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’. Two years ago a gruesome and fatal gang rape 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. 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 assessment of risk can get skewed by our emotions about that event. 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.
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, but what if it 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 create more conversation about sexism, pass new laws, and 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 encountered in Delhi’s public spaces and they continue to fuel a legitimate sense of insecurity; this perhaps makes it 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 applied 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 most recent general election, they granted only 8 to 14 percent of seats to women candidates.
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 has 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. ‘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.’
archy 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) reforming 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.’
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.
Notes Of A Grand Juror
"A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if that's what you wanted."
~ New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler
About a dozen or so years ago, I had the instructive misfortune to be called for Manhattan grand jury duty. To this day, though, it has armed me with plenty of anecdotes for any sort of "that's the way the system works" conversation. Once you see how the sausage of justice gets made in the courtroom, you can never really unsee it, and that's not a bad thing. The grand jury process – and its failures and possible remedies – is obviously central to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, but in my opinion hasn't received nearly enough attention. Let me draw on some of my own experiences to illustrate why this is the case, and argue why any meaningful response to Brown, Garner and others must, at least for a start, be sited within the phenomenon of grand jury.
As context, New York City is one of the few cities that maintains continuously impaneled grand juries to maintain the flow of indictments that feeds the criminal justice system. When I served, there were four such juries, two of which were dedicated exclusively to drug cases. Fortunately, I was selected for one of the other two; after all, variety is the spice of life. During our month-long tenure of afternoon-shift service, we heard 94 cases, and we returned indictments, if I'm not mistaken, for 91 of those. For this service we were compensated $40 per day, which, in a fit of self-serving civil disobedience, I refused to report on my income tax return.
Keep in mind that the purpose of the jury is two-fold: to establish that a crime was committed, and that the person under indictment had some involvement with said crime. This involves the mapping of an often messy reality onto the abstract but finely delineated nature of criminal statutes. To achieve this, the prosecutor – almost always a fresh-faced Assistant District Attorney (ADA) seemingly just out of the bar exam – would present just enough facts to the jury to ensure probable cause for both the crime and the person charged with said crime. The evidence may include testimony from officers, experts or other witnesses, and it ought to be noted that probable cause is a much lower standard of proof than what petit juries encounter in trials, which is the beloved "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Note that I haven't said anything about the defense. That's because we saw not a single defendant for any of the 94 cases we heard over the course of December 2003. During our induction into grand jury, we were assured that defendants and/or their attorneys had every right to participate in the indictment proceedings. At some point people on the jury began asking if we would ever see a defendant and the bailiff said it was highly unlikely. The reason for this is our first indication of the particular kind of sausage-making that goes on within the criminal justice system: most cases end in plea bargains. Defense attorneys generally wait for the indictment to find out how incriminating the evidence is, and then act accordingly. If the indictment is backed by strong evidence, the horse-trading around cooperation begins, in hopes of a reduced sentence. Beginning in the 1980s, this was used as a comprehensive strategy by the New York DA's office to dismantle the Mafia: arrest the street-level operators and flip them, one by one, in the hopes of moving up the food chain. Rinse, lather, repeat. More recently, they have tried the same tactic on insider-trading cases, although some have proven tougher to crack than others.
Following an indictment, defense attorneys will counsel their clients to go to trial only if they think they have an exceptionally good chance of beating the rap, if not on the facts of the case then by virtue of a sympathetic judge, and so on. Like all lawyers, defense counselors look at their field of play in terms of scenarios and probabilities. In this sense, the pursuit of "justice" is not a pursuit of truth, but an exercise in risk management, negotiation and compromise. The facts, such as they might be, are there to serve those ends, and not the other way around. This is very important to keep in mind when we come to consider the Brown and Garner cases.
This brings me to the other essential point: recall that we as jurors were instructed to "map" certain statutes onto actual events and people. How do you go about doing this? As noble as "a jury of your peers" may sound, I hope that I am never in a position to be judged in this way. For the law per se is not a simple thing, and this sort of mapping exercise guarantees plenty of ambiguity along the way. For a grand jury that is essentially treated as an indicting machine, a broad variety of statutes come into play. And in the interest of securing an indictment, the DA will throw as many charges as possible against the suspect, in the hopes that at least one will stick.
Fortunately, the state is kind enough to provide a guide to navigating the complexities of statutory law: the prosecutor himself. If you think this is a conflict of interest of the highest order, you would be right. You would also have no choice in the matter. Of course, all the ADAs we dealt with were unfailingly polite and more than willing to read out the relevant statutes as many times as was necessary, but keep in mind that they are in the room to get their indictments. They regretted to inform us that they could not help us in interpreting the evidence in relation to the statute, only the statute itself. That, putatively, was our sacred duty.
So what did I learn while I was a grand juror? For one thing, the cops can pretty much arrest you for anything. Secondly, the people who get busted proceed to get themselves even more busted. Examples include: if your friend is driving you around in his newly stolen car, don't have a stolen handgun on your person (on the other hand, the two may have had some shared instrumentality, which I suppose is reasonable). But you should definitely not have a rock of crack cocaine in your pocket while you jump a subway turnstile. (Of course, if I'd been white while jumping that particular turnstile I probably wouldn't have been searched. Just saying.)
Thirdly, the cops know the law way better than you, and use it to their advantage. Example: a group of four guys are walking down the street, and the police observe two of them conducting a drugs-for-cash transaction. Shortly afterwards, all four get into a car. The cops then proceed to bust them, because the law says that anyone in a car with drugs in it can be charged for possession. Why settle for two collars when you can have four?
Fourthly, cops lie. A lot. We had to put up with some extraordinary claims made by officers, some of whom testified anonymously, in order to protect their undercover identities (it's interesting what anonymity does to your perception of whether someone is telling the truth). You were on the roof of a sixth-floor walkup without binoculars and you saw a drug deal go down four city blocks away? For real? The suspect didn't have any stolen goods on him when he was arrested but somehow had them once he emerged from the police van? No kidding! On the few occasions that we were confronted with particularly egregious lies we threw out the indictments with relish. But more often than not we were left seething amongst ourselves, during the deliberation period that was the only occasion when we were left alone as a group. Just because one cop lied at one point didn't invalidate the entire case if there was an overwhelming amount of other evidence, so in this way the lying cop gets a bye. He knew it, we knew it and he knew that we knew it. It's also worth mentioning that even if we disagreed with the law itself, we nevertheless had no choice but to indict, if the "evidence" was strong enough, as with the example of the four guys in the car above.
Eventually, in the course of our daily proceedings a curiously adversarial dynamic developed. As a jury, we did our best to establish a solid understanding of what transpired for any given case. But much of it felt like being in Plato's cave. We only saw what the prosecutors and police wanted us to see, and would further guide us, as much as possible, in how to see it. Due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, note-taking was prohibited. And without the counterbalancing presence of a defense counsel, or of the salutary effects of cross-examination, the end result was, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders and a vote to indict.
To my further dismay, this happened with increasing frequency, especially as we approached the Christmas holidays. Unlike the zero-sum game that is a petit jury trial, there is a further dilution of responsibility, that goes something like this (and here I am pretty much quoting a fellow-juror) "Well, an indictment isn't that big of a deal, the defense attorney can figure out what to do with it next, and at the worst the guy will get a fair trial." What this indicates is more proximity bias that anything else: the first time you raised your hand to indict someone it was a very big deal, but now that you've done 60 of them and you're really thinking about having to see your in-laws again, it's really not such a whopper.
In general, there is a modicum of intellectual rigor required to attend to this process with any sense of awareness and responsibility. And yet we had jurors whose English was far below the standard needed to follow legalese; who probably hadn't had to think analytically about anything in decades; or who just plain didn't care, or rapidly reached that point. If there is anything accurate about Reginald Rose's "12 Angry Men," whose quotes and stills pepper the present article, it is the fact that a jury's seats are by no means guaranteed to be occupied by reasonable, disinterested citizerns (thank goodness Henry Fonda was one of them). To this day, if there is a better reason as to why a liberal arts education remains of vital importance to our society, I cannot think of one.
"Look, you know how these people lie!
It's born in them…they don't know what the truth is!"
~ Juror 10 (Ed Begley)
If the purpose of the system is to generate indictments, then the system works really well. Hence the well-known quote from chief justice Wachtler about the indictability of ham sandwiches. It's not so much the masterful rhetoric of the prosecutor, the infallibility and selfless dedication of the police, nor the relentless pursuit of truth. It's the fact that the incentives are all lined up correctly to produce indictments. The cops provide the evidence and the warm bodies, the prosecutors the indictments. Each depends on the success of the other.
This extends beyonds the hermetic enclosure of the courtroom, since prosecutor is an elected position, and must do his level best to gain the endorsement and support of the police union. (If anyone doubts the importance of the union in the eyes of a cop, please consider the recent stairwell shooting of Akai Gurley, where the two patrolmen in question were MIA for the first six minutes following the shooting. It turns out that Officer Liang, who allegedly fired the shot, was texting his union rep). The grand jury, as blind as Justice itself, stammers and dodders its way through the mess, eventually just glad to get it over with. Not quite a rubber stamp, but not too far off, either.
