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A Desultory Election Day in America

November 13, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A Desultory Election Day in America

By 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, voting would have trailed off in some polling stations, after “workers” stopped in before setting out for their jobs--in schools, restaurants, county offices and on construction sites. There might be a rush after dark when people head home. That‘s why polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 at night.

In our small town however, when I arrive mid-morning, it’s busy-- relatively.

A few moments earlier, heading for the fire department hall that functions as our voting center, I meet a neighbor at the bridge. We halt our cars and roll down the windows; “Who should I vote for?”, Susan calls out.

I don’t hesitate even though there’s little to offer: “Look for the 3 propositions: the first is about a new constitutional convention for New York state; people who I know are voting against. Of the other two, one is for protection of wild land; you’ll want to vote ‘yes’ there. I forget the third”. (It was pensions being withheld or retained for any official convicted of a crime.) Susan is listening but I see her interest waning.

What more is there to advise? “There are no candidates on the Democratic Party ticket” I admit, lowering my voice out of shame. “All the incumbents –Republicans, it seems-- are running for a second term, unopposed.” Those are for the officers and council members who run our town, and dispense our tax revenue. (Examining the ballot later, I learn that indeed, the town sheriff is an elected position. He is one of those 8 or 9 unopposed incumbents.)

Later that day, I meet Diane. “Yes, I voted. It makes no difference”, she laments. Still, she did cast a ballot, and so did another 125 villagers. It’s considered a good turnout—for an “off-election” year. (That’s what they call it, sadly.) Or is it an off-year election? Either way it refers to non-presidential and non-Congress competitions. Stupidly, people don’t take these local affairs seriously.

            At the polling station itself, I linger after submitting my ballot. Not to do a private exit poll, but to socialize with the election monitors. (Three of the four are my neighbors.) They’d been on duty since 5 a.m., setting up the ballots, voter lists and private booths. Although not allowed to campaign or discuss candidates or balloting, we can enjoy coffee and biscuits together and talk about past elections.

By 6 p.m., listening to New York area news, I learn the Democratic NYC mayor has done well, and will have a second term. Also the referendum for the state constitutional convention was defeated. There’s no change in our “upstate” political profile however. Maybe in 2018? 

The next morning, all the “progressive” orgs are flooding my inbox, celebrating huge victories. The tide is turning, they shout. Two new Democratic governors are in—one in Virginia and one in New Jersey. This news and some announcements about a county office, a mayoral post, here and there, turning over to Democrats are hailed as if Donald Trump, the Alt-Right, the banks, the Supreme Court and rest of the US establishment are routed, and the underdog Dems have taken over Washington.

 Maybe the exaggeration is a strategy to mobilize lethargic and despondent “progressives”. Even the smallest victory can re-energize the base. Maybe it’s a tactic to garner cash donations for the party.

Meanwhile Republicans still control Congress--the Senate and the House of Representatives-- and most of the governorships.

Two years is not much time to mobilize, especially when the nation’s (only) alternative party is in disarray, and the party machinery at the local level (in New York for example) is dysfunctional. But this is a temperamental nation where major shifts can occur in a very short time. In some parts of the world, they would call this instability.

 

[ A Desultory Election Day in America ]

Politics is Hard Work

November 06, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Politics, especially local politics, is hard work. Easier to share headlines flashed at us through the national press. There’s always another juicy or outrageous anecdote to absorb, dismiss, or share. So our political conversations keep advancing. Maybe.

Following local political trends at my county level (in upstate New York’s Catskills [1]) is another matter. I suspect my problem would apply to downstate too.

I just want to carry out my democratic duty at election time. Voting could help build a local political barrier to thwart threats charging towards us from Washington. Yet I find myself facing one obstacle after another. Perusing local political issues in advance of Tuesday’s nationwide election, I feel stymied and isolated.

If I weren’t so dogged, I’d forget about democracy altogether; this business of voting responsibly needs sustained attention and real commitment. Take the question of who’s running for office in our towns (in this “off-election” year): now is when we select our supervisors, judges, and town councils, among others. It’s not only a humdrum affair; it’s often obscure. Most voters don’t know who presently holds these offices, and, for example, if the sheriff is an elected official. And new candidates? Not easy to learn their identities and what party they represent.

Since the last local election (two years ago?), admittedly I’ve not been as active as I might have. So I ask others: “What happens at town council meetings between elections? Few can tell me. (It’s a drag getting to a town meeting after work and tending to family needs at suppertime.)

I know town councils assign our tax money. But do citizens approve the budget? I don’t know. Would that be on the November 7th ballot?  What about our dwindling fire department—is its future a town issue? Can we take problems in the district school to our council? What about the decrepit bridge on South Street? Our local opioid crisis?

I’ve been a fulltime resident here for 20 years. As a registered Democrat, I usually check any democratic candidate box on the ballot. Afterwards I forget about council business. I rarely follow these election results anyway. (You may think I’m a shirker but I’m sure I’m typical of folks here.)

I confess, I may have been inattentive, initially. Six years ago, I decided to better prepare myself before casting my ballot. I would do my homework. My good intentions notwithstanding, I could learn little about local candidates: campaign literature was scarce; some lawn signs planted here and there, but no calls and no personal canvassing. Worse, perusing a ballot on Election Day, I found I had few choices –incumbents were running unopposed. Often the names meant nothing to me.

One year, seeing an invitation to meet candidates for town offices before a local election, I stopped in at our fire hall. I found more candidates than potential voters present. Moreover, this was a Republican Party event, and all four candidates greeting us were Republicans. I was welcome however; the pastries were tasty and I could ask about the offices being sought—town judgeship for example.

Optimistically, I phoned the Democratic Party office. Maybe it would sponsor a candidates’ gathering here. I called several times. No reply, not even to steer me to a webpage. Speaking with neighbors, I learned many are on the same page as me politically. About candidates and the local party committee, they shrug. “No use voting.” As for local governance: no one I ask is clear when town meetings take place, who are the supervisor (mayor), highway chief, council members. “Phone the town clerk,” I’m advised. “Try the board of elections.”

A party committee member helped explain the local structure to me. “You’re represented by so-and-so, a good fellow but can’t attend meetings. Do you want to be a committee member? You wouldn't have to do anything.” They just needed a name.

Any resident can sit in on a local party meetings; same for the town council. “Very boring; they do what they want”, I am told by my neighbor, Elena.

Sometimes people get stirred up—if a child dies from substance abuse, or if crime is on the rise. Disputes about sharing resources get attention too: water management, which district should pay police, enforcing zoning laws. These issues can bring out citizens and often involve lengthy legal disputes. Otherwise it’s humdrum bureaucratic stuff, and difficult for an outsider--a citizen--to follow.

The widespread victory of Republicans in January saw a flurry of activity from the opposing side, generated mainly by shock (and embarrassment). Attendance at party meetings spiked. People networked, sharing their fears and outrage, vowing to become ‘politically engaged’—some for the first time in their (middle-aged) lives. Activist groups blossomed.

Here in New York State an important referendum is on Tuesday’s ballot—do we want a new state constitution? It’s complicated. So we’ve seen many public forums and debates over the past weeks. Newspapers and legal organizations, the League of Women Voters and some unions have endorsed, or opposed. At one presentation in a sizable town nearby, about 15 people sat scattered through a large hall to hear details and ask questions. When the discussion ended, half the audience left hurriedly. Among those remaining, five were candidates running for seats in the town’s administration, there to address voters.

All our regional papers have noted how few seats are being contested. “Sullivan County has 55 uncontested races” shouts The River Reporter. The Walton paper notes that most candidates are incumbents running unopposed. October 3rd front page of another concurs : “General election marked by lack of candidates.” Perusing the past three issues our main regional paper, I see a flurry of 30 ‘letters to the editor’—each one espousing the merits of a candidate. Maybe that’s the most a reader will learn about the names they’ll find on Tuesday’s ballot.

Oh well, there’s always another election.

 

[1]  Sullivan County with a population of about 78,000 and Delaware County with almost 48,000 residents)

[ Politics is Hard Work ]

Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal

October 25, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“A serious problem in America is the gap between academe and the mass media, which is our culture. Professors of humanities, with all their leftist fantasies, have little direct knowledge of American life and no impact whatever on public policy.” ― Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae, 1990, and Sex, Art, and American Culture, 1992

I’ve waited two weeks since news about Harvey Weinstein’s malignant power exploded in the New York press. How long do I hesitate before joining the debate, a debate that must expand, drawing in more people, searching all levels of our culture which this occasion demands?

I suppose every woman, young or old, ambitious or docile, abused or not by a man-- by anyone, perhaps herself an accomplice in abuse--- has something to contribute here.

But what happens after the ten millionth testimony is proffered?  After the trauma is identified? Does it help to say I too am a member in the same shamed and traumatized club along with Olympic champions, film stars and directors, fashion designers, and celebrity journalists as well as secretaries and research assistants, clients and patients? Does it help to confess, to listen, to empathize, to embrace a confessor, or to expose a predator? In the short term, perhaps. In the long-term, unlikely.

