Wednesday, February 27, 2008

No Time For My Weight, I'm Watching ESPN

By ordering with a days notice, customers of Mallie's Sports Bar and Grill in suburban Detroit can sit down to enjoy a 134 pound cheeseburger. The Absolutely Ridiculous Burger is now the largest burger commercially sold in America, reports the AP. It comes on a 50 pound bun, takes 12 hours to cook and at least three people to flip. Would you like fries with that? Owner Steve Mallie is waiting for the results to know if he is now the vendor of the largest hamburger in America, topping the 124 pound burger served last year by Denny's Beer Barrel pub in Clearfield, PA.

Down south in Mississippi, another record was broken this year—the first state with over 30% of its population officially obese. Not overweight, but obese. In fact, according to the Trust for America's Health, not a single state reduced its percentage of obese residents during 2007. While the Center for Disease Control is calling obesity in America worse than any plague or epidemic of the Middle Ages, a 134 pound burger is reported with humor—just another crazy record for Guinness. Because they know this is not just a novelty, many news reports also add protocol on ordering the beef feast—24 hours in advance, please. Popular culture appears dangerously disconnected from reality. What's that you say? You have the You Tube clip of Joey Chestnut eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes to win the annual ESPN Hot Dog Eating Contest? Finally, Nathan's Yellow Mustard Belt is back in the United States.

Competition is fierce in the United States, and what can be made into a sport often is. Over-indulgence is a time-honored battleground with determined Americans trying to out drink, out buy, and out sex all competitors. However, those competitions are mostly held in the movies and are sporadically mentioned on television. Food, appears to be a different matter. ESPN is the largest cable sports network in America, and the annual contest is held on Independence Day. But eating too many hot dogs is killing us in record—and growing—numbers. What other major cause of death in this country is a nationally televised sport? When was the last cigarette smoking competition? Why haven't the good doctors, government workers, nutritionists and Oprah hammered an aversion of food-binging into our heads like that which we would probably feel if we watched Joey Chestnut smoke 84 Newports in 15 minutes? Gross, right? Right??

Monday, February 25, 2008

Conspiracy weary

Spend a couple of hours with conspiracy theorists and you will have plenty to think about. My opinions haven't moved in to the realm of the obscure, but I have reexamined some of my thoughts about September 11.

No, I don't think the World Trade Center was blown up by a "controlled demolition," I don't think that the Pentagon was struck by a missile, and I don't think that the plane in Pennsylvania was shot down by a US jet. All these claims have been clearly refuted by Popular Mechanics, a group I have more confidence in than any of the eclectic-and often eccentric-mix of "experts" that claim to know the truth.

But I have come to think that this group's desire to convene a new 9/11 Commission is justified. The original commission was completely bogged down by a crooked executive director who met in private numerous times with Karl Rove during the investigation, underfunding (compare its budget of roughly 10 million with the budget for the Lewinsky scandal of 40 million), and a lack of cooperation from government agencies-the most recent example being the discovery of the CIA torture tapes.

Why shouldn't heads roll for the incompetence in the lead up to 9/11? How come Condoleeza Rice can admit in front of the world that a report came across her desk entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" in August of 2001 and not face any sort of consequences?

It may turn out that I've been too immersed in the conspiracy world and need a week or two to get back to reality. Emotions tend to run high. When talking to the theorists it is clear that the trauma from the day remains evident. The last guy out of the North tower said yesterday in a speech that "we still are an open wound, we need closure."

On the street, some are filled with suspicion and outrage when they consider 9/11 and get in a heated discussion with the conspiracy theorists (one of those discussions when there is agreement but everyone is yelling anyway), other passersby look at the theorists on the street and just hang their heads down, communicating that resurrecting all those emotions is the last thing they could ever want.

Elan- new Muslim magazine

The title debuted last week on February 22nd. When you read and talk to any member of the team you soon realize that it was launched out of frustration, a frustration with the image of Muslims in the U.S.

Sarah Malaika, a managing editor of Elan, says there is a lot of negative news about Muslims and it’s easy to understand why she and many other Muslims don’t feel represented. “That is why Elan was launched. We feel that there is more out there. We want America to see us as we are: teachers, musicians, physicians, artists.”

E’lan in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi means “announcement” and Sarah Malaika explains that the magazine wants to deliver positive announcements about Muslim-American communities. She also believes the Muslim-Americans are ready for the magazine. “We had a photo shoot last week and people that came were totally excited. We see they are ready for us.”

Elan is written by, for and about young 20-35 year-olds, professional Muslims of both sexes. The magazine subtitle is “Rethink Muslim.” It wants non-Muslims to reconsider their stereotypes about Muslims, “We want them to rethink what they think,” Malaika says.

It is not, however, only about American public opinion, it is also about Muslims themselves. “We also want Muslims to rethink their identity,” Sarah Malaika said. She noticed that since Muslims are such a diverse group, often they don’t know about others from outside their ethnic group.

