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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for April, 2008

Queen’s Day, May Day: Tonight the Wilhelmus, Tomorrow the Internationale

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 30, 2008

Queen’s Day

Tonight, I will attend the annual reception at the Netherlands Consulate in Istanbul (housed in the palatial former residence of the Dutch Ambassador to the Ottoman Court) in honor of Konninginedag — Queen’s Day — the symbolic Dutch national day linked to the springtime birthday of the country’s former queen, Juliana. I travel on a Dutch passport and Konninginendag receptions broad lend a way to catch up with friends, associates, and potential new acquaintances and contacts. Yet I do not feel fully comfortable at such events. People who are ethnically Dutch — a category, like most nationalities, based on an artificial identity shaped over the course of the 18th through the 20th centuries — can at times be condescending or even sharply hostile towards those of us who are Dutch by passport and conviction alone, especially if we hail from the country’s ethnic or religious “minorities.” An added discomfort in that I am not a monarchist (this despite my personal respect for the late Queen Juliana, who I met several times in connection with charitable projects).

It was only in the post-war period that identification with and loyalty to Dutch society and the Dutch state came to be fully conflated with support and identification for the Dutch monarchy. Prior to the war, enthusiastic support of the Dutch monarchy was far from universal. In republican, labor, and leftist circles, the monarchy was viewed as transitory and few people sang the song that became the country’s official national anthem, the Wilhelmus, a tortuous composition sung in near-falsetto and with the gruesome opening line: “William of Nassau, I am of Germanic blood; I will remain faithful to the fatherland until death”). The Dutch cult of monarchy was solidified with the polishing of the image of Queen Wilhelmina, the grandmother of the present queen, who fled from the Netherlands to Britain with her immediate family in advance of the German invasion of 1940 without consulting her government. Elevation of the monarch was part and parcel of the general clean-up of the Netherlands’ wartime record of passive and active collaboration and its post-war record of colonial brutality. A single example of an oft-bowdlerized statistic: Approximately 1,200 Dutch soldiers died defending the country against the Germans whereas approximately12,000 Dutchmen died fighting on the Eastern front as members of SS volunteer battalions. (I’ll save the complicity of the Dutch police and bureaucracy in the deportation and murder of two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population for a future posting.)

May Day

Tomorrow is May 1, the international day of Labor. In Istanbul the atmosphere in advance of May Day is tense. Last week, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the country’s ruling party, the Islamic AK Party, announced that May Day should not be an official holiday, cavalierly adding that Turkish workers have too many days off as is. In fact, Turkish workers work one-third t one-half more hours each year and receive salaries far lower than of most of their European counterparts. Soon after, the governor of Istanbul issued an order that May Day marchers from the country’s labor unions and parties of the left not be allowed to march and assemble at Taxim Square, Istanbul’s main open space. The unions have announced that they will march and assemble nevertheless. Their May Day gathering promises to be a magnet for groups and individuals that support secularism in Turkey and oppose the present government and ruling party and suspect it of advancing a radical Muslim agenda and back-peddling on reforms requisite to EU membership. The gathering will also attract an army of baton-, machine-gun-, tear-gas-, and water-cannon-equipped helmeted and masked riot police and, many people fear, a sufficient number of provocateurs of whatever stripe to precipitate violence. In 1977 in Istanbul, more than 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between police and marchers; last year’s May Day was marred by tear-gassings and beatings.

For a bit of May Day spirit go to my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org to listen to two arcane recordings of the one-time international working men’s anthem, the Internationale.

Posted in History, Identity, Politics, Work | 1 Comment »

Rust Belt Memories, Roots of Bitterness: Life Amidst the Industrial Infrastructure of a Past Age

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 29, 2008

If I remember correctly, it was Alfred North Whitehead who wrote that “… all of philosophy is but a comment on Plato.” Possibly all of the present US presidential primarily election season is but a comment on the 1960s. As a follow-up to Jim Kunstler’s excellent Slip of the Tongue on the mealy-mouthed controversy following Barack Obama’s comments on the (rightfully¬† observed) bitterness of small town Pennsylvanians, go to Tom Brown’s recollection (Small Town Slander) of his southern New Jersey hometown becoming of the center of a similar storm following an iconic television news expose nearly a half-century ago. Tom Brown, by the way, is a convinced Quaker who had the courage to stand up as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. If the US memorialized its COs as much as its GIs, Americans might think twice before marching off to the likes of Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney/McCain/Hillary’s “cakewalk” victory in Iraq.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Infrastructure, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructural Links: Linux Journal, R.Crumb, NPR, Insightful Weblogs, and Good Old-Fashioned NYC Rage

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 27, 2008

Thanks again to Doc Searls for his kind mention of me in his recent piece on infrastructure in Linux Journal. Doc and I are now working together on a number of think-tank and private sector consultancy related projects concerning the concept and history of infrastructure and the place, future, and issues surrounding internet and telecommunications as the infrastructural core of social, intellectual. and economic exchange.

