Two stories about taxis


Writing from Cape Town, South Africa

It’s Tuesday morning. We’re not supposed to take “unmarked” cabs—that is, the ones without names of trusted companies painted on their sides. I’m on Main Road, near UCT’s campus, and a driver catches my eye and waves me over. But he’s standing next to a white sedan, without any company name on it. It’s just a car. The ones that scam you and, you know, sometimes kidnap you. When I give the guy a polite wave and turn in the other direction to find a marked cab, he looks confused and flustered. I feel as confused by his confusion. Until I get to see the moment of realization: arm through the open passenger-side window, he reaches into his car and grabs something from the glove compartment. I look away for a second, then back, and surprise! He’s stuck a shiny yellow “taxi” decal on the top of his car. Now he’s a taxi.

It’s Saturday evening. The big annual Carnival parade is happening in town, about 20 minutes away. I meet three friends on Main Road and we hail a cab. (A marked one.) All three of my friends play women’s soccer for top American universities. They’re hard core, shin-guard-wearing, “don’t-talk-to-me-I’m-at-the-gym” varsity athletes. And then, of course, there’s “I-think-I-went-to-the-gym-once” me. But that doesn’t matter, right? We’re just taking a drive into town. Wrong. Three minutes in, our cab stalls out at a traffic light. Our driver panics. There’s a lot of shrugging and neck-turning going on. He looks to the backseat, his expression grave: “You need to push the car.” Ha! He keeps staring. Oh, okay. We all get out and push our driver down Main Road. Minibus drivers are hurtling past and shouting expletives (I think) out their windows. A guy in a red station wagon makes sure we know that we’d “better not pay that guy a cent!” As we push the car into a gas station, another taxi is there waiting. “I can accommodate you,” its driver says. But we’re far too invested to opt out now. When we finally get the cab moving, our driver won’t stop apologizing. It’s not professional, he says. He can’t believe we’d had to push the car. “No worries,” I assure him. “Three of us are varsity athletes.” He never asks which three.

That’s what it’s like a lot of the time here: makeshift, shaky, and endearing. The power goes out in a crowded bar and all you can do is laugh and wait. The Netflix home page keeps telling me that it “hasn’t come to this part of the world yet.” When the hot water doesn’t work in the shower, the landlord says, “Yep, this isn’t America.” Last night the internet wasn’t on. This morning, it was. I have no idea why. And I won’t ever know. But I’m learning.

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My Taxi Driver Reads Chomsky: Reclaiming the Liberal Arts in South Africa


As published on the Huffington Post:

If you have to get lost, I recommend doing it at the top of Table Mountain. That’s what I did. In the few minutes I’d sat down to jot down some thoughts, my group had hiked on. I didn’t have a map, and my sense of direction has long been the butt of jokes in my immediate family. So I just started walking.

Eventually I found a path, and next to it a view, and with it a twenty-something South African engineer named Stefano. He was with friends—two Canadian college students who were Couchsurfing in his apartment—and asked me what I was doing here. I told him I was studying history. He scoffed.

That happens a lot. About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about being a liberal arts student in the pre-professional milieu of my university, and getting the sense that people think me a lost puppy with no way home. (In a word, I think American pre-professionalism is the result of tunnel-vision and a blind drive toward “success” that are leaving the young workforce without a broader understanding of our place in the social and historical narrative.) When I talk about my history major, it often feels like speaking to a wall of derision: Good luck with that, man. So Stefano didn’t faze me.

But Stefano’s was a different kind of scoff.

I’ve come to understand South African pre-professionalism as being of a different flavor than its American counterpart. It is motivated not by gross opportunism, but by necessity. (Or at least what feels like necessity.) The push to send a steady flow of CPAs, engineers, and number crunchers down the higher-education conveyor belt isn’t the result of narrow-minded expediency; rather, it’s the reflection of a nation who sees itself as many decades behind developed economies and in desperate need of catching up. This era of doing is the panacea to a century of waiting.

That seems a more noble rationale for unbridled pre-professionalism than the one we’re often given in the United States. The South African argument makes sense: There is no place in a developing economy (and a country just beginning to recover from its marred past) for history or historians, philosophy or philosophers, ivory-tower intellectuals who gaze with sanctimony upon the plebeians below. As Stefano put it, South Africa doesn’t yet have time for “vocations of leisure.”

That seems about right. Until you read the newspaper here.

This country is still bleeding from gashes that are historical in nature: President Jacob Zuma is finding an all-too-convenient bedfellow in Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and many fear that Beijing will suck up South Africa’s abundant natural resources; there’s an energy crisis going on; there’s an education crisis that’s been going on for about four hundred years; and the country’s social institutions are still largely segregated de facto, even if they’re legally integrated. Many of these wounds remain as raw as they were in 1994, and the ones that have been ignored have become infected. (At the risk of irritating some of my Emory professors, I use the passive voice here because the list of neglectful parties is too long for this piece.) Math and science and the impulse toward “real-world skills” will be meaningless in South Africa without social context.

Two encounters last week proved to me that the will to actively seek out that social context exists here, despite the perhaps more powerful will toward the purely-“practical”:

The first was with a taxi driver named Paul. Within a minute of stepping into his van, Paul had told me that he was in a mixed marriage; that he’s white and his wife is coloured (a separate racial designation than black in this country). By the highway on-ramp, he’d also given me a concise history of military conscription in South Africa. And by the time he dropped me off, Paul had delivered a soliloquy on ANC corruption through the prism of Noam Chomsky’s 2006 Failed States. “You’re going to write home and say that you met a white taxi driver who reads Chomsky,” Paul said. He was right.

The second was with a group students at a high school in the Philippi township, where I’ve started to coach after-school debate. Another coach (a year-round UCT student) posed the question of whether black South Africans should have to learn English, or whether the rest of the country should learn their own “indigenous” languages. (There are 11 official languages here.) I flashed with foreboding to my own high school: students would have tuned out at the mention of such an esoteric topic.

But not these kids. This group of students—each of them black, originally Xhosa-speaking, and between the ages of 13 and 20—argued with vigor (and in English). “Of course we need to know English today,” said one young man in a flat cap. “Maybe it’s not the way it should be, but we need it to engage with the rest of the world.” One of his female classmates took issue with that: “But we were born into our own culture, and that’s all we have. We need to protect where we came from.” I was struck by one thing in particular: they were listening to each other and responding, not just unilaterally spewing their own thoughts. I wasn’t surprised because it was happening in a township; I surprised because it was happening with teenagers. And if was happening with teenagers (most of whom who will—statistically—finish their formal education after senior year), it can happen with college students.

They knew it mattered. And intellectual history agrees. In the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, Matthew Arnold—considered one of the founding fathers of modern social theory—wrote that people and societies would be on the road to prosperity if they were “possessed by the scientific passion as well as the passion of doing good.” He was talking about the balance between Rationalist thought and Romantic zeal; ambition and morality; the flow of UCT engineers and UCT history students. About 150 years later, the leading developmental psychologist and Harvard Professor Howard Gardner said in a video for The Atlantic’s website: “An education devoid of arts and artistic and humanistic endeavors is a half-brained, empty kind of education.” An eminent and successful culture lives in the spaces between those dichotomies. Advocates of a purely technical South African future would do well to read Arnold and listen to Gardner.

South Africa had (and in some places still has) a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The country aired out its dirty laundry in Town Square, with cameras rolling and the world watching. That was a formal, top-down attempt at reclaiming context and understanding historical realities. It was the liberal arts swallowed as a pill.

But here’s my point—and please remember that these are just observations, pieces I’ve picked up along the way, not financial calculations or deeply researched theses:

I think that if this country wants to make real economic, political, and social progress—if it wants to see true racial healing and substantive social change—its critical engagement with the past needs to come from the bottom up. Shouldn’t all the taxi drivers have a critical understanding of whom they’re driving and why they’re not the ones being driven? Shouldn’t all the schoolchildren—across the racial gamut—know why they’re learning calculus in English, but speaking Xhosa across the dinner table? We know that the will for these conversations exists at the humblest echelons; why not encourage them with dynamism in the high school and university setting?

South Africa needs engineers and people who know how to run businesses. It needs doctors and architects and land developers. But I think South Africa needs more taxi drivers like Paul, and kids like the ones in Philippi. I think it needs more sociology and international relations majors. Because if you don’t know why things are the way they are, it’s going to be difficult to push with any impact toward the way they ought to be. Stefano told me that this country can’t afford more people who take on careers of reflective inquiry; I wonder whether it can afford to exist without them.