Now, all of this falls apart in a grand way when the tables are turned and it is the cops that are under indictment. Suddenly, the whole system of incentives is under threat of short-circuiting. Because, if I have sketched it out well enough, the point of the system is not the disinterested pursuit of justice; nor is it the ongoing process of risk management, negotiation and compromise; but rather it is the perpetuation of the system itself. In this sense it is no different from any other bureaucracy. In order for the system to remain coherent and orderly, indicting cops is to be avoided at all costs.
How do the participants extricate themselves from this? As usual, The Onion is on it with a handy guide. But in fact the answer is even simpler. One thing that may have been only implicit in the above description I should now make explicit: in none of the 94 cases we considered did the DA fail to recommend charges. Remember that an indictment is a mapping exercise. It is inconceivable to take a group of lay people and just point them to a book of criminal statutes. And yet, thanks to the extraordinary release of the complete transcript of the Darren Wilson indictment, we know that this is precisely what happened. Remarkably, this action seems to have been within the DA's discretion. Moreover, in the few pages that were released concerning the Garner case, there was no mention of what charges – if any – were recommended to the jury. From viewing the videotape, it's pretty incredible to think that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer in question, could not be charged, at the very least, with involuntary manslaughter.
Now, we can talk all about the latitude that use-of-force laws grant in the courtroom, etc etc, but if the jury isn't even told what statutes might possibly apply, it's pretty uncertain that they will come to agree on anything. As an example, consider the fact that, during our grand jury induction, we were told that not only did we have the right to strike down the charges recommended to us by the DA, but we also had the right to search out other statutes and recommend them to the DA as charges instead. Not that we ever did that – safe as houses, we were.
Still don't believe the lengths that the system will go to protect itself? Consider another, fairly unpublicized detail in the Garner case. If you've seen the video (and, truth be told, we don't know if or how much of it was seen by the grand jury), you'll notice that Pantaleo isn't the only cop around. What about those other guys? The five-or-so other cops involved in taking Garner down were all granted immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony. Obviously, the DA was wasting immunities, since their testimony was such shit that he couldn't get an indictment from cherry-picking what those five eyewitnesses saw. And Pantaleo, like Darren Wilson in the Brown trial, testified before the grand jury himself, so I guess defendants do show up under extraordinary circumstances. In any case, no one was mistaken for a ham sandwich here, folks.
Back in the real world, the failure to indict the police responsible for the deaths of Brown and Garner has spawned an understandable backlash of protest. But while the subject of protest is clear, the objective is emphatically unclear. Much like the Occupy protests following the 2008 financial crisis, people accepted that there was plenty to protest about, but the fledgling movement lost much credibility due to the illegibility of any actual demands of the protesters. Now, these latest protests are part of the mighty stream of the civil rights movement, so credibility is not what's at stake here. Rather, I fear that the opportunity for real, targeted reform will slip us by, because as it is presently constituted, the system will continue to not indict police. It simply has no other choice.
People can shout about structural racism all they want, and they can go down the rabbit holes of stop-and-frisk, police body cams, reparations, or whether #crimingwhilewhite is an unworthy hashtag (for fuck's sake). Most of these are worthy causes but, since they do not address the procedural site that is clearly at the heart of the matter, attempts to address police violence through the court system will run relentlessly into the same bottleneck as before. Rather, the system of incentives needs to be broken at exactly this critical juncture. To this effect, I propose that any killing carried out by police be immediately referred to a special prosecutor – one who is outside of the Backscratchistan fiefdom that we currently have for handling run-of-the-mill cases. I cannot imagine I am the first to do so.
This was further refined in a recent discussion with fellow 3QD author Jeff Strabone, who suggested, quite correctly, that the referral should be made automatic for the killing of any unarmed civilian. Since this type of change would have to be enacted by the relevant state legislature, including the fact that the victim was unarmed creates the additional advantage of being politically much more difficult to resist. Without this kind of reform #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe will soon enough join #Kony2012 in the #DustbinOfHistory.
But perhaps the solution is even simpler. As Jami Floyd noted to WNYC's Brian Lehrer the day after the indictment against Officer Pantaleo was thrown out, the United States is the only country to still use grand juries to decide anything. When one considers that at least two other countries still use the Imperial system of measurements (the United States being in the august company of Liberia and Myanmar), it is amazing to consider that, globally speaking, the pound and the foot enjoy more popularity than grand juries. But we've always been proud of our exceptionalism, haven't we?
Monday, December 01, 2014
Saud Baloch. Strained and Sustained. 2013.
Latex and fabric.
Do I Look Fat in These Genes?
by Carol A. Westbrook
Are you pleasantly plump? Rubinesque? Chubby? Weight-challenged? Or, to state it bluntly, just plain fat? Have you spent a lifetime being nagged to stop eating, start exercising and lose some weight? Have you been accused of lack of willpower, laziness, watching too much TV, overeating and compulsive behavior? If you are among the 55% of Americans who are overweight, take heart. You now have an excuse: blame it on your genes.
It seems obvious that obesity runs in families; fat people have fat children, who produce fat grandchildren. Scientific studies as early as the 1980's suggested that there was more to it than merely being overfed by fat, over-eating parents; the work suggested that fat families may be that way because they have genes in common. Dr. Albert J Stunkard, a pioneering researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who died this year, did much of this early work. Stunkard showed that the weight of adopted children was closer to that of their biologic parents than of their adoptive parents. Another of his studies investigated twins, and found that identical twins--those that had the same genes--had very similar levels of obesity, whereas the similarity between non-identical twins was no greater than that between their non-twin siblings. It was pretty clear to scientists by this time that there was likely to be one or more genes that determined your level of obesity.
In spite of the compelling evidence, it has been difficult to identify the actual genes that cause us to be overweight. This is due partly to the fact that lifestyle and environment are such strong influences on our weight that they can obscure the genetic effects, making it difficult to dissociate genetic from environmental effects. But the main reason it has been difficult to find the fat gene is because there is probably not just one gene for obesity, as is the case for other diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). There seem to be many forms of obesity, determined by an as yet unknown number of genes, so finding an individual gene is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Earlier this year, a group of researchers succeeded in identifying one of these genes by focusing on a single form of obesity and studying only a small number of families. Their studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported a gene mutation which was shared by all of the obese members of the families. The mutated gene, DYRK1B, seems to be involved in initiating the growth of fat cells, and in moderating the effects of insulin. The people in these families who carried the gene mutation all had abdominal obesity beginning in childhood, severe hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high blood triglyceride levels. They had a type of obesity known as "metabolic syndrome."
Metabolic syndrome is recognized by doctors as a combination of symptoms, including large waist size, high triglycerides (lipids), low LDL "good" cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. In order to meet the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, you need to have any 3 of these 5 criteria. A person who has metabolic syndrome is five times as likely to develop diabetes, and twice as likely to develop heart disease, as someone who doesn't have it.
Metabolic syndrome is not a rare condition; in fact, it has been estimated that as many as 47 million Americans have it, though usually not as severely as the one carried by the families in the study, above. Many more Americans may actually carry a mutation in the DYRK1B gene, or in a related gene, but have not developed the symptoms... yet.
What is perplexing is why obesity continues to be on the increase in the US, despite the fact that our genetics couldn't have changed that much over the last decade or two. Clearly there is more to being fat than carrying a fat gene. As we are all aware, you have to eat to become overweight. The fault is not in our stars, it is in our diets. And our diets have changed quite a bit over the last few decades.
What's wrong with our diets? That, of course, is one of the most important health questions of today. Our diets have changed a lot over the last few decades, starting with the movement in the mid 1970's to cut down the fat that we eat, mistakenly thinking that fat was the cause of high cholesterol and lipid problems. This led to the widespread substitution of calories from fat with calories from carbohydrates, particularly high fructose corn syrup and related additives. Nowhere have the substitutions been more dramatic than in fast foods and prepared foods. A high carbohydrate diet is a disaster for someone who is at risk of metabolic syndrome; it is the quickest way to get fat.
As the number of fat people increases, we are starting to see increases in diabetes, hypertension, and knee replacements. Obesity is linked to 1 in 5 deaths in our country. Finding more of the genes that cause people to be overweight will help to identify those at risk, so they can take steps to prevent it. And better yet, these gene mutations may provide targets for the creation of drugs to reverse the condition. The pharmaceutical industry is very interested in finding these genes: imagine if you could produce a pill that 50% of the entire population would have to take every day, for the rest of their lives, to prevent them from being fat!
Sadly, we do not have this pill to reverse metabolic syndrome, at least not at the present time. So, like many other diseases that are sensitive to the foods we eat -- hypertension, diabetes, gluten-sensitivity, and so on--the answer is still in controlling the diet.
But take heart. Now you can relax, forget the accusations and stop
blaming yourself. Enjoy those Christmas cookies and holiday treats today. Your diet starts on January 1.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Do watch the videos here, especially the ants one.
An anthropologist among sartorialists
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Scott Schuman is in India. On the 6th of November, he announced that he would be posting to his immensely popular fashion blog "The Sartorialist" from the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Varanasi. I must confess that for a few minutes, I cursed my luck at being in the deep South and not on the fashionable streets of Mumbai and Delhi, where Mr.Schuman would most likely be lurking, camera in hand. Surely being spotted by Mr.Schuman would be the rightful validation of my many years of changing clothes four times in a row in order to get to the library? After all, academics, especially those in the fields of cultural studies and contemporary socio-cultural anthropology need necessarily to be fashionable I had often argued to myself. (Let the convenience of this categorization be conveniently ignored for now.)