Starting a new magazine is never easy. Elan already received criticism from more conservative Muslims who accused the magazine of not being religious and modest enough. The magazine is still setting its boundaries. “We have many discussions in the news room about how far we can push boundaries, “ she says in terms of appropriate clothing and writing, but she immediately added, “What we are trying to do has never been done before. We are a magazine for both secular and religious Muslims.”

Sarah Malaika complains that many people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, don’t understand that Elan does recognizes religion and is not necessarily trying to declare itself as a secular magazine. “Islam influenced our culture and we don’t condemn any religious representations. Elan is all-inclusive. We don’t tell people how they should practice their religion,” Malaika says. The magazine ambition is to create an open space for discussion to everyone.

The publisher, Wahid Media Venture, describes its publication as, “a magazine of contemporary Muslim culture”- and it is. The first cover story in the glossy magazine is about Reza Aslan, the Teheran born Muslim American author of “No God but God: The origin, evolution, and future of Islam”. It expresses his vision for the new Muslim American identity.

Elan is produced quarterly and is available at the biggest bookstore chains.

Elan- a new Muslim magazine

Sunday, February 24, 2008

If the Chinese Can Do It ...

After shooting down a rogue satellite that went haywire shortly after its launch, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the good people of America to rest easy; George Bush's vaunted missile defense system works.

Ostensibly, the operation was a $60 million means of keeping the world safe from the "potentially toxic" contents of the satellite's fuel tank. In reality, the move was a chance for the Pentagon to test George Bush's version of Star Wars. New toys are hard to resist, especially when other kids are flaunting their own. Back when the Chinese blew up their own satellite, you could hear the Pentagon pouting, 'How come all the cool toys come out in the far east first?'

But, now that they've showed off their toy a bit, the Pentagon's strutting. "The operation speaks for itself," said Gates. Problem is, it doesn't.

Gail Collins' Op-Ed in the New York Times, a nice lampoon of the whole adventure, raised doubts over whether or not this bit of muscle flexing proved anything, writing:
Before it fired at the satellite Wednesday night, the military was hesitating about making a shot, citing the possibility of “choppy seas.” Cynics who asked whether this means the nation’s quadrillion-dollar missile defense system only works when the weather is calm were told to stop being ridiculous.

Offering a possible alternative to the original toxic gas excuse (gas which “If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly" -- Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Collins suggested another:
The Pentagon is afraid the supersecret satellite will fall into the hands of our enemies, revealing the sophisticated new technology that conked out shortly after leaving Earth and utterly failed to accomplish its mission.

Touché, madame.

Adding to the childish nature of the affair, both China and the U.S. have accused the other of treading dangerous ground, risking an arms race in outer space.

It doesn't take a Harvard man to see that an arms race is already underway. I'm pretty sure spending billions of dollars every year on a missile defense system qualifies. As if there wasn't enough nonsense on earth, the U.S. and the Chinese are taking it extraterrestrial.

If a Dem gets elected, missile defense should be among the first programs to get the axe. A debtor nation in a recession, hell, even one in good economic health, can find better ways to spend its coin.

Cindy McCain's America is not Michelle Obama's, and it's Probably not Your's

An essential component of effective leadership is the ability to step outside of your own viewpoint, if only momentarily, to better understand the position of another. This is what is referred to as being "open-minded." Of course, being open-minded doesn't mean that you have to adopt the view of the other, but you need to be able to understand the roots of that other party's actions and views.

An anti-example of this open-mindedness is found in the reaction of many U.S. citizens' to suicide bombers. Rather than try to understand the life circumstances of these desperate individuals -- exploring the role poverty, political repression and foreign intervention played in their decisions-- closed-minded individuals attribute it to a religion and culture which they do not understand, and do not attempt to understand. Dismissive terms like "satanic," "barbaric" and "bloodthirsty" are attached to Islam and that, for many people, is explanation enough; suicide bombers = evil believers in an evil ideology.

That sort of thinking, most often displayed by the right in U.S. politics, extends beyond the "War on Terror," and pervades issues both domestic and international. In its zeal to defend America against its "enemies," both internal and external, it latches onto the quickest, easiest interpretation. A recent comment made by Harvard Law alumnus and model U.S. citizen Michelle Obama, and the subsequent reaction to it, offers a domestic example of this closed-minded approach, substituting political opportunism and jingoism for rational thinking.

The comment from Michelle: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."

The reaction was hostile, with many right-wing pundits denouncing Michelle, and by extension her husband, as unpatriotic. The implication is that no true America-loving, God-fearing individual could ever be anything less than proud of America.

Cindy McCain affirmed that when she stood before the cameras and said "I have, and always will be, proud of my country."

Cindy McCain, born into affluence, helped finance her husband's first successful bid for congress, in 1982, with money from her trust fund. In other words, she was born into the (white) world of power and has rested comfortably within it since her birth.

Michelle Obama is an African American female, and based on that alone her relationship to her country is a more complex one. Without a doubt, the roots of Michelle's comment went far beyond the government's treatment of African Americans, but that alone would be grounds for righteous indignation. Should she be incessantly and automatically proud of a government that only in the last 40 years has begun to move towards the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?