The Trouble with the Middle of Nowhere


As published on the Huffington Post:

Ronnie’s Sex Shop is basically in South African Kansas. It sits along the country’s rural Route 62, about three hours east of Cape Town, where the cows graze and the baboons get in the way of traffic. The shop’s white countryside façade is unassuming and its bawdy name is entirely misleading: It’s not a sex shop by any account.

Ronnie had intended to sell fresh produce to passersby when he opened the space as a farm stall. He moved from the city to the countryside in 1989, and within a few weeks his drinking buddies had graffitied “SEX” in bright red paint where he’d already put the name. What happened next was inevitable: more and more traveller craned their necks and stopped at Ronnie’s. Now the pit stop is a landmark bar and grill en route to the scenic Klein Karoo and draws visits from celebrities like Morgan Freeman—“he passed through on the way to one of Mandela’s birthday parties,” Ronnie told me—and road-trippers like me.

I found the store’s namesake (who wears a Jerry Garcia-meets-Gandolf look) behind the counter of the gift shop. We shot the breeze for a few minutes and talked about his story. When I wondered aloud him whether South Africa has changed since he first started the restaurant, Ronnie’s tone became almost caustic: “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere this whole time.”

He wouldn’t know? I’ve lived tens of thousands of miles from South Africa my entire life, and even I know just how much the society has changed. Everyone does. I’ve read about it in textbooks and on the Internet and seen the blockbuster films that depict that transformation for audiences around the globe. Not three weeks into my semester here, it’s abundantly clear to me just how different my journal entries might have been in a National Party South Africa. But Ronnie managed to carve out his own bucolic enclave and seems to have heard only in disjointed chunks about the evolution and rectification of what he dubbed “city problems.”

In the purest sense, Ronnie has been studying abroad for more than 25 years. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet—and I’m actually in a new country.

Here’s why: In 2015, there’s almost no such thing as just travelling abroad. Getting away from home—in my case, the United States—takes an effort that far transcends a visa and ticket. In the last three weeks, I’ve applied for internships in Washington, DC and pestered my Emory friends with the same kinds of questions and requests I’d ask at school. I’ve followed the Brian Williams scandal, the Obama ISIL announcement, and the tragic news of David Carr’s death with the same neurotic fervor as I would at home and—with the exception of a momentary encounter with a tour group of Israeli Bubbes in the prehistoric Cango Caves—spoken and listened in my native English.

My body has been abroad and I suppose I’ve taken a few brief forays into the psyche and pulse of South Africa, but I’ve had one foot in the United States and two thumbs on that mega-globalizer and its LED touchscreen. Why aren’t I immersed? Because the mountain outside my bedroom window keep me convinced that I’m very, very far away from everything I know, even if I’m looking at that mountain through the camera function on What’sApp.

Thomas Friedman wrote a book about this idea. It’s called The World is Flat. I read it five years ago for a high school Modern World History class, and it’s been the paradigmatic soundtrack of my time here. During a talk on his tour for that book, Friedman spoke about his intellectual pilgrimage to the root of 21st century globalization:

“…I called JetBlue to make a reservation. I knew what I was doing. I asked them if they flew from Denver to Atlanta, no. I got a very nice lady on the phone and asked her what her name was. Her name she said was Betty. I said, Betty, can I ask you a question? Where are you right now? She said, honey, I’m in my bedroom in my slippers, and I’m looking out at the most beautiful scene in Salt Lake City. As some of you may know, JetBlue, the most profitable airline in America today, has outsourced its entire reservation system to basically housewives in Salt Lake City, Utah. If you call JetBlue for a reservation, you will get Betty in her bedroom or her equivalent.”

In other words, it’s too easy to be Betty. If I’m really going to be here, it’s not going to be by default. Because if I want to be home, all I have to do is log in. And I didn’t come to Cape Town to be home.

Of course, there are moments when I’m unquestionably “abroad.” Like when the lights in the grocery store twitch and then go out during scheduled power cuts—or “loadshedding”—and all I can do is go home; or when the cleaning woman at a beachside hostel in Jeffery’s Bay tells me that she almost finished a university degree in accounting before she ran out of money, and now she’s stuck the Eastern Cape 13 years later; or when the well-traveled actor I met at a bar on Longstreet tells me that he has so many passports because his “father was a political prisoner”; or when I’m driving through the wine region and my Afrikaner tour guide recounts watching as the old South African flag came down for the last time from its perch above her schoolyard, and feeling mournful because she was ten years old and “didn’t understand change.”