Does it help to disguise my feminine lines, veil my breasts, lower my gaze, and extinguish my body odor with mint flavored salve? Is it liberating to confide to my mother or sister, teacher or psychologist exactly what that rat did to my body, to recall my first experience of being violated, the unarticulated shock of what powerlessness really means? I doubt it. In the end, at the cultural-institutional level, none of these are remedial.

Where do we go after all the confessions are in, after the tweets have gone viral, after all the molestations are quantified, even after a court conviction?

I see no solution on the horizon. Because we are inextricably bound into a culture which celebrates the body, male and female. Our civilization encourages full explorations of sex, rewards ambition, and, most of all, it glorifies power, especially if that power is attached to wealth. These ideals are unassailable and no one is suggesting they be expunged. 

This condition is evidenced by the abysmal record, near failure, of the very campaign that claimed to solve women’s problems—the Western feminist movement. A movement moreover, which, sanctioned by the UN, proudly and energetically exported itself to every corner of the world. Instead of weakening the patriarchal, misogynist culture that grips America at home, feminists of the 1980s adopted the paternalistic mantle they claim they had shed. Thus misguided, they set out to teach the world about true (women’s) democracy. I recall in the late 1980s, after the “opening” of China, a US press notice announcing progress in China:--a beauty pageant was planned in the communist state; multiple shades of lip paint were available to China’s women. China was advancing!

I do not recollect newly liberated American feminists applauding advances in civilization when women in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines or Argentina won presidential office.

After the Middle East and Islam became topical in the 1990s, western women ignored their own unfulfilled goals to become global protectors, setting their sights on naughty men who mistreat Kurd, Afghan, Arab, Dalit, or Yazidi women. Feminism gladly brandished its new cudgel to strike at anything in the vicinity of Islam.

What might help reform the entrenched misogyny that’s been exposed in the Weinstein scandal is this: explore how and why we-- young men as well as women-- are attracted to power; why our self esteem depends so much on our beauty, being gazed at. Why do we dash after anything that ‘goes viral’? Why do we want far more money than we need to live? Why can we not say “No” to a cleric’s advances, to a sport star’s invitation, to a boss’ wink, to promises of greater success?

=====================================

   A feature of youth is short attention span; this could apply to youthful America, with its tendency to believe that when its wrongs are revealed, it expresses remorse and then moves forward. Having admitted its misdeeds, it matures. Alas, this is not America’s way. It coats itself in cosmetic confessions. For an example of our enduring immaturity, look at the hugely popular TV series, Mad Men. I completely missed Mad Men from 2007 to 2015 when millions of Americans followed its weekly episodes. Being a media critic, however belatedly, I set out to examine the source of its acclaim. So I began viewing Mad Men. That was last month, before the Weinstein exposé ignited the debate about sexual predators. Discussing the Mad Men phenomenon with others, we recalled how poignantly the series portrayed verbal and physical debasing of women by husbands, lovers and office colleagues. “Yes, that was how men behaved in the sixties; that’s what women accepted. It was the culture then (before the feminist movement). Men couldn’t get away with that now.” Can’t they? “No. Well it’s more subtle, more circumspect, today.” Is it?

“If you live in rock and roll, as I do, you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women. It doesn't repel them.”  ― social critic, Camille Paglia

We have to recognize that the foundation of our culture, dominated as it is by male energy and sexuality, remains intact. This, despite some cosmetic and legal adjustments. How much are women willing to risk in their search for esteem and other rewards.

Sexual abuse and harassment of women must be viewed within a wider portrait of this unwholesome nation. Progress has faltered on many fronts: we’ve returned to Jim Crow incarceration and racism we believed was far behind us, a condition documented by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. Human trafficking, approaching slavery, is rife. Child abuse and kidnapping continue; pornography has surged with the application of digital tools. Rape of women by the military is carried out against captives but also fellow soldiers. And we all know something about torture in the 21st century.

Back to the ‘Weinstein problem’: the press continues to engage us with yet more stories of celebrities’ encounters with this pervert. Yes, just like fellow media moguls Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes. But surely this is part of a ‘cultural condition’ we’ve known about and debated for some time, e.g. campus rape, the violation of women by fellow college students. Like Hollywood insiders, university authorities ignored or minimized the violence. They treat the scourge by referring cases not to police but to college grievance committees. A 2015 film treatment of the issue does not indicate the problem is solved. University cover-ups, we learn, serve to maintain a reputation attractive to philanthropists.   

The ongoing problem of sexual abuse of women (on campus or in the film and TV industries) was a subject of acerbic exchanges among feminists 30 years ago. On one side, almost single-handed—the “anti-feminist feminist” culture and art critic-- Camille Paglia boldly took on mainstream feminists. In a sustained series of exchanges, many of which appear in her 1992 collection Sex, Art and American Culture she declares, “Feminists keeps saying the sexes are the same…telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything or wear anything.

“No they can’t.” Paglia exclaims. She attacks what she sees as mostly white, educated feminists for their “pie-in-the-sky fantasies about the perfect world (that) keep young women from seeing life as it is.” As a result, she argues, “Women want all the freedoms won, but they don’t want to acknowledge the risk. That’s the problem”.

I’d like to hear Paglia’s take on today’s debate around the Hollywood scandal (it’s bigger than one disgraced pervert). She might help us more fully explore issues of risk and responsibility, not men’s-- women’s. How can that be taught? Children are supervised ever more closely via their cell phones. Can this prepare them too handle risks as adults, faced with predators like Weinstein?

[ Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal ]

Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize

October 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Iraqi government has every right to assert control over Kirkuk and its environs. (One only wonders why it waited this long. The city had never been a Kurdish center and only after it repulsed threats by ISIS three years ago, did Peshmerga replace Iraqi government forces in the area. Peshmerga has been a coddled and abetted military presence in the US-UK-Israel plan to divide Iraq. (No Kurdish force has had any legitimate presence there.) So recent references by both National Public Radio and BBC news hosts about Peshmerga fighters representing Kurdish sovereignty in Kirkuk are misleading at best.

No one yet knows what the outcome will be of Baghdad’s belated move to affirm authority in the area with its surprising military victory in and around Kirkuk earlier this month. Interested foreign parties from Turkey to Israel have remained silent, thus far. Meanwhile Kurdish spokespeople are making alarming claims in the international press about the deployment, even suggesting those Iraqi forces are ISIS-linked, also invoking the trope of Shia militants taking over their (sic) city, assertions left unchallenged by an acquiescent NPR and BBC.  

Why is there so little willingness by US and British media to acknowledge the character and legal status of Kirkuk in Iraq? One hears no reference to the strategic transformation of the city and its environs by nationalist-secessionist Kurdish interests from a majority Turkmen community to a Kurdish one starting in 1991 when the US and UK helped establish an inchoate Kurdish sovereign state in northern Iraq?

The day of the Kurdish referendum in September I noted the process by which Iraqi Kurdish leaders worked to convert Kirkuk into a Kurdish city, with the intention of annexing it when the time came (last month) for their claim of independence, and ignoring the Iraqi constitutionally defined border outside Kirkuk and nearby areas.

It is mystifying why the Turkmen of Iraq, a fiercely Iraqi nationalist, significant minority, has been so invisible in international press coverage of the region. This while they embody a remarkable ideal that opposes any military action. Visiting Kirkuk on two occasions before American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I saw the displacement of Turkmen families (begun in 1991) in progress and I’ve followed their growing fear of Kurdish dominance, all without threat of armed retaliation. Their population is not small—at least three million-- and many Turkmen are well placed in Iraq’s government. Although that proved insufficient to thwart Kurdish ambitions over Kirkuk.     

Turkmen’s marginalization in their heartland has won little sympathy outside; their identity and ethnic rights are completely overshadowed by Kurdish separatists and their foreign partners and lackeys, such as Peter Galbraith. Are we to accept comments by BBC guest Nadhim Zahawi as a fair assessment (BBC World News 10.17.17)? Zahawi is a British-Kurdish millionaire, a UK member of parliament, also director of Gulf Keystone Petroleum GKP operating in Iraqi Kurdistan; he moreover chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan. This in addition to his many controversial legal involvements.

The wider public, it seems, is only permitted to know that Kirkuk sits on major oil deposits. (Of course that explains it being coveted by the Kurds in alliance with the West.) But what about the longtime Turkmen character and history of the city? What about the sustained opposition by Turkmen Iraqis and the Baghdad government to surreptitious tactics by the Kurds to make it appear the city and surrounding areas is Kurdish and lies within the three Kurdish-dominated governates (Erbil—a once Turkmen-majority city for 700 years, Sulaimania and Duhok) that have enjoyed considerable autonomy since 1991. Kirkuk is no more a part of Kurdish Iraq than nearby Mosul is, and Kurdish rights to Kirkuk has never been part of the semi-autonomous understanding between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad.

[ Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize ]

In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees

October 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I received the invitation from Magnolia Pictures to preview a forthcoming film by artist Ai Weiwei, recognizing the name of its celebrated Chinese director, I was eager to screen it. I have a scant impression of the visual extravagance of Ai’s art work, but knew nothing of his filmmaking before my research for this review. Now I learn of his copious filming explorations resulting in more than 20 video productions between 2003 and 2013, some rather lengthy, e.g. Chang’an Boulevard (10:13 hrs), or So Sorry, and mostly completed in his homeland.

                Ai Weiwei’s early videos are largely investigative visual documentations of injustices, tragedies, dissident profiles and autobiographical projects. A prolific artist who also identifies himself as an activist and dissident, Ai gained international attention, predictably, when in 2011 he was detained for some 81 days in his city, Beijing.

He works in multimedia, often on a grand scale. This may explain his attraction to the theme of this film, Human Flow @HumanFlowMovie @aiww, due for release October 13th in the USA. More than two hours long, taking us into fourteen refugee camps across more than ten countries from Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico (notably, this project omits reference to Tibetan or Qinghai refugees from China), employing some 100 staff and 60 translators, Human Flow is of epic scale in more than its title.

                Human Flow is essentially a human rights message—a visual statement of the unfulfilled rights – or dreams, if you will-- of refugees across the globe. His tens of thousands of subjects—representing tens of millions worldwide--are souls in transit: South Americans slipping across the Mexican border into the USA, Palestinians driven from their lands, Africans escaping from various homelands by boat across the Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern families walking into the European mainland. It’s about fences and guards, and waiting huddled families.

Most of those offering testimonials, Ai Weiwei films inside refugee camps. Stark, somewhat formal, on-camera interviews with individuals provide first hand accounts of their victimization, anxiety, and bitterness.

Little of what we witness in Human Flow will be new to anyone following international events. In recent years, with the massive exodus of people from the Middle East into Europe, the military conflicts, the controversial status of undocumented workers, the deaths of thousands crossing the Mediterranean, and subsequent debates about what host counties ought to do, even the most disinterested of us is aware of the “human tide” pressing upon our shores.

Testimonies by refugee families in the film are interspersed with statements by officials-- professionals in the refugee business: we hear from doctors inspecting camp conditions, from human rights lawyers citing UN conventions, from a diplomatic Jordanian princess, from Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine’s most articulate representative, from UNICEF’s spokesperson in Lebanon, from Israel’s B’Tselem director, from the Carnegie Middle East director, from a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. All offer choreographed, disembodied statements about the need for more, more, more…  

A short segment with the single politician in the film, Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, is noteworthy for its candor. About migrants, Jumblatt declares, “without memory you are nothing”; about refugee management he points to the hypocrisy of international refugee policies. In skimming over Jumblatt’s blunt assessments, Ai Weiwei missed the chance to explore more fundamental issues behind those pompous, exploding human rights’ businesses. He could have offered us a really piercing story, introducing Human Flow with Jumblatt’s provocative assertions followed by dialogue with Jumblatt about the financing of camps, the wars generating these exoduses, the pornographic use of pitiful images of victims, threaded together with the powerful visuals that Ai’s cameras capture. A lost opportunity by a man known for provocative, daring work.

As with his other projects, Ai Weiwei wants us to know he is there:  on the ground with sobbing refugees, beside his camera crew at a tense frontier, his hair disheveled by sand-laden desert winds. Here is the anthropologist, there-but-not-there, allowing refugees and their surroundings speak for themselves, images superimposed with an occasional news headline or quote from a Turkish or Arab poet to augment the pictures.

Which brings us, finally, to the images. What is new to our refugee portrait are spectacular aerial shots presenting a panorama of refugee living:—we are taken high above an endless, blue sea, a boat laden with escapees slowly moving into the frame; we gaze through a wide angle photo of a camps’ columns and columns of orderly white structures; another aerial encompasses countless scattered huts amid the detritus of their impermanence; we are held beside tents haphazardly pitched at a railway station, dwarfed by an enormous, slowly moving train passing resolutely behind. This is the “flow”-- perhaps more accurately termed “stagnation”-- that impacts the viewer more forcefully than faces and statements of refugees and administrators. 

Because of the director’s celebrity, a lot of people will want to see Human Flow. Still, given Ai Weiwei’s objective of using art to change perceptions, we need to ask: can this film do that?

 

 

[ In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees ]
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