Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

“Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 29, 2010

Much of whatever wisdom I have, like much of  the world”s, comes from the observations of taxi drivers and barbers.  Just like the disfigured First World War veteran barfly in the opening and closing scenes of Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film masterpiece “Grand Hotel,”  taxi drivers and barbers see streams of people come and go and  little if anything surprises them.

My Barber’s Wisdom

The barber I visit  when in Istanbul speaks even less English than I speak Turkish, but he is a keen observer and knows how to score political points across linguistic lines.  His shop is in one of the commercial galleries that line the one-time carriage-ways of  late-Ottoman-era mansions and the grand inner passageways of turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial structures along Istanbul’s most popular  promenade, Istiklal Caddesi.  The shop itself has been in business for decades, but my barber and his brother took it over only five years ago, thus bringing them to the pinnacle of popular Istiklal from their tightly-packed, religiously-conservative, working-class  neighborhood only a mile northward and downhill towards the Golden Horn — the very part of the city  from which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s present Prime Minister and driving force behind Turkey’s Islamic AK Party,  hails and the  type of constituency that comprises the backbone of his support.

During my biweekly visits for a haircut and shave, my barber always chooses the most advantageous time to turn the conversation to politics.  “And, so, what do you think of our  Tayyip?”  he asks, always at the exact moment that he quickly and firmly draws his straight razor upward against the grain of the two-week stubble on my neck.  My response is dictated more by context than truth-function:  “One  excellent  prime minister,” I always reply with uncharacteristic speed and momentary fluency in Turkish, “… one very excellent prime minister, indeed.”

The television that blares in the barbershop has brought  both the English language and the words of leaders other than Tayyip — Barack Obama among them — into the lives and speech of my barber and his family.  A few weeks ago, my barber made a slight change the cut of my hair, razoring away some sparse, lonely hairs, hold-outs from the former expanse of my once lush hairline.  “Well, do you like it?”  he asked.  As I contemplated my newly high forehead, my barber’s eight-year-old son, visiting the shop on a day off from school, expressed his judgment before I could form a verdict of my own.  “Number One!,” he shouted in self-consciously American-accented English, “Number One … ‘Yes We  Can’, ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Yes We Can!’.”

Although my barber does not speak English as well as his son does, his ear for the language is no less refined.  On my most  recent visit to his shop,  the voices of a group of  American women enthusiastically eying goods in a third-world market blared  from a Discovery Channel documentary.  Cringing at the sound, my barber raised his voice a few octaves, adopted a nasal tone, and screeched: “Quack,quack, quack,  Oh-My-God … Oh-My-God, quack, quack, quack.”

An American Penchant

My barber’s imitation of American speech was no surprise.  Go anywhere in the world and the nasal screech of  American female (and sometimes male) voices will cut through the softer tones and relatively low murmur of local speech.  Strangely, a third of a century ago, American voices sounded quite different.  In the years since, flat Boston accents and rounded New York ones, crisp mid-western twangs, and lilting southern drawls somehow have all mutated into a uniform high-pitched, high-speed nasal buzz.  And, sometime during the same period,  “Oh-My-God” and the feigned tone of surprise with which it is blurted emerged as even more stereotypical of  the limits of American vocabularies than the overuse of the stop-word “like” and repeated interjections of  “cool” and  “awesome”.

The rise of “Oh-My-God” represents a flattening of emotions as well as of language.  Repeated screams of “Oh-My-God” — as often as not underscored by spastic body movements and flailing  arms — have become Americans’ stock responses, positive and negative, to unexpected  events from the banal, to the awe-inspiring, to the tragic.  Office gossip, sunsets, double-entendres, items on sale, moments of erotic ecstasy, deaths in the family,  unexpected appearances of rock stars, and tragedies as immense as the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the current disaster and suffering in Haiti all elicit the same response —  “Oh-My-God,” indeed.  Could it be that the biblical prohibition against taking the name of God in vain was offered in part to yield the secular benefit of ensuring that we match our responses and emotions to the significance and worth of what conjures them forth?  And what about the deity or deities that screamers of “Oh-My-God” claim as their own?  Is it not unwise and unkind  to distract him/her/it?them from higher concerns with repeated screams for attention?

Still, “Oh-My-God,” represents but a humorous sideshow in the misuse of the divine name.  During World War I, Allied propaganda made grist of German artillery shells  stamped with the words “Gott ist mit Uns,” (God is with Us). (And, by the way, look at how far Imperial Germany’s divinely sanctioned munitions got them.) . To use another example from the same conflict, those who know theater history (New York’s “Group Theatre,” specifically) might remember the haunting scene from the Kurt Weil musical  Johnny Johnson (an absurdist take-off on Jaroslav Hasek”s satire of war Good Soldier Schweik) in which identically dressed priests simultaneously bless and invoke God’s name in English and German on behalf of the troops massed for battle on their respective sides of the front lines.  Even in the course of my my own lifetime, I remember, from the hottest days of the Cold War,  the mandatory insertion, as a talisman against the specter of nuclear attack, of the words “(one nation) under God”  into the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States once recited each morning by public school students throughout the country.

To return to the present, all US currency, paper and coin, bears the words “In God We Trust,”  an apt statement of the hiving off of human responsibility and avoidance of  intervention that could have staved off fiscal and economic calamity and prevented the dollar’s nose-dive fall against the non-divinely-protected Euro.  During American political campaigns, candidates from  “both sides of the aisle” refer to and invoke God just about as often as do the leaders of countries that America  labels “fundamentalist.”  Could it be that the mealy-mouthed piety of American politicians and the collective din of millions upon millions of needless “Oh-My-Gods” constituted a sufficient violation of “…not taking the name of God in vain” as to prompt a divinely-afflicted plague of financial disasters, mortgage defaults, and unemployment? Sound absurd? It is no less absurd than what follows …

A Nation Without Infrastructure

A recent “Op Ed” article in the New York Times by author James Wood described the patent danger of Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncement that the recent  earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution for its people’s history of “idolatry.” However, the article also treats the less obvious dangers of Americans’ smug pronouncements of “… there but for the grace of God go we.”   Better to leave the deity alone and to look first at tectonics and geophysics and then, as odd as it may first sound, turn to a topic I’ve posted on extensively in the past on this site  and hope to return to in the weeks to come:  Infrastructure.   Stronger earthquakes than the one in Haiti have struck locales in the “developed” world and occasioned far less destruction, carnage,and suffering.  In such cases, the infrastructure of urban and regional life could far better withstand the shock, and the infrastructures of  transportation, medical, and social service could were sufficient to handle the aftermath.  As a poor country in the shadow of a rich neighbor, Haiti is infrastructurally weak on all counts.  Where could the money come from to finally begin to boost Haiti’s economy and bring its infrastructure  up to snuff?  In a recent Facebook post, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer noted that the annual gross national product of Haiti is but 20% of the bonus pool of one of the major investment banks!  And to that even I, albeit with an old-fashioned Lower East Side accented growl rather than a nasal whine, am almost tempted to say:  “O-My-God!”  But, rather than “take the name in vain,” I’ll simply quote the words of an old-fashioned Harlem heavy in Gordon Parks’s original version of “Shaft” as he described his partner having been tossed out of a window by the film’s hero. “That’s some cold s*#@,” he said slowly; some very cold s*#@, indeed.

Advertisements

Posted in Infrastructure, Istanbul, Language, Religion | 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 »

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 »

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »