Archive for May, 2008

No Way Out

May 30, 2008

So the State Department recently rescinded Fulbright Grants to Palestinian students living in the Gaza strip (Read about it here!) evidently in response to concerns that the Israeli government wouldn’t permit said Palestinians to leave the country. Israel has been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its inception — hence, it would seem that, were the State department determined to offer a better future to young Palestinians, they *might* have been able to pull some strings with the Israeli government.

When Hamas was elected in January 2006, the US and Israel both announced that they were going to “punish the people of Palestine for voting the wrong way in a free election.”  (Chomsky has the ball, once again, in an interview given during the Israel-Hezbollah war in summer 2006.) It would seem that this punishment continues unabated.

I don’t think about the Israel/Palestine thing that much. It’s never been high on my list of interests. I find that people in the US tend to get very emotional about the claims of one side or the other, hence I try to avoid the subject altogether. But when I read today’s NYTimes article I had this sudden sympathy — like I was in the shoes of a young Palestinian student, having been filled with dreams of education by my beleaguered parents, finally about to reap the reward of years of diligent study…just to have it torn away. By an email no less!

I can imagine that my last shred of hope and idealism after years of living in “a prison, a huge prison, under constant attack all the time: economic strangulation, military attack, assassinations, and so on.” would turn to hatred awful quick.

I mean shit guys! if you’re trying to *discourage* terrorism, this is not the way to do it.


action not debate

May 28, 2008

Bill writes:

“Making child labor legal is better than the alternative, because making it illegal doesnt prevent it from happening. It simply forces children who would have worked in factories to work as prostitutes instead.”

Let me take a philosophy class trick and put it into practice here: argument by analogy. What if the morally suspect practice at hand were abortion? Then the statement would read: “Making abortion legal is better than the alternative, because making it illegal doesnt prevent it from happening.” Indeed, abortion is an ancient practice in many cultures and it will definitely happen, legal or not. So by this argument a sane society should permit it without a fuss.

You can take this analogy even further, and see that Bill and I would both be arguing for the sake of political ideals. I am actually in favor of abortion being legal because I disagree with the idea that governments should be able to legislate or restrict a womans body, including the termination of fetuses. Bill is actually in favor of child labor being legal because he disagrees with the idea that governments should be able to legislate or restrict profitable activity, including this kind of labor practice.

In my opinion, however, political ideals tend to be roiled with bullshit. It is better to look at the facts straight on. When you see child labor and do nothing, you are complicit. When you see the killing of fetuses and do nothing, you are complicit. You do have real options though. And they dont necessarily have to do with the political apparatus. You can take action to encourage the sacred bond between mothers and their daughters, raise awareness about the patriarchy, promote sexual education and family planning in the community. You can take action to protest the WTO, raise awareness about consumerism, the sinister labor practices of rich corporations, and the military support of the imperial United States. You can boycott Nike and Kathy Lee fucking Gifford.

Or you can sit there. And watch TV. And blog. And talk about your high-minded political ideals.

One reason (of many) to be “anti-globalization”

May 27, 2008

In my last post I forgot to mention yesterday’s less publicized, short-but-sweet appearance of famous writer Jamaica Kincaid at Wesleyan’s commencement — she received an honorary doctorate. Wes does know how to pick ’em! This, along with the latest round of my ongoing debate with Bill, has prompted me to blog briefly about one of the many problems with “globalization” as such.

“Pro-globalization” types cite the steady rise of the Gross National Product in third world countries as sure fire proof that the status quo is good; capitalism is helping the poor, just like the Gipper’s handlers would predict!

Here I’ll echo Chomsky who points out that the kindest thing that can be said about Reagan is that he probably didn’t know much about what was going on during his administration…but I stray from the topic at hand.

GNP is actually a very flawed estimator of “progress” because it cares nothing for actual quality of human life as well as the myriad social and environmental impacts of capitalism. John Talberth writes, in the Worldwatch Institute’s “State of the World 2008”, that,

“there is widespread recognition that globalization indicators are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the greater humanitarian disasters unfolding on the planet, that they mask gross inequities in the distribution of resources, and that they fail to register overall declines in well-being that stem from loss of community, culture, and environment.

It is beyond dispute, for example, that GDP fails as a true measure of societal welfare. While it measures the economic value of consumption, GDP says nothing about overall quality of life. In 1906, economist Irving Fischer coined the term “psychic income” to describe the true benefit of all socioeconomic activity. Goods and services are valued not for themselves, Fischer argued, but in proportion to the psychic enjoyment derived from them. Higher levels of consumption may or may not have anything to do with higher quality of personal life if such consumption is detrimental to personal health, to others, or to the environment.

GDP gives no indication of sustainability because it fails to account for depletion of either human or natural capital. It is oblivous to the existence of local economic systems or knowledge; to disappearing forests, wetlands, or farmland; to the depletion of oil, minerals, or groundwater; to the deaths, displacement, and destruction caused by war and natural disasters. And it fails to register costs of pollution and non-market benefits associated with volunteer work, parenting, and ecosystem services provided by nature. GDP is also flawed because it counts war spending as improving even though, theoretically, at best, all such spending really does is keep existing welfare from deteriorating.”

Talberth’s chapter (available here as a PDF) goes on to provide an interesting summary (complete with quantitative analysis, visual aids, references, etc.) of work being done in the field of sustainable development, including the introduction of a more sensible progress indicator called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). For those of you (Bill) who might want to read some more economics-oriented work about sustainability, I’d recommend it.

Obama/Roth ’08

May 26, 2008

Obama kicked ass at today’s commencement ceremony, as you might imagine. But the new Wes prez Michael Roth ambled into the limelight by making what I consider to be a pretty awesome speech as well. (You can watch it, along with Obama’s speech, here.)

Roth said, among other things, this:

“If you engage in serious politics of change, if you participate in the struggle for social justice and sustainable economic growth, I believe we *can* change course…This year’s graduates, like Wesleyan alumni before you, will contribute to shaping our culture in the future — because otherwise it will be shaped by people for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance are much too threatening. We are counting on you to help shape our culture so it will not be shaped by forces of oppression and violence.

[…] Wesleyan University resists that violence. You will hear people tell you that the greatest protection against violence is surveillance, that greater security is to build higher fences to keep out the foreigners and that we must project violence on distant shores to keep our homes safe. DO NOT BELIEVE THESE MESSAGES.

Please remember that your education stands in opposition to nonsense and cruelty. Please recall your capacity to create when others around you call for destruction…When you persist in expanding your knowledge, when you continue to find new ways to create positive change, then you will feel the power and the promise of your education.”

Fuck yeah. Go Wes!

I experienced (as you can see) a nostalgic surge of school spirit as an alumnus coming back to campus for the first time — essentially, my friend Kimberly pointed out, this was nationalist fervor. During much of my time as a Wes student I was stressed out, lethargic and/or absorbed in personal drama. I was too busy for school spirit. But today I must admit that I got fired up! A school whose president promotes non-violence and encourages you “to reject the status quo, to build a politics of hope and community rather than fear and divisiveness…to become productive idealists” is pretty freaking awesome.


May 23, 2008

Perhaps it is folly to blog about this prematurely…but yeah.

This is happening. I am (hopefully) leaving work early tomorrow to hop a ride up to fair Middletown!

I haven’t been back to campus in a full two years now, which makes this the perfect time. Wes is still fresh in my mind but not too eerily familiar as to be totally bizarre. I’m very sorry to miss Dhaan’s party…but I’ve been meaning to get this Wes revisited thing out the way for a long time. An “unbeatable” opportunity.

Oh if any Wesleyan types out there have a place for me to stay for a couple nights…I shall buy you many beers!

Top Chef!!!

May 22, 2008

OK at this very moment I’m in the midst of an epic 5 day training for community health workers and I need to vent my frustration by writing about the current idiot box show of choice: Top Chef!

From the people who brought you “Project Runway”, it’s…the exact same concept except with food! Which I personally find *infinitely* more interesting than fashion.

Rather than musing about reality TV or singing this show’s praises, which I could do at length, I want to address an evil spectre that lurks in the shadows of Top Chef. Consider the very real possibility that a lesser chef can get very far in the competition simply by not screwing up! A chef could make mediocre food, hardly ever win a challenge, yet avoid elimination until the last stages of the season just because some brighter star screws up once!

OR if said bright star meets the ire of the producers in some way! If you are nerdy (silly, bored, obsessive…) enough to actually type the words “Top Chef” into Wikipedia and read through the article that appears, you will see this sentence: “According to the credits, some elimination decisions (eg. Cliff Crooks’ disqualification in Season 2) are made in consultation with the show’s producers.”


