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146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.

Fire!

On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

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Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Transparency, Backgammon, and the Imperialism of Poker

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 18, 2009

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Late in July, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC  (New York  Public Radio)  featured an interview with John Palfrey, a law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School.  The subject: Transparency in government.  The central issue: Is the Obama administration living up to its promises of full transparency in policy making and governing?

Mr. Palfrey’s interest in transparency reminded me of a telephone conversation I had two years ago with a colleague of his at the the Berkman Center, Charlie Nesson.  Mr. Nesson tracked me down in Sofia, Bulgaria to ask my opinion on the topic of a paper he was about to give at a conference in Croatia.  His thesis: That the  teaching of the game of poker in the Middle East would be a way of inculcating American values in the region, an easy task, he proposed, since the Middle East had no games of its own.  I asked myself what these values were and asked Mr. Nesson whether he had ever heard of backgammon.

My conversation with Mr. Nesson stuck with me.  Over the time since,  I realized that his idea provides a wonderful analogy for the causes of the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the domestic and international economic disasters that American values and Americans’ ways of spreading them have created.

First, the idea of “teaching,” an core element of the colonialist and missionary mindset, and of class division and failed noblesse oblige at home. “Teaching,” in this sense, is based on the idea that “they” are inferior or incomplete and that “we” have the answer, and that if  they would only, in so far as their imperfect natures permit,  be like us and know what we know, they would acknowledge our superiority, accept their places, and all would be well.   From the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia to Rumsfeld’s loopy analogy of teaching Iraq to be democrat and self-governing like a father running alongside a child learning to ride a bicycle, such “teaching” dehumanizes “them” and (self-) deludes and eventually undermines “us.”

Second, the “values” of the game:  Poker involves memory and an ability to count cards but at bottom it is a game of bluff.  In poker, cards are held close to the chest and the value of one’s hand is determined less by the cards one holds than by what one can deceive opponents into thinking one holds, i.e. the creation of the illusion of value where there is none, an underlying principle of the finance-, toxic-loan-, and non-earned-bonus-based economy and an axiom of marketing.  The means for such deception?  The identification and exploitation of opponents’ weaknesses and insecurities and a concerted attempt to keep them off-balance, activities also pursued at S&M clubs and the foundations of lopsided relationships, personal, sexual, communal, and economic.  American values indeed.

Third, backgammon: Proposing solutions based on  poorly informed assumptions has been the method and death-knell of American policy making and implementation. The Middle East and bordering regions indeed do have games of their own and backgammon — tavla, shesh-besh, et. al. — is the most ubiquitous.  Unlike  in poker, in backgammon, as in chess, another game of Near and Middle Eastern origin, opponents see each others’ pieces; there is no bluff or room for marked cards.  Moves are based on assessment of situations, envisioning of scenarios, knowledge of the game, and sensing opponents’ styles of play.  The only psychological pressures on opponents’ psyches are the speed and virtuosity of one’s moves and the “kibbitzing” of observers.  And then there is the matter of the dice; Istanbul-based historian of medieval and early-Ottoman Anatolia Sara Nur Yıldız reminds me that the rolls of the dice in backgammon sharpen our readiness and abilities to react quickly and effectively, openly and transparently,  to whatever circumstances life and serendipity may confront us with.  Finally, backgammon is integrated into daily life in a way that poker is not.  Unlike poker, backgammon is also played outside of dark, smoke-filled rooms and for the sheer thrill of the game as much or even more than for the money.  Stroll the streets of Istanbul or Aleppo, Gaza or Tel Aviv, and one will see backgammon played in tea and coffee shops, whether during daytime breaks, or in marathon evening sessions, both as an anchor for sociability and as a cerebral workout.

My counter-proposition to Mr. Nesson”s would have been to send thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of Middle Easterners to the USA, “embedding” them, as it were, in banks and corporations and at the highest levels of government to teach Americans the game and values of backgammon.  But, it seems, John Palfrey may have beaten me to the punch. By advocating for  transparency, he gives the impression that his colleages at the Berkman Center may have put their well-worn decks-of-fifty-two back in their boxes and, in their stead, taken a few backgammon sets off the shelf.

NB. A cautionary note to future lecturers: Speaking in southeast Europe about teaching lessons to the Middle East and, by implication, the Muslim world, can be incendiary.  As those of us who have lived in the region know, the physical and cultural ethnic cleansing of the Turkic and Islamic presence that began in the regaion early in the 19th century with Russia’s “Drang nach Süden” and the concommitant rise of Pan-Slavism and formation of exclusionary, exclusively-Christian nation states, has made any proferred cudgel — literal or figurative — with which to beat the Muslim world, or  Muslims and other minorities locally, most enthusiastically welcome.

Posted in Eclectic, History, National Identity, Politics, Religion | 1 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 »

Locating Obamaland, Cotton and Presidents, and Accurately Rendering American Divides

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 20, 2008

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Further to Purple v. Pixilated below and JP Rangaswami on Reds and Blues and Purples, I point to two recent entries on the excellent weblog Strange Maps.  In Where is Obamaland?, Strange Maps takes us first from the state level to the county level and then (via Mark Newman of the Physics Dept. at the Univerity of Michigan) to a series of cartograms (click here) that transcend the strictures and dogmas of traditional cartographic projections to chart the boundaries of the political fault-lines that divide the US.  Newman’s cartograms hint at the importance of intentional relationships vs. strictly spatial ones in characterizing and understanding our world.  Newman’s final cartogram (illustration above) provides an solid point of departure for discussing the effects of settlement patterns, historical asynchronicities, ethnic self-identification, and shifting demographics and economic differentiation on American politics and worldviews.  In From Pickin’ Cotton to Pickin’ Presidents, Strange Maps illustrates how the abberations of the economies and social orders of the seemingly distant past invariably echo in the present, taking the arcane case of the correlation of pockets of deep-south support for Obama with the geographic distribution of mid-19th-century cotton culture.

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

Viktor Klemperer, Values-Based Identity, German and Dutch Perspectives Online, and Two Glorious Mistranslations

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish wartime diarist and analyst of totalitarian language, Viktor Klemperer.  The first article contains an excerpt from an entry in Klemperer’s diary written in the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.  The second article refers to a diary entry written earlier in the war in which Klemperer poses the conundrum that, based on enlightenment values, it is he who is German and the Nazis and their supporters — the very people who exclude him from German identity and, in the end, the very right to live — who are un-German and destroyers of all that is German.  Klemperer’s entry poses the opposition of values-based communities to contrived 19th and 20th century concepts of race-, ethnicity-, and language-based nation states having exclusive title to present and promised geographic territories.

Both articles appeared in Spiegel Online International which, despite its somewhat Time magazine-like style, is an excellent window though which monolingual Anglophones can observe European affairs and opinions up close, as well as US affairs through European eyes.  Americans often hold forth about the arrogance and condescension of Europeans towards them but, quite oddly, few if any Americans ever read the European press.

Spiegel Online International appears on the web in association with nrc.nl, the English-language web presence of the NRC Handelsblad, the erudite albeit sometimes pompous paper-of-record of the Netherlands.  The realization of a combined Dutch-German news presence online says much about the efforts Western Europe has made to transcend national differences and wartime scars.  It also says much about the power of the internet to erode artificial distinctions of national mindsets. (Note to Blackberry and iPhone users: Spiegel Online is also available in a mobile edition).

Glorious Mistranslations

Among the features of nrc.nl is its Denglish blog, a regularly updated compendium of malapropism-like mistranslations.  The editor of Denglish asks readers to submit their favorite Dutch-English linguistic confusions.  Here, thus, are two of mine:

1. Supporting the Undertaker

At a meeting of the World Economic Forum during the 1970s, Joop Den Uyl, leader of the Netherlands’ Labor Party (PvdA) spoke on the role of labor-private sector rapprochement in strengthening his country’s economy.  Den Uyl proudly announced: “In Holland we social-democrats always support the undertaker!” (The Dutch word for entrepreneur is ondernemer, literally under-taker.)