My sartorialism is highly suspect in any case; dressing up for particular environments has always been a particularly harrowing task. Fashion never came easy. My sensibilities were shaped, first and foremost by a socialist secular republic of few choices and many cut corners. During childhood, a popular sitcom lampooned the state of the market thus; the titular character of Wagle Ki Duniya (Wagle's World), Mr.Wagle marks a festive occasion by procuring large quantities of the same bolt of cloth out of which emerge clothes for himself, his wife, his children, and the drawing room curtains. Despite this situation, I did marvel at the effortless beauty of my parents' and their friends' wardrobes, chiffon and polyester saris and factory uniforms. I, however, thanks to particularly unfashionable school uniforms and awkward teenage years, had no possibility of displaying either ingenuity or taste.
Graduate life in America brought forth another set of quandaries. While well schooled by now and comfortable in "Western" clothing, I longed uncharacteristically for loose cottons and salwar kameezes and allowed myself in the Texas heat to switch back and forth, even as I kept away from events conducted by the Indian Cultural Association. Neither their Diwalis nor their Holis held any attraction to my thoroughly disdainful anomic self. But those few kurtas declared my allegiance to some culturally specific India, and brought me attention nevertheless. Many years later, I was told that people had seen me as performing ethnicity for their benefit.
This particular charge of course makes perfect sense to any and all that have participated in the classically anthropological "encounter". Unlike colonial anthropology that only describes this in terms of the meeting of the colonizer with the soon-to-be colonized, current accounts emphasize this in terms of any meeting of unknowns. The power relationship between these unknowns then plays itself out through previously accumulated knowledge and characterizations the burden of which is often required to be borne disproportionately by those having lesser power. Edward Said described and theorized this through the term "Orientalism".
In latter years, I orientalized myself knowingly, answering amicably and often with great enthusiasm to questions such as these: "Tell me about your culture", "Where is your accent from?" and "Can you explain the caste system?" My answers were caricatures of the questions, as was I. While I reveled in the performance of a crossover cosmopolitan, this constant request to explain others' oriental baggage grated on my nerves. But I consoled myself by virtue of the joy of performance, as also the more important reminder that in time-honored anthropological tradition, this also counted as participant observation. That America need not travel anywhere, and that instead it can count anything remotely foreign as an "encounter", was important to know.
Personal narcissistic digression aside, academics ought, I think, to follow in the footsteps of Chimamanda Adichie and love ourselves some fashion. Many years ago, my fellow anthropology graduate students and I leafed eagerly through the pages of the New York Times Magazine that in 2008 chronicled the lives of "The Stylish and the Tenured". Michael Taussig, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, featured prominent and resplendent.
The question of dress/costume for anthropologists however, is a deeply troubling one. (The other problematic question of female academics and dress codes I will save for future column space. Just so you know, it involves advice such as that handed out by the popular blog "The Professor is In".) We are known as a tribe to think hard about appropriate attire, especially at conferences involving other fellow anthropologists. To all purposes we are the standard-issue, cosmopolitan conference attendee; sharp but not too sharp, disheveled but just so, and in other words we believe in a carefully curated unkemptness. Those less than a decade old on the circuit knowingly snigger at colleagues from a different time who display attire mimicked, borrowed, and bought from their research subjects. We merely wear charms; an item here, some fabric there, and sometimes just our skins (native anthropology and such.) After the "Writing Culture" debates, we know better than to be overdetermined representations of the work we do.
So I thought I had it down, this combination of universality with just a hint of the particular. After all, hadn't Schuman himself stated the last time around that he wanted not to, "water-down my eye and take a lot of touristy "exotic" pictures"? But I then espied the pictures he displayed from this jaunt, and realized heart sinking that I was probably better off hiding in Chennai. The picture that I present as evidence of this belief is titled as follows: On the Street….The Untouchables, Delhi.It shows a slender woman, sweeping the street with a long broom, her head and face covered to save from dust.
The Sartorialist is a blog I have followed with keen interest for many years now. There has been vociferous critique of Mr.Schuman himself as being, to put it mildly, slightly unpleasant, sizeist, and churlish. But his blog remains one of the most popular ones on the fashion blog circuit, and he has a hundred and eight three thousand followers on Twitter. Despite obvious comparisons to the legendary Bill Cunningham's style of candid street photography, he is also known to, in his words, create "curated context"s and "altered reality". After this photograph that I flag, I am nervous at my own adulation of his fashion sensibilities, and his deeply polarized world.
Schuman is a fashion blogger one might say. His most egregious crimes might be those of both ignorance and limited engagement with the world one might say. Why is he required to know better, one might ask. So let me gather my wits. The worst accusation I could level at him might well be this: By providing pictures without context, on a blog that declares to be devoted to "the idea of creating a two-way dialogue about the world of fashion and its relationship to daily life", one cannot excuse its giving us bodies without history, not to mention a willful ignorance of the heavy burdens that names carry. The sign may well have been torn asunder of the signifier, and yet the sign bears relationship to a whole set of charged signifiers. Ask anybody that deals politically, academically, and in daily life with the continued and rampant existence of untouchability in India despite its illegality and ostensibly universal refusal, and complex stories will be yours for the taking. Except that this blogger clearly did not ask enough. The question to ask is this: How does somebody get to use the term "The Untouchables", a term emerging only from and within a certain context sans consciousness and sans consequence? The answer might well lie in the large number of comments that follow this post, expressing sympathy for the subject, dejection at her plight, and disgust for the caste system. One commentator sums it up best and declares, "let's please have at least one place to go that is non political! I for one need the rest." Another comes to the conclusion that, "I find the idea of being sad on behalf of people I don't know condescending. But in the case of Untouchables, I agree with Andrea. Sad life, beautiful picture."
In this long-short tale, there are other anthropological journeys to be referenced of course. Anthropology's long sordid history of capturing knowledge before death and disappearance continues to find favor in projects such as Jimmy Nelson's "Before They Pass Away" that chronicles tribes as the "last resorts of natural authenticity."
Lest this be misconstrued as another defence of a new India ("Why is he showing poverty and caste again?), my critique is not of the subject he choses to flag as much as how little engaged the picture is with its name. Neither a proper postmodernist nor a responsible modernist. What cheek. And such a good orientalist. Also, lest this be read as another attack against "foreign" co-optation of India's fair name, let me also flag a recent set of discourses emanating from the current ruling party that would have us believe that all modernity was always/ already pre-empted and played out through ancient Hindu texts. In the Barthes-ian sense, we thus move from myth into two different powerful narratives, each one increasingly hard to challenge. Schuman's signage, and Indian political posturing are but two sides of the same coin. Orientalism others, but it also breeds selfies of a different order. We will apparently never transcend postcoloniality. In the process, what of subjects themselves? Will they ever escape curation and petrification? And what of the complexity we give up in our hurry to assign name, meaning, and consequence? Large and long questions these.
But time is short, and I must now focus on thinking through my patronage of the sartorialist. All good anthropological tales end in continued and sustained relationships. This one I'm afraid is not going to be one of those. I suspect I will not be missed.
Music to watch girls go by
by Sarah Firisen
Boys looking at girls, and then reacting with admiration; what could be more natural? In movie after movie a barrage of wolf whistles following Sofia Loren and Marilyn Monroe as they sashay down the street are meant as innocent signs of appreciation. To today’s men, who often react with a distinct lack of sympathy to modern women’s complaints about callcalling and its associated behavior, what we’re complaining about is no different, at least in intent, to behavior that 40 years ago was seen as a badge of honor for attractive women. I have no idea whether it was really felt and taken that way by women in past generations, perhaps that is nothing more than a romantic rose colored view of what was clearly felt as harassment even then. I truly have no idea. What I do know is how the modern forms of this behavior looks and feel to me and any woman I’ve ever asked about it.
If you’re on some form of social media these days, it’s almost impossible that you haven’t witnessed some of the latest volleys in the catcall wars. There has been a steady stream of women trying to fight back in one way or another: one of my personal favorites, a young lady who handed out cards to the men harassing her on the street trying to educate them, almost always without success, about how it felt to be the recipient of that attention. Another one I really like is http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/; because what could really be more innocuous than telling a woman how pretty she would be if only she would smile, or telling her “hey, smile, it could be worse”? Except, how the hell do you know it could be worse? Perhaps someone just died. Perhaps I just got a cancer diagnosis. Or maybe I have really bad cramps. Or maybe, it’s none of your business whether I smile or not.
And of course, one of the more infamous recent examples, where a woman (an actress hired for the video) walks around New York for 10 hours with a cameraman surreptitiously recording what this woman has to put up with. She doesn’t say anything to these men, she doesn’t look at them, she’s not dressed in provocative clothing and she engages with them in no way, and yet she is harassed over 100 times. As female Facebook friend after friend reposted this video, there was a very predictable explosion of comment threads and some got pretty nasty. One friend posted an interesting observation, which I’ve now tried to verify for myself: she says that when she’s all dressed up (as she often is quite beautifully), she actually attracts less attention from men. But it’s when she’s in her sweats, no makeup, hair unwashed that she can’t seem to shake the catcalls, the men following her, harassing her.
Her view is that they perceive her as more vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to the comments. I do think that a lot of the time, the behavior isn’t about trying to get a date or even a phone number, it’s about power. I’m not going to try to do an analysis of this behavior, there’s been more than enough written on the subject just over the last few months; the racial aspect of it is a whole other dimension that seems to have been mined to death. One interesting addendum to this particular conversation is that when the experiment was repeated in New Zealand, the woman didn’t get any catcalls at all. So maybe this behavior isn’t “natural” after all.
The New York Times debated whether this behavior is something that should be criminalized. I was catcalled on the street the other day and when I turned around and told him where to go, in no uncertain terms, his rebuttal was “it’s a free country and I have a right to free speech”. Was this just his expression of free speech? Don’t I have the right to walk down the street and be left alone? Rights are always in conflict, but this seems to be a reasonably clear cut case of mine trumping his. On the other hand, as a purely practical matter, I can’t imagine how you would actually enforce any such law; what are the odds that this act is taking place in front of a cop? And if it doesn’t, what exactly am I as a woman supposed to do in order to bring this “criminal” to justice?
So it feels like any debate about criminalization is pointless. It also feels like this whole issue plays into a much bigger, broader, more important conversation about the way women are viewed and treated by men, so that, in some ways to think that it will all be solved if we just make it against the law is to miss the point. Something that a few men pointed out on some of these fraught Facebook interactions is that, if you’re attracted to someone and they come up to you in a bar and tell you how lovely you look, it can be very welcome. But if you’re not attracted to them, they’re a creep. Now, this is a pretty simplistic view of these kinds of interactions, but as a woman who has been at the receiving end of both kinds of conversations, I have to own that there is some truth in there somewhere. There is a spectrum of what is acceptable and one of the things that determines where on the spectrum that behavior falls sometimes does have do with how interested a woman is in the man. But often, at least for me, it comes down to trying to ascertain the intent behind the comment; I’ve had women come up to me and tell me they love my hairdo. I’ve gone up to women on the street and complimented them on their outfits, so if a man does either of these things, is it harassment? I guess it depends on the language he uses and how he follows up on my “thank you”. I usually don’t have a problem with someone, man or woman, coming up to me and in a respectful manner giving me a compliment. But, “yo mama, nice tits” really doesn’t fall into the category of a respectful compliment. Though, maybe to the man saying it, it really does. And when I say thank you, is that just an opening for me to now be hit on quite openly?
One of the questions that women debate endlessly is whether there is any point in “fighting back”. Do we ignore these comments or answer back? Does replying just give the person harassing you the attention they were looking for? Do we put ourselves in physical danger by interacting with these men? For the most part, I’ve always said something back. I’m not stupid; I don’t do it when I think I might put myself in physical danger. But to the extent that I do believe that catcalling is often, maybe usually about exerting power, I want to take that power away from these men. I want to own my space and my right to walk down the street. I’ve turned around and chased men down the street. I’ve confronted them and asked “how would you feel if someone said that to your mother or sister or daughter?” On occasion, I’ve actually got an apology. Often I get a stunned look. Occasionally I get cursed out. But I always feel better for having said something even though I’m sure that I have never changed someone’s behavior in any meaningful way.
There’s no easy answers here, it’s part education, definitely part of a much, much bigger problem about how women and their bodies are perceived and treated. The subject seems to be the internet flavor of the month, this too shall pass. Unfortunately, the behavior won’t stop anytime soon.
Monday, November 17, 2014
7500 Miles, Part III: Ain't No One Gonna Turn Me Around
by Akim Reinhardt
I've made some deep runs in my time.
I once drove non-stop from central Wyoming to eastern Iowa before passing out at a highway rest stop for a couple of hours, waking up with a scrambled brain, driving the short distance to Illinois, then staring with confusion and regret at the chili cheese omelette I'd ordered at a pre-cell truck stop where drivers sat with piles of quarters in front of them at booths hard wired to pay phones.
Another time I went from the Nevada-Utah line to eastern Nebraska, staving off sleep during the last several hours by frequently leaning my head out the window at 80 miles per hour, the wind and rain whipping me in the face beneath the dark night sky.
My most recent super haul was from Windsor, Arizona to northeastern Kansas, where I'd finally pulled over to sleep in a rural parking lot. But that was fifteen years ago. I was in my early thirties back then.
In the months leading up to the trip I've chronicled here, I had wondered: What do I still have left in me? What would the road be like for me in my late forties?
I had no illusions. I knew I wouldn't be busting tail nonstop for 1,200 miles. Even in my prime that was at my outer limits. It was unthinkable now.
But beyond the issue of endurance, I was more intrigued, and even fretful, about how I would take to the road.
What would it be like to long haul now compared to back then? What would my state of mind be after 600 miles? Seven hundred? Eight hundred, if that was even feasible. Would I still find driving alone for vast stretches to be meditative? Would I still marvel at the expanse of this continent? Or would I simply be middle aged and grumpy? Would I be helpless to enjoy a solo, long distance drive as I once had? Would I just be petty and impatient to reach my destination?
Even since before I first left Maryland back in late August, I knew this would be the jaunt. From Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to Reno, Nevada. No other stretch of the trip is much more than 500 miles. This one's over 1,200.
Going in, I knew that South Dakota to the Nevada-California border in late September would sort it all out.
I left Pine Ridge at about 3:30 PM. Or more accurately, that's when I began leaving Pine Ridge. It's a very large reservation, and from the north central town of Kyle, where the college library and archive are located, to its southwestern edge near the Wyoming border, is about an hour and a half.
There's no interstate on Pine Ridge, and as I left the reservation, I was riding on U.S. 18 down and across the arcing panorama of eastern Wyoming. As I sped through the western Great Plains and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the late afternoon sun began its vicious assault, blazing ever brighter while sinking towards the horizon. I cobbled together a defense from both flip down windshield visors and a pair of cheap sunglasses. It required frequent adjustments as the road wound in various directions, allowing the sun to attack from shifting angles.
Helios finally surrendered, retreating behind a grassy escarpment. My victory brought forth unimaginable glory.
You know that line about "purple mountain majesty?" It's a real thing. At least in Wyoming it is.
As highway 18 turned south, the sun sank to my right. To my left, the sky layered across the horizon in a multitude of colors: blue, pink, and purple. And straight ahead, the mountains bathed in a light purple haze, the sky a pale lavender shroud.
Apparently it's no big deal that I can climb into a machine and soar over the mountains and flute through the valleys of Wyoming at 90 miles per hour.
Life is magical.
I made it as far as Casper, Wyoming. The place reeks of having once been a shady mining town full of hustlers and whores. Now it feels like a fast and loose overgrown truck stop cashing in on the interstate trade. At least that's the impression from the various I-25 exits which, admittedly, are not a fair representation. But it's all I had to go on late Friday night.
The motels were overpriced. I ended up at a revolting Super 8.
They only had smoking rooms left. A hundred and eight dollars. For a rank, musty room with a broken television and a broken promise of scrambled eggs at the continental breakfast. It turned out to be cold, dry, spongy hard boiled ones instead. The kind where the yolk crumbles.
The place was depressing. The room had been overrun with moths. The next morning I couldn't figure out why many of the people in the lobby seemed so happy. It was like something out of The Twilight Zone. Didn't they realize they'd just spent the night in an overpriced shit hole?
This is the day I stop shaving, I thought to myself.
I had chopped most of the beard off for summer, leaving only a Van Dyck. Now I would quit shaving altogether and allow the winter warmer to return. And no more washing my hair for a while. This rundown, price-gouging corporate motel was modern America at its worst, and spending a night there sapped me of any desire to get my shit together.
When I mentioned the broken TV to the woman at the front desk the next morning, she laughed about it. "All I do around here is fix TVs."
Yeah. Fuck you too.
I saddled up and left.
The previous day had merely been a prelude. There were still well over 900 miles to go. Most of Wyoming, the panhandle of Utah, and all of northern Nevada still lay ahead of me. After filling up on the disappointing continental breakfast, I opened with one last ramble on a pre-interstate U.S. highway before finally landing on I-80, which I would drive for the duration of this trip's westward leg.
The Wyoming Rockies on I-80 are a lot easier than the Colorado branch on I-70. The slopes are relatively mild. And after crossing the mountains, one can usually count on a dry ride. The intermontane West is composed of dessert and semi-arid near-desert. By definition, a desert gets less than 10" of precipitation per year.
Nonetheless, the rain started in central Wyoming, and barely let up for the entire day.
Somewhere halfway across Nevada I glanced into my side mirror and noticed something flapping behind me. I peered closer and realized that the little metal door which is supposed cover my gas tank spout was open.
Holy shit. Not again. Had I lost yet another gas cap somewhere in the void of American highways? Had I forgotten to screw it back on while hurriedly filling up in the rain a few hundred miles back?
I took the next exit. More, Nevada.
More: When the endless moonscape of Nevada isn't enough.
The highway sign made plain that there were no services. So I drove up to the top of the exit ramp and pulled over along the shoulder.
I got out and checked my gas cap. It was still there after all. I would be spared the embarrassment of losing it and the $11 of replacing it one more time.
I shut the metal hatch, opened my fly, and peed straight down onto the blacktop. I finished, zipped, accidentally stepped in my own urine, got back in the car, crossed the service road, went up the entrance ramp, and returned to the highway.
By day's end I'd driven nearly 800 miles, most of it in the rain. The rusted chariot was humming between 80 and 90 mph when there wasn't any road construction. The only real stop was for lunch and gas at a truck stop cafe in eastern Wyoming.
It was not the type of cafe that gets an accent aigu over the "é."
