Monday, January 19, 2015
A new year
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
It's 2015. The year has begun clandestinely, as have I. The days suddenly feel lighter, and full of possibility. Even as I say this, I feel performative. After all, how can the beginning of a year be anything but full of possibility? Beginnings are where we take a measure of ourselves, and our world, and speak aloud of all the things we will accomplish in the year and the ways in which we will not end December on a note of things we could have done, a list of 'almosts'.
I almost wrote a book once, I might say.
I almost saw a leopard once. This was at Yala National Park. We had been driving around for a few hours on a late December afternoon. The sun was going down. Much like other urban tourists, we were there in the hope of our big prize, a leopard sighting. Under the watchful eyes of a guide whose last name was Don, we scoured the grounds seeking signs of the famed park dweller. The sun went down, and we were almost ready to leave disappointed when Mr.Don signaled to indicate that all hope was not lost yet. We veered away from the other vehicles and turned onto a long stretch of road by a swamp to wait by a tree. Somewhere across the pond, we could hear the cries of deer. The cries came intermittently, growing louder, and then fainter. The guide, the driver, and my companion and I sat quietly as we were gradually enveloped by darkness. The quality of that waiting is difficult to capture. The leopard was at its prey, a few metres away even as we waited for it to emerge. Things were so quiet. Every now and then, a faint cry broke through dusk. We sat in silence, sharing the same hope, and I suppose, the same sorrow. A deer might be killed. The leopard might go hungry. Only one of two things would happen.
Of course, while everyone comes to Yala to see leopards, I had also wanted to come to see where the tsunami had swept away people. Having read Sonali Deraniyagala's incredibly brave memoir of loss and pain, "Wave", I was drawn to this remote outpost that had witnessed the events she speaks so poignantly about. Many years ago, my graduate class and I survived an earthquake but had been far enough to feel its effects only perfunctorily. To this day, the only memory I have of this event is of feeling like perhaps the dog had hidden under my bed. That, and a faint visual memory of the earth heaving like waves.
So at the place that still bore signs of the giant wave, we waited for the leopard to show. I meditated on that uncanny quiet evening upon loss, and fear, and darkness. No leopard came. I'd like to think that the deer got away.
As I looked through my notes on Yala to remember the details of a year ago, I squinted at my diary and at my faint notes. I remember being at a hotel room outside Yala later that night playing with a black and white kitten that pulled at my hand as I tried unsuccessfully to write. Swatting it with one hand, I had grabbed a blunt pencil with the other and jotted down as much as I could recall from the day. This was why the notes were faint; first the kitten, and then the pencil.
Does anyone write with pencils anymore? I have always thought that the humble instrument only serves artists, architects, schoolchildren and of course, as the answer to that tired old question about innovative low-tech solutions for space travel.
A few months ago, I wrote a column about writing letters. Deciding to take my own advice, I hunted for foolscap sheets and finding none, I turned the house upside down. I was rewarded for my efforts with a box of fine pencils. I know that my some kind person had found these for me from a trip to Germany long years ago. Such beautiful inventions, I thought. Fine tipped, lean, and so full of promise, albeit a quiet kind.
I am currently reading Steinbeck's "Journal of a Novel". Steinbeck pencils daily letters to his editor even as he crafts "East of Eden" and also writes lovingly of the tools of his craft, pencils. He changes pencils, finds favorites, and remarks specifically on how useful his indulgent purchase of an electric sharpener has been. I marvel at how prolific he is, writing letters about his book even as he writes his book. I also marvel at his object attachments that lead to such immense productivity. Mine only lead to hoarding. But then, I console myself, Steinbeck has his Vera. On most days, I am neither Nabokov nor Vera. What I am is a fine procrastinator.
Every other day, as I tend to my almost-book, I organize my notes, adjust my chair and sink into it in repose, imagining my picture on the inside cover of a book dust jacket. Keeping in mind the advice of other infinitely more published friends, I look off-camera. These important details squared away, I knit my brows at the difficult business of finding actual content, and desperately seek the next distraction. Today, it's pencils.
My handwriting when writing with pencils is terrible. It often tears through paper and can be very uneven. It tells me the truth that I do not want to acknowledge, that I am heavy-handed. Pencils should be held like the edge of a kite string. I am also terrible at flying kites.
I like sharpening pencils though, and I like making flowers out of the delicate whorls of pencil shavings. Flowers such as these would make beautiful New Year greeting cards I think. But then, we do not send cards anymore either. New Year rituals long years ago included the bulk purchase of UNESCO or CRY greeting cards, the hunt for black leather address books, and wintery afternoon sessions of writing out in long hand names, wishes, and hopes for acquaintances, and friends at large. These years, New Year rituals include escaping from everybody at large.
In further procrastination, I return to Steinbeck and I make notes with a newly sharpened pencil. Confidently, I draw out these tentative, and hesitating observations by the side of his carefully ordered sentences. Pen marks are loud and pushy. Pencil marks merely engage, and in such self-effacing ways at that. The pleasure of writing on the margins of books is really quite singular. Susan Sontag writes of the pleasures of writing aloud. I hate it. I much prefer this silent interlocution with a silent author. For long years, I couldn't write in books, believing that I was defacing them. Writing in pencil helps, because surely pencil marks can be erased? Things can rarely be erased these days. We leave signs of our presence everywhere and all signs are under observation. There is no starting over. Our histories are in code, and all our secret pleasures open to scrutiny. We must not write anymore except when things we write are not worth scrutiny. Perhaps, writing with pencils might make for a good New Year resolution. But resolutions are a tired old game. Everything about our craven craving for order at the beginning of the year comes already exposed and foiled in the shape of resolutions.
So yes, we are in a new year. What is the New Year, but the old in another guise? Except, as any good post-structuralist will tell you, guises are all we have. Happy new year folks.
Bill Hudson. Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963.
"... Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson is perhaps best known for capturing this galvanizing image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama on May 3, 1963; a three column-spanning version of the shocking photo ran above the fold in The New York Times the following day."
"When a group of young women in rural Georgia were placed under lock and key after protesting segregation at the local library, photos like the one above, which was snapped through the bars by new journalism pioneer Danny Lyon, helped secure their release."
by Leanne Ogasawara
I never really understood the expression, "drank the Kool-Aid" --until I went to Jerusalem. It happened at the Western Wall, where I found myself standing in a very long line to the ladies' restroom. The young woman ahead of me turned around to look intently into my eyes as she spoke of her love of Jesus Christ. Talking blissfully of her savior, she told me a bit about the evangelic church tour she was on. Those tours don't spend all that much time in Jerusalem, she explained, for their focus is up in the north, where Jesus had his ministry along the Sea of Galilee. Rarely stopping in churches either; they don't acknowledge their Orthodox and Catholic counterparts as co-brethren.
I was not so surprised by what she said, since the Via Dolorosa had been filled that week with Orthodox pilgrims from Russia; along with Catholics from Africa and southern India and Indonesia. It was a more eastern Christian church along the stations and in the Sepulchre. It was an unfamilar Christianity for an American in many ways, in fact.
What I found disturbing was not what she was saying but by the strange look she had in her shining eyes. So deeply committed to the point of tearing up as she spoke--she appeared almost alngelic in her religious certainty. It scared the hell out of me...
American novelist Robert Stone died a few days ago. I rarely read North American fiction and to be honest, I had only just discovered his work--having been recently really impressed by his novel Damascus Gate.
The reviews uniformly mentioned that Damascus Gate was peopled by Stone's usual cast of "outcasts." Searching for meaning beyond the practical concerns of family, corporate job and mortgage, they are characters who reject "what most people want." And searching for personal meaning, his characters drift toward dangerous places--particularly in the third world, where they are taken up in revolutionary activities or get mixed up with all manner of religious nutcases.
And speaking of religious fanatics I am reading a really interesting book about the terrifying alliance between Christian Zionists and Jewish Zionists in Israel. I am a big fan of Victoria Clark and I really like this book of hers as well.
The title says it all, I think: Allies for Armageddon. I couldn't really find many reviews online, but the topic is a similar one as taken up by Stone in Damascus Gate, in which Christian fundamentalists are shown trying to achieve the Second Coming by funding and collaborating with Jewish nationalists to blow up al Aqsa on Temple Mount. (For anyone not following their "logic," the Second Coming cannot be realized unless the Temple is re-built and the temple cannot be re-built unless the Dome of the Rock is cleared to make way for it. Their reasons are so tenuous and shaky that I couldn't really spell them out any better than simply to state, this is what they think for some reason). In the novel by Stone, the alliance is specifically with American Fundamentalist groups and Israeli politicians of the Likud persuasion.
In both books, the Fundamentalists are foaming at the mouth to "force the hand of God." These are no mere crusaders aiming to control the Holy City and bring back relics, but rather these people are serious millenarians in the 17th century tradition. In fact, Clark traces a fairly straight line from the beliefs of the founding Puritans straight down to Christian Zionists today, such Falwell, Robertson, and Hal Lindsey.
In Stone's novel however, these two factions (Christian and ultra Jewish Zionists) are too wily to do their own work-- and instead use a group of spiritual seekers to do it. Typical Stone characters, the seekers are wandering the world in search of personal meaning --but being isolated and adrift they have no idea what they are doing. Putty in the hands of the Zionists, they become pawns. They are too unmoored to have any common sense. But how religious were the Boston bombers or the murderers in Paris? As with the terrorists on the planes in NYC, the more you read about them, the less grounded in religion they appear--more like isolated outsiders in a novel...
Of believers of millenarian philosophy, Clark writes this:
Dreams of obtaining a thousand-year heaven on earth by way of a comprehensive cataclysm have tended to flourish whenever a society's values are changing and old structures breaking down, wherever peace, security and happiness are at a premium. The typical millenarian dream assuages feelings of incomprehension and powerlessness by converting them into a sharply focused trust in supernatural intervention.
Sometimes a nut is just a nut. But when these fundamentalist nuts are manipulated by political leaders (by the Saudis or Israeli politicians seeking to remain in power or whoever), it starts getting scary. It has nothing to do with particular religions, peoples or race but everything to do with nationalism and politics, I would say. For as Zizek asks, are the worst of the religious nutters really full of passionate intensity?
The cartoons were never my cup of tea-- and I have no strong opinion (or even real understanding) of the slogan je suis CH. That said, however, I hate to see humor go the way of play in our socity. As a friend of this blog, Justin Smith justly states,
We are living in such an image-critically illiterate age that jihadists in France and professors in American universities alike are entirely unable to interpret the Charlie Hebdo cartoons beyond a dull, clerical registering of the content of the images. There has been virtually no effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature. The attackers say "These images are an insult to the Prophet and they must be avenged," and the social-media activists say, "Um, these images are racist, and that's not OK," but the critical skills at work in both cases are roughly the same. I certainly will not defend all of them, though I do think many are works of true inspiration. They have little in common with the hack work in the Danish newspapers (to which the great Art Spiegelman gave generally low grades) that set off this brutal campaign against cartoonists some years ago.
While I won't defend them all, I believe it is crucial for society to provide what we might think of as 'satirist insurance', which would grant the people who play this vital role the freedom to misfire, and not to be thrown to the lions when they do. It is their job to explore the boundary between biting social commentary and offense. They are not politicians, and they should not be held up to the same standards.
I couldn't agree more and really loved his piece. So therefore, standing up with play, humor and art against the modern condition of prosaic efficiency, utilitarianism and "the hell of the literal, I want to send out my hope that Salman Rushdie wins the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It's high time he wins it-- and what a year it would be to do it.
Images by artist Meg Hitchcock (Top image are letters cut from Rushdie's Satanic Verses) /Video here where artist discusses fundamentalism and art as the True Religion
What Makes An Incubator Tick?
It’s been three days and our eight teams are already up, pitching for their lives. Watching them from the front row is a series of mentors we’ve curated, from areas like branding, user interface design, product development, technology, business and investing. There’s a tug between the mentors and the startups underway -- criticism and backtalk, kicking the tires and trash-talking the car, defending its value and selling its golden possibilities.
Startup mentoring is a lot like teaching, supervising, consulting, parenting -- plus maybe running a cult retreat. It can’t happen without a deep and personal bond between the mentor and mentee. That relationship usually arises accidentally, through life circumstances, working relationships and chance meetings. Here we were engineering that relationship into existence, several entities and multiple individuals at a time.
In the run up to our first day, my main goal was to ensure that I made a personal connection with each cofounder. Without this central relationship gelling, the whole thing would fall apart, fall away. In the weeks leading up to the launch of Startup Tunnel I’d been taking long winter walks, doing yoga and actively working on clearing my thoughts to make space for this set of startups and their many needs. I also designed a series of exercises that would allow startup founders to see in one another and in our mentor group a useful set of resources that they could draw from as they developed their business. I scripted every aspect of our initial interactions in detail. There would be a ball to play with, a registration desk, thirty chairs set up against the demodeck, startup names posted along their workstations. There would be self-introductions, peer-feedback sessions, a seminar and workshop on understanding end users.
This way of working is not very old. It brings together three distinct kinds of expertise: entrepreneurial insight, technology capacity and financial investing. It was Y-Combinator, beginning in the summer of 2005, that began putting batches of young entrepreneurs through a common program of enrichment, trying to learn through that process what would work and what wouldn’t, thereby iteratively improving their program and reinforcing observed insights. Y-Combinator has enjoyed extraordinary success over the past nine years, having seeded numerous successful startups, in which the group’s equity holdings now exceed a billion dollars USD. But the scope of their success is even more unfathomable when one considers that they have also brought into existence a significant new business model that inverts everything that most people thought they knew about business: that entrepreneurial success cannot be predicted, that the charisma of the entrepreneur cannot be taught or improved, that entrepreneurship cannot be any better organized or routinized.
In Silicon Valley, Xerox PARC was an early attempt at systematizing technology innovation under a new kind of industrial umbrella, but it built on earlier models of the corporate lab -- Large corporate research labs -- Bell, AT&T, Kodak. PARC has been accused of fumbling the future, but the means to align funding resources to useful innovation activities that had been somehow validated with the market simply hadn’t been devised at that time. Corporate extension programs for tech universities, industrial parks attached to campuses, and other kinds of tech transfer entities all suffer from the absence of market signalling. It’s when individual investors vote not only with their mouths, but also with their wallets on what kinds of startup dreams should be funded, that a more focused and rapidly self-evolving type of innovation can be unleashed.
With the dawn of the internet, all kinds of entrepreneurial frenzy was unleashed, which brought scheming tech investors into a difficult dialogue with the more sedate and tony world of equity investors. Michael Wolf’s 1999 novel Burn Rate provides a glimpse of that pre-Y-Combinator cowboy frontier, where scheming tech investors could easily swindle soft-shoe old money, and the worlds of private equity financing and startup advisory services had yet to synthesize and recombine. The startup incubator provides a stable intellectual and social space where these worlds can collide and forge something new.
On account of Y-Combinator’s success there has been an explosion of incubators and accelerators in every part of the world, including in India. In 2009, The Morpheus began incubating companies remotely, operating out of Chandigarh. Venture Studio began trying to bridge the worlds of design and investment at NID in Ahmedabad. The Times of India opened its TLabs out of an building in NOIDA outside Delhi, where it had once planned to house a television and films division. GSF began incubating batches of mobile and tech startups in New Delhi and Bangalore two times a year. Microsoft and Google host and enable developers through their offices in Gurgaon and Bangalore with a view to keeping their respective platforms well stocked with apps and games interesting for their users. And Silicon Valley investors like Vinod Khosla have opened offices in Bangalore. More and more sophisticated and thematically-specific kinds of programs are now being planned, including at med-tech incubator in Bangalore. That’s the crowded field in which we’re now digging Startup Tunnel.
As with conventional institutions of higher education, one of the strongest predictors of incubator success is the strength of their pipeline: when strong teams are competing to enter an incubator, it’s a better bet that stronger teams will exit. Along the way, they seem to receive a still ad-hoc mix of war stories from former investors, critical feedback from specialists in different areas from technology to finance to marketing. They also meet potential investors at demodays and other networking events, which can also shake open their social network and increase the chance for them to achieve entrepreneurial success. All this sounds decidedly unscientific, and I believe there’s still abundant opportunity to better understand what entrepreneurs need and how those needs can most effectively and quickly be met.
Startup Tunnel has organized its incubation program into a series of seminars and workshops under two distinct heads: Product Development and Startup Operations. The first ensures that teams arrive at product concepts that truly solve existing needs for end users, while the second helps the entrepreneur conceptualize a large business at scale and then design a pathway for how to arrive there. The formal, routinized part of the program is complemented by the individualized attention and mentoring that startups received through our network of mentors. But in order to receive this mentorship they must first connect with a mentor, and convince them that the startup concept is worth their time and effort. Startups get a chance to chat up mentors through a speed-dating exercise right after pitch presentations. We bring in some seven to nine mentors to review eight startups, and follow up with a process of mutual matching between them, face-to-face as well as online.
All of our structured training is about readying founders for the marketplace. Once they’re up there, explaining and defending their proposition, and the audience begins to evince some interest in the startup, the buzz can get dizzying. It all begins to feel very real. You can breathe in the electric current of the market.
* * *
This is the second of a series of brief pieces by Aditya Dev Sood on the unfolding journey of a new incubator based in New Delhi: www.startuptunnel.com, @StTnL. Also check out the first article, which was published on 3QD last week.
Monday, January 12, 2015
I'm on a Big Boat
I think I'm supposed to call it a ship. I get confused about these things. All I know for sure is that we're headed south.
I used to be tough when it came to winter. Not like strap-on-some-snow-shoes-and-hunt-a-walrus-with-a-harpoon tough, but tough enough that a five month season in Nebraska or Michigan didn't bother me. That, however, was then.
I've lived in Maryland since 2001. It's made me soft. When I first showed up, I thought to myself: These people are pathetic. Complaining about their mild, mid-Atlantic winter that lasts all of ten weeks. Can't drive worth a damn in the snow. Losers.
And I do still make fun of them for their shitty winter driving and their weird snow amnesia; every year when it snows for the first time (and it snows almost every year), there's a collective gasp of horror and frenzied panic, as if they've never seen the white before. Two inches, they close all the schools and pillage the supermarket. But by the time it dumps eight inches in late February, they're acting like seasoned pros, talking about how this one's easier to shovel than the last one because the snow's not as wet. Every year, the same thing, evolving in two months from snow virgins to grizzled winter vets. Strangest fuckin' thing I've ever seen.
I think mocking them for stuff like that is the right thing to do. But the truth is, after fourteen years, I'm soft too. It gets below 50F, I start to shiver. I recently told that to a native New Yorker who transplanted to Minnesota. He didn't respond. It was over the phone, so I couldn't see his facial expression. Couldn't tell if he wanted to strangle me or if he was just silently crying to himself.
I'm not proud of having turned weak when it comes to the cold, but I'm not ashamed either. Fuck it. I'm skinny and I don't like being cold. And so one question has dogged me for several years now, vis a vis winter:
How can I get warm on the cheap?
I'd been toying with that question for a few years, but last winter broke me. I didn't want to endure it again. The 2013-2014 season was a tough one throughout the East. From Maine to Arkansas, whatever passes for your normal winter, it was colder and longer than that.
In Baltimore that meant winter was three and a half months instead of two and a half. It meant frequent bouts with temperatures in the twenties and teens. It was so bad, I wrote about it here. Wasted your time, dear readers, with my drivel about how it was so goddamn cold, and for so long, that it was the first Maryland winter to ever remind me of a Michigan winter.
Fuck that. I'm soft. I'm weak. I want out. Don't wanna write about winter anymore. I just wanna be warm.
How can I do it on the cheap? As I looked into it, the same answer to that question kept popping up.
Get on a big boat and sail south to the Caribbean.
I'm not the kind of person who wants to take a cruise. You don't know me, but I know myself, and I'm not that kind of person. Especially not in this here modern world where just about any leisure activity designed for thousands of middle class people is corporatized, homogenized, and watered down to the point that it all kinda seems the same. The formula's pretty well known at this point. Spend half a billion dollars or so on something that'll make people ooh and ahh. Then, while they're craning their necks and pointing, overcharge by about 1000% for any ingestibles or tchotchkes you can pawn off on them.
A sporting event, a concert, even a big Vegas hotel once you strip away all the weird Vegas shit. It's all kinda the same. Lots of white people shuffling around in flip flops and t-shirts, sucking down overpriced drinks, overpaying for incredibly salty food, talking about sports or TV or the pre-packaged local exotica, gawking at one thing or another, and getting fleeced by the entertainment corporation at nearly every turn.
I'm not the kind of person to really enjoy that. I don't even own any flip flops. A cruise? Sounds like nothing more than a seaworthy suburban retirement community for pensioners of all ages. I have zero interest.
But fuck it, I tell myself. I don't care. It's not about having a good time. It's not about doing anything interesting with anyone interesting. It's about one thing and one thing only: get some fuckin' sunshine rays on my skinny white ass and warm me the fuck up for long and cheap.
For $950 bucks you're gone for ten days. That includes your room on the ship. That includes all the incredibly salty food you can eat. That includes pre-paying tips to most of the exploited service workers. And the big boat even leaves out of Baltimore, a 15 minute drive from my house.
Shit. Sign me up. Let's do this.
There's a lot that can be said about a floating village of several thousand people bobbing through the Atlantic at about 30 miles per hour. Too much, perhaps. But the first thing that comes to mind, as I acclimate to life on the big boat, is dog shows.
Once upon a time there were elites and commoners and not much in between. But with the advent of the industrial revolution, big business corporations, urbanization, global conquest, and international commerce, Europe and the United States witnessed the rise of a new middle class. During the 19th century, merchants and eventually managers, bureaucrats, and the like carved out a new socio-economic niche for themselves.
The new middle class certainly weren't rich. Rather, despite their strident striving, grand aspirations, and frequent delusions, any sober economic analysis shows the middle classes were (and still are) much closer to the poorer classes than the millionaire robber barons and such. But perhaps that's exactly why the new white collar folk were so hell bent on distancing themselves from the poor, treating them like the embarrassing relations who show up unannounced and spoil the carefully planned party.
The best way to ensure they wouldn't be confused with the poor, many new middle class people reckoned, was by actively aping the rich. Sometimes this was easy. Save up some money for a nice set of china and flatware, and then follow arcane rules about how to use them. But sometimes passing for rich was all but impossible, and efforts to do so were laughable
Like dog shows.
Wealthy aristocrats had land. They had commoners to work that land and tend to the animals for them. And from this they derived various forms of prestige and leisure time activities, like showing off their prized animals. Here, let's have a fair, and you can all admire my large and sturdy cow. Isn't she pretty? Yes, agreed. Now give her a ribbon. A blue one, if you would.
But when you're middle class? No, you don't own much land, and you certainly don't have any blue ribbon cattle. But you can have some dogs if you like. Those are within your means. Let's groom them and show them off like the rich people do. And presto! You get eyebrow archingly bizarre shit like kennel club dog shows.
That's what the big boat reminds me of at first.
The clientele is decidedly middle class, mostly of the midd-middle and upper-middle varieties. These are retirees living on savings and a pension, not some gaudy inheritance. These are couples and families in the very high five digit or very low six digit income salary range, not millionaire Wall Street financiers or corporate honchos. You get the feeling that no one on this boat has a second or third home, because if they did, they wouldn't be here.
So they are here, experiencing some extremely diluted version of a Titanic-era luxury liner. But just as a snotty-nosed shih-tzu will never be a white face Hereford despite whatever airs the kennel club puts on, the truly shitty food they serve up in this boat's formal dining room will never be anything but that, despite the reasonably fine attire attire worn by the patrons or the exceptional service provided by the even better dressed staff.
It's a floating dog show.
Speaking of the staff, they are of course the central piece to any breezy class analysis we might like to indulge in.
That was the editorial "we," though given the topic, perhaps it should be the royal "we."
Anyway, I'm not here to provide some dumbed down, dogmatic Marxist interpretation of what's going down on the big boat. I don't know what kind of lives the workers here have or what they think of their jobs, whether they're happy to have them for the right reasons or the sad reasons, or whether they're just resentful and occasionally reconstitute the powdered mashed potatoes with their urine.
That being said, however, you have to have social blinders on not to be taken at least somewhat aback by the fact that the clientele looks to be at least 90% white Americans (the remainder mostly Asian and Asian American), and the servant class is overwhelmingly foreign workers, with a clear majority of them not white, although there are also some Eastern Europeans; most every service worker wears a name tag that says where they're from.
Of course it makes sense that an international cruise line would have an international labor pool. However, within it there is also an obvious pecking order. The white workers (including many Americans) are in the higher middle class positions, such as the cruise director, the piano bar singer, and the guy who gives you a truly curious lecture about art history and then tries to sell you a bunch of paintings at an auction.
Above them are those men in uniforms (I've seen one woman among them so far), nearly all of them white, who presumably give all the orders. This includes the captain, who at the opening night reception, stood atop the grand staircase like a naval Santa Clause as people lined up to have their picture taken with him.
The people who clean your room and serve your food and perform various odd tasks around the boat? None of them from the developed world and none of them white, so far as I can tell.
And in this respect, once again the big boat is very much like any other form of large scale, corporate leisure time activity. It's a disturbing commentary on the state of the world for, oh, the last half-a-millennium or so. It may preclude me from ever doing this again. It's never very far from my mind and it colors my perceptions of everything.
I wonder how many of the thousands of other patrons on the boat think about. I suspect very few. Even when they're on the islands, where the hustle gets gritty.
On Christmas Eve a friend passed a long a piece of gossip after I told her I was going on a cruise. She said that executives she met from a particular cruise line, which shall remain nameless, refer to their clientele as "the newlywed, the nearly dead, and the overfed."
It's funny. It looks to be mostly true. And of course it's unfair, snobby, and the worst kind of cynicism.
After two days aboard the big boat, most of the people seem to be perfectly nice. They come across as working stiffs and retirees looking to get their little slice of the good life. Like the guy I met in the hot tub.
He's from near Buffalo, New York. He takes his family on a cruise once every five years. They save up the money and go. He drove all the way down to Baltimore. Normally a six and a half hour drive, because of the weather it was closer to ten
A nice enough fella. Talked a little too much, not very interesting. What came out of his mouth was very predictable. Like most people I've met here, he wasn't terribly inventive, creative, or daring. Or at least that's what I gathered from ten minutes of idle chatter in a hot tub, which means I'm a smug, overeducated, judgmental prick.
So despite all the disturbing socio-economics on this boat, and they are disturbing, on some level I'm disinclined to begrudge these people their moment of low rent luxury. And I certainly don't want to mock them for not being as bourgeoise as my upper middle class friends who take sabbaticals in Europe, who regularly dine in the East Coast's best restaurants, or who refer to the New York-London trans-Atlantic metropole as NyLon. That stuff has its paw prints all over our ongoing exploitation of the developing world just as much as the big boat does.
Anyway, it's not these cruisers' fault that the world sucks. They're not the big fish. They're not the politicians and CEOs who perpetuate this global system of inequity and profit from it. They're just the regular people who happen to be from an irregularly wealthy empire. They're the farmers and centurions of Rome. They're the small tradesmen and yeomanry of Imperial England. They're the guy who drives his family more than nine hours in the snow so they can get a little sunshine, eat Olive Garden quality food, sip a drink with an umbrella in it, and get a sniff of the good life before they turn back to ashes and dust.
We left late Tuesday afternoon. By Thursday, I'm up top on the big boat, lounging poolside. It's 72 and sunny. Back home it's 12. I've decided that it would be fitting, on many levels, if I were to stand upon the deck of this big boat and have a big banner drop down behind me that says Mission Accomplished.
I am shallow and fragile and, like the rest of humanity, ultimately disappointing. And anyone who tells you Southern California has perfect weather hasn't been to the Caribbean.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com.
Heaven and Hell—in Bruges
by Leanne Ogasawara
"Every night God takes his glittering
merchandise out of his showcase--
holy chariots, tables of law, fancy beads,
crosses and bells--
and puts them back into dark boxes
inside and pulls down the shutters: "Again,
not one prophet has come to buy."
Jerusalem: utterly obssessed by the place, I even love finding copies of the holy city-- both imaginal and real. There are, for example, William Blake's rural England of his imagination (Ah, Jerusalem) and the Puritan's "city upon a hill" in America. There are also the real Jerusalems built of brick and stone.
Such real-life copies can be found mainly in European cities, from Cambridge to Bologna. My own favorite "new Jerusalem" is the holy city of Lalibela in Ethiopia, however, where it is believed that pilgrims receive the same blessing visiting that city as they would if they had visited Jerusalem itself. It is a place I long to see someday.
Despite knowing that copies of Jerusalem can be found dotted around Europe, I never really expected to find one so far north as in the Flemish city of Bruges.
Belgium's greatest poet Guido Gezelle referred to the city as a "copy of the holy land." But, in the movie In Bruges, the mob boss Harry calls the town a "fucking fairy tale."
In any event, my astronomer and I were visiting the city on a van Eyck pilgrimage. Starting in Paris, we looked at van Eyck pictures in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges --and I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Lamb were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds. The church authorities not surprisingly clamped down on this practice and the early Renaissance donor portraits disappeared --but it was in Bruges that I realized how wonderful it would be to see oneself in a picture like that. If I lived back then, I certainly would have desired a picture of myself like that, depicted alongside saints, pilgrims and God. Is it not the ultimate selfie?
In summer, I had written here in these pages about relics and their long-lost power to emotionally and spiritually transport and spiritually move a person, asking:
I wonder if things have the power to move us in this way anymore? I mean, there was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical maps and with great quests for objects that held much power. Like mountains, certain objects had the power to draw people in. Relics, for example, were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns or recall the mystery surrounding the quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in the fragrance of these relics--where it is the perfume that is true-- not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity for becoming enchanted by things.
It is also a commitment to remember, right? (Poor, dear Henri Fontal!)
Believe it or not Bruges happens to be in possession of one of the Top Ten Relics Associated with Jesus Christ. This came about when the Count of Flanders, Thierry of Alsace, was given a relic of the Holy Blood by the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin III of Anjou (who I think was also the count's brother-in-law). Given as a reward for his courage during the second crusade it came with the approval of the patriarch of Jerusalem. In all probability the relic was obtained during the sack of Constantinople a hundred years later --but whatever the fact, this relic was to put Bruges on the map big time (transforming the town into a holy city)-- and the adoration of the relic is the main reason that Bruges came to be seen as a little Jerusalem.
The blood of Christ was seen by some as being what is commonly referred to as "the Holy Grail." (Sang Real, etc.) Interestingly, the man credited with starting the legend of the Grail romance, Chrétien de Troyes, stated that he had found the story of the Grail in a manuscript supposedly given to him by Philip of Alsace, who was the son of Thierry of Alsace--the very man who brought the vial of blood back from Jerusalem in 1150. Or so the legend goes.
Remember in the movie In Bruges when Ken and Ray go to visit the relic of the Holy Blood? Instead of going to the Basilica of the Holy Blood where the relic is actually housed, the two characters visit an altogether different church. It seems crazy not to film such a famous relic in the church where everyone knows it is kept and yet how could the director resist Jerusalem Church? So, we see Ken and Ray in Jerusalem church, preparing to view the relic of the holy blood.
It is such a great scene in what is such a great film!
It all started around the time that van Eyck was painting his Mystic Lamb altarpiece (un sospiro~) that two members of the illustrious Italian banking family, the Adornes, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Deeply impressed by the beauty of the Christ's tomb in Jerusalem, the two brothers immediately began work on their own chapel based on the design of the Holy Sepulchre upon their return to Bruges.
With its rounded dome and Jerusalem cross atop, it is reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem--but what awaits one inside is what is the real surprise. The clip from the film describes the feeling best, I think. Here it is again.
Beneath soaring crosses and a dark and morbid altar of skulls and bones, along with whips, nails and hammers, lies the the crypt of Anselm (who died while engaging in intrigues in Scotland) and his beloved wife Maragaretha. It is Golgotha. The scene of Ray and Jen talking in the church is classic. Instead of the holy blood, however, in reality when one ascends upstairs there one fins a splinter of the True Cross, also brought back from the holy Land. Un unexplained mystery, as described here, it is not prominently displayed nor was it being worshipped (compared to the massive crowds at the Holy Blood relic). It's my favorite scene in the movie and in many ways perfectly depicts the gloomy or morbidly medieval mood of Bruges. For there were orders of men (knights?) that grew up around the crusades--orders such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (of which Anselm was a card-carrying member) and the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, who had toyed with the idea of turning Bruges into a "New Jerusalem," which could serve as spiritual HQ of Europe, should Jerusalem and the Sepulchre fall again to "the Moors."
The Dead City (Glück das mir verblieb). I am now reading George Rodenbach's Bruges-La-Morte. Believe it or not, I had never heard of the book (nor the opera which some say inspired the making of Hitchcock's Verigo). Filled with beautiful black and white photographs, it is one of the most stunning portaits of a city that I have ever read. Rodenbach indeed insisted that cities reflect different states of the soul. And, in the author's introduction to the novel, in his poetic and evocative prose he writes:
In this study of passion our other principle aim has been to evoke a Town, the Town as essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act. And in reality, this town of Bruges, on which our choice fell, does seem almost human. It establishes a powerful influence on all who stay there.
It molds them through its monuments and its bells.
Devastated at the loss of his beloved wife the main character chooses Bruges as the perfect place to mourn. So much like in Mann's Death in Venice, the city is portrayed like death itself. With cold and still, unmoving waters filling the city's canals, the swans themselves become images of decay and death; while the famous bells of the belfy toll with the stagnation and weight of the church (or maybe like in Pamuk's Istanbul, it seems to be crumbling by the sheer weight of its own glorious history?) Before long the story becomes a stage for the character's fight between darkness and light as he obsessively struggles with the allure of a young dancer with whom he confuses with that of his beloved lost wife ("even their voices are identical"). The story does not end well. In fact, it ends in the death of the novel's title...
But Bruges is not simply a "dead city," like Mann's Venice or Pamuk's Istanbul. Because Bruges is both about heaven and hell.
The mind is its own place,
and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven.
- John Milton
Burning in hell-- this city after all was the inspiration for the "Dante of the painters" Bosch's images of hell. For as Joel Bleifuss says, it is a city with a dark past.
While the sleepy, medieval backdrop to Martin McDonagh's hitman comedy certainly appears like the setting for a fairy tale, it also hides a very dark past, one full of fundamentalist depravity and dank dungeons as well as knights and ladies. It was a city of contradictions-host to one of the most spectacular banquets in medieval times and the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's hellish visions
The movie is very much taken up with these images of hell and of purgatory. It is a place where nothing works and everyone dies. As Ernest Mathijs says,
The key to In Bruges is its nothingness. Nothing works, nothing is sacred; every action misses its goal; everyone is misunderstood; and no one escapes.
What a strange fate for a city said to be holy; a city housing a relic of the True Cross and a vessel containing drops of the Holy Blood. But I think it is perhaps this dual quality of heaven and hell that most ties the place to Jerusalem. As I said about Jerusalem here, maybe Bruges too exists as a heavenly city lying on the same axis as purgatory AND heaven -- as not just the center of the world, but also the heart of the world? Less a city of fanatics and never-ending conflict, Bruges reminds me so much of the poem by Yehuda Amichai at top...a sleeping city, where all the fancy beads, crosses and bells are on display in wait. Like Venice and Jerusalem, Walking around the city, I could not help but think of Dante's great allegory of the soul's journey to find God. Down, down, down...Time and space warp...on Dante's Holy Mountain.
Wonderful movie, wonderful book, wonderful poem, wonderful city.
Annie Lapin. Feel, 2009.
Western Culture is an Ideological Fiction, and so are the Rest
by Bill Benzon
This essay argues that Western culture is an ideological fiction. There is no such thing as Western culture if by that you mean a coherent and internally unified cultural entity that started back in ancient Greece and the Jewish Levant, took hold in and flourished in Europe, from which it eventually set sail for the Americas and there took root, almost completely destroying the societies of native peoples and their cultures with them. That thing, whatever it is, is not a single entity, internally coherent and different from all other such entities. The idea that it is such an entity is an ideological fiction, as are the entities to which Western culture is often said to be opposed, Eastern culture, Oriental culture, African culture, non-Western culture, and the like. Ideological fictions, all of them.
Some Say African-American Music is Western
The notion of Western culture began to unravel for me I decided to write about the impact of African-American musical cultures on American music. That work forced me to think hard and long about just what we mean when we talk use such phrases as “X culture” where X can be “Western”, “American”, “French”, “European”, “Muslim”, “Japanese”, “Eastern”, and so forth. With this is mind, let’s use music as a test case and see where it leads.
It is clear that African-American music owes a substantial debt to Africa. It is also clear that African-American music has had a strong influence on American music in general. By applying a familiar syllogistic mechanism to those propositions one can see that American music must therefore be indebted to Africa. That it American music is in some measure African. So far so good.
