Columbus, Ohio USA
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by Kaizaad Kotwal
THIS IS AN ARCHIVE
The monthly column ran November 2000 - January 2003
Old Problems?: New Year's (Re)Solutions!
Happy New Year folks! Hope that 2003 is swell in each and every way for all of you. I am certain that many of you have been good and made your New Year's resolutions. Some of you will succeed at maintaining your resolutions well into the coming months. Others will try hard, and somewhere along the way – say, day-after-tomorrow – resolutions will fall by the wayside like Taiwanese-made tchatchkas from a burst piñata.
As for moi? No thank you. No resolutions here. I don't need another way with which to beat myself over the head for failing at something. So I simplify things, reduce the stress of failure and make no resolutions whatsoever.
I've been thinking about that word, however. R-e-s-o-l-u-t-i-o-n. And putting my own twist on it, I'm offering a few new solutions (re-solutions if you will) to some of our more pressing, yet age-old, problems these days. It's time for someone to take a stand. To display some chutzpah. With Democrats acting like Republicans, and vice versa, this whole morass of moderation has got to stop! Moderation is simply a polite way of admitting to one's spinelessness, gutlessness, and essentially the abandonment of one's core values.
And I must say that I have received much of my inspiration for this bout of attacking problems with a new verve and vitality from none other than George W. Bush himself. (Never thought you'd hear me say that, did you now?) Pre-empt the problem! Nip it in the bud! Cut the cancer off at its roots. These are my mantras for 2003 and beyond.
There's the whole celebrity crime spree syndrome that has just got to be stopped. Right away! Shoplifting starlet Ms. Ryder has been asked to do community service. Community service? Whose lame-brain idea was that? I don't see the average shoplifter being let off so easily? And those ordinary folk haven't made us sit through films with lots of bad acting! I have a more apropos punishment recommendation: Make Ms. Ryder sit in prison for a time, and while she's there, pin her eyes open à la "Clockwork Orange" and force her to watch looped tapes of the worst films Hollywood has ever made, 24 hours a day. That'll teach her and other potential celebrity shoplifters to boot and blame it on research for an acting job!
Martha Stewart must be taught a lesson too. Why does a billionairess have to indulge in insider trading for a mere $200,000 or so? There's been lots of talk about her spending time in prison and having to eat her own words by eating institutional kitchen slop and living in a cinder-block and metal bar cell with no decoupaged accessories. It was recently announced that her television show has been renewed for another season. If we are going to send her to prison, I say let her broadcast her show from there. Let's give reality TV a whole new meaning! Above all giving Ms. Stewart a chance to learn what reality truly is!
Let us watch her work single-handedly to make prison more livable for the inmates. (This would have the added bonus of satisfying the kooks who are always wigging and whining about the rights of rapists, murderers, embezzler's and other stellar specimens of the human race.) Martha would have to decorate each inmate's cell to their specific tastes and preferences. She would be required to cook gourmet meals for all the prisoners and guards alike. And best of all she would be forced to do all this without the aid of her hundreds of minions who really do all the work behind the scenes of the show while she hogs the limelight and profits.
On the other hand, I say prison (even with my above suggestions) is too easy on the bitch that makes us all feel worthless for not having enough time to hand weave and handprint our own f***ing gift wrapping paper. So, if she wanted that $200,000 so badly, I say let her keep it! But, as punishment, block all her other money and assets. That'll teach her a lesson in greed. It's a good thing!
What about these sports hooligans who seem to have made Columbus their home base for now? I don't care what anyone else says, if fans can't take defeat (and especially victory) with dignity, restraint, and basic human decency, then the team forfeits the right to play in any bowl game.
To the President of Ohio State I say, "Put your money where your mouth is and take a stand. Bar the Bucks from going to play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl." I know, I know. The poor players didn't do anything to deserve that. But piss the players off by making them pay for the crimes of the Neanderthal fans, and next time, the players will make sure no fan behaves that way. Or they can go after the fans with their own brand of vigilante, pre-emptive punishment.
Enron executives, anybody? If there's anyone who needs a good dose of "do-unto-these-bastards-as-they-have-done -unto-others," it's those tricky shliek-meisters of corporate debauchery. Here's the range of punishments available to them currently. Jail time? I don't think so. Even though the thought of them getting raped and sodomized like they did to their employees and shareholders is tempting, it ain't justice enough for me. Seizing their assets? Bah-humbug! Big deal. They've got more where it came from, hidden away in tidy investment shelters overseas and in the names of spouses, kids and other family members.
I say it's time to bring back public displays of capital punishment. A little revival of public holidays festooned with a few executions of the true evil that plagues our society never hurt anybody – except the bloke being put to death.
For the Enron executives who ruined hundreds of thousands of lives, this is how we should say to them "Hasta la vista, baby," with a good ol' Texan drawl. We set up a carnival-like atmosphere on the Washington Mall with clowns, puppeteers, and other entertainment fare. At the end of the mall framed by the capitol building, we set up a huge stage with several electric chairs. At the end of the day's festivities, the dastards of Enron who have been found guilty will be strapped to these chairs and none other than President Bush gets to do the honors by pulling the switch. Oh, the glory! Ah, the sparks that will fly!
As you well know, the Enron executives aren't the only ones with corporate karma to repent for. Many of the real evildoers these days don't wear military camouflage, à la Saddam Hussein or some other self-appointed Banana Republic leader. Nope! An ungodly number of the real evildoers wear Brooks Brothers pinstriped suits, Hugo Boss button-down shirts, and Johnston Murphy wing tips, accessorized with power ties by Donna Karan and socks by Versace.
Take the case of the achy-breaky Pfizer heart valves. Starting in the late '70s, a mechanical heart valve, the Bjork-Shiley, the 'Rolls-Royce of valves', according to doctors, was implanted in hundreds of patients. What neither patient nor doctor knew was that many Bjork-Shiley valves had fractured during clinical testing. The valve company, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, hid this teeny-weeny detail from the government regulators.
At Pfizer's factory in the Caribbean, the company discovered that inferior equipment, which made poor welds, was responsible. Instead of jettisoning the faulty valves, Pfizer management demanded that the defects be ground down, further weakening the valves. Pfizer then sold these doctored valves worldwide. The weak valves struts would often break, causing the heart to contract and explode.
In 1980, Dr Viking Bjork, one of the inventors of the valve, wrote to Pfizer demanding ameliorative action. He threatened to go public with the cases of valve-strut failures. He was silenced by Pfizer execs. So far 800 valves have cracked, and 500 of these recipients have died. (Incidentally, you can read the details of this gory story in Greg Palast's amazing book of investigative journalism titled "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.)
In 1994, the US Justice Department got Pfizer. They avoided criminal charges by paying civil penalties and roughly $200 million in restitution to victims. And I say that ain't enough.
Here's my (re)solution to this macabre story. Take the guilty execs who masterminded the cover-up and anyone else involved in killing these vulnerable patients. Then take out their healthy heart valves (assuming that such lowlifes have hearts) and replace them with the exploding heart valves, and then let the real heartaches begin!
It's 2003, folks, and can you believe that we are still debating whether burning crosses on the front yards of black folks is hateful. The Supreme Court is going to decide on that burning issue this year by determining whether such acts of pyrotech-nic bigotry are protected as free speech.
You know what I say? Let's burn plenty of crosses on the front lawns of black people's homes. Bring 'em on! Let the fires blaze! Let free speech of that milieu proliferate! However, I suggest one minor adjustment. Attached to each cross, as it burns in valiant glory, should be a member of the group that thinks that this is acceptable behavior in the 21st century.
Let these Neanderthalic critters go up in flames. That way we seemingly protect free speech and decrease the population and gene pool of these racist bastards! It's about time we had some reverse lynchings. I want segregation. You bet! I want to be segregated as far away as possible from these blithering idiots who think that picking on black people is still acceptable behavior. Starting with Trent Lott.
Ah, there's a man of decency. A leader of quality. A man with his head so far up his ass, no wonder he's started reeking even to loyal ones of the Grand Ol' Party! Strom Thurmond turned 100 years old when Lott made those fateful comments. Coincidentally, Lott's racist attitudes and segregationist nostalgia are also as old and tired as Thurmond himself. Next time someone wants to burn a cross on a black family's front lawn as an exercise of their freedom of speech, let them. I just want to be the one to strap Lott and his likes to those crosses before lighting the match.
So, as of this New Year, I am diversifying my professional resumé with the new title of "Creative Visionary Consultant of (Re)solutions to Age-Old Problems."
In future installments here read about how to solve the ever-igniting Middle-East conflict, the never-ending Indo-Pak conflagrations, and the pedophilia plague in the Catholic Church. – (January 2003)
Year-End Ruminations: Having the Time of Our Lives!
We are fast approaching the close of yet another year – another 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes or 31,536,000 seconds gone, never to return. These days, in our age of ubiquitous technology and omni-present dangers, time doesn't simply fly, it seems to vaporize.
Year 2002 is days away from being completely relegated to the annals of history, a series of chapters, pages or footnotes in sundry books yet to be written. A collection of anecdotes and events yet to be put down for posterity. An amalgamation of perspectives and counterperspectives of what has been, of what might have been. A morass of writing and rewriting the history of 2002 that won't end with the dropping of the crystal ball in Times Square.
It's been a crazy year - both personally and globally. My professional and personal life have been through more "heaves and hos" than Anna Nichole Smith's ample bosom during a session of particularly raucous lovemaking. But that's a discussion for another day. World-over, countries, cultures, and people have teetered on the brink of disaster, yet somehow managed to step back from the precipitous abyss.
Martha Stewart has managed to stay just a few steps away from having to decorate her own prison cell with a découpaged toilet seat and matching mirror frame. (It's a writer's serendipitous gold-mine that the company she "allegedly" - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - did some insider trading with is called ImClone. One misplaced apostrophe and one slip of the spacebar and the jokes just keep-a-coming! And by the way, will they allow her to use her own K-Mart sheets in prison? And how will she look perpetually dressed in flaming orange? Will a jumpsuit with no waistline make her look fat? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Joan Rivers continues to be the most nipped-and-tucked woman in America, so much so that her plastic surgeons (had they any ethics) should be warning her to desist from any further surgery. One more face-lift and she'll be sporting a beard!
Pakistan and India came closer than ever (or so it seemed) to exchanging "I-say-nuclear-he-says-nucular" weapons of mass destruction. (I give that term a prize for most commonly used and least reflected upon oxymoron of the year. I mean are there any nuclear weapons that are not ones of mass destruction? Is it really necessary to state and restate the painfully obvious ad nauseam?)
Israel and Palestine continue to be political, cultural, religious, geographical, global live wires that threaten to make Armageddon appear to be a Biblical picnic in comparison.
If the U.N. is an annoying zit on the face of this Presidency, then Iraq has continued to be a festering, puss-filled boil on its lily-white behind.
And in November's mid-term elections, the Democrats were soundly - and deservedly - Bush-whacked!
Yet somehow life goes on.
Others around the world flirted with disaster, yet failed to return from the brink of the abyss.
Winona Ryder used method acting (claiming that her shoplifting was research for a role) as a legal defense. This is sure to force an imminent FBI probe (ordered by the Justice Department) of all acting curricula in colleges and universities across the country. Bad acting just got worse, courtesy Ms. Ryder.
The nascent peacetime in Northern Ireland fell to bits like some fragile treasure of Ming dynasty pottery. The Emerald Isle is back to looking crimson.
Bali, that tropical paradise of sun, sand and breezy joie de vivre turned into a charred purgatory of car bombs, strewn carcasses and broken spirits, the most recent frontline in al-Qaeda's simmering efforts at continued terrorism.
In Washington, D.C., the snipers created Machiavellian mayhem, took ten lives and so many more "peaces" of mind with them. Those who were certain, before the cowards were caught, that it was some foreign terrorist plot, took beguiling comfort in the fact that one of the perpetrators had converted to Islam a few years ago.
Those corporate snipers, those sharp-shooters of cooked books and self-padded multi-million dollar retirement accounts, grotesquely ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of hard-working people whose only crime was to have bought - hook, line and sinker - into the propaganda of the relentless (and unquestioned) pursuit of the American Dream.
Enron's crooks ran out of their criminal energy and the MCI-WorldCom power brokers may be forced to use Sprint or AT&T to call their lawyers from prison. It may be poetic justice at one level, but not enough to restore the decimated existences of the (now not) working poor. Yet, life seems somehow to go on.
I know that the end of one year and the beginning of a new one is a time for reflection and resolutions, but I have never been one to make New Year's resolutions. They seem no more than pointless paragons of some temporary euphoria, induced by a little too much year-end nostalgia or New Year's Eve bubbly or both.
As I reflect on my own life this past year (or for several ones before that), and as I scan the global horizon and see what moves us, what shakes us, what terrifies us and what elates us, both individually and collectively, I have begun to see things differently.
It seems to me that I, like so many around me, continually fall into the trap of living in the past or wanting to live in the future, and in the bargain always failing to live in the moment. So much of our culture, so much of our lives are dictated by the gauze-lit nostalgia of what has been and/or the Utopian promises of what will be.
Our media, our advertising mavens, our politicians, our religious leaders, our governments, our corporations, and our increasingly globalized cultures seem to be selling us the future in new and profound ways each and every day by either maligning the past or by convincing us to return to those glory-filled days of yore.
The corporate world is rife with examples of their attempts to push the future onto us in new and innovative ways each day. The past is passé, the present is about to become passé, and so all that seems to matter is the future. We are told, with great assurance that this "new and improved" product will serve us better.
When I am bombarded with such claims, I usually have two responses: First, where's the proof that this new incarnation of my laundry detergent or my toothpaste is better? What's the guarantee? And second, what the heck was I doing using the previous incarnation if it wasn't as good as the new and improved variety?
And yet, no one questions the truth of these marketing claims and no one asks for a refund after having used the not-so-new-and-improved versions of the products being peddled en masse.
Even more disturbing in the corporate world of the sell, sell, sell mentality, amply aided by the media franchises and the advertising vultures, is the culture of fear that they feed to us. From the evening news to the talking-head shows, from infomercials to the endless chatter around us, fear is the lingua franca of our cultural and socio-economic transactions.
We are told that the future is to be feared unless we buy such and such or unless we elect so and so. We are blackmailed into bankrupting ourselves in the here and now in order to buy into a better future. Remember Y2K? That technologically feared Armageddon when a few missing ones and zeros were supposed to make the globe go dark? When people stocked up on water and generators like a chipmunk hordes nuts for the winter hibernation? When rationality flew out the window as fast as our hard-earned money in buying all the stuff that was supposed to save us?
The fear culture is wreaking havoc on us in ways that we have not even begun to comprehend. Mainly, it is wreaking havoc on our health, individually and collectively. Anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders are hideously on the rise. There are many complex and yet to be studied reasons for this phenomenon. Yet, it would seem natural that a culture in which fear is so omni-present is bound to see increased rates of the anxious, depressed, and traumatized.
Not to mention one of the worst culprits in the multi-billion endgame of fear mongering – the pharmaceutical giants. I love the ads where we are convinced that we have some deadly disease only to learn that the medical cure for it is just another set of deadly possibilities. You know what I am speaking of: Take pill "X" for allergies. You are bound to breathe easier, to be able to smell the flowers and skip gaily through endless fields of marigolds and poppies forever and a day. The down side you ask? Pill "X" may cause constipation, dry-mouth, irregular heart-rhythms, internal bleeding and in rare cases, sudden death syndrome. But at least you'll breathe more easily as your entire internal system slowly comes to a grinding halt. And when you die you'll be in an infinite field of botanical glory.
Religions across the theological spec-trum seem intractably stuck in the past. The future is filled with guilt and sin, doomsdays and raptures. The solution? Retreat into the past. Yet, fanaticism is not simply the domain of Islamic zealots like al-Qaeda or Hamas. Fascism and fundamentalism appear to be on the rise globally and in religions and sects outside of Islam. The past is precious, the future forbidden. And religious sects and leaders have not been immune from using fear as a medium of propaganda.
All this fear has us either wishing that the future were like the inimitable past or that the past would dissolve quickly into some sort of utopian future. But what of the precious present? What of the here and now? What of the need for the moment that is right here?
When we are told to live in the moment, it is usually via the message to buy now, pay later. The only way we are convinced to live in the moment is through the overwhelming saturation of our society with messages of instant gratification. We buy our way into recessions and huge personal debt, and then we are told that the best way out is simply to consume more today so that tomorrow will be more economically sound.
It seems to me that, as a rule, our individual and collective relationships to the past, present and future, need some serious reevaluation and some in-depth contemplation. Time is of the essence, as they say. Yet, how little we appear to understand the essence of time as it relates to our lives. As I go into the new year, I am hoping to find better balance in the way in which the past, the present and the future affects my life, my choices, my decisions and my life's direction. It's high time I figured this out! – (December 2002)
From November 2002
Coyote and the Cracked Pot: Ancient Parables for Modern Lives
Stories are the love of my life – tales, fictional or otherwise. I adore the art of a well-crafted story whether in a novel, a ballad, an epic poem, a screenplay, a short story, or a fable. I read to learn. I read to celebrate. I read because I love words and the ways in which words cascade together to form sentences. In turn, I respect the way in which sentences coalesce into paragraphs, washing over the reader in luxuriating torrents of entertainment, pleasure, knowledge and education. For me, language and words are to the soul and spirit what blood is to the corporeal body.
Perhaps one could say that I am a hopeless believer in the power of words (spoken or written). I am a linguistic idealist, if you will, who truly feels that language can transform the human heart, mind, soul, and by extension, the entire human condition. Words, I believe, have literally saved lives and continue to do so as the world grows evermore threatening, as the human experience becomes increasingly fraught with terror, and as our biggest conundrum as a species, our inability to communicate away our differences, morphs ever deeper into an unbridgeable chasm.
I have often turned to stories and fables, tales and histories, to help me through troubled times. We live in a society in which the self-help world of publishing has grown exponentially. Self-help, it's a quaint little term. Tell me, if it is truly self-help, why do I need someone else to write a book in order for me to help myself? Doesn't sound very self-helpish to me. My more cynical side suspects that self-help as a genre refers to the well-padded bank accounts and investment portfolios of these self-styled gurus of existential charity who prey on our fears, paranoia, insecurities, afflictions, and disabilities (social, spiritual, psychological and otherwise).
There is no shortage of self-helpers these days. The tough love tactics of Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura have given television and radio ratings an immeasurable boost. My own countryman Deepak Chopra, guru to the stars (those mortal ones in Hollywood) has become a star in his own right. Oprah Winfrey, the Goddess of self-help herself, has turned introspection and self-amelioration into a veritable cottage industry. Listening to her and the sundry gurus she brings onto her shows and into her magazine, one would think that visiting the remotest recesses of our consciousness, subconscious, id and super ego, were akin to taking an exotic, tropical vacation. Listening to her and the sundry gurus she brings onto her shows and into her magazine, one would think that visiting the remotest recesses of our consciousness, subconscious, id and super ego were akin to taking an exotic, tropical vacation. Your soul can be transformed into an existential spa, where a healed and more self-actualized you can journey infinitely. Self-discovery is the hottest ticket at your interpersonal travel agency. Just ask your inner ticket agent for discounted rates and availability!
I don't entirely disbelieve the self-help industry. I do think that there is a lot of good to it. I myself have taken advantage, from time to time, of various well-written and well-researched tomes of personal discovery and improvement. But I also know that there is a lot of baloney out there masquerading as spiritual salve to my injured inner-child, In fact, the most powerful stories, the most meaningful ones, are from our antiquities, from our ancient histories and mythologies, from our oldest folklores and traditions. I sometimes find that a short story from ancient Indian folklore or a brief parable from Native-American mythology drives home the point far more potently than an entire series of tomes on what ails the human condition.
The Guttenberg press has been a Janus-faced invention in this respect. The ancients, who didn't have the luxury of mass printings and ad-hoc felling of forests for paper, had self-help down to an enviable art. Their stories of self-discovery and self-help were short, to the point, packed a punch and drove the message straight home. The village elder, the communal griot, the spiritual sage of yore, who passed down these cherished pearls of wisdom, have been replaced by Section E, Aisle 8 at your local Barnes and Noble.
Let me share with you a couple of fables from the Old World that I cherish. The first, from ancient India, is titled "The Cracked Pot." It goes something like this: (There are variations of this lore in many other traditions as well.)
