Monday, January 31, 2011

Anti-American Art: Revolutionary Appropriation

Hilarious application of graffiti to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tahrir ("Liberation") Square in revolutionary Cairo: The graffiti reads "No to Mubarak the US Client." Hah!

From 3arabawy's flickr, via the Angry Arab News service.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hope for Humans

I snagged this picture from an amazing collection of photos of Egyptian women in the current protests. It's on a facebook album compiled by Leil-Zahra Mortada.

Could it be any clearer? It's humanity vs. a faceless insectoid force. How inspiring moments like these are when fear is laid down and hope takes hold: hope that there is something better that can be grasped in the hands of people acting together. I hope the people of Egypt are not only able to stay resolute but able to win the hearts of these men dressed as insects, and have them shed their carapaces of repression and violence, and come over to the side of humanity.

Meanwhile on the side of the insects, Republican Weeper, er, Speaker of the House John Boehner said "What we don't want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East."

Friday, January 28, 2011

People Choose Freedom, American Diplomacy Chooses Dictators

"'We are not taking sides' regarding the deadly clashes between protesters and government forces in Tunisia, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton said according to an English-language transcript of an interview with Al-Arabiya television, received by AFP on Wednesday." Reported on an Egyptian website (now offline due to state repression) and linked by the Angry Arab, January 12, 2011.

Two days later on January 14, a week of massive demonstrations sent the U.S. backed Tunisian dictator Zine Abedine Ben Ali packing to Saudi Arabia, legendary home of deposed tyrants. And so the U.S. backtracked and announced its support of the Tunisian revolution -- as though there was a choice -- to the point where President Obama even mentioned it in his State of the Union speech this week. But along the way the people of the Middle East noticed something: how easy it was to overthrow a tyrant.

In quick succession two more things happened stirring the political pot in the Arab world. First, the Lebanese national resistance movement Hezbollah, derided in the West as terrorists, but actually something much more complicated, flexed its muscles and caused the Lebanese government to fall. The pro-American prime minister was quickly replaced by one picked out by Hezbollah and its allies. Then, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network released a wikileaks-like trove of documents that have come to be called "The Palestine Papers" documenting years of diplomacy between the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the U.S. and Egypt. The papers are dynamite: they show the PA cravenly giving in to Israel, and then show the Israelis turning away. They show plans for massive population transfers of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the West Bank and plans to give away huge swaths of Palestinian land in return for recognition of a PA microstate. They show massive collusion between Arab governments like Egypt and the Palestinian Authority with Israel during its brutal attack on Hamas-ruled Gaza two years ago. And they detail American betrayal after betrayal from the Bush era clear through to today's Obama administration. And they remind the world that when the Palestinians exercised free and fair elections and voted in a movement that the U.S., Israel and so-called moderate Arab regimes didn't approve of, these forces united against democracy and tried to crush that Palestinian will of the people.

Which brings us to this week.

"O Mubarak. O Mubarak. Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!" -- chanted by demonstrators at the beginning of this week in Egypt. And so it began. Egypt is suddenly rocked by demonstrations, modest at first but soon massive. The Egyptian dictator Mubarak who has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Sadat thirty years ago is being put on notice by a mass pro-democracy movement. The Egyptian government sent out its forces of repression, at first sending the police and military into the streets, and then today shutting down telecommunications and the internet. The photo above shows where the teargas came from: here in the United States of America. (It's fitting to note that last month a middle-aged Palestinian woman was killed by American teargas wielded by Israelis in the town of Bilin.)

Last night Vice President Biden spoke on public television. Did he call for democracy? Hah! As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, reposted on Lenin's Tomb blog: "NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Biden if the time has "come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?" Biden answered: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some... of the needs of the people out there." Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Moderate Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei who has now joined the protests, reacted late this week to the American response in the New York Times: "He was stunned, he said, by the reaction of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Egyptian protests. In a statement after Tuesday’s clashes, she urged restraint but described the Egyptian government as “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” “ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word,” he said. “Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”

(Photo from today of a confrontation on a bridge over the Nile river from a Twitter feed.)

Today the demonstrations were more massive than ever, and military violence was unleashed. Demonstrators were bloodied and many were arrested; though there were some encouraging reports of demonstrators fraternizing with soldiers. Mubarak got on TV to say he would dismiss his government but would not give up power, and he threatened to unleash the full repressive power of the state. President Obama got on TV to call on Mubarak to respect the human rights of Egyptian citizens. But he also lectured the demonstrators against violence: "Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms they seek." (Afghanistan, anyone? Anyway....) And he certainly failed to advocate Mubarak surrending to the democratic will of the people.

Meanwhile, demonstrations have been reported in Yemen.

Here's the sad truth, plain for all to see. While it's too soon to know what will ultimately happen, and too soon to know how any new governments in the region might orient to the United States and Israel, the first impulse of the United States has now been plainly and repeatedly shown to be backing dictatorships against mass popular democratic forces. All President Bush's trite claims of bringing democracy to the Arab world and President Obama's claims of new international relationships based on mutual respect are shown to be nothing more than empty tear-gas canisters.

The U.S. and its main ally Israel are shown to be more nervous about the threat of independent uncontrolled regimes than they are hopeful about an end to tyrants. No matter how in the end American diplomats might come to praise any revolutionary progress, their first choice was to defend the dictatorial status quo.

But these potential revolutions give me great hope. In them one might see a glimmer of hope that the collusion between corrupt gangs of thieves that prop up the Israeli apartheid state, that victimize the Palestinian people, that indeed dispossess regular people across the Middle East, might now finally be swept away. And no thank you, America.

Democracy FAIL.

(P.S. In addition to the blogs already mentioned check out Mondoweiss for great ongoing coverage of Egypt.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shovelling Out Again

Last night we had another massive snowstorm in New York City. As you can see from this picture of my Brooklyn block, there's over a foot of fresh snow on top of the remnants of two earlier snows. While school was cancelled and some buses were halted, the big story is that unlike the post-Christmas "snowpocalypse," the city seemed to keep functioning. When I woke up to shovel at 6:30 this morning, the street had already been plowed. There was less snow than before, but still quite a bit. Walking home from the subway tonight I saw that most people have about three or four feet of snow piled in their front yards, a combination of natural accumulation and what shovellers have flung there because the snow from the sidewalks has to go somewhere.

Mayor Bloomberg was on the radio and TV all morning sounding calm and collected, and making himself sound thoroughly in charge. The disaster of December was not repeated; he seemed anxious to avoid another media shitstorm like the one that's kept the mayor and his minions on the defensive for much of January.

One of the creepier things that happened after the last storm was a typical attempt to blame last month's infrastructure failure on organized workers. For weeks the media was full of fairly vague reports of some labor conspiracy to slow down the cleanup after the storm. The reports were always short on details. Well it turns out the reports were coming from one place, a newly-elected Republican city councilman named Dan Halloran. Halloran is a right-wing lawyer who campaigned on a "tea party" platform. Which is hilarious because somehow the teabaggers who claim to be such champions of "we the people" seem to revel in blaming working class people for the country's problems. Halloran has spun an elaborate fantasy around his claims, which seems to be coming completely unravelled through, of course, lack of any evidence whatsoever.

Making the story a little odder is Halloran's unusual faith. Although he is a political and social conservative, he's also a Neopagan, a member of the Asatru-related religion of "Theodism," one of the modern reconstructions of ancient Norse religion. Some such reconstructions of Norse religion are notoriously racist, since of course, getting in touch with Norse roots seems to involve finding one's inner pure-white/Aryan core. I have no idea if Halloran's sect is tainted with that, but it does practice a sort of mock indentured servitude called "thralldom" where newbies in the faith have to do chores for their elders. I try in general not to criticize how people choose to experience their spirituality, but I find it interesting that an adherent of a religion that waxes nostalgic about feudalism and social hierarchy should be trashing working people. Separation of church and state is to me not negotiable. Interesting that a Pagan can get elected to office; and a useful reminder that "alternate spirituality" does not equal "progressive and open-minded."

I'm glad that in addition to shovelling out of this latest snow we seem to be shovelling out of Halloran's elitist bullshit as well. Winter is almost half-over...I wonder how much more snow we're gonna get?

(All photos by me this morning.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

20, El Pajaro

I've been staring at this picture here in January and thinking about birds and when I would see one that I could write about. There's a wonderful world of birds in the back yard in summer, jays and cardinals and sparrows and teeny birds I don't know what they are. I'm sure the community of feral cats that lives in the center of our block enjoys these birds even more than I do. But it's winter. Not waking up to birdsong lately.

Walking to the subway in the snow this morning I saw a mottled black and white pigeon hopping up some steps. Maybe it was just looking for something to peck, or frustrated at the snow in the sky, or maybe it was sick, I dunno, but I realized once again I like pigeons. More of my friends than not have called them "rats with wings," but I'm not a pigeon h8er. Actually I saw a rat in the subway yesterday that I thought was cute so maybe I'm just having a weird winter reaction to urban vermin, er, fauna, but that's another story.

When I was a kid my mom took me to Venice. In St. Marks Plaza for a few lira (this was 1970, pre-Euro) you could buy a sheet of newspaper rolled into a cone filled with corn and feed the massive pigeon population that rivalled the massive American hippie population lying about the sidewalk. I remember being happily swarmed with appreciative pigeons, and I'm pretty sure I hadn't yet seen what happened to Tipi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette in Hitchcock's version of that situation so I was fearless. They landed on my head and outstretched arms and it was awesome.

My boyfriend of the early 1990s lived in a wretched tiny little apartment in the Village. His apartment had a window opening up onto one of those unique features of NYC tenements, the airspace. This airspace was teeny, maybe five foot square, and it was infested with pigeons. He hated them -- the feathers and pigeon poop was a bit much to take, I accept -- so he kept that window closed and covered, defeating the alleged health-giving benefits of the airspace in the tenement architect's intent. But in his apartment you could always hear this cooing sound through the darkened window. Oh it probably drove him crazy but I found it comforting somehow. The super in my Brooklyn apartment building at the time kept pigeons in the basement, though special ring-necked ones, beautiful and sleek. I don't know if he raced them or what, but they made the same beautiful cooing and it made a trip to the laundry room like a trip to the performance of some strange avian choir.

Pigeons are everywhere in New York City. You see them lazily riding the Staten Island Ferry crossing the harbor and sometimes in some elevated subway trains. They walk around in the Port Authority Bus Station imitating rushing commuters. In neighborhoods like mine there are organized flights of kept pigeons swirling over the rooftops in summer. And I remember the corner near my old apartment where the poorly designed lampost that hung over the sidewalk in an unusual way made waiting for the light to change particularly dicey. When the pigeons who always perched there had to go, they had to go. Do pigeons laugh? I know these pigeons were enjoying themselves and their target practice.

Most pigeons are not beautiful birds. Like the one I saw this morning they can look like doves who passed an exploding inkwell. Or the dark gray ones with the shimmering green and pink metallic feathers about their necks: there's something greasy and insect-like about those colors. But momma pigeons love their pigeon babies no matter what they look like. (Where the heck ARE those baby pigeons anyway?) Urban people look different than suburban and country people, so it's only fitting that urban birds would have a toughness about them.

They could fly off to warmer climes, but they don't. They stick around, braving winters like the one we're having now. They like the hum of the city beneath them; the grit, the hustle and bustle. And they're social beings. Bobbing around, being pigeons together. I give them credit.

20. The Bird.

(This is part of a continuing series of meditations of the Loteria Deck; a Mexican bingo game with archetypal images that resonate like Tarot cards. Click here for more Loteria stories.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The State of the... Middle East

Something amazing is happening in the Middle East. Revolution in Tunisia, directly threatening US (and Israeli) support of dictators; the resistance in Lebanon flexing its muscles; the amazing revelations from Al-Jazeera about the U.S., Israel and Fatah teaming up to sell out the Palestinian people; the Israeli government's whitewash about the Mavi Marmara. And now in Egypt. I'll compose my thoughts on all this in an upcoming post but meanwhile watch this incredible video just filmed in Egypt, as demonstrators stare down a police water cannon...shades of Tienanmen. Amazing and inspiring. First seen on Mondoweiss.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Palestinian Queer Speaking Tour

I was excited to find out about an upcoming speaking tour: "Palestinian Queer Activists Talk Politics," coming to a number of American cities. Click on the image above to embiggen and see all the dates. The New York City event is February 10 at the CUNY graduate center at 34th and 5th. You can get more information from their facebook page.