Those are the moments when I’m in South Africa. But they’re fleeting. I’m not in the middle of nowhere, like Ronnie is. I haven’t let myself be. Not yet, at least. They’re the variables that punctuate my days, but by no means are they a constant. I shouldn’t be arriving in my bedroom every night and checking back into “reality.” That’s not what this is about. I have to let this place, these people, these moments be my makeshift reality. My goal is to make them the constant.

Earlier this week my friend and mentor Blake Mayes encouraged me to “write about transformation rather than culture shock…to convey novel experiences in a way that draws readers deeper into universal questions,” rather than just talk about my day. Consider this post an attempt at fulfilling Blake’s challenge. It falls far short of a story of transformation (after all, I’ve only been here for a short period) but I’ll hope to mark it as a meaningful beginning.

I love my home, I love my friends, and I love the latkes and Grateful Dead songs and cities that brought me up. I love the people—both familial and near-familial—who raised me and are still raising me. And I can’t wait to get back to all that in June. But I want to be comfortable simply knowing that the sun that sets over Rondebosch is the same one that rises over Atlanta—and not feel compelled to check every few minutes to make sure.

At the present moment, my iPhone makes my world ever less focused and my footprint ever more confined. I need to make a conscious and intentional effort to be in South Africa. So if I don’t respond to your iMessage immediately, it’s not because I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere; It’s because I’m trying to get there.

“The way it is:” First Perspectives in South Africa


I’ve been in Cape Town for just over a week. I’ve surfed at Muizenberg and stood atop the summit at Signal Hill. On the streets of Rondebosch I’ve ridden in precariously overcrowded “taxis” (which are actually minibuses) and in the halls of the Univesrity of Cape Town I’ve stood in hours-long “queues” (which are actually lines). But the moment I realized just how far I am from home came in a place symbolic of the country I’ve lived in my whole life: A run-down township.

Cape Town’s economic disparity doesn’t vary widely from that of American metropoli; Indeed, both the glitterati of Rodeo Drive and the paupers of Skid Row call Los Angeles home. But it seems that South Africa doesn’t bother hiding its most destitute. And I spent some time with them on Tuesday.

The townships—living residue of the 1950 Group Areas Act, in which South Africa’s ruling National Party forcibly relocated several black communities and destroyed the longstanding infrastructures—line the freeways just beyond City Center. My group of study abroad students spent a morning in two of them (Nyanga and Manenberg), scrutinizing the makeshift shacks and shoddily paved schoolyards like one would the halls of the Louvre.

The townships aren’t tucked away. They’re just off the main roads. And it felt deeply awkward to walk around them and interact with kids who will never know our names or our life narratives, and to smile at adults who knew that we had no business being there. (The kids, ages 6-15, had a bizarre, almost mechanized instinct to jump on us and insist on piggy-back rides.) I wanted to scream each time I saw a UCT student slip a camera from her pocket and snap a portrait of “authentic township life.” One friend called the trip “poverty tourism.” That’s what it felt like: A junket into Africa, back before sundown for drinks.

But despite the disturbing discomfort of that outing, my morning in the townships (the implications of which I’ll write more on later) affirmed one thing: Twenty years post-apartheid, the inequality that once beset South Africa hasn’t fallen away.

That’s not a novel claim, and it’s not one whose truths are limited to the African continent or this country. (We know well that the United States still suffers from similar root issues half a century after our own Civil Rights Act.) But it places South Africa in the midst of a fascinating and confusing historical moment.

Consider the zealous and polarizing debates of the 1980s: Should Reagan bulldoze the “affirmative action regime” that grew out of the post-Johnson years? Does the federal government owe African Americans influential posts in agencies from which they had long been excluded? How ought politicians reconcile centuries of unjust policy with what one South African friend of mine dubbed “the way it is”? South Africa now stands in the clutches of those questions; ones for which the US still hasn’t found effective and comprehensive answers.

We know that apartheid was wrong. And we know that racial equity is right. But nothing is that simple (especially in South Africa), and such equity doesn’t yet exist. We’re also not quite sure how to fix it. No one in South Africa, of any race, class, or community history, shares the same opinion or perspective. I’ve set out to hear how South Africans answer those questions, and—hopefully, down the line—come to some working conclusions of my own.

