ARW: A Documentary Unit Worth Exploring
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
The vital work of our talented colleagues at American RadioWorks (ARW) is on my mind for a number of reasons. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’m reminded of their 2008 documentary, “King’s Last March.” I thought I knew a lot about the celebrated civil rights leader, but this program offers insight into his person that I haven’t heard elsewhere. It explores why a more pessimistic King chose a path of “deeper difficulty and greater risk” in his last year of life, and includes both familiar and lesser-known archival audio (check out Trent’s reflection from a few years ago for an audio example). There are many ways to reflect on the legacy of King. For me, one way is to have a better understanding of who he really was at various points in his life. This doc does that very well.
Also, as we continue to receive many thoughtful stories in response to our show with Mike Rose about the meaning of intelligence, I’m reminded of ARW’s more recent offering “Workplace U.” It’s not a university but a movement to merge workplace and classroom that may offer low-income workers more opportunity for success than traditional educational models. There’s some real-world examples here that compliment Mike Rose’s perspective.
Finally, ARW just received one of broadcast journalism’s highest honors, a 2010 duPont-Columbia award, for “What Killed Sergeant Gray” — a doc that delves into the connection between the use of torture in Iraq to PTSD in soldiers who abuse. Darius Rejali, whose expertise on the history and impact of torture we explored in “The Long Shadow of Torture” last June, is included here too.
I know I sound overly promotional here, but I would not mention these programs if I didn’t think you would find them compelling, meaningful, and complementary to some of the topics we’ve presented in the past year. They are part of the best of documentary journalism.
Rejali Reprise and Why Resistors Resist
» download (mp3, 3:19)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Recently, Krista sent around an e-mail saying she wanted to look into Darius Rejali as a possible show guest to explore the topic of torture. I was about to fire up Google when I realized I was already familiar with Rejali’s voice and ideas. Last year I worked on an American RadioWorks documentary called “What Killed Sergeant Gray” about Iraq veterans who’ve been psychologically devastated by their experiences with detainee abuse. Rejali was tapped as a voice for the program.
In that interview, as well as in his more recent conversation with Krista, I found myself drawn to his discussion of when and why people resist the group-think pressure to go along with what Rejali calls a “torture bureaucracy.” Rejali says that while these resistors haven’t been formally studied, they do seem to have in common an affiliation with a belief system — whether it’s derived from their family, religion, or a political party — that conflicts with whatever the torture bureaucracy is telling them to do.
Above is some audio from the unedited interview from the documentary in which Rejali talks more about these conflicts. Here, Rejali makes reference to French soldiers who refused to perpetrate torture during the French-Algerian war in the 1950s and early 60s. He also mentions social science experiments that would be illegal today but have taught us about the power of social situations in determining people’s propensity to obey or defy authority — specifically the famous Milgram obedience study. We decided to use some audio from the these experiments in our upcoming show.
*Thanks to American RadioWorks for permission to use this source audio and Michael Montgomery, Joshua Phillips, and Catherine Winter.
A Guest with a Personal Interest in the Torture Debate
» download (mp3, 1:00)
Trent Gilliss, online editor
As we look for guests for each show, we seek authoritative voices who not only have the expertise to speak about delicate subjects but a personal investment in that subject as well. In this week’s show, “The Long Shadow of Torture” (available via podcast on June 11), we found that voice — Darius Rejali, a professor of Political Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
He’s written several books on the topic of violence and torture, including Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran and, most recently, Torture and Democracy. In the preface to the latter, Rejali writes about his personal stake on this subject:
Perhaps as a child, I was more disposed to thinking differently about violence than others. My relation to violence was more intimate. On my Iranian side, royal autocrats in my family had no difficulty ordering torture or genocide when it served their interests. Stories of their deeds are, to say the least, unforgettable. On my American side, we remember General Sherman’s march through Georgia. In September 1864, as cannons shelled Atlanta, my ancestor, Harriet Yarbrough, dug a hole in a bank and hid there with her two children. Afterward, she was one of 446 families who stayed behind; she had opposed the war passionately from the outset, but when Union soldiers destroyed the Yarbrough home for firewood, that was the last straw. Undaunted by the situation in which she found herself, she went to find Sherman and unleashed all her fury at him. It did no good, and the site of her home is now part of Olympic Park. She filed for reimbursement from the War Department, and pursued the claim until 1891. She never forgot.
Being an Iranian aristocrat — American Southerner, a Shiite Muslim — Calvinist with a keen sense of history, presents unique intellectual and moral challenges. If you had told me early in childhood that I would write a book on Iranian torture — as I did — I would not have believed you. And I am just as surprised, I think, that this new book is also on torture.
But it seems my family’s tales of the dark side of human life have put me in a good position to understand where we find ourselves today. Exactly a hundred years ago, my Iranian great-grandfather fought to defend his autocratic way of life. He did not hesitate to turn cannons on crowds or torture people he considered terrorists and anarchists. His opponents said, there you see, his way of life is a sham, and these people disguise barbaric force behind high-minded talk of honorable values. And who was to say they were wrong? For if honorable men cannot fight fairly and win, who on earth are they, and what do they represent? In the end no one, except a handful of sycophants, mourned the passing of his way of life.
A hundred years later, believers in democracy seem to be ready to make the same mistake as my autocratic ancestor, and I am here to urge them not to. I hope I have written a story that makes us take a second look at ourselves as we enter a new century primed to treat our enemies inhumanely.