The Red Alert
The Red Alert

Mac McClelland

Author, For Us Surrender is Out of the Question: A story from Burma's never-ending war

(July 2010)

Interview by Adam McKibbin

 

In her short but increasingly impressive career as an author and journalist, Mac McClelland has proven repeatedly that she has a knack for finding the untold stories.  As a human rights reporter and blogger for the magnificent Mother Jones, she’s written on everything from gay rights to the struggle to buy American to the censorship of M.I.A. videos.  Lately, she’s made a name for herself as one of the top go-to sources for reporting on the BP oil spill, breaking stories about cops on the corporate payroll, braving crazy Tea Party gatherings and presenting readers with heartbreaking personal stories from the field.

 

When it comes to largely untold and unknown tales, few call out for attention in the same way as the ongoing tumult in Burma, which is the subject of McClelland’s illuminating book For Us Surrender is Out of the Question.  Given the relative lack of U.S. involvement (though of course America is never out of the picture entirely) and the fact that Burma has been in a sort of perpetual state of turmoil, the story isn’t an easy sell for American audiences.  But McClelland takes the right approach, writing in an atypically strong, funny and deeply personal voice as she recounts her six weeks in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, introducing readers to a cast of characters who are as lively and likable as their narratives are horrifying and infuriating.  From this base, McClelland – with intensely meticulous fact-checking – broadens out to provide just the right amount of context for a war without end.

 

Your book is set over a period of six weeks.  Had you planned all along to document your time, along with the research you’d done beforehand, or was there an “ah-ha!” moment while you were there?

I actually became a magazine writer, starting as an intern, and the reason I sort of forced myself into the magazine industry was specifically so I could write the book.  I had not gone there with the intention of writing about it, but I was taking a lot of notes because I thought what everyone was talking about was so interesting.  The reason that I did the research before I left – you know, I’m from the Midwest and I went to Catholic school, so I do my fucking homework.  So I did that for my own personal background.  After I got there and talked to everybody and realized that this insanely bloody war was going on – and I was having such a hard time finding information about it – at that point, I realized I needed to write a book about it.  I thought not just that the information was good, but that the characters were good.  I mean, I love those guys, they’re just the best.

 

The Wall Street Journal reviewed your book alongside three others on the topic of Burmese rebels.  For someone for whom your book serves as a gateway to learning about the situation in Burma, where would you direct them next?

One of my favorite Burma books is Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps.  That is a really good book about the history of Burma; he’s basically the Burmese history scholar, and he writes in a very engaging way, even though it’s basically straight history.

 

As far as the press goes, who do you think has done the best job?  You mention the Washington Post as one of the publications that has shown some commitment.

They have – by a very low bar.  [Laughs]  They’ve actually devoted a couple of op-eds and did some frontpage website stuff several years ago, which nobody else was doing.  In the last year and a half, the New York Times has actually been following Burma a little bit more because of the elections coming up in October.  But if you want to know what’s actually going on, definitely the best papers are exile papers coming out of Southeast Asia.  The coverage in American media is so, so rare, and it’s often not contextual enough for someone who’s just walking in.  I read The Irrawaddy every day, which is written by Burmese exiles.  That’s more Burma coverage than a normal person who wasn’t totally obsessed with the country would want, but even if you just want to check in, those papers are by far the best resource.

 

I actually read an article in The Irrawaddy recently about the upcoming election.  While I think everybody acknowledges that the forecast is pretty bleak, that story was trying to find the silver lining: “this is the beginning of something.”  What do you think is the most likely scenario to unfold?

I’m with the pessimists on this one.  I think the chances that this election is going to open a lot of doors for change – even if that is true, that would be a very, very long-term change that, frankly, given the situation on the ground, people on the ground can’t afford opening the doors to a 20-year plan.  Not that I think that any of those theoretical doors will even be opened.  The Times did a story like that, too, where they were like, “Hey, they’re going to have elections!  This could be a way forward.”  Foreign Policy ran something like that, too.  Given how little the world understands about Burma, I think that those kinds of articles actually do a disservice to understanding what’s going on in the country, because it sorts of downplays the violence and oppression that is happening there all the time – and it makes it easy for you to read it and think “Oh, good for them!  OK, that’s probably going to resolve itself.”  And it makes it even easier to forget about – when it already is one of the easiest things to forget about because it’s so far removed from us.  And they’ve taken polls in Burma and nobody in Burma believes that this is going to be a way forward for them.

 

The Obama administration has had some go-nowhere “pragmatic engagement” talks – which did mark a break from the isolationist philosophy of the Bush years, which also was certainly ineffective.  If you had the president’s ear, what would you ask him to consider?  It seems like we don’t have a lot of leverage.

You’re right – we don’t have any leverage, because we’ve been isolating them for so long.  We don’t even have money that we can say we’re going to pull it.  We already have sanctions.  Burma doesn’t need our money anyway.  So we’ve sort of run out of threats with them.  The engagement is a really nice idea, but that sort of engagement really doesn’t work without leverage, right?  “Hey, guys, I’d really like it if you would do this thing.  No?  OK, glad we talked!”  Like the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic and Australia and tons of people in Congress and tons of Nobel laureates around the world, I would say that it is the Obama administration’s responsibility to push for a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in that country.  Say whatever you want about the ineffectiveness of the UN – and I am probably right behind you on that – but it’s at least a step forward to getting peacekeepers on the ground, for example.

 

Right now, we’re not doing anything at all.  Members of our own government are saying we really need to push for this commission of inquiry, because that has to happen before anything else can happen.  Even that stuff, with all that bureaucracy, can take years to make any difference – but the Obama administration won’t even go so far as to say to the Security Council “I think maybe we should look into this.”  That’s kind of an abomination.  He had campaign promises about Burma.  He made these really weird threats.  I don’t know if you listened to his Nobel acceptance speech, but he said there “must be consequences” for the oppression in Burma and he hoped that government, like a couple of other shady governments, will make the right choices so that the United States doesn’t have to consider armed intervention?  As though that’s a thing we would ever do in that case.

 

But celebrities spoke out!  I watched a few videos that you mention in the book, and my favorite YouTube comment was on the Tila Tequila one: “Fuck! They tricked us into learning!”  That’s something that Nick Kristof has talked about with getting an audience to care about Africa – he has to kind of trick them.  He hasn’t gone as far as Tila and stripped in front of a classroom…

That would be awesome.  And gross.

 

It would be both of those things.  So with your book – which is written more in the style of a smart friend than a stodgy historian – how much was that a factor?  Knowing you needed to snag an audience that may not normally be interested in the topic.

That was definitely a conscious decision.  I’m a sneaky motherfucker.  I don’t want to read something that’s really boring, so I assume other people don’t want to read things that are really boring.  I had to read so many books in order to write this book, and most of it was torture.  [Laughs]  There are a million reasons why people don’t give a shit about Burma, and some of them are totally valid – it’s really far away, we have other things to worry about, et cetera – but the fact that there was nothing that was easy to read, I think that’s part of the problem.  You can’t learn about it unless you make this intense, concerted effort – and most people are just not going to do that for this obscure country in Southeast Asia.  I definitely wanted it to be easy to read.  I wanted it to be what I wanted to read when I was looking for information.

 

The book has gotten really positive reviews, but some of the negative reviews I’ve read were from places that you’d think would be on board with that approach.

The Washington Post review was kind of condescending – they said I wrote like a seasoned blogger, which is not necessarily an insult, but I think was meant as an insult.  [Laughs]

 

The whole idea that a “fuck” here or there undercuts the urgency of the situation seems very, very strange to me.  But I guess I’m your target audience.

Yeah, that was definitely a risk, and it was part of the problem when I was shopping the manuscript, actually.  People either loved it or they hated it.  The people who hated it would write back these scathing rejections to my agent, like “The language and the tone and the voice and the style – we hate.  Totally inappropriate.”  Somebody called me scathing.  But the last thing I wanted to do was compromise; that’s how those guys talk.  What, I’m not going to talk about beer at all, even though beer was there 90 percent of the time, because then I’m not going to be taken seriously?  To me, it does make it easier to engage with, but my dad owned a trucking company, so there’s been a lot of swearing in my whole life.

 

There’s also a sexual dynamic that runs intermittently throughout – curiosity about your lifestyle, cultural differences in kissing, and so on – and I think that to have left that out would have left smart readers wondering whether it existed.

Yeah, it would have been dishonest to censor the experience, and what they were really like and what our interactions were really like.

 

You received research support from a pair of investigative journalism funds.  One of the big unanswered questions, of course, about the new Huffington Post face of journalism is… who will actually do the reporting?  Who will be responsible for accuracy?  From your vantage point, how does the journalism glass look?

Well, here’s my bias, because I happen to work at a non-profit magazine that has always been half-donation, half-advertisement.  So the model that people are just now finding unsustainable of counting on advertising dollars is actually something that we’ve never done.  Now a lot of people are saying that it’s going to have to be subsidized, either privately or even federally.  We get a lot of grants, and other people are going to have to get grants, too – or really, really engaged billionaires who feel like throwing money at it.  It could become kind of a charity.  I had a fact-checker, which cost me twelve thousand dollars.  I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t had the support of those two organizations, and they couldn’t give that support were it not for a whole bunch of donations; those are total non-profits.  I won’t be surprised if it ends up that journalism has to be funded by generosity and by subsidies.  It could be a good thing – or it could be a bad thing. 

 

In your book, you write about being in the camp and raising money from your friends back home to buy Htan Dah papers that will change his life – and how a little bit of American money can routinely go such a long way.  Knowing that, was it a struggle to reacclimate?  I spent over a thousand bucks last weekend to fly across the country for a wedding; I know that money could have found nobler use.  How do you keep a healthy balance?

I was going to say, it’s definitely a balance.  I don’t think it’s so much of a reacclimation as just sort of accepting that you’re going to carry that around.  You even saying that – for 99 percent of people, that wouldn’t occur to them.  That’s a very unique perspective that you have and apparently walk around the world with.  It’s a little bit worse when you come back from a refugee camp; it’s something you never shake.  My fact-checker Leigh and I still, every time we talk to each other when one of us is having some sort of drama or issue, both of us will say “And I know other people have real problems in the world, and this is better than a genocide, but I’m still really upset about this haircut.”  [Laughs]  Not that that necessarily calms you down, because it doesn’t.  But it’s a thing you learn to live with, like “OK, I’m going to have buy apples, and I kind of want to buy organic apples, so instead of spending three dollars and sending the other two to UNICEF, I’m actually going to go ahead and spend five on the organic apples I want, and then try to be helpful in some other way.”  I went to Catholic school, as I mentioned before, so I feel guilty pretty much all the time anyway, so that’s not that big of a change.

 

Closing with a softball:  Since we also cover a lot of music on the site, I’m wondering about the music that tends to accompany you on your travels.  I saw one reference to songs from Aladdin.

[Laughs]  When you spend as much time huffing gas and talking to crying people as I have been lately, sometimes you need showtunes from Disney.  I’ve been listening to our evacuation CDs; I used to live in New Orleans and we were evacuated for like four months, obviously, and my friends and I were spread all around the United States, so I was making them CDs as sort of greeting cards.  That’s actually what I have been listening to most of the time that I’ve been driving around here in Louisiana.  Obviously “When the Levee Breaks” is on one of those CDs.  Obviously!  New Pornographers’ “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism.”  An Erasure cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” – because I think I’m funny.  “Bloodletting” by Concrete Blonde.  And then some crazy, horrible Romanian disco just to keep it from getting too depressing.  [Laughs]