2. Equine Sex

Some years later, the Netherlands’ conservative Christian Democrat Premier Dries van Agt, when asked by Margeret Thatcher what he planned to do in his upcoming retirement, confided: “Madame, I plan to fuck horses.”  (Fokken is the Dutch verb meaning  “to breed.”)  Legend has it that the Iron Lady replied without missing a beat: “I wish you success!”

Posted in History, Identity, Internet, Language, Links, Media, National Identity | 5 Comments »

An Intellectual’s Ascent to the White House and the Half-Century Decline of American Conservatism from Intellectuality to Ignorance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

In Obama and the War on Brains, Nicholas Kristof comments on the return of intellect to government and the damage done to public policy by a culture of ignorance.  In The Perils of Populist Chic in the Wall Street Journal, a political conservative bemoans the half-century-long fall of the American right from intellectuality to self-cultivated provincialism.

Posted in Commentary, History, Media, Politics | 4 Comments »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

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A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 12, 2008

Years ago, when I worked in the field of so-called “marketing communications,” I used to tell colleagues that there were two fathers of modern advertising: St. Paul and Dr. Goebbels. Paul was a true believer who knew how to craft the message of a small sectarian movement and convey it throughout the Roman world. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was a hate-driven man who was a master of twentieth-century communications media and who knew how to use the power of the big lie to manipulate individuals and nations. Goebbels also understood the subtle power of contrived language to reshape people’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior and turn their ideals on their heads.

The classic, and possibly the only, study of the language of Nazi Germany is Viktor Klemperer’s brilliant Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Languague of the Third Reich”). Klemperer, best known in the West for his posthumously published pre-war and wartime diaries (issued in the US in a two-volume abridgment entitled “I Will Bear Witness”), was a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and professor of French literature in Dresden. Klemperer’s background was as rich as his interests; his father was an orthodox Jew turned reformed rabbi and his uncle was orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was saved from war-time deportation by being partner to a childless “mixed” marriage and later by the disappearing into the chaos that followed the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer chose to remain in Dresden — in East Germany, thus — proudly clinging to his German identity. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he chronicled in his book “The Lesser of Two Evils” and that later, in the aftermath of Stalin’s Anti-Cosmopolitan campaign and Doctors’ Trials, caused him no small inner anguish.

That “Lingua Tertii Imperii” remained relatively unknown in the west during the cold war was in part due to its East Bloc pedigree and also to the embarrassing applicability of its insights to the language of post-war denazification and the reinvention of national identity and political discourse in West Germany. This was a shame, not least because the language and style that Goebbels perfected and Klemperer documented survived the denouement of Nazism to manifest themselves in what on the surface seem the least likely of places — including the present US presidential campaign.

Two of the most oft-quoted, albeit simplest, examples of Klemperer’s treatment of Nazi reshaping of the German language refer to the words fanatisch and aufziehen. Under the Nazis fanatisch (fanatical) was transformed from something negative into something worthy of emulation, an exhortation to over-the-top true-believer-ship and transcendence of reason; aufziehen was transformed from a word whose meanings included the act of winding clocks to an approving term for the staging of manipulative events on a grand scale.

Both these words came to my mind during the recent Republican convention, especially during Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. The choice of Palin and her contrived stance as an establishment-hating populist were case studies in aufziehen. In her acceptance speech, Palin made good use of the Nazi’s big lie technique, repeating over and again, amongst other exaggerated claims, the absurd and easily disproved contention that the Democrats are responsible for America’s staggering national debt. Palin’s tone of voice and body language were also classic Goebbels, her references to Democratic candidate Barack Obama were laced with sarcasm and dismissive gestures. On the television screen, the facial expressions of many of the Republican delegates cheering Palin’s comments appeared stereotypically fanatisch, betraying mixtures of rage and near-ecstasy, the stuff that street brawls and civil wars are made of. As a coda, during the vice-presidential debate, Palin described how, if elected, she would expand the role and power of the vice presidency in the American congress, this redolent not only of current US vice-president Dick Cheney but also of the Nazis’ bullying tactics in the German parliament following their rise to power in 1933.