That was 30 minutes, tops. All told I'd been on the road for eleven hours.
But now my head was getting numb and tight, like a thick rubber band was snapped around it. It was becoming difficult to focus. I would not make Reno tonight.
My future awaits me in Winnemucca.
I roll into downtown and am encouraged by the bevy of hotels and motels. Surely the competition will keep prices deflated. There are also a lot of local joints, which is a good sign.
I pull into one and ask. Eight-four plus tax. Twenty bucks better than the Super 8 in Casper last night, and undoubtedly a lot nicer, but I sense I can do better.
Half a block away, I find it: The Holy Grail of shitty motels.
Rooms starting at $25, says the lofty, crooked marquee. When I pull up, there's a gaggle of children hanging out in front of the office, no sign of an adult. They range in age from about four to fourteen and they all look related.
When the oldest one sees me emerge from the rusted chariot, in my stained three-quarter sleeve shirt (white with faded navy sleeves), my matted, unwashed hair, and unshaven face, she knows I belong there. She stands up and walks into the office.
The handwritten sign on the office door says, "NO SINGLES, JUST DOUBLES STARTING AT 44.80 DAILY RATE." As if it didn't exist, she asks, "You want a single?
"Yeah. How much?"
"You paying cash?"
Sure. Why not. I don't see the advantage to handing over my Visa.
When I give her a couple of twenties, she fumbles a bit, then says: "I'm not too good with math. What do I owe you?"
"Twenty-eight from forty. That's twelve, I think. Twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty. Yeah, twelve."
She gives me the change. "You got internet?" I ask, realizing how ridiculous the question is as the words come out of my mouth.
"No. But you can get it from the place across the street if you stand outside. That's what I do."
"They have a password?"
She's been shuffling through various drawers during the exchange and then says, "I can't find the TV remote."
"No problem," I say, and turn to leave. Just then, the matriarch appears. You can immediately see it in the faces. They're her kids.
"What's the problem?"
"I can't find the remote."
Mother Hen opens a drawer and pulls one out. Hands it to me and says: "Make sure you bring it back in the morning. Sometimes people steal them and then I get angry."
I go over to the room. A scrap of window trim is laying on the cement floor in front of the door. No telling how long it's been there. Or how long it might remain.
The room itself is about 15' square. A queen bed takes up most of it. The TV is a cathode ray tube with a screen just a hair larger than my laptop. The bathroom floor is dirty linoleum tile with some white paint splatter. The toilet runs after you flush it. There's one bath towel and one hand towel, no bath mat. The wash cloth is dirty. And stained. The room door doesn't lock. I'll be leaving my valuables in the car when I go out to dinner.
I'm so fucking happy to be here.
The average rainfall for Winnemucca in September is less than half an inch. But it's pattering down relentlessly as I sit in the little room, trying to capture its ramshackle beauty with mere words.
Every time I hear sounds of life outside, I peer through the plastic Venetian blinds. I'm curious about who else stays here. Based on the cars, they're not poor people. Just cheap, like me. The cars look nice and clean. Maybe it's the rain.
The unseasonable precipitation finally relents. I trade my shorts for pants, put my computer bag back in the car, stick the room key in my pocket for reasons that are still unknown to me, and head out for dinner.
I eat across the street, at the place I'm stealing internet from. Paying for it after all, I suppose.
I'm pretty sure there're no bedbugs in this climate, but I'm not taking any chances. Mostly I stand when I'm in the room, banging on the computer, surfing stolen internet, and watching football on the little screen.
When it's time for bed, I avoid the sheets and keep my clothes on. I pull back the bedspread, lay on top on the blanket, and cover myself with my sleeping bag.
I awake the next morning feeling filthy yet refreshed. I'm a new man. And I've got one thing in common with the old me: I still love driving as far as a beat up old car will take me.
I climb back in and head off towards Reno.
Previous and future entries from this cross-country travelog can be found here.
Watercolor on paper.
an obsession with optics (part 2)
by Leanne Ogasawara
His boss was known for his mad pranks. Yes, in the good old days, people valued playfulness, remember? Kings and dukes were known to play around, and this means that an artist working for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy say, might be asked to lend a hand in the fun once in a while. Or maybe job titles were more flexible back then; for in addition to spying missions made on behalf of his liege, Jan van Eyck also almost certainly had a part in creating decorative items for the Duke's fabulous parties and as part of his unending practical jokes. From rainmaking devices that squirted water on ladies from below, to books that sprayed soot on whoever tried to read them, the Duke of Burgundy was even known to have used magical mirrors.
Mirror, mirror on the wall....The history of the late Renaissance has been called by some as the history of optics-- and mirrors show up all over the place. We see this both in science and in art. And yet where art is concerned, most books used in college survey courses in this country at least do not feature the word "lens in their pages," I have read.
Last month, I wrote the rise of optics in late Renaissance science and the 2012 book, Baroque Science. The book is highly recommended as an absolutely fascinating account of Europe's "estrangement of the senses" vis-à-vis the rise of optical science in the 17th century. While the book was about scientific innovations (microscopes and telescopes), art history loomed large-- and so I ended the piece mentioning the famous quote by art historian Erwin Panofsky which suggested that van Eyck's eye functioned "as a microscope and a telescope at the same time." It was an interesting quote, and this all eventually led me to re-visit the infamous the Hockney-Falco Thesis, where van Eyck also plays a pivotal role.
The British artist David Hockney began his notorious crusade in pure disbelief. How was it possible that the Old Master painters had been able to draw so realistically? In his book Secret Knowledge, he has several examples, which are so perfectly drawn that he suggests it would be absolutely impossible to draw like that today. Look at the chandelier above for example, the arms, Hockney and Falco suggest are simply too perfectly proportioned for having been done by the human eye alone.
But there are countless cases of certain technologies lost in time. One of my favorite examples of a "lost art" was the short lived ru ware ceramics, made under the glorious reign of Huizong Emperor (around 300 years before van Eyck). My beloved emperor loved painting in blue. In fact, you could almost say he was obsessed with the color. And, while-- like me-- he loved all shades of blue-green-- one shade in particular fascinated him:
So an emperor dreams of blue. And being the wish of an Emperor, his wish was everyone's command and it wouldn’t take long for the ingenious potters at nearby Ru to provide him with exactly what he was looking for:
The most beautiful porcelain in the world
Because Ru ware was created with the Emperor’s particular taste in mind and then disappeared so mysteriously without a trace after the fall of his dynasty, it has been forever after associated with Huizong's reign. And, with less than 100 surviving examples, a very small piece was sold several years ago at Sotheby’s in New York for approximately 1.5 million dollars. The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds the great majority of the remaining pieces, with a fairly large number held in British museums as well.It is absolutely splendid-- and although countless artists and even scientists have tried to re-create it, its exact method of production remains a mystery.
Researcher, Fumito Kondo, on assignment for Japan’s NHK, visited the Ru kiln site not all that long ago, and he describes his meeting with a Chinese researcher, a certain Mr. Zhu, who had been working for over 20 years en-situ, attempting to unlock the glaze’s secrets. Kondo writes (my translation from NHK book),
On the day we arrived at Ru to begin filming, 30 pieces of celadon were being fired. The color in celadon glaze is extremely delicate --and so slight changes occur depending on where the vessel is placed inside the kiln. Mr Zhu, carefully removing each piece, upon examining
them, discovered that not one piece had turned out! Mr. Zhu then
exclaimed that 20 years at Ru together with all the advances in
modern technology had been unable so far to bring back that very
mysterious color blue.
A shimmering blue-green-lavender that has somehow been lost forever. The old tapestries of the Middle Ages, like the ancient Chinese bronzes and tenmoku teabowls of Japan also come to mind as being lost technologies.
Hockney is not happy imagining that the great Old Masters of the past had a skill that he and his generation simply no longer possess. The more he thinks about the problem, the more he becomes quite convinced that they were somehow helped. Covering his studio walls with hundreds of photocopies of famous paintings, he is able to scan the entire history of European art. And what does he come up with? He comes up with a date. In around 1420, he says, everything changes. Yes, it all happened with van Eyck. It was at this point that he formulates the argument that the Flemish masters--starting with van Eyck-- used optics to help with their pictures.
As mentioned above, this happened very early compared to what we saw in the sciences, but Hockney believes that the artists were mainly using camera obscura and camera lucida to capture the images in order to basically trace outlines of subject, of which they would later turn into masterpieces in oil. It was both the precise geometrical details in the paintings, as well as the almost impossible-to-believe reflections --from images found reflected in mirrors and portraits hidden in glasses of wine; to reflections of the room glimpsed in the shiny jewels of his paintings--one can easily wonder along with Hockney about however he managed it!
An honest question after all, but Hockney's thesis produced a tremendous reaction in the art world. The maelstrom that insued says more about art historians than anything else, I think. For the reality is, art was not viewed the same way back then and in all probability van Eyck, like Vermeer did utilize instruments in order to trace outlines of paintings. Does this somehow take away from their genius, though? And if so why? There, after all, is no real historical or textual evidence to back him up as far as I know. But the reaction of the public was fascinating (for we have a modern need for artists to execute their work alone and preferably with no tracing, thank you very much).