The obvious answer is "absolutely not," and that extends to any individual, regardless of their heritage. Those who unquestioningly accept that "U.S. government = Good" not only show an inability to open their minds beyond a narrow world view, they reveal the incompetence of their mental processes.

If Cindy McCain has always been proud of the country, it's because she doesn't know the country. She knows the U.S. that George Bush knows, or that Ted Kennedy knows. The difference between her and Ted, however, is that she is unable, or unwilling, to put herself in the position of others who may not have enjoyed the same privileges. Her life's trajectory has presented her with one side of America, the sunny side, and she either A) hasn't thought to look around the corner, or B) looked around the corner and processed nothing of what she saw.

Anyone who deals in absolutes is either naive, or lying. With Cindy's recent statement "I have always been proud of my country," , and John's promise "I will never, ever let you down," we know that they both fall into one, or both, of those categories.

What I want in a leader, a first lady, and in each and every citizen, is a critical mind, one that does not accept party lines and national mythologies. I want someone who is able to transcend their race, their religion, their political ideologies, if only briefly, in order to get a better understanding of the situation at hand. Our misguided foreign policy over the last 8 (last 150?) years shows the need for exactly that.

Broken Skulls and Bullet Wounds: Violence Returns to Chiapas

New York, Feb. 24 - Ernesto Ledesma Arronte pointed carefully to where the peasant's skull had been fractured by the police: a divot of bone clearly visible to the hundred audience members fixated on the x-ray overhead. As if this were not evidence enough, he showed a photo of a Mexican peasant shot by police while protesting the government's destruction of local farms and houses.

Arronte's point was clear: war has returned to Mexico, reigniting the lives and politics of rural and indigenous Mexicans long subjected to state-led violence and political repression. Using a host of maps, photos, and documents, Arronte argued that Chiapas and other poor, agricultural states in southern Mexico are once again being consumed by the bloodshed and land seizures that drew international attention to the region in the early 1990s.

“Youths cut up by machetes, robberies, aggressions, evictions, arbitrary detentions, and the cutting off of water” have once again become commonplace in Chiapas, he said in Spanish. Arronte should know: he and his colleagues at the Center For Political Analysis and Economic and Social Investigations (CAPISE) have been documenting human rights violations committed by state police and federal troops for years.

But as Arronte and other activists have pointed out, things are spiraling out of control, even by Chiapas’s bloody standards. Beginning last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has added more than 24,000 soldiers to local police forces in what his government calls a new drug war offensive. But there are growing signs that this massive troop deployment is affecting rural, indigenous communities just as much as drug cartels on the U.S. – Mexico border. According to Arronte, the government has begun a “war on the indigenous” stacked in favor of government forces: 55 of the 79 military bases in Chiapas are on indigenous lands, every one of which has recently seen a build-up of troops and equipment. Twelve years after the Acteal Massacre, in which 45 indigenous townspeople were murdered by paramilitaries, the specter of violence once again haunts the lush farmlands and forests of southern Mexico.

Arronte was one of several speakers at “Repression in Chiapas,” an event hosted by New York tenants’ rights organization Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). The evening also featured “One Big Train Called the Other Campaign,” a documentary on an international campaign for indigenous land rights and autonomy in Mexico. The Other Campaign is led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a group formed in 1994 to fight for peasants’ lands threatened by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since renouncing violence shortly after its inception, the EZLN now enjoys a great deal of international support and counts MJB among its sister organizations.

This time around, the reasons behind the government’s repressive tactics are again economic, argues Arronte.

“The Calderón government has begun to transform thousands of hectares of indigenous land into protected nature zones,” he said, adding that these “nature zones” are really eco-tourism projects run by private companies.

“No indigenous families are involved in these projects,” Arronte said, explaining why the government’s quest for tourist revenue is synonymous with an offensive against the indigenous in Mexico.

The Zapatista uprising in 1994 shattered the image of Mexico as a mestizo, or racially-uniform, nation. Today, deep inequalities persist in Mexico, often along ethnic lines. In Chiapas, a state that produces 13 percent of the nation’s corn and 54 percent of its hydroelectric power, poverty rates are much higher than the nation average and almost half of the population does not speak Spanish.

The rising number of federal troops and human rights abuses threatens to reverse what little gains indigenous communities have made in Chiapas and elsewhere in rural Mexico. Lands appropriated by the Zapatistas and their supporters in the mid 1990s are being systematically stripped from the indigenous, often through violence, Arronte said. In the valley of Agua Azul alone, 1,235 families face eviction from their homes and a return to the starvation of earlier years.

“In Mexico and Chiapas in 1994 there were still slaves,” Arronte said. Today, these former “slaves” are fighting to keep the lands they won in the 90s from many of the same landowners for whom they used to work.

Suicide Views

“We all know one of these guys, right? Intense. They worry about taking a test, and then they get a 96 and they’re like, ‘where’s my four points?’!”

I’m sitting in a meeting of LUCHA, a Latino-based student club at New York University, and the topic this Wednesday night is suicide. There’s about twenty, twenty-five students seated in front of two discussion leaders, Mark and Stephanie. Mark just has just told his own story about pressure in high school, and gotten a laugh. But the topic is serious, and Mark knows this. That’s why LUCHA is having this meeting.