The Politics of Middle Names

Goebbels’s fellow Nazis understood the power of names as well as words. Raul Hilberg, the pioneer historian of the administrative workings of the wartime murder of six million European Jews, described the underlying method of the Nazi’s war against the Jews as identification, concentration, and extermination. Part and parcel of this process was the compulsory assignment to all Jews of identical middle names, “Israel” for men and “Sarah” for women. The desired effects were to make Jews visible, portray them as caricatures, rob them of their individuality, and break their spirits. Given the minority position of Jews and the scope of the power turned against them, such stigmatization invariably accomplished at least the first two of these goals and more often than not the last two as well.

Over the past week, a vicious undertone in the Republican campaign rose to a crescendo as Palin and McCain used Obama’s passing acquaintance with a long-ago member of the one-time Weather Underground in a manner worthy of the Nazis’ heavy-handed attempts to incriminate their opponents in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. During the same week, supporters of the Republican ticket increasingly and ever-more-archly referred to Barack Obama as Barack HUSSEIN Obama — this not as a paean to Democratic candidate’s mixed heritage but as an ad hominem slur and questioning of his “Americanism” and professed Christianity. By the end of the week, the flood of hatred proved too great even for John McCain to control and he was heckled and booed by his own supporters while trying to speak up for the “decency” of his opponent. The Republicans’ emulation of Goebbels, it seems, has created a Frankenstein.

Footnote: Call Me Hussein

I am particularly sensitive to the politics of names. My own family changed its name in the early-1950s in the shadow of the social and political pressures in America at the time. This said, this morning I decided — out of solidarity with Barack Obama and disgust with Republican stigmatization of his “un-American” names and origins — that from now until election day in November I will adopt “Hussein” as my own middle name and introduce myself on all occassions, informal and official, as “Stephen HUSSEIN Lewis.” Bigotry, innuendo, and the legacy of 1930s Germany call for protest and satire. Care to join me?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, History, Identity, Language, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

The Toxic Cynicisms of Amnesiacs: “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 7, 2008

In 1973 and 1974, I was a graduate research assistant to Henry Cohen, founding dean of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research in New York. Henry was not an academician. He was a seasoned New York City bureaucrat with an innate talent for balancing competing constituencies and getting things done within giant organizations. He was also a master of malapropisms. Henry would prompt students to understand the complex “woof and wharf” of New York City politics and chide long-winded speakers to “stop beating a dead horse to death.”

At the risk of beating a dead horse to death myself, I’d like to add a coda to yesterday’s post on Palin and Language. The subject: the Republican mantras “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!” …

The Republican promotion of offshore oil drilling as the solution to America’s energy problems is either a red herring or a proof of their poor grasp of energy matters. But the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill” that they use to promote this policy is proof of their historical amnesia or near-obscene bent toward cynicism. “Drill, Baby, Drill” is an obvious paraphrase of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” the chant that was the background score to the urban uprisings and riots that traumatized a score of American cities during the 1960s. Promoting an empty energy plan by purloining and paraphrasing a chant associated with the tragic outcomes of America’s deep-rooted race and class divisions goes over-the-top, especially at a time when economic inequality reaches new extremes in America and when race remains a dividing line in American society and an undercurrent in the present election.

Even worse is Palin’s proffering of “Never Again!” as a cry of protest for holders of foreclosed mortgages and owners of devalued real estate. Their plight and rage is real enough but “Never Again!” is a slogan that has been used for a half-century by Jews throughout the world as a blunt statement of their willingness to fight against future attempts at mass murder and by Jews and non-Jews alike to draw attention to ongoing acts of genocide that continue to torment and disgrace mankind. Is it possible that while guarding Alaska against Russia and Canada Palin was too busy to learn of such events or to have heard the phrase?

In 1946, at age 23, Henry Cohen left the US Army to become the administrator of one of the largest displaced persons camps in occupied Germany. A summary of his experiences at the camp — and of the tensions between Jewish survivors and the US military — can be read in this transcript of a talk he gave in 1996. In it, Henry’s emotions and humanity shine through his bureaucratic prose. I wonder what Henry Cohen would have made of the policies of McCain and Palin or of their trivialization of the inequities faced by Blacks in the US and Jews in Europe. But I do know he would have honorably yielded to Palin his title of master of malapropisms. And, so, in memory of Henry, I’ll stop “beating a dead horse to death.”

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

Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 3, 2008

In issues of infrastructure, as in much of life, causality is often far more complex than we initially perceive.  While going through recent newspaper clippings this morning I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US  backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!

Footnote: Agglomerations, Internet, and Mansions

Agglomeration was once the essence of the economies of cities.  In the internet age, agglomerations are functions of simulatneity and virtual availability more than physical proximity.  The movement of the heart of America’s house-of-cards financial sector from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut is a sub-theme of Tom Wolfe’s Greenwich Time.

Posted in Cities, Economy, Environment, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 22, 2008

Last week, I received a query from Doc Searls, who was working on an article on the infrastructure of the internet for the Publius Papers, a series of short internet-related think-pieces published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law.

Doc’s question: What did I know about the etymology and history of the word: “infrastructure”?  — a simple matter on the surface but one that cuts to the heart, not only of Doc’s subject, i.e. how the internet functions and what is required to sustain it, but also to the core of how polities enable their economies and serve their citizens, a matter at the crux of the present financial disasters and economic instability in the US.

Dictionary

A quick internet search (Merriam-Webster online) brought this crisp, near-tautological definition plus tantalizing reference to the word’s relatively recent origin:

Pronunciation: \ˈin-frə-ˌstrək-chər, -(ˌ)frä-\ Function: noun. Date:1927

1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region ; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity
— in·fra·struc·tur·al -ˌstrək-chə-rəl, -ˌstrək-shrəl\ adjective

Americanism?

A look at my bookshelves brought more surprising results.  “Infrastructure” does not appear in my 1970s Concise Oxford Dictionary and in my Oxford Thesaurus of the same period it is listed only as a synonym for “base.”  But, “infrastructure” is listed in a run-of-the-mill American dictionary of the time (Grollier) which defines it as a “foundation” and as “… the permanent structures of a military organization, esp. those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

The absence of “infrastructure” in the Oxford and its presence in the Grollier suggest that the word had been an Americanism at the time.  But what about the tantalizing reference in Merriam Webster to the 1927 debut of the word?  A trip to the New York Public Library and some rummaging within the microfilm collection of the Library’s business division (located in the magnificent neo-Renaissance pallace-like building on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue that once housed B. Altman’s department store, a mainstay of New York’s 19th- and 20th-century retail sector) began to bring clarity.

From French Railroads to NATO and the Cold War

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

From Socially-Financed Prerequisites to Ideological Weapon

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector.  During my stint as a graduate student at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research during the early 1970s, “infrastructure” was used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector.

Around the same time, the word had spread to the world of international development agencies where it took on a distinctly cold war ideological slant.  The best way to fight the spread of communism, it was argued, was to ensure local prosperity and economic stability (but, sadly, not the equitable distribution of wealth!) which could most quickly and effectively take place if all underlying necessities (water, power, roads, public transportation, etc.) were put in place through massive capital development projects whether financed by donations or by loans that would ensure the fealty of recipient nations for decades.

From Engineering to Abandonment

By the mid1970s, the word “infrastructure” took yet another turn, this time within the private sector.  From 1974-1982 I worked in Europe and Asia for one of the larger engineering and construction companies of the time.  At the time, in the world of oil refining, petrochemicals, and “process” plants, “infrastructure,” referred to those social or governmental capital investments — roads, sewerage, water sources, electrical power, and other “utilities” — that were necessary for manufacturing but the provision of which did not fall within the scope of a single project, the “battery limits” of an industrial facility, or the commercial “feedstocks” that were are the raw materials for industrial processes.

During the 1990’s, I worked on a number of investment attraction agencies and local projects in the Netherlands in which the provision of infrastructure was used both as a chip and bargaining point in the Dutch government’s and local authorities’ repeatably successful attempts to lure companies to locate their European operations in the country.