In what was perhaps the most interesting aspect of his thesis, Hockney suggests that with the invention of the lens (leading to the celebrated microscopes and telescopes of Baroque Science), a photographic realism suddenly came to be held up as the ultimate ideal. Like we saw in early science, it was something which occurred mainly north of the alps and which sought to bypass the senses vis-a-vis philosophical mind-body duality. Photographic images based on optical science (rather than what the eye sees or the heart feels) came to dominate--and this is something that dominated our aesthetic sensibility in the West, says Hockney--till the invention of photography.
In his book, the artist describes asking a Chinese lady "of very refined taste," why there are no shadows in Chinese painting; to which she sensibly responds, "because they are not necessary." And they are not if one is aiming to depict the "truth" of a landscape. At least for me, a photograph of a natural scene is less what I see when I am walking in nature than say the traveling perspective and emotion as depicted in a Chinese picture. And for me, a Flemish oil is less "life like" than many of the art done by the Impressionists, for example.
Has anyone read Joseph Alsop's wonderful and quirky tome on art collecting? A fascinating man, his book Rare Art Collections is a gem. (Here is a review of the book by Ernst Gombrich).I mentioned the book here last year in talking about the statue I had fallen so deeply in love with. I have long been fascinated by the way people in Los Angeles love to go to the Getty but never look at the art. Alsop would explain this as being a byproduct of our changing tastes in art. And that is certainly true. In his book, he goes to some pains to paint the sad fall from grace of the The Apollo Belvedere. Bought by an art-collecting Pope, the statue was practically enshrined in the Vatican's Cortile del Belvedere. And for the next 350 years, the Apollo Belvedere was to remain the "statue of all statues;" and the "most admired sculpture in the world." During Victorian times, people of means, as part of their liberal arts education, went on tours to visit the great sights of France and Italy. Called "The Grand Tour," these trips abroad were thought to be like the crowning of a fine education; providing real life experience which could not be learned from books (read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 li, said Dong qichang 讀萬卷書，行萬里路).
Not only was the Apollo Belvedere part of the Tour-- it was the main attraction. Goethe claimed to have been "Swept off his feet" by the sculpture while 18th century archaeologist and classical historian J.J. Winckelman said that the Apollo Belvedere was "the consummation of the best that nature, art, and the human mind can produce." It was indeed the must-see for anyone on a Grand Tour. A description of the wig worn by amateur Cellist Count Mateeuz Wielhorski is described in a book I am reading right now as being "curled a l'Apollo Belvedere." The statue had a profound influence during its day.
What happened? As Alsop says, "Few make the lonely trip out to look at the Apollo Belvedere any longer." And for those that do, what do they see? Are we even capable of really looking at ancient sculpture any more? In an age of Asian art and impressionism, the classical sculpture and Flemish oils seems somehow remote and unengaging to most people, it seems.
My astronomer (who is an optics expert and fellow lover of Old Master painters) says,
In the age of van eyck, art had a sacred purpose: to re-present sacred scenes and beings in a contemporary context; to construct tableaux juxtaposing actual persons and religious figures; to real-lize scenes of profound spiritual import as if they were happening now, with living people, familiar places, fashionable clothes. It would not then surprise us to learn that they would use the techniques of the new science to elevate these paintings to the highest level of beauty. These paintings are articles of devotion and their gloss of hyper reality could hope to echo the beautiful vision of God and the radiance of heaven.
In our time, we have lost our sacred traditions and search for new icons of worship. For some, art has become a consumer item. High art, celebrated as a pinnacle of human achievement, and enveloped in the mystery of lost genius and technique, has become the object of our new secular pilgrimage. Or maybe it is just something to consume (devoid of the elevating aspects that fueled those on the Grand Tour, for example). Either way, I think it is safe to say that the cultural obsession with optics during the Baroque period utterly transformed both science and art--and these effects continue to be strongly felt down to today, literally shaping the way we see the world. And, as my astronomer would argue: It would be ironic and even tragic if these revelations also drain these icons of their sacred power.
-- See part 1 (on baroque period science here):
Monday, November 10, 2014
In Trust We Truth
"All this – all the meanness and agony without end
I sitting look out upon
See, hear and am silent."
~ Walt Whitman
On a recent Facebook thread – about what, heaven help me remember – someone posted a comment along the lines of "This is what happens when we live in a post-truth society." I honestly cannot recall what the original topic was about – politics? GamerGate? Climate change? Who knows – you can take your pick, and in the end it's not really that important. The comment struck me as misguided, though, and led me to contemplate not so much the state of ‘truth' as a category, which has always been precarious (see: 2,500 years of philosophy), but of the conditions that may or may not lead to the delineation and bounding of what we may consider to be sufficiently, acceptably truthful, and how technology has both helped and hindered this understanding today.
I responded to the commenter by suggesting that we live not so much in a ‘post-truth' society as a ‘post-accountability' society. It is not so much that truth is disrespected, distorted or ignored more than ever before, but rather that the consequences for doing so have (seemingly) dwindled to nearly zero. One could argue that this is vastly more damaging, because the degree of our accountability to one another profoundly influences how and if we can arrive at any sort of truth, period. Prior to the onset of information technology, there were well-established (and of course, deeply flawed) mechanisms for generating and enforcing accountability. Now, this mechanism of information technology that has relieved us of accountability is already so deeply enwoven into our society that not only will we never put the genie back in the bottle, we are at a loss to imagine how to ever get this genie to play nice. Except the problem is that this kind of righteous outrage is, in fact, entirely an illusion.
Instead of arguing about truth as an objective, abstract and hopefully attainable category, let's assume that truth (or whatever you want to call it) is a sort of consensus, and that consensus is reached through processes of trust (we respect each other's right to have a say) and accountability (we take some responsibility for what we say to each other). These are all fundamentally social processes, and as such haven't really changed very much over time. What interests me is how the insertion of technology into this discourse has changed our perceptions of the burdens that these concepts –truth, consensus, trust and accountability – are expected to bear.
Roughly speaking, technology has begotten two completely contradictory streams of development in this regard. This is old news – one person finds a better way to make fertilizer and someone else finds a way to build a better bomb using that fertilizer. In this sense technology merely functions as an amplifier for whatever tendencies are coursing through society's veins. Within the context of accountability, the two streams may seem to be paradoxical, but this is only superficial. Let's first touch on how technology has played a largely beneficial role in the elaboration of the paradigm of accountability.
Most obviously, there are the successes that have allowed a tremendous blossoming of commerce. An early, pressing problem faced by ecommerce was the creation of trust between buyers and sellers in an anonymous, disembodied marketplace. Buyers were interested in what they could buy online, but reluctant to fork over cash to anonymous strangers. In 1995, eBay was one of the first to propose a simple accountability mechanism for trader-to-trader transactions: buyers and sellers left feedback for one another confirming (or critiquing) speed of shipping, quality of goods, etc. Today, the approach is received wisdom, but at the time no one knew if would actually work. But this feedback system has continued to underpin the success of eBay and many other ecommerce sites, as witnessed by the success of AliBaba, current record-holder for the world's largest stock market IPO. It's no mean feat to create trust between buyers and sellers in a market as notoriously dodgy as China's.
Moreover, the applications of this mechanism seem to have grown well beyond the simple trader-to-trader transaction. We are now accustomed to reading book reviews on Amazon, restaurant reviews on Yelp, accommodation reviews on TripAdvisor, among many others. Reviews are also arguably being used to put the screws on part-time entrepreneurs such as AirBnB hosts and Uber drivers, but that is a topic for another time. It is sufficiently uncontroversial to say that, in a very concrete sense, we are becoming ever more reliant on an army of anonymous commenters to help us in our sensemaking of what to read, eat, buy or see.
Trust and accountability mechanisms have expanded in even subtler ways, specifically in the way that machine participants trust one another within a given system. Perhaps the most compelling example of this is bitcoin, the crypto-currency whose wild price oscillations (and shady applications) managed to grab global headlines for, well, at least a few minutes. The obvious need to prevent a party from double-spending an amount of bitcoin, which after all is a bunch of numbers sitting on a hard drive somewhere, led bitcoin's designers to include the notion of a block chain. The block chain accomplishes this through a concept called proof-of-work:
[Proof-of-work] is counterintuitive and involves a combination of two ideas: (1) to (artificially) make it computationally costly for network users to validate transactions; and (2) to reward them for trying to help validate transactions. The reward is used so that people on the network will try to help validate transactions, even though that's now been made a computationally costly process. The benefit of making it costly to validate transactions is that validation can no longer be influenced by the number of network identities someone controls, but only by the total computational power they can bring to bear on validation.
Basically, each machine on the network must validate all transactions, and all transactions must match across all machines. In the meantime, all transactions remain anonymous, even though the block chain, stored on each participant's machines, retains the entire record of all transactions (you can really go down the rabbit hole here). The computational intensity required means that no one individual can fake a transaction and fool the other participants. This is counterintuitive because we think of the goals of software design as privileging lighter, faster and simpler solutions.
A waggish take might see this as little more than make-work for the digital age. Nevertheless, the critical element here is that there is no central authority that vets the transactions. The network validates itself as it goes along, and, if everything works as it should, participants that act in bad faith are rooted out as a matter of course. I suspect that this sort of decentralized, distributed trust mechanism will find itself refined and deployed in many ways – for example, in credit systems for validating bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers. But it also occupies an important place within our narrative: this is what accountability looks like if you're a machine. From the point of view of a machine, it is a straight line from accountability to trust, and from there to consensus and truth. You just need plenty of electricity.