Worldwide View, Regional Imperial Webs

As our think-tank debates take shape, one of my tasks is to lend an historical perspective and an international view. As important as the controversies surrourding the arbitrary limiting of web content by California’s cable internet provider Comcast and the Republican-colored, privilege-oriented policies of the FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) may seem to US-based internet observers, scores of other issues preoccupy the rest of the world. The stakes of interference with internet content and access are far more severe in countries on the edge of political and civil crisis ala Turkey (see this previous posting), Afghanistan, and Pakistan while plain old access to communications and information at whatever speed remains the main issue throughout the third world. In Eastern Europe, the wild-westm laissez-faire post-communist social and regulatory environment in many countries prior to EU-accession made it easy for individuals and small companies to string cable over trees and lampposts directly from high-speed access points to one’s office or living room, thus skirting around bandwidth limitations ala Comcast. In Russia and China, moves to register domain names using local scripts are on their way to fragmenting the worldwide web into three or more mutually exclusive linguistic-and political-empire webs. In the EU, a rational regulatory environment and a century-long social democratic-rooted public willingness to pay for the infrastructure that benefits society at large keeps seems to keep US-style crises at bay. (Note: Over the last decade, Europe has quietly sailed past America in almost all things telecom- and web-access- related — not least, witness the low key impact the seemingly innovative iPhone has made outside in the EU market).

R. Crumb, NPR, and Weblog Links

During a long Istanbul-Boston Skype kick-off meeting with Doc yesterday, I mentioned a link that has graced my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org since its inception. The link is to legendary cartoonist R. Crumb’s 12-panel cartoon A Short History of America. Crumb’s twelve drawings document and clarify the concept, development ( or, better said, random accretion), and outcome of what passes for infrastructure in the USA.*

Great minds think alike, it seems. I lifted the R. Crumb link from the insightful, rightfully enraged, and excellently researched weblog Clusterfucknation. At Clusterfucknation, Jim Kunstler has been writing for years on America’s automobile-highway-suburb dependency, the politics and consequences of an oil-and-gas-based world, and a host of other transportation and infrastructural issues. Kunstler’s political insights and passions are also spot-on and searing (e.g. see Kunstler’s recent take on the democratic primary campaign Slip of the Tongue).

NPR’s ( the US’s independent non-commercial, listener- and grant-supported public radio system’s) On the Media program over the last months has featured a number of guests at the center of debates on web access and governance. These include Harvard’s and Oxford’s Jonathon Zittrain, Columbia’s Tim Wu, and San Francisco’s free-high-speed-access activist Brewster Kahle (click here for MP3s and/or transcripts of interviews all three and of other relevant actors as well). Despite the years I have been working in and around the worlds of telecommunications and the internet, I must confess that all these names are new ones to me. I am especially impressed by the introduction to Tim Wu’s and Jack Goldsmith’s book Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (excerpt available via Amazon.Com) which begins with the conundrum of the French legal action against Yahoo some years for facilitating violations of French laws against rascism and antisemitism. I look forward to reading Wu and Goldsmith, and Zittrain, in full.

Former colleague, close friend, and frequent sounding-board Naomi Yoder-Harris recently pointed me to the weblog of NYC-based web and tech specialist Hank Williams (in no way to be confused with the eponymous legendary country singer). Naomi had seen Williams interviewed by Brian Lehrer on the cable station of the City University of New York. Williams casts light on the negative commercial effects for freelancers and small entrepreneurs of too much venture capital and too many free services on the internet.**

New York, Rage, Social Democracy, and Infrastructure

Williams’s words give me an opportunity to link together Doc and my nascent conversations on infrastructure with the piece I recently wrote on Rev. Wright and the Hyperbole of Rage. As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I recognize in Williams’s piece on venture capital a distinctly New York state of mind. New Yorkers have their work-roots in small struggling niche companies and the lumpen-bourgeoisie, in versatile skilled and unskilled labor, and in the pre-financial and pre-information economy of craft, ingenuity, sweat, and heavy lifting. We know how easy it is to be drowned, crushed, or exploited by the big guys and know how to fight against this. We know the power of and need for collective action. We also have a demonstrated willingness to pay for the physical and social infrastructure that enables us to do what we do and to live as we want. Such willingness to spend is equally grounded in knowing that social and economic infrastructure is worth the investment and in a distinctly non-Calvinist flare for grand gestures and extravagance.*** (California “libertarians” take note: WE and PAYING are two of the operative words behind infrastructure).

