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Archive for January, 2009

A Gingerly Step Middle-East-Wards

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 27, 2009

Ever since the start of Israel’s heavy-handed military incursion into Gaza, I’ve debated writing on the subject.  At first, I considered it beyond the purview of this weblog and that of my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org — and also a Pandora’s box that, in the face of my other interests and commitments, I did not want to open — but after a few weeks of agonizing I realize it is not.  And by “it,” I mean both the sobering effects and consequences of Israel’s indiscriminate, and possibly cynically timed, unleashing of weaponry and the excuse this has given to disturbing numbers of people in Europe and the Muslim world (I am writing this from Istanbul) to turn anew to that venerable but always toxic “socialism of fools” … antisemitism.

Whatever I write on the Middle East crisis will certainly not provide definitive insights or explanations but will only point to alternative viewpoints.  But, what I write about antisemitism will reflect my years of study on its origins, manifestations, and relation to the identities of most modern nation states, as well as my unavoidable lifelong commitment to go to the front line in fighting against it.

I’ll begin with this coincidence:  The other morning, Anu Garg’s excellent A.Word.A.Day mailing contained this timely quote from George Orwell:

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Part two of the coincidence is that just the night before I had begun to read a slim volume of reprints of essays by Orwell published by Penguin as part of its “Great Ideas” series under the title “Why I Write.”  The cover of the volume contains this quote from the Orwell:

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The third part of the coincidence is that around the same time I came across an article introducing the book version of Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s award-winning animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir,” a memoir of his repressed memories of his military service during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon during the early-1980s. The article is on the weblog  Tom Dispatch, which this past Saturday ran a long excerpt from Folman’s book and which will run a second excerpt next week.  Folman’s work and the struggle it embodies suggests even to this cynical writer that there are still Israelis who passionately seek to break through the all too frequently truthful failings described by Orwell’s quotes.  Other recent pieces on Folman’s film and its relevance to present events include this article and this interview, both on Salon.Com.

For iconoclastic, ethically-driven, and analytic takes on Israel and the Middle East, I recommend Gershom Gorenberg’s and Haim Watzman’s “Progressive, Skeptical Blog on Israel, Judaism, Culture, Politics, and Literature” South Jerusalem.  Also recommended: the writings of Haaretz writer Amira Hass, not least this recent piece and this.

More on this subject from time to time over the next couple of weeks.

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Posted in Commentary, Politics | 3 Comments »

Pete Seeger, The Machine that Kills Fascists, Irving Berlin, and Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2009

What I am writing in this post is old news to many in America but not so well known abroad.  One of the highlights of the US presidential inauguration celebration last week was a final act of the day-long outdoor public concert held on the Washington Mall: Nonagenarian (may he live to be 120!) folksinger legend Pete Seeger joining pop star Bruce Springsteen to lead an audience of hundreds of thousands in a rousing performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie, a rural- turned-urban folksinger during the Great Depression wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as a people- rather than divinity-based, Popular Front alternative to Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin’s maudlin “God Bless America.”  Berlin’s song, originally written as a Broadway entertainment ditty, made it into the mainstream in the late 1930’s when it became one of the theme songs of North Carolina-born radio singer Kate Smith.  By the late-1980s, the song had morphed — beyond anything Russian-Jewish immigrant Berlin might have ever imagined — into an unofficial anthem of the political right.  Indeed, at the start of the “War Against Terror” (sic) some Republicans and fellow religious-right-ers wanted to have “God Bless America” declared the US’s official national anthem (not that Francis Scott Key’s convoluted and bellicose “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t long overdue for replacement).  “This Land is Your Land,” on the other hand, has the this-world sentiments that one would expect from singer-composer Guthrie whose guitar was emblazoned with the text “This Machine Kills Fascists.”  Yet, over the years, the song’s lyrics were bowdlerized into mainstream political and broadcasting acceptability and stripped of  a number of stanzas and sentiments that once made it an ode to egalitarianism and a challenge to the failings of the status quo.

Pete Seeger is one of the people who has kept American folksong alive and for almost 3/4 of a century.  He has also been one of the people who has kept America’s conscience and progressive spirit alive — from his early days using song to challenge America’s economic takeover of Latin America, to his stint with the the politically-hounded Almanac Singers and the less controversial Weavers, to his courageous defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee and years of house arrest, to his pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War years, to his more recent decades as an environmental activist.

And so it was only fitting that on the day of Obama’s inauguration Seeger should lead black and white, young and old, and middle-class, working-class, and poor in singing aloud that “This Land is Your Land.”  It was no less fitting that he should also present Obama and the country with a challenge and a renewal of activism by reinserting into Guthrie’s song its very timely, long-omitted closing stanzas:

In the squares of the city – By the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office – I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there – that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted – it said private property;
But on the other side – it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking – that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Due to censorship in at least one of the countries in which this weblog is read, I am including two links to videos of Seeger’s Inauguration Day performance.  The first is on Blip.tv and the second is on the weblog NYC Public School Parents.

Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

As a coda to this entry, I should mention that I first came across the “This Land is Your Land” clip on David Bellel’s very personal and very eclectic Knickerbocker Village weblog, dedicated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan housing project of the same name and featuring an encyclopedic amalgam of pop-historical and nostalgic entries on the neighborhood.  Knickerbocker Village itself first came into my consciousness during the trial and execution of KV-residents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during the poisonous anti-communist purges of the early 1950s.  Later, when I was a student at Seward Park High School, once the proud working class high school of the Lower East Side, many of my classmates were KV-ers.

I stumbled on Bellel’s site when doing research for some as-yet-unfinished writing on the tougher sides of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn and a half-remembered tale overheard in my childhood concerning an encounter between a close relative of mine and the infamous Jewish and Italian gangland assassins known as “Murder Incorporated.”  I also found entries on tamer subjects, including this magnificent 1930 clip of the great Lower East Side-born entertainer Eddie Cantor singing an arch, satirical version of “Makin’ Whopee,” a song that was later performed in toned-down, maudlin versions by a legion of middling performers.  Cantor’s own performance is filled with the gestures, understatement, and subtle timing that marked the work of generations of Lower East Side troubadors and comics.  Click here to see it.

I’m ending this post with a reference to Cantor because few people know about his political side.  In  most of his films, Cantor portrayed a stereotypically Jewish pint-sized innocent bumbling his way into the larger White-Anglo-Saxon world of the time.  During the 1930s, however,  Cantor’s outspokenness against Fascism and Nazi Germany brought him into confrontations with radio stations and broadcast advertisers time and again.  During the early years of television, Cantor was one of the first TV hosts to consciously challenge broadcasting’s unwritten but very strictly-enforced color barriers.  On a 1950s live television broadcast of the Eddie Cantor Show, following a signature exuberant performance by African American singer-dancer Sammy Davis, Jr., Cantor did what at the time was unthinkable: he hugged the out of breath and sweating Davis and took out his pocket handkerchief and with it wiped the sweat from Davis’s face.  Television station management and advertisers threatened to bar Cantor from the air for this breach of the wall between the races.  Cantor’s response was to book Davis on every remaining broadcast that season. (Note: Dinah Shore similarly landed in hot water for embracing Nat “King” Cole while on nationwide TV, leading to a scandal almost worthy of that surrounding the early-1940s cinema short of Anita O’Day’s vocal rendition of “Drop Me Off Uptown” with Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Rascists were furious with O’Day’s familiar and seductive stance toward Eldridge; Eldridge, on the other hand, was furious that O’Day had upstaged him and stolen the show.)

Posted in Broadcasting, Cities, Music, Politics | 2 Comments »

An Inauguration After a Demonstration

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 20, 2009

Over the decades, while working in Eastern and Western Europe and the Balkans, I’ve learned to hesitate before replying to inquiries as to my ethnicity or religion. (Oddly or not so oddly, in most countries, it is only Roma (Gypsies) who are able to guess who and what I am.)  Each time I am faced with such questions, I calculate anew whether a truthful answer will be worth the hostility or know-nothing remarks it as often as not will bring.  Sadly, here in Turkey these past weeks, I’ve also learned to calculate before replying.

Likewise, during my life abroad, I’ve also learned to hesitate before replying to questions about my nationality/citizenship. My stock answers, depending on circumstances: “I am a New Yorker” or “I carry a Dutch passport.” In terms of my American citizenship, I am unwilling to be the focus of unwarranted condescension or justified or unjustified rage for wars, foreign policies and domestic injustices that I myself have opposed and have paid a price for opposing.  And, I remember all too clearly having been told over and again during the civil rights, labor, and anti-war struggles in the US during 1960s and 70s that I should “love my country or leave it” or simply “go back to Russia.” Luckily, because I carry more than one passport it has always been easy for me to prevaricate.

Yesterday, in the shadows of police water cannons and circling helicopters at the terminus of a memorial march here in Istanbul commemorating the murder two years ago of Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink, two fellow marchers amongst the thousands present asked me what country I am from.  This time, rather than dodge the question, I answered indirectly but with a smile and pride: “Tomorrow, Barack Obama will be my president!”

Here’s hoping that Obama will help inspire and lead America and, for that matter, the rest of the world to “change” in the best and most appropriate ways that any and all of us can.