The looming problem with all the cases I have described so far is that they fall within a very narrow category: that of trader-to-trader transactions. In every case, the subject under discussion is clearly an object or service that is to be consumed (or evaluated or whatever – but the final purpose is consumption, let's be clear about that). There is always an implied value at stake – the feedback or ranking or other process being applied to it is simply there to clarify, refine or nudge the final value one way or the other. This is the meat and potatoes of not just microeconomics, but almost every "disruptive" idea to come out of Silicon Valley. As a result, the amount of attention these cases command is far out of proportion to our sensemaking as a whole. In this worldview, truth is indistinguishable from, or is rather interchangeable with, price discovery.
But there is still all that squishy stuff where technology has hung us out to dry. Why has technology failed to help us resolve, on a social level, issues like the link between autism and vaccines, or whether Barak Obama was born on American soil or not? Let alone the realities of climate change or evolution? Why do sites like Snopes.com or the Annenberg Center's FactCheck.org seem to be engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to disabuse us of disinformation, or why do we need them at all? Most importantly, why has technology, which otherwise has been such a staunch ally in concretizing the invisible hand, been unable to bring us any closer when it comes to a shared set of values?
At the beginning of the second essay of In The Shadow Of The Silent Majorities, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes:
The social is not a clear and unequivocal process. Do modern societies correspond to a process of socialisation or to one of progressive desocialisation? Everything depends on one's understanding of the term and none of these is fixed: all are reversible. Thus the institutions which have sign-posted the "advance of the social" … could be said to produce and destroy the social in one and the same movement.
Baudrillard asserted that political action – or at least, the kind of political action that mattered – becomes impossible when social processes disallow the "masses" from anything but the observation of spectacle. This process takes protest – or for that matter any kind of political action – and subsumes it into media, which then converts it into merely another object for consumption. Writing in 1978, Baudrillard was essentially finishing off Marxism as a plausible revolutionary theory. But he was mostly concerned with top-down media technologies and the manner in which once-meaningful events are rendered into meaningless theater, or rather whose meaning resided exclusively in their own theatricality. A good example is his examination of the transformation of political party conventions here in the United States. Once political conventions became televised, decisions of any consequence ceased to be made at those events. They simply became spectacle; the spectacle of the thing in question becomes the thing itself. If you want a good overview of what he had in mind, see Paddy Chayefsky's "Network", filmed a few years earlier: Howard Beale and the Ecumenical Liberation Army are essentially Baudrillardian poster children.
A good twenty years later, the World Wide Web began its inexorable crawl across (and of) the globe. Baudrillard was a troublemaker and a provocateur, so I assume that he would have gleefully jumped on the subject, but in a 1996 interview he admitted "I don't know much about this subject. I haven't gone beyond the fax and the automatic answering machine…. Perhaps there is a distortion [of oneself online], not necessarily one that will consume one's personality. It is possible that the machine can metabolize the mind." In one of his last major works, The Vital Illusion he lamented in a Nietzschean fashion that "The corps(e) of the Real – if there is any – has not been recovered, is nowhere to be found."
Fifteen years after publication of The Vital Illusion, we are in a better place to evaluate the effects of technology, and the view is not encouraging. For the same mechanisms that have allowed such a preternatural calibration of transactional value seem to be exacerbating the consensus around values that cannot be transacted. The fact is that there is an entirely different set of assumptions at work here. Venkatesh Rao put it well on his stimulating blog, Ribbon Farm, when he discussed the differing nature of transactions when participants are price-driven (ie, traders) or values-driven (as he puts it, saints):
Traders view deviations from markets as distortions, and fail to appreciate that to saints, it is recourse to markets that is distortionary, relative to the economics of pricelessness. Except that they call it "corruption and moral decay" instead of "distortion." To trade at all is to acknowledge one's fallen status and sinfulness.
If we consider the insertion of technology into this dynamic, the fact emerges that we have not designed technology to help us in our, shall I say, more saintly endeavors. Technology subsumes these squishier, values-driven behaviors into itself as best as it can, but it cannot ever do so completely. What's left is the flotsam and jetsam of Reddit, White House petitions, comment threads anywhere, Anonymous and LulzSec and cross-platform flame wars ranging from Mac vs PC to Palestine vs Israel. There is no shortage of bridges under which Internet trolls lurk, waiting to pounce on anyone who displeases them.
For anyone who doubts that there are real-life consequences to this, GamerGate is perhaps the best example of this. When the women targeted in this shitstorm are confronted with such a quantity of death and rape threats that they flee their homes, or are forced to cancel speaking engagements because a university cannot guarantee that someone won't bring a concealed weapon to a lecture, I am left with a distinct pining for that good old Baudrillardian unreality. Whether there will be any real-life consequences for the people who commit such acts, this remains to be seen. Furthermore, there is no reason why unaccountability cannot, and will not, continue its expansion. Like cosmic inflation, it does not need a reason to keep going, or anticipate a boundary to detain it.
There is an old Wall Street adage about any significant market downturn: "When the tide goes out, you see who's been swimming naked." The Web has flipped this on its head: the tide just keeps coming in, and more and more people are leaving their trunks on the beach. Moreover, it is simply too late to redesign the Internet for greater accountability. The last (or first?) idea that had any hope of accomplishing this was Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project. Nelson invented the very idea of hypertext, but in his world, which he originally conceived in 1960 and is detailed in one of the best articles to ever appear in Wired, every image or piece of text would be traceable back to its source. This past June, in an Onion-worthy headline, The Guardian announced the "World's most delayed software released after 54 years of development".
Perhaps in another, alternative universe, Xanadu became the default design template for an Internet that encouraged not just price accountability. In the meantime, and back in this universe, what technology has exposed is only what we have always known: that we are a fractious, quarrelsome and undependable lot. This is why I maintain that any hand-wringing about the state of the conversation on the Web is ultimately a red herring. That we haven't designed one of our most extraordinary technological infrastructures to help us get closer to any sort of ‘truth' shouldn't surprise us in the least. As for the original Facebook conversation that sparked this contemplation, after making my ‘post-accountability' suggestion, my comment received a dutiful ‘like' or two. As far as civilized dialogue goes, I'll take it.
Licia Galizia - Michelangelo Lupone.
" ... a unique installation that combines sculpture and music thanks to the collaboration between artist Licia Galizia and composer Michelangelo Lupone. The work is the result of an artistic research project entitled ADAMO for Adaptive Art and Music Opera."
Monday, November 03, 2014
Perceptions: A Tribute to Imran Mir
Imran Mir. Untitled. 2014.
Photo sent to me by the artist in March 2014.
Imran Mir, pre-eminent Pakistani graphic designer; serious, inspired, thoughtful, whimsical, prolific artist; a man of great heart, and an immensely generous soul; died on October 28, 2014.
Photo taken by Sughra Raza in Bentota, Sri Lanka, Jan 2010.
When I joined the Central Institute of the Arts Council in Karachi as a first year student, Imran, a senior student, immediately became a friend and an inspiration. For the next forty plus years while I moved to the US and took a different path, Imran never for a moment faltered in his encouragement and insistence that I continue to be an artist. Because of Imran, my Karachi identity was forever as an artist rather than a doctor and I loved that respite!
The thought of Karachi without Imran feels painfully hollow. His incredible loyalty, generosity, thoughtfulness, creativity, sense of humor, and passionate joie de vivre is etched in his wife and sons, and will continue to be deeply cherished by family and countless friends.
With deepest appreciation for the very fine human being you were, and for your love of music, Imran, I offer this most sublime lament, Beethoven's Opus 131, string quartet #14: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW8wdpfkpM0
The following is from Imran's forthcoming memoir (printed here with permission from Nighat Mir and Noorjehan Bilgrami). Imran had planned the book launch for November 22nd, 2014.
FOREWORD (by Noorjehan Bilgrami)
what you see is what you see
‘At the centre of your being
you have the answer;
you know who you are
and you know what you want.’
- Lao Tzu
Philosopher Lao Tzu’s words of ancient Chinese wisdom, sum up Imran Mir’s journey in the world of creativity.
I first met Imran Mir in 1970, at a time when we were both students at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC), Karachi. He was a Graphic Design student, while I was in the Fine Art Department.
My memory of Imran forty-three years ago is of a lanky, shy teenager with doleful yet twinkling eyes, leaning on the iron balustrade of the Arts Council’s cemented stairway. Then and to this day, with his mischievous grin, Imran would quietly slip in a punchy line full of wit, almost inaudible- yet it was heard by all present, and would make everyone double up in laughter.
At the time, CIAC had a dynamic, energized and charged environment. It was a modest place, one long corridor flanked by classrooms on either side, equipped with only the basics, yet it brought out the best from its students.
The principal, Ali Imam, had recently returned from the UK, he would be seen hovering in a yellow shirt and corduroy pants, exuding an air of no-nonsense, the aroma from his pipe preceding his towering personality. He exposed students to the work of artists from all over the country–in fact the region. Ahmed Pervez, Sadequain, Bashir Mirza, Shakir Ali, MF Hussain were among regular visitors to the Institute. Artists like Nahid Ali, Anjum Saeed, Imran Mir, Rumana Hussain, Seema Tahir and art critic Niilofer Farrukh are all CIAC graduates.
