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It's Only A Lawn Sign. Or Perhaps It's More

November 04, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

         

            With quarrels raging over disappearing campaign lawn signs, rattled American liberals may now appreciate how being ‘a minority’ feels.

            Desecration and theft of lawn signs in support of Republicans or Democrats are reported in many American neighborhoods this year, with Democrats being particularly unsettled by what they regard as an existential threat. (Although their experience surrounding this issue is trifling compared to what Muslims, Black, and Jewish minorities historically encountered, and still face.)

            I appreciate the panic aroused by gatherings of armed Trump supporters and other menacing actions, most recently against Biden’s bus. But perhaps fears manifest around lost lawn signs by these mainly white middle class folks are exaggerated and misplaced.

            One local upstate N.Y. paper tactfully addresses the problem of stolen campaign posters with “When political signs disappear”. It may have adopted this approach to temper overstated calls for help.

            I agree that anything stolen off one’s manicured lawn is upsetting. But, hey: it’s only a two-foot square paper poster pushed into the turf-- a rather timid expression of one’s political leanings.

            From reports of thefts I’ve tracked in my county, local police (often mistakenly perceived as solidly allied with ‘conservatives’) swiftly responded, charging two suspects—in one case a known teenage vandal, the other a sole 20-year old. There was no indication of armed vigilantes shooting up Democratic neighborhoods or defacing homes. Although unfounded rumors prompted some Democratic supporters to remove their signs or spurn the suggestion they host one (“I think I’ll pass this year”, or “Let me think out it”). True, some signs were stolen or dislodged. But crying “I felt violated!”, as one householder wrote on a community website about a stolen poster. Really? What about brave citizens who film police wantonly brutalizing and murdering our Black men in the street?

             The current dilemma over lawn signs derives in part from stress surrounding this contentious presidential election at the same time that Covid restrictions continue to unravel our lives. 

            Something else is at play. Fear aroused by these posters is related to changing demographics in regions like mine where a population of newcomers, mainly former New York and New Jersey urbanites, are not integrated into these rural surroundings. Many are retirees who had enough of city life. Others can afford a weekend home in the bucolic Catskills. Younger arrivals here find they can manage their business by internet. Growing herbs and squash, raising goats and chickens as a hobby, they constitute the new gentry. Only now, they realize they’re outsiders who arrived from places where they’d been the majority, snugly surrounded by other Democrats. They read their revered New York Times while frequenting country taverns where they share advice re local sources for multi-grain-seed-saturated breads, and rustic furniture. Perfectly understandable.

            That’s their culture. Like migrant minorities anywhere, their values differ from longtime residents who in this region prefer beer, who like deer hunting and fishing, who regularly attend church, whose parents are military veterans, and who work in local diners and municipal offices. And yes, most drive trucks.

            There’s little socializing between the two communities. A newcomer driving through our forested hills reacts to a barn with a Trump sign plastered across its side, as if there’s a sniper behind the weather vane on the roof. Self-proclaimed progressives assume any truck owner is not college educated, probably owns a gun, and really doesn’t understand politics. They call them ‘trumpers’ and whisper really ugly epithets about ‘them’.

            These newcomers are rattled not because of any significant physical threat. They feel, in many cases for the first time, that they are a minority. When they realize this is the source of their discomfort, they can move forward, and maybe learn to dialogue with their opponents, something they have not managed despite proud declarations of ‘getting to know our neighbors’.

 

[ It's Only A Lawn Sign. Or Perhaps It's More ]

Covid-19 Strategies by New York's Shrewd Governor. Part II

November 01, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

From Monday's press breifing, if we can put aside Cuomo’s serious mistakes and political ambitions, allow me to proceed with his general Covid management strategy, and to analyze his formulaic approach to dealing with a stressed, jittery population that includes the nation’s financial center and nine million people residing in our largest city-- an unparalleled virus hotspot with over 700 deaths daily-- confined to their apartments, with businesses shuttered, medical prognosis unknown, inadequate hospital beds, and tepid federal help.

            Mercifully, New York was able to contain the threat. Day by day, it flattened the curve, remarkable by any standard, with the governor’s office temporarily healing its rift with New York City’s mayor.

            Today we’re again facing rising infections and continued economic uncertainty; the entire population still needs assurance and guidance, something we used to call ‘leadership’. To whom can we look?

