Finding Focus

Writing local journalism requires watching a lot of meetings. I understand that democracy is a time consuming, labor intensive process. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Recently, it’s felt draining. 

The need for absolutely everyone – even people with no relationship to the items being discussed – to throw in their two cents worth of self righteous indignation is tedious. It also takes away time that could be spent listening to people who are directly impacted. 

No, it’s not just those people, it’s y’all. All y’all. The more strident and angry the comments get, the more taxing it is to keep listening.

If I want to be filled with dread, scrolling through Twitter will do it. If I want to find reflections on local events framed in fourth grade level insults, that’s Facebook. People shrieking with fear and revulsion about anyone they don’t personally know, there’s NextDoor. Does it need to be IRL? I found myself in the position of wanting to just turn away. 

Then, I was reminded of Daniella Frazier. You remember her – she changed your life. 

Once upon a time, long ago, I was writing books reviews for a ‘New Age’ magazine in Santa Monica, and they invited me to contribute to an issue focused on aboriginal people. I was so excited at being ‘elevated’ from book reviewer status to feature writer, I grabbed the first idea that came to me and said I’d write about the Australian aborigines. So – 1500 words, one week deadline, sure, yes, I’ll have it. 

I was a student at Santa Monica College, so I went to their library, grabbed all the books I could find on the topic and read them back to back. (The only one worth recalling is Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines,  a masterwork on multiple topics,)  I wrote the piece and turned it in.

When the magazine came out the following week, I was amazed and horrified to find my feature had been edited to remove every reference to white settlers. It read as if some vague, existential threat had challenged the culture of the aborigines, but they were still somehow heroically present in the landscape.  The editor had no ear for my concerns. He loved my style, the depth of research, but wanted to ‘stay focused on the good, and not get sucked into negativity.’ 

Despite the fact that ‘negativity’ was a critical focus for facts central to the story. 

The culture of Culver City seems to have arrived at a similar juncture, where pointing out that something is racist is seen as being – weirdly – racist. The number of incidents where a person has noted that they feel insulted or attacked, only to have this bizarre backlash insist that calling out racism is racism, continues to rise. Like my New Age editor, how these people got to be the arbiter of these standards is – maybe, just consider it – an example of the privilege that is being noted? 

During a city council meeting on the anti-camping ordinance, a member of the city staff suggested that homeless people were not the most accurate representatives of the experience of being homeless.  May I gently suggest that perhaps they are? That we need to listen ? 

How could our local culture benefit from listening to people and allowing them to be the focus of their own experiences, rather than spending another hour listening to opinions detached from facts?  How much easier could it be if everyone with an opinion – no skin in the game, just an opinion – could listen instead of commenting? 

Being told that your behavior is racist or sexist isn’t a lethal insult. It’s a moment to consider what you say and how you say it – and how that is being heard. 

So, how did Daniella Frazier change your life?  Because of a piece of documentary footage changed the world. Her video of George Floyd being murdered by Derek Chauvin can’t have been easy to film. She could have looked away, or even just left the scene. She didn’t, and we are all more human because of her work. 

Yes, democracy is messy, out of necessity. If fewer people felt the need to share their (fact-free) opinions and allow more space for people whose own experiences are relevant to the laws being discussed, the whole process could be more productive. Finding focus can create a little more order out of the chaos, and that might even allow us the space we need for progress. 

Judith Martin-Straw





The Actors' Gang