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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

IMG_1262

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 »

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.

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 »

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 »

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

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

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 20, 2008

countycartpurple512

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 »

Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

A few days after the US presidential election, colleague JP Rangaswami posted two maps of results from the 2004 election.  The first map showed the results by states, portraying them as red or blue. (NB: In the US quite oddly and contrary to the political color-coding used in the rest of the world, blue represents the sometimes left-of-center Democratic Party while red is the color of the right-of-center Republicans).  The second map showed results by county, giving a more variegated portrait of results.

JP writes that the difference between the two maps suggests that there are neither red nor blue states — nor counties, cities, and households — but only purple ones. My own take is that America’s red/blue divide is very real, albeit one that can no longer be encompassed by geographic boundaries gerrymandered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Just as in digital photography, what appears purple from afar is divisible on a pixel-like-level into primary colors.  Fault-lines separating red and blue are increasingly divorced from geography.  They might be hard to chart but they are very real nonetheless. My short comment on JP’s post can be read here, for a far sharper take on the reality and permutations of the red/blue divide see Frank Rich’s The Moose Stops Here.

The larger implication is that America’s states appear purple because they are entities without substance, irrelevant to real fracture lines that divide the country and define the issues that confront it.  States are administrative inheritances from a past age and are increasingly obsolete as clusters of interests or self-identification.  Immigration and trans-state migration within the US, the rise of megalopolises that span state boundaries, and the divorce of economic functions from locational agglomerations call into question the utility of states and their efficacy in coping with or resolving economic, infrastructural, and environmental challenges.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Politics | 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 »

Obama Victory: “Get Thee Out,” Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport, and In Praise of a Skinny President

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 9, 2008

I’ve waited before posting a post-Obama-victory entry.  Wiser people and better writers have already have had much to say.  Just a few peripheral observations, thus …

“Get Thee Out”

President-elect Obama used church cadences in his acceptance speech (i.e. the responsive chanting of the phrase “yes, we can!”), so forgive me if I step out of character and get biblical.

A week or so ago, I was examining the facade of a synagogue in Brooklyn and noticed on its bulletin board that the Torah-portion to be read on the upcoming Sabbath was Lekh L’KhoLekh L’Kho is translated in the King James version of the bible as “Get thee out.”  In the original Hebrew, Lekh L’Kho has a crisper sound more akin to “Walk!”, “Get Moving,” or, even more simply, “Go!  Lekh L’Kho is the portion of the Pentateuch in which God tells Abraham to leave his father’s house and head to a new land, to depart Harran for Palestine.  Figuratively, Lekh L’Kho also refers to Abraham’s departure from a place of idolatry to the domain of a monotheistic deity.  How apt in the week of the American presidential election.  Think of the false gods of the Republican years: Deregulation and “free markets,” “trickle-down” economics, the equating of individual greed with the public good, “pro-life” anti-abortion agitation, patriotism and “vets” “WMDs” and “War on Terror,” “the surge,” martial and mercenary definitions of “freedom,” and more.  Together, they form a pantheon of idols sufficient to occupy a score of Abrahams in smashing.

When Abraham left his father’s house, he abandoned the old, cut with the past, and stepped into the unknown.  This took courage.  Those who voted for Obama have the shown the same courage (see Bob Herbert’s Take a Bow, America).  The irony is that the mean-spirited, bible-thumping Evangelical Christian right and the majority of residents of the Old South and the still largely homogeneous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic mid-western states who voted for McCain/Palin would never have had the faith or the courage to abandon idolatry or go forth from their father’s house.  When the Old Testament god said: “Lekh L’Kho” they would have cowered in fright and hid like Cain once did.  Hand me my walking shoes!

Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport

I have two passports: a red one (The Netherlands) and a blue one (USA).  The red passport is well worn and the blue one is pristine but for a layer of dust.  Throughout the Republican years it has been far more congenial to move around the world as a Dutchman (which I am by passport only) than as an American (which I am by birth).  On a Dutch passport one travels with anonymity, never upsetting fellow passengers, border police, or hotel clerks.  (How short people’s memories are.  Who today remembers the brutalities of Dutch colonialism or the venality of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis?)  Traveling on the American passport, on the other hand, awakens the condescension of Western Europeans and the envy of Eastern Europeans.  During the Bush years, it made the bearer personally accountable for corporate misdeeds, misuse of the world’s resources, and violence in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Worse still, it often attracted the unwanted good fellowship of fascists, racists, and professional “anti-communists” worldwide who love America for being “white” (66% and falling!) and for rejecting all pretenses of supporting its citizenry (see this post-election editorial in the New York Times).  The enthusiastic international reaction to the election of Obama and the courage of Americans in electing him has lead me to do do something I haven’t done in a long time.  This week, I will blow the dust off of my American passport and, later this month, I’ll hand it to police and clerks in Istanbul, Sofia, and Amsterdam and look into their eyes with pride.

(Pride in passports brings to mind Mayakovsky’s 1920’s poem about traveling abroad on a Soviet passport.  A serviceable but somewhat flat English-language translation can be found here and a bilingual version — Russian original followed by English-language translation — here.)