At a bar in Rosebank, a recent UCT graduate (and self-proclaimed hyper-capitalist) named Essi told me that black culture is to blame for the gaps that persist in South African education. He said that if your conqueror is able to overtake you without as much as a fight, and you’re never able to emerge from your oppression, you deserve the second-class spot your society has carved out for you. South Africa, he said, doesn’t owe affirmative action or retroactive assistance to its black populations still mired in poverty.

My liberal ears, trained to hear the racism in every breath, perked up. Essi’s argument seemed colonial—and pretty backward—to me. But Seti is black. He grew up in the Zulu ethos of Soweto and graduated last year with a degree in politics. “If you’re born with four fingers, you can’t spend your whole life wishing you had five,” he said. “You have to learn to do the best you can with the eighty percent you’ve been dealt.” I had trouble with that perspective.

Then, on a tour bus en route to the Cape of Good Hope, I looked out the window and noticed a sign that implied that the Western Cape isn’t controlled by the ANC. (The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (or DA) governs the province; the ANC runs the other eight.) I turned to the orientation leader sitting next to me and asked her why most provinces continued to vote for the ANC despite its known corruption and failings. “We’re never going to stop voting for the ANC,” she said. “People associate it too strongly with the end of apartheid. We’re indebted.”

That surprised me. Black South Africans won’t allow a new party to become the parliamentary majority, even if its policies have proven more efficient and effective? “The older generation still doesn’t like the idea of white people in power,” she told me. “When Mandela didn’t outlaw Afrikaans as a language, many blacks took issue with that. But you can’t just throw away an entire culture.” Even if it’s the culture of the longtime oppressor, she was suggesting. She told me that Apartheid ingrained in black South Africans a worldview of oppression, and many community elders still live under its weight. They’re the teachers in many townships, and they teach young people—who might be achieving and rising out of the their still-disadvantaged neighborhoods—through the prism of that oppression.

And then today, during my class registration period, I asked my white, 60-something academic advisor whether the course load I’d chosen would be too heavy. (Many orientation speakers and leaders had warned us against taking high level courses—the kind that I’d naturally take as a junior back at Emory.) “In this country, many come into the university without the proper background in some of the courses they want to take,” she said. “There are self-correcting mechanisms for that at UCT.” She pointed out a few course titles that were followed by a plus sign, and noted that those were for students who needed a bit more in-built context. Later, I asked a friend—a grad student at the university, also originally from Soweto—what that was all about. “A lot of black students take those,” he said. Apartheid’s shadow hasn’t faded.

I have a lot of questions. I’m going to keep asking them, and piecing together themes and broader messages in the answers I get. I won’t use this blog to list what I ate today, or to post pictures of the vivid panoramas I see. All that is for other my own journal and, you know, Facebook. I’m going to use it, as I always have, as a space to work through those questions, engage my thoughts and yours, and wrestle with what South Africa tells me about “the way it is.” I hope you’ll join me.

United We Sit: A Proposal to Change Emory


Published in the Emory Wheel on September 19, 2014. Written with Adam Goldstein.

In her Sept. 15 op-ed “Emory Students Tend Towards Self-Segregation,” Aarti Dureja paints for us a divided Emory, where the high school hope of a campus without the constraints of “popularity, prettiness, (or) appearance” is revealed to be nothing but a pipe dream. Instead of looking up and out, Dureja writes, we look down and in. We’re governed by our “own social hierarchy.” We stand proudly under the glowing banner of “diversity” but find ourselves in stratified pockets, far from those who aren’t like us.

While we’re not sure “segregated” is an apt descriptor of Emory, Dureja is onto something: there are quiet but very real social constructs at play on our campus. If you’re a white Anglo-Saxon kid in Greek life, chances are that you haven’t had an in-depth conversation with the man who makes your omelet in the DUC. If you’re the Sodexo employee, you’ve likely never interacted beyond a cursory nod with the student from Nanking who wears a t-shirt with letters you can’t read.

As Dureja suggests, we’re insular by nature. That’s okay — we do what makes us comfortable.

But there’s more to the story. After freshman year, we begin to solidify our social circles, our organizations, our communities. “Sticking together” in the University setting certainly doesn’t deserve moral indictment. At a very basic level, it’s what we should be doing: fostering our interests and bolstering our own identities by learning from and feeding off of people who are like us.

That’s why Emory has created spaces where unique identities can be cultivated. We have chapels and churches, houses and lodges, labs and dugouts and diverse offices. Those are the spaces where we cultivate difference and celebrate it.