The elimination of Dale in last night’s Top Chef was justified, surely. He was executive chef in this season’s version of the infamous Restaurant Wars episode. Choosing to be ExChef of your team is always a risky move because of the added responsibility if your team performs poorly. Indeed Dale botched the executive function by delivering a poorly organized, absurdly decorated restaurant in the overdone genre of Asian Fusion. Plus the dude’s a dick and the food was no good!

But Lisa, who was also responsible for some of the shitty food, has performed poorly and appeared on the chopping block multiple times in the last several episodes — each time saved only by the even more severe blunders of other chefs! Dale, for all of his personal faults, won quite a few challenges in the past. In my estimation, this past performance should count for something. Lisa should have been chucked out while Dale remained in.

My conspiracy theory: The producers are trying their best to have this season’s winner be a woman, as the Top Chefs in all previous years happened to have been men. This year both Antonia and Stephanie are extraordinarily tough contenders who have won many challenges in the past! But there is no way that Lisa should still be on there. Ridiculous.

Queer Eye‘s Ted Allen, a regular judge on the show, responds with aplomb to fan’s comments about the Dale/Lisa controversy over on Bravo’s Top Chef website. Beware! You have to be a real Top Chef junkie to start sifting through the stuff posted over there. Which I am. So I wonder: am I just more hospitable to a show that involves food, or have there been significant advances in the way they stage, produce and edit this brand of “reality TV”?

an encounter with Theatre of the Oppressed

May 19, 2008

Last Thursday I broke my routine threefold: (1) I left work early, (2) I squeezed awkwardly aboard the jam-packed 1 train to the Upper West side, and (3) I witnessed a revelation. Concerning (3): Brazilian community activist and writer Augusto Boal gave a brief lecture and demonstration, in front of more than three hundred curious folks including myself, gathered in a Riverside church basement. The topic was Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal’s method for social awareness, therapy and action which has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I want to briefly sum up what he was talking about before I forget…

OK. So Boal started off with the story (apparently from Dostoyevsky?) of the bureaucrat who did not save a baby that was being attacked by a dog on the grass in a public park. The rule was “Don’t walk on the grass” hence he was legally unable to do anything without seeking approval from the park ranger, by which time it would be too late to save the child. The idea is that we’ve been desensitized. We’re trained by society not only to follow the rules and trust the experts, but also to be atomized, profoundly isolated and self-serving and pathologically unsympathetic towards everyone else.

The bureaucrat is so in tune with the ‘letter’ of the law that he has no feeling for the ‘spirit’ of keeping off the grass — such a thing is irrelevant to him. In this example, Boal says, words are the crucial instrument of oppression. Now I was silly enough to major in English at a liberal arts school, so I’ve heard this kind of theory before. The general idea is that language, this stucture for symbolic communication that we use, tends to conceal its power for stucturing our minds as well. Consider the paradox that powerful men invented the word “justice” to justify their crimes. Or that the word “democracy” never truly described government for and by the people, certainly not in ancient Athens where women and slaves were barred from political participation.

So perhaps, according to Boal, we should move towards aesthetics –> communication through the senses. Theatre of the Oppressed is the aesthetic expression of needs rather than the verbal description of them. In order to make this theoretical jump you have to maintain, as Boal does, that every human being is an artist. The goal of this particular form of art is to regain our sensibility; first to see ourselves and then to try to change.

If your goal is to play the piano perfectly, you practice. If your goal is to regain your sensibility, you pay attention to what you are feeling. For Boal, the next step is to act out your emotions.

Boal used the group to demonstrate one technique, among the many that Theatre of the Opressed calls upon for this purpose, called Rainbow of Desire.  Basically you (the protagonist) select an incident or recurring situation in your life that causes you great feeling. This invariably involves conflict, hence a second party. Then you try to isolate the different elements of your own desire in the situation. (If you pause to think about it, desires are always complex — never pure.) Choose a member of the audience to act as the second party, along with a few others to physically represent your various desires with respect to that person. Position them around the second party in whatever way seems correct. Allow the scene to play out as it will, calling on your second party to speak their mind, as each of your various desires also articulates their distinct point of view in whichever sequence you choose. Keeping this in mind, you ask yourself: how has the second party seen you up until now? How would you want him or her to see you in the future? In response to these questions you change the scene to what you’d like it to be, rather than what it is now. The audience is encouraged to participate as much as possible in this process. So rather than being passive spectators, we must become “spect-actors” both observing and shaping our own lives.