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Investigating the Presidential Crisis: Bush, Obama, Ford, and H.G. Wells

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 18, 2009

Further to my last post on investigating the financial crisis, Paul Krugman wrote these words in the New York Times last week on the dangers of President Obama’s not investigating or prosecuting the Bush administration’s abuses of office.  Ala investigating the financial crisis, investigating the “presidential crisis” is part and parcel of going forward.  Not doing so, even in interest of national unity or of not looking backward, as Obama would have it, is reminiscent of Gerald Ford’s all-too-quick, all-too-blanket pardon of Nixon.  Krugman:

“… if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.  Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security. The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.”

Also last week, by coincidence, Anu Garg, the creator of the magnificent site wordsmith.org, shipped out this quote from H.G. Wells along with his a.word.a.day mailing:

“A time will come when a politician who has willfully made war and promoted international dissension will be as sure of the dock and much surer of the noose than a private homicide. It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men’s lives should not stake their own.” -H.G. Wells, (1866-1946)

Other recent timely quotes on Garg’s daily mailings:

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” -John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

and

“Corporation: n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” – Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914

In honor of President Obama’s inauguration, Anu Garg announced that all this week a.word.a.day will feature unusual words taken from Obama’s writings.  For unlike most US politicians, Garg reminds us, Obama is literate and energetic enough to write his own books and not resort to ghostwriters.

Posted in Commentary, Language, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 9, 2009

The mortgage, housing market, and stock market collapse were neither acts of nature nor products of cosmically ordained cycles or hypothetical laws governing hypothetical markets. They were the results of specific deeds by specific individuals — financial and corporate types out for riches at whatever cost, equally greedy and conveniently blind investors, and politicians and constituencies with minds muddled by neo-McCarthyite bashing of “socialism” and the New Deal and by the ethos and platitudes of “Reaganomics” and its successors. It is now time to assign blame where blame is due, but not necessarily for purposes of revenge …

In Where is Our Ferdinand Pecora?, in last Monday’s New York Times, author Ron Chernow wrote:

The moment calls for nothing less than a sweeping inquest into the twin housing and stock market crashes to create both the intellectual context and the political constituency for change.

And Chernow gives us an excellent model for such an inquest:

For inspiration, Congress should turn to the electrifying hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, held in the waning months of the Hoover presidency and the early days of the New Deal. In historical shorthand, these hearings have taken their name from the committee counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, a former assistant district attorney from New York who, starting in January 1933, was chief counsel for the investigation. Under Pecora’s expert and often withering questioning, the Senate committee unearthed a secret financial history of the 1920s, de-mystifying the assorted frauds, scams and abuses that culminated in the 1929 crash.

He describes Pecora in action:

The riveting confrontation between Pecora and the Wall Street grandees was so theatrically apt it might have been concocted by Hollywood. The combative Pecora was the perfect foil to the posh bankers who paraded before the microphones. Born in Sicily, the son of an immigrant cobbler, Pecora had campaigned for Teddy Roosevelt and been imbued with the crusading fervor of the Progressive Era. As a prosecutor in the 1920s, he had shut down more than 100 “bucket shops” — seamy, fly-by-night brokerage houses — and this had tutored him in the shady side of Wall Street.

Last month, I thought of Judge Pecora (as Ferdinand Pecora was later known) in a much different context. It was in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, and I was just about, as they used to say back in the heyday of Pecora’s career, to “plunk down two C-notes” for a new “lid,” an old-fashioned fedora, a high-crowned, broad-brimmed, Italian Borsalino, made of soft slightly-shining green-grey felt and lined with a hat band of equally soft leather.

I buy a new “lid” every few years, always in the autumn and usually when the economy falters and my own prospects wobble. A jaunty Borsalino equips me with the courage of those who made it through the Great Depression, makes me feel as tough as Bogart, Cagney and Edward G. combined, and gives my walk a bounce that would not have been out of place in, say, Minton’s in the 1940s or the Five-Spot in the 60s. When I was a kid, my grandfather would buy a new Dobbs hat every few years but a Dobbs was a stiff hat with a pre-formed shape that embodied more the ethos of the 1950s than those of the decades before or after. You’d rarely catch a jazz musician wearing a stiffly-formed Dobbs.

The first Borsalino I remember ever seeing or trying on came straight from the head of Judge Pecora. It was in 1962 in the old Barney’s Clothing Store (“Select, Don’t Settle … at Barney’s” as the radio jingle went) on 7th Ave. and 17th St. in Manhattan. I was 15 and had lied about my age to get a job working Saturdays and Sundays “writing-up” sales. The pay was minimum wage, “a buck and a quarter an hour.” My main task was to prepare invoices for customers’ purchases, note alterations, and send customers on to the cashier. I had other tasks as well. In those days, Barney himself, the founder of the store, a squat octogenarian, elegantly dressed but with the tough confrontational edge of a one-time Lower East Side street kid, still roamed the store, hunting out and berating shoddy employees and insufficiently deferential customers. On Sunday mornings, Barney would hand me a cash-stuffed envelop to pass to the policemen who came to deliver the weekly summons for violation of municipal “blue laws” prohibiting retail sales on the Christian sabbath. And, if customers ever dared to complain, Barney would give me the unwelcome task of throwing the complaint back at them. When a woman returned with a suit bought for her husband and shipped to her home,  claiming that it had arrived in need of cleaning, Barney shouted at me:  “Tell her the suit ain’t dirty, her husband’s dirty.”