In Praise of a Skinny President

In years past, I sometimes antagonized Israeli friends by telling them that I had lost faith in Israel and its politics because of the girth of its leadership.  Ariel Sharon was grotesquely obese as was opposition figure Tommy Lapid.  So were the leadership of the religious parties and the membership of the politically influential “Chabad” sect.  During the 1960s, African-American comedian and political activist Dick Gregory used to do a routine that involved asking the women in the audience who they would rather go to bed with … Lyndon Johnson or Che Guevara?  Without waiting for the answer, Gregory would archly say: “… and that is how you judge the vitality of a nation.”  Click here for Finally a Thin President, an “Op-Ed” piece from the New York Times.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Politics, Religion | Leave a Comment »

Greenspan Wakes Up and the Ideology of Republican Orthography

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 28, 2008

A photo on the front page of October 24’s New York Times portraying a very bemused Alan Greenspan bore this caption:

“Testifying before a House committee almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending, leaving himself ‘in a state of shocked disbelief.'”

What leaves this writer bemused is how Greenspan managed to maintain his professed faith in things as imaginary and counter-intuitive as the “invisible hand” and market efficacy — let alone his job and influence — for as long as he did. The economic and social damage wrought by the blindness and cynicism of free market proponents is incalculable. (For the full text of the article but, unfortunately, without the front page photo, click here)

Also last week …

On Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn I spotted two posters neatly affixed to a boarded-up storefront one above the other. The top poster bore the simple text: Ron Paul for President 2008.  (Note to non-US readers: Ron Paul was a “libertarian” fringe candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.)  The bottom poster was more concise: Vaccination’s (sic) Cause Autism.” The controversial thesis of the sign aside, the orthography of its text — vaccination’s instead of vaccinations — reveals more than the carelessness of its author. The misplaced apostrophe is a suitable metaphor for Republicans’ inability to conceive of collective ownership or collective responsibility and for their abrogation of all matters beyond personal aggrandizement to “invisible hands” and other imaginary arbiters of “self-correction.”

Posted in Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Obama’s “Homeostasis”: It must be the Roedjak!

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 19, 2008

In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks considered the causes and outcomes of Barack Obama’s seemingly even and unflappable temperament — his “homeostasis,” as it were — and suggested two types of presidencies Obama’s style might shape.  Obama, Brooks observes, has the class origins of a Clinton or Johnson, but without their self-defeating needs for affection or respect, and the evenness of an FDR albeit without FDR’s characteristic ebullience.  According to Brooks, Obama’s seeming emotional distance could lead to a presidency that is a needed island of calm and rationality or to one that is an island of ineffectual isolation.  An Obama victory will enable us to find out which.

So far, Obama’s seeming detachment has been exploited by his opponents as proof that “we don’t know who he his” or as a sign of his supposed smugness and intellectual superiority.  And, for quite a number of Democrats, Obama’s politeness and fixed smile are unsettling suggestions of a lack of the politically requisite instinct to go for the jugular.  I would suggest something quite different and far more positive … namely, that Obama knows how to eat Roedjak.

Roedjak is an Indonesian fruit salad, slices of not-yet-fully-ripened tropical fruit served with a sauce of thick sweet soy ketjap, tamarind paste, crushed chili peppers, and a dash of dried dessicated shrimp.  Roedjak‘s harmonic fusion of superficially contradictory flavors is more than culinary.  Roedjak restores equilibrium even while satisfying the senses.  Preparing and eating Roedjak is a tonic during moments of individual emotional turmoil. Domestic disagreements and work conflicts are calmed by sharing Roedjak when tensions begin to escalate. On the symbolic level Roedjak embodies much of what is positive in the wisdom and values of southeast Asia.

Political commentators — other than those Republican cranks who have accused Obama of having attended fundamentalist Muslim Koranic schools — have overlooked the Indonesian facets of the Democratic presidential candidate’s personality and past, his formative years on the island of Java and his being part a family with Indonesian connections as well as Kansan, Kenyan and African American ones.

In Java, outward emotional evenness and formal displays of respect are inherent to the workings of families and of villages.  Frontal confrontations are avoided and adversaries are given room to retreat.  Such stances are central to the the stylized conventions of Java’s traditional complexly hierarchical society and to the realities of domestic, social, and political life on an overpopulated agrarian island and in crowded mega-cities such as Jakarta.

On the surface, Java is devoutly Muslim but Javanese Islam rests on older strata of Hindu and Buddhist culture.  The characters of the Buddha and of the heroes of the Bhagavad Gita still resonate as strongly as those of the Prophet Mohammed and Ali.  They are part and parcel of classical Javanese theater and dance and of raucous puppet theater and shadow plays. In Java, one learns that displays of restraint are incumbent on leaders and are signs of strength in people at all levels of society.

And so, for the sake of the US and the world, I’d rather see the American presidency in the hands of a Roedjak eater than a heart-beat away from the rule of an eater of mooseburgers.  Join me for a mango, anyone?

Posted in Commentary, Food, Identity, Media, National Identity, Politics | 2 Comments »

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 »