Now let’s look at a passage from Music of the Common Tongue (1987) where Christopher Small (p. 4) asserts that
...the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the west in the twentieth century, of far greater significance than those remnants of the great European classical tradition that are to be heard today in the concert halls and opera houses of the industrial world, east and west.
Small will go on to argue that African-American music carries values which are at odds with the dehumanizing industrial cast of European and American society and that those values are good and important. More recently, and from a more conservative location in the political universe, Marsha Bayles has also claimed Afro-American music for the West (Hole in Our Soul, 1994 p.22):
I realize that a great many musicians and writers will reject the proposition that Afro-American music is an idiom of Western music, on the grounds that it is, root and branch, totally “black,” meaning African. This attitude is usually called “cultural nationalism,” but I prefer to call it “cultural separatism,” because, instead of affirming Afro-American music by sharing it with the world, it takes a jealously proprietary stance.
Bayles will go on to argue that the virtues which African-American music has brought to the world are being threatened by decadence which began at the turn of the 20th century and has become frightfully pervasive in our own time. Both recognize that African-American music is quite different from classical music and European folk musics in its devices and emotional tenor. But neither of them sees this as a reason for thinking the music is not Western.
I Say It’s Not
I find this situation most curious. For it seems to me that if Western music is defined in such a way that it is home to both Ludwig van Beethoven (19th C. European classical) and Charlie Parker (African-American, bebop jazz), to J. S. Bach (18th C. European classical) and Bessie Smith (African-American, blues), then it is not entirely clear to me whether or not Western music should not also encompass the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar (North Indian classical) and the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Sufi devotional song from Pakistan) as well. And if we admit them into the fold, can any music reasonably be excluded? But what purpose (beyond that old devil, cultural imperialism) could possibly be served by a conceptual scheme which sees much, perhaps most, possibly even all, of the world's music as Western?
We need to think about just what is going on when we make such classifications. To that end, let’s step back a minute and imagine that we are Martian ethnomusicologists. Our electronic devices have detected music from all the Earth’s cultures but somehow have failed to pick up any other information. So, we have recordings of a great deal of music and no information whatsoever about where exactly that music came from or whatever else is going on there. We know the beings producing this music must have some kind of culture, but the music itself is all we know about those cultures. We know nothing about the geographical distribution and history of those cultures. Our job is to listen to all this music and develop a classification system.
How likely is it that we will place the music of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart into the same class? Not very likely. What about the music of Mozart and Hayden? Yes. And that of Ellington and William “Count” Basie? Again, yes, strong similarities. Ravi Shankar and Ellington? No, different rhythm, different tonal structure. Ravi Shankar and Mozart? And again, no. By making such comparisons it seems to me that a Martian ethnomusicologist would be likely, at some given level in the taxonomy, to put Ravi Shankar in one category, Yacub Addy (traditional music of the Ga people in Ghana) in another, Mozart in a category different from the first two, and Ellington also in a category different from the first two, but also different from Mozart. That is, it seems very unlikely that Ellington and Mozart would end up in the same category, even one different from the other two. They would be in different categories from one another.
Now, in making these judgments I am imagining that Martian ethnologists would classify music on the basis of its techniques and devices. A classification system which says that a Beethoven composition and a Charlie Parker improvisation are the same kind of thing is going to have difficulty excluding much of the music which heretofore had been regarded as non-Western. These two musics have a very different rhythmic feel, and differ in the degree to which they emphasize rhythmic elaboration. They also differ in the scales they employ, their characteristic forms of ornamentation, their harmonic techniques, and large-scale structural devices.
If we then assert that Beethoven's choice of scale pitches represents the same musical principle as Parker's choices, we may well have to include Ravi Shankar's choice of scale pitches in this same class. Either that, or decide that our classification system will not attempt to be a rational one. But a classification system that is arbitrary has no conceptual value; it tells us nothing about the world. If the world is, in fact, a random confluence of forces and events, then an arbitrary classification system will do just fine. But if the world were so arbitrary, we wouldn't be here trying to puzzle out its order.
What we want of a classification system is that it places similar things into the same category and dissimilar things into different categories. Consider a classification of animals that has parrots and giraffes in the same class; call them borogoves. Are vultures and dogs borogoves as well? What if it turns out that while vultures and gnats are to be considered borogoves, dogs, wombats, hummingbirds and wrens are considered to be toves? Thus we have:
BOROGOVES: parrots, giraffes, vultures, gnats
TOVES: dogs, wombats, hummingbirds, wrens
What is the difference between a tove and a borogove? What do all toves have in common? What do all borogoves have in common? What is the rational principle behind this classification system? Perhaps it is not too difficult to find one¬–I leave that as an exercise for the reader. That is the kind of problem we invite when we include J. S. Bach and Thelonius Monk within the fold of Western music while trying to exclude Ravi Shankar. I do not think that Ravi Shankar's music, excellent though it is, is Western music. Its devices are too different. By the same reasoning, I don’t think Thelonius Monk’s music is Western. Its devices are also different.
Geography is not Culture
Let us contrast this common cultural usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term’s geographical range is not a geographically continuous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context. Whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only in America whiles others are found elsewhere, Europe, Africa, Asia, wherever.
What of the cultural practices that happen to take place on American soil–however you wish to understand its geographic scope. For example, consider the culture of 20th century physics. There's a lot of that in America, but the practice of physics is international in scope and it doesn't make much sense to identify it with any one nation. There may be more such physics practiced in the United States than in Argentina, Mozambique, Japan, or Syria–as measured by, say number of Nobel Laureates, number of college and university physics departments, number of professional physicists, etc.–but that doesn't make physics peculiarly American. Local variants are likely to reflect the influence of specific individuals or institutions as much as, or more so, the influence of geo-political nationality.
What about Christmas? It is certainly very important in American national life. Many businesses, for example, organize their business year around Christmas season and the appropriateness of Christmas ritual objects–e.g. a crèche–for display on certain public property is a matter of annual contention. But the holiday itself is not specifically American. It is Christian, but not in Japan, where Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas day, but, yes, there are Christmas trees, decorations, and presents. And the specific customs associated with Christmas in modern America owe as much, if not more, to Victorian England than to America itself. By contrast, Thanksgiving is specifically American, as are a various civic holidays of which Independence Day, July 4th, is the most obvious.
And then there is baseball, known as America's pastime since the late 19th century. The history of the game seems rather obscure, at least to the writers of the Wikipedia, but it seems mostly English and American. The first published rules of the game were written in 1845 by one Alexander Joy Cartwright for a Manhattan club called the Knickerbockers. That’s as convenient an originating point as any but no particular origin seems to justified privileged status. Like many things cultural, the game evolved over a period of time in different places.
The game is certainly important in America’s sports ecology, but it is also important in Cuba, Korea, and Japan and has been played in those countries since the first half of the 19th century. That makes the game Cuban, Korean, and Japanese in a geographical sense, but is it Cuban, Korean, or Japanese in a cultural sense? Perhaps not. But is it culturally American and, if so, what characteristics make it American rather than Japanese? Does it share those characteristics with, for example, American basketball? The answers to these questions are not obvious.
Westernization or Modernization?
With this argument in mind, what do we call the large-scale cultural and social process that Japan underwent during the last decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century? Is it Westernization or modernization? Consider this paragraph from Christopher Goto-Jones, Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction (p. 7):
It is a common (mis)conception that ‘modern’ is essentially a temporal or historical term, referring to a period of time that is close to the present. Whilst this meaning may serve in everyday usage, it is much more interesting and useful to consider a more technical and substantive sense of the term. In this framework, the term ‘modern’ refers to a more-or-less specific constellation of intellectual, social, political, and scientific norms and practices. By identifying the modern as a cluster of related principles rather than as merely a period, we are able to trace its occurrence in different periods in different national or cultural settings: was Europe modern before Japan, for instance? Was Japan modern before Russia? If so, why? It also enables us to ask provocative questions about the present: is Japan modern and, if so, who can we explain why it looks so different from, say, the United Kingdom? To paraphrase this important question: which elements of the modern are essential, and which are culturally contingent?
He goes to point out that, whatever took place in Japan, “some sought to reject all trappings of modernity in the name of rejecting Westernization” while others “sought to retain Japanese traditions whilst adopting the ‘value-free’ aspects of modern rationality” and still others “advocated abandoning Japanese traditions entirely on the basis that only by becoming Western could Japan become truly modern” (p. 9).
Westernization, modernization, or something else? The issue, of course, is not merely about Japan, but about a great many societies in the contemporary world.
But what happens to that question if, as I have been suggesting, the notion of “the West” is itself suspect, having more to do with ideological warfare than with cultural analysis and understanding? Remember, whatever it is that happened to European societies and cultures starting in the 14th century or so, it would have been impossible with mathematics from China, India, and the Middle East. Without that mathematics it would have been impossible to calculate the logarithm tables that enabled reliable and accurate long-distance navigation over the open seas. Without those sea voyages there would have been no gold and silver from the Americas to pay for trade goods in Asia, nor would the colonization of the Americas been possible. Without that mathematics there would have been no scientific revolution, without the scientific revolution there would have been no steam engine. Without the steam engine…
The West is an ideological fiction, as are many similar terms. There is no essence to “the West” or to “Africa”, “the East” or even to “United States”. Let’s abandon such notions. They stand in the way of human understanding and progress.
* * * * *
Entering Startup Tunnel
In just a few days Startup Tunnel (STun) will begin. Twenty-one young founders building nine startups over thirteen weeks. I'm in charge of this experimental incubator, which is backed not by Microsoft or Google, not by Valley money, nor even the Times of India, but by a motley network of entrepreneurs, technologists, professionals and consultants, who've come together and agreed to try and mentor these new companies. It's a lot like a snake eating it's own tail. There's every reason to be sceptical, every reason to worry, not least for all the talk of another tech bubble brimming, of which we ourselves might be the latest worrying sign.
The nine companies we are supporting do things like deliver services to your doorstep, allow freelancers to connect, improve sourcing and hiring for companies, integrate your social media feeds and allow health professionals to share information. It's a motley mix of different ends of the online economy, almost always addressing the professional and personal needs of urban elites -- the global and connected middle class -- of which there is now a critical mass not only in India, but also Indonesia, the Philippines, South-East Asia and other parts of the world, all now addressable from India.
I feel compelled to explain why I think incubators and accelerators like STun are a good thing. So much is written about the culture of Silicon Valley and how new wealth is creating new disparities there. Uber is the new ethically-challenged face of startups, not only in India, but everywhere else in the world. And the magnates of Sand Hill Road were among the first to slam Picketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century, for failing to understand how capitalism really works. I'm sympathetic to both sides, and often struggle to articulate my sense that these worldviews can be reconciled, that they're both right in different ways. I for one find Picketty's statistically-supported argument, that we are indeed living in a more unequal society, quite compelling. But I also sense, in a way that I can't yet defend, that the way for us to get to a more equal society is to find ways to funnel capital more effectively towards the kind of social and technical innovation that might envision and create newer better ways with which to navigate our everyday lives.
It's true that the ways in which young people imagine they will change the world is often somewhat narrow and self-referential. A better way to book bus tickets online or using your mobile phone for example. A platform to share your PowerPoint slides with other people. A way to download articles to your phone or tablet so you can read them later on when you longer have access to the internet. redBus, SlideShare and Pocket are some of India's most successful startups, which have resulted in multimillion dollar acquisitions and a global user base. They are helpful for those who are already living life substantially online and on mobile, but do nothing for the other four-fifths of humanity that has more pressing concerns about how to make a better living, manage their money better, get clean drinking water, cook without damaging their lungs, build themselves a toilet.
Even though the social and development sector is increasingly speaking a language of innovation, there is a large gap between the work that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting, for example, and the kinds of ideas we are supporting at STun. Our startups have to find success in fairly short order, maybe with a nine month outside limit. They have to discover audiences for services and solutions who can already pay, and entice them to begin engaging with their product or platform very quickly. Ideally, they should find their market without large overheads of marketing, advertising and customer engagement. It is somehow baked into the logic of a conventional incubator that they should not seek to address the large and intractable challenges of society, but make quick wins.
Even so, an economy in which there is a structured channel -- a tunnel if you will -- for energy, enterprise, ability and seed capital to be woven together into a new kind of solution for society, no matter how incremental, is a better economy than one where this mechanism is absent. I feel it is important for Startup Tunnel to work, not merely for the financial benefits to all those involved with it, but also so that the power and capacity to incubate new enterprises come to be better established in India. Once this capability exists, it should become easier to direct it towards the many social and developmental challenges that conventional tech startups do not address.
Startup Life, more so than any other mode of being and working, seems to me to be about falling forward in time, moving ahead, doing things in a better and newer way, often in a fugue of uncertainty as things are playing out and coming to take shape. This feeling of improvement and novelty is so hard to capture in quantitative terms, for it is ultimately a kind of collective fiction that is first created by the startup, which all of us customers, consumers and observers, eventually come to play along with, or in fact reject.
The point of an incubation program is that it is a ritually marked, tropic form of time. A junoon, a time of struggle and fever. After which, one has either come across to the another, more energized state of being, or else remains untouched, floating in nontropic, empty, purposeless time. It is also a time of focus and concentration for myself and the other mentors working with these startups. We have gathered together these precocious and ambitious young people in an unnatural concentration like exotic butterflies in an enormous jar. It will be valuable to observe their progress carefully and keep a record of our interactions with them. I intend to take detailed notes along the journey.
Monday, January 05, 2015
He's So Ronery
"Data made flesh in the mazes of the black market."
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer
Sometime last September, to add to what was already a fairly stressful month, I received a text message from my bank inquiring about some charges that had been made to my credit card. Once I got on the phone with a representative, I was asked if I had spent a few thousand dollars the previous evening at a nightclub in Sofia, Bulgaria. I told them that I hadn't, and that I was furthermore upset that I hadn't even been invited. Two large dropped in a dump like Sofia – it must have been quite the party. The bank made me whole again, but I was left to wonder, like so many other people these days, about the inscrutable question of how my card had been procured and deployed with all the instantaneity allowed by today's global flow of money and data – concepts that are becoming increasingly interchangeable or even undifferentiated. In all likelihood, neither I nor the bank will ever know what happened, and the event was written off simply as a cost of doing business.
This event reproduced itself more recently on a much larger scale. What has become known as the "Sony Hack" is continuing to reverberate across several worlds: computer security, entertainment and even foreign policy, to name a few. Much of the conversation seems to be concerned with the whodunit aspect of things: Who could possibly have had the skills and chutzpah required to not only spirit away approximately 100 terabytes of information of every stripe from underneath the multinational's nose, but then also proceeded to wipe much of the data from the network itself? Even though the breach was noticed on November 24th, it's a good bet that Sony itself still hasn't assessed the full extent of the damage. While things are nowhere near to shaking out, let's consider some of the consequences that have so far followed the smashing of this particular piñata.
Fast forward about, umm, fifteen minutes after November 24th, and we already had our culprit, which could be no one other than North Korea (I guess Iran got a bye because we need them right now in order to fight Islamic State). I find it challenging to believe North Korea was involved. Eleven years ago, Kim père didn't seem quite so phased the last time a Hollywood satire "took him out" – is it possible that Kim fils is such a thin-skinned grasshopper?
Seriously, though, a good reason to be wary of the whodunit parlor game is the sheer paucity of real information. As with Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, we only know what has been released so far, the odd communications of the hackers responsible, and, to a much lesser degree, what has been divulged by those directly affected (for a fairly disinterested view, check out Bruce Schneier's postings, especially here and here; the mark of a true authority is the ability to remain undecided). Without a doubt, it's been a feast for anyone interested in anything that Sony Pictures produces, or the position that it generally occupies in our culture. For one thing, the leaks have provided a delightful opportunity for tut-tutting the casual racism, sexism, ageism and general backstabbing that still seems to constitute the lingua franca of the entertainment industry – and probably many other industries, were their kimonos to be opened as well. And however the hack was conducted, corporate infosec has yet again been revealed as the emperor with no clothes. Given the breaches we have experienced in the past few years (for example, 70 million credit cards stolen from Target almost precisely a year earlier), this comes as no real surprise, either.
What's more interesting are the consequences for US and North Korean gameplay. This event has provided exactly the right fuel for the brinksmanship that both sides have excelled at for decades. Even if the DPRK had little or no hand in the hack, the US gets to tighten the screws with additional sanctions, this time attempting to target the country's (admittedly very real) cyberwarfare capabilities. For its part, the North Korean propaganda machine will scale fresh heights of shrillness and maybe fire another missile or two into the sea, giving it a higher ledge from which the international community will eventually have to talk it down with concessions. Kim Jong-Un now has even more and better reasons to consolidate power. Also, the DPRK's offer of a joint investigation into the actual culprits, which the US was bound to turn down, was pretty clever. Everyone gets to pull a few treats from the piñata once it's been cracked. It's easy to imagine Kim Jong-Un popping up a fresh batch of popcorn in his underground lair and kicking back to the movie that's now unfolding.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, also known as "The Interview". We, or at least some of us, have been put in the awfully strange position of striking a blow for freedom by watching a Seth Rogen movie. As is well known, the Guardians of Peace (the group taking responsibility for the hack, not to be confused with the Burundian militia of the same name, although that would set a new bar for globalization) made enough threats that the film was initially pulled from theaters. The ensuing "free speech" backlash saw criticism from President Obama all the way to feel-good author and astute businessman Paolo Coelho, who bizarrely offered to buy the distribution rights for $100,000. The film was subsequently set up for online distribution, then gingerly released through a few independents and small chains. This led to the next unanticipated consequence: we suddenly had a real-world case study for digital distribution of first-run films.
As Paul Tassi correctly noted, this was far from a perfect case, since the release was, to put it mildly, chaotic. Nevertheless, marketers will be reading these tea leaves carefully. 2014 ended with box office receipt down 5.3% from the previous year, and studios will be redoubling their efforts to make sense of the continuing fragmentation of the distribution and payment landscape. If "The Interview" is the canary in the coal mine, the outlook isn't good. Budgeted at $44m, as of Tassi's December 29th article it had only take in $15m in online revenue, and by January 4th it had taken in almost $5m in physical box office sales.
Given that the film had the sort of PR any flack would give a right arm for, why such a poor showing? Let's not forget that while some of us outsmarted the terrorists by streaming the film in our homes, others perhaps took the whole striking-a-blow-for-freedom concept a bit too far, since almost as many people illegally downloaded the film. Had the film gone into wide release on Christmas Day, as was originally intended, Tassi quotes source that believe it would have made its entire budget back in the first weekend. A $7 streaming rental – even less, if split among a roomful of friends – is not going to do a declining industry any favors. The model is clearly in need of further tweaking.