One Sunday, I saw Barney in another guise. Uncharacteristically deferential and glowing with pride, Barney led a equally short, equally squat elderly man to my counter. Barney himself held the man’s new purchases for him. The man had hawk-like eyes, a protruding nose, and a giant cigar clenched between his teeth. He wore a magnificent gray suit tailored in the style of a past age, and carried a near-floor length camel-hair overcoat over one arm. In his hand, he held a very large velvety gray fedora with the crown indented vertically and with deep parallel creases along its sides. Older shoppers noticing the man stopped and pointed as if they’d seen a long-forgotten prize-fighter or film-star: “It’s Ferdinand Pecora; it’s Judge Pecora,” they said in amazement — this a third of a century after Pecora had made his name. Barney whispered in my ear: “Kid, take care of the Judge, and if you fuck up I’ll throw your ass out on the street.” I wrote up the Judge’s invoice and escorted him to the cashier. As he paid, he handed me his coat to hold and reached up and placed the fedora on my head. “You look great,” he said to me. “Remember,” he added, “work hard, stay clean, and don’t take any crap off of anyone.”

For better or worse I’ve tried to follow the Judge’s advice. Forty-six years later, I tip my hat to him and, for that matter, to Barney as well. I also tip my hat to Ron Chernow for the very timely resurrection of Pecora, his style, ethics, and deeds.

Posted in Client Relations, Commentary, Eclectic, Economy, History, Politics, Work | 7 Comments »

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

2009.  An economic crisis that begins to cut very deep, violence in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia flexes its natural gas muscles, hatred in Europe.  The end of eight years of economic, environmental, civic, and martial wrecking under the Bush administration and four decades of conservative irresponsibility and divisiveness. A new American president positioned to change the ethos of the land.  A questioning of the racist and elitist underpinning of conservative political values and economic dogmas — in parts of the West at least.  Doubts as to consumerism, exurbia, and much-touted miracle  trends such as the “flat world” about which the likes of  columnist and author Thomas Friedman cranked out thick volumes.

A few years ago, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org, I posted a New Year’s entry about Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer Louis Davids that contained a link to a humorous and touchingly dated newsreel musical clip he presented for New Years Day 1936.  In the clip, Davids sang an ode to a world stilled scarred by the Great Depression and in which Hitler flexed his muscles, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the tax man hovered menacingly, forecasts of sun yielded rain, and aspirins cured hangovers.  For 2009, I offer (to the very many among you who understand Dutch, know history and have links to interwar Holland!) the very same song and (to all of you regardless of language or fields of interests or ethnic or social ties) its wishes for Well-Being and Blessedness in the year to come.

On Bubkes.Org, I also start the year by turning to the past, taking a few medium-format and 35mm black and white photos I shot more than a decade ago as starting points and as metaphors for considering recent economic and politic trends and their parallels with past events in obscure places.  I begin with a photo of an obscene mural in a Bulgarian housing estate and the lessons it offers for understanding economic crises, individual morality, and the history of western art, and continue with a photograph of a Turkish sidewalk weighing scale operator as an occasion to ask whether small enterprises and ordinary people will some day qualify for bail-outs or “pump-priming” infusions of capital.  The next pieces will consider face-lifts — architectural and politica — and gangsters, graveyard iconography and under-reporting by the New York Times

As to “pump-priming,” the collapse of four-decades of Republic economics and the Republican’s self-serving denigration of the New Deal and “socialism” has brought a resurgence of Keynesian thought and maybe even of Keynesian practice, which did its job well in America during the 1930s as an economic tonic, a symbol of action and unity, and, maybe, as the very last alternative to revolution.

Paul Krugman wrote these words about Keynesian thought and policy as a conclusion to What to Do: The Power of Ideas in the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books:

As readers may have gathered, I believe not only that we’re living in a new era of depression economics, but also that John Maynard Keynes—the economist who made sense of the Great Depression—is now more relevant than ever. Keynes concluded his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, with a famous disquisition on the importance of economic ideas: “Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

We can argue about whether that’s always true, but in times like these, it definitely is. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.

We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Philosophy, Photography, Politics | Leave a Comment »