Born in Karachi, Imran is the youngest amongst seven brothers and two sisters. His father died when Imran was very young and he grew up sheltered amidst the love of his family – to the extent of being very spoiled! Nighat, his wife, says the influence continues till this day. He studied in many different schools, including one in Murree. Imran was not good at academics, but always wanted to study art. After his Intermediate, his brothers wanted him to become a doctor, but Imran’s mother supported his desires and he joined CIAC.
Since childhood, Imran had longed to be an artist, to live in the realm of form and colour. He was enamoured by the glamour of Indian films and practiced drawing their actors along with his comic book heroes. When he showed his portfolio for admission at CIAC, Ali Imam brusquely dismissed his efforts, suggesting he should sell his sketches of Tarzan, actors and actresses on the footpath at Saddar! It was Imran’s will power alone that ensured him admission at CIAC.
Most memorable are Imran’s drawings of the time – mainly caricatures of his colleagues and teachers. With one continuous, strong individualistic graphite line, he captured the essentials of the person on paper. With single-mindedness and determination, Imran pursued and explored the power and control of the graphite line, from the dot to the infinite circle.
Imran steadfastly and tirelessly pursued his goals. In 1976 he passed his Masters in Communication Design from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Canada, with honours. Being very organized and methodical, he has a logical approach to life. Very consciously, he chartered his career path towards a profession that would be economically viable, in order to have the freedom to paint and pursue other inner desires.
He returned to Pakistan to work at Asiatic Advertising, a leading advertising agency, where he met his life partner, Nighat. She recalls with great amusement how, once he had had decided to marry her he had no desire to waste any time by waiting and wanted the ceremony immediately. He later joined the Dawn Group and the Herald as their Creative Editor. In1987, he set up his own advertising firm, Circuit, as a one-room operation, and in no time it expanded into one of the foremost, vibrant advertising agencies in the country.
Imran’s gentle demeanour masks a steely determination and with clarity of vision he slowly sculpted his way in life as a Designer, Illustrator, Painter and Sculptor! His signature is in itself a work of art.
In 1989, stemming from discussions amongst a group of artists, architects and designers, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture was founded in Karachi. Imran and myself were among its founders. The motivation behind the founding of this not-for-profit institution began with a modest dream, to give something back to the city for what it had given us. When concepts and ideas were consolidated, doors opened for the dream to start taking shape and become a reality. All those who were approached helped relentlessly in every conceivable way. IVS has gone way beyond the initial vision.
Imran’s passion for plants and a desire to acquire and nurture exotic species and make them grow prolifically is yet another facet of his unusual personality. He spotted a house once while taking a walk and decided that he would live in it one day. Twelve years later, he managed to not only move in, but to transform it into the house of his dreams, with the input of two talented architects. One was his friend, Shahid Abdulla and the other, the well known architect Anjalendran from Sri Lanka. His wife and business partner Nighat generously concedes that every inch of the re-modelled space reflects Imran’s decisions. It embodies all that he cherishes…it is undoubtedly the most exceptional home, nestled in verdant, luxuriant foliage – another one of his art works!
Imran’s advertising firm has now completed its ‘Circuit’ as Gibran Mir, his eldest son, took over the mantle of CEO after having graduated in Economics from University of Oregon. The creative genes from parents are evident in both his children. Kenan Mir, the younger son graduated from Northwestern University in Economics and Communication. He is winning laurels in the renowned firm of Oglivy and Mather, an international advertising, marketing and public relations agency based in New York City. Gibran’s vibrant, fresh input has given Imran time to pursue his inner, personal creative goals.
This book is yet another of Imran’s epic works of art. It is his personal journey, and the reader is led through 200 pages to get glimpses of Imran’s life, images of his monumental works of art, his stunning house, garden and studio.
Imran did not wish to compartmentalize this book into any structured format; he has selected his personal friends to pen their thoughts about him and his work, rather than art critics. For me, it is like taking a walk through a minimalistic Zen garden that may appear as a natural happening by the Creator, yet it was only made possible by years of disciplined experience and knowledge for it to become so very simple.
I will leave you to dip in visually and experience the dictum-
‘what you see is what you see.’
Siegfried Kühn's Mythmaking
by Lisa Lieberman
I recently attended a retrospective on the work of East German filmmaker Siegfried Kühn sponsored by the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst. DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft), a production company founded by the Soviets immediately following World War II in their zone of occupation, was responsible for most of the films produced in the former GDR. The DEFA film library is committed to making East German films better known and the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall provided an opportunity to reflect on the East/West divide by showcasing the career of one director over an eighteen-year span. Beginning with Kühn's popular love story, Time of the Storks, his gentle satire, The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow, and the period drama Elective Affinities, the series culminated with Childhood an intimate exploration of his wartime experiences growing up in a small town in Silesia, which would be absorbed into Poland by the terms of the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 and The Actress (1988), his award-winning film about an Aryan actress in love with a Jewish actor in Berlin during the Nazi era.
DEFA's ideological mission left little room for directors to assert their own vision. Over the course of his career, Kühn had some problems with the censors, but I didn't see much for the authorities to complain about. By and large, the basic tenets of the socialist state were upheld. Rather than subverting the establishment, these five films open a window onto the dominant preoccupations of the regime right up to the eve of its dissolution.
Love in the Workers State
The two main characters in Time of the Storks (1970) are young people in rebellion against bourgeois society. Susanne, an elementary school teacher, finds herself attracted to a man who is the polar opposite of Wolfgang, her staid fiancé. Christian is an angry guy who reminded me of the character Jack Nicholson played in Five Easy Pieces (1970), chafing against the genteel tastes of his parents, who gave him music lessons and harbored hopes that he would pursue an academic career. Instead, Christian became a foreman on an oil rig and at first glance appears to be a bad boy, which is what attracts Susanne, almost despite herself. But unlike Nicholson's alienated anti-hero, he turns out not to be so much of a bad boy; he's quite conscientious in his job and a field trip to the factory provides a reconciliation between the lovers complete with a vision of a happy future where Susanne's pupils celebrate the accomplishments of the country's workers.
Work in the Workers State
At first glance, the railway crossing guard who is the subject of The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow (1973) is anything but the model worker idealized in the Stakhanovite movement, part of Stalin's great push to industrialize the Soviet Union. Platow is lazy, sloppy and set in his ways. He is also redundant, now that the railroad crossing he has manned for decades is being automated. Kühn ran afoul of the authorities with this film, but compared to The Witness, Péter Bacsó's black comedy released in 1969 but banned in Kadar's Hungary for ten years, this says more about the East German officials' lack of a sense of humor than about the message of the film itself. Indeed, Kühn seemed perplexed, in the Q & A following the screening, by the verdict of the censors that Platow presented "a distorted image of the working class."
Not so Splendid Isolation
Elective Affinities (1974) appears to have been an effort to get back in the authorities' good graces. An adaptation of a novel by the German Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe timed to appear on the 225th anniversary of the author's birth, it was faithful to the original in most regards. Siegfried Kühn and his then-wife Regine (who wrote the screenplay) have said that the film entailed a veiled criticism of the terrible isolation in which East Germans lived. Certainly the remote island where the story is set feels ingrown and claustrophobic, leading to great unhappiness all around. "Human beings should not grow content with the situation in which they happen to find themselves," Regine said in a recent interview. "They must break free from its constraints." Here the message was quite subtle. Kühn's subsequent two films from the retrospective, Childhood and The Actress, are more assertive in their condemnation of the status quo although neither provides a blueprint for rebellion.
The World Turned Upside Down
The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin was fascinated by festivals where the social hierarchy was overturned, if only temporarily. He saw carnival as a gap in the fabric of society that gave hope to the oppressed. Childhood (1986) opens with a circus high wire act in contemporary Berlin, then takes us to a farm in Silesia where a boy named Alfons (a stand-in for Kühn) lives with his beloved grandmother in the final year of World War II. A circus comes into the town and the grandmother is smitten with the lead performer, Nardini, a magical, clown-like figure who is not bound by any laws. After he humiliates the Nazis who run the town, Nardini is forced into hiding. He begs the grandmother to flee with him, but she hesitates to leave her farm and the family who depend on her. Finally she and Alfons do leave. In a Bakhtinian way, they have escaped through the gap that Nardini opened in their minds, and perhaps Kühn was attempting to open viewers' minds with this beautifully crafted fantasy.
Saint Joan Revisited
Released to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Actress (1988) paints a much darker picture of Germany under the Nazis. Here there is no escape except through death. Maria's love for Mark is doomed from the start. We see her playing Joan of Arc over and over again, embracing the role as if training herself for martyrdom. Soon she has identified herself as a Jew, dyed her hair black and taken on her lover's name, moved with him into the ghetto. We see her join in a schmaltzy Jewish dance in a darkened theater with the Yiddish actors in Mark's troupe, accompanied by a plaintive violin. Is all of this a heroic act of defiance, as Daniela Berghahn maintains in "Resistance of the Heart: Female Suffering and Victimhood in DEFA's Antifascist Films," her contribution to the collection edited by Paul Cooke and Marc Silberman, Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering? I think not.
Back in the 1960s, when Spaghetti Westerns were all the rage, DEFA produced a series of Red contributions to the genre which had audiences rooting for the Indians. Exposing the greed and cruelty of American history, Red Westerns such as The Sons of Great Bear (1965) allowed the Indians to fight back—and win. Twenty years later, DEFA seems to have traded one variety of heroic myth for another. Watching Kühn's development as a filmmaker, I appreciated his artistry all the more for the constraints within which he operated.