With so much disinformation being spread about Palestine and Palestinians, I'm looking forward to hearing queer Palestinians speak for themselves about their issues and priorities, and about the commonalities and differences with us gays in the U.S. If you follow the official Israeli "pinkwashing" propaganda line (more about this in an upcoming post), the only hope of Arab gay people is turning their back on their own cultures and becoming stooges for Israel. While clearly the legal situation for Israeli gays is better than it is for gays in most Arab countries, there are a lot of complex issues in that simple statement that need to be understood and contextualized.

I hope to post a report from this event after the fact.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

History Is Not a Book

A Democratic congressman got in big trouble last week for making "inflammatory" remarks about the Republicans and their attempts to repeal healthcare reform. A Democrat from Tennesee, Steve Cohen said of the Republicans, "They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. Just like Goebbels, you say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually people believe it." Of course Cohen was roundly condemned on the right and the center. The allegedly centrist group "No Labels" called it a "toxic analogy." Glen Beckkk went on to claim that Goebbels was really a leftist or something anyway.

So it's true that there is a big difference between Nazi propagandist Goebbels and today's Republican Party. I wouldn't waste any energy trying to prove that the Republicans are really Nazis: I'd look as foolish as Glenn Beckkk trying to prove that Obama is a Maoist is a socialist is a nazi is....just really really bad. By saying that I don't mean to let the Republicans off the hook: their tactic of the Big Lie is indeed ripped straight from the pages of totalitarianism, dressed up all nice in American family values. But lying is a specialty of (American?) politicians, it always has been. Everybody knows it. And I'm not sure who comes out looking better: the crazy people who believe the lies when they're particularly outrageous, the deluded for whom the lies solve the problem of difficult choices, or the rest of us who enable this whole process by voting for people whose lies we like better, because, well, maybe that thing about lies containing a kernel of truth is our last vestige of hope.

I've illustrated this post with two photos I took in Berlin about 1994, just a few short years after the fall of the Wall. They are of a collection of vacant lots in the center of town called "The Topography of Terror." The fascinating thing about the Topography of Terror was that it was an open-air museum to something that was actually no longer there. These vacant lots and piles of overgrown rubble were the center of the Nazi machine of propaganda and repression: they included the headquarters of the feared Gestapo where thousands of political prisoners met a brutal end. Destroyed by the end of WWII, they were left empty by the course of the cold war: this was no man's land. I gather in the years since something more museum-like is materializing in this space, but when I visited you bought a ticket, passed through a gate, and there you were in the middle of nothing at all. As you can see in one direction were a few still-standing examples of totalitarian architecture, and in another some modern mid-rise buildings. But that "nothing at all" said everything. It was a kind of historical proof of a fearsome equation writ plainly all around.

Here in the United States you mostly have to look really hard to see signs of the violence we have done to ourselves over the centuries. A monument here, a skyscraper built on the ruins of another there, something slightly out of whack that disrupts the order of intention: my mother once showed me chips in stone down on Wall Street where her mother showed her that some bomb-throwing anarchist assassination took place early in the last century. But unlike the plain evidence lying about a vacant lot in Berlin, you have to go looking for meaning here. It's easy to forget that the U.S. Capitol building was built by slaves. It's easy to forget the words of hate that bounced off its council walls over the centuries: we want to think of these politicians as engaged in some kind of noble pursuit when really, that is just us searching again for some truth in all the lies.

If it's not happening on the news tonight--on the internet this second--is it actually happening? Did it happen? Was it real? Did it mean anything? We look through the pages of history books or the archives in a library or articles on Wikpedia to explain what happened before, waiting for it to happen again. Next week nobody will remember what Rep. Cohen said about Goebbels and the Republicans's big lie. And next week, next month, next year, indeed no Nazi stormtroopers will be unfurling their swastika banners from the podium in the center of the Capitol.

But when history happens to you, it's not unfurling neat and tidy like a history book, or a museum. There are politicians lying and something doesn't seem right and there's a terrible building downtown where people go in but don't go out and then there are bombs falling and you're trying to focus on staying alive and living out the life you were promised and one day you look up and there's ruins all about you and you're trying to figure out just where you went wrong or how you survived or where your friends are or trying not to remember things you've seen or heard or smelled and nobody's explaining it to you like a tour guide, it's just, well now there's this empty lot that says so eloquently, this is what happened to you because you made the wrong decision or chose not to act or you closed your mind to the horror you could see happening, or maybe even you just weren't strong enough to stop it, you were just trying to be you while the world happened around you. And hey, you must have made some right decisions, or you have really good luck, cause you're still alive. And somebody's putting your story in a really interesting book but it didn't seem so much fun when it happened, so confusing, so dangerous. So sad. So terrible.

Allow me to predict the future: the 21st century will not be a repeat of the 20th century, just as the 20th century was not a rerun of the 19th century. But already there are lies being told about what you, I -- we -- are experiencing. We can see that something is not right, something is out of whack.

Perhaps Steve Cohen was foolish to invoke a straw man as easy to dispatch as Joseph Goebbels. (Well, easy to dispatch 65 years after his death; it wasn't ever thus.) But in all the noise about Cohen's remarks, isn't it strange that the discussion is now on whether it's appropriate to link your political opponents to the figments of ulimate evil represented by the Nazis? Where is the discussion of the Republicans' message, that Obama's modest healthcare reform represents "a government takeover of healthcare"? History is happening to us. Confusing and dangerous as ever. Pay attention.

(Photos by me, ca. 1994, Berlin.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Editorial Viewpoint

Yesterday in Brooklyn we had another few inches of snow. After shovelling the sidewalk when it was barely getting light, I came up to my home office to eat a bowl of cereal and check in with the world. Sitting at my desk in front of the computer I was looking out the window when I saw the proverbial rosy fingers of dawn grace the snow-covered trees right outside in front of the house in a particularly beautiful way. Fortunately I had my digital camera on the desk, and miraculously the zoom lens was able to catch the sight out the window without me even getting my amazement with a little adjustment in photoshop the colors I saw seem to have come out exactly as I remember them.

