Thursday, June 16, 2016

Where Are We?

Where are we? This is a familiar statement uttered by travelers, children, and the occasional philosopher. The recent Netflix movie Special Correspondents examines the question from an often-comedic yet still insightful view – challenging the audience to understand how it views location and context.

Special Correspondents is the story of a New York City news radio personality and his sound technician as they set out on an unexpected and irregular journey. Frank is the news radio personality, who is introduced to the audience as he and his assistant trespass their way into the scene of a prominent murder posing as police officers in order to gather information to “scoop” the competition. He is found out by a detective who throws him out of the crime scene, from which he runs to a waiting sound van and transmits the story with the help of Ian, the trustee sound technician. Although Frank and Ian are applauded when they return to the station, Frank is dragged into his editor’s office, where he is told that he narrowly escaped being put in prison for interfering with an investigation and is on very tenuous footing. To Frank’s protests that he was too well known to be fired and that he has made many contributions to the radio station, his editor reminds him that he has never progressed beyond local radio.

Ian receives a similar dressing down from his wife, Eleanor, at a radio station gala later that night. Essentially, in her eyes he is a failure and she expected much more from him at this point in their relationship. When he has to work suddenly, Eleanor stays at the gala, where she seduces an unknowing Frank into a fling. Although Ian is unaware of his identity, he is convinced that she had an affair – this is later confirmed when she leaves.

At this point in the film, both Frank and Ian find themselves confronted with the reality that they haven’t “been anywhere” in their careers or even personal travels despite their perceived accomplishments. Within the constructs of the society they live in, Frank and Ian are bounded by geography and professional achievement.

Fate intervenes a day later, when Frank’s chagrined editor has to offer Frank the opportunity to travel to Ecuador to cover a reported governmental failure and potential coup. After pointing out that this is his chance to break out, Frank accepts the offer and calls Ian. At first, Ian is reluctant to go on the trip since he is distraught at Eleanor leaving him. Frank convinces him to break out of where he is and make the trip. However, when Ian mistakenly throws out the package with their passports, plane tickets and money, the two find themselves in a quandary. Without passports at the very least they cannot travel – without a story they cannot go back to the station without being fired.  

Despondent, they go to Ian’s favourite café – across the street from the radio station – to think the situation through. They are assisted by Brigida and Domingo, the sweetly naïve couple who own the café. We know little about them other than that they are from somewhere in Latin America, regard Ian as family and will do whatever he needs. Ian hatches an improbable plan and asks to use the spare room in the attic of the café building. Eventually, Ian unveils his idea – they do not actually have to be in Ecuador to report from Ecuador. He creates a sound effects system that reproduces the sounds generally associated with Ecuador and with unrest – bullets, tanks and screaming. Frank then steps in to create the story. At first the stories simply echo what was known to them when they left for the airport – civil and governmental unrest. Soon, however, the stories become far more elaborate tales of fiction than anything grounded in fact. They captivate the listening public – and indeed other media outlets that have found their correspondents barred from entry – and are relied on for international news.

At the same time, Frank and Ian sneak out of their hiding spot for a periodic walk around the block in disguise. During one such walk, the station manager calls and requests a quick news report then and there. Thinking on the spot, Frank is able to offer an “update” while also explaining the standard background noises of New York City as coming from Ecuador. These routine noises plausibly become the noise from American television or, in the case of a delivery truck, the sound of military vehicles moving through the streets.

When Frank and Ian invent a fictitious warlord who is “driving the rebellion,” they become a concern to the US government and their editor is told to have them report to the embassy in Quito for debriefing and evacuation. In the face of this request, Frank and Ian invent their own kidnapping in order to explain their inability to access the embassy. When they finally decide that it is time to come home, Frank and Ian face the startling realization that they must sneak into Ecuador and get to the embassy in order to have a proper end to their story. In an ironic twist, they are taken hostage by bandits shortly before they arrive in Quito and fight their way free. When they arrive at the embassy they truly look the part of former hostages and are able to tell an honest tale of captivity and survival. They can finally say that they have been somewhere.

Special Correspondents challenges the audience to think about the concept of where it is and how society constructs the concept of place. According to the strictures of law, one is a resident of a certain area and is bound by the laws of a certain area – in order to travel outside of that space there are also established legal requirements, notably passports.