But where’s the intentionally common space at Emory? Where’s the space for the Hindu Students Association to talk to the Bioethics Society? For Emory Pride to mix with Brotherhood for Afrocentric Men (BAM)? For the PhD in the Harris tweed to sit with the mailroom employee in the collared shirt? Sure, we’d like to hope those interactions would happen organically – but often, as Dureja spells out, they don’t.

Fraternities and sororities host mixers; religious groups send representatives to discuss theological questions at the Inter-Religious Council. But Emory has no streamlined framework for social mixing, for conversation or for asking the hard questions to the only people really qualified to answer them.

We’ve heard students charge Emory with a lack of diversity. We disagree. There’s a surplus of diversity, but a deficit of the will and desire to immerse ourselves in it. To ask the right questions, and to listen to the answers.

We have an idea. It’s called TableTalk.

TableTalk is a framework for conversation between groups that would not interact under ordinary circumstances. It’s not an arena for conflict-resolution between communities that have a history of tension. It’s an accessible and intentional context for us to get to know one another, share a meal, ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask, temporarily leave our realms of comfort and adopt new ones.

This isn’t about Kumbaya. There are neither lofty goals nor visions of rainbow-colored people entangled in one another’s hands. Our hope is not naive. It’s about being honest with ourselves, recognizing that these interactions aren’t happening on their own and taking an earnest step toward changing our broken culture.

We’ve already begun. At one TableTalk, Buddhist and Muslim students spoke candidly about the spectrum of religiosity across their traditions. At another, members of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, a black Christian fellowship, met up with Hillel students and shared biblical passages that spoke to individuals in each group. Both TableTalks ran longer than scheduled. Both introduced participants to someone they hadn’t encountered before. Both left participants asking: “Can we just keep talking?”

TableTalk’s success lies in its simplicity and humility. It convenes and it facilitates – that’s it. Leaders of cultural groups and campus organizations pick another group with whom they believe their members would benefit from sharing a meal and discussion. When we see crossover in interest, the leaders of both groups sit down with each other to draft a list of penetrating questions that will elicit honest, nuanced answers. They invite their members and they lead the discussion. TableTalk just provides the framework, the space and the food.

A TableTalk emerges from the communities’ desires to talk to one another; we give them an excuse to do it.

Join us in creating a space where a Rollins student can share a meal with the driver of her Cliff Shuttle, where Greek women and men can sit down and talk to the leaders of Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) about the people for whom each advocates, where a Korean student can be an individual distinct from the amorphous crowd — and where we don’t need to feel “self-conscious” about who we are.

Let’s affirm each of our communities and build a greater one. Let’s grab onto the freedom to ask. Let’s take the laboratory home with us. Because that’s what’s extraordinary about college: when we retire at the end of the day, we keep living here. And here, we’re never really alone.

Join the conversation at tabletalk.emorylife.org.

When Things Fall into the Ocean


We were about twenty minutes into our tour of the CNN studio in Atlanta when Greg, an eccentric guide in a tomato-red polo, turned around. “Are there any questions?”

I sneered. For weeks, CNN’s unremitting coverage of MH 370 has been the object of my family’s ridicule. “Yeah,” I joked to my dad, under my breath, “Do you guys think you could report on something else?”

I was kidding, but not entirely. The plane’s disappearance had become a caricature of itself; the media had somehow dulled the sting of an unresolved tragedy. Death was reduced to a mound of cheap television gimmicks as news anchors capitalized on anxiety and held onto “revelations” until words from our sponsors. And when empty musings on Flight 370 were all that Wolf Blitzer read off the teleprompter, it wasn’t too soon for late-night hosts to poke fun at human loss.

But last week, cable news paused its coverage of Malaysian 370. In moments, a ferry boat off the southwest coast of South Korea became the new fetish of coiffed television hosts. The ship had sunk just beside island of Jindo, leaving hundreds of high school students missing in a dark and enigmatic wreck.

CNN stopped talking about one vessel that disappeared into the ocean so that it could start talking about another vessel that disappeared into the ocean.

“Their fate remains uncertain.”

“Parents await word on their children.”

“Still no word from officials.”

As quickly as the boat had gone down, the New York Times had published the final texts, instant messages, and phone call transcripts to a number of Danwon High School parents from their children aboard the foundering ship. Seong-hee told her dad that she couldn’t move “because all the kids are in the corridor. And because the ship is tilting too much.” Her family received no subsequent messages from her. Kim Beom-soo wrote to his father, “hope we can meet again alive.” They haven’t.