So who should we be listening to as we attempt to disentagle the mess that is the Sony hack? To me, one of the main assumptions that requires unpacking is the idea that there must be a single group behind this, motivated by a single purpose. There is an astonishing menagerie of actors within hacking culture who opportunistically form temporary, anonymous groups for the achievement of some more-or-less identifiable goal. Even Anonymous – perhaps the best-known of these – could not resist getting a piece of the action, as per the below message posted on PasteBin on December 19th:
We know that Mr. Paulo Coelho has offered Sony Entertainment a sum of $100,000 for the rights of the movie; where he shall then be able to upload the movie onto BitTorrent. Obviously, you shall not be responding to his generous offer - so please respond to ours with a public conference, we wish to offer you a deal... Release "The Interview" as planned, or we shall carry out as many hacks as we are capable of to both Sony Entertainment, and yourself. Obviously, this document was only created by a group of 25-30 Anons, but there are more of us on the internet than you can possibly imagine.
What's a poor CEO to do? One group of hackers breaks the piñata open while another demands that you go about your business like an honorable corporation. In an age where we are way past the idea of accountability, there really isn't pleasing everyone, or anyone, any longer. (A further irony is that PasteBin was one of the anonymous sites where the Guardians originally dumped the contents of C-suite mailboxes, payroll lists and other goodies. There is no technology whose blade cuts only one way.)
We have to begin from a different point of view – that of the forces arrayed against the information systems of any organization. These systems are constantly being prodded and jerked around from the outside by anyone with an internet connection and the ability to fill in a website name. And because you have to trust your employees somewhat, these same systems are always already compromised from the inside. A group on the outside may have the expertise but only idle malice in mind, while a disgruntled insider might have the motivation, but lack the tools to do truly widespread damage. Even if the two manage to find one another, the coherence of the act is still disputable. In a very real sense, it is only the act of observing the event that allows for this probabilistic wave function of motivation to collapse into a stable agenda. Given the current lack of information, it is easy to forget that we are just reflecting back to ourselves the narratives that we have already accepted, eg: North Korea is bad; hackers are terrorists; employees cannot be trusted. Whichever one you believe in the most is your explanation to the Sony hack.
I came to this conclusion after reading some analyses performed by infosec firms, Since their bread and butter is protecting corporations like Sony from just these sorts of situations, they have rushed in to make sense of the situation. With the FBI tight-lipped about what they know, these players are one of the only sources of – if not accurate then at least interesting – third-party information concerning the hack. And since their business depends on their credibility, they are perhaps the least incentivized to sensationalism.
Curiously, I cannot find a single infosec firm that pegs North Korea, certainly not directly. These firms' knowledge of hacking tools and culture makes it clear that malware, techniques and virtual points of reference like IP addresses are often and easily traded, imitated or faked. This of course does not completely discount the idea of DPRK involvement, but it makes proving it much more difficult. Hence the argument for an opportunistic alliance. One of them, Norse, has been developing the disgruntled-insider theory:
At the center of Norse's findings is Lena, a woman who had worked for Sony for 10 years in a senior technical position until she was laid off in May during a corporate restructuring. "Lena had the technical knowledge to facilitate the type of attack Sony had, which is why… she remains a person of interest," Norse's Stammberger says. "There are other individuals as well. There's a pretty short list of specific individuals, and we know their names, addresses, and nationalities. They seem to have some connection to this incident."
If accurate, "Lena" might be the closest thing to a smoking gun that anyone will be able to find. Norse briefed the FBI for three hours last week on their findings, but the agency remained mum on what they know. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to look at the agency's exact words: "The FBI has concluded the government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment." Crucially, this does not mean that they participated in the hacking of the network, from the inside or the outside. In fact, if you were to go to PasteBin and download some Sony executive's emails and then delete them, you could be accused of exactly the same thing.
Could it be that the entire foreign policy kerfuffle is based on an ill-considered or, worse, opportunistic reading of what the FBI said? Or is the agency providing the White House with a face-saving out if it is revealed that the DPRK was hardly involved? These are difficult questions that may never be wholly resolved. But in the meantime, no matter who swung the bat, there's plenty of candy for all the kids, so why ruin a good thing while you've got it?
As for that night club in Sofia where my credit card got taken for a wild ride, I did a little extra research. I found out from friends of friends that it's a small place that, more likely than not, is used as a money-laundering front. It turns out that the party I imagined – sleazy Eastern European gangsters in track suits, snorting coke off of strippers' fake boobs – never happened. How disappointingly appropriate.
Thanks to Ryan Moritz.
Typical Dreams: A Comparison of Dreams Across Cultures
by Jalees Rehman
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Butler Yeats – from "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven"
Have you ever wondered how the content of your dreams differs from that of your friends? How about the dreams of people raised in different countries and cultures? It is not always easy to compare dreams of distinct individuals because the content of dreams depends on our personal experiences. This is why dream researchers have developed standardized dream questionnaires in which common thematic elements are grouped together. These questionnaires can be translated into various languages and used to survey and scientifically analyze the content of dreams. Open-ended questions about dreams might elicit free-form, subjective answers which are difficult to categorize and analyze. Therefore, standardized dream questionnaires ask study subjects "Have you ever dreamed of . . ." and provide research subjects with a list of defined dream themes such as being chased, flying or falling.
Dream researchers can also modify the questionnaires to include additional questions about the frequency or intensity of each dream theme and specify the time frame that the study subjects should take into account. For example, instead of asking "Have you ever dreamed of…", one can prompt subjects to focus on the dreams of the last month or the first memory of ever dreaming about a certain theme. Any such subjective assessment of one's dreams with a questionnaire has its pitfalls. We routinely forget most of our dreams and we tend to remember the dreams that are either the most vivid or frequent, as well as the dreams which we may have discussed with friends or written down in a journal. The answers to dream questionnaires may therefore be a reflection of our dream memory and not necessarily the actual frequency of prevalence of certain dream themes. Furthermore, standardized dream questionnaires are ideal for research purposes but may not capture the complex and subjective nature of dreams. Despite these pitfalls, research studies using dream questionnaires provide a fascinating insight into the dream world of large groups of people and identify commonalities or differences in the thematic content of dreams across cultures.
The researcher Calvin Kai-Ching Yu from the Hong Kong Shue Yan University used a Chinese translation of a standardized dream questionnaire and surveyed 384 students at the University of Hong Kong (mostly psychology students; 69% female, 31% male; mean age 21). Here are the results:
Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of Chinese students according to Yu (2008):
- Schools, teachers, studying (95%)
- Being chased or pursued (92 %)
- Falling (87 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (81 %)
- Failing an examination (79 %)
- A person now alive as dead (75%)
- Trying again and again to do something (74%)
- Flying or soaring through the air (74%)
- Being frozen with fright (71 %)
- Sexual experiences (70%)
The most prevalent theme was "Schools, teachers, studying". This means that 95% of the study subjects recalled having had dreams related to studying, school or teachers at some point in their lives, whereas only 70% of the subjects recalled dreams about sexual experiences. The subjects were also asked to rank the frequency of the dreams on a 5-point scale (0 = never, 1=seldom, 2= sometimes, 3= frequently, 4= very frequently). For the most part, the most prevalent dreams were also the most frequent ones. Not only did nearly every subject recall dreams about schools, teachers or studying, this theme also received an average frequency score of 2.3, indicating that for most individuals this was a recurrent dream theme – not a big surprise in university students. On the other hand, even though the majority of subjects (57%) recalled dreams of "being smothered, unable to breathe", its average frequency rating was low (0.9), indicating that this was a rare (but probably rather memorable) dream.
How do the dreams of the Chinese students compare to their counterparts in other countries?
Michael Schredl and his colleagues used a similar questionnaire to study the dreams of German university students (nearly all psychology students; 85% female, 15% male; mean age 24) with the following results:
Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of German students according to Schredl and colleagues (2004):
- Schools, teachers, studying (89 %)
- Being chased or pursued (89%)
- Sexual experiences (87 %)
- Falling (74 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (69 %)
- A person now alive as dead (68 %)
- Flying or soaring through the air (64%)
- Failing an examination (61 %)
- Being on the verge of falling (57 %)
- Being frozen with fright (56 %)
There is a remarkable overlap in the top ten list of dream themes among Chinese and German students. Dreams about school and about being chased are the two most prevalent themes for Chinese and German students. One key difference is that dreams about sexual experiences are recalled more commonly among German students.
Tore Nielsen and his colleagues administered a dream questionnaire to students at three Canadian universities, thus obtaining data on an even larger study population (over 1,000 students).
Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of Canadian students according to Nielsen and colleagues (2003):
- Being chased or pursued (82 %)
- Sexual experiences (77 %)
- Falling (74 %)
- Schools, teachers, studying (67 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (60 %)
- Being on the verge of falling (58 %)
- Trying again and again to do something (54 %)
- A person now alive as dead (54 %)
- Flying or soaring through the air (48%)
- Vividly sensing . . . a presence in the room (48 %)
It is interesting that dreams about school or studying were the most common theme among Chinese and German students but do not even make the top-three list among Canadian students. This finding is perhaps also mirrored in the result that dreams about failing exams are comparatively common in Chinese and German students, but are not found in the top-ten list among Canadian students.
At first glance, the dream content of German students seems to be somehow a hybrid between those of Chinese and Canadian students. Chinese and German students share a higher prevalence of academia-related dreams, whereas sexual dreams are among the most prevalent dreams for both Canadians and Germans. However, I did notice an interesting aberrancy. Chinese and Canadian students dream about "Trying again and again to do something" – a theme which is quite rare among German students. I have simple explanation for this (possibly influenced by the fact that I am German): Germans get it right the first time which is why they do not dream about repeatedly attempting the same task.
The strength of these three studies is that they used similar techniques to assess dream content and evaluated study subjects with very comparable backgrounds: Psychology students in their early twenties. This approach provides us with the unique opportunity to directly compare and contrast the dreams of people who were raised on three continents and immersed in distinct cultures and languages. However, this approach also comes with a major limitation. We cannot easily extrapolate these results to the general population. Dreams about studying and school may be common among students but they are probably rare among subjects who are currently holding a full-time job or are retired. University students are an easily accessible study population but they are not necessarily representative of the society they grow up in. Future studies which want to establish a more comprehensive cross-cultural comparison of dream content should probably attempt to enroll study subjects of varying ages, professions, educational and socio-economic backgrounds.
Despite its limitation, the currently available data on dream content comparisons across countries does suggest one important message: People all over the world have similar dreams.
Yu, Calvin Kai-Ching. "Typical dreams experienced by Chinese people." Dreaming 18.1 (2008): 1-10.
Nielsen, Tore A., et al. "The Typical Dreams of Canadian University Students." Dreaming 13.4 (2003): 211-235.
Schredl, Michael, et al. "Typical dreams: stability and gender differences." The Journal of psychology 138.6 (2004): 485-494.
Monday, December 29, 2014
Sughra Raza. Untitled. Maine, 2014.
With best wishes to all for smooth sailing in a fulfilling new year.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Nylon monofilament; quadruple and tubular weaves.
In a current show at the ICA, Boston.
Cubas of the Imagination
by Lisa Lieberman
"Get ready for a torrid tropical holiday!" That's how the announcer on the trailer for Weekend in Havana (1941) introduced this film. Torrid: full of passionate or highly charged emotions arising from sexual love. Now there's an adjective to get your heart rate up! The list of synonyms in my thesaurus includes lustful, steamy, sultry, sizzling, hot, and here's Carmen Miranda, promising all that and more. I dare you to sit still through the opening number.
Granted, the Hays Code strictly limited how much steamy sex you could show explicitly in a 1941 movie, but directors were free to use innuendo. Here's handsome leading man John Payne working out the details of his (ahem) business relationship with Ms. Miranda. Meanwhile, Alice Fay is finding romance in the arms of a Latin lover, played by the Cuban-American actor Cesar Romero, a.k.a. "the Latin from Manhattan." Rumba, anyone?
The archetypical Latin lover was Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, of course. Back in the 1920s, he drove women mad with desire in his breakthrough role as a gaucho in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, stealing another man's partner and whisking her off in a tango faster than you can say, "Shall we dance?" Before his untimely death at the age of 31, he'd play a sheik (twice), a Spanish bullfighter, a Cossack, a maharaja, and a French aristocrat. The Latin bit had more to do with machismo style than nationality, it would appear. The gaucho's imperiousness on the dance floor was matched by the sheik's in ordering women about; in a famous scene from the sequel, Son of the Sheik, Valentino even initiates nonconsensual sex with the dancing girl whom he believes has betrayed him. (Valentino's films were all made before the Hays Code.)
Suave but not terribly virile in Weekend in Havana, at least Romero had Cuban heritage. Miranda, a performer known for her impossibly large tutti-frutti headdresses, was criticized in her native Brazil for pandering to American stereotypes of Latinas. "If they gave me the role of a Cuban girl, what was I to do?" Lisa Shaw quotes her as saying in her biography of the star. Cuban audiences, for their part, complained that the picture misrepresented their culture, that everything about Miranda was wrong—her tasteless costumes, her hip-shaking dancing, her exaggerated gestures and cartoonish facial expressions. But the studios called the shots, stage managing Miranda's over-the-top exoticism right down to instructing her on how to butcher the English language in comical ways. South-of the-border actors and locales were interchangeable in the escapist extravaganzas Hollywood concocted during World War II.
Miranda was neither the first nor the last to feed the fantasy of Cuba as a destination for illicit adventures. Rum, prostitution, and gambling had drawn American tourists to the island since the Prohibition era. "Leave the Dry Lands Behind" advertised the Bacardi rum company. Mojitos, daiquiris, and the Cuba Libre (rum and coke with a squeeze of lime) became popular cocktails at Sloppy Joe's and La Floridita, Ernest Hemingway's favorite bars. The Tropicana, a nightclub in which the Mafia had a controlling stake, was renowned for its casino and its lavish floor shows featuring scantily-clad chorus girls in colorful "native" costumes cavorting to the jazzy arrangements of a forty-piece house band.
Across the Atlantic, a British-born musician who called himself José Norman composed a song that came to epitomize the island's fun-loving spirit, "Cuban Pete."
They raved about Sloppy Joe
The Latin Lothario
But Havana has a new sensation
He's really a modest guy
Although he's the hottest guy in Havana
And here's what he has to say
They call me Cuban Pete
I'm the King of the Rumba beat
When I play the maracas I go
Recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1936, the song became an instant hit in America and inspired a movie that launched the career of Cuban-born Desi Arnez, the leader of a rumba band in New York city who had a way with the conga drum. Watch him fire up the audience as he performs his trademark number, "Babalu," with no Lucy to tamp down his enthusiasm.
All it took was a jaunt to Havana for Sky Masterson to loosen up the prim missionary in the 1950s musical Guys and Dolls. Right up to the eve of the Cuban Revolution, tourists looking to cast off their inhibitions were encouraged to head to Havana. Amid scenes of happy-go-lucky Cubans dancing the conga at carnival, a travelogue released in 1959—just before Fidel Castro took over—describes how, "for these people, lovers of music and gaiety, any excuse is reason enough for a celebration."
Romance Without the Rumba
The party ended, but a new love affair with Cuba soon began. Che Guevara, the Argentinian doctor turned guerrilla who sought to bring about the complete transformation of Cuban society, captured the imagination of radical reformers around the world. Jean-Paul Sartre called him "the most complete human being of our time." Nelson Mandela admired his uncompromising quest for freedom. Student militants evoked his passionate idealism in demonstrations throughout Western Europe and the United States in ‘68—sporting T-shirts emblazoned with his face at protest marches. And in 2006, on the thirty-ninth anniversary of Che's assassination by CIA-backed Bolivian army forces, Time named him a twentieth-century icon. "Though communism may have lost the fire," the editors wrote, "he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution."
Che and Castro reimagined Cuba as a just and egalitarian country where all would have access to education, health care, and dignified employment. No longer would U.S. corporations control Cuban industries, banks, and public utilities. Gambling and prostitution would be eliminated, along with the corrupting influence of capitalist culture. Government would serve all the people, not merely the elite. Agrarian reforms would ensure that farm workers received fair compensation for their labor and that more of the island's land would be used to grow food for domestic consumption, not sugar and tobacco for export. Some of these reforms did come about as envisioned; literacy increased dramatically, public health improved, and resources have been equitably distributed across the country. But political persecution of dissidents and one-party rule underscore the repressive nature of the regime.
The love affair wound down as disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution set in, but don't put away those maracas. Over the past decade or so, economic hardships due to the withdrawal of outside aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effects of the American blockade have resulted in a thriving black market and a burgeoning sex tourism industry. "Cuba has become a novel site for tourists of both sexes pursuing fantasies of sex and romance with the racially exotic and sexually exotic ‘other,’" Elise Andaya claims in Reproducing the Revolution: Gender, Kinship, and the State in Contemporary Cuba. "International advertising to attract tourism to Cuba frequently relies on the image of sun, sand, and sexuality, represented primarily through the depiction of the beautiful mulata woman."
The thrill is back. Will the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States dampen the ardor for a torrid holiday in Havana? Somehow I doubt it.
Manic Social Body
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
The traffic jam has become a peculiar construction in relation to the Global South. As I began writing, I wasn't sure what to focus on when looking at the traffic jam. Where does one go to find it? To the city of course. Can one touch it, taste it, smell it? Yes to all of the above. In methodology, should one speak about the everyday possibilities of tiny jams? Or should one traffic in images of the big thing as it were, such as the one in Beijing that lasted more than ten days and was endlessly tweeted, facebooked, and hyperlinked? An article in the Wall Street Journal dated August 2010 reports on this modern-day wonder:
"A 60-mile traffic jam near the Chinese capital could last until mid-September, officials say. Traffic has been snarled along the outskirts of Beijing and is stretching toward the border of Inner Mongolia ever since roadwork on the Beijing-Tibet Highway started Aug. 13. As the jam on the highway, also known as National Highway 110, passed the 10-day mark Tuesday, vehicles were inching along little more than a third of a mile a day….Other cities around the world face similar congestion headaches. The worst are in developing countries where the sudden rise of a car-buying middle class outpaces highway construction. Unlike in the U.S., which had decades to develop transportation infrastructure to keep up with auto buyers. Still, Beijing beat out Mexico City, Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi to take top spot in the International Business Machines Corp. survey of "commuter pain," which is based on a measure of the economic and emotional toll of commuting."