It's cold on the top floor of the brownstone: the building was built in 1907 and cheap replacement windows and a poor renovation job that did weird things to the steam plumbing a few years before we moved in means that sometimes I'm bundled up in a thick shirt and a sweater right here at the computer: Tonight it's supposed to drop down to the single digits fahrenheit, in fact. But a view like this reminds me why I love Brooklyn even if sometimes I do long for a view outside my window of ocean and palm trees.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Anti-American Art: Hey Hey LBJ...

This fascinating item is one of the many leaflets issued by the National Liberation Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam -- the so-called Viet Cong -- in the 1960s aimed at American draftees serving in the American army and occupying their country. The headline is the familiar chant "Hey Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?" along with a photo of an anti-war protest in the United States.

The back of the flyer is a direct appeal to American soldiers: "Hey Hey LBJ...How many kids did you kill today? Wherever he goes in the United States -- he meets this sign and hears this sout. Wherever he goes in the world, he can't escape the accusing cry. To and from the phoney Manila Conference he heard it from thousands in Hawaii, in New Zealand, in Australia, in Malaya. and in Manila itself thousands of demonstrators fought police and soldiers and never let the shout die down. They knew that the phoney 'peace' meeting was preparation for killing more kids. AND MORE AMERICAN SOLDIERS, TOO! Do you want to go down in history as one of KBJ's killers! Think it over. Talk it over. Act together. Don't let the Babykiller think for you. It's your head. USE IT -- DON'T LOSE IT"

I guess it's standard operating procedure in this kind of propaganda to appeal to the humanity of the people who are shooting at you, but it sure is hard to argue with.

According to the makers of the film "Sir No Sir!" about the G.I. movement against the war in Vietnam: "By the Pentagon’s own figures, 503,926 'incidents of desertion' occurred between 1966 and 1971; officers were being 'fragged'(killed with fragmentation grenades by their own troops) at an alarming rate; and by 1971 entire units were refusing to go into battle in unprecedented numbers. In the course of a few short years, over 100 underground newspapers were published by soldiers around the world; local and national antiwar GI organizations were joined by thousands; thousands more demonstrated against the war at every major base in the world in 1970 and 1971, including in Vietnam itself; stockades and federal prisons were filling up with soldiers jailed for their opposition to the war and the military." So I guess some of these leaflets were effective!

(Leaflet snagged from a very interesting, if right wing, article on Vietcong propaganda at

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Republicans Begin Taking Health Insurance Away from Millions

The Republicans who now run the House of Representatives have today taken the first step in attempting to overturn our modest healthcare reform. They are profoundly dishonest, hypocritical, selfish and mean-spirited. I hope the people who voted for them enjoy what they're getting from them.

That is all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Millionaire Businesswoman Appointed by Corrupt Billionaire Makes Poor Joke

New York's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked the city late last year when he nominated millionaire media executive Cathie Black to replace businessman Joel Klein as chancellor of New York City's public schools. Klein wanted to go back into the "private sector" (media, in fact) while (former media executive) Bloomberg is still in office so he can cash in his ties and connections while there's still time. Black has zero experience with education or New York's public schools, and had even sent her own privileged children to private schools. Bloomberg had to twist arms to get Black through the vetting system: there are laws preventing someone without a Masters Degree in Education or teaching experience from holding such a key post, but as usual, Bloomberg didn't care about those and insisted that the board responsible for approving candidates gave her a waiver. Which of course they did. Bloomberg doesn't think that laws apply to rich people like himself. He has shown this over and over again.

New York's parents have been outraged since the initial announcement...Bloomberg was thoroughly booed at an MLK Day celebration. Well now Ms. Black has made what she called "a joke" that shows her true colors and they're not pretty.

According to the NY Daily News: "Could we just have some birth control for a while?" Black said Thursday night. "It would really help us."

So Ms. Black thinks that the problem with New York City's failing public schools, the population of which is overwhelmingly non-white, is uncontrolled breeding. Or at least she thinks it's funny to joke about it: there are just too darn many little brown children running around ruining the place! Well I suppose we can be slightly grateful she took a break from blaming teachers' unions for the disastrous state of the public schools, but she might notice nobody's laughing now.

Count me as shocked, SHOCKED, that Cathie Black turns out not only to be entirely disinterested in how working class people get an education, but she's a racist to boot. How many days has she been on the job? I'm thinking those days are already numbered.

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Day 2011: The Fight Against Racism Remains

When I was a member of the organized left many years ago, it was not unusual to hear The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. derided as being a sell-out reformist compared to his militant competitors in the African-American community like Malcolm X. It is true that these two men had differing analyses of American society, and differing responses suggesting counterposed strategies for fighting the racism so prevalent--some would argue so foundational--in American life. Both these great men have been gone for so long, and the world has turned so far, it strikes me as less productive to focus on their differences.

Indeed looking deeper at Dr. King's speeches and actions in the 1960s shows him to be far more radical than the co-opting establishment myths about him would like people to believe. As I noted a few days ago, his position on war and the American military puts him far, far to the left of any mainstream American political figure today. Certainly far, far to the left of our first African-American president. While it might not be possible (or necessary) to resolve Malcolm X's derisive dismissal of the American baby and its bathwater of racism with Dr. King's lofty appeals to some innately American promise of justice, so many years later these things seem like splitting hairs.

What's clear to me is that despite that first African American president, despite undeniable civil rights victories with many legal, social and cultural ramifications, racism remains far from dormant as an animating force for the American right wing.

It's sort of a miracle that Martin Luther King Day is actually a Federal Holiday. I remember when it became one back in the 1980s, it was a joyous moment. No one should forget that chief among the opponents of making Dr. King's birthday a holiday was the right-wing saint Ronald Reagan. For this post I wanted to research who else opposed the holiday -- of course the racist Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition -- and so this morning I googled "who opposed King holiday." I found an innocent sounding website that deeply disturbed me. It's called Click that link at your own risk. Because masquerading as an information resource about Dr. King, this site is actually a nest of racist vipers operated by Neo-Nazi and KKK sympathizers. It links to works by notorious racist David Duke, and links to an alleged "MLK Discussion Forum" hosted by Stormfront, a fascist hate group. It focuses on Dr. King's ties to "communists and Jews," and has articles on why the King holiday should be repealed: it even has downloadable "informational" flyers for your kids to pass out at school "exposing" the truth about Dr. King. These are the snakes lurking deep in the American underbrush. Perhaps not so deep.