Today the death toll rose to 150, and the same number remains unaccounted for. The kids aboard the ship are gone. The Boeing 777’s passengers – young couples and their infant children, the stewardesses and the pilots – are also dead. There is no news from the bottom of the ocean.

But if we’re so certain of their fate – if it’s unmistakably clear – then why do we keep watching? We don’t feel resolved. There’s something compelling the media to keep talking about it, to jack up the tempo at which they ask questions, and to continue asking them at all.

Is it simply a matter of ratings? It’s convenient to point fingers at the news anchor – that albatross in a designer suit who takes the brunt of our resentment. But that’s too easy. Sure, television producers are sensationalizing their coverage, but they aren’t bending us to some supreme magnetic will; they’re tapping into an element of our own nature. We’re buying in. We keep watching.

Why don’t we crane our necks to the East, and bear witness to a roiling civil conflict in Crimea and Ukraine? Or to Yemen, where an “unprecedented” American drone strike last week killed more than 50 terrorists? These are but blips on the iPhone screen–fleeting, unsubstantial news “updates” squandered when things fall into the ocean.

We can’t stop staring into the ocean.

Why is it our impulse to eclipse real, consequential events in favor of boat crashes and airliner whoddunits clean out of an Agatha Christie novel? Why can’t we stop staring?

“Because we all fly on airplanes,” a friend of mine suggested this week. I suppose that when I read that elegiac piece on the young lives aboard Malaysian 370, I conceived of myself as vulnerable – as mortal. I became inexorably tied to those people. For a moment, I was them.

And I suppose I inhabited an uncertainty in that moment. Dad flies to JFK for business all the time. I’m flying home to Los Angeles next week. Every conference, every wedding, every funeral and break from school – everyone flies on planes.

But the mortality answer isn’t enough. If it were only our fear of death that drew us in, we might be likewise enchanted by the strife in Eastern Europe and Yemen. But we’re not. There’s something else.

During an era in which we’ve mapped everything, the plane and the boat are enigmas. In eight seconds, I can dig up the color of your childhood clarinet teacher’s Acura. In a third of that time, I can find her address. If I can’t, someone else (likely the agent mentioned in the above scenario) can. Somewhere in Russia, there’s a spectacled man who’s the object of an investigation that spans continents. Someone knows everything.

A recent piece in the Atlantic probed deeper. Alexis Madrigal’s April 22 article explored the mounting overlaps between artificial intelligence and surveillance practices, highlighting one particular convention of government agencies. “It’s commonplace for security systems to set up a number of rules-based alerts for their video analytics,” wrote Madrigal. “So if an object on the screen (a person, or a car, for instance) crosses a designated part of the scene, an alert is passed on to the human operator,” who surveys the footage.

We’re talking Google maps on anabolic steroids.

In 2000, after the Clinton administration stopped “blunt(ing) the accuracy” of civilian positioning devices, the GPS fell in price, ultimately becoming a fixture of most new tech gadgets. Only fourteen years later, with two swipes and a click, there’s a university library on my lap. My whisper can command a three-by-five piece of metal to bring me a pizza, or at the very least point me in the direction of one. In 2014, for every thing there is to know, there’s a person who knows it. For every place there is to find, there’s someone who’s found it.

Except for Flight 370.

We can track down the replaceable: keys and cell phones, cars and credit cards, but we can’t find a colossal hunk of metal and more than 200 souls. And we’re only beginning to find those kids, and plaster a cause atop the senselessness of the wreck. When we’ve learned every letter and read every book, our sporadic spurts of illiteracy feel unnerving. But they’re mesmerizing.

When things fall into the ocean, we feel an elegant, cathartic pain. In all of our knowing and all our certainty, in all the conceit of our 21st century omniscience – we still don’t know.

There’s something soothing about not knowing; even in discomfort, there seems a weight lifted off humanity’s shoulders. For a split second, we’re free. We can be at ease in our impotence.

Next time the man in the tomato-red polo asks if I still have questions, I’ll keep my mouth shut, and wonder.

A version of this articled appeared in the Huffington Post.

A Snowden Pardon Would Not Set a ‘Dangerous Precedent’


Two lawmakers in Norway announced Tuesday that they have nominated Edward Snowden as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement comes amid a pair of debates surrounding the actions of the infamous NSA whistleblower.