Once upon a time, in a remote village in Northern India, there lived an old water bearer. This wizened old man would walk to the nearest well, about a mile away, each day just after sunrise. Across his shoulders rested a bamboo pole, strong yet supple, and balanced from each end, dangling from fraying rope were two pots in which the water bearer carried the well's offerings back to his village. Each day he would do this just as he had for the past 35 years.
The pot that hung on his left side was a new shiny one. Copper. All gleaming and newfangled. A pot that elicited envy in many of the other villagers. On his right side hung an old earthenware pot that had been with the water bearer from the very first trip he made to the well.
The old pot had lived a long and full life. But the years of service had weathered it, and for the last year it had been living with a small yet noticeable crack on its underbelly. The crack was a result of some cruel village children who had decided to throw stones at the old pot for sport, assuming that its usefulness was long past. The proud water bearer had intervened in the nick of time and saved his favorite pot from utter annihilation.
But the pot's scar was a cause of great consternation to the old pot itself. The pot felt worthless and useless because by the time the water bearer got back to the village after pulling water from the well, the cracked pot was only able to retain about half or less of its initial load.
One morning, as the water bearer was rising, he noticed that the old pot was trying to jump off the shelf it lay on each night in an attempt to crash to the ground below and shatter into a thousand pieces. The water bearer intervened once again to save the pot's life.
"What are you doing?" asked the concerned owner.
"I am of no use to you anymore," answered the pot. "You may as well replace me with another shiny, new copper pot."
"Why are you speaking such nonsense?" queried the water bearer.
"It's true," said the pot. "You don't know how awful I feel when all I can do these days is return with just half a pot of water that you put so much effort into in carrying us back to the village. I am a burden to you. Nothing more."
Comforting the pot, the water bearer said that he was aware of the pot's incontinence. He urged the pot to look at the side of the road on their return journey from the well that morning. With that they set off to fetch the water.
Ever since the pot's nasty run-in with the mean village children, the water-bearer had planted seeds along the right bank of the dusty road and each day as they returned from the well, the cracked pot gently and steadily watered the earth on that side of the road.
That morning as the pot observed the road below its leaky belly, it saw a most dazzling array of flowers blooming along the one-mile stretch from the well to the village. And in that beautiful roadside garden bursting with vivid colors and scintillating scents, bees and insects, birds and tiny animals frolicked under the warm rays of the early sun. The side of the road that the shiny copper pot traversed was dusty, parched, barren and drab by comparison.
The cracked pot had learned its lesson.
This little folkloric fable has much to offer in our day and age for a variety of reasons. Above all, consumer cultures, increasingly pervasive the world over, have begun to create a milieu in which we are pressured into believing that everything that sparkles is indeed gold. New is good. Newer is better. Newest is best. These are the mantras of a "buy me" globalized culture in which disposing off with the old has become a veritable sport of status climbers. Sadly, in my estimation, these attitudes towards old refrigerators and automobiles have begun to transfer over to our attitudes towards human beings.
Human beings are being treated with the same detachment and ennui as we have learned to dispose of our older PCs or our scratchy vinyl LPs from a bygone era. From Hollywood to Wall Street and from Madison Avenue to Capitol Hill, human life is increasingly commodified. We are put away with as much dignity as one would a soup du jour at a fancy bistro or a flavor of the month at your local ice-cream shop. Grandma and grandpa have become passé just like last fall's Gucci loafers in black patent leather.
I am not one to believe that just because something is old it is inherently valuable or that just because someone got to live to a certain age that they automatically acquire a halo of wisdom. But I do believe that one cannot dispose of old, human life with the same callousness as one puts out the old washer and dryer by the curbside to be taken off to a landfill somewhere. And that is exactly what many of our assisted living centers and senior care centers have become - landfills for humanity's older models.
The other thing that I take from "The Cracked Pot," is that people we consider "broken" or "cracked" or "imperfect" still have a lot to teach us, a lot to offer us, a lot that they do give us. It is my observation that the more "civilized" a society becomes, the more "modern" it wants to project its outward image, the less willing it is to face-up to and cope with the imperfections, the flaws, the brokenness inherent in its being.
Those who live on the fringes of our societies, those who have been pushed out to the margins of our cultures, are often treated with the disdain, simply assuming that they have nothing to offer, that they have nothing to teach those of us privileged enough to live at the center of things, particularly at the centers of power and prosperity.
I suppose it's connected to our attitudes on human disposability in that we think that those amongst us who are "broken" or "cracked" (the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, the poor, and others outside of the norm) need to be kept from public view, need to be shoved into corners where their existences don't cause discomfort or inconvenience to those of us who are whole, who are not cracked or broken. And these attitudes affect everything from public policy to private behavior.
The second fable, somewhat reflective of the above discussion, is from Native American folklore. It goes something like this.
A Coyote, who loved to imitate things and people he was not and could never be, often found himself in a lot of trouble. He envied the stars their vast home in the universe and their constant radiance and spinning around in the heavens. He often begged the stars to take him into their realm. And the stars would often remind him that, "We are stars and we dance forever." But the Coyote still wanted in.
One day Coyote managed to trick Star Woman into taking him up to the stars where they do dance forever. In his own mind, Coyote figured that he could come back to earth whenever he wanted. So for four days and four nights they danced, Star Woman and Coyote. When Coyote says that he is ready to go back, Star Woman tells him that he can't, because, "We are stars and we dance forever!"
This goes on and on and eventually Coyote's tail falls off but the dance keeps going on, and Star Woman doesn't let go of Coyote. And then Coyote's nose falls off. Then his left ear. Followed by his right ear. Eventually there's not a lot of Coyote left to look at and Star Woman, disgusted by the way he looks, lets go of him and he falls to the earth.
It takes Coyote some time and quite a bit of ingenuity to pull himself together!
This tale, like many in the Native American traditions is a bit abstruse, a bit abstract in its messages. After all, what can we possible learn from a Coyote who falls apart while dancing with Star Woman?
There are a few things that a friend helped me glean from this stark fable. First of all, whether we like it or not, when we are falling apart (physically, emotionally, mentally, or otherwise) the dance of life goes on. Even if we don't want to participate, even if we are unable to participate, life has its own force with which it dances on all around us. One could look at this fatalistically and conclude that life is meaningless if indeed our participation is for naught in the cycle of life.
I prefer to read into this that one must continue to participate (or attempt to) in life to the best of one's abilities and with the greatest effort and stamina one can muster. Even in our lowest moments, in our times when we trust our own worth the least, we have much to contribute, like that old cracked pot. And our participation in this dance of life, brief as it may be, completely insignificant as it may seem, is integral to the grand scheme of things.
At another level, Coyote's sad story had something much more profound to teach me. First of all Coyote, unhappy with who he is, believes that imitating some greater force, some grander ideal, will bring him contentment and joy. But when he realizes that wanting to be like the stars that dance forever is not meant for him, he has to find a solution to get out of his predicament.
He thinks that all might be solved if he simply starts to get rid of parts of himself that are getting in the way. And the more he can't keep up with Star Woman, the more his falling apart escalates. My friend Terry Tafoya noted that when we try to reach some unattainable ideal (see the worlds of fashion and beauty so powerfully and relentlessly foisted upon us), we begin to indulge in behaviors that are destructive. When we become dissatisfied with what we truly are and begin to lose ourselves, this eventually robs us of our identity, our dignity, and ultimately our life force is drained away. As Nigerian author Chinhua Achebe wrote, "things fall apart."
There is so much pressure, from every-where around us (family, school, govern-ment, advertising, media, religion) to be who we are not. Or to be who "they" want us to be. Not many people know this, but in the original tale of Cinderella by Hans Christian Anderson, when the Prince's entourage comes to the house of the Step Mother and the two Step Sisters to see if the glass slipper fits, when at first it doesn't fit either sisters' feet, the Step Mother does something truly grotesque. She chops off the toes of the first daughter's foot to make the glass slipper fit and to the second one, she slashes away the heel to force the foot into the fragile shoe. Kids for several generations have grown up on the sanitized, Disneyfied version, if you will, of Cinderella.
The messages are incessant and overwhelming: If you want to fit in you have to become a conformist. Similar to the Coyote and Cinderella stories, people's desires to fit in evolve in a very self-destructive way and people start to chop things off - sexuality, spirituality, love, affection, compassion, caring, freedom, and other vital and inherent ingredients of our unique identities and supposedly irrepressible spirits.
I can say this from personal experience, and by watching those around me, that the more we try to be who we are not, the more we will damage not only ourselves but also those around us. Denial, as the clichéd joke tells us, is not a river in Africa. Denial is the river of toxicity that runs through our social, cultural, political and personal geogra-phies, eventually drowning the life out of those of us who choose to or are forced to strive to go against our true selves and fit into something we are not nor should ever want to be.
I know I have a lot of the Coyote in me. I know I have some of the cracked pot in me. But don't we all? – (November 2002)
I wanna be just like ... Reveling in debauchery! Exalting in hedonism!
That's it! I've had enough. I am through with this writing crap! I've been writing these columns for almost two years now, and truthfully I am up to my eyeballs in trying to make a difference with my pen, pencil or keyboard. This is the age of ubiquitous Cyberporn, an era of digitally manipulated news footage. The written word can't hold a candle to the lingua franca of this most new-fangled epoch in human evolution. Written language simply cannot compete.
Writing. What's that? Just another way to give myself hellish heartburn, unnecessary ulcers and Paxil-resistant anxiety. I look around at the world I am engulfed in, and frankly I'd rather be doing other things. If I can't cure what ails the world, then sod it! I may as well join in and have fun, indulging in exactly what does ail the world. I want to be filthy rich. I want gobs and gobs of glamour. I want fantastical fame. I want rollicking razzmatazz. Phooey to this job (if you can call it that) called writing! Frankly my dears, I would be much wealthier today had I spent my hard hours of writing flipping burgers at Wendy's instead.
So I say, screw this paltry pittance I make at writing. See if I care about sharing some "Straight Talk" in this not-so-straightforward world. Let Bush go on unquestioned in The War Against Terrorism (TWAT). I care a twat if Ashcroft is turning our democracy into a fascist nightmare, making McCarthy seem like a commie pinko liberal by comparison.
Let Tony Blair speak openly and flagrantly about the need for a new imperialism in Third World dumps. Bring on the new generation of colonialism! Let one or two nations rule the entire world. Oppression is good, especially for back-ward dark-skinned people. They didn't seem to learn their lessons the first time around, so they bloody well deserve a second, stronger dose of neo-colonialism. Shackle the swarthy bastards and make the good-for-nothings sweat once again for the colonizer's profit! Viva la Thatcherism!
I won't give another fig if a thousand more faggots get their faces brutally bashed in and are left to die, crucified to a fence or bleeding on the stone-cold pavement. They're only faggots after all. Ain't that the God's truth, Reverend Falwell?
I give a rat's ass anymore if the gender gap stays huge. Bang your heads into the glass ceiling. See if it bothers me. Besides, the glass ceiling is just a figment of whiny women's imaginations. It's not any glass ceiling that women keep bumping into, it's their inferior abilities they keep tripping up on. I give a toss about women whining about how they're always being dominated by men. All I know is that nothing beats good domination like a sound beating.
Just ask O.J.
I couldn't be bothered anymore if racism goes on and on and on and on. I couldn't care two hoots anymore if black people and red people and brown people and yellow people are treated differently because of the color of their skin. Frankly whose fault is it if you happen to be black or brown or yellow or red? Get your damn skin pigmentation altered if it's such a burden, such a bothersome inconvenience. Michael Jackson knows a few people who can help.
So what if the environment is going up in smoke, quite literally? Screw Kyoto. Damn global warming. Let the panda, the white tiger and any other critter that wants to go extinct do so with deadly panache. Bollocks to PETA, the animal right's activists, and other inhabitants of the lunatic green fringe. Humans reign supreme and don't forget it. Global warm-ing is as ridiculous a notion as a patriotic liberal! Ain't that right, Mr. G. W.?
Let the corporate fat cats get fatter and fatter and fatter at the expense of the lay people. That's why we call them lay people, so that the corporations can f*** them any which way they choose! Or they can be laid out flat on the floor and walked all over in the service of our new gods and goddesses - the corporate elite and the dot-com billionaires. Gordon Gecko was f****ing right on when he claimed that, "Greed is good!" Yeah! Greed is grand!
Yeah baby, the greedy road, the debaucherous path, the gluttonous life is where I am headed. I am on my way to emulate many, many people who just have it so much better than I do. Hedonistic paradise, here I come!
I wanna be just like Robert Downey Jr. Do all the drugs I want and merely get a slap on the wrist from judges, the cops and sundry law enforcement agencies. And then I get to have all these softie liberal Hollywood friends who'll feel sorry about my addiction and work all their connec-tions to get me roles on hit shows and in blockbuster films. These very same friends will nominate me for awards and eventually vote me in to win these awards hoping that I'll eventually kick the drug habit. But hey, with friends like that, who needs to kick anything!
If I can't be Robert Downey Jr., then I'll settle for any one of our many Hollywood bad boys or superstar athletes who behave just as they choose and remain idolized and rake in the cash. Yeah, that's the way to be if you're gonna get anywhere in the world! All the freedom, all the moolah, and no responsibilities or conse-quences whatsoever. I got my utopia right here on earth, baby! No need to wait for the afterlife.
I wanna be exactly like Rush Limbaugh. I want to spew right-wing nonsense three hours a day on national radio, be the highest rated syndicated talk show, and be paid gazillions of dollars in the bargain. I want mindless, spineless Neanderthals to label themselves as "ditto-heads" and worship me like the god I claim to be. I want the opportunity to whine endlessly about liberal conspiracies and a liberal media while banging people over the head with my Republican, right-wing drivel. Moreover, I truly want to be just like Rush so that I can simply tell lies, make-up facts and stories, and yet be seen as a paragon of responsible media behavior.
You know who I would really love to be like? Dr. Laura Schlesinger. That's right. Ah, the joys of being a radio psychologist without even having a degree in counseling. What's great about being her (other than her obscene amount of wealth) is that people like being abused at her hands. I'd be king of the worthless masochists all across America who would call me for advice about their spouses, their children, their sex lives and their relationship with god. And I'd rant and rave to them about how stupid they are, how feckless their lives are, and about what a lousy waste of their father's sperm they are! I'd give out my half-baked advice with scorn, derision and oodles of condescension and have people eating out of the palms of my hands.
The best part of being Dr. Laura is that I'd only convert to being an ultra-puritanical bitch after I had had all my fun in life. After I was finished with my floozing and whoring around, after I was done being an irreligious rabble-rouser, only then would I get on my high horse and exhort all others to lead lives more sanctimonious than the Pope's and Mother Teresa's put together. And once again, just like Rush, I would use a psych talk show to spread a rightwing, Republican agenda far and wide and never, ever be questioned about my motives. The icing on the cake? I'd get to slander feminists and call homosexuals what they truly are - biological errors.
I wanna be just like Ronald Reagan. I want to be an F-grade, B-film actor, who was a raving liberal before he found the God of right-wing politics. And then, I'd use my charisma to lead the citizens (only the poorer ones) down the garden path into economic despair and destruction, make sordid deals with arms dealers and despotic governments, and live on as a total hero. A legend in my time and more so after my time! In fact, I'd like that just about everything in Washington would be renamed after me. I wanna be just like Ronnie, except for the Alzheimers. Ya, ya, I want to claim I never remembered anything while my brain was still perfectly functioning. I just want to be careful exactly how far I go with that wish.
I wanna be just like Billy Clinton. Getting blown under the Oval Office desk while solving global crises on the phone. What could be better than that? Oral pleasures all the way around, at every end. And with my well-aimed DNA splatter, a tacky blue GAP dress for $19.99, would eventually be offered up at auction for a cool half-a-million greenbacks. Now that's great returns on a good investment. Right, Mr. Greenspan? And, to boot, I'd get to pardon all my scummy, criminal friends when leaving office. After all, their money got me on the top (not just of that Lewsinky babe) and I gotta scratch their backs sometime.
I wanna be exactly like Ken Lay. Make millions in the energy industry. Have my friends in the White House help me along, even though they claim not to know me at all. Wheel and deal, baby! Wheel and deal, yawl! And so what if the workers lost their entire life's savings when Enron went
bankrupt? What in the world are regular folk for? To get to the top, yawl, we special few gotta stand on someone's shoulders. And who has stronger shoulders than working guys and gals? Stop all this bruhaha about all these poor workers having nothing left for their golden years. Sob, sob! Man, that's what the liberal politicians want, yawl. People to go on their welfare schemes, people to fill their tax-payer funded soup kitchens. Ken Lay. What a guy! With his kinda wealth, I ken lay whoever I want!
I wanna be just like John Ashcroft. So what if I can't beat a dead guy in a statewide election? It was the best defeat that happened to me. I still get to rule America with my draconian fists with Georgie and Donnie by my side. And that Bin Laden guy? What a Godsend! If he hadn't been the evil-doer he was, operating on his own axis of evil, how could I have made my neo-McCarthyism a reality?
What fun it'd be. Spending lots and lots of money, developing new pogroms (or programs, whatever! - semantics, semantics) to deal with people who just don't belong in my American dream! Yeah, so a few innocents will go kaput with the bad apples. But sometimes you gotta throw the baby out with the bathwater. Especially if it's a baby born with a towel on its head. Yeah, yawl, this War Against Terrorism is gonna make the world so safe you won't know what hit you! So what if you won't have any rights? Who needs rights when you can sleep at night knowing Uncle Johnny is keeping an eye out for you. Keeping an eye ON you.
Hoping across the Atlantic I wanna be just like Tony Blair. Win on a liberal platform and then show these Limeys what conservative truly is. And I'd get to be bum-chums with Billy Clinton and Georgie Bush. And England, under my rule, would become an American territory on the west coast of Europe. Years ago, we colonized them, so it's only fair we return the favor of being completely manipulated and dominated by them. Besides licking Yankee Presidential ass is what I love best for desert.
While in England, I wanna try and be just like all the members of the Royal family. Gosh, there's no place where one can get more drugs, more sex, and more debauchery than within the confines of the Windsor estates. Most of all, I wanna be just like the Queen (although I'd pass on the ridiculous frocks and the stilted wave).
Be the richest woman in England (after that other bitch, that other queen, Elton) and still get funded by the tax-payers. See, poor people aren't the only ones living on the dole! And I get to enjoy all that colonial loot and call it mine. And so what if my children are all royal f***-ups? So what if they're all wankers, one and all? When you're as wealthy as we are, who gives a damn!
Above all my desired role models, I want to be just like George W. Bush, luckiest man(-child) in the universe. Bar none! I'd live the life of a C-grade dolt, have a wild and crazy childhood, and then sober-up (literally) just in time to steal the election and become Prez of the United States of America. Being George Bush would mean I'd have a very, very influential daddy who could get me out of trouble whenever I wanted, for whatever I had done. And I'd get to have a brother who could help me steal the election by rigging the system in Florida.
I wanna be George W. Bush so that I can help out all my friends, especially in oil and energy, who helped me get to where I am. Together we will electrocute ... uh, I mean, electrify the world! I wanna repay my daddy by settling his old scores, so I'll blast Iraq to kingdom come. Damn the U.N., screw multilateralism. As that commie, liberal, DiCaprio once said, "I am king of the world!" And don't no stinkin' fool forget it!
Sounds good, doesn't it? Ahhhhhhh! The great life!
But who am I kidding? I'll never get to be like any of these great role models. I'll never get to have that kind of fun, exert that kind of power. I'll never get to whore around, booze and drug all I want and have rich friends help me out each time. I couldn't even steal my election as class president, given that I was the only one running and the only one who voted. Heck, who am I kidding? Hedonism ain't for my kind. Debauchery is ill-fitting on someone like me.
So it's back to the keyboard, the pen or the pencil. Yeah, I may never make a difference with the written word. But, I love this thing called language. I cherish these things called ideas. I adore this realm of debate and discussion. So for now, I'll put aside my goofy dreams of being a drugged-out, whored-up rock star, or of becoming a corrupt, draconian politician, or of transforming myself into some corporate paragon of greed and gluttony.
For now, I wanna be just like .... me! – (October 2002)
The Other "F" Word: Why Haven't We Come Such a Long Way, Baby?