There have already been two suicides on the NYU campus in the first term of the 2007 -2008 year, Allan Oakley Hunter and Pranay Angara. Yearly surveys from the American College Health Association say that the average suicide rate for college-age kids is seven in 100,000. If you consider the number of students currently at NYU (college and graduate) there should be two deaths per year, every year, from suicide.

Not to let schools off the hook, keep in mind that the rate for kids not in college is double this, about fourteen out of every 100,000 non-students in the U.S.

The LUCHA meeting tonight followed a presentation by three women from an organization called The Icarus Project. Icarus is non-profit group that has presented on campus before, and tries to stress the creative and life-affirming aspects of what the mainstream psychological world would call mental illness. By taking this view, Icarus tries to provide a forum for openness and support for people with mental health issues, and recognizes that a lot of the fear a person has in asking for help is the feeling that their doctor will try and provide this “help” by taking away their personality. The Icarus viewpoint is that mental problems are not always a disease that has to be eliminated, but can be an important part of a person’s self that they should try and embrace. The real problem is with how mental illness has been stigmatized, and they mean to change this.

Whether you agree with them or not, their overall message is openness and we couldn’t need this more. After the Icarus group left for another function, the LUCHA meeting continued with people voicing their reactions about The Icarus Project, the reasons for campus suicides, and the NYU administration’s response. One person felt the University was doing the right thing by installing jump-proof Plexiglas around the Bobst atrium balconies. Some felt it was weird that the University hires a guard who sits in a chair on the top floor of their Palladium dorm, doesn’t talk to anyone, is cranky, and now has the job of watching the door to the roof (which needs to be unlocked for fire regulations).

But should the University be more open about the suicide problem? By not holding public forums where students can voice their concerns to administrators, and administrators can openly voice their own fears, you have a bizarre situation where someone dies, no one from the NYU administration is allowed to say a word, and a new piece of Plexiglas is installed. Sensing the dead student’s desperate need to communicate and seeing the school’s fear of acknowledgement, only makes the disconnect problem more palpable.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Earnestly important

The plot is simple: Love and marriage. Two gentlemen, one of them with title but no money (David Jack’s Moncrief), and the other with money but without a title (Christopher Michael Todd’s Worthing) are facing a crucial decision in their lives-getting married. Moncrief does not realize his fate yet, he is a beautiful dandy who believes that marriage is such a disaster that he would try to forget it at once if it happened to him, as “three is company, and two is none”. David Jack presents a man who say “my duty as a gentleman has never interfered in my pleasure.” Still at the end, he commits the most popular mistake; he falls in love and eagerly decides to get married.

But this simple plot is just an occasion for Oscar Wilde to create a cynical social satire against marriage, the hypocrisy of the English upper class, and against optimism. It is also a glorious hymn for hedonism. Many believe that The Importance of Being Earnest is the most sparkling comedy in Oscar Wilde’s repertories, and it is difficult not to agree.

Humor cynism, and the addressed issues, along with Oscar Wilde’s witty remarks, is what make the play a live issue, more than a century after the author’s death in 1900. The cast also probably helps to enjoy the show. A brilliant Cristiane Young’s Lady Bracknell, an English Victorian matron stating bluntly, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

In this play we have all what we need for a stage success: drama- Miss Prism loosing lord’s child in the dark past, romance, humor, and words of harsh criticism to family and society at large. It is no wonder that the director Judith Jarosz decided to work with the script. And she does it well, although, to be honest, not breathtakingly. Recommended but not a must.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, by Oscar Wilde; directed by Judith Jarosz; set design, David Fuller; lightening design, Hajera Dehqanzada; costume design, Lydia Gladstone; technical director, Aaron Diehl; stage manager, Lauren Arneson; Presented by the Theatre Ten Ten, at 1010 Park Avenue.

Algernon Moncrief…David Jacks

Lane…David Fuller

Jon Worthing, J.P. …Christoper Michael Todd

Lady Bracknell…Cristiane Young

Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax…Vanessa Morosco

Miss Prism…Talaura Harms

Cecily Cardew…Sheila Joon

Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D. …Greg Horton

Merriman…David Fuller

Hospital Journalist

Sunderam Srinivasan or “Shrini” as his friends call him, is a permanent resident of Coler Hospital. Coler is a long-term health care facility, part of the New York City public hospital system, located on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. Shrini, 62-years-old, has been here for seventeen years, some of it spent attached to a ventilator, all of it confined to a wheelchair.

“In ‘82-’83 I was in the Middle East, this was my first real experience with how the Mid-East attracts laborers to build their countries,” Shrini relates. Looking at him now in his motorized wheelchair in an anonymous hospital corridor, it’s hard to picture him as the active reporter he once was. It was complications from polio he contracted as a baby in his native India that has plagued him his entire life, but this was not enough to dissuade him a career in journalism. His most memorable position was writing for the India Express where he worked covering the 1975 state of emergency under Indira Gandhi’s leadership. It was there that he witnessed first-hand the government’s crackdown and the ensuing loss of freedom of the press.