Talk of civility in American politics is lovely. People should treat other people with respect. That is an undeniable aspiration, with almost spiritual resonance.

But here's the problem. Pronounced in racist epithets, bad cracker humor like the tea party sign above, or in pretentious pseudo-intelligent polite speech a la Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or any Republican congressperson, the underlying message coming from the right wing is in and of itself abhorrent. When Ronald Reagan and his ilk opposed the King holiday, they weren't rudely tossing around the "n" word. When today's teabagger movement implies that black and brown people are to blame for the economic crisis, they're not openly calling for lynchmobs.

I think challenging the right-wing's message is absolutely crucial. Exposing the ugliness underneath some newfound professed civility will now become more important than ever. The website I found today is perfectly civil, for example. I didn't see the "n" word anywhere at all. But the racism seeping out of every ugly word is undeniable. Are we to pretend that it's all okay because it's "civil"? I don't think so. While the disinformation website I stumbled on might be a step or two to the right of the average teabagger or Republican congressman, it's clearly calibrated to be in their same ballpark. And this is the danger: do we on the left start pulling punches in response to the right wing's implicit racism because of how it might look? I don't think so.

Dr. King and Malcolm X both had the courage to tell the truth about what they believed. And as the beliefs of both men evolved, they had the courage to explain what was happening to their thinking: Dr. King's position on the Vietnam War and Malcolm X's position on separatism both changed dramatically as a result of them broadening their experiences and drawing connections and conclusions. The words of these two brilliant men remain with us revealing condemnations of racism and injustice that remain extraordinarily relevant and inspiring. The anger bubbling under the surface of their words is white-hot, clear now decades later. And justified.

So while what's called the incivility of the right wing may be grotesque, it seems to me what is more grotesque is the message underlying that incivility. It's that message that needs to be called out and exposed. Allowing the teaparty to claim it is interested only in "constitutional and economic issues" might seem civil. But it's also a lie. The ugly racism at the core of the right wing's message is plain to see. And despite the martyrdom of Dr. King, despite his canonization in a Federal Holiday (and I'm glad for the day off!), there's so much work to be done to fulfill his vision.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


New York City Subway station, Times Square, Jan. 2011. New signage post-2010 service cutbacks. My favorite subway sign in years. Also, meaningless. It cries out for repurposing: it would be a marvelously meta symbol for "queer."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

No, Actually King Would Not Have Supported Today's American Wars

Today is the birthday of the heroic Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This week Jeh C. Johnson, the defense counsel for the Department of Defense, stated: "I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack." He then went on to compare Dr. King's compassion and support for striking sanitation workers shortly before his death to today's military: “I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their home."

These are obscene statements. Let's remember what Dr. King really stood for:

"Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents....Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know of his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition....

At this point, I should make it clear that while I have tried here to give a voice to the voiceless of Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for our troops must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor....

Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours....

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death....

If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

--From his speech at Riverside Church, April 1967. Read the whole speech and try to resolve the obscenity of the wars started by Bush and continued by Obama with his words. Not. Possible.

Happy birthday, Dr. King.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Margaret Whiting & The Freedom Train

In honor of the passing this week of singer Margaret Whiting, aged 84, here's a completely kitschy piece of post-WWII vaguely progressive patriotica entitled "The Freedom Train." It's credited to Peggy Lee, but it's got equal parts Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, the brilliant songwriter who was the guardian of Whiting's early career. The band is Benny Goodman's, and it was recorded in 1947. The lyrics were cowritten by Lee and Irving Berlin.

Take the lyrics for what they're worth. It's interesting to listen to them the day after President Obama's Tucson speech here in 2011:

"This song is a train song
It's a song about a train
Not the Atcheson-Topeka
Not the Chattanooga Choo-choo
Nor the one that leaves at midnight
For the state of Alabam

This song is a train song where the engineer is Uncle Sam
Hear comes the freedom train, You better hurry down
Just like Paul Revere it's coming into your home town

Inside the Freedom Train you'll find a precious [friend]
Those words of liberty, the documents that made us great
You can shout your anger from a steeple
You can shoot the system full of holes
You can always question we the people
You can get your answer at the polls
That's how it's always been and how it will remain
As long as all of us keep riding on the Freedom Train

Johnny Mercer, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Margaret Whiting
The Pipers and the Western Band
Sitting on the observation, spreading freedom through the land

You can write the president a letter
You can even tell him to his face
If you think that you can do it better
Get the votes and you can take his place

If you hate the laws that you're obeying
You can shout your anger to the crowd
We may disagree with what you're saying
But we'll fight to let you say it loud
That's how it's always been
That's the way it's gonna remain
As long as all of us keep riding on the Freedom Train
Riding, riding
Riding, riding
Keep on riding that Freedom Train"

(Lyrics transcribed by me)

I don't know a lot of Margaret Whiting's work, but she was the wholesome voice of jazz-era pop music: hear her sing and it's impossible not to instantly like her. While her mass stardom had long faded, she was one of those legends of the American songbook whom showtune queens always loved. Oddly enough her legend deepened with her marriage in the 1990s to the hunky and well-endowed gay porn star Jack Wrangler, who passed on just a couple years ago. Here's a woman who could literally say she did it all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bang Bang

Thoroughly a creature of cities, and a child of polite middle-class intellectuals, I was not raised around guns. The only time I saw them in real life was in the holsters of cops. I didn't grow up around hunters, in a military family, around criminals, or around people excessively paranoid around criminals. I was raised by pacifists, and was taught that there was something profoundly unnecessary about having a relationship with guns. And I grew up in the years of the Vietnam War, of police massacres of Black Panthers, of Kent and Jackson State, of assassins: The people with the guns were the bad guys.

I've had three personal encounters with guns.

When I was a young leftist, a number of left-wing activists and members of a rival left-wing sect were shot down -- murdered -- at a rally in cold blood by armed Klansmen in Greensboro, North Carolina. The group I was with made a point of protesting KKK and Neo-nazi rallies in the Chicago area and around the midwest, and at the time there were a lot of these. So we were a bit terrified: it could have been us. It was decided not that we should arm ourselves, or start carrying weapons around with us, but that we should at least know how to shoot a gun. We all went to a shooting range to get a lesson in how to do it. I guess we thought this was some kind of protection, some kind of power. A couple of my comrades were familiar with guns and they showed us what to do. I will never forget how all of a sudden what had been abstract to me felt in my hand: surprisingly heavy, much more substantial than a staple gun. And jesus if you pointed it the wrong way you could kill somebody or yourself. I don't remember if I was a good shot -- I doubt it -- but I remember feeling like I had my hand around a powerful writhing serpent struggling to get away from me. And it was loud. It wasn't very much fun, and I didn't want to do it again.

Flash forward a few years and I had moved to New York City. I was riding an empty subway late at night with a friend when a guy came up to us with what appeared to be a gun draped in a handtowel. He pointed it at us and mumbled something. We were, for a flash, terrified, until the "gun" started to droop beneath its cloth. It wasn't a gun at all but a length of rubber tubing. The three of us watching this happen were silent for a moment when me and my friend laughed disdainfully and our would-be assailant slunk sheepishly away. He had no power and we had no fear.

In the late 1980s I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that went from being quietly residential to being violently stricken by crack. One night I went to my local Chinese takeout place to get a late dinner. I placed my order through a roughly-cut hole in a thick plastic partitition and sat in the untidy waiting area. There was this complex little arrangement where the food would be placed on a turntable with an inner door closed and an outer one opened. It was creepy; but the owner of the place had been badly beaten up in a robbery a couple years before. Two teenage kids were also waiting for their order. They were playing around with each other loudly, but like buddies do, and certainly without anger. One was waving around a 5-dollar bill. His friend jokingly snatched the bill out of his hand. At which point the other guy reached into his coat and pulled out a pistol and pointed it at his friend. No longer joking. He was going to kill his best friend for playing a little joke. While I was watching. While the Chinese family behind the partition was watching. I didn't wait for my food. And I left that neighborhood within a couple months.

Which brings us to the "Tucson Massacre" and the shooting of Rep. Giffords by Jared Loughner.

There's a really creepy video that went up this morning in which Sarah Palin calls herself a victim of "liberal blood libel" for the insinuation that teabagger rhetoric -- her rhetoric -- was in some way to blame for the shooting. Hilariously she suggests that people should be held to their words: "Each individual is accountable for his actions." Her narcissism and denial and manipulative opportunism is in full display. It's extraordinary. And frankly, frightening.

It's true that we don't (yet?) really know exactly what was going on this latest political murderer's probably deranged head. We know that he owned and used a handgun and thought it would be okay to go out and kill a bunch of people. We also know the culture around him: the culture of the state of Arizona, of much of white America, of people who love conspiracy theories, of people who want to own guns, of people who grow up loving guns.

I have acquaintances -- not apparently crazy nor rightwingers -- who claim to love and enjoy guns. But I don't love guns. I don't want to own one, for hunting, for supposed protection, or for anything else. And frankly I don't entirely trust people who do love guns. I certainly don't like or trust Sarah Palin. And if her crosshairs campaign poster was in such good taste, so far removed from the actual shooting that came to take place, why was it so completely scrubbed from her website?

Everything about Sarah Palin's world of patriotic posing, of fake reverence, of faux down-home just folksiness disgusts me. As her relationship to guns disgusts me. As her offensive posture in the wake of the Tucson shootings disgusts me.

But if only it stayed that simple. The world, whether we like it or not, is indeed at times a violent and terrible place. For all the guns in the hands of the wrong people, it must be said that sometimes the good guys having guns has ended very very well. The heroic people of Vietnam whose propaganda art I have featured here for much of the past year learned to love guns. Those guns gave them liberation.

For all the moral beauty of the teachings and commitments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Mahatma Gandhi and Tich Nhat Hanh, we seem as a species to lack the necessary patience for the doctrine of nonviolence to win out over the armies of evil men armed to the teeth. And how sad that the attempts by King and Gandhi to write nonviolence on a large canvas were cut short not by the forces of evil empire but by small men alone with their guns.

And as we ponder guns, it's hard, ultimately, knowing about the terrible war machines slumbering in bunkers and silos and occasionally unleashed upon sleeping innocents to think that the biggest problem in the world today are laws allowing an occasional crazy person to buy a handgun and start killing people. I don't want to be the innocent bystander visiting a shopping mall in Arizona -- or a Chinese takeout joint in Brooklyn -- to pay the price for somebody's combined antisocial behavior and gun ownership. I don't want to pay the price for Sarah Palin's irresponsibility, for the rhetoric of the teabaggers. But I'm not sure where the small actions of living our lives and trying to escape being shot for whatever reason fits into that large canvas.

And here's the ugliest reality: President Obama who gave a moving speech in Tucson this evening touching on cosmic themes like love and innocence; this thoughtful intelligent man preaching respect has his finger on the button and has ordered his armies to steal the lives of many more innocent people on the other side of the world than the six who lost their lives last weekend. It's cold comfort that his intelligence and professed compassion is a blessing compared to what Sarah Palin might do with her fingers on that same button, her orders going out to the brute force of gun lovers that is the U.S. war machine. It makes me sad that Obama, who I often like, especially when he gives a speech like tonight's, is in some scary way closer to the world that Sarah Palin lives in than the one I want to live in. I don't want to be the innocent victim -- or not-so-innocent enabler -- of a rain of missiles or predatory drones or attack helicopters sent by President Obama, who I voted for, or by Sarah Palin who I dread.

I can't condemn the people in this world who have used weapons, violence, to free themselves from oppression and tyranny. But I can't help feeling that we are deluding ourselves to focus on the weapons of deranged individuals and not on our failure to notice something systemic and foundational about our allegedly free society. Hint: America is not the innocent bystander.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Corporate Scatology -- Crap Returns to Times Square

Times Square billboard, last week: "Drop Something Other Than Cash In New York -- [Toilet Paper Manufacturer] Restrooms, 42nd between 8th & Broadway."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Right Does Not Equal Left

It's been fascinating to watch the aftermath of yesterday's attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Quitter, right-wing idiot and inspiration for the shooting Sarah Palin has of course offered up her prayers and condemnations, as has Arizona's bigot-in-chief Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona. Charged shooter Jared Loughner left behind a legacy of confused video rants leading him to be dismissed as a mentally disturbed "extremist." Ever fearful of calling out the right wing and therefore alienating an audience who might pay its advertisers, the media seems to have settled on a convenient trope of denouncing some imaginary meeting point on the other side of the circle where crazed left- and right-wing extremism converge. Uncivility is the issue! Both left and right extremes are guilty of fanning the flames!