The first debate — perhaps the more sexy and compelling of the two — is in vogue in barbershops and diners, civics classrooms and gym locker rooms across the country. It’s the one that recently arose over dinner in my fraternity house, when Brandon, a journalism major and a vocal advocate of free expression, called Snowden a hero.

Greg — a friend of Brandon’s whose first birthday present was a .22 caliber rifle and who spent his early days on a sprawling Texas ranch — responded, rushed and emphatic: “Why don’t we just tell all criminals that it’s okay to break the law, as long as it’s for a just cause?” The tension that so separates Brandon and Greg is emblematic of the ideological gulf between Snowden’s advocates and his detractors.

The other debate on Snowden, however — perhaps less stimulating, but nonetheless significant — lines the pages of op-ed sections and hides deep within the innards of the blogosphere. It’s not about whether Snowden’s choices were qualitatively good or bad; it’s about the implications of letting him off without punishment.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times’ editorial board ushered us into a new chapter of the whistleblower conversation. In its first major opinion of the year, the board argued that Snowden — upstaged for TIME magazine’s title of “Person of the Year” only by the world’s premier religious leader — deserved “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home,” or at the very least be offered “substantially reduced punishment” for exposing troves of incriminating evidence against the US intelligence community.

After the Times‘ piece came a firestorm of pushback. Clemency for Snowden would be a slippery slope, critics said. A sign of weakness, enticement for America’s miscreants, the dawn of an era in which moral integrity would trump invariably legality. We’d kiss jurisprudence goodbye as the streets trembled with stampedes of ex-cons, like something out of the Lion King.

I’m exaggerating, of course — but only a bit. Following the editorial, Business Insider’sJosh Barrow turned rapidly to the web, tweeting that the argument was “a radical case against our diplomatic and intel apparatus” cast in an “oddly casual” light. New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters that if Snowden believed himself in earnest to be the pinnacle of a “grand tradition of civil disobedience,” he could prove his bona fides by facing the legal system he so vehemently condemned.

In general, the counterargument to the Times‘ editorial went something like this: We are a nation of laws. Those who break the law must be subject to punishment. Edward Snowden broke the law and must accordingly be subject to punishment.

At best, that’s a specious argument. Realistically, it’s naïve and simplistic.

Rebutting Barrow, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf pointed out that a pardon for Snowden wouldn’t set a precedent of any sort — let alone a dangerous one. The concept of clemency exists “precisely because there are instances when applying rules we’ve generally decided upon would be unjust and counterproductive,” he argued.

Friedersdorf is right. Clemency is never the rule; by definition, it’s the exception. Most Americans live their full lives on the legal thoroughfare, without slipping into the dim alleyways of true crime. Of the minority who commit serious offenses and put society at risk, a proportionately tiny number lands any form of presidential mercy.

The system works on the basis of consistency and the understanding that those who seek to subvert the rightful order must first consider their choice in the context of its consequences. But the Constitution makes room for anomalies — special cases that merit deviation from that consistency.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:

“The President…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

And grant them they have.

American presidents have offered legal leniency to those who have committed sedition, land fraud, extortion, and robbery; to citizens who have refused to testify in federal court and those convicted of forgery. They have pardoned polygamists and draft-dodgers, mutinists and murderers. Presidents have forgiven Americans for voluntary manslaughter and for accepting illegal bribes; for opening fire in the House of Representatives; for attempting to assassinate a president; for tax evasion, treason, and violating neutrality laws. And, yes — for perjury, blasphemy, and disloyalty, and for breaches of the Espionage Act.

Indeed, there are better justifications floating in the political milieu for ending Snowden’s asylum in Russia and bringing him to justice in the United States: Most lawbreakers who are granted pardons are first subjected to the legal system — and accordingly, a legal ruling. In trial, details about these cases come under full and exhaustive scrutiny. The public can hear and study the arguments in favor and against the person in question.

Even so, worries of creating new norms remain untenable. The law works because it’s steady and uniform, reliable and stable. Law itself is the precedent to normative societal action. Following it isn’t novel; it’s the way things work.

Edward Snowden broke the law. And presidents can pardon lawbreakers.

Clemency for Edward Snowden would not forge a new model for law in the United States. President Obama would simply be embracing his place in a long line of executives who have used their constitutional prerogative to identify those whom they deem worthy of clemency. Presidents can exonerate lawbreakers. That’s the precedent; whether it’s a dangerous one is a question to pose to history, not to President Obama.