And yet, as the film demonstrates, using advances in technology and media it is possible for one to “be” in another place without leaving the comforts of home or being bound by the laws of that place. Frank and Ian’s antics might have been comedic but their juxtaposition between places and experiences offers profound questions as to where we think we really are and how we understand place in modern social constructs.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Is Faith The True Shibboleth? The West Wing and ‘Bible Trivia’

Religious-based persecution constitutes one of several possible reasons why people seek refugee status. In some cases, this type of persecution arises where an individual or a group converts to a new faith and adopts a new religious identity. The consequence of this ‘departure’ from their original faith may include persecution involving persistent harassment, physical violence and/or imprisonment. Such persons face many challenges in obtaining refugee status. Included amongst these challenges is being able to establish that they are genuine followers of the new religious faith that they have adopted. How do individuals prove their bona fide status as members of the religious community to which they have joined? What facts and evidence must claimants advance to convince an appropriate decision-maker of the legitimacy of their claim?

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that British immigration officials have engaged in “Bible trivia” with respect to claimants arguing that they were persecuted on account of being converts to Christianity. As set out in a recent report published by the Asylum Advocacy Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group For International Freedom of Religion or Belief, such claimants have had to demonstrate that they are true believers by answering a number of questions about Christianity. They were posed questions such as: Can you name the twelve apostles? When is Pentecost? How many books are in the Bible? Who betrayed Jesus to the Romans?

The Report articulates the following criticism about this approach to ascertaining the legitimacy of claimants’ faith: “Whilst they may seem reasonable, this report reveals that such questions, often referred to as “Bible trivia”, are a very poor way of assessing a conversion asylum claim and result in wrong decisions and expensive appeals.” It then begs the following question – what are more appropriate questions?

This very issue came into sharp relief on The West Wing during its second season (Episode 8). The West Wing was a popular television (which still carries a following) depicting the trials and tribulations of the fictional U.S. presidency of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his administration. The episode entitled “Shibboleth” is set around Thanksgiving. A boat of roughly 100 Chinese migrants reaches the United States. Those on board claim asylum on the basis of religious persecution in connection with their belief in and practice of Christianity. Due in part to pressure by Christian political activists in the United States, the administration considers whether to grant refugee status. However, there are suspicions that the asylum-seekers are merely feigning belief in Christianity to secure refugee status and remain in the United States. President Bartlet, a devout and practicing Roman Catholic himself, makes the decision to interview one of the asylum-seekers to determine the veracity of the asylum-seekers’ claims to be Christian. As convenience would have it, Bartlet interviews a college professor who speaks English fluently enough to carry on a conversation without the assistance of an interpreter. Leaving aside the rather incredible and extremely unlikely scenario of a United States president having the time to conduct such an interview instead of an immigration official, the dialogue that transpires between Bartlet and the asylum-seeker is instructive and touches upon the above-mentioned report’s criticisms.

The following is a clip from the episode which depicts Bartlet’s interview with the asylum-seeker (the interview begins at roughly the two minute mark):

As can be seen, Bartlet begins the conversation by legitimately asking the asylum-seeker how he practices his faith and other basic facts related to such practice. He then shifts the conversation by asking the names of Jesus’ apostles. After naming them, the claimant then states the following: “Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world. ‘For we hold that man is justified by faith alone,’ is what St. Paul said. ‘Justified by faith alone.’ Faith is the true…shibboleth.”

This scene illustrates both a combination of what is at least partially crucial to understanding whether a person is a member of the claimed faith group and what is less relevant. While it is important to assess the credibility of claimants and the veracity of their claims (by examining their practices and beliefs in addition to any inconsistencies in their stories), the recitation of ‘trivial’ facts about the religion is not central to determining whether someone is a true and genuine believer. As the Report observes, one of the British government’s Asylum Policy Instructions suggests that “knowledge tests ‘are liable to establish nothing more than the ability to absorb factual information’ and be ‘based on the interviewing officer’s subjective perception of what a convert should know.’” Instead, the Policy suggests that there “should be a focus on the personal beliefs and behaviour of the claimant and directs government interviewers to use open-ended questions to facilitate exploration of the claimant’s personal experiences and their journey to their new faith.” (Report, p.24)

The rather brief interview Bartlet conducts provides both an illustration of the better type of questioning, which explores the personal experiences and modes of actual religious practice as well as the rather less valuable form, which delves into trivial information. Even though the asylum-seeker is able to answer the question regarding the number of Jesus’ apostles, he stresses that such knowledge is not what is crucial to demonstrating the veracity of his faith.

Just as an aside, while this interview ultimately works in the favour of the asylum-seekers, we might want to reflect on the problematic nature of the process depicted in the scene. The college professor whom Bartlet interviews serves as a representative of the entire group. However, it is eminently possible that on a transoceanic voyage involving scores of migrants, some on that ship may not be bona fide refugees. Due to the college professor’s credible performance, they are all viewed as worthy. Equally problematic would be an instance where the college professor failed to prove to Barlet that he was a genuine Christian and every other migrant on the ship is tarred by the same determination even if some are otherwise genuine Christians being persecuted as they claim to be. This mass refusal based on the testimony of one person would amount to mass punishment. But I digress, it’s only television after all.

It is worth reading the Report’s findings in greater detail to understand some of the other challenges religious asylum-seekers face in these circumstances. This includes instances where a government interviewer’s own perceptions of how adherents of a particular religion or sect might typically practice their faith in a specific culture lead to erroneous assumptions that such practice might be universal to all or most other adherents of that faith. The failure of the claimant to provide facts that support the interviewer’s presumptions may lead to a negative assessment of the claimant’s credibility. 

Other problems also arise where, unlike the case of the asylum-seeker in The West Wing episode, others need the assistance of an interpreter. There may be legitimate concerns with some interpreters who fail to employ the proper terminology or use different vocabulary in conveying the claimant’s answers. Conflicts may emerge where the interpreter is not of the same faith community as the claimant and is thus not familiar with some of the religious terms employed. Furthermore, the interpreter may even belong to the same faith community as those who have persecuted or threatened the claimant with persecution. In The West Wing scene, the claimant could speak enough English and had sufficient knowledge of the proper terminology to demonstrate to Bartlet his bona fides as a Christian.

Interviews with immigration officials or examinations before an immigration judge or tribunal adjudicator will tend to be longer and more extensive than what we see in The West Wing (for obvious reasons). Nevertheless, the show hits upon a legitimate criticism that the Asylum Advocacy Group and All-Party Parliamentary Group address in their Report. Assessing the veracity of one’s faith must reach beyond interrogating the limitations of a claimant’s knowledge of trivial information. Indeed, evaluating a claimant’s grasp of the number of Jesus’ apostles and questions of a similar ilk undermines the humanitarian goals of the Refugee Convention
A special thanks to JiHyun Youn for providing editorial assistance on this post.  
All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, "Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds" (A Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, 2016), online:   
Harriet Sherwood, "Refugees seeking asylum on religious grounds quizzed on 'Bible trivia'" The Guardian (7 June 2016), online:

Friday, June 3, 2016

Reordering Society in Emergencies

Regardless the system involved, there is an order to societies no matter where they are located or who comprises them. Sometimes this order is democratic, sometimes it is undemocratic, but order is necessary to preserve the functioning of society. However, in any situation and any society the order can change. The film The Finest Hours demonstrates how quickly societies can reorder themselves during times of emergency.

The Finest Hours is the fictionalized version of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker sailing off the coast of Massachusetts. The Pendleton finds herself at sea during an intense winter storm. In the opening scenes, Ray Sybert, the Pendleton’s senior engineer, is seen toiling in the bowels of the ship, attempting to maintain the her safety in the storm. He sends an imploring message to the ship’s captain to slow down the Pendleton’s sailing speed to ride out the storm. Sybert’s pleas are unheeded and the Pendleton maintains a higher speed, although Sybert clearly realizes that the captain might have signed the death warrant for the ship. Those who work with Sybert in the ship’s engines not only understand his reasons for wanting less speed but also can see manifestations of the pressure the ship is under, especially along the seams of the hull. During a particularly intense patch of sea, the hull splits along these seams, partially flooding the lower deck. Sybert decides to slow the ship’s speed regardless of the captain’s orders – a significant maritime taboo. Soon Sybert learns that there will be no reprimand for him – the Pendleton has split in two, with the captain and the communications tower capsizing and sinking into the night before the eyes of Sybert and the remaining crew.

After witnessing the doomed half of the Pendleton sink, the crewmembers come to the realization that they are alone in the Atlantic. Sybert returns to the engines, knowing that a flood in the engine room will disable all power to the remaining portion of the Pendleton and cause it to sink as well. He is brought out of the engine room when a fight occurs between crewmembers who are panicked. One crewmember tries to convince the crew that the best course of action is to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats – to a clear-headed person a course of action that would be fatal given the size of the lifeboats and the size of the waves. Another crewmember cautions against this, maintaining that the best course of action is to stay on the Pendleton and try to find help. Until this point Sybert is regarded as the ship’s recluse, who stays below deck and would rather spend time with the ship than with his crewmates. However, he emerges from the engine room to mediate the fight and explains to the crew why taking to the lifeboats would be fatal and how to save themselves – by staying on the Pendleton and trying to steer her onto the shore, essentially beaching the ship and waiting for help. Sybert’s argument convinces the crew and from that point on he becomes the de facto captain of the remains of the Pendleton.

At the same time, the nearest Coast Guard station, at Chatham, Massachusetts, becomes aware that the Pendleton has broken in two and that another oil tanker, the SS Fort Mercer in the vicinity has suffered a similar fate. News of the Fort Mercer reaches the Coast Guard station at Chatham first, and the commanding officer of the station sends what appears to be a seasoned team of Coast Guard members to assist the survivors. A debate ensues over the best route to sea in the storm since accessing the sea from Chatham means either going over or around the Chatham bar, a notoriously difficult area for sailors to traverse. The seasoned team decides to go around the bar – a longer route but seemingly more prudent in the storm.

The main voice advocating a course directly over the Chatham bar belongs to Bernie Webber, a younger officer in the Coast Guard team. Webber is a Cape Cod local, genial, soft-spoken and shy, who is liked by his fellow Coast Guard members but not necessarily respected as a leading voice. He also is still suffering from the memory of a previous rescue attempt during a similar storm in which he was unable to reach the crew of a ship in distress before the ship sunk. Indeed, he has a visible reminder of this failure every day since Richard Livesey, one of his fellow Coast Guard officers, had a brother on the doomed ship and is clearly resentful of Webber.

With the seasoned crew assisting the Fort Mercer, Webber finds himself presented with the opportunity to save those onboard the Pendleton. His crewmembers consist of Livesey and two young sailors, including one who was new to the area. Webber still maintains that the best path is over the bar and, despite his ill feelings about his brother’s death, Livesey agrees. Before they set out, a group of old fishermen pull Webber aside and tell him that there would be no shame in saying he tried to get over the bar but could not. He thanks them, says he will keep the advice in mind and then leaves with no intention of playing the coward. Once at sea, Livesey has the ability to watch Webber captain a ship and understands that he would have done anything possible to save the ship on which Livesey’s brother died. Throughout the course of their ordeal to get to the Pendleton, Livesey comes to regard Webber as not only a good man but also a true captain, changing the dynamics of their relationship and cementing Webber as a leader.

What ensues is a nightmarish trip to the Pendleton that constantly threatens to capsize the ship, while on the Pendleton the conditions are constantly deteriorating. On both ships the unwitting captains struggle to maintain their vessels and their crews as well as in their own confidence as leaders. Each faces the realization that he might have led his crew into false hope of survival and each fears that he might not be able to achieve his goals. And yet, these fears are allayed for Webber when his ship cross the Chatham bar and reach the Pendleton and for Sybert when a rescue ship arrives to save his crew from the increasingly lifeless frame of the Pendleton. Ultimately, Webber breaks the rules and takes the entire remaining crew of the Pendleton onboard his ship although it was designed to hold far less people. He also disregards a direct order to attempt to take the Pendleton’s crew further out to sea to liaise with another ship, instead realizing that the safest course is to head back to shore. All onboard make it to Chatham safely.

The Finest Hours presents portraits of two men who under normal circumstances were content in their quiet lives as part of a larger apparatus – the Pendleton and the Coast Guard. It is clear that Sybert and Webber are good men and take their jobs very seriously but neither of them is a leader and the society in which they work does not seem them as such. For each of them there is a higher authority in the chain of command that must be followed even if he disagrees with it.

And yet, when a dire situation ensues, each man emerges as a leader of his respective society due to many of the same traits that made him merely a part of it before – knowledge of essential skills, quiet and calm in the face of fear, and a lack of ego. In a crisis, both societies turn to someone who can be a knowledgeable force of action. Society, in this sense, reorders itself around the person that can save it and inspire it through actions rather than words or commands alone.