“I was always fascinated with the power of journalism and how democracy functions,” he said. “Elections give people a voice, they come to elections to express their voice and what they really are expressing is freedom and hope - hope is the most important part of life. Hope leads to service, and service leads to society.”

Polio has given Shrini a small body which in no way reflects his stature in the hospital. He is the president of the residents council, a state-mandated position where he represents the interests of the roughly 800 patients at Coler. In this role, his most noteworthy accomplishment is perhaps the initiation of the hospital’s own radio station, the first of its kind in the country.

“There were three things we were trying to accomplish,” he relates. “It’s a place where patient residents can come to talk, but it is also therapeutic – it allows patients to do something. But then it’s also about networking with other long-term health care facilities – there’s a lot of human interest stories there.”

Warming to his subject, Shrini recounts, “if you really look at health care in America, there’s so much wealth but there’s very little health, which is a paradox,” he says, smiling. “The reason I say that is because the health care industry is controlled by a few people and they’re trying to set policy for the whole country.”

“Why don’t you ask me about the flags,” he questions me, suddenly. Attached to the back of Shrini’s wheelchair is a collection of new-looking colorful flags from nations all over the world, all on wooden poles like those sold at parades. When I comply he delivers the simple explanation while beaming, “because if you love the world, the world loves you.”

Conventional Wisdom

What Conventional Wisdom Says, or…What it Doesn’t

By Merry Pool

New York—On February 2nd supporters for Barack Obama pulled together an impromptu rally in East Harlem. Known also as “El Barrio”, the organizers hoped to raise awareness about the candidate with ‘lesser name recognition’ in the neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Holding signs that read, Latinos for Obama, the group of no more than 50 marched from 103rd street up to 116th street.

Nathan Feinberg and Davion Marcus, who were volunteering at Saturday’s event, said they were getting a great response from people in Harlem.

“I came with a stack of fliers and I have one left,” said Feinberg.

“Generally immigrants do not tune in to politics,” said Marcus. “It’s not political apathy; they aren’t able to identify with the candidates—we’re trying to get people to participate in the political system.”

Campaign volunteers for both Senators Obama and Clinton have been reaching out to “immigrants,” (frequently alternated with “Latino”) helping them identify with their candidate—(known in some circles as courting the Hispanic vote.) Yet there is mixed speculation about which candidate will be more successful.

Aristide Zolberg, a professor at The New School, said that based on the “conventional wisdom” he doubted that Latinos would vote for an African American.

“Latinos aren’t too happy with Obama, they will go for Hillary,” he said in a phone interview.

In an interview on the radio program, To the Point, Robert Suro, former director of Pew Hispanic Center, discounted the ‘conventional wisdom’ about race relations between blacks and Latino voters as unsubstantiated. Mr. Suro said that based on the exit polling that has been done, “there is not strong evidence that Hispanics are unwilling to vote for an African American Candidate.”

Take for example, Laura Richardson, an African American Congresswoman recently elected in California’s 37th district, with approximately 25 percent African American and 21 percent eligible Latino voters. In a recent Time magazine article, by Jay Newton, Ms. Richardson said that “race does exist, but more than that people are concerned about he issues…people care about whether they have a job.”

Emphasizing this point, Newton says that “the former first lady [Hillary] represents an era prosperity that many [Latino] women would like to see returned. Not surprisingly, the issue of economic security takes the precedent over race.”

When asked how he intended to address the high unemployment rates and declining wages in the African American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor, Senator Obama replied:

“Well, let me first of all say that I have worked on the streets of Chicago as an organizer with people who have been laid off from steel plants, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and, you know, all of them are feeling economically insecure right now, and they have been for many years. Before the latest round of immigrants showed up, you had huge unemployment rates among African-American youth


And, so, I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in.”

Neither Nathan Feinberg nor Davion Marcus had any conventional wisdom about race and the Latino vote. But, Mr. Marcus, an African American, did acknowledge a tension surrounding the subject of immigration and the economy.

“I know that some African Americans feel like immigrants are reaping the benefits of this country and the Blacks aren’t getting anything,” said Marcus. “If Obama is the next leader, it will be difficult for him. There are so many issues and people will expect him to fix everything.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Living Without Heat in East Harlem

New York, Feb. 10—This morning, like every other for the past month, Jorge Martínez woke to find his small apartment freezing cold. Having slept in two sweaters, he threw on more clothes, gloves, and a hat before making his way to the kitchen. As he turned the dials on the oven, the stovetop burners slowly breathed warmth back into the room, and into his 68th birthday.

Mr. Martínez is one of more than a dozen tenants at 153 East 105th St. that have been left without heat or hot water for over a month.

“The biggest problem is the old people and the children,” he said. “It’s terrible. Once they stop the heat, the old are becoming frozen.”