Why employ theatre for this kind of change? Boal says: “Theatre is both concrete (physical) and very abstract. The beauty and danger of theatre is that you must go deep inside yourself. Sometimes I don’t see myself. The multiple mirror of the regard of others allows me to see myself. Theatre can be a mirror in this way.”

We have to be protagonists in this process. And to be a protagonist is to run a risk. Boal points out (along with other gurus I admire like Chomsky, Eve Ensler and J. Krishnamurti) that Western culture in general and American culture in particular is obsessed with security. Contrary to what your TV tells you, you will get neither immediate nor complete relief. But you and I know that we *can* become much more than what we are, and of course it’s by doing that we become.

fun facts

May 16, 2008

I have learned some wacky things lately. Check it out:

  • You eat more plants, you live longer. (for this and other food truths see Mark Bittman’s TED talk)
  • Jerry Springer used to be Mayor of Cincinatti (see this episode of This American Life)
  • According to NPR, all American plastics contain toxic chemicals that have been banned in Europe
  • The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China enjoy a form of bagel known as girde nan, which is one of several types of nan, the bread eaten in Xinjiang. It is uncertain if the Uyghur version of the bagel was developed independently of Europe or was the actual origin of the bagels that appeared in Central Europe. (from Peter Hessler)
  • According to Islam, you have to wash yourself / your clothes if a dog touches you. And you’re not allowed to keep dogs indoors.
  • In China, however, there’s a widespread traditional belief that dogs are lucky. Dogs are able to see good fortune in your future, purportedly, so if a stray dog follows you home, it’s a happy omen! (these two are from my ESL group. I don’t know how we started talking about dogs…)
  • The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single biggest consumer of petroleum, using more of it every day than the entire nation of Sweden. See here

Crazy intercontinental Chinese doors

May 14, 2008

I’m not sure if other people find this interesting but…these doors are everywhere in Beijing:

They’re just normal doors. But the stainless steel makes them look exaggeratedly tough. And they usually feature elaborate patterns and rounded edges, with flowers engraved upon the stainless steel surface (as above). This combination of security overkill and design intricacy gives an almost Gothic impression– like a Dickensian door knocker.

Somehow the mix of rigid and flamboyant smacks of “the new China” to me…and yet they’re all over the place down here in Bay Ridge too!

The length of Eighth Avenue that stretches south from Sunset Park is known as Brooklyn’s Chinatown, home to a very large population of Chinese immigrants who hail mostly from Fujian province in south east China.

So I’m going to speculate here: Not only did the design for these doors make it from China as such, but it must have gone from northern China (Beijing) down to Fujian, or vice versa, before even crossing the Pacific. That’s kind of crazy in itself.

Let’s suppose that the doors are imported, or at least that the steel needed to put them together is imported. Raw materials are relatively cheap in China so it’s not an unreasonable assumption. There must be a *very* elaborate set of logistics in place to get these thousands of Chinese doors into Brooklyn. Think of the livelihoods that depend on this set of arrangements. Exceedingly complex human and technical relations come together *every day* just to maintain a simple, crucial equation: Metal and labor and ocean passage goes into ===> a silly looking door <=== and profit emerges out of it.

It’s nuts when you think about it…

Citizen Guy (The Motion Picture Event of the Century)

May 12, 2008

(southern drawl)…Rosebuuuud…

[Empty 40 oz bottle of Miller Hi Life drops from the dead man’s hand and shatters, dramatically]

In Xanadu did Larry the Cable Guy / a stately pleasure dome decree

Citizen Guy


The increasing popularity of redneck parody comedian Larry the Cable Guy has led producers at Fox to give the green light to his longtime pet project, a shot-for-shot remake of Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane. Apparently the Cable Guy will play a pathological cable television baron whose entrepreneurial drive and search for acceptance stems from profound loneliness. Details of the pre-production schedule can be found on the comedian’s blog. Responding to questions from the press about his plans to shoot this controversial film, Mr. Guy has been quoted as saying “GIT-R-DONE!!!”