In his Linux Journal piece, Doc reprinted a quote I had taken from the introduction to Joshua Freeman’s brilliant book Working Class New York. Freeman shows how the specialized and agglomeration-dependent nature of crafts, manufacturing, and transshipment in 19th- and early-to-mid-20th-century New York, together with the shared experience and collectivist nature of a the City’s largely-immigrant workforce, led to New York’s development of a voluntary- and governmental-sponsored infrastructure atypical of the rest of America and at the fore of the European social democratic mold. Up to the 1970s, New York boasted a unique infrastructure of low-cost public transportation, free water supply, free public hospitals, free public schools, free libraries, and free universities; public, confessional and union social welfare institutions; and public housing and union-sponsored cooperative housing found nowhere else in the US. The denouement of collective New York, due in part to the conjunction of the emergence of the so-called financial economy with the fiscal crises of the 1970s and the vengeance of Republicans in power in Washington at the time is also treated in Freeman’s book.

One of the drivers of New York’s collective ethos and energies and of New Yorkers willingness to press for, build, and pay for infrastructure is the very rage of the sort that animated Obama’s former pastor’s now-infamous “God Damn America” pun and the Yiddish folksong “Grine Kuzine.” The rage that bubbled over during events such as the now-forgotten kosher meat riots of 1902 and following the senseless deaths of scores of female garment workers at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 accelerated the formation of labor unions and confession-based, charitable, and governmental institutions and infrastructure that made New York an egalitarian and socially mobile city with the collective intellect, excellence, and creativity that was to play an out-sized role in America and the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

More to follow…

Notes:

* For anyone who does not know who R. Crumb was (is), I offer to this quote from Crumb’s magnificent 1960s cartoon hero, the white-robed, white-bearded guru Mr. Natural. When asked by a conservatively dressed elderly woman the meaning of the phrase “do-wha-diddee,” Mr. Natural replied: “Lady, if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”)

** For all of Williams insight I am puzzled by his site’s name. Why do American tech types overuse and render banal the word “suck”? We New Yorkers traditionally used this word in an non-delicately outspoken sexual way and in the lyrical macho aggressiveness of “sounding” and “the dozens.” How dispiriting silly to hear the word applied to ennui, the internet, and gadgetry.

*** In the discussion following a recent meeting in New York in honor of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller Cluetrain Manifesto (see the final paragraphs of this post) I suggested that people who are obsessed with free and unwilling to support public radio, small companies (see Williams’s arguments above), big infrastructure, etc., should attend more Roma (Gypsy) weddings and Turkish night clubs and join in showering musicians and dancers with cascades of banknotes — a non-transaction tribute to the excellence of the performers as well as a statement of ones own grandiosity. Grandiosity also played a role in the development of infrastructure throughout history. To restrict the subject to New York alone, the building projects of Tammany Hall put accented regal monumentality over utility. Self-congratulatory futuristic monumentality was inherent in the works of Robert Moses, the public works czar who shaped the parks, neighborhoods, bridges, highways, and suburban sprawl of 20th century New York.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Work | Leave a Comment »

Turkish WordPress Ban Appears to Be Lifted: Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Web Neutrality, and Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 23, 2008

I am writing this entry from Istanbul. From early 2007 until quite recently this had not been possible. HakPakSak, together with approximately 1.5 million other sites hosted by WordPress, had been blocked in Turkey, this the result of a weblog-based spat between two Islamic “creationists” (i.e. opponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution) both with links to their fundamentalist Protestant equivalents in the US. A law suit by one of the protagonists against the other led to an order from the district court of an ultra-religious quarter of Istanbul to block from view in Turkey all weblogs site containing the word “wordpress” in their URLs . Unquestioning bureaucratic compliance with the court order followed. (Click here for a somewhat longer past post on the subject).

The lifting of the blocking of sites hosted by WordPress (an unintentional internet analogue of the Cold War practice of “jamming” ideologically unacceptable radio-broadcasts) comes at an odd and stressful moment in the history of modern Turkey. Over the last months, the country teeters on the edge of crisis. A move by Turkey’s democratically-elected (but not necessarily democratic) government to lift a ban on the wearing of head-scarves by Muslim female students at the country’s universities has led to a counter-move from militant secularists on the left, center and right and an appeal to the Turkey’s highest court to mandate the dissolution of the country’s ruling party, the pro-Islamic Ak Party, and the banning of its leading members from participation in politics.

This drama is part of a larger conundrum in which Turkey’s conservative, pro-Islamic, ostensibly pro-European-Union-membership, ruling AK party is opposed by secularists spearheaded by parties (not all of them democratic) dedicated to the legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, and backed by the army and police. The conflict plays itself out in government, society, and the press, as well as in a shadow world of a “deep state” and conspiracies, provocations, and violence that would be the envy of Bush/Cheney/Rice/ex-Rumsfeld and Co. For detailed background and coverage, see this excellent report from the European Stability Institute, whose seemingly penetrating work I would even have even more faith in if they would be more open about the researchers and writers who comprise their team.

That Turkey could, within the framework of its domestic legal system and governmental institutions, quickly and easily block 1.5 million sites is even more disturbing than the current US conflict over the right of internet service providers to give “fast lane” priority to selected content and slow-down or block other traffic based on self-determined criteria. (For a short summary of the recent US Comcast affair and the debate over “web neutrality” see this recent article on CNET.)

In this week’s Linux Journal, senior editor Doc Searls turns to the question of the internet (and operating systems) as infrastructure. Within the context of this question, one of the issues I will try to address over the next weeks is whether and to what degree arbitrary, transitory clusters of capital and/or power — nation states as well as companies — should be allowed to deny access to or pull-the-plug on aspects of infrastructure, the internet included, that are not of their creation and that transcend their boundaries, especially as the conduct of business, intellectual activities, science, public debate and public affairs become more web-dependent.

More to follow…

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Politics | 1 Comment »

Rev. Wright and a Yiddish Song: The Hyperbole of Rage, The Banality of Apologies, the Absurdity of Race

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 6, 2008

Sometimes, when I am alone, I sing. I croon in the style of Billy Eckstine and imitate bass lines from the Orioles and the Cadillacs. I also sing inter-war cabaret songs in Dutch and German and old Yiddish theater tunes in the original: Aaron Lebedev’s Romania, Romania, Molly Picon’s Abi Gezund, and the bitter ballad of early-20th-century New York immigrant life, Grine Kuzine.

In Grine Kuzine a narrator tells of a newly arrived “green” immigrant cousin, a bright-eyed happy girl with “… cheeks like pomegranates and feet that beg to dance.” In America the cousin will surely find work and a new life and, so, the first chorus of Grine Kuzine ends with the words: “Long live the land of Columbus!” But as the song continue its narrator describes how, as the years pass and as the cousin moves from one slavish dead-end job to another in sweat-shops and neighborhood stores, her hopes fade and she turns gray-skinned, stooped, and dull-eyed. The song ends with the bitter curse: “May Columbus’s land go up in flames!”

America in flames? Sound familiar? The closing lines of Grine Kuzine are really no different from Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” paraphrase of Irving Berlin’s maudlin patriotic tune God Bless America. As a singer of Grine Kuzine, and as a not-too-distant descendant of her fellow immigrant workers, I do not understand the recent hysteria over the U-Tube posting of an out-of-context video excerpt of one of Wright’s old sermons. Jews and Blacks and even the whitest-of-white Americans have the right — and maybe the obligation — to be enraged at polities and policies that misuse or deceive them or that fail to live up to their potential or rhetoric. The hyperbole of songs and of sermons generates reflection and vents steam and diffuses rage even as it broadcasts it.

The rebroadcasting of Wright’s controversial pun led to agitated calls from fellow-Democratics for Barack Obama to disown and condemn his former pastor. This is the second such demand. Some time before, Obama had been challenged to reject the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan may be a compulsive bigot (forgive the value judgment, but I belong to an ethnos Farrakhan once called adherents of a “gutter religion”) but if candidates were to reject supporters and voters on the basis of their prejudices and ill-considered words there would be few voters and supporters left to go around. And, to quote Lyndon Johnson’s reputed response to a journalist who him asked why he did not fire FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, maybe it makes better sense and is better policy, to have Farrakhan “… inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.”

Far more interesting and insidious than the slips-of-the-lips of members of Obama’s confessional circles is Hillary Clinton’s decades-long involvement in an oligarchical right-wing prayer breakfast group called The Fellowship, Sound like the stuff of crank conspiracy theories? Writer Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer, a New York University weblog covering religion and the media, has just completed a book on the subject. Will apologies and statements of distancing and denunciation of The Fellowship be forthcoming from the Clinton campaign? I doubt it.

The positive side of the Wright affair is that it led Obama to give his speech on race — and rage — in America. Over the last year, I have been researching the origins and artificiality of national identities and the havoc caused by the emergence of modern nationalism and nation-states (more on this is future posts). Race is an equally suspect concept, a product of the intersection of European imperialism and early-modern science’s obsession with classification. And yet, in America, three centuries of slavery turned the concept of race into an enduring and divisive reality. For an incisive take on the legacy of slavery, poverty in America, and the present-day problems of America’s cities, listen to this recent broadcast of Bill Moyers’s Journal, a look back on the urban riots — or uprisings, as Moyers’s occasional guest, nonagenarian activist Grace Lee Boggs, points out — of the 1960s and the insightful but largely ignored findings of the congressional inquiry (the Kerner Commission) that investigated their causes and consequences.

Afterthought: The Murder of Dr. King and a Song by Nina Simone

It was 40 years ago this weekend that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. I was working and studying in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time. In the days following Dr. King’s assassination, Greensboro, like numerous other American cities, was placed under curfew and de facto marshal law. At night, along with other people, black and white, I made my way home from work and political rallies in stealth, dodging police patrols and helicopter overflights. These next days, as I think back on the shock and tension of the days after Dr. King’s death and on the civil rights struggle, the plight of US cities, and the tempests-in-a-teapot of the current presidential election, I’ll not only sing Grine Kuzine but I’ll add Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam to my repertoire as well.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, National Identity, Politics, Work | 4 Comments »

The US Economy, a Balkan Backwater, the IMF and the EU, and a Disclaimer on Clairvoyance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 4, 2008

Last August, in an entry entitled Balkan-Wards: Falling Dollar, Faulty Infrastructure, and the Lessons of the Bulgarian Lev, I noted that the US dollar had not only sunk below the Euro but was plummeting towards parity with, of all things, the Bulgarian Lev, the currency of a corrupt, partly-criminal, agricultural-based Balkan country with a population of less than 7 million. I described the prospect of US Dollar/BG Lev parity as symbolic of the similarities between government policies and behavior of business elites in the two countries: wholesale looting of companies and public coffers, insufficient investment in infrastructure and human resources, get-rich-quick real estate booms, economies geared toward speculation rather than production, banks entangled with insurance companies and property developers, and contempt and disregard for the poor. I also pointed out that while the US dollar heads south at high-speed, Bulgaria’s currency happens to be holding its own — the latter the result of long-term intervention in the country’s fiscal affairs by the International Monetary Fund and, more recently, the massive and seemingly inexhaustible influx of infrastructural, development, and investment capital from Brussels aimed at bringing Bulgaria up to some semblance of par with fellow EU member states. In the face of this, my own modest proposal was that the US should consider following Bulgaria’s lead, i.e. to invite in the IMF to take over fiscal affairs and to consider applying for membership in the European Union.

Back in August, when I wrote the piece, one US dollar bought 1.40 Lev. Yesterday, one dollar bought only 1.20 Lev, a marked step forward towards US equivalence with Bulgaria. Indeed, over the past eight months, the US economy has continued to sink under the weight of the sub-prime loan, mortgage, and housing market fiasco and the ongoing lunacy of Bush’s (and Hillary’s and McCain’s!) war in Iraq, casting an-ever-more-grim pall over life in the US and causing havoc amongst investors worldwide. Last month, in this story in the New York Times, Paul Krugman reported that a senior IMF official now suggests that it may be time for a “bail-out,” a public-financed rescue of the US financial system. My questions remain: Is the US competent to run its own financial affairs and might it not be time for a massive rescue package from Europe?

That I was able to foresee the continued fall of the dollar and beat the experts in suggesting the need for intervention in America’s financial system and policy-making is anything but clairvoyance. A life of regular work stints abroad and of regular returns to New York has given me a “stop-motion”-like overview of developments in the US and of changes in the post-war world. Not least, visiting and working in Bulgaria on-and-off since the fall of Communism provided me with my own bench-scale surrogate for the US economy, a laboratory mock-up of the application and effects of deregulation, economic liberalism, and US Republican-style values and policies on the one hand, and fiscal intervention and massive infrastructural investment on the other.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Politics | 2 Comments »