The shooting in Arizona which gravely wounded Giffords and took the lives of six people is the fruit of two years of right-wing propaganda about "reloading" and "watering the roots of the tree of liberty with blood." Ludicrously Sarah Palin's organization has taken to denying that the crosshairs on her now-infamous poster had anything to do with guns or violence, but anybody with half an eye can see this is a blatant lie. And Giffords' recently defeated right-wing Republican opponent in her congressional race? His campaign images showed him in combat fatigues with an assault rifle at crotch level. The right-wingers full well knew what they were doing, and now that they were caught with the fruit of their advocacy, they're dissembling as fast as possible.

The left had nothing to do with this. There's no reason to bring it -- us -- into this. This is full on the result of the right-wing's gun worship, its crass patriotic bravado, its little Chuck Norris B-movie fantasy about taking the country "back" from the ni**ers who are ruining the place. The shooter's crazed ideology is part and parcel of the bad thinking rampant on the right where liars and fantasists like Glenn Beck try to whip up convoluted nonsense theories to cover for the blatant racist revanchism at the core of their reason for being.

This shooting was not the result of a dialogue between sides run amok. Just try to find equivalents on the left of all the ridiculous violence-courting rhetoric amongst the teabaggers. It doesn't exist, it's not there. And the real left, the one that values peace, justice, equality and civil rights, it doesn't fantasize about grabbing guns and shooting people. That's your sickness, American rightwingers, own up to it. Leave us out of it.

Decent people will be doing some simple math, looking at Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster targeting Congresswoman Giffords and her rhetoric about reloading and seeing a bunch of people filled with bullets including a little girl born on 9/11, and their correct response will be to shun this political monster and all she stands for. Americans who find themselves unconvinced need to pay attention to who doesn't take that basic step of human decency. It won't be those of us on the left.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sarah Palin Gets One on Her Wishlist

A moderate "blue dog" Democratic congresswoman from Arizona (where the badge "moderate" makes her a flaming radical) has been shot and gravely wounded. Gabrielle Giffords was one of the Democratic officeholders on Sarah Palin's "sarahpac" campaign poster with crosshairs denoting the members who needed to be, um, eliminated. The shooter, who killed several other people in his attack on a public event at which Giffords was to speak, is one Jared Loughner. He has not been tied (yet?) to any political group. Tellingly, apparently the above graphic has now been scrubbed from the Sarahpac website.

Arizona is one of the most right-wing states in the country, with local government and law enforcement firmly in the hands of racist vigilantes trying to figure out how to preserve white privilege and superiority from Hiapanic immigrants. Lately they have even been trying to figure out how to deny citizenship to children of Hispanic immigrants born on U.S. soil. So I'm not surprised a political assassination would take place there. Whether the shooter is a right-winger or just a lone lunatic, it's clearly a place where both groups would feel empowered to turn Palin's crazytalk rhetoric into reality.

(Thanks to Joe.My.God. for being one of the internet sources not letting Palin and the teabaggers get away with removing from memory this poster virtually calling for the assassination of Giffords.)

Update: There's an absolutely chlling clip of Giffords herself discussing Palin's threatening poster with its gunsight crosshairs over at MSNBC. "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but, the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted, has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."

Friday, January 07, 2011

Anti-American Art: Traditional Korean Holiday

Repealing healthcare? Constitutional grandstanding? Crazy birther fundamentalists shouting from the gallery of Congress? Supreme Court justices saying women and gays are not legally protected by the Constitution? Let's avert our gaze from the falderol of Washington and return to the golden days of 1953, to the Day of Anti-US Struggle, the occasion of this very first North Korean stamp to trample the stars and stripes. Crudely designed, it shows North Korean soldiers at the front lines, crossing the barbed wire defenses, the ground below them a strange combination of smoke and American flag. This is apparently the traditional way the holiday is celebrated: This stamp was actually issued before the ceasefire that called a halt to the Korean War, so "Day of Anti-US Struggle" was a holiday you could really go out and celebrate the hard way. With a Congress like the one we have now, kinda makes you get back to those traditional holidays. I will try to find out which day exactly the "Day of Anti-US Struggle" is.

To see more stamps trashing America, many of them North Korean, click here.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Teabaggers Take Control of Congress

Republican John Boehner, shown above, was sworn in yesterday as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, displacing Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Defend the Right to Organize!

Get ready for it. It's coming. A full-scale assault on the rights of working people to organize themselves for their own defense. The new Republican majority in the House, the new Republican majorities in state houses across the country, the new Republican governors--and some of the new Democratic governors as well--are about to scapegoat the trade unions for the nation's economic woes. And if they don't successfully blame the unions for the country's problems they will sure enough try to make them pay for them.

I've never been a member of a union. Well, except for the pathetic Freelancers' Union which is a glorified front for a profit-making insurance company. From a distance they seem like strange institutions: somehow it's a whole level of bureaucracy: leaders who speak a good line but, just like politicians, tend to disappoint when the fat hits the fire. Who needs them? They're just outdated institutions that are out to preserve privilege, protect lazy people who don't want to work, enforce strange rules, and make life difficult and more expensive for the rest of us, right? WRONG!

Unions as they currently exist aren't perfect. But if you look at what they really are and how they came to be, what they represent is hope. Here's the thing. We're taught to think that politics is something that's important around election time. That a party, an organization, is important only because that's how elections are organized. Once in power, these parties, they're just self-perpetuating money machines, right? Well the thing is what American political parties actually are is the brainwashing device by which American working people are dissuaded from taking matters into their own hands. Now I'm not embarrassed to admit that I have advocated, and will advocate, voting for Democrats. Elections have winners and losers, and I think it's useful to have a voice in who the winner is. But the real political struggle out there is not about elections, it's about who has the power to control society.