Martínez and about twenty others gathered outside the East Harlem apartment building this afternoon to protest their living conditions. With help from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an East Harlem tenants’ rights organization, the protesters chanted, beat pots and pans, and held up signs in English and Spanish denouncing both their landlord and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Sadly, their complaints are not uncommon in a city known for high rents and cold winters. But this year could be worse than usual, both in New York and across the country. As fears of a nationwide economic recession have grown more serious, and as the price of oil has gone up, many Americans have begun to wonder if they will be able to pay their heating bills this winter. Meanwhile, critics of the economic stimulus plan President Bush is expected to sign on Monday argue that it does little to make this winter any easier, or warmer, for America’s poor.

For Mr. Martínez and his neighbors, things couldn’t get much colder.

“The heat is only in the morning, a half hour, then you wait until the next day again,” he said, standing in a coat and hat in his kitchen. “When the temperature outside is 40 or 45, we don’t get heat for four days.”

But the frigid rooms aren't caused by a broken boiler or unpaid bills. Instead, tenants have been living without heat and hot water because their landlord, Ramón Durán, says heating oil is too expensive.

“I’m not a million dollar guy,” he said. “I have tenants living over here that are paying $300,” he said. “And you know what? $300 isn’t even enough for oil for one or two weeks.”

“I’ve got my children too,” Durán said, referring to the tenants’ worries for their children. Durán does not live in the building. As for the allegations that there is no heat or hot water, he replied: “That’s what they say, but it’s not true.”

Durán and his tenants also disagree over the role that HPD has played in the dispute. By city law, if tenants report being without heat during the winter and nothing is done within 24 hours, an HPD inspector can force the landlord to fix the problem.

According to Durán, his tenants abuse the law. “I’ve got a problem with one or two tenants,” he said. “They call HPD all the time for no reason. They call HPD before they come over to me, or give me a call.”

“HPD is doing their job,” Durán said, sitting at a table in the back of his restaurant, in the same building as the tenants' homes. “They come over here all the time. They inspect this place all the time.”

Durán’s tenants feel otherwise.

“They don’t come to check on the tenants, to see how they’re doing,” said Iris Vargas, referring to HPD. Her stepfather lives in the building. She pointed out cracks in the walls, tape around loose windows, and the steel girders that were put in place five months ago to keep the building from collapsing.

According to Juan Haro from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, HPD inspectors have yet to show up since the tenants began calling in their complaints almost two weeks ago.

“They’re accomplices to the crime,” he said.

As for Jorge Martínez, he spent his birthday protesting in the February cold. But, for the first time in weeks, he came inside to find his apartment warm.

“Now we got the heat at this time now, that’s because you are here,” he said, referring to the journalists covering the protest. “But once you leave, believe me, they’re going to cut it.”

Cold War Attitudes in a Warming World

*** This is a post I wrote for my website, I thought I'd share it as well ***

After more than 40 years of embargo, the end of Fidel Castro's rule is approaching. We don't know when or how it will happen, or what shape Cuban politics will take, but we do know that the US government wants a hand in the succession process.

Strange, then, that there is very little public discussion over the participation our government should seek, and the aims we should advance. Perhaps it's assumed that our role will be subversive, ensuring the revolution crumbles and neo-liberal economic reforms, coupled with our sanctioned version of democracy, take its place. No doubt a large contingency believes this to be the only appropriate course. A sober look at the situation, however, suggests that the best strategy for the United States is to embrace the revolution, encouraging reform from within its framework.

Often our opposition to the current administration in Cuba is painted, and interpreted, as a fight against Fidel Castro, a fight on behalf of a Cuban people who are captives of their leader's ideology.

When President Bush discussed Cuban policy back in October 2007, his rhetoric again reinforced that point:

"The day is coming when the Cuban people will chart their own course for a better life. The day is coming when the Cuban people have the freedom they have awaited for so long."

He then described additional funding Congress had allotted for "Cuban democracy efforts." These efforts, Bush continued, were intended to help Cubans wrest their political freedom from a ruling class whose "grip on power is more important than the welfare of its people."

The thrust of the speech was clear: Cubans are a people in need of liberation, and the US government, as always, was working hard at the task. Everyone who supports the embargo, whether actively or passively, accepts that narrative.

But there are several problems with this interpretation.

Foremost, it's built on condescension towards the political will of the Cuban people. It must be understood that revolutions are not reducible to any one individual. The support of large segments of civil society was necessary to empower the movement in its formative years, and has bolstered it since it was institutionalized. Castro, though his fist is often iron, does not rule with it alone.

Many average Cuban citizens still consider themselves revolutionaries, and many who are discontented by their political situation have not sought, and do not want, US assistance.

Second, to act upon the assumption that Cubans yearn for democracy and neo-liberal reforms is both naive and dangerous. Even if large segments of the population had been sympathetic to our embargo, or were willing to forgive it once it was repealed, would they greet their new status within the free market favorably?

To attempt an answer, one should look at the social gains made by the revolution in the areas of education and health care. These areas have been prioritized under Castro, and their success is undeniable. No doubt, then, that a young Cuban living in the countryside, who until his "liberation" from the revolution was a recipient of free education and free access to medical care, would find his entry into the free market to be a painful birth.