"Bitches," said one.
"Big, fat, unshaven, hairy lesbians," said another.
"Man-haters," answered a third.
"Bra burning, ball-busters," offered yet another.
"Whining, always discontented women who want to have everything," replied a fifth.
"Women who think it's okay to kill babies and that the government should pay for such genocide," interrupted one, with an angry edge to her voice.
"Women who hate those of us who want to stay at home and bake cookies and raise good children and take care of our husbands," argued someone.
"Sexually frustrated old maids who haven't had a good lay in a while," laughed a sophomore studying communications.
"Feminazis," chimed in another.
These are all recorded responses from my students (Fall Quarter of 2001) when I asked them to think of the first thing that came to mind when they heard that other "F"-word - Feminism. Nor was this set of answers specific to this particular group of students. Rather, quarter after quarter, year after year, when posed with the same question, the same answers emerge with uncanny consistency. If I were any more jaded, I would suspect there was some course they were all attending –"Anti-feminism 101," taught by Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Rush Limbaugh or some other ill-informed, propagandizing woman-hater.
I teach a course, a couple times a year, at The Ohio State University, on "Self-Images and American Identity via Theatre and Cinema." I have been teaching this course for 10 years now and little has changed in students' negative (mis)perceptions and (over)generalizations about feminism and feminists. In fact, if anything, the fervor of their animosity toward feminism, their inability or unwillingness to comprehend the good that feminists have done, seems to worsen with the passing years. It seems as though the only history that matters to people these days is the history that they have lived through. The past matters not a whit in how it shapes our futures, in how it has metamorphosized into the present.
I am always amazed by these outbursts, but I shouldn't be. One would think that time and experience might have inured me to such predictable responses. To be fair, I purposely word my question a bit ambiguously. In asking them what comes to mind when they think of feminism and feminists, I leave open the options of whether they would like to share opinions that they believe in or ones that they think exist in the culture at large. Yet, many do believe the above-mentioned litany (and worse) about feminists and feminism.
The particularly worrisome aspect of this experiment of mine is that as many women as men in my classrooms buy into this lopsided drivel. The women, some of them mothers, most of them working-class citizens, ranging in age from 18 to 35, seem to abhor feminism. As one female student, in a moment of stark honesty, half joking and mostly serious: "I'd rather be called a prostitute than a f***ing feminist any day of the week." (I thought it interesting, if not ironic that she chose to attribute f***ing to feminism rather than prostitution. It's these gem-like moments that make teaching worthwhile.) I wanted to reply, half-serious, mostly joking: "But if you had to have an abortion due to one of your johns getting you pregnant, wouldn't you be grateful for Roe vs. Wade and the right to choose?" I, of course, remained silent. My job is to engender thought and debate, not to proselytize.
These women sitting in a classroom at a state university, enjoying the right to an equal education, seem oblivious to the reality that this freedom of choice wasn't always the case. Many enjoy federal and private scholarships and/or government (read taxpayer-assisted) loans and seem to think that all women throughout time have enjoyed these privileges. Several of them may own homes and cars and operate as financially independent entities, seemingly oblivious to the impossibility and improbability of having such an existence not too long ago. Many of them claim to vote, ignorant of how recently, in the larger scheme of things, they were granted that most inalienable of rights.
Culturally, memory is short, proportional to this generation's attention span, weaned on the competing teats of MTV and a sound-byte saturated media/ information age. It is actually a misnomer to call this age the information age, as evidenced by many of my students. Sure, we have much more information, much more readily available and infinitely more accessible, but what's the use of that glut of information if it isn't being processed or used productively?
However, my students are not all so ill-informed, so brain-washed, and so cluelessly catatonic as to not know the truth, as to not know their history better. These students are more accurately a microcosm of American society at large. However, what I am concerned with here is examining the current myths and misperceptions about feminism, particu-larly amongst the post-Baby Boom generations.
Why have feminists come to be so vilified? Why this cultural, political, and social amnesia? Why this unwilling to acknowledge the indebtedness we owe to feminists for trying and succeeding (to a certain extent) to equalize the gender divides in this country? Most importantly, where does this anti-feminist propaganda come from and why is it largely ignored and unchallenged by the academics, the media, and fair-minded people?
The propaganda to discredit feminists, to tear them down, and to silence them is pervasive, pernicious and plushly funded. It is, by all evidenced accounts, a multi-pronged attack, usually well-cloaked and extremely well-lubricated by the slick grease of the Greenback, and surreptitiously brokered by predominantly white patriarchs with the most to lose from a true equalization of the genders.
To some degree, our news media is entrenched in the proliferation of such anti-feminist biases. (This despite the tired old tunes and worn-out songs about a liberally biased media.) Because sensationalism sells, media outlets tend to focus on the most radical elements, the most fringe aspects of groups and their ideologies. This is particularly true in the case of race, gender and sexuality.
Take any Pride day celebration and the camera lenses zoom in on the topless dykes and the ass-baring chaps. These images become the standard bearers for the entire GLBT community, just as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton are perceived to be the true spokespersons for the black communities. The same with issues of feminism. The media, in order to boost its Nielsen ratings, will focus on the most radical aspects of feminism, reducing the wealth and diversity of the movement and its contributions to mere sound-bytes about women wanting to have it all or demanding to be called "womyn," or legalizing the right to willy-nilly abortions and ad-hoc divorces.
Not only does the media contribute to these cultural myths and (mis)perceptions about feminists by marketing only the stereotypes, it also leaves unchallenged to an intolerable extent, the sordid efforts and contributions of others to this widespread (mis)understanding and vilification of feminism. Very rarely has a Dr. Laura or a Rush Limbaugh been challenged, been called to task for not only maligning feminism but for willfully misrepresenting their agendas, their needs, their hopes and aspirations. Little wonder then, that the name-callers rule the roost and their ill-begotten propaganda supersedes the truth and substance of the feminist movement. Were the media to challenge (rightfully and dutifully so) some of these miso-gynistic malcontents, particularly from the right, they would then be shouted/shut down with accusations of a conspiratorial, liberal media bias.
Academics too have been cowered into silence, forced to retreat even deeper into the recesses of their ivory towers by name-calling and labeling as liberal conspirators determined to bring Western civilization to its knees. Academics, who study and deal with feminist issues, have been maligned as aiders and abettors in the downfall of god-fearing societies by "shoving down people's throats" Armageddon-inducing ideas such as the right to choose or the right to work and raise a family. It is sad but true that the anti-feminist propaganda has succeeded in labeling anyone with feminist proclivities not only as someone who is pro-choice but as someone who believes in gratuitous abortions. Or that a feminist by definition is anti-male, anti-family, anti-children, and anti-society.
Such propaganda has emerged to a great extent from the Republican right and the self-appointed Moral Majority (read religious right) in this country. I don't actually believe that all Republicans are so unenlightened or that all Democrats are so well-meaning towards gender equality, but members of these aforementioned groups have sought, at every step of the way, not only to prevent women from attaining true equality, but have worked hard to discredit the past accomplishments of feminists. And these right-wingers, who would have women barefoot and pregnant, are working incessantly to influence everyone - rom the highest ranks of power to the average Jane in Anytown, America - into believing the worst about feminism.
We talk these days with so much superiority about those barbaric Taliban (perhaps about Muslims in general) who veil their women behind burkhas and silence every fiber of their beings. I hate to break it to you, but given their will and their way, certain factions of this country would rather have American women treated as the Taliban women are. But to say this is to be liberally biased. To suggest such things is anti-American and taboo.
With as blunt a tongue as possible, I will say this: Rush Limbaugh's categorization of feminists as Feminazis is an atrocity against women and against all fair-minded people. The term is, in its own way, in my estimation, an act of violence against women. I seethe every time I hear him glibly pontificate about the ruination that Feminazis have brought to the nuclear family, to the workplace, and to the American way of life.
In case it isn't clear to you (as it sometimes isn't to my students), here is the problem I have with the term Feminazi. By equating feminists with the Nazis, Limbaugh is equating the fight for equal rights (gender-based) with the heinous genocide of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and the disabled during the Nazi reign of terror.
Limbaugh is saying, via his twisted and maniacal rhetoric, that if you want the rights that these feminists keep harping on, then you are no less extreme than the Nazis. Or that by allowing women these rights, the so-called democratic majority is aiding and abetting a new form of Nazi-ism to take seed in America.
I don't care what anyone else says, the most radical of feminists - the largest, hairiest, most man-hating, million bra-burning, multiple ball-busting lesbian ones - could never, ever compare, even in the smallest of ways with the atrocious agenda of the Nazis. It's a slick piece of well-crafted and meticulously executed manipu-lation nonetheless, seemingly benign on the surface, particularly the way in which Limbaugh laughs off the term on his radio shows. It would be less of an issue were he not such a heavyweight in radioland. Yet his twenty million listeners are all too eager, all too mindless - they call themselves "Ditto-heads - and all too bigoted to lap up his drivel and spread the hate themselves. (Is anyone still harping that we have a liberal media?)
Rush Limbaugh is not the only one. Dr. Laura, with her sanctimonious fervor about the evil that feminists do in ruining families and children, is equally to blame in the carte blanche libel and slander of feminists and feminism. (Does anyone have the gall to tell me that Limbaugh and Laura are part of that so-called liberal media?) And yet, dangerous idiots with big mouths like Limbaugh and Laura go unchallenged. Their devious rhetoric seeps into the minds of their sponge-like listeners and in turn, this misinformation, the misrepresentations, and the outright hatred, seeps into the fabric of our culture. It is little wonder then that many of my students have come to have such a negative view of feminism and feminists.
I think that one of the greatest shames of American democracy, a constitutional aberration, is the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first proposed by Alice Paul in 1921, still languishes in legislative limbo as a non-starter. The House and Senate passed the amendment in 1972, and by 1982, thirty-five states had passed it as well. However, in order for it to become a legally binding amendment, three more states need to ratify it, and that simply hasn't happened.
The deadline was 1982, and today it is uncertain, in the event that three or more states do pass it, whether the original 35 states' votes will count towards a finalized ERA entering the annals of American constitutional and democratic history. The real shame is not simply that we still need three states to pass it, but that all the states have not rushed to unanimously amend the constitution with the ERA, guaranteeing women equality under that most sacrosanct of all American documents.
Those perpetrating these obstacles and maligning feminists are the ones who stand to lose the most when confronted with feminists' successes. The traditional bastions of patriarchy, who have already had to give up a sliver of their pie of power, pride and paternalism, are unwilling to compromise any further, adamant not to give up another iota of power, infinitesimal as it may be. If nothing else, the attitudes that I have discussed towards feminism and feminists are ample proof of the dire need of a continued struggle by feminists (and others) towards greater equality.
I would be in error to let the feminists (and their allies) off the hook here. They have not fought back against this misinformation with the fervor required to protect and preserve their hard-fought freedoms. They have slunk away in shame and fear of being called the "F"-word, of being labeled with the "L"-word. I am tired of people buying into the conservative propaganda that being a liberal or a feminist is a foul thing. Own up to these labels if you dare! Wear the scarlet "F" and "L" with defiance. Shout down, with equal might and equal dollars, the libelous and slanderous rhetoric. If not, what is the guarantee that we are not headed down the slippery slopes of America engendering its own Taliban of the West? – (September 2002)
August 2002 issue
Ignorance Is The Disease: Correct Spelling is the Cure
Last month at the Pride Festivities in town, I was ambling around, taking photographs and people-watching as I love to do. Pride parades, sanitized and mainstream as they may have become, are still a rare treat for people-watchers like me. I love the fabulously bejeweled drag queens decked out in their finest attire, shining brighter than the late June sun, strutting their stuff in all their splendor. It's a treat to see folks gather together with genuine camaraderie, celebrating truth to one's God-given identity. It's unique to see a diverse body of people – old and young, straight and gay – join together and march in the spirit of one.
I know that many within the GLBT community are dismayed at how generic Pride marches have become. Mainstreaming has dulled the political edge that marked the marches and rallies of yesteryear. One is more likely to see Abercrombie and Fitch clones by the score at a Pride parade these days than fists raised against the mistreatment of GLBT
folk across the country at the hands of fundamentalist clones. One is much more likely to see floats sponsored by Gap and Miller Genuine Draft than groups marching against the equality "gap" between gays and straights or groups genuinely angry about the perpetration of our state-sanctioned institutions of Lavender Apartheid.
Nevertheless, if nothing else, the Pride celebration is a unique opportunity to see a diverse body of people come together and share in the joie de vivre and exuberance of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gendered and an ally of homosexuals. There's even a lot to be said about the very existence of a community gathering such as this, given that much of mainstream America and almost all of conservative America would rather see the celebratory spirit of the GLBT community silenced.
As I made my way through Goodale Park from where the parade floats were lining up towards the epicenter of the march (at City Center), I saw throngs gathered up and down the parade route waiting to cheer the celebration on. Along the way, however, were also the jeerers - better organized than in the past. This year they had strategically placed smaller groups of protestors and gay bashers at several different points as opposed to having them all congregate at the State House. They were also hooked up via walkie-talkies and seemed well-coordi-nated. As a result, their disquieting cacophony and hatred were palpable throughout the parade route.
There is only one thing I will defend to the death and that is the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, because without it, all our other freedoms seem senseless. Without it all our other freedoms become impossible. So, I will be the first to say that these hapless, gutless, clueless wonders masquerading as God's messengers have every right to express their bile-filled hate and try to rain on an otherwise Prideful parade.
We know that all freedom comes at a cost, but a cost worth paying, as heavy as it may seem. Having said that, it perplexes me that these vile misinterpreters of God's creation and love are not taken to task for the ways in which they hate so willfully, so malevolently, with the foremost objective of instilling fear and intimidation in those they oppose and hate. Such voices have a right to be heard, but they ought not go unopposed.
As I walked past these anti-gay activists, it was interesting to see the reaction of others. Some simply ignored them, giving them no countenance. Others found their strategies, their propaganda laughable and snickered with derision in their ruddy faces bulging with veins about to pop. A few were enraged and shouted at them, trying to make sense to a bunch of illiterate grown men stuck in prehistoric ways of thinking and behaving.
I am not sure which approach is the best or the most useful to us as a society. Ignoring these out-of-tune dinosaurs who sing the same hackneyed garbage over and over, is not such a bad idea. After all, many of their tactics are concocted to provoke reactions, so ignoring them beats them at their bait-and-tackle game, but I worry that some might view this as passive acquiescence to their ideologies.
Laughing in their faces is brilliant. We need to laugh in the face of evil as often as we can. It is a must that we scoff at certain types of inbred and perpetrated systems of ignorance. Laughing at them weakens their spirits. So, laugh away at them, laugh in their faces, laugh down their hatred, their rhetoric and their ignorance.
Expressing anger may also be productive. It is important that they realize that their egregious exhortations against GLBT citizens will not go unchallenged. It is imperative that they know there is little tolerance for their ignorance and their cancerous fanaticism. Many in the community believe that to exhibit anger is to give them more attention than they deserve. I don't agree. If getting angry at them is what suits your needs, do so with full gusto, with abandoned zeal, and with inimitable style. They deserve worse.
My point here is that whatever mode you choose to respond to these fallen messengers of God (a God entirely of their own lurid fabrications), it is important that you continue to react and respond in order to change them, to make them go away. Complacency is ineffective. We need to increase our vigilance, pump up the activism against them, and turn their grotesque ignorance and hatred into inconsequential vapor.
I know many in the GLBT press who refuse to acknowledge these protestors when covering Pride activities. Some editors, publishers, writers, and others believe that giving them press space is to further their cause. There may be some credence to such a strategy, but I must humbly disagree. I think that we need to keep the enemy as visible as possible. Giving them visibility doesn't necessarily mean giving their cause credence, quite the contrary. Keeping them exposed gives GLBT folk and their allies, ways of developing strategies, counter-rhetoric, and counter-propaganda to whittle away at their power and their agendas.
The protestors at this year's Pride Parade were run-of-the-mill evangelical morons, almost all male. A few females had been propped up holding hate-filled signs to create an illusion of wholesome women defending the folk against the perversions of Sodom and Gomorrah. The protestors were almost all white, except for two black men, almost all over the age of forty, except for a handful of teens who are probably cadets-in-training in the service of the most bastardized God I know of.
Their slogans were also old and tired: "GOD MADE ADAM AND EVE. NOT ADAM AND STEVE." Really? You don't say! This is about as far as the ingenuity of their arguments were capable of going. There were placards reading clichés: "GOD HATES FAGS" and "FAGS WILL BURN IN HELL." Yawn! Yawn! Yawn!
However, two images disturbed me deeply and should disturb all sensible and good-thinking individuals. These are the acts of, to use a popular phrase these days, "evil doers!"
The first, albeit a cliché, is dangerous and chilling to the bone. Several protestors carried around large placards emblazoned with "AIDS ISN'T A DISEASE. IT'S A CURE!" (Incidentally, the placard spelled disease as "DESEASE" in which case I would counter that "IGNORANCE IS THE DISEASE: CORRECT SPELLING IS THE CURE!")
However, the fallibility of that statement is, to anyone with even a substandard I.Q., apparent. First of all, and most obviously, at an etymological and medical level, a disease is in need of a cure and cannot be a cure itself. If indeed they mean, as I am sure they do, that AIDS is somehow God's retribution for the sins of homosexuality, then once again they are flawed to the core. The notion that AIDS is a gay disease is as passé as Linda Evans' hairdo on Dynasty. In fact, by sheer arithmetic, many, many more straight people the world over are infected today than gay people. These protestors fail to clarify what these straight people are being cured of. What about the innocent newborn who is infected? What are the wages of his sins? What about the 64-year-old woman infected via a blood transfusion? What is she being punished for?
What I loathe about their message, in addition to the fact that it attributes aspects to my God that are sacrilegious, is that it goads people towards a mentality that we needn't do anything about the disease, that somehow, this is God's plan and seeking a cure would only encourage homosexuality and further the faggot agenda. These attitudes, dear reader, are not the privilege of a few bigots braying along the parade route. This notion that AIDS is a cosmic message to homosexuals to change their ways goes all the way up to the highest seats of political power and decision-making.
For years, early in the outbreak of the epidemic, Ronald Reagan and his cohorts refused to fund research and potential cures for the disease precisely because they believed (and shouted from the highest rooftops) that AIDS was indeed a cure to rid their ilk of the likes of homosexuals. Even today, people in seats of power, individuals holding the purse strings, still believe that to fund AIDS research is to encourage this "nasty lifestyle," to "go against the will of God." These attitudes have hampered the goals of finding a cure, allowing the epidemic to turn into a pandemic.
This attitude cannot go unchallenged. We have to shout it down. We must shut it down. Not just for GLBT folk, but for all people of the world. AIDS shows no sign of slowing, particularly in places like Africa and Asia where the toll is unimaginable and where the devastation has only just begun.
The second image that burned a searing image into my brain was that of lynching homosexuals for their so-called transgressions. Right by the Convention Center, a group of white men stood with placards. Hanging from these placards were dolls stripped of their miniature clothing. On one placard a solo male doll was dangling from a hangman's noose. From another placard were dangling a pair of dolls, taped together in the act of intercourse, also the victims of a hangman's lynching.
I don't care how jaded you are. I don't care how blasé you may have become, these images should bother you. The violence, suggested and real, in those lynched dolls, may be the first step towards the actual implementation of pogroms designed to target and decimate homosexuals. If you think that there is no link between these images of dangling "gay" dolls from a pretend hangman's noose and the actual murders of GLBT folk (simply because they are homosexual), then you are living in a very dangerous fool's paradise.
It seems a little less than genuine if the War Against Terrorism is going to be selective about terrorism and its targets, even though some of those terrorists are Americans targeting other Americans. In times of war there are always dubious standards of morality and ethics that sprout up and have to be justified. For instance, while America was involved in World War II, extricating the evils of Nazism in Europe, segregation and the lynchings of black people here at home were going on unabated. Two standards of morality were applied to Nazis and to the White Supremacists even though they were the two faces of the very same evil.