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

Further Investigation

At the moment, I am involved in research in a number of aspects of what infrastructure is and what its provision entails.

With Doc Searls and Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoritcal Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara), JP Rangaswami (British Telecom) and others, I am investigating what the infrastructure of the internet now is, could/should be, and how to best implement this.

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity.  As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

Further afield but surprisingly germane, I am digging into the effects of infrastructural change on the fabric of historical cities (Istanbul specifically) and the means and institutions that enabled the former Ottoman Empire to maintain the infrastructure of cities and trade for the better part of a millennium.

More to follow on each of these subjects …

Posted in Cities, Economy, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Libraries | 3 Comments »

A Strategic Retreat Into Yesterday’s Imaginings of an Analogue Tomorrow

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 17, 2008

After a frustrating week of wrestling with generative and applianced digital technology — including T-Mobile’s inadequate tech-support and customer-care overlay on international Blackberry service and the foibles of a premium-priced, too-many-mega-pixel pocket camera plagued by miserable “noise” at high ISOs and near-comic barrel distortion at the wide end of its zoom range — I’ve found a mid-summer panacea for the disappointments of the digital age: Visions of an analogue tomorrow as once foreseen in the now-yellowed pages of Modern Mechanix Magazine.  Happy nostalgia for a better future!

Posted in History, Media, Photography, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

A Conference-Engendered Hiatus: Harvard Law School and The Netherlands Institute in Turkey

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 30, 2008

I haven’t posted to either of my weblogs (neither this site nor Bubkes.Org) since early in June.  Over the last two months the pace and substance of my life had overwhelmed my drive to report or reflect.  In addition to ongoing work projects and research, the past weeks saw my participation in two conferences.  The first, held in Istanbul on June 27, was a symposium in honor of Ottomanist and architectural and social historian Machiel Kiel.  The second, organized by internet commentator and innovator Doc Searls, was held at Harvard Law School on July 14-15.

Doc Searls and VRM at Harvard Law

The conference at Harvard Law was called by Doc Searls, internet commentator, author and speaker, and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.  Throughout his multi-year tenure at Berkman, Doc has been working on conceiving, shaping and inspiring others to participate in VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) which he describes as “the reciprocal of CRM (Customer Relations Management)”.  Indeed, VRM is a mindset, a movement, and a set of tools for using the internet to achieve what Doc refers to as a Copernican Revolution in the marketplace in which “consumers” (i.e. individuals) actively manage their relationships with companies and institutions according to the needs and trajectories of their own lives rather than being passive objects managed by others.

The present conference attracted dozens of attendees from throughout the United States as well as from Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK where, for well over a year, a hub of CRM, IT, and communications types have been collaborating to develop and bring to market VRM applications. The conference agenda, determined on-site by consensus as per the “Open Space” model, underscored the scope of VRM and its transition from a philosophic and conceptual approach to the actual development of VRM-related projects, applications, and tools.  Also, the presence at the conferences of participants from companies such as Oracle and Sun showed that the “mainstream” is waking up to VRM.

VRM in turn, seems to be waking up to the full spectrum of individuals’ need and relational intents. Whereas a year ago VRM focused on shopping, personal RFPs (requests for proposals), and management of online identity, today VRM is entering the fray of management of medical data and treatment, government relations, public broadcasting, and charitable giving.  A small number of us are also debating the potential of VRM in the management and troubleshooting of projects and processes and in the implementation of organizational change.

To track the development of VRM or to get involved, follow Doc Searls’s subsidiary VRM weblog.  Last: A small:group of us with work-related ties to Belgium and the Netherlands are banding together to emulate the UK group in attempting fit VRM to local issues and social and business cultures.  If you are NL- or BE-based or have a connection to either country and are interested in VRM, do get in touch — by the way, the same goes for anyone in Eastern Europe or Turkey interested in knowing more about VRM.

For Machiel Kiel and Ottoman History at the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (and for a few words on architectural monuments and infrastructure) click here

Posted in Architecture, Client Relations, History | 1 Comment »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

Posted in Books, History, Language, Links, Popular Culture, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »