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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

And a Final Half-Step: More Mid-East Related (and Other) Links, Photo Resources, and Muckraking

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 24, 2009

Further to my last two posts, some additional Mid-East related (and other) links I have relied on these past two months, some but not all referring to Jewish affairs …

KeHaber

For those who read Turkish (or are willing to flip through Turkish-English dictionaries and grammars at high speed) there is KeHaber Turkish Media Watch, which also offer occasional entries in English. KeHaber features reports from the Turkish press indicative of attitudes toward Jews, Israel, and the Middle East. The negative side of KeHaber is that it disregards the weblogging convention of offering an “about” page identifying its authors and thus compromises its objectivity accordingly. My take is that the site is put together in Israel, but whether as an informative or propaganda site I do not know. If anyone from KeHaber reads this, my compliments on your fine work but please come out of the shadows and explain yourself.

Turkey and the Price of Magnanimity

For the moment, I am trying to avoid writing about the ambiguous situation of Jews in Turkey and the game played by Turkey’s leadership of speaking out against Antisemitism when abroad but manipulating it to solidify their support at home and their image in the Middle East. I am also avoiding writing about the increasingly common conflation of anti-Israeli policy sentiments and anti-Jewish sentiments and deeds. Having spent the last months in Istanbul, I feel too close to and momentarily too overwhelmed by these issues, as well as a bit overloaded by my recent readings on the late- and post-Ottoman history of Jews in Turkey and the Balkans. More on these subjects another time, thus – either here or at Bubkes.Org – and at length. As a temporary surrogate, see this report on the stance taken in the Turkish press last month by Turkish-Jewish psychologist and academic Layla Navaro. In an article in the Turkish newspaper Radikal, Navaro took a courageous stance against government and popular insinuations that Turkey’s Jews should realize that they are guests — albeit of more than 500-years duration — whose presence depends on their country’s magnanimity alone. “The Act of Magnanimity,” by the way, is the working title of a paper I hope to deliver on parallel phenomena in the Netherlands and in Bulgaria.

Point of No Return

Also worth looking at is the generally well-researched but also anonymously-issued site Point of No Return. This site is dedicated to the stance that the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin who comprise more than a third of the total population of the State of Israel – and who also constitute a substantial diaspora elsewhere in the world – are the mirror image of the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian naqba of 1948. I recently posted a comment on Point of No Return re: the derogatory Turkish-language term for Jews Çıfıt and its present-day use in Turkey and neighboring Bulgaria but I’ll refrain from further comments or contributions until the site adds a suitable “about” page. For those interested, the site’s thread on Turkey is worth perusing — with the exception of a recent PR-release-sounding profile of Turkish-Jewish construction magnate Ishak Alaton.

The Heart of the Enemy

On a related theme, Max Hartmuth of Balkan Cities brought to my attention this German-language review of Iraqi exile Najem Wali’s new book Reise in das Herz des Feindes (Journey Into the Heart of the Enemy), in which the author discovers in Israel, amongst other surprises, that Iraqi Jewish refugees and their descendents still preserve the language and ethos of Baghdadis of a past age.

Joods Actueel

For those who read Nederlands (i.e. Dutch/Flemish) I recommend the independent, courageous, and balanced voice of Joods Actueel (tr. Jewish Currents) — which I only became aware of in January through its coverage of attempts of crowds of local North African, Turkish, and Middle Eastern immigrants demonstrating against Israel’s Gaza fiasco and in support of Hamas to run amok through Orthodox Jewish quarter in the city of Antwerp.

Amok

Speaking of running amok, the English-language word “amok” is taken directly from Malay, in which it means to run about in a frenzy. Malay, in turn, is the foundation of Bahasa Indonesia, the contrived official “national” language of the multi-ethnic, multi-language Republic of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.

One of the sadder and more absurd side-shows of the reactions to last month’s tragedy in Gaza was the storming of the sole remaining synagogue in all of Indonesia and the harassment of its members by a crowd of hundreds of locals eager to avenge the suffering of Palestinians. The synagogue, in the eastern Java port city of Surabaya, is maintained by a few elderly Jews of Iraqi and Indian origin and their dozen or so children and grandchildren, most of whom are part Javanese and part Muslim.

Long ago, I had personal links to Surabaya and its Jewish past. I also remember the vicious massacres of local Communists and ethnic-Chinese citizens in Indonesia as well as the country’s brutal takeovers of western New Guinea and East Timor. The words “Indonesia Jaya!” (Indonesia Victorious!) deflate into farce.

Vintage Photo Resources

Turning to the more distant history of the Middle East, I recently came across Mideastimage, an online album of vintage photographs of the region. I discovered the site through a footnote in “Empire, Architecture, and the City”, a new volume by Ottoman-era urban history scholar Zeynep Çelik treating, in part, the effects of 19th century political and infrastructural changes on the layouts and faces of late- and post-Ottoman cities in the Middle East and North Africa. I look forward to reading the book in full and citing it in my part-time work on the history and future of infrastructure and identity. (I met Zeynep Celik seven or eight years ago but I do not have her current email address; if anyone reading this post does, could you please entrust it to me?) While on the subject of photo archives, for several years I’ve maintained a link on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org to the digitized contents of the famed Sultan Abdul Hamid II gift albums, available online via the US Library of Congress.

Plain Old-Fashioned Muckraking

To end on a totally different note, for some excellent “muckraking” coverage of the hazy terrain of corporate misdeeds in the Middle East and throughout the world check out CorpWatch.

In the next entry, back – via Bulgaria – to the usual subjects.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

And Another Half-Step: Israel’s Conscientious Objectors

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 16, 2009

Further to my previous entry — a gingerly first attempt at posting on matters related to the Middle East — an additional link in a series of less common perspectives and sources:

WWW.DECEMBER18TH.ORG is a site in support of young Israeli conscientious objectors jailed for refusing to serve in their country’s military, many out of objection to the occupation of the West Bank and the encirclement of Gaza.  Israel excuses ultra-orthodox religious Jews from conscription as part of political “gentlemen’s agreements” with the country’s coalition-making-and-breaking religious right.  However, Israel does not provide for exemption from military service on the grounds of individual conscience.  A short video that strings together sound bites from young Israelis sentenced to jail  for refusing military service  into a cogent statement of the cases for their conscientious-objector-ship can be viewed on David Bellel’s Knickerbocker Village, a weblog dedicated to the Lower East Side housing project of the same name.  Bellel notes in his posting that long-ago Knickerbocker Village resident Robert  Meerepool — a son of executed alleged atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and an adopted son of the late activist, teacher, and song-writer Abel Meerepool (click here) — is among the sponsors of the December 18th cause.  (As a coincidental  “bonus link,” click here for an excerpt from Philip Lopate’s book “Waterfront” describing Knickerbocker Village, the tenements it replaced, the Rosenbergs, and the old-school New York communist relatives many of us remember and remain proud of.)

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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 »

An Inauguration After a Demonstration

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

Other recent timely quotes on Garg’s daily mailings:

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

and

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

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

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

Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

He describes Pecora in action:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | 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 »

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 »

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 »

Infrastructural Convergence: Broadband over Power Lines

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

From the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644998675019183.html):

International Business Machines Corp. said it has been hired to work with rural electricity cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service over power lines.

The project is a sign that using the electricity grid for communication — a technology utilities have long been interested in — has finally matured.

IBM said it signed a contract with closely held International Broadband Electric Communications Inc., Huntsville, Ala., to manage the installation of broadband systems at 13 cooperatives in seven states. The initial contract is for $9.6 million, but an IBM official said the company anticipates getting more business from some of the nation’s 900 other rural electricity cooperatives. IBM said it is also working with electric utilities overseas.

The system works by using standard power lines to carry a radio-frequency signal in the magnetic field that surrounds the wires. The signal is continuously amplified by low-priced repeater boxes clamped to the lines. When an electricity customer signs up for broadband services, the supplier mails out a special modem that is plugged into the wall outlet where the computer is plugged in. Pricing starts at $29.95 a month, International Broadband says.

Electricity providers have for some time seen the Web communications potential in their wires, but, until recently, the necessary signal-transmission devices have been too slow for high-speed connections and too expensive to compete with existing telephone wires. More recently, the technology has improved, but big utilities couldn’t see a way to compete with established cable and telecom carriers in urban and suburban areas.

But rural areas, which account for most of the 30 million U.S. homes that don’t have broadband access, provide an opportunity. Internet providers have avoided these locales because the population is too sparse for cable or phone companies to lay fiber or coaxial cable profitably, and hills and trees disrupt wireless networks.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet | Leave a Comment »