So, while we fight this War Against Terrorism, I don't think that it's beyond the pale to ask what separates the al-Qaeda from the likes of those protestors at the Pride march. If you don't see the twin-like similarities therein, let me put it another way. Would we or the govern-ment tolerate a group of individuals, standing on any corner in America with placards that read: "OCCUPATION IS NOT A STRATEGY: IT IS TERRORISM" and "DEATH TO JEWS, DEATH TO THE AMERICAN INFIDELS!" Or worst of all, how would we feel, if standing on the corner of any street were protestors with signs that read: "SEPTEMBER 11 WAS NOT TERRORISM! SEPTEMBER 11 WAS INFINITE JUSTICE!" They'd be carted off to some detention center before you could say Osama Bin Laden.
I understand that acknowledging these fundamentalist bigots is tiring and even boring, but we can't let that fatigue, that ennui allow us to lose momentum, granting them the space and time to spread their hate and intimidation even one inch further. Terrorism such as theirs, in the absence of the friction of opposition, is like a bigoted murderer's rolling stone which gathers no moss, only the blood of innocent victims.
Comedienne Suzanne Westenhoffer put a comic twist on these evangelizers and their irrational obsessions with homosexuality. She said that she was fully aware that certain Christians were awaiting the Rapture, wherein God-fearing, good evangelicals like the bigoted protestor's would be taken away to heaven by the second coming of Christ. "I am sure," she added, with a pause and a chuckle, "that many, many of us too are desperately awaiting the Rapture as well!" – (August 2002)
July 2002 issue
DECADENCE 201: On couriered haute couture and airborne canines: The Writing is on the Wall
I have acquired a strange hobby of late. I collect stories about the more insane side of affluence. I search for tales about the more ridiculous aspects of the lifestyles of the nouveau riche and (in)famous wannabes! Luckily, I have my friend Matt to keep me good company in the practice of sharing and dissecting these bizarre blurbs about egregiously extravagant existences. I have nothing against extravagance per se, but as you will see, some of these stories are beyond the pale, and border on the disturbing.
Last year, in a column titled "Decadence 101," I wrote about the fantastically ludicrous Cabbage Patch Hospital in Helen, Georgia, where a faux medical establishment has been set up to birth and take care of these grotesquely stuffed and cherubic looking dolls. I still marvel at the audacity of a culture, a society which can provide health care, Disneyfied as it may be, for inanimate dolls while multitudes here in America still go without adequate insurance coverage or health care. These are the not so subtle signs that the apocalypse is looming on the horizon.
Take the case of the extremely rich American family, here in our own backyard, who spend more in one year on their prized canine friend than most people will earn in several lifetimes. You see, this family loves their dog, some purebred pedigreed pooch. They insist that the dog be with them wherever they go, but they don't like to travel with the dog. (There are, after all, limits to familial love and affection!) The solution was to charter a private jet for the aforementioned pooch.
Yes, you heard right. The family flies on some domestic carrier, first-class of course. The dog gets its own private jet. To save the bother of chartering a flight each time - because sometimes in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, taking off for some exotic destination can be an overnight decision, and chartered flights are not always so readily available - this family has leased a quarter share in a private jet through one of America's largest private jet companies.
The dog has its own pilots, its own flight stewardess - are they to be called doggie attendants or canine hostesses? - and is served gourmet in-flight meals of prime ribs or filet mignon prepared especially by some gourmet chef. This particular habit sets the family back a mere six million dollars a year. Do you need that repeated in case you think you heard or read wrong? Yes, leasing a quarter share in this private jet for their prized pooch costs this family six million dollars a year. If some imaginative author were to invent such a story, no one would believe it, for life is certainly stranger than fiction.
How can we truly make sense of such behavior? What must it be like to be in their shoes, where there is so much wealth that six million dollars a year for canine travel is easily affordable? Most of us poor sops can only imagine, and many of us may hardly be able to do that! I can't even begin to see myself spending that kind of money on such a frivolous expenditure even if I had that much expendable wealth.
My recent sojourns in India, especially Bombay, brought me in touch with equally bizarre budget binges. Take the case of Shalini (I have changed all names), a thirty-something socialite. Shalini is the heir to a very large empire, fortunes made by her grandfather in the chemical industry. Shalini and her sister Shobha wear only designer clothing - Channel, Prada, Gucci, Versace, and other such houses of haute couture. (I am certain that they wouldn't even allow their servants to wear off-the-rack stuff from K-Mart or Target!)
Now there's nothing particularly extra-vagant about wearing strictly designer-wear. Many people do that everyday. Here's where a simple extravagance becomes a Frankenstein-like financial frivolity. Shalini and Shobha have their designer wear couriered to London every Monday so that it may be drycleaned. They are open about their complete mistrust of Indian dry cleaners and the local workers ability to handle expensive haute couture.
The part of the Shalini-Shobha story that has me fuming the most is that while the family has stashed away enough wealth (so much so that the daughters can afford to import and export their laundry), the company that they built on the shoulders of shareholders' hard-earned money has gone virtually bankrupt.
Once a blue-chip stock on the ISE (Indian Stock Exchange), their company's stock has crashed and burned like some fiery piñata, and many people have lost huge sums of money via the mismanagement of the company's assets. It is true that these two demented daughters didn't directly bring the company to its knees, but it must be acknowledged that the family's wealth has not suffered at all despite the fact that stockholders have lost, in some cases, life-savings.
This pattern is so familiar today in our increasingly globalized economy, where the average worker loses life-savings in a flash (à la Enron) or where day-to-day workers are laid off to save costs (à la the airline industry post 9-11) while CEO salaries increase exponentially. Although this is not entirely disconnected from my tales of the zany bravado of the rich and richer, a detailed analysis of corporate ethics would warrant an entire column or two in the future.
Back to Shalini. Shalini is also a renowned hostess in Bombay and often throws exotic soirees at her palatial home or at seven-star hotels. During my recent stay in Bombay, she hosted a very quiet sit-down dinner for eight. As is her habit at such intimate parties, she makes her entrance to her guests wearing a diamond tiara. When my friend informed me of this ritual of hers, I fell to the floor laughing, and then, scraping my Wal-Mart clad body off the carpet, I argued that even Queen Elizabeth doesn't always wear her tiara while hosting sit-down dinners. But what else should one expect from a bonafide wannabe?
I remember a few years ago, and I am loathe to admit any association with these two sisters of stupidity, when I actually spent an evening with them in their London home. I was staying with some friends who left town a day before I was to leave London. The two sisters had a spare room, so I was to stay with them for that one night. When I arrived, Shalini and Shobha were embroiled in a vicious cat fight with a lot of swearing, scratching, beating, and general violence. I tried to intervene, but suffered my own set of scratches. Eventually Shalini shoved her sister into the walk-in closet and locked it from the outside!
It turned out that Shalini was angry at Shobha for the egregious fashion crime she had committed while the two sisters were on a shopping vacation in Milan. The two of them had gone to Milan and Shobha had bought a pink Channel suit with matching purse and stilettos. Meanwhile, Shalini had been forced to buy a teal Channel ensemble, even though her favorite color was the aforementioned pink.
Leaving these two behind, let me tell you about Deepika, another socialite and industrial heiress. In an age when debutante balls have become laughably anachronistic, except in certain New England enclaves of pretend royalty and desired decadence, Deepika decided that she needed to have one for herself in Bombay. And because she had such a blast at the first one, she decided to make this a yearly tradition. As a result, Deepika has had a coming-out party five years in a row. Of course, in her case the coming-out party is presumably to publicize the fact that she is a very eligible young woman. Obviously no bait has been bitten and hence the successive debutante balls. This would be tragic were it not so humorous.
Of course, with her being a socialite and having pots and pots of unaccounted for money, each of these parties turned into a society affair to be remembered and talked about for years to come - not always in a positive vein. Each party has been a themed affair. The first one was titled "Gucci and Sushi."
The second year Deepika's ball was billed as a "Denim and Diamonds" affair. At this oxymoron affair (what else can you call a second coming-out party? One can only come out once and that's all!) the guests were asked to blend the polar worlds of the casual denim with the ostentatious diamond. It just so happened that Deepika's best friend was getting married the same month as this debutante ball.
Sita, the friend, had made the great faux pas of not checking with Deepika and had also scheduled a denim and diamonds party as part of her pre-wedding festivities. Deepika had a hissing fit at this attempt to rival her party and steal her thunder. She immediately sent out a letter to all 1000 of her invitees that they were to outdo Sita's guests in their diamond attire. After all, there is only so much denim one human being can wear.
The third coming-out party was a Moroccan themed party where she flew down fire-eaters, belly dancers, and other entertainers from Morocco to entertain her 1,000 guests. Indian fire-eaters and indigenous belly dancers were simply not good enough. Imported things have a lot of cache in Bombay's high society. The fourth and fifth coming-out parties were equally tawdry and sordid affairs, but suffice it to say that Deepika may be the only woman in history to have the dubious distinction of having come out five times.
Then there's the odd case of the gem-induced whiplash to the neck of a one-year old. There's this industrial family in India, let's call them the Heera empire, who are amongst the richest people in the world. Well, Mr. Jay Heera (someone I actually went to high school with) got married a few years ago and had three daughters. Being rich yet socially and ethically backwards, this family insisted that the couple somehow have a son to carry on the empire's name. Fourth try was a charm and they had a lad.
This family possesses an invaluable heirloom (one amongst thousands), a cut ruby the size of a small-sized chicken's egg. This couple, so happy that they had finally produced a male heir, threw a huge party on their estate for the boy's first birthday party. At this party, along with his diaper and designer baby wear, the couple adorned the child's nubile neck with this huge gemstone.
A friend who attended the party told me that the poor one-year-old could barely keep his head upright as the weight of the ruby pulled his neck downwards. Every time someone walked up the child to greet him, the person carrying around the child had to lift the boy's head up by the chin so that the guest could make eye-contact with the birthday boy. It's odd, the priorities affluence can buy! What's a little post-natal whiplash in comparison to displaying the family jewels!
Returning to airline related affluence, take the case of a thirty-something dot-com billionaire from Southern India who flies up to Bombay a couple times a week to get his favorite sandwich. Who said money can't buy you time? Obviously this chap has a lot of time and money to burn in order to enjoy such extravagances.
Finally, to prove that such behavior is not isolated to individuals, take the case of one of India's many Muslim sects who have erected a magnificent mosque in homage to one of their longest serving leaders. The mosque, a palatial structure, protected by a twenty-foot high wall, sits in a beautiful landscaped garden with fountains and other such Edenesque accents.
The mosque, actually an elaborate grave, has been built in an area that can only be described as a ghetto. The area, almost completely inhabited by members of this particular sect, is congested beyond belief. Most of the populous are barely middle-class at best and painfully poor at worst, living in deplorable conditions, sometimes ten or twelve in a one-bedroom hovel. That's not so unusual. This is the real politique of a developing nation.
However, one visit to the Mosque illustrates a sense of priorities as warped as those of the socialites I described above. The interior of the mosque (which in its entirety is built of exquisite marble) is adorned with the entire Qur'an engraved into the walls. The engraving of the entire holy book is done in twenty-four karat gold, and the beginning of each chapter is done in inlay work of rubies, diamonds and emeralds.
At one level, it is a work of art that is awe-inspiring in its artistry and in its sheer decadence. Yet, I couldn't help but sense how that ornate image clashed in my mind with the condition of the worshipers outside the confines of the mosque. Maybe the money invested in this grandiose structure, put to other uses, could not have completely eradicated the poverty, the illiteracy, and the other social ills plaguing the community, but it may have sent a message to the masses that the religious leaders had their priorities straight.
To be fair to this community, they are not alone. All the money that almost every religion spends on edifying icons in praise and celebration of its own glory could have better been used towards helping the less fortunate amongst each religion. I am not suggesting some sort of neo-communist or neo-Marxist redistribution of wealth. I am however suggesting that limited resources (a fundamental precept and cornerstone of capitalism) have better allocations in our increasingly polarized world between the haves and the have-nots.
At one level the above tales are great entertainment. Sensational stories about the inane habits of the (newly) rich and tawdry tales about celebrity (wannabes) are a way in which we can bring them all down a peg or two. But at another level, these tales of bizarre behavior should move us to asking a few serious questions.
Is a carte blanche consumer culture the panacea to all economic quandaries? Why has the accelerated globalization of the '90s led to lower standards of living in 2002 than there were in 1992? And most complicated (and dangerous of all), how wide can the chasm between the rich and the poor grow before everything collapses, and swallows with it, the entire social, political, economic, and cultural structure kit-and-caboodle?
To many, the sordid tales of Shalini, Shobha, Sita, Deepika, and the Heeras mentioned herein are not to be interpreted as a doom-and-gloom assessment of global conditions. In my humble estimation how-ever, it's all connected. It's a behavioral six degrees of separation, if you will. The serious lack of viable health coverage and care for millions of Americans is inextricably connected to the existence of a Cabbage Patch Health Care facility.
The extravagances of Shalini and her kin are indelibly linked to the lost fortunes of innumerable individuals who invested in stock of that family's companies. And many, many of the social conundrums of the twenty-first century like the AIDS pandemic, the communal annihilation of Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, the increase in trafficking of women for prostitution and children for labor, and global terrorism, are unconditionally birthed from the increasingly darkened womb of the divide separating the rich from the poor.
The writing is on the wall. More accurately, the writing has been on the wall. Are we prepared to listen, to read, and to learn? Will we come out at the other end of the tunnel, relatively sane and unscathed? Ponder this while I go remove my tiara and peel off my Versace trousers and Prada shirt. The courier is coming and I must get my clothes off in time to be laundered in London. Didn't you know that writing, as I do, is a very lucrative occupation these days? – (July 2002)
Saints and Sinners: Pointer's Fingers and Hypocrite's Hearts
I've been thinking a lot about sinning lately. Other people's sinning that is. Frankly, it's so much easier to focus on another's transgressions than one's own. Not that I don't have plenty of my own transgressions to focus on. Add that to the fact that I had a fairly religious upbringing and was schooled entirely in Jesuit and Catholic institutions, so guilt and transgressions were first and fore-most on my youthful mind. I still vividly remember the dragon-eyed art teacher, nostrils brimming with righteousness, who threatened to wash my tongue out with soapy water on a Brillo pad because I had dared to use the word "bastard" in casual banter with my deskmate while we were painting one of our childhood masterpieces in the third grade.
That painting has long since disinte-grated, but the memory has not. I don't know if I had the savvy then to counter her tongue-washing threats with the fact that the term "bastard" was a perfectly technical one, denoting the child of an illegitimate marriage, something I am certain the church was/is vehemently against. But I was probably too young, my debating skills still relatively nascent, and in all honesty, I was using the term as a curse word at that tender age of ten.
So sinning has been on my mind for quite a while now, but more so recently. Just last month, my sister, who lives in Atlanta and has married a white southerner, was told by a very religious scholar (from our faith of Zoroastrianism) that she had committed a sin by marrying outside the religion. To be fair to him, he also acknowledged his own transgression since he too had married a white woman outside the faith. The mind boggles at such bizarre conviction, but it is reality for some nonetheless, even in this our most modern twenty-first century.
Sometime last year, my second cousin, who lives in the city of Nagpur in India, became a cause célèbre in her own right. She is the product of a mixed-marriage and was in Bombay to receive a very high honor and award at the young age of fifteen. At this ceremony, one of the speakers, who was a high priest, used this awards event to propagandize his views on interracial marriages and their offspring.
He openly and blatantly referred to my cousin as "a bastard" during his speech. When my cousin's mother flew into a rage and took him to task, he entered into a letter writing campaign stating that he had used the term bastard in its technical connotation, reasoning that children of interracial marriages are illegitimate, since such mixed-marriages are not recognized by the religion. Of course, this rationale is all in his own estimation of the scriptures and their interpretation, a highly egregious misreading of Zoroastrianism if ever there was one.
As you can see, my family is full of sinners (at least according to these outsiders), and these recent events have caused me to think a lot about sinning, sinners and those that deem us to be sinful. Of course, the examples I've given are all very personal and subjective. On a grander scale, the notion of sinning and being sinned against are ever-present in the mass-media, as well as in our daily trials and tribulations as a human race.
Take the Mideast conflict for example. Every piece of rhetoric, every soundbyte of propaganda, every single dialogue emerging from that region, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, centers on who is truly the transgressor. When a suicide bomber from Palestine detonates himself inside a pizza parlor at lunchtime, the Israelis are quick to call it, and rightfully so, a massacre. Yet, when the Israelis march into a Palestinian settlement and kill hundreds of innocents (along with the terrorists they are targeting) they call it self-defense. So too with the Palestinians who refer to their suicide bombers as freedom fighters and call any move by the Israelis to defend themselves as terrorism.
India and Pakistan are embroiled in a similar exchange of sinner and sinned-against. In the recent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, unabated since February, in which dozens or more are being killed each day, the pitch of name-calling and blame-giving has been feverish to say the least. The Hindus claim that they went on a killing rampage of Muslims because the Islamic citizens of the state of Gujarat halted a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and set them and the entire train on fire.
The Muslims, in their interpretation of events, maintain that they had to burn the train and its mostly Hindu devotees because some of those so-called "religious Hindus" had gang raped a young woman on the train simply because she was Muslim. Thus, because they had been sinned against, the Muslims had to take action to avenge the wrongdoings. It is immensely banal for me as a writer to state the tired cliché that two wrongs don't make a right, but obviously with the examples of the Hindus and Muslims, and in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, such a cliché seems to be persona non grata.
In soul-searching through the never-ending and perpetually igniting conflicts, like the ones I've mentioned, it becomes clear to me that sinning is often seen in absolutist terms as opposed to the actual relative truth behind such transgressions. Those who must justify their actions, their deeds, their political raison d'être, have to maintain that they are the ones being sinned against no matter what the truth may be. If both sides claim that they are sinned against and not the sinner, then it is little wonder that conflicts deteriorate into the sordid stalemates that we witness today.
The human impulse to brand other people's transgressions a sin while failing to examine one's own foibles, one's own shortcomings, one's own less-than-honor-able deeds, is prevalent in human nature. Ever since evolution allowed us to stand upright (interesting word choice if I may say so myself) and gave us the opposable thumb, species Homo sapiens has turned finger pointing into a veritable art form. From the Salem Witch Trials to the Scopes Monkey Trial, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Clinton Impeachment, fingers have wagged with the same frequency as those very tongues have sought to destroy lives by branding others' deeds and very existences as morbid sins.
What is so fabulously ludicrous in these cases and others is that many of those doing the finger pointing have been no less worthy of being pointed at themselves - pointed at for sins perhaps far greater than the ones committed by the people they were accusing in the first place. Hypocrisy has become the hallmark of the true sinners of our human race. I suppose there is some warped psychology that causes real sinners to point their fingers at others in an attempt to deflect attention away from their own transgressions. History has borne this out time and time again. Here are a few egregious examples:
Take the bizarre circumstance of Roy Cohn, one of McCarthy's henchmen who blatantly targeted Jews and homosexuals during McCarthy's reign of terror against the communists. In a case of unimaginable irony, something no fiction could make believable, Cohn himself was Jewish and gay. Similarly, it is well documented in recent historical writings that many of the Nazis who persecuted homosexuals (in addition to Jews, Gypsies and the disabled) had male lovers.
We need look no further than the Clinton fiasco. Many finger pointers, such as the Bob Barrs and the Gary Condits of the world, scolded President Clinton for having had an adulterous affair. Need I spell out the incongruous algebra of such accusations from the likes of Condit? As an aside, I am sure Clinton is happy, for legalities alone, that Lewinsky didn't disappear like Condit's intern/mistress, and I am equally sure that many others wish that Lewinsky had taken her fifteen minutes of shame and vanished for good!
Barr's own multiple marriages and divorces, by the very religious standards he condemns Clinton, would also have him branded so, since divorce in the Old Testament is akin to adultery. This is not to justify in any way what Clinton did "willy-nilly with his many adulterous affairs, but to have that pointed out and impeached by other adulterers reeks of hypocrisy at the least or a dubious lack of self-awareness.
It does merit mentioning here that while those who participated with unabated zeal and gusto in the Clinton witch hunts seemed to think that his (oral) offenses in office were the worst crimes a President could commit against his country and the electorate, these very same people would defend Oliver North, Reagan and others embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair to the nth degree.
It is not a futile or facetious question to ask which is worse: having oral pleasures delivered by an intern snuggled under the President's desk in the Oval Office or making dubious arms deals under the same Oval Office table with known enemies against the self-interest and well-being of the American public? It is foolish and naive to believe that the exchange of Presidential bodily fluids is the worst thing that has gone on within the confines of the Oval Office walls or that it was the most treacherous and sordid transaction signed, sealed and delivered under that infamous desk!
The week that I was contemplating my own notions on sinning and finger-pointing, the very same day that I was fine-tuning this column, I had an interesting experience that brilliantly drove my point home. I was invited to a book launch of an amazing debut novel by the stellar literary talent of Hari Kunzru. At the event to launch The Impressionist, hosted by the British Council of India and Penguin Publishing, guests were given the opportunity to meet with the author after the formal presentation.
I was patiently waiting in line behind one gentleman who was speaking with Mr. Kunzru. The man being a little hard of hearing had to ask Mr. Kunzru to repeat some of the answers. I was enjoying the exchange and knew that I would get my turn in due course. A few minutes into the exchange between that man and the author, a woman sauntered up, seemingly impatient to fawn over Mr. Kunzru. Seeing me in line, she smoothly and deftly inserted herself in front of me!
Although shocked by her dazzling rudeness, I made the decision not to create a scene and embarrass Mr. Kunzru. Amusingly enough, as the waiter passed us with a platter full of exotic hors-d'oeuvres, she side-stepped her position to stuff her face. I regained my position in line and held fast as she tried impressively once again to get in front of me.
So what does this relentless line-thief do? She waddles over to my left and tries to insert herself between the afore-mentioned man and the author. Then, she has the audacity to tell the gentleman, who perhaps was monopolizing the author a bit, although not maliciously, that "Other people too would like to speak to the writer." The gentleman hurriedly wrapped up his conversation, somewhat embar-rassed and very apologetic. Then, the piece de resistance of this woman's gall: She steps in front of me and starts to have her own tête-à tête with the author.
This woman saw it fit to point out what she saw as another person's transgression but thought nothing of her own rudeness and brazen behavior whatsoever. I had the opportunity to call her on her dubious set of principles a while later when we were both out of view and earshot of the author, but chose not to for some reason, relishing in the thought that this is exactly the point I was trying to drive home in my column.
Sure, cutting in line while chastising a man for monopolizing Mr. Kunzru hardly qualifies as high crimes and misde-meanors, but it elegantly illustrates the fact that it is so much easier to point fingers at others than it is to identify one's own behavior as worthy of criticism.
That woman's double standards and complete lack of self-awareness are not germane to her alone, neither are they particularly rare in human interactions. Come on! We've all been there. Flipping off the driver who cuts us off on the highway as though we ourselves have never been guilty of such an offense. Or cursing the bloke driving at 50 mph in the fast lane, convinced that we have never, ever done something so stupid and irritating.
If each of us focused on our own set of behaviors and tried to improve them with time, knowledge, and acquired wisdom, then the world would already be an infinitely better, more progressive and more tolerant place. After all, if we expect to be tolerated for our own transgressions we'd better be willing to tolerate others' as well. (I am aware that this opens up the Pandora's Box of quandaries once more.)
And while sinning has been on my mind a lot lately, I haven't figured out an easy and explicit way to wrap my brain around these age-old conundrums. I do remember however, the wisdom shared with me by my mother, in the form of a poem by an anonymous author, which eloquently and elegantly hits the nail on the head! It has followed me around from the age of 9 when I first read it. Take from it whatever wisdom you can glean. – (June 2002)
Holding Talks in the Tower of Babel: Heartbreaking Homecomings and Diehard Dreams
Yet another installation of "Straight Talk" from my bizarre sabbatical (exile?) in India, where I am still awaiting news of when I will return to Ohio. This extended, forced sabbatical in my homeland has been an amazing growth experience for me. Perhaps I say that to find some comfort or value in my circumstances, but I don't think that's the reason. I really think that coming home, no matter what Tom Wolfe asserted when he said that one can never go home again, has been an eye-opening and at times heartbreaking experience.
I had my heart broken just the other day. No, don't worry, I'm not about to subject you to some sordid tale of an amorous entanglement gone wrong, some sort of exotic holiday fling gone awry. I'll leave that to the likes of Joan Collins and Bill Clinton. But I did have my heart broken the other day when I reunited with two classmates after eons.
I was invited to the Israel Day celebrations in Bombay, a grand party for about 700 people hosted with style and some decadence. I felt quaint there, given that right before I left home to go to the Taj Mahal Hotel where the party was being thrown, I had been catching up on world news on BBC and CNN, which was dominated by Colin Powell's attempts to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. It felt bizarre being at a celebration for Israel in India while Israel itself was beleaguered by a horrendous stalemate in the region.
I felt guilty sipping champagne and dining on risotto and grilled fish, ending up with exotic chocolate desserts after the meal was over. As I sat in this lush ballroom at one of the best hotels in the world, celebrating Israel's independence in 1948, I couldn't help thinking about those who had lost their lives since then and more recently in the terror that has held sway for far too long. Nibbling on the hors-d'oeuvres of mini pitas and humus and baby falafel, I couldn't erase from my mind the stories of the siege in Palestine during recent weeks.
I am not suggesting that Israel Day should not have been celebrated in India or elsewhere - as I am sure it was. Maybe in times of hostile crises, like the ones being witnessed in Israel and Palestine today, it becomes even more imperative to celebrate the fragile independence and freedoms that remain. It is possible that within the darkest hours of our existence, we must find whatever there is to celebrate and do so with defiance and chutzpah.
However, that isn't why my heart was broken. I was at this event when my childhood friend Wrathful, whom I hadn't seen since 1978, came up to me. We recognized each other immediately. It was a warm reunion and even happier because his wife is another schoolfriend of mine, Zia, whom I haven't seen since 1985.
It was nice to be back in touch with these two friends from my youth. We had shared good times, meaningful ties, and had built fond memories. In some ways it felt unreal that so many years had passed, because we were able to pick up almost immediately where we had left off, as if it had been only yesterday. But it wasn't this reunion that broke my heart either.
We updated each other about our work and our whereabouts. I explained my situation to them, my education and work history, when Zia asked me whether I was considering a move back to settle in India. I said that I wasn't sure, but eventually I would like to return to my roots and settle here, give back to my country. She said, "Don't do it. Stay there. It's so much better. This place has gone to the dogs." It was then that my heart broke just a little bit more than it already had these past 33 years of my life.
Truth be told, Zia wasn't the first to say something like that to me. I've been back in Bombay since mid-January, and even on prior trips here since moving to the United States in 1987, many friends, family, acquaintances and strangers have told me to give up any foolish ideas of repatriating to India, and each time my heart breaks a little. Let me explain why.
I love India. I adore Bombay. My roots are here even after all the years living thousands of miles away in the United States. Yet, I have never really felt as though I belonged completely, totally, unconditionally in India. On the other hand, this is where my deepest connections lie, and to be told that my desire to keep those roots alive, to maintain my sense of attachment to my homeland, is some sort of naive folly at best or delusional nightmare at worst is a heartbreaking message indeed.
The reason that many of these naysayers give is that India is losing its direction. It has lost its uprightness, its moral compass. These Indians feel that after living abroad, returning to India is like having lived in Buckingham Palace and then choosing to move into a slum. It is true that my India, my Bombay is in a lot of trouble. There is so much wrong with this country and my city that it is overwhelming. In the 54 years since Independence from colonial rule, we have had our ups and downs, but we have never risen as high or gone as far as we should have. The reasons for that are too many to enumerate.
To be fair to Zia and the others, they have said such things out of concern for me. Rahul, who had lived away from India for 9 years, chose to return home - despite discouragement I am sure - and has found life in India difficult to adapt to. The corruption here, the inability to solve problems in this country, is mind-boggling. However, at that Israel Day celebration as Zia told me that I should plan on staying put in some foreign land, I wondered if I would be told that I were an Argentinean returning to Buenos Aires or a South African repatriating to Johannesburg.
As I look around at the world, where is there a haven where corruption is absent? Where can I look across oceans and horizons to find a place where humans are not self-destructing with alarming alacrity and a chilling contempt for this fabulous gift of life? Can you direct me to an oasis in our war-torn globe and profit-maximizing world, where the dignity of life, human and otherwise, takes precedence over self-interest and war mongering? If you know of such a place, book me on the first plane, train or automobile there - I am even willing to walk - and you will be my travel agent for life!
I was watching a BBC show called "Hard Talk" where a Brazilian leader was being grilled about the appalling abuses by the police all across his country, a nation where civilian murders at the hands of law enforcement officials has become a human rights travesty of epidemic proportions. (Incidentally, why does the War on Terrorism not include these corrupt officials on the "axis of evil"?) If I were from Sao Paolo and contemplating returning to the land where the police are the worst criminals, would a Brazilian Zia tell me to stay away?
I can't tell you how sad and angry it makes me to hear about the continued suicide bombings in Israel by Palestinians. I am angry at the loss of civilian Israelis, but I also wonder how hopeless and meaningless life must be for a Palestinian teenager to willingly become a human bomb. How can life become so devalued where such acts are possible? If I were from Tel Aviv, would my Jewish Zia beg me to stay away?
I can't get over the carnage of civilians in Palestine as Ariel Sharon continues on with his campaign against terrorism. I can't even begin to comprehend living under occupation for 36 years. I who take my roots so seriously can't imagine belonging to a group of people who have no place to call home, no land to call their country. If I were from the Gaza Strip, would my Palestinian Zia tell me to stay away?
I am constantly reading about the appalling plight of black South Africans, post-apartheid. They are free now - free to live in poverty, free to have no financial future, free to have no security, free to fight each other for the scraps they have been left, after decades of colonial rule. If I were repatriating to Pretoria, would my Zia request me, in Afrikaans, to stay away?
The haunting images of war-ravaged Afghanis have been painful to watch. These people are being destroyed by the Taliban first, then by this global War on Terrorism, only to have insult added to injury by having hot dogs fall from the sky in the guise of humanitarian aid! What sort of topsy-turvy world is this? If I were a Pashtun, returning to Kabul, would my Afghani Zia plead with me to stay away?
The military state of Myanmar (formerly Burma) isn't even on most people's radars these days. Yet some of the worst human rights abuses continue there on a daily basis as the military dictatorship is annihilating the civilian population. Where is the war against these terrorists? My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Rangoon, and were I to choose to return to the place of her roots, would my Burmese Zia be justified in telling me to stay away?
I watched, intermittently, the pomp and splendor, the public mourning and powerful pageantry surrounding the burial of the Queen Mother. So much mourning, so many tears, countless flowers, lengthy eulogies, so many dignitaries, so much money to bury one solitary woman. In that same week of mourning the Queen Mum, the same media outlets covering her death and ten-days leading to her funeral would cut away to the crisis in the Middle-East.
Here, masses, at least in Palestine, lay dead on the deserted streets of towns under siege where not even family and close relatives could collect the bodies for fear of being shot themselves. Mass graves exposed to the open air, amidst the rubble of a city reduced to nothingness, no pageantry, no dignitaries, no lengthy euologies. Nothing. That one lone death in England and the many dead in Israel and Palestine. You may not think it's related, but it's all connected, my friends. From England, in recent weeks, emerges Tony Blair's gusto about the need for a new kind of colonialism. Were I relocating to Manchester, would my Limey Zia exclaim, "No way!"
I recently read of the horrific hate crime in Denver, Colorado, where a 17-year-old girl was viciously slashed and the word "dyke" was carved into her forearm with a razor. I followed the sentencing of a 20-year old Indiana boy who had, along with several accomplices, gay-bashed two men within inches of their lives, forcing one of the victims to consume his own urine. Why haven't the perpetrators of these attacks been labeled terrorists? If I were a good old Yankee Doodle Dandy, coming home to the land of milk and honey, what would my American Zia say to me?
I ask you once again, where is that place that I could belong to, that if I chose to make home, I wouldn't be dissuaded from doing so? You see, Zia's words broke my heart not because she meant ill and not because she felt that India was destroying itself from within, with its communal hatred, its unspeakable corruption, and its inability to chart out a solid future. Zia's prescient advice broke my heart because a world that we should be at home in has slowly turned into a seething cauldron of hate, discontent, disharmony, and disillusionment.
All our homes are under siege by the corrupt, by war-mongers, by corporate greed, by religious and other fanatics, by ignorance, by apathy, by narrow-mindedness, by weakness, by evil, by selfishness, by avarice, and by all the forces that deliberately seek to devalue the sanctity of life in each and every form in which it can be found. Our individual and collective homes are under siege and we have become both prisoners and jailers. We have constructed our own temples of doom, our own earthly sepulchers, our very own Towers of Babel.
When I was an undergraduate at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, I was privileged enough to work with one of Nigeria's pre-eminent playwrights, Ola Rotimi. Mr. Rotimi directed me in one of his critically acclaimed plays titled Holding Talks. In that chillingly prescient and prophetic play, I played a character, generically named "Man." This Man, obviously some sort of bureaucrat, businessman, politician, or combination of all three, goes to this poor barber's shop for a trim and shave. The old barber keels over of a heart attack mid-snip!
The rest of the play is almost one continuous monologue in which the Man discusses with the barber's apprentice the course of action to be taken in order to try to salvage the barber's life. The Man holds talks for quite some time on the best course of action, the pros and cons of alternative methods of rescue. Eventually the barber dies and is beyond help. The next segment of holding talks is about the proper disposal of the body, mainly to prevent the Man from being seen as having any responsibility for the barber's death. That play epitomizes to a "T" the very foundations of our modern Towers of Babel. We talk and we talk, and then we talk some more, and again we talk and we talk. And on and on it goes.
So, I am still at home. Thinking about home. Pondering my future home(s). Seeing homes across the world, filled with hate and destruction, teeming with death and decay, trying to stand tall in spite of all the surrounding chaos. Yet even in all that hopelessness, amidst all that carnage, I have seen glimmers of hope, glimpses of an elusive Eden, a purgatorial paradise.
Watching the continuing expansion of the killing fields in Afghanistan on television one day, amidst the footage of some mass grave in some rocky and deserted terrain, I saw a tiny red flower peeping through the cracks in the rocky crags. It was a tiny, tiny flower. Perhaps, in the absence of real mourners and loved ones, mother nature had decided to place a flower there as a token of acknowledgement for the lives that nobody else would acknowledge. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. After all, the TV newsman, probably too shell-shocked and devastated from covering the war, had not thought to acknowledge that flower. Maybe he hadn't even see it. I saw it as a sign of hope, a symbol of a possible future, a potential for beauty in the life after this war.
Watching the carnage resulting from the riots between Hindus and Muslims in India this past February, I was riveted by the image of a Hindu man who had sheltered a Muslim family of five, away from the frenzied, fanatical Hindus who were target-ing Muslims carte blanche. This man will remain faceless to most of the world. Spielberg won't make a film about him à la Schindler's List, and yet, his real actions make him a true savior, a real hero in my eyes, and certainly in the 10 eyes of the Muslims who owe him their lives.
By his example, I can see the ability in each of us to dismantle, brick by brick, that tricky and torturous Tower of Babel. In that tiny red flower, blossoming in the killing fields of Afghanistan, I see the diehard dreams of mother nature and our better selves, in that we keep coming back from the brink of total annihilation to try to make a better go of it one more time.
When we have done that - when we have consistently and cohesively worked towards a better tomorrow, when we have torn down those Towers of Babel, and when we have seen a total fruition of all our diehard dreams - I will rejoice in ecstasy, I will jump for joy, and I will care not a whit if my Biblical Zia says to me, "You can never, ever go back to that home in your Tower of Babel again! – (May 2002)
When words get in the way:The Pen is (almost never) Mightier than the Sword
For those of you that may not be aware, I have been on a very strange leave of absence since January. I have been spending my time back in the place of my birth, Bombay, India. I have been contributing to this paper via the very fancy and expensive remote control that my editor and publisher purchased prior to my leaving. My stay here has been indefinitely extended due to circumstances beyond my control.
While I have been here, in the place where I was born and raised, I have been occupying myself with sundry activities: catching up with my family, getting reacquainted with my roots, eating a lot of very good and extremely fattening food (so much so that my editor may have to change my byline photo), and trying to find some work to make a buck or two. A lot of my time has been spent thinking and writing. Sometimes thinking about writing and at other times writing about thinking.
I have extended the sweep of my pen and the targets of my Straight Talk to Bombay, to India, to her people and her most pressing issues in this the second year of the new millennium. So, for those of you who might have accused me of being an ungrateful foreigner, sometimes criti-cizing the United States, I will let you know that this prodigal son has come home to India and has been berating and blasting the ridiculous nature of social, cultural, political and economic trends of late in my homeland.
I have written pieces about the pressures that writers have, here in India to pacify the status quo, to mollycoddle the hegemony for fear of losing one's job. The press here is by and large fiercely independent and kowtows to no one. Yet, the media here is not without bias and writers have to struggle with that a lot.
Naipaul came here, to some literary conference, and threw his weight around like some overwrought diva, insulted people left, right and center, and was still treated like royalty. That's because by and large Indians are overly hospitable people . . .
"Truth" over here, like in American and almost everywhere else, falls prey to the power of the dollar and the might of the political sword reigning the land at the time.
I have written humorously and harshly about this alien life form that has overtaken India and particularly Bombay. This strange life form, carbon-based but mostly composited from plastic and silicon components has overrun my favorite metropolis. An alien race more commonly known as models is reigning supreme here. The Bombay culture has become a slave to the cult of the model. Everything is about being anorexically thin, about being deluged by designer wear, and about fitting into some sort of cloned fantasy of what beauty and success are supposed to be. We've outdone New York, Paris, Milan and London all at once. And most of the nouveau riche who can afford all this haute couture can't even pronounce the term! So much for progress I suppose.
I have written two of my harshest pieces ever as a response to a recent visit to India by this year's Nobel literary laureate, V.S. Naipaul. He is an offensive human being and someone of Indian origin whom I am deeply ashamed and embarrassed of. His boorish behavior, his misogyny, his neo-colonial rantings, his offensive demeanor and his overall degenerateness have forced me to write two very angry, very virulent and very frank letters to him on behalf of the Indian public that feels like I do.
Naipaul came here, to some literary conference, and threw his weight around like some overwrought diva, insulted people left, right and center, and was still treated like royalty. That's because by and large Indians are overly hospitable people, they suffer fools very patiently (what else would you call letting the colonials stick around for 400 years), and they are loath to insult guests on their turf. There was hardly a peep against V.S. Naipaul's behavior and the media not only kept him on the front pages for all 10 days of his visit, but they refused to publish any articles chastising this overgrown, post-menopausal brat.
And as though September 11 were not bad enough, then I came home to an India at great loggerheads with Pakistan and a country fragmented from within along the Muslim-Hindu divide. I don't know how much of the news here has made it to the United States, but we have witnessed some of the worst communal rioting here in over a decade. We have also had an unprece-dented number of terrorist attacks here, fueled, maneuvered and instigated by Pakistan's incarnation of the CIA known as the ISI. Not only have many innocent Hindus died but innocent, well-meaning Muslims have also been carried away in the tidal wave of terrorism sweeping the land. (Yet America insists that Pakistan is a friendly state, a state not to be included in the "axis of evil." But that's another virulent column for another violent day.)
The Hindu militants for their own part have given new meaning to revenge and they are stopping at nothing to get their militant voices heard. The divisions run deep, and the future of the subcontinent is hanging together by the frayed edges of a very volatile fabric of religious and cultural interconnectivity - or disconnec-tivity as the case may be.
Before this communal mayhem, came the kidnapping and execution of Daniel Pearl, a virtual neighbor of mine here in Bombay since we both lived within a few blocks of each other. There is very little doubt here (in India) that several high-ranking officials within the Pakistani government were directly responsible for his disappearance and death and that they used ordinary people as patsies upon whom to blame Pearl's untimely and heinous demise. Apparently Pearl had gotten too close to the truth about Pakistan's direct involvement with the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Thus, the truth that would have eventually flowed from his pen, in the form of words and sentences and facts had to be silenced before they could see the light of day.
It was Pearl's assassination, my own writings here, and seeing the world through Indian glasses once again that got me to thinking about the power of the pen, the strength of the written word, the longevity of language and the resilience of truth. Shakespeare probably believed in his heart of hearts that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword. But then Shakespeare lived in a time when swords were not so globally pervasive as they are today and swords were just swords.