The sense of entitlement instilled by the revolution would be left unfulfilled, social tensions would be great, and those who did not see immediate economic benefit from the dismantling of the revolution (and this would be the majority) would see little to celebrate, much to mourn.

Last, and perhaps most obviously, to paint the embargo as on behalf of the Cuban people is a ridiculous premise. As Pope John Paul II said, "Economic embargoes are always deplorable because they always harm those in greatest need." Indeed, in this case the brunt of the embargo has been borne by common Cubans.

As an example, one can view the early 90's, when the US government seized upon the opportunity presented by the collapse of Cuba's bulwark of support: the Soviet Union. Two pieces of US legislation -- the Torricelli Act and the Helms-Burton Act -- tightened the embargo, contributing to the most dire economic conditions of Castro's rule.

Cuban academics Vilma Hidalgo and Milagros Martinez described the effects on the diet of the average Cuban citizen:

in 1989 the availability of food per capita was 3,108 caloric units and 73 grams of protein, while in 1997 these figures were 2,480 and 51.7, respectively. This drastic change in consumption levels affected the health of the population, as both men and women experienced weight loss, epidemics of some diseases previously unknown in the country broke out, and the birth weight of babies declined.

No doubt the ruling class Bush spoke of were well-fed, an easily anticipated contradiction between the stated intentions and actual results of US efforts.

Self-interest has always motivated the US embargo against Cuba; the assertion of the Cold War good vs. evil mentality; the attempt to starve out a government that would not serve as a pawn to US wishes; the effort to woo the political support of the vocal anti-Castro exiles in Florida. And the list goes on.

But what has the embargo achieved? Castro is still in power. He is a cultural icon in Latin America, David to our Goliath. The model of government he has advanced in Cuba has been proven viable, able to survive in the bad graces of the world's superpower. And right in our backyard at that.

On the US side, the embargo underlines our hypocrisy. We trade with the People's Republic of China. We traded with the Soviet Union during its existence. Why not Cuba? Clearly there is an unhealthy grudge which the international community has recognized time and again; for 16 consecutive years the General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly against the embargo.

For the United States government to force its preferred economic and political system upon Cuba would not only be a move against self-determination, it would be yet another injustice done to a country that has already suffered enough at our hands. Dropping the embargo and demonstrating our willingness to work with the Cuban government is the logical way to advance democratic reform, would be a positive step towards repairing our image abroad, and would help us live up to the ideals we claim as a nation.

More importantly, it's our best means of helping Cubans.

Super Delegates and their Constituents

As the tight race for the Democratic nomination continues, the specter of a brokered convention looms large. The idea of super delegates deciding the nominee for president leaves many voters who participated in the primary dissatisfied, and their desire to have their voices heard translates into certain expectations of super delegates.

Colorado, the site of the convention, offers a perfect example.

Voters in Colorado made clear their choice for the Democratic nominee: Barack Obama garnered 67% of the vote. But, back before the primary, Congresswoman Diane Degette endorsed Hillary Clinton.

What she does with her super delegate vote, then, will serve as her answer to the question posed by David Sirota, a Denver-based columnist and author:

"Are you more loyal to another politician? Or are you more loyal to the democratic spirit?"

Her answer will have consequences: Channel 2 News in Denver quoted Margit Henderson, an Obama supporter, saying "I've supported Degette for a long time, and I'd like to continue to support her. But this is a make or break situation."

Super delegates who endorsed Obama, like Congressman Ed Perlmutter, have an easy decision in front of them. But those who chose not to endorse either candidate are open to the same scrutiny as Degette. That group includes Governor Bill Ritter, Senator Ken Salazar, and Rep. (and current Senate candidate) Mark Udall.

After such a tremendous turnout in the primaries, it'd be a shame to see an undemocratic process decide the nominee. The voters deserve to have their voices heard -- that's the point of democracy-- and the actions of super delegates across the country will reveal whether or not they agree.

Let's hope those out in Colorado, and elsewhere, do indeed.

A Word of Protest

There are some things you just don't do. You don't pass gas on an elevator. You don't take advantage of a captive audience on the subway and air your grievances with society for all to hear. And, my friends, you do not schedule the Super Bowl and all-important primaries within two days of each other.

Now, I hold the politicians responsible for this. The NFL is a sacred institution and everyone knows that February is when the Super Bowl goes down. Everyone also knows that Super Bowl Sunday is a day that brings America together for tacky commercials, unhealthy food, and beer. Two of those things I just can't get enough of.

Politicians' first commitment is to America, and America had plans on February 3 that they should have considered before making February 5 the day that every person with a notebook and pen would have to burn the midnight oil. As a citizen first and a journalist second, I was appalled at the irresponsibility of our leaders. Didn't they consider how much they were asking of the average American? Super Bowl Sunday is a very taxing day that requires at least one day of preparation and one day, at the absolute minimum, of recovery.

I went to the Giants parade on Tuesday. Let me tell you, many, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, of the Big Blue fans in attendance were in no condition to vote. It seemed that celebrating the biggest upset in football history took priority over exercising their solemn duty as citizens of the US and A. Many of them would have excelled in a hollering contest, but voting? That's asking too much.