Unions were born from working people becoming self-aware: realizing that the corporations, the bosses, the rich people, had organizations of power they used to maintain and strengthen that power. To protect themselves against that power regular people realized that sticking together, uniting behind an organization, a set of demands, equalized the playing field. People died to forge these organizations. Industrial safety, food safety, a living wage, the social safety net, these things are all fruits of regular people threatening to withhold their labor, threatening to disrupt the workaday world, and in many cases actually doing so, putting their lives behind their words.

Unions today are rightfully running scared. When companies threaten to go out of business unless unions give back gains and protections they've won over the years, it's difficult to argue with the facts of economic crisis. But somehow at the end of the day it's the rich people who are still enjoying their bags of money while regular people are scrimping and stressing out about paying the bills.

The economic crisis is not the fault of the unions. The problem in the educational system is not the fault of the teachers' unions. The crisis in the auto industry is not the fault of the labor unions. The crisis in state governments is not the fault of civil service employee associations. The rich people, and most politicians either are rich people themselves or are the willing hired servants of the rich people, believe they are better than everybody else and that government should exist to protect their privilege, their comfort, their right to control the ship of state. They are selfish motherfuckers; and they do not want to pay for their own mistakes. They don't care that their economic policies are unsustainable, because they know that there are so many working and poor people out there that getting those working and poor people to pay the check will get them off the hook.

But don't be fooled by the lies that they tell. There should be more unions, more labor protections, not fewer. When you hear of governments asking working people to pay for the economic crisis, ask why! Why not make real estate developers pay? Why not make hedge fund managers taking home million-dollar salaries pay? Is your boss smarter than you? A better person? Should s/he have the right to control your destiny, to decide that a company should keep paying him or her four or five times what you make while you're turned out on the street? The rich people are fucking organized. They have a machine, a crazy machine that beats the rest of us down. And we let them tell us that we have to suffer when their crazy machine breaks. That's just stupidity.

Unions, even with their sellout bureaucrats, are a first line of defense against that machine. Regular people should heed the lessons of the union movement's long history. Each of us is only one person standing in front of that crazy corporate machine. But together, together we're oh so much more.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Gaza, Two Years Ago

Two years ago Israel was attacking the tiny crowded Palestinian enclave of Gaza in its obscenely named "Operation Cast Lead." Hundreds and hundreds of civilians were murdered by the Israelis, including many many children.

Following is a blogpost from Rawan Yaghi, a 17-year-old who lives and blogs in Gaza. Her blog "I Am" is a truly remarkable testament of the human spirit. Here are her words about experiencing the Israeli attack:

I didn't even know if my eyes were open. After a big mess everything seemed so calm I could sense the dust covering my face, the only part I could feel. I could feel my breath hitting one of the bricks of my room's floor. Air found its way through everything surrounding my body. Silence was all I could hear. My arms trapped somewhere under the wooden edges of my bed, my toes, my legs, my hair, they all were jailed and penalized not to move. I was afraid. I waited and waited trying to recall all the joyful events in my life, as my mother once advised me to do so when I'm afraid, though they were few: My elder brother's big wedding, my grandmother coming from Hajj and bringing me a doll singing, the last Eid when I got my biggest Edeyya ever, my mother bringing us home a new baby after me _I wonder if that was a happy event for me, but I could certainly see the joy my parents had looking at that little thing. My breath firmly came back to my face touching it as to comfort me and tell me that everything will be ok. A minute later I started crying, though. And only then I realized that my eyes were closed, for I could feel my wet eyelashes. It did not matter; opening them and closing them were thoroughly the same. I cried so much that my tears mixed with the dust on my face felt like mud at the edges of my face. I must have been bleeding, since a killing pain started growing in my chest with the growing of my weeping. I tried to move in order to stop the pain. Only one muscle, I found out that something very sharp, extremely strong, calmly was standing through my skin. I stopped crying. I waited. I bled.

(Photo from AP/NYT; many more voices remembering the Israeli attack on Gaza two years ago can be found at Mondoweiss, where I first read the above piece.)

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Botanicas of New York: Siete Potencias

I love botanicas, and New York was once full of them. They're the plaster-statue-filled religious items shops catering to practitioners of folk religions. Inside they're full of candles, cheap perfumes, painted plaster statues, beads, animal parts, religious pamphlets, prayer cards and all manner of trinkets and baubles, and sometimes refrigerator cases of fresh tropical herbs and plants. They serve communities of a panoply of related spiritual paths: syncretic folk magic, Lucumi Santeria, Puerto Rican espiritismo, Afro-Cuban Palo, Haitian Vodun/Voodoo, the Dominican 21 divisiones, Mexican Santeria, South American Indian herbalists and healers, and others. As neighborhoods gentrify, the ranks of botanicas have thinned drastically over the last ten years.

It's not always easy to tell which kind of shop you're looking at; many mask their true nature. Someone selling a beaded necklace they've dipped in holy water or waved through incense probably isn't a Santero as my tradition would use the word; while someone doing spiritual or card readings for people coming in off the street may well actually be a priest of a certain religion or may just be a person who gives good advice. Some are welcoming of new patrons, and some deeply suspicious of customers outside their presumed ethnic base. Some are just business endeavors, and I've seen several over the years that were obvious fronts for drugs. The busy Almacenes Chango in East Harlem, now long gone, was one of the few that served primarily initiates of the Yoruba-based Lucumi Santeria into which I was initiated. It was a hubbub on a Saturday morning selling supplies for initiations and other ceremonies.

I love the aesthetic of these places, especially their store-front windows. Its clutter speaks to me, and its multicultural chaotic abundance challenges the eye. Statues of idealized native American indians stand next to Catholic saints and African gods and Chinese good-luck deities. There are solemn gory martyrs dripping blood, rakish gypsies, and sometimes skulls and skeletons. There's an old-fashionedness about them that speaks to me. I love how in the window shown here most of the statues are peering out from cellophane wrapping.

These windows are a reflection of something I love about New York. From time to time I'll be posting pictures from the various botanicas I stumble across.

(These photos were taken by me of the Botanica 7 Potencias on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Click on the images to see the divine chaos larger.)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year 2011!

May the new year bring us more peace and less war, more clarity and less confusion, more justice and less outrage. May the year be filled with health, love, happiness, abundance, creativity, inspiration, fulfillment and progress.

(Art is a Korean-war era Chinese propaganda postcard of a wintertime celebration among the Chinese volunteers.)