Today the might of the sword has morphed into the inimitable strength of guns, missiles, nuclear bombs and earth-shattering (literally) technologies of war. That strength is further bolstered by the New World (dis)Order where global multi-national corporations have joined hand in glove with domestic governments to almost completely usurp power away from the people in order to enhance the bottom line and maximize profits at all costs.
The blatant collusion between the military-industrial complex, the energy brokers and sundry governments is the true axis of evil in our troubled and troubling times. In light of our now ubiquitous and new-fangled swords and the powers (political, corporate and religious) that wield them, what chance has a mere, mortal, minute pen? I am not saying that writing doesn't have any power left, but I am saying that writing can only have the power that we are able to give it, that we are willing to give it.
Censorship is one way of stripping the power from words no matter how powerful the language seeks to be. Sacrificing truth to corporate or political interests is another way in which the strength of the written word is critically attenuated. Words them- selves do not have the ability to assert their inherent power. Language cannot demand to be heard no matter how great the strength of its force. Words and language only become meaningful, gain strength and demand to be heard, if the humans behind and around this thing we call language will it to be so.
And then there are those times when language fails even the best of writers, the most eloquent of speakers. One of the more poignant things emerging for a few brief moments after September 11 was that the most prolific writers' pens seemed paralyzed and the most garrulous talking-heads seemed stunned into silence. After all, in those immediate moments following that carnage, what words could do justice to the tsunami of turbulence washing over the world? What sentences and paragraphs could amply describe the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings in the instants after the first plane found its doomed target? What language is there that can do justice to see the world return to business as usual soon after September 11, not for even one nanosecond heeding the lessons that we were supposed to learn in the wake of that indelible day of infamy?
In fact, to see history so wrongly misused, to see history paid no heed at all, to see the status quo persist despite all the hollow claims of how the world has changed, is to realize that language has been rendered impotent. It is a writer's worst fear, a penman's nastiest nightmare, an author's most banal burden to have to state and restate the same things, the same ideas, the same history over and over again. At what point do we think a reporter covering the (always re-igniting) crisis in the Middle-East reaches a point where they have said it all, seen it all and done it all at least a few dozen times over and yet we move not an inch further?
At what point does repeating the same mistakes seem futile that we might try and change our ways? How often does the obvious have to be stated and restated so that we might advance as a civilization, so that we might endure as the human race? There is no shortage of words these days, what with the pervasive proliferation of every kind of media from the Internet to a zillion talking-head shows. So if words are so omnipresent and so mighty, why has modern history become a confounding case of perpetual déjà vu?
I was privileged enough to be asked to share my writings with two varied international organizations here in Bombay recently. One was a small gathering of international women who are member of INDUS and one was a rather large assembly of people with the Rotary Club of South Bombay. I mainly read the most recent pieces I had written about Bombay and India. But because both groups have large numbers of members from overseas (U.S. and Europe mainly), I shared a couple of my Short North Gazette columns with them.
In particular, I read the one about stereotypes of Indians in America and England focusing on class, gender and marriage. I also shared the column from the February 2002 issue where I wrote about the terrorism of slavery, segregation, and the genocide of the Native Americans. I really enjoyed sharing these writings with an audience, and it was a very different experience having someone respond to my writing via my readings of them.
Through these two presentations, I came to understand the faith that people put in writers. I more closely understood the power that language and ideas can have on people. And I realized that writers can have immense power. Words once again didn't seem so powerless, so futile, so impotent. Mostly because words help people journey through bizarre events (like September 11 or the recent communal violence in India). Language allows people an entrée into coping with their own feelings, their particular insecurities and their individual sense of the world(s) they inhabit. Not everyone can express them-selves adequately by means of the written or spoken word and these individuals look to others to help them do so.
Sometimes people are afraid to ask the tough questions and they look to others to do so on their behalf. Oftentimes people are hesitant to express their points of view because they fear being isolated, they worry that they are the only ones at that point on the spectrum of viewpoints on a particular issue. So, they look to others to make the first move. Writers have power, no doubt. Power that they can choose to use. Power that they may learn to misuse. Power that many chose to abrogate in favor of pandering to the status quo or homage to the almighty dollar.
The power of writing and of the writer became keenly known to me, when at each of the sessions, following my readings, the audience asked me very provocative and incisive questions. My writing had led them to inquire further and test me more on my beliefs, my points of view and my value system. One gentleman, after hearing the piece on terrorism, asked if I thought America would win the war on terrorism.
I gasped. Stunned into silence for a few moments, a rare feat for someone like myself, I paused and tried to gather my wits. It was a large, large question. Something I couldn't wrap my brain around in the space of a few seconds. I said to him that first of all, it's not really within my scope as a writer to predict the destiny of wars. That would be too grandiose of me. And really, I have no real clue as to the future of this first war of the new millennium. But he pressed me further, thirsting for my answer, as though somehow I contained the secret that no one else seemed to want to reveal. Perhaps he wanted to hear me speak what he believed. Perhaps he just wanted reassurance. Maybe he really believed I had some answer. And it seemed that he wasn't the only one who wanted an answer to that question.
So I tried to be as honest as possible and come up with what I could in that moment. I said something to the effect that first of all, a war on terrorism was an amorphous and elusive construct at best and a Pandora's Box at worst. The very language used in trying to define the war on terrorism seems inadequate, confusing, inarticulate. I argued that defining terrorism is the crux of the matter because it hasn't been made clear that the world agrees upon some absolute definition of terrorism. Moreover, one man's terrorist is often another man's freedom fighter, and the morass of delineating between the two is itself a Herculean task, a linguistic and rhetorical quagmire.
I also explained that I thought that in the past, the very countries leading the coalition against terror, mainly the United States and the United Kingdom have themselves engaged in awful acts of sustained terrorism, acts which they have not really acknowledged as such. Thus, if indeed this war of terrorism was going to continue unabated till all the "evildoers" had been ousted and vanquished, and if the coalition was honest in its claims about targeting any and all nations which harbor terrorists, then the United States and United Kingdom would have to eventually attack themselves. In an act of rhetorical and war-based cannibalism, the United Kingdom and the United States would have to attack themselves for harboring terrorists and for creating terrorism in their own unique way.
But clearly this is a ridiculous endgame in the war on terror. It is a silly prediction and one flawed to the core. Ridiculous, silly and flawed because the powerful dictate the terms on which any war is fought, and because inevitably the victors get to write our history. I was arguing purely on a theoretical basis, and we know that in war and politics the only theory that holds any water is that no theory holds any water whatsoever.
However, I did claim, to that gentleman, who had raised this awesome question, that yes America would win the war on terrorism unequivocally. He was stunned for a moment because he had not expected such an answer from me. America will win the war on terrorism, because it will say it has done so. America will win because the military will tell the politicians that they have. The politicians will tell the media. The media will tell the people. The people will tell each other and in turn these people will tell the world.
Thus, even if the war on terrorism is a fiasco, even if all the lofty goals are not met and if double standards rule the day, rhetoric and propaganda will assert that the war on terrorism has been won any way you parse it. Sometimes history is written with a lot of blood on the tip of a sword. And sometimes, victory is asserted by the carefully calculated concoction of words, language, rhetoric, propaganda and ideologies. Maybe in that case the pen will be mightier than all the new-fangled swords our worst, self-destructive natures have wrought.
Saints and Sinners When some fellow yields to temptation
And breaks a conventional law,
We look for no good in his make-up
But God! how we look for a flaw!
No one will ask, "How tempted?"
Nor allow for the battles he's fought;
His name becomes food for the jackals
For us who have never been caught.
"He has sinned!" we shout from the housetops,
We forget the good he has done,
We center on one lost battle,
And forget the times he has won.
"Come, gaze at the sinner!" we thunder,
"And by his example be taught,
That his footsteps lead to destruction,"
Cry we who have never been caught.
I'm a sinner, O Lord, and I know it,
I'm weak, I blunder, I fail.
I'm tossed on life's stormy ocean
Like ships embroiled in a gale.
I'm willing to trust in Thy mercy,
To keep the commandments Thou'st taught,
But deliver me, Lord, from the judgement
Of saints who have never been caught!
A Beautiful Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
Hollywood is a strange, strange place. It's a world unto itself. The laws that Hollywood operates under don't necessarily apply to the real world. It's a place that is both mythical and hyperreal. And to say that Hollywood oftentimes defies logic would be as great an understatement as saying that James Cameron's film Titanic is not a masterpiece. But that's another kvetch for another column.
One of the more curiously strange things that Hollywood has done recently is the retelling (if one can even call it that) of the life story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash via the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind.
A Beautiful Mind is a film that has garnered a lot of critical attention, some of it deserved, and it is a film that has raised some serious questions about Hollywood's notions of biographical films. One shouldn't look to Hollywood as a bastion of reality and truth, but when they claim to be telling the story of a real person, we should hold them accountable to some basic standards.
Directed by Ron Howard (television's Opie in another reincarnation and Happy Days's Richie Cunningham in yet another) and starring Oscar-winning Russell Crowe as Nash, A Beautiful Mind is a film about which we should all be asking a lot of serious questions.
Nash was a mathematical genius, educated at Princeton, who struggled for many years to find his stride as a scholar and theoretician who mattered. He wanted, like so many of us, to stand out from the crowd, but he was socially awkward and emotionally stunted. Nash's work in the field of mathematics led him to formulate theories which have subsequently found very valuable applications in economics, business, war strategizing, and even evolutionary biology amongst many other fields. It was this wide applicability of Nash's work that led the Nobel committee to award him the coveted prize in 1994.
Nash's genius was also accompanied by a stark onset of schizophrenia in his early twenties, and he continued to struggle with this oftentimes debilitating condition for a long while after that. The schizophrenia caused him to lose touch with reality and because his condition went untreated for many years, its severity and its long-term ramifications were exacerbated. Couple that with the fact that back in the 1940s through the 1970s, the understanding and treatment of the disease was not as complete nor as sophisticated as it is today.
Nash's genius and his struggle with schizophrenia are treated with equal amounts of honesty and Hollywood's hallmark emotional manipulation. That's not all bad either. The film's emotional sweep is captivating and energetic. Howard's directing, amply aided by the lush cinematography of Roger Deakins, helps us to enter into the troubled and gifted mind of Nash in an intimate and interesting way.
The film is well-paced, and it balances the pathos with nice humor, mostly ironic and self-deprecating, on the part of Nash. The film's strongest element is its virtuoso performance by Russell Crowe as Nash. Nash's journey from struggling mathematician to debilitated schizophrenic and return to some semblance of normalcy is stunning to watch. Crowe disappears into the role completely with his accent, his gestures, his body language, and his every emotion. Just like his masterful acting in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, Crowe proves once again that he is one of the best actors of his generation.
To watch Crowe age as Nash from 20 to over 70 years is one of the most stunning transformations I have seen on screen in a long while. (Much credit has to be given to the utterly convincing makeup used to aid Crowe along in his metamorphosis.) Crowe's performance is beautifully enhanced by his costars, particularly Jennifer Connelly as his student and eventual wife. As she struggles along with his increasing dementia and delusional hysteria, Connelly never misses a beat.
Nash's schizophrenia manifest itself in a number of different ways. As the film depicts it, his mental state allowed him to imagine people he never knew, and made him experience situations and events that he never went through. His delusions were mainly centered around an "imaginary friend" from his Princeton days and a CIA operative who supposedly dragged Nash into covert operations during the heyday of the Cold War.
So what's the problem with this film? Well, the issues here have nothing to do with what the film has shown. It's what has been deliberately omitted that is troubling and worth scrutiny. Nash was (is?) at least bisexual and some have even claimed he was gay. It is true that Nash was married twice, the first time abandoning his wife and children, but the film makes not one single reference to his sexuality. To be more appropriate, the film makes no reference at all to his bisexuality. In fact, the film makes him out to be a Casanova with a penchant for calculus, a modern day Romeo with rabid schizophrenia.
I am not the first to raise questions about the deliberate omission of Nash's sexual orientation from the film. In answer to these concerns, director Howard has come back with the response that he deleted the sexuality of Nash so that audiences would not conflate or associate his gayness with his schizophrenia. At first glance this argument seems very sound. Upon first listen, the rationality behind Howard's justification is seductive. After all, gay people have struggled long and hard - and still continue to a certain extent - to dispel the misnomer that gayness as a sexuality is a mental disorder.
It was only as recently as the 1970s that the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. It has been a long road to convince the world that homosexuality is not an affliction of the mind. And truth be told, if you listen to radio personalities like Dr. Laura or to politicians like Senator Trent Lott even today, they would still have you believe that homosexuality is a disease, an affliction like alcoholism, or a proclivity similar to a murderer's affinity for killing.
So, when Howard said that he deliberately chose to ignore, along with screenplay writer Akiva Goldsman, Nash's bisexuality, it was easy to buy into it hook, line and sinker. It seemed almost benevolent that this huge Hollywood director was looking out for the image of homosexuals. It was very gratifying to note someone in Hollywood seemingly not wanting to perpetuate myths and negative stereotypes of homosexuals. It was somewhat refreshing to hear that one of Hollywood's power brokers was not going to exploit gay people for the sake of entertainment.
Frankly, and I say this with a modicum of restraint, Howard is full of it! His explanation is as flawed as the falsehood that homosexuality is a mental affliction. It's a seductive lie to say that Nash's sexuality is omitted so as not to let the ignorant masses perpetuate the notion that schizophrenia and homosexuality are related. Actually, it's an insult not to omit so important an aspect of a man's life, but it's an even greater insult to expect us to buy that flimsy argument.
First of all, if Howard could not make a legitimate film in which he could convey to his audiences that sexuality and schizophrenia are not equatable, then he isn't worth his salt as a director. In fact, he should have passed the project to a more competent and more sensitive director who was up to the challenge. I would have gladly referred some auteurs up to the task.
Secondly, it is a ludicrous assumption and mistake on Howard's part to believe that audiences would equate the two. He gives very little credit to his viewers for their intelligence and worldliness. Besides, those who believe that sexuality is a psychological defect were hardly going to go see A Beautiful Mind to have that myopia reaffirmed. Those that believe such garbage will believe it no matter what Hollywood tells them or doesn't tell them. The rest of us are aware enough to know the difference between the disorientation of brain chemistry and the normalcy of the spectrum of sexual orientations.
More importantly, such a ludicrous argument would never have been made for another type of outsiderness. A Beautiful Mind is not the only biographical film to be made recently. Around the same time, Michael Mann released his biopic of a much more famous individual, Muhammad Ali. Ali tells the story of this man's genius as a pugilist, but it also relates his journey as a black man, as a man who converted to Islam, and as a man struggling with brain damage from his incomparable yet brutal boxing career.
Now, what would we have said if Michael Mann had made a film that chose to ignore Ali's race? After all, black people too have struggled with the misconception that they are mentally backwards and inferior to the white race in their intelligence. How would we have responded if Mann had said that he didn't want to portray Ali as black because he didn't want people associating race with mental incompetency. We would have laughed our way away from the movie theaters. We would have been enraged. Appalled!
What if Ali's director and screenwriter had said that they were going to excise those bits from the film that dealt with his journey through Islam. Particularly in light of the fact that September 11 resurfaced the (mis)notions that most Islamic people are fundamentalists and terrorists. Therefore, in order not to equate Ali's genius with terrorism, the filmmakers chose to ignore that very important facet of his life. We would have rejected such a claim precisely for what it is - balderdash!
The point should be clear. We would never think of accepting such a flimsy argument in the case of race, or gender, or some other aspect of a whole person. I am not suggesting that A Beautiful Mind should have been all about Nash's bisexuality. That would have been equally ridiculous because his sexuality is just one aspect of who he is, albeit an important one. However, to make a film negating that integral part of his being is to render gay people invisible once again, an experience that gay people know all too well.
Howard could have argued, had he wanted to, that after viewing his film, people could have equated genius and a Nobel Prize winner with being gay. Why is that not possible? Because we still tend to associate the negative with homosexuality and insist on rendering invisible the celebratory connections to gayness.
Howard's misguided concern for the image of gay people has actually done them a disservice. He missed the opportunity to tell the world that a gay man can and has won a Nobel Prize. That a gay person can be a genius and achieve greatness and affect the world in a positive way like Nash did with his widely used theories and ideas. Howard and the film gave up a great opportunity to show the world that gay people are as great and as flawed as their straight counterparts.
As a last note, I believe that one of the ways in which a marginalized culture can measure its movement towards equality is by the sheer and total normalcy in which they are depicted within the mainstream media. Yes, there are gay people who are schizophrenics. Yes, there are gay people who are flawed. Who have afflictions. Who are not so nice. But there is a whole spectrum outside of that as well. And Hollywood would do well to start depicting that entire spectrum. We used to be at a place where gayness was the stereotyped comic relief. We were in a milieu where homosexuality was used to reference deviance. But Howard's rendering gayness as invisible is hardly the solution. In fact, it is as destructive to misrender reality as it is to not render it at all. Half-truths are still half-lies. But lies nonetheless! – (March 2002)
The Many Faces of Terror: Evildoers Before 9-11
Since September 11, this column has focused solely on the events of that catastrophic day and the seismic ripple effects of the atrocities witnessed the world over. Every time I finish one of these 9-11 columns, I feel that it's time to move on. But then it seems as if there is still so much left unsaid and that so much of what is going on today continues to reverberate with the ghostly echoes and ghastly apparitions of that fateful day.
To me, September 11, 2001, is an important date not merely because of what was written into history books by the events of that day of infamy, but rather because of how it reflects past history and how our actions, in light of that date, will prescribe and proscribe the writing of future histories. It was a watershed moment, not only because it was a horrendous act of terrorism, but because it was a test for all of us, to help us examine ourselves and take proper action to prevent future mistakes.
Let me explain this. Unequivocally, September 11 was a day few will forget. It was a morning that will forever seem dark despite the clear, sun-filled skies that the hijackers took advantage of in order to find their ill-fated targets. It was an awful, awful day. It was indubitably an act of terrorism. More correctly, it was a day filled with multiple acts of terrorism. And it has been said, ad infinitum, that this was the worst act of terrorism this land has seen. And of course, if they could have gotten away with it, the public, the media, and most of all, the government would have tried to make us believe that it was the worst act of terrorism in the history of humanity.
Nevertheless, I must, respectfully and most humbly, disagree with the assertion that September 11 was the worst act of terrorism this land has seen. It may seem like that to us right now because it is perhaps the worst act of terror this generation of Americans has known. It may seem the worst because we seem to have a very short attention span when it comes to history. And this is not to mitigate in any way, the suffering, the loss, and the destruction that September 11 brought, particularly to those who are directly connected to the victims. How-ever, this land has seen far worse and far more extensive periods of terrorism in the past. It's not politically correct to raise such contentious issues, but times like these need straight talk.
The terrorism I am referring to in particular are two egregious systems of oppression that have marred the history of this land since that fateful day in 1492 (and some would argue, even before then), when the systematic genocide of the Indians began as the explorers and settlers sought to appropriate the land for themselves.
The other system of terrorism I am referring to, of course, is the long-lasting and pervasive practice of slavery that was used to jumpstart the economic prosperity of this country, even before it was what we know as the United States of America. In fact, it would not be too great a stretch to argue that the seeds of America's current prosperity and power were sown long ago via two heinous systems of unmitigated terrorism against the Native Americans and the slaves.
The genocide of the Native Americans was nothing short of a well-orchestrated and precisely executed system of terrorism. How else to explain the fake treaties luring them into their own self-destruction? How else to explain the willful extermination of multitudes by subversive means, such as the smallpox blankets that were sent into one of the tribes under the guise of charity and goodwill. Say what you want, but this was their land, and what was done in order to wrestle that away from them was, in no uncertain terms, terrorism to a "T."
It was a well-known fact that the Indians had no immunity to diseases like smallpox; and yet, the deliberate introduction of those germs into their populations, knowing full well that they would die, was terrorism any way you parse it. Yet, how many history books teach that aspect of American history today? How many people are aware of that and similar atrocities meted out to the Native American populations?
Slavery, like the treatment of the Native Americans, was start to finish terrorism at its worst. One doesn't have to be a so-called "liberal softie" to realize that the systematic capture, tortured transportation, the dehumanizing auctioning of human bodies, and their eventual life-long passage into servitude was plain and simple terrorism. Hopefully, there should be no debate left on this issue, the issue that slavery was at every level, physically, psychologically, morally, and emotionally, a life-long sentence to continuous acts of terrorism.
As if slavery itself had not destroyed the very soul and spirit of these forced immigrants and their progeny, then abolition gave way to another system of terrorism, politely called segregation. Segregation was a vile misnomer. It's genteel sound, in comparison to the sound of the word slavery, suggested a mere separation of the races, but history has shown that it was at least as brutal, if not more violent at times, than slavery itself.
First of all, even though slavery was abolished, many blacks had few options outside of continued servitude and posts as indentured servants for the rest of their lives. Instead of being whipped into submission, many were lynched into oblivion. Instead of being made to live in deplorable conditions on the plantations, they were "allowed" to live "free" in the dehumanizing milieus of segregation. And instead of being sold into slavery, their supposed freedom was bought at the cost of truly living as equals. Under segregation the literal chains of slavery had been replaced by the shackles of an equally unequal and separate society.
I can hardly imagine a worse form of terrorism than being targeted and then dragged from one's family in the dark of night to be taken to a gathering of terrorists like the Klansmen or other such "evildoers" and eventually hung and torched to death. For those naive enough to believe that lynchings are a thing of the past, one only has to look at the death of James Byrd in Texas a few years ago, where he was hog-tied like an animal and dragged to his heinous death, his ankles shackled to a chain attached to the back of a pickup truck. Byrd was black and his terrorizers white.
The most important question here is not whether the 9-11 attacks were the worst acts of terrorism. A more helpful line of questioning might prompt us to ask why we haven't labeled the above-mentioned death of James Byrd an act of terrorism? Why have we not called a spade a spade and declared, indubitably, that the genocide of the Native Americans, the system of slavery, and the atrocities of segregation were sustained acts of terrorism? And these were not acts of terrorism brought on by outsiders, but were barbarous brutalities committed from within, intra-terrorism or domestic terror-ism, if you will.
Why do many still behave as though slavery were a distant memory that has no continuing effects on the fabric of American culture? Why do many prefer to ignore the ravages of the past, hoping that if one doesn't mention the unmentionable, then perhaps by some divine intervention or by some magical sleight of history those events that we are ashamed of will disappear? Why do we insist on ignoring the past only to repeat the same mistakes in the present and future?
I fell to thinking about these assertions after a visit to the JungHaus in Columbus, the belief that 9-11 was the worst act of terrorism this land has seen, along with the ever-increasing claims of unprecedented emotional vulnerability experienced by individuals since September 11. I hap-pened to be researching the JungHaus for a feature story and decided to attend one of their monthly discussion groups on a Saturday morning. The topic for that morning had to do with the lingering myth of the Titanic and its many different incarnations in contemporary culture.
The discussion, being held soon after 9-11, eventually led to talk about that day and the American response to those events. Many reflected on their sadness, their sense of loss and despair. Much was mentioned about the uncertainties of the future, and someone brought up the increasing sense of vulnerability that Americans had been exposed to in the flash of a second.
During the course of the discussion, one of the participants, a blind woman, who had been relatively quiet to that point, referenced this newly found sense of vulnerability on the part of many Americans. She argued that as a blind person and as a woman, she had been accustomed to the vagaries of vulnerability on a daily basis for most of her life. She politely but honestly said, "Welcome to my world."
That potent and poignant moment clarified a few things for me. First of all, these individuals who were announcing their newly found sense of vulnerability had probably lived rather blessed lives. One could even say sheltered and privileged. And there is no doubt that prior to 9-11, Americans took for granted many things that are everyday "real politique" in other places. The second thing that the blind woman made me realize is that even in this day and age, many many Americans continue to live with copious amounts of vulnerability on a daily basis because they are outsiders, because they don't fit into the mainstream and because they don't conform to the established norms. They are victims of terrorism at the hands of their own countrymen and countrywomen.
I would argue that there are people of certain cultures, pushed to the fringes of society, who are terrorized on a daily basis in this country by their fellow countrymen. In fact, we even legislate terrorism into legitimacy in the guise of protecting traditional values and norms. Need examples? Here are a few.
I have argued before, that in America today, even with many advances made, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people live within a state-sanctioned system of segregation I like to call the Lavender Apartheid. By many accounts, activist groups have estimated that GLBT people enjoy over 1,600 fewer legal protections and privileges than their straight counterparts. Is this not a form or terrorism? Many, many GLBT people live in fear of being fired from their livelihoods because of their sexualities. What's worse is that in most places there are no laws to protect them from unlawful job discrimina-tion. Is that not a form of terrorism?
To deny people their humanity, their equality, the same protections under the law is another way in which history has shown how we terrorize the weaker people.
Many gay people, particularly in certain geographical locales, live in holy fear of being gay-bashed, oftentimes with fatal consequences. Even when perpetrators of gay bashings and hate crimes are caught, they often get away with it by using the gay panic defense - a legal allowance that claims that their fear of falling prey to the advances of a gay person forced them to defend themselves by bashing the gay person. Is this not terrorism?
Yet, these very same people who have convinced us, and rightly so, to fight the evildoers from abroad, would scarcely agree that the system of Lavender Apartheid is a system of state-sanctioned terrorism voted in by the masses. Furthermore, they would be loathe to argue that slavery, or segregation, or Native American genocide were all systems of terrorism.
I could go on and on. The issue here is not to prove whose terrorism is worse or more heinous. I am really not interested in semantically parsing and coming to some definitive conclusion as to the worst act of terrorism this land has seen. That is futile and petty. To its particular victims, that specific act of terrorism is the worst and we must learn to respect that. But more importantly, we need to acknowledge a few other things.
First, terrorism isn't always about flying planes into skyscrapers or detonating car and truck bombs outside important buildings. To deny people their humanity, their equality, the same protections under the law is another way in which history has shown how we terrorize the weaker people. It is patently illegal to fly planes into buildings or to explode bombs to kill people. These are indubitably acts of terrorism. But just because we pass laws stating that gay people cannot marry or that they will not be protected under employment laws doesn't mean that those laws are not morally reprehensible.
Secondly, we need to learn that terrorism isn't always a threat from the outside. There are plenty of individuals and groups who use their power, their hegemony, their status under the law to terrorize their own countrymen. After all, the terrorism of the Holocaust was in part inflicted by the Germans on other Germans who happened to be Jewish. The evildoers of lynchings killed their own countrymen. James Byrd was dragged to death by other Americans. Matt Shepard was crucified by fellow Yanks. The list is endless.
Hate is hate and terrorism is terrorism. The victims care not whether the terrorist was internal or external. It doesn't change a thing for the victims if the terrorism is patently illegal or if it is disguised under the garb of legal sanctimony. But victims of terrorism do care deeply when we fail to call the act of terrorism to which they are subjected exactly what it is - terrorism to a 'T.' – (February 2002)
Terrorism101: A Socio-Cultural Lexicography and Etymology of the "T"-Word
Harsh times necessitate humor, and sometimes, from the depths of despair emerges the most astute and relevant comedy. It took only a few days after the September 11 events for comedians and even the not-so-funny to use the terrorist attacks as fodder for their humor. Some of it was downright racist, jingoistic, and frankly, not funny at all, and a lot of it was simply weak, but some of it was exceptionally good and hit the bull's-eye squarely in the epicenter of our collective human folly.
One of the funniest pieces of post-9/11 humor came to me via e-mail. In this digitally manipulated photograph, President George Bush was walking past the viewer, waving, smiling broadly. Bundled under his arm is a particular edition from that ubiquitous series of black-and-yellow self-help books, this one titled Terrorism for Dummies. At the time, I needed that laughter desperately and still chuckle to myself when I conjure up that image.
I found it funny not because of the gratuitous stab it made at the oft-debated and much-maligned intelligence of the commander in chief, but because, in light of the 9/11 attacks, we have all had to take a crash course (pardon the pun) in terrorism. We have all had to go searching for an understanding of the way in which these events have forever changed our world and the deliberate ways in which we will continue to be impacted, well after that day of infamy has receded, chronologically at least, into the distance.
Listening to the pundits and public alike debate the specter of terrorism over the past three months, it has become abundantly clear to me that the word is as murky and contentious as the acts themselves. What exactly is terrorism?
In fact, I would argue that to its victims, the constructs of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few, are nothing short of terrorism. Who is undeniably and categorically a bona fide terrorist? Knee-jerk and neatly concocted answers to these questions are aplenty. Yes, Osama bin Laden is a terrorist and what he willed into being on September 11 is dastardly terrorism. But bin Laden is not the first nor the last who has or will force us to confront the many variants of the "T"-word.
However, even in the bin Laden case, there is hardly universal acknowledgment about his terrorist leanings and his acts of terror. Hard as this may be to stomach, bin Laden has his ardent supporters, and if he is martyred in the future, that following is likely to increase. But I don't want to debate that nor do I want to spend any more space parsing his nexus to terrorism. It has, however, been made amply clear to all of us the world over, by Bush and his team of crusaders, that this war against terrorism is not going to be over any time soon. (As an aside, it must be noted that this is the best re-election strategy a president has had in a long, long while.) We have been warned that the defeat of the Taliban, the dismantling of Al Quaeda and the demise of the "evil one" bin Laden, will only be the tip of the chilly iceberg of terrorism. (As another aside we need to be reminded that war is not bad for everyone. The oil barons and war barons are laughing all the way to the bank!)
In essence, we are being prepared for a decade or more of United States led, and United Nations and NATO sanctioned, nation building and geo-political and governmental realignments. The Taliban is not the only government that will be toppled. Afghanistan is not the only nation that will be reduced to rubble and then bequeathed a new leadership scrambled together by Western deal makers in Bonn or Berlin or Helsinki or other such "neutral" site chosen to negotiate stratagems of nation (re)building.
Thus, as new countries and new organizations are chosen as future targets in this lingering war against terrorism, we are going to have to define who these terrorists are and we are going to have to defend the criteria that deem their actions to be terrorism. I don't think that defining these two terms is as clear-cut as most would have you believe, and neither are there some sort of universally prescribed para-meters where there is going to be no argument about who is being weeded out and who is being brought into that ever-widening cache of terror. The Saddams and the bin Ladens of the world are the easy and mostly undebatable examples.
I also don't believe that trying to come to an understanding about the "T"-words is an exercise in futility. On the contrary, if there is to be any real justice and progress in the aftermath of 9-11, we have to define very succinctly, very precisely and very deliberately what terrorism is and who fits the profile of a terrorist to a "T".
It has been seen the world over, in the days and years prior to September 11, 2001, that one man's terrorist is oftentimes another man's freedom fighter. It is indeed a matter of which side of the fence you are sitting on. And history provides us with no consistent answers, and with few, if any, indisputable truths about the nature of terrorism and its perpetrators.
Take for example the many countries who fought against colonial powers for a long, long time, including these United States of America. Many formerly colonized people, after years of oppression and being backed into a very thorny corner, lashed out in an attempt to acquire their freedom, sometimes by committing acts of terror against the colonizers. They bombed the property, wealth, and symbols of power of the colonial occupiers. They killed, maimed and tried to debilitate leaders of colonial rule, struggling to dismantle these brutal Empires one colonizer at a time.
Yet, would we call these seekers of freedom from colonial rule terrorists? Are acts of dismantling an oppressive regime such as colonialism or apartheid inherently acts of terrorism? It seems to me that the answers to these questions would vary based on who was being asked. The colonizers would, and did at the time, claim that those that sought to destabilize colonial rule were indeed terrorists. In fact, any freedom fighter was "profiled" as a terrorist and their rights and liberties were squelched in order to curtail the spread of such audacious notions as independence from colonial rule. But ask these same questions to the colonized and they would hardly call themselves terrorists or their acts of desperation terrorism. By that very token, many who sought American independence, way back in and around 1776, would be terrorists. And in fact, history has told us that many in the United States who stood up to the British were also branded and punished as terrorists.
Perhaps the most contentious situation today is the Israeli-Palestinian morass. Here too it can be heard in the incessant analysis of the situation that one side's terrorist is the opponent's freedom fighter. Similarly, even though the Irish situation seems to have taken a turn for the better recently, it won't soon be forgotten that to the Protestants, the Catholics were the terrorists and vice-versa. It is also very interesting in the case of the recent coalition building to fight terrorism in Afghanistan that the United States had to closely ally itself with Pakistan, a country which, by all recognizable accounts, not only funded and supported the Taliban, but has also funded rampant and heinous acts of terrorism in the Indian province of Kashmir. Of course, the Pakistanis would tell you, and the United States today would agree, that these Kashmiri separa-tists are not terrorists, but rather they are that most noble of breeds, the freedom fighter!
I am not raising these contentious issues of trying to figure out the subtle nuances of terrorism and terrorists merely to add fuel to an already out-of-control fire. Neither am I fostering this debate to somehow excuse terrorism and terrorists by making the definitions seem arbitrary and easily manipulated. I am trying to make clear that without a coherent understanding of what terrorism is, fighting it over the next decade or two becomes at many levels that most futile of Quixotic acts - tilting at windmills!
This problem of definitions, of precise etymology and of understanding such murky terms, is not specific to terrorism. Racism, hate crimes, sexism, homophobia, and a host of other terms seem to have the same problem of shifting definitions and dual justifications. In fact, I would argue that to its victims, the constructs of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few, are nothing short of terrorism.
And this brings me to a point that I have not seen hide nor hair of since September 11. No one has talked about how the failure of the Racism Conference sponsored by the United Nations (held in Durban, South Africa in August) is both symptomatic of the times we live in and a syndrome of the age of terrorism. Once again, I need to clarify, for those blinded and deafened by over-simplification or jaundiced jingoism, that I am in no way suggesting that the failure of the conference justified the attacks of September 11. NOT AT ALL!!! What I am saying is that the breakdown and rancor that marred those talks need to be looked at carefully if we are to find a fulfilling and lasting solution to the epidemic of terrorism asphyxiating the world right now.
That conference on racism was a dismal failure, clearly demonstrating the inability of the global community to talk with each other as opposed to talking at one another. The breakdown of talks on racism was indicative of the deep divide that separates us all. In issues of race, nothing is easy, and yet it is the hard work that has to be done, that must be done.
I was stunned by the inability of the global community to come to a consensus that both colonialism and slavery were crimes against humanity. Really, is there any question in anyone's mind that both these heinous institutions were anything short of barbaric and criminal? Is there any doubt left that the ravages of those dehumanizing systems of oppression still live on today from the ghettos of east Los Angeles to the jungles of Africa? Does anyone still want to hold out hope that slavery and colonialism had any redemp-tive value whatsoever? Can anyone tell me, with a straight face, and looking directly into my eyes, that colonialism, apartheid, or slavery were not systematic regimes of terrorism, bitter start to bitter finish?
My point is that if we can't agree on even so egregious a set of crimes, how in the world are we going to dissect and deal with more murky problems? If we can't reach consensus on such black and white issues (pun deliberately intended), how are we going to deal with the more gray issues that confront the world? The very fact that we still have to debate and agree upon the terrorism that was slavery and colonialism, is a rotten, stinking shame. It is a blight upon humanity that we can't acknowledge the terrorism of the past and yet think we can do something substantial about the terrorism of the present and the future. Such is the hubris of those who can't or won't learn from history.
I think it was extremely ironic, and prescient too, that the conference on racism was such a debacle only to be followed by the September 11 attacks. All of a sudden, we went from the time of the conference where no one agreed and people walked off in all directions across the globe, to a moment where we all had to come together, where we all had to agree about the evils of terrorism and the immediate need to uproot that diseased and dehumanizing jungle. Why, however, did it take a crisis of Titanic proportions for us to find ways to seek a common ground? Why did we have to get to a day like September 11 before we could realize that we have to talk to each other, that we have to work for and with each other, and that we have to find solutions to those problems that have been dogging the human race for a time long before that recent day of infamy.
One final note. Unless we acknowledge and deal with, as a global community, with the misdeeds of the past and present, we will never be able to move forward with any lasting sense of stability, peace and productivity. Unless we deal with the institution of slavery once and for all, we will never see racial harmony across the United States Unless we, swiftly and precisely, deal with the brutality and terror of colonialism, we will never see a truly united globe, free of tyranny and tragedy. Unless we speak loudly and openly of the evils that we have perpetuated in the past, peace will be ever elusive, a chimera of ghostly and ghastly proportions. Strange or not, bedfellows of the human race are we all. We have only one sheltering sky under which to find our common humanity, our karmic conclusions, so that we may rest peacefully, forever, without terror or trepidation. Without further trauma and tyranny. – (January 2002)
From the December 2001 issue
The Ground Zero Within:Walking Down That Lonesome Road Within the Sounds of Silence
War is indeed hell. As this war against terrorism blasts along, more or less unabated, since October 7, there has been a sense of unreality pervading the world, the lingering surrealism that invaded our hearts and minds on September 11. But lately, there seems to be an encroaching sense of "been there, done that." And indeed, maybe we are all returning to living our lives as normally as possible at the behest of the President and his team. (As an aside, it needs to be noted that the throngs of shoppers at the new Polaris Mall are certainly taking the President's urging to heart. To see them crowd the aisles and shop till they drop, one might begin to wonder if this is actually an economy in recession and a country at war! But that's another column for another day.)
So much has been said about Ground Zero of the September 11 attacks - those acres of charred, scorched earth and still-burning ruins. So much has been made about the epicenter of that day of infamy - from the utter disbelief surrounding the events to the fact that Ground Zero has become a sort of clarion call to our better selves. The literal ground zero will still smolder a while and it will be the defining moment for a generation of Americans coming of age in the aftermath of these events. Ground Zero will live forever, even once it has been cleared up and rebuilt. No matter the actual heights of prospective buildings being planned to replace the World Trade Center; the psychological Ground Zero will loom taller than any structure imaginable. It is understandable then why people would try to uproot themselves from the carnage of Ground Zero, with all its physical and psychological ramifications, and make an effort to return to normalcy. And normalcy itself has a different definition today than it did prior to September 11.
As we return to that much urged normalcy, it is inevitable that the social and psychological glue of Ground Zero that was holding us together is starting to weaken. The strange bedfellows, bundled together in the crazy fallout of the events of September 11, are awakening to ask, "How the hell did we end up in the same bed together?" The surreal anomaly of bipartisanship is slowly reverting to the normalcy of partisanship. The coziness between the Republicans and Democrats is becoming undone. Once again, party politics and party-based agendas are the common language being spoken, the two sides putting away the recently found talk of working together towards a common cause as American above all else.
I am actually glad that we are returning to normalcy, at least in the arena of politics. Not because I am happy to see the discord return or to see the party rancor escalate, but because it's real, it's genuine, it's not a front put on in light of tragic events. I am not saying that all the goodwill generated in the wake of September 11 was fake or duplicitous. However, let's face it, a lot of it was forced togetherness. And it was good while it lasted, but snakes and mongoose are not built to cohabitate together, so the inevitable is at hand: we are returning to normalcy.
Partisanship is the bedrock of a political democracy such as ours. Is it wrong to stand up for what one believes? Is it wrong to have genuine differences on policy and strategic issues based on a philosophy that is party-based? I think that the answers to these questions should be a resounding no! There have to be checks and balances regardless of the crisis at hand. There has to be genuine debate and consensus building, not consensus imposition, in times such as these. And most certainly, in times like these - particularly in times like these- one cannot let leaders and policymakers have carte blanche (on either side of the fence) simply in the name of unity-building, patriotism, or the safety and security of the country.
There was a case of tragic irony recently as the two sides negotiated (bickered?) about what economic stimulus package to pass in light of the growing recession, exacerbated by the September 11 events. The Republicans wanted to see 100 billion dollars in tax relief, mostly to large corporations, become the panacea to an ailing economy. The Democrats wanted to give a bulk of any tax relief to the working people. Understandably, the President was unhappy with the latter solution and warned that he would veto any such bill because, as he claimed, he wasn't going to allow the Democrats to use a tragedy to advance their personal party and political agendas.
It's not so much my point that this is an utterly laughable hypocrisy - after all, isn't 100 billion dollars in tax relief, mostly to corporations, using the tragedy to further the Republican agenda? The point is that, with our eyes still wet with the tears of grief and with our vision masked by the plethora of ubiquitous flag waving, we are impaired from truly seeing what is going on in the highest seats of power.
