yet to utter any Famous Last Words, but he will. Maybe later today. Still, he always was a “little” Caesar, a mean-spirited, vindictive man loyal only to his inner circle—much like Robinson's character in the movie.

How Many Times Do We Have to Tell You?

  • Posted on: 27 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Wasn't it Tolstoy who believed that “leaders” simply follow from in front?

For the second time, we have a victory in a Democratic primary where a candidate won by a margin well beyond what the polls predicted.


Today, on the television gobble-fests, we'll be given reason after reason why. In every case—mark my words—the focus will be on the leaders, on what they have done or haven't done. On strategy, on manipulating the voters one way or another.

Yet the real story of South Carolina isn't the candidates at all.

It's the voters.

Again, with the Narrative

  • Posted on: 9 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Once more, the American commercial news media have created a story and then reported it as “news.”

How long, just how long can this go on?

Polls, the day before the New Hampshire primary, show Hillary Clinton suddenly dropping far behind Barack Obama. Clinton has an emotional moment before the primary. She wins the primary. Suddenly, we have a story, a narrative the news media can get their teeth into. Rather than simply reporting the news, they can create it.

ABC's Digital Correspondents

  • Posted on: 7 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Last fall, ABC News began an experiment with “digital correspondents,” young reporters who were handed equipment and sent to live in under-covered areas of the world. The program is a cheap way of replacing the old,unwieldy news bureaus that have all but disappeared and are a substitute for “parachute” journalism where reporters land, get a story, and leave.

The New Hampshire Debates

  • Posted on: 6 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Last night, for the first time, I watched the debates on television. Aside from the Facebook fooforall and something irrelevant called the “Spin Room,” I even found the presentation reasonable—though the guy from ABC (the host of their evening news—which I never watch) clearly knows little about the lives or incomes of much of America (he raised derisive laughter when he said that two married college professors would be making around $200,000 combined) and has a naïve view of causality in Iraq (he believes that the “surge” is responsible for the drop in violence, that it is “working”).

Kenya... Wither Goest?

  • Posted on: 2 January 2008
  • By: Aaron Barlow

My interest in Africa began at eleven, when I met a Kenyan who was studying at Antioch College. Alphonse Okuku was living with the Ernest Morgan family, the founders of the little boarding school, The Arthur Morgan School (named for Ernest's famous and influential father), I was attending. Ernest and Elizabeth's son Lee brought Alphonse down to the school sometime in the fall of 1963. I was fascinated by the young man, who seemed so idealistic and pure.

Technology, Culture, and Development

  • Posted on: 30 December 2007
  • By: Aaron Barlow

The debate over Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) reinforces my belief that few of us willingly recognize that technology alone can never be an answer for anything. Technology works within cultural and need contexts and not by itself. That is, it has to address perceived need and to operate within a milieu of cultural acceptance. Only then can it to be of use.

There are people I know who would be insulted, were I to go out and buy for them a new flat-screen TV—not because they wouldn't appreciate the idea of a gift, but because they believe that a friend should recognize that such a TV is not part of what they want as their lifestyle. Most of us have learned to respect such individual differences, even if we can't imagine not getting our daily does of The News Hour. Yet, for some reason, we are not willing to allow difference and choice outside of our own cultural context.

Yes, few of us are willing to extend the same courtesy we give to individual friends to other cultures... especially if those cultures are poorer or less developed than our own. We hold an assumption that our wealth and technical skill provides us with knowledge about what other people should want or should do. In addition, we would never say to the friend appalled at the TV set we've brought over, “Just keep it; it can't hurt,” yet I have heard many say exactly the same thing about the OLPC computers.

One Laptop Left Behind

  • Posted on: 26 December 2007
  • By: Aaron Barlow

What follows is an edited excerpt from my new book, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. I’m presenting this passage here because of continuing talk about how Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is going to save education in the developing world (when it really is nothing more than a new and fascinating toy):

Results: Cell Phones, 2.0/Laptops, 0.0

  • Posted on: 15 December 2007
  • By: Aaron Barlow

When I visited Senegal last April, seeing West Africa for the first time in more than a decade, I was struck by two things. First, even in an area of the world where gum wrappers had once been saved and turned to other uses, the plastic bag was now both ubiquitous and worthless. There’s no value in stockpiling them for future use: they cover the roadsides. This sad fact made me despair for the future of humanity (and I’m not kidding). Second, cell phones were everywhere.

"Colorblind" Blind: Race Today

  • Posted on: 3 December 2007
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Two subway stops, equidistant from my Brooklyn place—which to use?

One is reached through a predominantly middle-class enclave before it spills you out onto the chaos of Flatbush Avenue. The route to the other takes you through streets of diminishing wealth to Nostrand Avenue, as busy as Flatbush but of an entirely different character. Both routes take one through racially mixed areas, but the white person is rarely “alone” when heading towards Flatbush. That is, there are generally other whites in sight as one dodges through the crowd. And a number of the blacks one sees look successful, as comfortably middle class as the whites. Towards Nostrand one hears much more Haitian Creole and music blaring from the open doors of double-parked vans.

Now, here’s the question: Is it racism that inclines the whites in the neighborhood to gravitate to the Flatbush stop?

It all depends, as Bill Clinton might say, on what the meaning of “racism” is.

The Professional and the Amateur

  • Posted on: 2 December 2007
  • By: Aaron Barlow

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times, recently spoke about the state of journalism. While his attitude is refreshing and his thoughts are generally on target, I do have a few nits to pick:

Keller, when he speaks of the founders’ view of “the press” elides the fact that the conception of “the press” at the time of the writing of the Constitution and (more significantly) the Bill of Rights was quite different from what it is now. There was no profession associated with “the press,” for one thing—“the press,” in the sense meant by the founders, was an entity of politics, not of news gathering and dispassionate analysis.

In writing that the press should be seen as “supplying citizens with the information to judge whether they are being well served by their government,” Keller ignores the absolutely partisan nature of the press in the early years of the Republic. He says he spends his time explaining “why the founding fathers entrusted someone like me with the right to defy the president.” Thing is, they didn’t. Cloaking himself in the mantle of the founding fathers is a disservice to history and, I believe, to the press of today.