On Super Bowl Sunday 93,150,000 people tuned in. On Super Tuesday 22,992,844 people went to the polls. I'll bet you money if many potential voters hadn't been lethargic due to the weight of having tackled a pound of seven layer dip, 25 hot wings, and a six pack of Bud those turnout numbers would have been a bit higher. Politicians, take note.

Flamenco is Bigger Than the Gypsy Kings

The last time a single artist signified an entire genre to me was at the age of 14, when punk was the only music coming out of my headphones, and if someone mentioned reggae they were talking about Bob Marley. Plain and simple--Bob Marley equaled reggae, reggae equaled Bob Marley. My musical collection is now mostly reggae, from Gregory Isaacs to Turbulence, and my 14 year-old ignorance of other reggae artists is now an embarrassing reminder of my connection with every person who, when asked if they like reggae, says something like, “Oh yea, I love Bob Marley.”

It’s haunting. I recently saw “I Am Legend” and was wrapped up in the absurdity of Will Smith, a “huge” Bob Marley fan who creates his life philosophy based on Marley’s lyrics, but whose favorite album is “Legend”--the most overplayed, Starbuck’s-sold, generic, “greatest hits” album that has been produced. Just as I began to poke fun at this contrived premise…the familiar guilt set in--Legend was the first Bob Marley album I bought and the only reggae album I owned for several years.

I guess when you just haven’t investigated what’s out there you are prone to jarringly ignorant subconscious assumptions, so this weekend I decided to hit the Theater District in Manhattan and put an end to another theory of mine, that flamenco music = the Gypsy Kings.

Shockingly, the Gypsy Kings were not even invited to the 2008 New York Flamenco Festival, and on Saturday it was the Tomatito Quintet headed by guitarist Jose Fernandez Torres playing a sold-out show at Town Hall. According to the World Music Institute, Fernandez has “ensured the evolution of flamenco guitar, and secured his own place as the leading flamenco guitarist of his generation and one of the greatest flamenco guitarists of all time.” “Besides the Gypsy Kings” did not appear as a footnote of that last sentence.

El Tomatito took the stage with fellow guitar player El Cristi, percussionist Lucky Losada, vocalist La Tana, and gypsy dancer Jose Maya. All five were dressed in black and had long, dark, brooding hair. Already a bit skeptical of the “Little Tomato,” my suspicions grew when I couldn’t see his hand moving in rhythm with the frenetic Andalucian melodies that filled the concert hall. I wished it was the Gypsy Kings. Then I realized that I couldn’t see his hand physically making the music I was hearing because, from the balcony level, I couldn’t even see his hand move. His outbursts of strumming were so fast that my eye couldn’t pick them up! The complex flamenco rhythms that he produced were a hummingbird flitting from branch to branch with chord changes that required mind-boggling dexterity.

Then that distant, wailing, Spanish female voice I had heard in so many Gypsy Kings songs joined El Tomatito. I had always imagined the source of that voice to be an older woman, maybe a witch, maybe a fortune-teller, but definitely not the young La Tana next to El Tomatito. Flamenco vocals are deeply emotional in the way that they are sung (maybe in the lyrics as well but only La Tana would know), and to produce them she had to feel everything. She flung her arms like a little girl at the height of a tantrum, her body shook like a woman who has seen her husband killed, and her voice jumped wildly between high and low octaves. The experienced flamenco fans applauded with an “OLE!”

Then Jose Maya, the gypsy dancer, walked perfectly and delicately to the center of the stage, threw back his head like a proud matador and with one stamp of his black boot punctuated a strum of El Tomatito’s guitar with a loud CLACK. Maya danced with his feet, with his hands, with his head. He wound his body around the song, his torso bending and contorting, a marionette under the guitar’s progression—all the while his feet tapping fast enough to match El Tomatito’s hand. The crowd lost it, the quintet battled whistles and cheers, Ole echoed throughout the room, the temperature rose and the audience began to sweat, and at that moment I left the Gypsy Kings behind.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Wong, Party of Seven

NEW YORK - There are only two things in common among the seven people interviewed on Tuesday at Confucius plaza: their name, Wong, and their votes for Senator Barack Obama. Everything else about these voters was tellingly different. Ages ranged from under 30 to over 80; they carried supermarket bags, sturdy backpacks, stylish purses.

“I don’t care, as long as they are good for the country,” one male Wong said about the candidates after casting his vote for Obama. He darted across the street, in too much of a rush to give his first name.

“I think it’s building up to be a pretty interesting race,” Becky, 28, said. Her investment in politics was decidedly larger than that of her other Wong counterparts. For the first time in her 10 years as a registered voter, she cast her ballot in a primary election, stating, “It’s a close race between Democrats.”

Obama has many supporters across New York City, often winning voters with his charisma. In Confucius Plaza, it seemed that his position on immigration was popular with voters. Senator Hillary Clinton, however, was viewed with a dash of skepticism: “Hillary gives me chills,” said Jessica Wong as she left the polling station. “I’m a woman, too, but never mind about that.”