Of course, this is not a new "developing country" story. Too many cars, and too little road, which then naturally extends into the argument, too much government, and too little capital. The story of the traffic jam becomes an oft-told tale. And the kind of great traffic jam that I refer to performs a very interesting function. It is a spectacle that obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present. But of course, as anybody who has been in any kind of traffic jam will tell you, it does feel like a never-ending present.
How does one then not add to this literature on the spectacular "failures" of cities in the Global South? So I turn then to a quotidian autoethnography, or in other words, the social life of traffic as I remember it in the city of Pune. Pune or Poona, the eighth largest city in India was where I began fieldwork long years ago. The scapes I inhabited were the night, the roads I inhabited were empty. I experienced traffic as mainly its absence. During my various stints in the city, I rode scooters and motorbikes. For the longest time, Pune has been a town, a hardy moon to Bombay's brilliantine, a town of students and retirees, of wonderfully temperate weather and bicycle commuters, and a city of two-wheelers and bad riders. A friend of mine who had lived all his life in Pune once told me this story of riding to Bombay on his motorbike and being pulled aside by a traffic policeman who scornfully rebuked him for being a Pune rider. In other words, he noticed how my friend followed no rules.
As of March 31, 2014 there were around 20-25 lakh two-wheelers on the road in Pune. I read the figures, and I saw the statistics. But I wondered how this translated in terms of the people who facilitated this entry into the traffic space of the city and were required to manage it. So one morning at 9 am, I boarded a rickshaw to the Road Transport Office (RTO) near the main Pune Railway Station. The offices would only open at ten but the gates were open and I sneaked in to take pictures. I went in, photographed some signs, walked around and was approached as I attempted to leave by six men. "Madam do you want to take pictures? " they asked in Marathi." I nodded saying I already had, and asked them if they would mind answering some questions. "You aren't a journalist, are you?" they asked. "Not at all", I said. "You might get us in trouble later", they said. This last only made sense because they were touts, or in other words para-legal functionaries who facilitated the process of obtaining learning licenses. My main interlocutor was a man I call Nitin who was more than happy to take me aside and answer questions as I tried desperately to keep up with everything he said. The other five men stood around peering over my shoulder to see what I was writing.
When I interviewed him, Nitin had been working for eleven years as a facilitator around the RTO. He explained his business as being one of helping people circumvent cumbersome State processes. According to him, people had a choice. Either they could repeatedly go through the process of submitting papers, dealing with the officials, and appeasing their quirks, or they could come to him. He described the RTO officials thus: "They are whimsical. Quite mad. They tend to fight. If you argue, they say, ‘Are you the RTO, the police, or are you my father?' It is better to not deal with them."
Nitin's account is very much in keeping with the popular understanding of the State as irrational, irascible, and opaque. However, what he did not talk about was his very role and interest in producing the notion of the RTO as one that does not want to give people access to the roads. As the person most equipped to straddle the space between the State and the vehicular population, Nitin actively and profitably produced a recalcitrant RTO, which according to him attracted a large number of complaints from applicants. Seeking to communicate people's frustration with State functionaries, he declared, "The Government office does no work, but thinks itself to be the State".
It is important to note that Nitin and his mediating cohort actively also produce the kind of traffic that Pune citizens have learnt to lament, namely, inexperienced drivers and riders. When I asked him about the ways in which the act of his facilitation puts unprepared drivers on the road, Nitin explained it away as the complications created by the inattention of various other State authorities. The police didn't enforce punishments harshly enough, he claimed. Further, in his explanation, the RTO could not afford to refuse or fail people because of the repercussions of such preventive action given an extremely politically influential motor vehicle manufacturing lobby. The RTO therefore had created insufficiently rigorous exams, he added.
Given the State's increasing emphasis on automation, I asked him about the computerization of the test for the learners' license and whether this had made a difference to his job. He explained the process to me, describing how test takers sit in a schoolroom like structure on benches. They have three unnaturally large buttons in front of them. Thirty to forty people take the test together and questions appear on the screen in front of them. As they appear, test takers are required to hit the correct button. Once this test is done, testers' scores are projected off the screen. At the end of this description of a seemingly efficient process, Nitin snorted and said "It's all a Kaun banega crorepati" referring to the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He continued, "Everybody copies; half of them don't even know how to read, they just look to the person next to them and press the same button."
There are several trenchant critiques of State that Nitin articulated, both during his interview and through his very mode of livelihood. There was however, another set of critiques that Nitin also articulated through tropes of propriety and good behaviour. In talking about bad drivers I asked him what advice he might give people whose licenses he facilitated. Nitin said, "One must monitor one's own behavior before offering advice. One must be a role model. The young ones are all irresponsible and impatient. They leave the house late and then run green lights and they have no fear. It's this that causes the problem." Lamenting another aspect of change and traffic, he lamented, "People who used to buy cars earlier had class, now what can I say? Yesterday's beggars are today's ministers."
Let me attempt to corral those arbitrary bits of montage, nostalgia, and online trawling. Traffic is part of a larger system and direction of change in Pune. Even as most continue to be irritated, and annoyed with its failed promises, not everybody is stuck in the same jam. I wanted my nostalgic city back, and Nitin wanted everyone to behave and be role models. To offer a hint of my undisclosed ethnographic encounters, the chief officer of the RTO wanted construction companies to build good roads, and the publicity officer for the Pune Transport Office wanted people to find their way to the right window in order to facilitate a quicker process sans touts. And yet, there is consonance between middle-class desires for order, Nitin's understanding of a natural separation between those who ought to own cars, and those who are undeserving of said ownership, and the State's formalist declarations of a place for everything and everything in its place. The city that all desire seems to be a city that "works". Like Rem Koolhass has argued, the city is merely a set of disasters that planners want to avert; there are no visions of city-ness anymore.
So no, we are not stuck in the same jam. Yet, it feels like together, we worry about the direction in which we have all been steered in the promises of a better city. We continue to believe in the ultimate viability of its promise. The physical anxiety created by the traffic jam and the nagging suspicion that the city as a form is both doomed and untenable, is allayed by carping about the societal malaise that is traffic.
To write about the traffic jam in Pune, the entire city must becomes an ethnographic object as one follows the ebb and flow of traffic, its bumps, its grinds, its lack of method or madness, its transformation. Pune used to be a city of two-wheelers, and students. Now it is a city of cars, two-wheelers, working professionals, and students. The jam gives us all a space to complain. The jam brings the problems of the city, its failures, its long-term annoyances into the public space, literally as it were. I might even attempt the hope that the jam is an equalizing space where no one can move. And in this mutual immobility, perhaps there is a rise in sociality. But recuperating the space of the jam as a public sphere must be seen in light of the increasing sparseness of any other. Some of the debates I'm raising may already be dead debates; think about rights to and in cities, increasing seclusionary practices, and State withdrawal. In this scenario, the jam might well be an important live space, and a social body that contains hopes, desires, irritations, and openings.
The Undocumented Journey North, Through Mexico
by Hari Balasubramanian
On Oscar Martinez's "The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail" -- the English translation of "Los Migrantes Que No Importan" (The Migrants Who Do Not Matter). Translation by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington.
From 2000-2006, I was a graduate student at Arizona State University in the Phoenix metro area. My neighborhood, a ten minute walk from the university, had cheap apartments where Asian students lived alongside immigrants from south of the US-Mexico border. We students had visas, had made safe journeys on flights, and now worked and studied on campus. Many Hispanic immigrants, in contrast, had made life threatening journeys and had crossed the border illegally. They now did construction, farm, and restaurant jobs for a living. At the neighborhood Pakistani-Indian restaurant, I remember seeing – through a decorative window shaped as a Mughal motif – three Hispanic workers in the kitchen patiently chopping the onions and tomatoes that would go into the curries that I enjoyed.
Some Indian students looked down on these immigrants, blaming them for petty bicycle thefts and how unsafe the streets were at night. And just as all East Asians were "Chinkus", the immigrants from south of the border were "Makkus" – a twist on "Mexican", used mostly (but not always) in a negative sense. No one, though, had a clear sense what the stories of these immigrants were. While it is true that a large percentage of those who cross the border are from Mexico, tens of thousands each year come from the troubled countries further south – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. This year, an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central American countries, fleeing violence in their home towns, will cross the border. Surprisingly, even hundreds of undocumented South Asians cross via Mexico – but more on that later.
In the long view of history, this is how things look. First, European immigrants ethnically cleanse most of North America of its American Indian inhabitants. This was illegal immigration – just consider the number of land treaties broken – but at the time it was glorified as Manifest Destiny. With help from Africans kidnapped and enslaved against their will (coerced immigration) European settlers eventually create a powerful country that now draws people from all continents. Among modern trends in immigration, it is the Hispanic one that stands out. Undocumented immigrants – the numbers are hard to estimate, but there seem to be 10-12 million of them in the US – have altered the demographic and culture in many states, much to the consternation of American conservatives. An interesting fact, though of no practical consequence, is that the mixed race (mestizo) and indigenous immigrants of Mexico and Central America, crossing over in their tens of thousands, happen to be the closest genetic relatives of the North American Indians.
What exactly does the undocumented journey north look like? To reach El Norte – as the United States is called – a Central American taking the overland route has to first overcome a "colossal obstacle": Mexico. In The Beast, the Salvadorian journalist Oscar Martinez reports on the harrowing details of this long journey – one to three thousand miles, depending on the route you take.
Suppose you are a young man, a teenager, directly affected by the gang violence in Guatemala City or Tegucigalpa (Honduras), or San Salvador. You may have been forced to join a gang, such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or Barrio-18, or you might have inadvertently witnessed a murder that makes you a target. Maybe your siblings or friends have already been recruited or killed. Or, you are a young woman who has been orphaned or abandoned by your parents, sexually abused by relatives. Maybe you are a bricklayer, a policewoman, a farmer, earning very little and tired with how things are. Whoever you are and whatever the reason, there is a certain kind of desperation that propels you north to find a better life: una vida mejor, as it is known on the migrant trail. You flee north not knowing the serious risk you are taking; there seems to be no other choice.
First, you get to the Guatemala-Mexico border. The Suchiate River is a popular crossing; this gets you into Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states. The dangers start as soon as you cross. In Chiapas, to avoid migration checkpoints, you might trek through back roads – a trail through a shadowy network of ranches, called La Arrocera. You are an undocumented traveler in Mexico, without a visa, so you prefer to maintain a low profile. But the Mexicans know this too. They know that, because of the risk of being deported, you will not report any extortions, crimes, assaults and robberies that might happen to you. Report to the police and the police might simply turn you over to the gangs, whom they are working together with. If members and spies of the vicious Los Zetas drug cartel – to give just one example – gets to know that you have a family member across in the US, they will sweet talk or torture you into giving that family member's number. You'll be kidnapped and detained until money is sent to the kidnappers through a Western Union wire transfer.
Your first goal is to get to a southern town - say Tapachula or Tenosique or Arriaga - where freight trains start their journey. You will hitch a ride on top of boxcars or anything you can hold on to, along with hundreds of other migrants, with very little to protect you from the sudden jolts and movements of the train. This notorious series of train rides is collectively known as La Bestia – The Beast (some pictures here). If you are terribly tired – as is often the case after days of traveling – close your eyes and lose your grip or foothold, your journey ends (though, as Martinez writes in the afterword, there are migrants who, even after losing a leg on La Bestia, will try to continue the journey on crutches after a two year recovery: so powerful is the urge to migrate north). It's not just about the fear of falling off and getting mutilated. Traveling with you and sometimes pretending to be a migrants are armed bandits and spies, keen on stealing the money you have. These bandits may board at towns where the train stops or slows down.
Your only help on this journey are small shelters run by Catholic groups and human rights organizations, where you can rest for a day, have a free meal before moving on.
In general, the passing of thousands of migrants like you is good business for the locals. Food, transportation, information, safe shelters and routes – these are what you need. But in a country where large swathes of territory are run by narco gangs, business essentially becomes one of extortion, kidnappings, random abuse and murders. After drugs and arms smuggling, swindling money from migrants is the third most lucrative business for the cartels. Martinez notes that "talking about the narco's fees is as common as talking about the rise of the price of tortillas". There are guides, also called polleros, whom you pay to guide you through to the border. But the polleros cannot work independently. A pollero has to have a contact high up in the drug cartel command chain, and essentially works for the cartel, or pays a hefty tax. If the pollero decides to freelance, he is in big trouble, and so are the migrants traveling with him.
Moving north in this fashion, occasionally doing odd jobs in towns to support yourselves and saving money, you will get close enough to the towns along the extensive desert border with the United States. At the border you find a wall. "The word ‘wall'," Martinez writes, "is a mere four letters which signify much more: the constant presence of agents, cars, helicopters, motion sensors, surveillance cameras, horses, all terrain vehicles, reflectors, and then, of course, the actual physical wall itself." With so much surveillance, your choices on where to cross are limited. Inevitably you will run into the heavily armed cartels trying to get their drugs across. The highly valued drugs have priority of course, and the cartels don't want groups of migrants attracting the attention of border patrol agents.
After all this – after a month or more of traveling undocumented in Mexico, riding the rails, evading the cartels, bandits, the Mexican police and migration authorities, often all colluding together – if you do make it across, into the California, Arizona or New Mexico or Texas desert, risking death by dehydration or drowning in the rushing waters of the Rio Grande; after all this, there is a very good chance that you will be caught and deported. Even if you manage to get to a major American city and find work you still may be deported within a year or even longer. A Catholic priest who runs a shelter for migrants in Tijuana tells Martinez: "Before about 30% of the people in the shelter were deportees and the rest were on their way to cross. Now, about 90% are deportees."
If you are a Central American woman, you start the journey knowing that you'll be abused. Consider what Martinez learns from Luis Flores, who helps victims of human trafficking in southern Mexico: "There is an expression for the transformation of the migrant's body: cuerpomatic. The body becomes a credit card, a new platinum-edition 'bodymatic' which buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won't get killed. Your bodymatic, except for what you get charged, buys a more comfortable ride on the train." En route, you might decide to work as a waitress and or as a dancer in a border town in Chiapas. An entire chapter in The Beast focuses on Central American women who planned to reach the US, but are now stuck in Chiapas. If you are a lighter skinned Central American, you'll earn more because lighter skin is rare and in demand in mostly dark and indigenous Chiapas.
On the trail, migrants have to use their "wits and will" to escape sexual abuse. Like Paola, a 23-year old transsexual Guatemalan. Paula cleverly tells her would-be abusers in Chiapas: "Look here, do what you want but for your sake, I'd put a condom on. I've got some over there in a backpack. It'd be for your own good, you know, I've got AIDS. It's just well, I didn't expect this sort of problem. I thought you were all Macho men, you know, the sort that only rape women." Paola's fake claim – she did not have AIDS – and taunting the men about their masculinity worked. The men, after cursing her profusely, asked her get lost.
Martinez often starts a chapter with a dramatic and tense story – such as Paola's above – then leads the reader to the next set of stories, in the process revealing all pieces of the puzzle relevant to the migrant route. Martinez's tone is urgent. He is always on the side of the migrant who has no real voice in Mexico. Wherever possible he evokes details around him: the jungle landscape of Chiapas, the jangling noises on the freight train, the bleakness of the desert. His material comes from years of deep immersion, a firsthand experience of the dangers: long hours atop freight trains; visiting towns where everyone is paralyzed by the fear of the drug cartels; countless conversations with migrants, reporters, human rights workers, Catholic priests running shelters, the polleros who guide the migrants.
Martinez's immersion, in one case, is literal: near Nuevo Laredo (across from Texas' Laredo) he dives into the Rio Grande along with a migrant, trying to get a sense of how hard it is to swim across to the American side.
I've visited Mexico many times. What drew me there was its complex indigenous past. But in searching for an abstract, centuries-old past, I'd missed the modern story that was unfolding in the country. Martinez's book made me look at my travels in Mexico in a very different light.
In December 2008, on my way to the remote, moss-covered Yaxchilan ruins in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, I had been stopped at checkpoints. I remember the authorities being curious about who I was. I hadn't understood then that these checkpoints were meant to catch migrants, many of whom were probably using trails in the jungles all around. To get to Yaxchilan, I took a boat on the Usumacinta River, which separates Mexico from Guatemala. I hadn't known then that it was by crossing such a largely unguarded river border (image below) that a migrant begins his or her journey north. I hadn't known that a month prior to my visit, a migrant had been raped and murdered in Chiapas, along with her two twin babies. Her story had made it to the newspapers but there are hundreds of stories that don't.
In May 2007, I happened – also by chance – to be at the northern end of the migrant route, in Mexico's largest state, Chihuahua. I was traveling with a group of archaeologists from the University of Arizona to the ruins at Casas Grandes. We started from Tucson in Arizona, an hour north of the border. We were supposed to cross in the town of Douglas. That would get us into the Mexican state of Sonora; a highway through the mountains would lead to Chihuahua, to Casas Grandes. But our plans changed quickly. There had been some trouble in Sonora, near the border town of Agua Prieta – something to do with drug or human trafficking gangs. Forty men had attacked a police station and stolen arms. A grenade had been thrown at a newspaper office. A shootout followed as the police and army responded.
So we avoided the Sonoran route, and instead took the longer route through New Mexico directly into Chihuahua. We entered Mexico at the small town of Palomas. The main town avenue was split by a row of forked streetlights. On each side were informal shops and businesses, painted bright green, yellow and pink (my first experience of the Mexican penchant for contrasting and bright colors). Near the passport control office, a frail looking man approached me with wallets and sunglasses to sell. Indigenous Tarahumara women – noticeably different from other Mexicans in Palomas due to their chocolate dark complexions and flowing, multicolored skirts – begged with their children or sold a few souvenirs laid out on a rectangular piece of cloth. I learned later that the Tarahumara have been caught in the narco wars, because their homeland, the Sierra Madre range of Chihuahua, happens to be the best place to grow lucrative drugs.
I walked out to the street median in Palomas to take a picture. Just as I was about to click, a battered car with perhaps four men in it rushed by. The driver angrily gestured that I should put away the camera. I was puzzled, but instinctively did as asked. According to Martinez's book, Palomes back in 2007 was hotbed of human and drug trafficking.
As we drove from Palomas deeper into Chihuahuan desert, we noticed the heavily armed military, even soldiers atop tanks, moving in the opposite direction. This was the then president Felipe Calderon's war against the drug cartels. Calderon had been elected just one year ago, in 2006. In the ensuing years, the drug wars spiraled out of control. The Chihuahuan city of Juarez, 150 odd kilometers east of Palomas, was on its way to becoming one of the most violent cities in world (homicides started declining only in 2013). My Mexican friend from Juarez, who went to graduate school with me, told me how gangs that had kept violence to themselves now began to blatantly harass civilians. His parents' home was robbed by an armed gang.
