In praise of length and depth (especially when writing about tribes)

I saw a blogpost or tweet just now which said: “who says print is dead when a Rolling Stone story can topple McChrystal?” The question misses the point. That story would have sent General McChrystal into retirement whether in print or online.

What’s significant is that the printed publication that carried the story wasn’t a daily paper but a magazine. That’s the crux: what scores is length and depth. The allocation of time and money to dig a little deeper.

Maybe Rolling Stone’s writer Michael Hastings got lucky when McChrystal’s team got stuck under the volcano ash and went out and got drunk in Paris, unleashing a string of revelatory quotations which gave the piece its kick. But I’d guess it was something more.

Hastings was quoted as saying that he was suspicious of the very good press McChrystal had been given by the newspaper reporters who had been given extensive access to him. He thought that they were perhaps going easy because they wanted stories and background in the future (useful commentary here from a correspondent who used to cover the Pentagon). Hastings, as a magazine writer, didn’t need any future with the General.

At any rate, I’ve been musing on length and depth because I’ve been thinking about tribes and the problems of writing them about them in short form. The issue was thrown into sharp relief by two books which only with these tangled subjects at book length. I raved a week or two ago about It’s Our Turn To Eat by Michela Wrong which, besides being about corruption in Kenya, lays bare the tribal structure of that country in a detail which few journalists bother to go into.

This book came back to my mind because I moved on to Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples by Christopher de Bellaigue. The author is trying to tell the story of modern Turkey from a town in the east of the country where Turkish, Armenian and Kurdish populations live uneasily together.

De Bellaigue pointed out something I had never noticed: that Hrat Dink, the Turkish editor murdered in 2007, was an Armenian. Now this was gross ignorance or poor memeory on my part because in the murder’s coverage, this fact must have been prominent. But I had always read this story in one single dimension: bravely outspoken editor gunned down for publishing an unpopular truth.

Nothing wrong with that interpretation, but it isn’t the whole picture: ethnic identities matter as well and Dink’s death hints at divisions and hatreds which Turks go to great lengths to conceal. But if one went back over the coverage in English-speaking media, I’d guess you’d find that the ethnic angle didn’t figure all that much.

What is it about tribal politics and history which takes so many words to describe? Partly it’s the number of dimensions that a reader is being asked to keep in mind. Ethnicity, religion and national feelings all overlay and complicate formal political mechanisms.

Sometimes it’s relatively simple. Northern Ireland is divided into two religiously-defined communities with opposing political aims. But in the island of Ireland, those divisions make a “double minority” problem: Protestants are a majority in Northern Ireland but would be in a minority in a united island.

In Kenya, it’s  lot more complicated: the Kikuyu versus at least a dozen other tribes. In Turkey, it looks (I’m not yet through the book) as if there are at least three dimensions.

The tribal emotions and loyalties are hard to describe or measure. They don’t fit the familiar language of votes and manoevres which is the standard discourse of political journalism. Ethnic rivalries are minefield into which most writers won’t step if they don’t have to. Lastly, there is the unfashionable aspect of tribalism or nationalism. Most reporters and foreign correspondents feel that there’s something primitive and atavistic about tribal politics and aren’t inclined to play them up – particularly when it takes so many words to describe.

Just look at the number of words it’s taken me just to outline the issue.


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