            Take Monday’s press briefing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtPQ1_96liQ as an example of a well-orchestrated address to a nervous public: Cuomo began with a bold yet measured attack on the White House’s announcement that it has no policy to control the pandemic; it would await the vaccine and its associated therapeutics. Cuomo’s response was unrestrained: the federal government’s policy is preemptive capitulation, totally irresponsible. Instead of reviewing the president’s shortcomings, diversions and false claims, Cuomo directs his critique to New York’s past success and how he proposes to move ahead: “Why (did it work)? God didn’t intervene. We controlled the spread. Ask yourself? How did NY reduce the infection rate, if you (Washington) say we can’t control? We did it. You can’t eliminate it, but you can control it”. He then reminds us of his can-do-it alternatives: the valve management system already in place and the new microcluster control he’s introduced. Surely this practical, seemingly apolitical we-can-do attitude is what Americans desperately need. (Remember Obama’s winning Yes, we can?)

            Cuomo, like Trump, never forgets to affirm how great America is although he does so with more class, adding how New York is first within America. His boasts are specific, reminding us how New York did it: “We flattened the curve. We went to the top of the mountain and down again”, all the time praising the critical agents—the people. “We could not impose rules of mask-wearing, social-distancing, quarantining. You did it. You were disciplined, smart, and you cared for others as well as yourself”.

            His boasts are reinforced with an appeal to New Yorkers’ smartness, toughness, and compassion for one another-- on the edge only a few months back, in the belly of the beast, with the highest rate of infection, hospitalization and death in the country (if not globally). Cuomo’s chauvinistic New Yorker attitude goes unquestioned--because it works. He knows that like himself, New Yorkers are somewhat arrogant, a little overconfident, and the smartest of the smart (sic).

          He tactfully follows his affirmation of the US as the greatest country in the world, asking: “How could this happen to us; our infections are increasing at higher rate than countries like Mexico, Mexico, with 44 per million infections in the past week; Canada with 68, Japan with 4, compared to our 208?”

            A little bit of patriotism with some shame can be effective, especially when augmented by comprehensible, convincing empirical facts. This shared pride furtively combined with empiricism probably accounts in part for Cuomo’s policy successes. He ends every briefing, before talking questions from reporters, on his characteristically high “New York is loving, NY is caring, NY is smart, NY is strong, NY is united”.

            Don't knock someone who moves a stressed, fearful people to believe a little more in themselves at a highly tenuous period in US history. END Part 2

 

[ Covid-19 Strategies by New York's Shrewd Governor. Part II ]

What Can Americans Learn from New York’s Shrewd Governor, Andrew Cuomo? Part 1

October 28, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Day 240 of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US; anxious New Yorkers are again invited to hear about changing conditions in their state and what the governor’s doing to protect them. Monday’s press briefing must be his 150th review of the stubborn unsettling disease.

            Cuomo’s updates are a cleverly woven tapestry: political analysis, admonishments, comprehensive statistical reports, warnings, evasions of reporters’ questions, and affirmations of his administration’s successes are touched up with a personal anecdote and an attempt at humor. These briefings deserve attention not because they’re contrived to pave his way to any future bid for the White House, but as an effective and (on the whole) exemplary management of the terrifying and still uncontrollable pandemic.

            Cuomo’s homilies these past months are worth some critical attention from scholars of rhetoric. These discourses are also valuable in how they contrast with statements by other politicians, incumbents and challengers in the coming election, that saturate our media.

            Like Cuomo’s press conferences during the scary, hard months of spring and summer, Monday’s briefing was, admittedly, a kind of speech— a combination of legal acumen, moral appeal, politics and emotion. By and large it works. I think that’s because like most Americans, I’ve been stressed and confused by this raging disease charging among us along an unknown path, and we are all in search for some calming, practical guidance.

            I began listening to the governor’s daily reports in March. I asked neighbors for their opinions of Cuomo’s efforts. Whatever their political persuasion, most shared my positive feelings.

            Before you admonish us for being uncritical and ignorant of Cuomo’s history, I admit that I agree with the widespread view that he’s shrewd; he evades responsibility for mistakes made and these frequent public appearances may be opportunistic on his part.

            That said, I still tuned in to Cuomo’s recent briefing. Besides feeling better informed by this decision, I’m somewhat assured that New Yorkers at least have a chance of negotiating this disease. (Where else can we find hope?) I also grasp and appreciate the pattern of Cuomo’s discourse. It’s in striking contrast to anything proffered by the staggering quantification of the disease’s history in country-by-country comparisons, in daily medical speculations and policy debates or journalists’ analyses. Yes, Cuomo’s briefings are political; yes, he’s showing off; yes, he’s somewhat arrogant; and yes, this could be planned with his eye on a future White House bid.

            But you have to give it to him; he has management skills beyond his media appeal, beyond the abilities of Biden or Pelosi, Sanders or Harris to expose the current administration’s incompetence. Cuomo also displays a convincing compassion for our woes; he seems to possess an ability unmatched by others to calm a stressed-out, anchorless American public.

            Isn’t it worth trying to understand how he does this?  

            Cuomo seems to have developed a formula: he mixes a little humor with some outrage; he praises our struggling, essential workers while remembering everyone’s suffering; he analyzes and explains the fundamentals of pandemic management (e.g. his opening-and-closing-the-valve analogy); he presents us with skillfully arrayed, digestible scientific facts.

            He regularly appeals to our patriotism and our intelligence—“Don't underestimate the American people”, he repeats, even declaring America is the greatest country, (with New Yorkers the smartest of all!), and ends by running the gambit of strident questions from reporters. It’s brilliant, you have to admit.

            By now you’re ready to chastise my editor for allowing a writer to praise any American politician.     

            Hold on; these commendations do not exclude my recognition of Cuomo’s misdemeanors and crimes. There’s plenty of muck to throw at the governor—e.g. the dreadful mishandling of nursing home placements in the early days of Covid-19’s crisis. Look how he evades Trevor Noah’s persistent charges-- an artful lawyer through and through. END Part 1

[ What Can Americans Learn from New York’s Shrewd Governor, Andrew Cuomo? Part 1 ]

Is Nepal Skirting, Denying or Defying the Covid Pandemic?

September 13, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

News from the Himalayas is scant this year. No Everest or K2 summiting; nothing about the railway from China; no new Sherpa biographies.

            Demonstrations in Kathmandu protesting India’s territorial claim on Kalapani, a spur of land at Nepal’s furthest northwestern border subsided after a talk between their respective prime ministers.

            As for how the pandemic is affecting Nepal, scant news might lead to a conclusion that the country’s thin air or its pantheon of well-attended deities immunizes residents from Covid’s ravages. Nepal’s low death toll—336 (with 53,100 cases reported to date, although rapidly rising)—for a population of 30 million is remarkable, also inexplicable given the government’s weak public health policy and shoddy management. Some citizens timidly suggest they might share a genetic immunity; others advocate popular herbal bromides will protect them. Cynics accuse the government of hiding the real death toll, or worse, that it simply doesn’t know the count.

            Lack of information and public distrust heighten tensions. Throughout early summer, while Covid-19 wreaked havoc across Europe, U.S.A. and in nearby India, Nepal’s death toll remained below 100. This did not mean the population was unaffected: migrant workers were stranded; essential imports were threatened and business in general came to an abrupt halt; tourism ceased too. When India and the U.S. imposed lockdowns, Nepal’s administration followed suit. Except it did so as a knee-jerk reaction; it had no short-term relief plan and no long-term management strategy.

            The government made no arrangements to mobilize social and economic services to help citizens cope. All schools and colleges closed (and remain shuttered); inter-city bus transport was halted and international air travel and domestic flights that link remote hill regions to lowland cites and the capital ended. All these closures were strictly, often pitilessly, enforced by a heightened nationwide police presence.

            Exacerbating Nepal’s crisis was an influx of returning migrant workers: -- tens of thousands of more than four million, mainly men, employed in Malaysia, the Gulf States and India. Jobless laborers walking long distances to their homes across India included Nepalis who, when they reached the border of their homeland, found entry barred, and were then quarantined in camps inside India. The Nepal government’s unkind response was matched by more obstacles for those who managed to cross the 1,088-mile frontier.

            Once inside their homeland these beleaguered souls found themselves unwelcome in border cites and in Kathmandu en route to the interior. City residents feared new arrivals might be carrying the virus with them. Then, many returnees who reached their home village (usually by foot) were banned from entering until they passed yet another quarantine period.

            Added to medical threats are lost incomes; so families who’d grown dependent on workers’ remittances are also negatively impacted. Doubtless, Nepalis are among millions of other laborers caught in limbo in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

 

            Nepal is not without resources of its own to alleviate Covid-related hardships but the government has been stingy, relying largely on lockdown enforcement and on a vigorous public information campaign about safety measures to follow.       

            Several million dollars donated by the WHO was to provide for testing and for PPE and treatment facilities for stricken Nepalis. This finances limited testing at regional centers and pays for the construction of quarantine shelters. Beyond Kathmandu Valley and major cities, hospital treatment for serious Covid cases is scarce. (The ‘socialist’ government is hardly socialist in practice, promoting private hospitals over establishing a national health system for example.)

            Many citizens feel their government must do more and they suspect Covid-targeted aid is yet another avenue for corruption. Growing discontent at Kathmandu’s handling of the pandemic seems to have no effect on policy. The government response to the crisis remains simply an on-off imposition of the lockdown. The public and ministers alike watch international news for a hint of a successful Covid vaccine.   

            Businesses in the capital are suffering badly, and many will fail. Lines for food handouts are longer.

            As in many Asian societies, Nepal’s elderly are well cared for by their children at home. So this country will not see the nursing home death toll that Americans and British experienced.

            During the crisis Nepalis have made good use of IT facilities and their readily chargeable cell phones to weather the Covid storm. Nepal’s media have remained vigorous; and teachers and officials (urban and rural) have adapted to the use of zoom meetings, and online teaching, once limited to elite schools for children of the wealthy, is now widely used.

            What citizens most lament is their incompetent, corrupt administration. Many had thought that with the unification in 2018 of squabbling dysfunctional leftist parties, they could build a stronger nation; they are sadly disappointed. As the eminent Canada-based Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa http://www.manjushreethapa.com/ notes:  “I think about how high people’s expectations were of Nepal’s governing party (an alliance between Marxist-Leninist and Maoist communist parties) when they voted it into a majority. It’s all just deteriorated into a cabal of “high” caste men.

 

[ Is Nepal Skirting, Denying or Defying the Covid Pandemic? ]

Film review: Made in Bangladesh-A Union Story

August 28, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If you’re gathering evidence of the victimization of Muslim women, this is not your film. Yes, Made in Bangladesh highlights exploitation in a country, most of whose citizens are Muslim. But this film’s focus is women workers: people working to support their families, as most women do, and fighting for parity, as most of us do.

            Some film reviews underscore the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka where many women perished. Made in Bangladesh is not an account of that catastrophe.

            While the venue of this film is a clothing factory and the main characters are women laborers, its inspiration is union organizer Daliya Akter who, fleeing her village home, found work in a Dhaka garment factory, one probably not unlike the setting of this film. She eventually realized that the only way out of untenable working conditions she experienced was to build worker solidarity and gain legal protection, and so began organizing a union of fellow garment workers. Made in Bangladesh is based on her struggle and ultimate success, a story so compelling that film director Rabaiyat Hossain, herself Bangladeshi, reached out to Akter to collaborate in the writing and film production of her tough but heartwarming career.

            This is director Rubaiyat Hossain’s third feature film, and since its 2019 release through Indie film festivals, she has won recognition as an outstanding young filmmaker. She is unapologetically committed to women’s empowerment both in the themes of her films and also by employing professional women in her production teams, assembling a crew of talented Bangladeshi women to handle the cameras, the sound, editing, casting, and other production work that go into serious filmmaking. In a 2019 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hossain explains her determination to bring women into all levels of production.

            Hossain is forthright about the political motive behind her themes too. She emphasizes that the women she portrays are not victims. Her aim is to direct attention to women’s search for political solutions to injustices they experience. She joins rejection of boycotts by sympathetic foreign consumers of those garment sweat shops after the 2013 tragedy, explaining: “These (factory) jobs have the potential to redefine life for young women in Bangladesh; the struggle of garment workers to be able to collectively work towards realizing their rights must be supported by everyone who wears the clothes they make. Only a tiny percentage of Bangladeshi factories are unionized; the answer (to exploitative factory management) is that these women are respected and that bad (working) conditions are not tolerated.”

            The film has deservedly won Hossain’s team international acclaim. Made in Bangladesh is laboriously and skillfully filmed in situ (in contrast with those lavishly staged Bollywood productions and made-for-America Indian features). Director Hossain swamps us in the deafening noise of a factory floor where rows of undistinguishable workers bend over machines. She maneuvers us along dusty, clamorous Dhaka streets. She leads us through unlit corridors of the labor ministry where our heroine repeatedly returns, petition in hand. She holds our gaze behind mosquito netting to overhear a forlorn couple review their bleak options. She draws us into a cluster of coworkers gathering to strategize their campaign. Anyone who has walked through urban neighborhoods in Nepal, Pakistan, India or Bangladesh will appreciate the authenticity that Hossain and her crew achieve in Made in Bangladesh. (It’s evident that her aim is not to exhibit Dhaka’s poverty. It is what it is—the daily routine of laborers, many of them rural migrants to the city.)

            And the actors: Made in Bangladesh’s main character is Shimu, beautifully rendered by Rikita Nandini Shimu. Our heroine emerges from silent humility to step on a risky path, facing one obstacle after another, yet refusing to retreat. Two other noteworthy figures are an NGO worker who recruits Shimu to gather signatures for her campaign but offers no real political support, and another unsympathetic character, a secretary to the ministry of labor official who reviewers union applications. Both these women could facilitate Shimu’s agenda, and their portrayal as passive characters emphasizes the courage and determination needed by our heroine.

            This Bangladeshi production also propels the country’s film talent onto the global stage, adding to the growing body of work that is countering established stereotypes and white-hero-focused films that have hitherto shaped and dominated our perceptions of the world’s people.

            See Hossain interview at NY Africa Diaspora Festival and for access to the film on its August 28th USA release.

[ Film review: Made in Bangladesh-A Union Story ]
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