The Beast begins as a book primarily about Central Americans journeying north through Mexico. But as the chapters progress, there is a shift. To describe the plight of the migrants, Martinez finds that it is necessary to show how deeply the cartels have infiltrated Mexican life, police, government. The book ends up holding a mirror to Mexico of the Calderon years, when a staggering number of homicides and disappearances happened. As Francisco Goldman writes in the New Yorker – see pieces 1, 2, 3 and 4 – it is the exhaustion that Mexicans feel with this deepening infiltration of the cartels that is at the heart of the heated protests this fall, precipitated by the disappearance of 43 young men in the state of Guerrero.
Some other related thoughts:
The South Asian Angle: A 2009 report by Homeland Security estimated that India was number six – after Mexico, the Central American countries, and Philippines – with 200,000 undocumented immigrants currently in the US. Between 2009 and 2011, 2600 Indians were detained by the Border Patrol along the US-Mexico border. This coincided with a visa-on-arrival policy that Guatemala and other Central American countries allowed for Indian passport holders. So Indians could fly in to Guatemala City and start the journey north. The cross continental flight suggests Indian migrants had more money than most Central Americans - perhaps the money bought them a safer passage. Guatemala has now stopped visa on arrival for Indians.
A Bangladeshi in Quito: In October this year – in one of those strange, unlikely encounters that happen during travel – I met met a Bangladeshi man selling samosas, 3 for $1, in the old town of Quito, Ecuador. He was the only South Asian among many Ecuadorian street vendors. The samosas were in a container - perhaps a hundred of them. Business was brisk. To appeal to the locals, he had cleverly called the samosas "Empanadas de India".
I spoke with him in Hindi. He had been in Ecuador for five years and was fluent in Spanish. Life had been reasonable, he said; accommodation, food and cost of living were inexpensive in Quito. He was in a position now to apply for an Ecuadorian passport. But his interest had always been in migrating to the United States – the same route via Mexico that others take. Some acquaintances of his had made it there already. He asked me about jobs in the US. Unfortunately, I had no concrete sense on what an undocumented immigrant could expect. I did tell him that the journey through Mexico, from what I'd heard, was risky. But he seemed intent and had a more optimistic view. All this was before I read Martinez's book -- if I had known of The Beast, I would have urgently recommended it to him.
How unusual and compelling his story is: here was a man from Bangladesh in, of all places, Ecuador, biding his time patiently, saving up money by selling that most South Asian of snacks, samosas, and even securing a backup citizenship, so that he could risk the journey north!
Sin Nombre: While The Beast contains a multitude of individual stories and details about the migrant trail, the movie Sin Nombre tackles the same theme with a simpler, focused narrative. It tells the story of one Honduran family making its way through Mexico, hoping to unite with other family members already in New Jersey. On the way, they meet a escaping member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Sin Hombre is fiction, but to see Sin Hombre while reading The Beast is like watching a documentary based on the details in the book.
One of the beautiful and heartwarming moments in the film is when weary migrants on the moving train receive packets of food and water, thrown at them by the locals. This is a reference to the Veracruz-based group Las Patronas. The Mexican women of Las Patronas have been quietly helping migrants with food and water for more than two decades. In 2013, Las Patronas won one of Mexico's most prestigious human rights awards.
by Maniza Naqvi
And I'm reminded suddenly of that time one evening when Jesus walked into a bar with a Pakistani and an Indian in Sarajevo.
I guess it's a good time to tell you this story.
Jesus looked very serious that evening a decade ago and formal too as Sanjay invited me to supper with them.
‘We're taking you to the finest restaurant in all of Sarajevo!' Sanjay said. And before I could say it was a tourist trap or anything like that Jesus solemnly added,‘It is my favorite.'
I think that was the first time I had heard him speak. He never uttered a word during staff meetings—just took notes and nodded from time to time. He wore Save the Children ties.
Now who was going to argue about where to go and what to eat with Jesus? Not me. Not with Jesus from Procurement or Sanjay from Financial Management both of whom, had my project document on their desks for review and which I needed back from them cleared and approved by c.o.b the next day. If this was the finest and the favorite restaurant in town who was I to show them the error of their ways or contradict them at nine p.m. on a cold and quiet night when I had nowhere else to go to. So be it. Done.I braced myself for the boring evening ahead.
On the short walk to the restaurant I stopped at an ATM machine. As I withdrew a couple of hundred Convertible Marks, I commented to them ‘This probably functions as surveillance. Someone somewhere knows that I'm standing at the corner of Olitsa such and such at such and such time in such and such city.'
Sanjay laughed ‘You are so paranoid. There is no such thing. This is the year 2004 not the book 1984!'
Jesus remained silent.
I pointed to the sky and said in a stage whisper ‘Oh yeah! Well He's been spying on us since the beginning of time!'
Jesus smiled. Sanjay didn't get it.
‘You know? Naughty and nice?' I hinted laughing.
Still nothing. Accountants.
The bar was quiet when we walked in and the restaurant was as forlorn a place as I remembered it. It was a dingy looking throwback to the Winter Olympics –of 1984 come to think of it. There were a couple of customers there--two men in military uniforms —huddled over their beers and food. Two Britons—beards—prayer caps talking to each other earnestly. And there was a couple seated facing each other at a table near ours. They seemed to be bored elderly musicians, waiting to perform: waiting for us to settle down before they would sing for us over our supper so they could have theirs. I looked the couple over. He had a harmonium on his lap. He was in his early sixties perhaps and maybe he was Roma? He seemed to be waiting for a moment to start playing but the patrons this evening wouldn't stop talking. Across from him and older than him it seemed, sat the singer—or perhaps she was a dancer---a bottle blond, with earlier versions of bottle red still evident nearer the roots. Swollen pouches of flesh beneath her eyes, blue eye shadow on heavy lids—and two rouge round spots on either plump cheek----they sat in silence staring at each other. He in a suit—navy blue—she swathed in a velvet flouncy skirt in cypress green over which she wore an embroidered velvet smock and a colorful embroidered shawl. All of us, whiling away an evening away from home.
As Jesus, Sanjay and I settled down at our table in a corner I said ‘Hey Hay-seus, I saw a pretty decent documentary film on Cuba just the other night on some travel channel…Habana and the Buena Vista Club. So charming! I want to go to Habana before Fidel Castro dies. You know before everything changes and the old world charm disappears. You know?'
Jesus glanced at me and nodded silently. A waiter came over and fussed with the table removing extra plates and glasses while we watched.
A few minutes later just as the wine showed up Jesus leaned forward and offered this: ‘I was very close to Fidel Castro. I was his translator for twenty years.' Seeing my open mouth, he nodded ‘Yes. It is true. Not only that----I was the translator then I became the defense attaché of Cuba for Raul Castro, and after that I was the last ambassador to the Soviet Union from Cuba before Perestroika.'
I stared with glee at Jesus. The evening suddenly looked promising. The bread arrived and we paused while I passed it around. Then the waiter asked for our orders. Orders were placed. We all ordered assortments of cevapcicci kebab and fish on skewers. Jesus ordered stew. Beef. I followed suit. Sanjay ordered a fish soup and munched on buttered bread.
Jesus continued ‘At the time that I defected to the United States, I was the Ambassador from Cuba to Moscow. Cuba was the most sophisticated surveillance State, much more so than the Soviet Union, ----neighbor spied against neighbor, children spied on parents, friends on friends and colleagues on colleagues. Yes everyone kept a watch on each other--- a check and double check, a tracking of each other.'
He talked about how the Cuban State played everyone against each other for their own good and for the good of each other. How without having to be violently ruthless the State was ruthless. "But I knew the moment I had fallen out of favor. And I knew that I had to defect" He sat up and raising his fore finger in the air he said with pride ‘I was the highest ranking defector from Cuba. The Ambassador from Costa Rica to Moscow assisted me in defecting.'
‘Why, Hay-seus, why did you defect?' Sanjay asked.
‘It was because of a memo. I had written a memo back to my bosses in Cuba forecasting that the end of the Soviet Union was eminent based on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘Wow!' I said.
‘Yes.' Jesus agreed.
‘Ah' I said ‘Nagorno-Karabakh—I love saying that—so exotic—Nagorno-Karabakh, no?'
Jesus had his arms folded across his chest as he continued, ‘This one act of mine—the memo--had not been viewed favorably by Fidel. But still Raul had protected me because we had been personal friends'
I cast another glance at the musicians. They sat there across the table from each other—gazing at each other as if, in rebuke or is it regret. As if keeping each other's secrets by telling each other lies. From time to time she dabbed her eyes as though she were quietly crying. As though, they had rendezvoused here this evening years after being parted from each other to meet this one last time. Perhaps they had been a duo of singers and lovers and years later the war had torn them apart and separated them---now here they were meeting—He alone, still. She a spinster, no perhaps a grandmother, widowed: There comes a time that it's all the same. She looked, abandoned. She was dressed up this evening to recreate lost moments but had managed only a macabre resurrection of something long gone. Now they sat across from each other staring wordlessly while she wept noiselessly and he commiserated, silently.
Hay-seus talked and talked and I continued to listen enraptured, confirmed in my belief that just when you think you are going to be bored in Sarajevo—something happens—the Procurement guy—the quiet—boring procurement guy comes up with a story. It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for. It was true.
Jesus never once said an incriminating or negative thing about Fidel Castro or Cuba the whole evening. Not once. He simply narrated a sequence of events ‘So you see, it was impossible for me to have continued in that flow of life. It was as though Jesus was simply reciting a story that he had repeated many times before. It was a clear line of reasoning for the benefit of those accepting him in as their new friend, a rationale for his resurrecting himself from Castro's man and friend---to his new status in his new country the 'Not Castro's Friends' country.
But Jesus never once said an incriminating sentence about Raul or Fidel or his new best friends. Not once. Perhaps, the one who betrays all loves all, or maybe, the other way around. The omni presence of surveillance necessitates a deep faith in betrayal. And to gain its trust you must be dispassionate about yours.
When Jesus described the entire system as being one of surveillance without any outward appearance of it, I countered ‘Many would say that for the American society of today. You know the media--- Americans never question anything----the way technology keeps a close track on everyone, through laptops, the websites. ATM and credit cards'.
Sanjay vehemently protested ‘Well that's simply preposterous that's not at all how America is. No way!' Jesus and I exchanged glances, particularly amusing was his full throated and rather comical defense of the American media as a place of open debate and all opinions being given a fair hearing. I thought him a fool. And later, when I thought back to the evening, I thought: the kind of fool who most always only plays the part.
I was struck by how matter of fact and unemotional Hay-seus's analysis and story was, as though it had been turned over and over again, and rechecked from every angle—played and replayed to himself. And to others. Till it was flawlessly delivered and air tight as though it were the thinking of a resolved man---reasoned and dispassionate. Totally plausible and full of contradictions too which after all are allowed to human beings but most importantly provide evidence, that the narrator was credible and not dangerous to anyone. Not speaking ill of anyone.
Jesus said ‘The sophistication of Cuba's system, of Castro's genius was that a rebellion against him---a popular uprising would never happen. Those who stayed in Cuba, loved him—those who opposed him, he let them leave for America. And in the final analysis, though I myself could not tolerate it and wanted out, in the final analysis, no matter how bad Castro was, for now his leaving or dying would be the worst thing for Cuba.'
A defector, who advises faithfully, that the best course of action would be that Fidel must be allowed to live out his rule. Beautiful! And now he was a procurement officer stationed in the Balkans and the year was circa 2004. I looked across at the musicians again. Perhaps they were Castro's spies—shadowing Jesus---dressed up as a couple of musicians from an abandoned circus— looking like they'd stepped out of a painting. He fat, stodgy and with pudgy fingers—she fading and haggard: Both listening in on what Jesus was saying. We began eating--- the beef stew. Jesus pronounced ‘I have talked to much. The beef stew is cold'
I said ‘It is tasteless.' I tried to get the waiter to bring me hot sauce.
He did. Ketchup. Heated.
Monday, December 15, 2014
Delhi: the City of Rape?
By Namit Arora
On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.
Delhi now lives in infamy as India’s ‘rape capital’. In Dec 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named by the media as ‘Nirbhaya’, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Breaking some of their taboos and long silence around sexual assault, angry middle-class men and women marched in Delhi shouting ‘Death to Rapists!’ The parliament scrambled to enact tough new anti-rape laws.
Many Delhiites have since grown fearful of their city’s public spaces. Opposition politicians, spotting an emotionally charged issue, promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the BJP, Narendra Modi told Delhiites last year, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind "Nirbhaya" who became a victim of rape.’ AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal even promised private security guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood. All this might suggest that a rape epidemic has broken out in Delhi’s streets, alleys, and buses. Mainstream media outlets in India and abroad seem to agree.
Anyone trying to analyze the issue must at least ask: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The latest 2014 data on rape from Delhi Police is a great place to start, not the least because it challenges the conventional wisdom of Delhiites and their media and politicians. It shows that, as in other countries and consistent with previous years in Delhi, men known to the victims commit the vast majority of rapes—96 percent in Delhi. These men include friends, neighbours, ‘relatives such as brother-in-law, uncle, husband or ex-husband and even father.’ More than 80 percent of them rape inside the victim’s home or their own. Strangers commit only 4 percent of rapes, which are also likelier to be reported. Yet so many people fixate on this latter scenario and conclude from it that Delhi is unsafe for women to go out by themselves.
The hard truth is that sexual predators are not so much ‘out there’ in the faceless crowd but among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in Mint last year, ‘the problem [of rape in Delhi] is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends.’ In other words, we ought to worry about rape less when women enter public spaces and more when they return home. Why do so few Indians—men and women, even policy makers and public figures—seem to realize this? Some feminists have argued that this wicked blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.
So how common is rape in Delhi? The reported incidence, which drives the media and public fear and perception of this crime, is far lower than in every one of the 76 cities in a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). Delhi in 2012 reported 4 rapes per 100K population vs. 107 in Minneapolis, 88 in Cleveland, 58 in Philadelphia, 43 in Boston, 36 in Houston, and so on. Western European capitals are better on average than U.S. cities but not by much. Even in terms of other violent crimes like robbery and murder, Delhi is better than most of these 76 U.S. cities. Strangers this year committed about 8 rapes per month in Delhi, the second largest city in the world with 25 million people. In London, a third as populated as Delhi, strangers committed about 36 rapes per month—a rate 13X Delhi’s. Every rape is one too many but by comparison, Delhi seems significantly safer for women. Other Indian metros are even safer than Delhi. Could this really be true?
Although the media and public outrage is clearly based on the reported cases of rape, many still ask when comparative data is trotted out: but isn’t rape significantly underreported in India? Yes, as in every country, underreporting happens in India too, and surely more so than in the U.S. (especially for rapes by men known to the victim, partly because marital rape isn’t recognized as rape). Various studies have tried to estimate the extent of underreporting but they vary a lot because estimating actual incidence is tricky. Most estimates of underreporting range from 60-80 percent for U.S. cities, and up to 90 percent for Delhi. Taking an even more pessimistic case of 95 percent underreporting in Delhi (only 1 in 20 reports) and the optimistic case for U.S. cities (1 in 3 reports), the actual number of rapes in Delhi becomes 20X more than reported, and in U.S. cities 3X more than reported. If we do the math, Delhi still registers a lower incidence of rape than most of the 76 U.S. cities in the DoJ list. Indeed, why aren’t the Americans anywhere near as fearful of rape in their public spaces as Indians are in theirs? Could this partly be because a raped woman has a lot more to lose in India’s patriarchal society than in the U.S.?
Whatever the actual number, it’s useful to remember that strangers account for only a tiny fraction of rapes in Delhi. A common pitfall of our psychology is that a traumatic public event can produce a vast overreaction, or if we repeatedly hear about a threat or social malady, it grows much larger in our minds. Highly unlikely events often worry us more than common dangers, and our emotions about that event can skew our assessment of risk. For instance, post-9/11 media coverage led Americans to grossly inflate the threat of terrorism in their daily lives. Polls show that the British fear their teens to be getting pregnant at a rate 25X higher than actual. The extensive media coverage of every plane crash raises our anxiety about air travel even though it’s many orders of magnitude safer than traveling by road. When a recent poll asked people about the percentage of Muslims in their country, Americans estimated 15 percent, whereas the actual number is 1 percent. 24x7 news cycles play havoc with our estimation of risk. On perceived risk vs. actual risk, security expert Steve Schneier wrote:
People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny. News, by definition, is about anomalies. Endless numbers of automobile crashes hardly make news like one airplane crash does. The West Nile virus outbreak in 2002 killed very few people, but it worried many more because it was in the news day after day. AIDS kills about 3 million people per year worldwide—about three times as many people each day as died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. If a lunatic goes back to the office after being fired and kills his boss and two coworkers, it’s national news for days. If the same lunatic shoots his ex-wife and two kids instead, it’s local news ... maybe not even the lead story.
In other words, our perceptions on social issues can easily get detached from facts and reality, more so perhaps with a market-led corporate media that promotes the sensational while representing the views and interests of privileged groups. Even academicians routinely fall for it. Two weeks after the ‘Nirbhaya’ incident, a historian at Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies imagined a war zone around her when she wrote on a public page on social media: ‘I don’t see how India is any better than the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo].’ It’s true that temporary overreaction can help break down societal apathy and bring a long neglected issue to the fore, but what if it also promotes unreflective fears in the voting majority?
The Indian media now talks a lot about rape. As economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has written, Indian newspapers, ‘smarting from intense criticism of the negligence in their coverage, rapidly reinvented themselves as rape-reporting journals’. But he wonders ‘whether the ongoing news reporting is well aimed and as helpful for public discussion as it could be.’ Among its positives are that it has helped pass new laws and create a lot more discussion around sexism, sexual harassment, and misogyny. It has helped improve response mechanisms—a third more victims now report rape, thanks to new helplines, women cops, penalties if cops refuse to register a case, etc.
But a downside of this media coverage has been that most people not only continue to conflate the 4 percent of ‘stranger rapes’ with the whole problem of rape, they imagine its incidence to be much higher than it is. As a result, people have ended up with a heightened sense of fear for women being raped when they venture out by themselves—above and beyond their longstanding dread of women being catcalled, ogled, stalked, or groped in public transportation. As many middle-aged women residents testify, the latter are the primary threats that women have long faced in Delhi’s public spaces; they continue to fuel a legitimate sense of insecurity and make women feel they’re not as free to loiter as men are, especially in certain areas and during late hours. In the backdrop of such threats it’s perhaps easier for the extensive coverage of ‘stranger rapes’, uncommon though they are, to unreasonably heighten that sense of insecurity.
This is not to minimize the problems of women in Delhi or elsewhere in India. Groping and other harassment are serious issues that need to be dealt with, but it doesn’t help to conflate them with rape. Delhi’s public spaces today are unsafe not because the incidence of rape is much higher now but due to the other longstanding threats. Indian women also struggle with a great many other problems, frequently different from or more severe than those faced by women in the West, such as female foeticide and infanticide, child marriage, maternal mortality, dowry, sex trafficking, feudal claims on their bodies, and a host of nutritional, educational, economic, workplace, and other patriarchal and casteist discrimination. The cops and the courts are not sensitive and responsive enough to gender crimes, more so against women from marginalized communities of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. The mainstream media too, given the class/caste profile of its owners and rank and file, reflexively echoes and normalizes the viewpoints of the vocal urban middle- and upper-class minority. In a plural society, tolerating biases in individuals may well be prudent but can the same be said for tolerating biases in our primary civic institutions?
Not only does the outrage of the media elites vary by the social class of the victim and the rapist but most people don’t ever seem to ask, as feminist author Urvashi Butalia did, ‘When we demand the death penalty, do we mean therefore that we should kill large numbers of uncles, fathers, brothers, husbands, neighbours? How many of us would even report cases of rape then?’ Even without the higher risk of retaliation, capital punishment is not the answer because it doesn’t deter criminals and it cannot be administered fairly in a deeply hierarchical society. Meanwhile, the same political parties that make populist promises to protect women—via CCTV cameras on every street, marshals in every bus, guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood—greatly underrepresent women in their leadership. In the 2014 general election, they again allocated few seats to women candidates (BJP: 9 percent, Congress: 13 percent, AAP: 14 percent), which explains why only 11 percent of legislators in India are women, far below the global average of 22 percent, 23 percent in China, and 42 percent in the Nordic countries.
A major obstacle to tackling the problem of rape, as it actually exists, is the caste patriarchy of Delhi’s mainstream media and politicians, including the liberal ones. Anyone serious about tackling rape ought to focus more on the home front where most of the problem lies. But the dominant narrative today inflates the fear of ‘stranger rape’ and focuses on ‘protecting’ the women from unwashed strangers, especially when the victims come from privileged classes. These latter rapes tend to be presented as an assault on the social collective—‘Delhi shamed again’, proclaim the headlines. The idea of ‘protection also implies that not all women are worthy of it’, wrote activist Kavita Krishnan. ‘Women who fail the test of patriarchal morality; women whose caste and class identity does not spell sexual "respectability," fall outside the embrace of protection.’ According to Krishnan, ‘The only useful movement against sexual violence can be one that brings the problem home, right into the comfort zone, that challenges rather than reassures patriarchy, that exposes the violence found in the "normal" rather than locating violence in the far-away and exotic.’
‘The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected,’ wrote author Adrienne Rich. In patriarchy, the female is not only seen as property—first her father’s, then husband’s—her sexual sanctity and propriety become central to these men’s izzat, or dignity and honor. Men think of settling feuds with each other by ‘sullying’ each other’s women. The notion of marital rape too seems incoherent when the wife is seen as the husband’s property. Caste patriarchy, above and beyond the inequities inherent in all patriarchies, imposes graded notions of sexual purity and violability on the female body, greatly amplifying the fear, distress, and shame of being raped by the ‘inferior Other’. Preservation of caste has long required strict control over women’s sexuality, giving rise to the custom of child marriage and total prohibition on marriage, including of widows, to lower caste men. ‘Women’s cooperation in the system,’ wrote historian Uma Chakravarti, ‘was secured by various means: ideology, economic dependency on the male head of the family, class privileges and veneration bestowed upon conforming and dependent women of the upper classes, and, finally, the use of force when required.’
Only in a society saturated with caste patriarchy do certain rapes by strangers, and not other violence against women, generate calls for killing the offenders. In extreme cases, as with Sikh women during Partition, women may even choose preemptive suicide—or fathers and husbands might kill them in the name of preserving ‘honor’—rather than risk defilement by the ‘inferior Other’ and live with its stigma and social ostracism. Both fear of rape and ‘protection talk’ have long been patriarchy’s instruments to control women’s mobility, choices, and behavior by increasing their fear of ‘bad men’ and their subordination to ‘good men’. This sort of obsessive fear—or more accurately ‘fear of fear itself’—also contributes to the urban upper-class flight towards gated communities.
In India, class and caste are writ large on the media’s imagination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men. Sundry laborers and semi-literate migrants from the provinces are ‘bad’. In the NY Times last year, novelist Lavanya Sankaran described them as ‘feral men, untethered from their distant villages ... newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence’. But since rapes largely happen among social familiars, it’s not so much the unknown ‘they’ who are raping ‘our’ girls and women. By resorting to thoughtless fear mongering—akin to some white folks’ projection of black men as lechers and dangers for wholesome white women—Sankaran too shows herself to be in thrall of a caste patriarchy that would keep women passive and sheltered, rather than support them as they venture out and negotiate equality in every arena of public and private life.
With so much at stake, it’s important to call out inflated fears and bogus remedies and to get on with the slow, difficult, and necessary work on two obvious fronts: (1) changing minds through efforts like better gender and sex education in schools, more public debate and cultural conversation on gender equality, deeper reflection on the magnitude of our obsession with ‘stranger rape’ versus our apathy to the more pervasive structural violence of female foeticide, child marriage, and trafficking, and (2) using various means, such as affirmative action for women and gender sensitivity training, to reform our civic institutions—the police, the courts, legislative bodies, and the media—so they’re more efficient, responsive, and friendlier to a wider cross-section of women in India.
- Whisnant, Rebecca, ‘Feminist Perspectives on Rape’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Henderson, Holly, ‘Feminism, Foucault, and Rape: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention’, Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Volume 22, Issue 1, Article 7, September 2013
- Amartya Sen, ‘India’s Women: The Mixed Truth’, New York Review of Books, October 10, 2013
- Sarah Ben-David and Ofra Schneider, ‘Rape Perceptions, Gender Role Attitudes, and Victim-Perpetrator Acquaintance’, Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 5/6, September 2005
- Common myths about rape, Rape Crisis England & Wales 2004-2014
- John Stoltenberg on manhood, male supremacy, and men as feminist allies, Feminist Current, September 9, 2013.
- Madhuri Xalxo, ‘Delhi Protests and the Caste Hindu Paradigm: Of Sacred and Paraded Bodies’, Round Table India, 27 Dec 2012.
- Urvashi Butalia, ‘Let’s ask how we contribute to rape’, the Hindu, 26 Dec, 2012.
- Robert Jensen, ‘Rape, rape culture and the problem of patriarchy’, Waging Nonviolence, April 29, 2014.
- Jackie and Rebecca, Patriarchal Control of the Body: Sexuality and the Purity Myth, Nov 7, 2012.
- Indian Womanifesto, a 6-point plan for the freedom and safety, equality and flourishing of India’s women and girls.
- Justice Verma Committee Report, which ‘made recommendations on laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, medical examination of victims, police, electoral and educational reforms.’
- Kavita Krishnan, ‘The Anti-Rape Movement — The Political Vision of "Naari Mukti/Sabki Mukti"’, Dec 15, 2013.
- Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City), a documentary film by Sameera Jain (2011). It focuses on the unpleasant ‘experience of a gendered urban landscape’ in Delhi.
- Anumeha Yadav, ‘The Khaps in our homes’, The Hindu, Dec 11, 2014.
- Rukmini Shrinivasan, ‘Rape, rhetoric and reality’, The Hindu, Dec 19, 2014. ‘A statistically faulty focus on rape has led to a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem: women’s autonomy.’
- Geeta Charusivam, ‘Rape Culture and Moral Policing’, YouTube, Apr 21, 2014.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Tchotchkes and Latkes
by Akim Reinhardt
I still remember the first time I heard it. It was back in the late ‘90s, when I had cable. There was this openly gay guy, bald, a little overweight, a beard I think. He had some design show about sprucing up your house.
There weren't a lot of openly gay men on American TV back then. They were just breaking through into mainstream culture. There was the sitcom Will & Grace, and those five gay guys who taught straight men how to dress. Anyway, this guy, whose name I can't remember, was enough of a national sensation that Saturday Night Live spoofed him for a while.
I was sitting on my velour davenport watching cable TV. I flipped by his show. He was pointing out all the bric a brat cluttering a room and said: "I'm in tchotchke heaven."
Except he didn't say it right. He said choch-kee. Kinda rhymed with Versace. I cringed.
I was living in Nebraska at the time. I didn't have any real desire to move back to my native New York City, but there were certainly things I missed about it. After all, it was still the 20th century, before Manhattan had transformed into a playground for tourists and millionaires, and Brooklyn into an equivalent for the six-figure crowd.
Back then I would watch Law and Order repeats and really enjoy the opening segment where some bit characters would stumble across a corpse. Those people playing those bit characters often seemed liked they'd been plucked right off the street. I cherished little New York moments like that. The mere sight of fellow Bronx native Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe would make me wistful for the old days when Orbach did drug store commercials on local TV.
So to hear this hammie cable hack say choch-kee was like a kick in the gut. Stop mispronouncing my word, I thought. Then he said it again. I changed the channel.
My mother was born and raised in the South Bronx. Her parents were Jewish refugees who escaped eastern Europe before the war. Her first language was Yiddish, and she mostly learned English from other kids on the playground. She used to read I.B. Singer in the original.
I don't speak Yiddish, and at this point my mother can only understand it, not really speak it. But I know some words and I know what they sound like. And tchotchke does not sound like Joanie Loves Chachi or bocce ball.
Tchotchke is a trochee. The stress is on the first syllable. The final, unstressed e is that elusive vowel sound which is scattered all over the English language but doesn't have a dedicated letter assigned to it. It's the oo in cook; the ou in would. It sounds something like this, minus the English accent.
Apologies to all my British Landsman, but I just don't feel comfortable with the Queen's Yiddish.
Like many other Yiddish words, tchotchke has been incorporated into American English, to the point that I probably shouldn't bother italicizing it. But it's been incorporated with this butchered, waspish mispronunciation.
It's a lost cause, I know. I'm not here to badger you about pronouncing it correctly. It's fine. Go to the antique shop and overpay for choch-kees. Whatever.
But if I hear one more motherfucker say lot-kee, I'm gonna pee on their leg.
Latke, a.k.a. eastern European Jewery's version of the humble potato pancake, should rhyme with tchotchke. But the right way, not the wrong way.
I first started hearing people mispronounce it as lot-kee around the same time I started hearing choch-kee. About 10 years ago I heard an actual Jew mispronounce it as lot-kee. I wanted to shoot myself.
"She's from Chicago," I remembered. "I guess those aren't real Jews afterall."
I don't give a shit about choch-kee, but I simply cannot abide lot-kee. Maybe it's because I don't have much in the way of tchotchkes. But I make latkes from scratch using my grandmother's recipe.
Actually, my grandmother had two recipes for laktes: her basic latke, which is what I reproduce, and a specialized version that none of us actually cared for but which she was very proud of.
Latkes are typically served during Chanukah, another Jewish word (this one Hebrew, not Yiddish) that goyem all mispronounce, but we give them a pass because we know they don't do well with those aspirated vowels, a.k.a. the throat-clearing sound associated with Semitic languages.
I don't make latkes during Chanukah. Or maybe I do. I don't know, because I never know when Chanukah is.
Judaism runs on an adjusted lunar calendar. By contrast, the Islamic calendar is not adjusted, which is why, for example, Ramadan can occur during various times of the year. The Jewish lunar calendar is adjusted with the occasional leap month. This sorta keeps things in check. The result is that Chanukah cycles through a kind of triennial rotation, landing from year to year somewhere between late November and late December. When it overlaps with Christmas, all the Jewish kids get to pretend they're real Americans too.
It might be Chanukah right now. I actually have no fuckin' idea. But I've got some potatoes and eggs and matzoh meal, and I'm fixin' to make me some latkes.
I can say things like "fixin to" because my other grandmother was from North Carolina and sure as shit wasn't Jewish.
I don't want to hear you say lot-kee. But I can't just make demands on you. I should make it worth your while not to sound like Leave it to Beaver. So in an effort to encourage you to pronounce latke correctly, I'm going to teach you how to make one correctly, via my grandmother's recipe.
Warning: Her approach was laborious, but I think it pays off.
Start with a couple of good sized russet potatoes. You can also go with white ones, or any othger type that is good for frying. Then get a decent sized onion. I like to use a white onion, but yellow or Spanish onions are also good, depending on if you want a hotter or sweeter flavor.
That's your basic ratio: 2 potatoes to 1 onion. This formula will garner you about a dozen latkes, give or take.
You're also going to need matzoh meal, flour, egg, salt, pepper, garlic, and cooking oil.
On the equipment side, you need a frying pan, and what I consider to be the key: a box grater.
Most people take the easy route and run the potatoes and onions through a food processor. If they bother with a box grater, then they often use the side with the big round holes. But that's not how my grandmother did it, that's not how I do it, and I think this makes all the difference.
After washing the potatoes (I don't peel them; love me some potato jacket micronutrients), I grate them by hand through the smallest holes on the box grater.
Yes, this is work. Yes, it will take a bit longer. And yes, it is worth it. Or at least I think so.
The potatoes will turn into a beautiful, pulpy mash. Drain off the excess water. Then grate the onion the same way, and drain off a little of that water too.
"But can't I accomplish the exact same thing using a food processor?" you ask. I dunno. Maybe. But even if it's possible, you'll be missing the secret ingredients: your tears from the grated onion, your sweat from actually working for your dinner, and your blood from the knuckle you scrape on the grater.
Either grate or mince the a few cloves of garlic. How many depends on how much you like garlic.
Add a whole egg.
Now start adding the matzoh meal. In most cities you can find matzoh meal at the supermarket in the Jew section. It's kinda like an old timey Jewish gettho, but for food. If you live in an area where they don't have a Jew section, then try to find some kind of approximate. Matzoh meal is coarser than flour but finer than bread crumbs. So really this is about texture.
How much matzoh meal should you add? Christ, don't bust my chops here. Just add enough so that your pulpy mash starts firming up into a consistency like loose oatmeal as you mix this concoction together. Then add a tablespoon or two of flour. Salt and pepper to taste.
Put a liberal amount of cooking oil in your frying pan. When I say "liberal" I mean at least a half-inch deep. What kind of oil? Something that fries well, and has a high smoke point. Peanut, corn, and grape seed are all good. Vegetable's okay. If you've got an oil thermometer, get the oil up to the high 300s. Remember kids, a high temperature is the key to frying successfully. If your oil's not hot enough, shit gets greasy.
Using a soup spoon, or even a serving spoon if you've got, ladle the mash into the hot oil. Do I have to tell you not to burn yourself with splattered oil?
Make each dropping the size of a reasonable latke, not some cartoonishly large latke you'd find at an overpriced Jewish deli in Manhattan that caters to tourists. A latke should be about four of five inches from end to end at the long point of an oval.
When you drop a lakte into the oil, it should not be flat. This is important. We're skillet frying, not deep frying. Each dropping should have a center peak, so that the middle of the oval shape you create is actually slightly above the oil. Place enough ovals in the oil to fill the pan.
After about half a minute, the edges will brown. When the submerged parts of the lakte have changed color and the entire bottom is firm, flip them, one by one. Before flipping a lakte, don't be afraid to pat down the uncooked center if it's too lumpy in the middle.
After another thirty seconds or so, take them out to drain and then pat them down with a paper towel. Allow your oil to get hot again, adding more if needed. Repeat the process until you've used up your mixture.
Fresh latkes are pretty good. I like them with apple sauce. Sour cream is nice too. But I think my grandmother's taste even better leftover. I still pack them the way she did when sending them home with us.
Rip off a piece of aluminum foil about eight inches wide. Layer the leftover latkes down the center of the foil, overlapping them like cards in a game of solitaire. Then close the flaps and ends, and stick the packets into the fridge. When you want to eat them, take a packet out and throw it in the oven or toaster oven to heat up. Or you can eat them cold. Either way, leftover latkes will be nice and spongy. I'm dirty that way.
This is just some good ole folk cooking, so feel free to modify the recipe anyway you like. Make it healthier and/or tastier as you see fit. But please, don't taint it with a grating mispronunciation. These are my grandmother's Latkes, not her goddamn lot-kees. If that's too much for you, just go with what my Carolina grandmother would say: potato pancake.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Current show at Neue Galerie, NYC.
by Leanne Ogasawara
“.....all the charming and beautiful things, from the Song of Songs, to bouillabaisse, and from the nine Beethoven symphonies to the Martini cocktail, have been given to humanity by men who, when the hour came, turned from tap water to something with color in it, and more in it than mere oxygen and hydrogen.”
Acre is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable. Exiles have a shared smell: the smell of longing for something else; a smell that resembles another smell. A panting, nostalgic smell that guides you, like a worn tourist map, to the smell of the original place.
Anyone who has ever taken the bridge across the water to Venice, knows that cities (no matter how close in proximity they might be to each other) have their own distinct and discrete smells. Venice smells swampy and sweaty and you notice it the minute you arrive; Bali is overwhelmingly of heavenly frangipani and temple incense; Hue like fish sauce and lotus, Saigon like warm bread and coffee (and I think it smells like spies too)-- each has their own beautiful colors and culture; their own spirit and fragrances. And, cityscapes –like landscapes—become the particular atmosphere to which those who live in these particular places become attuned.
It is this spirit which enables people to say that great cities are all more than just the sum total of their parts.Think, for example, about how the citizens of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic war begged the Romans to spare their city:
Spare the city which has done you no harm, but, if you please, kill us, whom you have ordered to move away. In this way you will seem to vent your wrath upon men, not upon temples, gods, tombs and an innocent city (Appian’s Roman History)
Of all the cities of the world, Marseilles is special to me. I have only fallen in love at first sight with two cities: Hong Kong and Marseilles. I would argue the two places have much in common-- from the beautiful misty light of the sea and the unique types of seafood found there to the dynamic pragmatism and energy of the people, they are both amazing places to eat. Food is so central to understanding both of these cities and in the case of Marseilles, at least, I think it is the number one way people seem to like talking about the place....
Bouillabaisse (and mystery capers?)
Maybe it is the Crusader connection--or maybe it was simply the fish and the sea, but France's oldest city reminds me much more of Acre than it did of Paris.... Excitingly diverse in both people and seafood, they are both places to eat fabulous things, like grilled John Dory, eel, fabulous tajines and rouille or hummus, and wonderful cookies shaped like tiny boats, which according to Provencal legend are made in the shape of the sail-less and oar-less boat that carried Lazarus, Mary Magdalen and Martha from Jerusalem to the French village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in 40AD.
I have to recommend a wonderful cookbook by Daniel Young--not just because of the recipes, but because I think it is the best introduction to the city I have read. Made in Marseilles.
In Marseilles, I somehow stumbled on the same neighborhood that he had so lovingly describe in his book. Located just south of the Canebière around rue Longue-des-capucins and rue Vacon, you find yourself in the kitchen pantry of the world! From halal butchers, Tunesian cafes and olive sellers to Egyptian and Taiwanese bakeries and Vietnamese markets and African incense, everything you can imagine is on sale! It is the world's great melting pot; this "babel of all nations,"as Flaubert called it, the streets had colorful items on sale from North Africa, Armenia, Corsica, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Indo-China and sub-Saharan Africa.
Just like when I visit Hong Kong, what I really like to do in Marseilles is is walk the streets and eat. For our much looked-forward to evening of bouillabaisse, we followed the advice of a local friend and headed over to Chez Fonfon, located in the incredibly picturesque Vallon des Auffes. I knew the Bouillabaisse would taste quite differently from mine (!!) since the fish available in Marseilles is so different from what is available in California (or anywhere else for that matter). However, it was the fish stock that really was the big difference! In fact, so important is the bouillon that in Marseilles it is typically served first alone, before the fish and vegetables are added for the second course. In Japan, I was married to someone who was extremely particular about fish stock. Being from a place in Japan known for its unique style of fish stock, it was something I made every morning as soon as I woke up--to be used for food used for the rest of the day. Very easy to make, this style was simply konbu and anchovies. Simple but delicious.
Poking arund online for bouillabaisse recipes, I was really surprised that none of the online recipes I looked at explained how to make the fish stock. So, I just sauteed the garlic and onions with spices and then added the saffron to a prepared fish stock I got at Whole Foods.
This was very expensive--but not bad. But it sure didn't taste like the soupe d'or what we had at Chez FonFon.
In Marseilles, our friend Bruno said the fish sellers have the fish heads and other parts ready to be purchased in bags for making the stock. I think that would make all the difference since the broth at Chez Fonfon was incredibly perfumery and savory. Absolutely perfect in fact. David Young's recipe is fairly complicated involving passing the sauteed rock fish or fish heads through a food mill--like this at 3:23.
Maybe the real problem (beyond cooking skills) is getting the right fish for the soup, though. I used this "easy bouillabaisse" recipe and was really happy with both the combination of fish and the rouille. Young says that be to be authentic, one really needs at least four of the following: rascasse (scorpion fish), chapon (similar to rascasse), galinette (a gurnard), Saint Pierre (John Dory), monk fish and fielas (conger eel). I used, mussels, shrimp, salmon, cod and scallops. A picture is worth a thousand words. While I loved the fish choices and rouille in my recipe (top picture), Chez Fonfon's broth (picture just above) was to die for. PLus it was the real thing!
What a city. What a dinner~~Bon apetit!
Highly recommnded: Made in Marseille by Daniel Young (hands down one of the best cookbooks I have ever bought).
Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre
by Bill Benzon
I am going to continue the psycho-cultural argument I introduced in my previous 3DQ post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The core of my argument somes from an old article in which Talcott Parsons, one of the Grand Old Men of 20th century sociology, argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Rather those impulses must be redirected. Parsons was interested in how nationalist sentiment directed those impulses against external enemies, such as the Soviet Union, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, Iraqi and the Taliban. But Parsons also recognized the existence of internal enemies, such as African-Americans from slavery up through and including the present day.
In that post I pointed out that the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s foreced Americans to redirect the aggressive impulses that had been absorbed in the Cold War. I argued that those impulses were focused, once again, on African Americans. Since then I’ve been reading danah boyd’s recent study of cyberculture, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). I was struck by her argument that teens spend so much time online because they’re physical lives are restricted in way that mine had not been.
That prompted me to write Escaping on a Raft in Cyberspace, in which I agued, in effect, that some of the aggressive impulses that had been directed toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War have now become directed at our own young, with the Internet serving as the “trigger” for that redirection. I reprise that argument in the first section of this post. I go through Parsons’ argument in the second section, this time a bit more carefully. I wrap up that section by arguing that the logic of our response to teens in cyberspace is the same as our response to the bombing of the world trade center. In both cases anxiety caused by a real danger is amplified by repressed aggression resulting in actions that are inappropriate to their ostensible cause. In the final section I ask how can we, as a society, better distinguish between real danger and projected fantasies.
Kids these Days: Confined to Quarters
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Richland Township, a suburb of Johnstown, Pennsylvania about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. My neighborhood bordered on forests and small farms. As a teenager I had to be home for dinner, be home before dark, get my homework done, and practice my trumpet. I had various activities as well, scouts, school clubs (band and others) that took time, but they didn’t fill my schedule. I could, and did, roam freely about the neighborhood. I had to tell my mother generally where I was going, but that was it.
But that’s not the case with the teens that danah boyd studied in It’s Complicated. She argues that teens spend so much time online because is the only place they can hangout with their friends without adult intrusion (pp. 20-21):
The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now. Teens flock to them knowing they can socialize with friends and become better acquainted with classmates and peers they don’t know as well. They embrace social media for roughly the same reasons earlier generations of teens attended sock hops, congregated in parking lots, colonized people’s front stoops, or tied up the phone lines for hours on end.
Here’s what boyd says about one of her subjects (p. 89):
My interview with Myra, a middle-class white fifteen-year-old from Iowa, turned funny and sad when “lack of time” became a verbal tick in response to every question I asked her about connecting with friends. From learning Czech to track, from orchestra to work in a nursery, she told me that her mother organized “98%” of her daily routine. Myra did not like all of these activities, but her mother thought they were important. She was resigned to them. Lack of freedom and control over her schedule was a sore topic for Myra. At one point, she noted with an exasperated tone that weekends were no freer than weekdays: “Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don’t have much choice in what I’m doing Friday nights. . . . I haven’t had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend.” Myra noted that her mother meant well, but she was exhausted and felt socially disconnected because she did not have time to connect with friends outside of classes.
The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is whether or not these fears are warranted. Is the contemporary world really more dangerous than the one I grew up in during the 1960s? Or, alternatively, were my parents and their peers too lax in their parenting?
I’ve got a bias in the matter and it’s that the fears are not warranted. My bias tells me that boyd is correct when she observes (p. 95):
Restrictive adults act on their anxieties as well as their desire to protect youth, but in doing so, they perpetuate myths that produce the fears that prompt adults to place restrictions on teens in the first place. But this cycle doesn’t just undermine teens’ freedoms; it also pulls at the fabric of society more generally.
I agree with her on that last point. Ten pages later boyd is citing the literature on moral panics (p. 105):
When fears escalate out of control, they produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “moral panics” as adults worry about the moral degradation that will be brought on by the shifting social force. A moral panic takes hold when the public comes to believe that a cultural artifact, practice, or population threatens the social order. Moral panics that surround youth typically center on issues of sexuality, delinquency, and reduced competency. New genres of media—and the content that’s shared through them—often trigger such anxieties. Eighteenth-century society saw novels as addictive and therefore damaging to young women’s potential for finding a husband. Introduced in the 1930s, comic books were seen not only as serving no educational purpose but as encouraging young people to get absorbed in fantasy worlds and to commit acts of violence. In the mid-1950s Elvis Presley’s vulgar, gyrating hips prompted great concern that broadcasting him on TV would corrupt teens. These are but a few of the unsubstantiated moral panics surrounding youth’s engagement with earlier forms of popular media.
What we’re witnessing, I believe, is the social management of what the psychologists call “free-floating anxiety,” anxiety that is real, but has no identifiable cause.
Once again I find myself thinking about that 1947 Talcott Parsons essay I read in my freshman year of college, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Employing a subtle analysis based on psychoanalytic thinking, Parsons concludes:
The upshot of the above analysis is in the first place that the typical Western individual — apart from any special constitutional predispositions — has been through an experience, in the process of growing to adulthood, which involved emotional strains of such severity as to produce an adult personality with a large reservoir of aggressive disposition. Secondly, the bulk of aggression generated from this source must in the nature of the case remain repressed. In spite of the disquieting amount of actual disruption of family solidarity, and quarreling and bickering even where families are not broken up, the social norms enjoining mutual affection among family members, especially respectful affection toward parents and love between spouses, are very powerful. Where such a large reservoir of repressed aggression exists but cannot be directly expressed, it tends to become "free-floating" and to be susceptible of mobilization against various kinds of scapegoats outside the immediate situation of its genesis.
How then, is this free-floating repressed aggression (aka free-floating anxiety) mobilized? While Parsons is going to land on nationalism as the major social device for channeling this aggression, he mentions internal group conflicts in passing: “Latent aggression has thus been channeled into internal group conflicts of various sorts throughout the Western world: anti-Semitism and anti-laborism, and anti-negro, anti-Catholic, and anti-foreigner feeling are found in this country.” I submit that boyd is looking at one such internal conflict: adults versus teens.
With this in mind, consider the following diagram:
The grey cloud in the middle represents the nation’s collective anxiety. On the one hand it is driven by a wide variety of specific events (indicated on the right), some of which are limited in scope to individuals or particular groups. If mother becomes ill, the family is thereby under stress and, depending on the severity of the illness, perhaps even subject to permanent harm. When the local steel mill closed, hundreds or even thousands of jobs were lost, with negative consequences for the local economy. Other events affect the entire nation. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the whole nation mourned and federal officials had to ensure an orderly succession. More recently we’ve had the bombing of the world trade center.
At the same time that nation’s collective anxiety is affected by the psychodynamics that Parsons analyzed (indicated on the left). What happens, I suggest, is that the aggression driving this free-floating anxiety often becomes “attracted to” specific causes, thereby amplifying and distorting our responses to them.
That seems to be what has happened in the case of teens online. In the chapter on sexual predation, boyd argues that adult fears of online sexual predation are greatly exaggerated and that this leads to a neglect of real dangers (p. 102):
Online safety is also a particularly complicated issue, in part because a culture of fear is omnipresent in American society, and no parent wants to take risks when it comes to their children’s safety. Statistics showing the improbability of harm fail to reassure those who are concerned. Even when highly publicized stories turn out to be fabrications, parents still imagine that somewhere, somehow, their child might fall victim to a nightmarish fate. They are afraid because terrible things do happen to children. And although those violations most commonly take place in known environments—home, school, place of worship, and so on—the internet introduces an unknown space that is harder to comprehend. Nothing feeds fear more than uncertainty.
The nation’s response to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001 exhibits the same dynamic but at a different scale and through different mechanisms. The damage was real and the forces the caused it are a real danger. But the American response made things worse, dragging the nation into two costly and destructive wars that, far from eliminating terrorism, served only to fuel it. Less dramatically, the nation created a new bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Agency, that has spent billions of dollars and wasted countless hours of people’s time in Security Theater, time-consuming boarding procedures that inconvenience everyone who takes a commercial airline flight without, however, doing anything to make those flights more secure.
What Can We Do?
Abstractly considered, this is where we need to go:
We need cultural, social, psychological, and political mechanisms that differentiate between the intrinsic anxiety that Parsons diagnosed over half a century ago (to the left) and anxiety traceable to specific causes (on the right). If that distinction can be made, then our responses to specific dangers can be targeted in scope and proportional in magnitude. We won’t be engaging in expensive and ineffective wars and security theatre, on the one hand, nor in unnecessarily restricting and punishing our teens on the other.
But how do we get there? I believe that we have the social science expertise to make the necessary distinctions. That’s not the problem. But how do we translate that expertise into appropriate policy?
That cannot happen unless people understand the social science and its implications. And that, I fear, is where we are stuck. Parsons’s diagnosis is a difficult sell outside a relatively small intellectual arena and, as far as I can tell, that arena has, if anything, gotten smaller since he wrote the essay. It is well and good to conduct the kind of research boyd has done. Indeed, it is essential. But until we are willing to face up to the causes of our own misdirection, such research will be ineffective over the long term. It’s like a child pushing peas around on the plate to avoid eating them. It doesn’t work.
And so I’m left at the same place I was left a month ago. America’s craziness isn’t working. But we seem powerless to change.
Who is going to hit the reset button on America’s dysfunctional culture?
* * * * *
Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna. Here is a link to his ongoing series of posts about danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
Monday, December 08, 2014
Amal Kenawy. The Journey, 2004.
Heat not Wet: Climate Change Effects on Human Migration in Rural Pakistan
by Jalees Rehman
In the summer of 2010, over 20 million people were affected by the summer floods in Pakistan. Millions lost access to shelter and clean water, and became dependent on aid in the form of food, drinking water, tents, clothes and medical supplies in order to survive this humanitarian disaster. It is estimated that at least $1.5 billion to $2 billion were provided as aid by governments, NGOs, charity organizations and private individuals from all around the world, and helped contain the devastating impact on the people of Pakistan. These floods crippled a flailing country that continues to grapple with problems of widespread corruption, illiteracy and poverty.
The 2011 World Disaster Report (PDF) states:
In the summer of 2010, giant floods devastated parts of Pakistan, affecting more than 20 million people. The flooding started on 22 July in the province of Balochistan, next reaching Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and then flowing down to Punjab, the Pakistan ‘breadbasket'. The floods eventually reached Sindh, where planned evacuations by the government of Pakistan saved millions of people.
However, severe damage to habitat and infrastructure could not be avoided and, by 14 August, the World Bank estimated that crops worth US$ 1 billion had been destroyed, threatening to halve the country's growth (Batty and Shah, 2010). The floods submerged some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of Pakistan's most fertile croplands – in a country where farming is key to the economy. The waters also killed more than 200,000 head of livestock and swept away large quantities of stored commodities that usually fed millions of people throughout the year.
The 2010 floods were among the worst that Pakistan has experienced in recent decades. Sadly, the country is prone to recurrent flooding which means that in any given year, Pakistani farmers hope and pray that the floods will not be as bad as those in 2010. It would be natural to assume that recurring flood disasters force Pakistani farmers to give up farming and migrate to the cities in order to make ends meet. But a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Valerie Mueller at the International Food Policy Research Institute has identified the actual driver of migration among rural Pakistanis: Heat.
Mueller and colleagues analyzed the migration and weather patterns in rural Pakistan from 1991-2012 and found that flooding had a modest to insignificant effect on migration whereas extreme heat was clearly associated with migration. The researchers found that bouts of heat wiped out a third of the income derived through farming! In Pakistan, the average monthly rural household income is 20,000 rupees (roughly $200), which is barely enough to feed a typical household consisting of 6 or 7 people. It is no wonder that when heat stress reduces crop yields and this low income drops by one third, farming becomes untenable and rural Pakistanis are forced to migrate and find alternate means to feed their family. Mueller and colleagues also identified the group that was most likely to migrate: rural farmers who did not own the land they were farming. Not owning the land makes them more mobile, but compared to the land-owners, these farmers are far more vulnerable in terms of economic stability and food security when a heat wave hits. Migration may be the last resort for their continued survival.
It is predicted that the frequency and intensity of heat waves will increase during the next century. Research studies have determined that global warming is the major cause of heat waves, and an important recent study by Diego Miralles and colleagues published in Nature Geoscience has identified a key mechanism which leads to the formation of "mega heat waves". Dry soil and higher temperatures work as part of a vicious cycle, reinforcing each other. The researchers found that drying soil is a critical component.. During daytime, high temperatures dry out the soil. The dry soil traps the heat, thus creating layers of high temperatures even at night, when there is no sunlight. On the subsequent day, the new heat generated by sunlight is added on to the "trapped heat" by the dry soil, which creates an escalating feedback loop with progressively drying soil that becomes devastatingly effective at trapping heat. The result is a massive heat-wave which can wipe out crops, lead to water scarcity and also causes thousands of deaths.
The study by Mueller and colleagues provides important information on how climate change is having real-world effects on humans today. Climate change is a global problem, affecting humans all around the world, but its most severe and immediate impact will likely be borne by people in the developing world who are most vulnerable in terms of their food security. There is an obvious need to limit carbon emissions and thus curtail the progression of climate change. This necessary long-term approach to climate change has to be complemented by more immediate measures that help people cope with the detrimental effects of climate change by, for example, exploring ways to grow crops that are more heat resilient, and ensuring the food security of those who are acutely threatened by climate change.
As Mueller and colleagues point out, the floods in Pakistan have attracted significant international relief efforts whereas increasing temperatures and heat stress are not commonly perceived as existential threats, even though they can be just as devastating. Gradual increases in temperatures and heat waves are more insidious and less likely to be perceived as threats, whereas powerful images of floods destroying homes and personal narratives of flood survivors clearly identify floods as humanitarian disasters. The impacts of heat stress and climate change, on the other hand, are not so easily conveyed. Climate change is a complex scientific issue, relying on mathematical models and intrinsic uncertainties associated with these models. As climate change progresses, weather patterns will become even more erratic, thus making it even more challenging to offer specific predictions.
Climate change research and the translation of this research into pragmatic precautionary measures also face an uphill battle because of the powerful influence of the climate change denial lobby. Climate change deniers take advantage of the scientific complexity of climate change, and attempt to paralyze humankind in terms of climate change action by exaggerating the scientific uncertainties. In fact, there is a clear scientific consensus among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is very real and is already destroying lives and ecosystems around the world.
Helping farmers adapt to climate change will require more than financial aid. It is important to communicate the impact of climate change and offer specific advice for how farmers may have to change their traditional agricultural practices. A recent commentary in Nature by Tom Macmillan and Tim Benton highlighted the importance of engaging farmers in agricultural and climate change research. Macmillan and Benton pointed out that at least 10 million farmers have taken part in farmer field schools across Asia, Africa and Latin America since 1989 which have helped them gain knowledge and accordingly adapt their practices.
Pakistan will hopefully soon engage in a much-needed land reform in order to solve the social injustice and food insecurity that plagues the country. Five percent of large landholders in Pakistan own 64% of the total farmland, whereas 65% small farmers own only 15% of the land. About 67% of rural households own no land. Women own only 3% of the land despite sharing in 70% of agricultural activities! The land reform will be just a first step in rectifying social injustice in Pakistan. Involving Pakistani farmers – men and women alike - in research and education about innovative agricultural practices in the face of climate change will help ensure their long-term survival.
Mueller, Valerie, Clark Gray, and Katrina Kosec. "Heat stress increases long-term human migration in rural Pakistan." Nature Climate Change 4, no. 3 (2014): 182-185.