Here's a case in point. The airline industry was in a lot of financial hot water well before September 11. And it is true that the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon did adversely affect the industry even more. The government, as one of its first acts in the aftermath of the bombings, passed a 15 billion dollar relief package to the airline industry. The industry was clearly using the tragedy to wipe out its past management debacles at the expense of taxpayer's dollars. They got the money and still laid off a record number of airline workers while CEO and other top honcho bonuses remained unscathed.
I am not trying to raise the specter of class warfare. I am merely pointing out that even a tragedy of this magnitude has not brought out the best in all of us. The ground zero of greed and selfishness within some people seems to have been unaffected by the tragedies at hand. And yet, where is the public outcry about such blatant abuse of corporate and governmental back-scratching? It's drowned out behind the constant singing of "God Bless America" and the crescendoing flap-flap-flapping of ever-increasing flags. I am not chastising the patriotic. I am simply noting that the overkill of unthought through patriotic fervor may blind us to truths about our-selves that we need to be ever vigilant of. I think that the lyrics from James Taylor's a cappella ballad "Lonesome Road" might be a good guidepost as we move forward. Listen closely as he sings:
If I had stopped to listen once or twice
If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes
If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart
I'd not be on this road tonight.
I don't want to continue harping about the bad side of human nature, given the amazing outpouring of help and hope that people across the world have been displaying in surprising and unrelenting ways. But in times like these we need to be even more vigilant about people who will take advantage of our grief and fear to further their own warped, myopic and misguided agendas.
These are unsafe times. There is no question about it. Our days are filled with insecurity and vulnerability. Yet, short-term fixes to these troubled times must not override the long-term freedoms and liberties of anyone. We cannot sacrifice the sense and sensibility of the future to the hysteria and hyperactive howlings of the clear and present dangers. If we wake up ten years later, having defeated terrorism, but having fewer freedoms and liberties, then the terrorists will have died but terror itself will linger longer. Much longer. Victory over the terrorists, no matter how resounding, will seem shallow and subverted in light of our diminished and self-imposed limits on justice, freedom, equality and liberty for all.
Frankly, I don't trust the overzealous nature of this Justice Department, which is becoming increasingly dogmatic and draconian. While I believe that it is necessary that good, strong measures be taken to uproot the evils of terrorism, here and elsewhere, some of the laws and policies being pushed through seem totally unwarranted and grotesquely misguided. We are setting ourselves up for many abuses by the government in the future, under the guise of national security and averting future terrorism. Sure enough, right now these policies will be used to target foreigners, "suspected" terrorists and other outsiders. But rest assured, in the future, these policies will come back to haunt us as their tentacles spread beyond, to those who are considered "normal" or "true" Americans.
There is a lot of talk about rounding up people with visas from certain countries and holding them indefinitely without the Justice Department having to make public the charges or evidence being brought against these individuals. If this isn't neo-McCarthyism, I don't know what is. There is increasing evidence that the anthrax attacks were perpetrated by a lone, belligerent individual from within the United States. If this is true, will the American people stand by as all single men in this country, perhaps all white men, with any hints of anger or rebellion, are rounded up and detained indefinitely, with no due course of justice, and without the presumption "if innocent until proven guilty"?
The steps we take today will mark the road we will have to walk down for a long while to come. Therefore, we have to tread carefully and with vigilance now so that we don't awaken tomorrow on that road to hell, dutifully paved with "good inten-tions." Listen carefully to the prescient words of the amazingly eloquent Maya Angelou when she writes in her "Song for Gloria Knight and the Pips," about the true dangers of metaphysical and existential blindness.
Take a moment show some kindness
For the folks who thought that blindness
Was an illness
That affected eyes alone.
Yes, a lot has been said about ground zero in New York City, but very little about the same sense of devastation and destruction inside each one of us. Within all the recent coming together and solidarity, there still remain deep divisions and deeper wounds. These internal ground zeros existed well before September 11. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their classic "Sounds of Silence," we are "People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening." It is time we look at the ground zeros, smoldering and burning, festering and fetid, inside each and every one of us. It's time to send in the rescue teams to that ground zero, within our psyches and souls, so that we may all emerge healed, whole and harmonious, standing taller than the World Trade Towers, side by side, stronger than ever before. – (December 2001)
An Untitled Future and "Still I Rise!"
These are the worst of times. These are the worst of times. By the time this column sees the light of day, the watershed events of September 11 will almost be one month old. The millions of tons of rubble will still be mountainous, the efforts to diminish the death and destruction will be unmitigated, and the memories of those ghastly images will be as fresh as those wounds that were brutally gashed open with demonic precision on that fateful day.
This is not the column I had intended to write for this issue. I was working on an essay about the failed United Nations convention on racism in Durban, South Africa. And then September 11 came, a day that will certainly live in infamy. The world was topsy-turvy and to have ignored those events in this column seemed unseemly. So I started anew. A fresh blank page, but the words just didn't flow.
So much has already been said about those events and this first war of the twenty-first century. So many searing images have already been planted forever in our individual and collective psyches. What can I say that would have any meaning? What could I possibly add to this discourse that can help heal the blistering and bloody scars still festering in our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls? I debated long and hard about asking my editor to print the header of the column and leave my usually allocated space blank or block it out in black as a sign of mourning and as a truthful admittance to the fact that there are no words to aptly describe what we have all been going through in these last few days and weeks.
Very often when big stories break, journalists and pundits alike feel the need to fill the airwaves with words and sentences and paragraphs, rarely admitting that sometimes it's okay to simply step aside and let silence allow for space to think, to process and to feel. It's okay as a journalist to admit that one has only questions and no real answers, for the time being at least. But the pressure is there to fill the airwaves, the pages, and the screens with as much as one can. And in all that noise, post destruction, it is hard sometimes to find the truth, to seek out what is real and what is not, and to be able to learn so that in the future such horrific mistakes might never be repeated. But history tells us otherwise. Our collective Achilles' heel is that we allow history to repeat itself. Our memories are shallow and we soon forget what we should always remember. Humanity has consistently and collectively been a very poor student of history.
I have heard so many different opinions and so many divergent tactics about what the future should bring that I am confused and confounded. Truth be told, it's very hard to assimilate everything in the light of such events and in the ensuing barrage of media coverage. And in times like these one has to be very careful about what one says and what one espouses because, understandably, everyone's nerves, feelings and emotions are frayed, raw and exposed like never before. Indeed, in times like these, the truth sometimes becomes a victim of paranoia, patriotism and power struggles. In the wake of such carnage, reality becomes garbled and rationality is the true collateral damage.
In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, the only thing I am certain of is that those innocent people on those planes and in those buildings that day didn't deserve to die at all. So, what follows is a series of thoughts, impressions, feelings, ideas, opinions and questions, in no particular order, about the historic events precipitated by the devastation of September 11, 2001.
Watching those planes fly into the building, from all those various angles, some in close-ups, others in slow-motion, were surreal to say the least. It was like a bad Stallone or Schwartzanegger film come to life. Those images will forever live with me as I am sure they will with millions of others. But, why did we have to see them played over and over and over, ad nauseam, for days on end? What was the value of such an oversaturation of these horrific images? Was it to keep the fire burning inside us? Was it to numb us into a certain place of hopelessness and helplessness? Was it to give fodder to the abundantly paranoid opinions of pundits that the world was indeed coming to an end? Who knows why they played those images over and over, but in the heat of the moment we were too scared and scarred to ask those questions of our media.
I was deeply moved by the images of people coming together to help those at ground zero. I am amazed at the courage and sacrifice of people who ran to help in any way they could. I was humbled by the stoic courage of the rescue workers, risking life and limb to find survivors at any cost. I have been elevated by the generosity of people in raising funds to help the victims and the rescue workers. It is amazing to see people of all castes and creeds, of all shapes and sizes, of all hues and colors coming together towards a greater cause. But why does it take such a colossal waste of human life for us to drop our guards and break down our walls so that we may reach out to each other with the dignity and compas-sion that we all deserve on a daily basis? Why do we wake up to our common humanity only when it is too late?
I was saddened to see the families of the dead and the missing trying to do anything and everything to find their loved ones. Those individuals, holding photos and names, walking the streets, hoping to find signs of their lost ones, chilled me to the bone. As of this article going to press, I am still awaiting the news of my cousin who worked on the 92nd floor of the first tower that was assaulted by the plane. While the numbers are finally stabilizing, many will never ever have closure because a lot of the remains will never be identified let alone be recovered.
I have been spiritually uplifted to see all the makeshift shrines celebrating the lives of the dead and the valor of the saviors. Those candles from the television screen have warmed me plenty as I sit in my apartment, the chill of fall already here, miles away from ground zero. I have seen the pain and confusion and devastation in people's eyes, and my own being has been consumed by all those feelings and a whole lot more. I was moved to tears when I saw images of men and women in the Middle East, in their traditional garb, lighting candles and laying flowers at makeshift shrines, mourning the loss of American life. This image was particularly moving to me because these are the same people who, in light of the terrorist attacks, have been villainized en masse, and yet, they came out to show the world that underneath the turbans and hijab (traditional scarf) these Muslims and Arabs had been just as affected by the carnage in Manhattan.
I have been scared for my friends and loved ones. And for myself as well, truth be told. I have been appalled at the behavior of some Americans and British who have taken this opportunity to release their pent-up racism and hatred for people who are different. Many of my friends from India, who could be mistaken for Middle Easterners have been taunted around the city with venom such as "Terrorist!" or "Why don't you go back home now!" I have a friend in Kentucky who was beaten up and sent to the hospital on the evening of September 11, and I have had other friends locally who have been physically attacked and assaulted because they looked Arabic or Muslim.
I am filled with a blinding anger for the heinous murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man in Arizona. Sikhs, who hail from Northern India, wear turbans much like Afghanis and other Muslim people. But to ignorant hate mongers, fueled by bigotry and racism, a "towel-head" is a "towel-head" and they murdered an innocent man. Not that the hate crime would have been any more justifiable if they had targeted the right kind of turban. Seeing images of this Sikh man's widow and family, weeping copiously at the funeral, I was filled with a deep, deep sadness. A sadness that springs from the ever eternal cycle of hate. Hate begets hate and there's no debating that!
I am overcome by real fear about what the future holds. I fear that this profiling of people from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle Eastern nations will become the way of the land. We haven't seen the worst of it yet, and already many people who can be identified as such are having a hard time leaving their homes to do mundane things like grocery shopping. Or they are changing their appearances, hoping to pass as other than Arab or Muslim. Sound familiar?
I am grotesquely horrified by the rash of laws that the government is planning to pass in the light of these atrocities. Attorney General Ashcroft has talked about immediately signing into law, edicts that would allow the government to detain and imprison any foreign national who "looks or acts suspiciously." They want carte blanche to indefinitely detain, without judicial process, using "secret information" anyone that they feel like arresting. While I understand the impulse behind such draconian measures, they are simply that - reactionary impulses to create a false sense of safety and security while massively eroding and diminishing civil liberties and democratic foundations. If indeed these measures go into law, the terror they will wreak on innocent citizens will be monumental, and civil liberties will be the most innocent collateral damage of this terroristic carnage.
The innocent will suffer the most. Those hardworking, regular, non-fanatical individuals will be swept up in the hate and stereotyping while the guilty will abscond, scurrying underground, avoiding the light of day. There was the case of the TWA flight in September where the passengers refused to let the plane take off because three Middle Eastern men were on board. Then there was the Delta pilot who refused to fly the plane as long as the one Arab man on board was still seated on the plane. Racial profiling is happening from the highest levels of government to John Q Public. The tears in our eyes are being replaced by suspicion and paranoia.
Airlines in this country are already entrenched in a system where individuals from certain countries are being labeled as "Selectees." These selectees, once tagged, will remain in Big Brother's databases forever, and their every move, their every breath and their every word will be watched and overheard. Sound familiar?
There is talk of having foreigners carry around special identification cards to be able to track their whereabouts at all times. The very label of "selectee" is disturbing to me, reminiscent of the concentration camps and their labeling hierarchies during the Holocaust. The Scarlet Letter "A" may as well be replaced, in this hellish opening to the twenty-first century, by the Scarlet "F" for foreigner. Xenophobia, and its dastardly twin jingoism, will become the raison d'état of social interactions in the new millennium. We have a lot to fear in this new age of cultural paranoia and increasingly hardened lines of racial and cultural segregation. Hate begets hate and ignorance begets ignorance.
I don't remember a similar profiling of white men after the Oklahoma City bombing six years ago. I don't remember people refusing to go into federal buildings as long as white men were in or around the vicinity. I don't remember talk about ID cards for white militia men to track their every move. I can hardly remember any targeting of other white men and their being murdered just because they were the same color and gender as McVeigh. And I certainly don't remember the bombing of all militia headquarters and states that harbored these home-grown terrorists.
I am encouraged by the words and actions of leaders and citizens including George W. Bush, who have emphasized that the targeting of innocent Arabs, Muslims or their look-alikes will not be tolerated. Ten years ago, such political savvy and such wisdom, on the part of leaders and the public, would have been unthinkable. I hope that we keep ever vigilant about letting the innocent live their lives without fear and terror of attacks, false detention, and other losses of civil liberties. I hope that America will continue to educate itself, geographically, politically, historically and culturally so that long after the terrorist attacks on New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington., D.C., we don't become terrorizers to those who sim-ply happen to belong to the same ethnicity or religion as those dastardly murderers.
I am enraged by the hypocrisy of our government for having temporarily lifted its military sanctions against homosexuals in the armed services. Now that the country needs them in its hour of danger and utter crisis, it is no longer an anathema to be gay and serve one's country. It's okay in times of peace to live as second-class citizens and yet in times of war be sent out on the front lines to die for that same motherland that treats one so unfairly. So now that gays and lesbians will be serving, without the fear of being discharged for being homosexual, what will happen once this war is over, however
long it takes? As such, they will be tagged as gays and lesbians, and once they return home, those very same labels will be used to discharge them from the services. History repeats itself uncannily. We did the same thing with our African American soldiers. Living in segregation and under less than equal situations at home, they were sent out on the front lines in World War II and during Vietnam. And when they came home, if they did, they were pushed back into the ghettos of hatred and ill-opportunity.
I was appalled to hear the dim-witted ignorance of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they proclaimed that America had brought this on itself by tolerating homosexuals and feminists and other such vermin (in the minds of these fanatical zealots). Really, dear readers, how different are these ignoramuses from those brainwashed followers that bin Laden has wrought? Yes, bin Laden and whoever else has perpetuated the mass attacks on innocent civilians have killed upwards of 6,000 faultless individuals in one fell swoop. But the hate wrought by Falwell, Robertson, and those of their bilious ilk, have ruined and devastated as many, if not more lives, by their constant spewing of racist, homophobic, sexist and other hate, that forces some people to live in constant shame, fear and terror. Hate is hate and terrorism is terrorism whether it is flying a plane into a building or whether it is brainwashing people into treating people differently and violently just because they are black or gay or something other than what Falwell and his cohorts deem normal.
I am enraged by United States Rep. John Cooksey, a Republican from Monroe, Louisiana who claimed that "If I see someone (who) comes in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over." Really, can anyone honestly tell me how different and less pernicious his brand of hate and ignorance is from bin Laden's?
I am baffled by the fact that Oliver North is a pundit and expert being sought after for his opinions on how to rid the world of terrorism. This is the same man who created and consorted with terrorists during the Iran-Contra debacle. He has helped harbor terrorists and create them, and today he is an expert on how not to encourage terrorism and its evil mongers? I am equally confounded by the fact that Osama bin Laden, like many upstart dictators and demagogues, was once trained, funded and put in place by the CIA. He is the Frankenstein of our new millennium, and little do we know that the terror he hath wrought has been, at least in part, inculcated by those very same people against whom he has now chosen to terrorize.
How many more times will we create and prop up evil men when it suits our needs, only to have them come and bite us in the ass, when their allegiances and political motives change with the prevailing global winds? How many more times will we fund and train and plant such hateful bastards only to have them bite the very hand that has fed them?
I am genuinely concerned about the future, about this protracted war, and about our salvation in these dark, dark times. I have no solutions. I am no military expert. I am no political pundit. But this is what I do know. We better get the right bastards and do them in for good. We better not kill innocent people elsewhere and become the new terrorizers. More importantly, as we look to formulate foreign policy and a newer New World Order in the aftermath of all this, let us make sure not to repeat the same mistakes that have landed the world where it is today. And most of all, let us learn how to sustain our current state of compassion and love and hope always, every minute of every day in the future, so that little by little, inch by inch, iota by iota, we can chip away at the monoliths of hate that loom across the world, taller than a hundred World Trade Towers stacked one on top of the other. Anne Frank, in her famous diaries, had chronicled how in spite of everything she still believed in the inherent goodness of humankind. It is time to find our own inner Anne Franks, so that, as Maya Angelou has said, "Still I Rise! Still I Rise!" – (October 2001)
From India With Love: Gender, Class and Dowry in America Through an Indian Looking Glass
"Hellooo! Mai nem ees Babboo und ai em frem Eendeeia!" That is often how people expect me to speak when they find out I am from India. I know this because as soon as they find out I am from the subcontinent, they ask, with the surprised look of a deer caught in headlights, "How come you speak such good English?" Flummoxed by this odd inquiry, I often stumble, mumble and bumble my way apologetically by saying something to the effect of, "Oh well . . . you know . . . I was brought up speaking the language." They still look at me with bulging eyeballs, unable to comprehend why I don't talk like those convenience store owners on television shows or like many of those caricatures of Indians in films. After all, if Seinfeld shows us an Indian, then that is exactly how they all must be. And if some white actor plays an Indian in a Hollywood film, then that is precisely how they all must act, speak and behave. Well, frankly my dear, I do give a damn!
I am exhausted by the stereotypes that exist out there. I am tired of all the generalizations. And I am a bit peeved off at the inability of people to educate themselves about different people, cultures and places on this planet. There is a world out there beyond the land of the free and home of the brave. America is not at the center of everyone's universe, to put it rather bluntly.
In particular, there are certain perceptions of Indians that are popular in the Western world, particularly America, that get my goat like nothing else. In particular there are three issues that I would like to clarify here: The notion of the oppression of women in India, the idea that India has a class system like no other country in the world, and the system of dowry in the context of Indian marriages.
India, truth be told, has had as part of its history a very pernicious caste system that was religiously motivated in order to keep people at a certain level of subservience, servitude and servility. That caste system, which is in essence a class system, exists today as well within certain communities and within certain demographics. Like slavery in the U.S., the caste system was deemed illegal a long time ago. And like slavery, it persisted long after the system was made unconsti-tutional. So I will be the first to admit that India has dealt for a long, long time with the demons of the caste system, and like any systematized methodology of oppres-sion it has been hard to completely uproot.
But what makes me froth at the gills is when people refer to the Indian caste system today as being the way of the land there and somehow as being uniquely and backwardly Indian. Common comments include: "How can you guys have such an archaic system of class?" "It's such a shame that you guys continue to encourage the existence of this awful system of oppression." "So what caste do you belong to?"
Well, if people bothered to find out the truth, they would quickly learn that most people in India do not live within the caste system anymore. There is a class system but here's a news flash! America has a class system too, and there's no escaping it. Americans don't like to admit to the rough realities of a huge class hierarchy and divide in this, the land of milk and honey. Americans, for a very long time, have deluded themselves and whitewashed the truth about the very pernicious, the immensely pervasive, and the extremely perilous truths about class and culture in this country.
Because America was founded as a country by people who were escaping the claustrophobic classicism of England, there has been this all too easy assumption here that class was somehow deliberately left behind on the other side of the pond. Ha! The joke's on you. America has always been and is today every bit as much a class conscious society as any in the history of the world. And one of the byproducts of laissez-faire economics and rampant capital-ism, for better or worse, is the cementing and aggrandizement of the class system.
Class exists on this continent from the penthouses of Manhattan and the ghettos of Harlem to the mansions in Malibu and the barrios of southern Los Angeles. Class exists in America from the school system and the health care industry to housing and transportation. Class has existed from the historic system of slavery to the current systems of racism. And class issues have proliferated across the land dividing people by race, by gender, by religion, by sexuality, by geography, by ethnicity, by occupation, by education, by nationality, by culture and by a slew of other identifying characteristics.
So, the next time one is wont to assert one's superiority, one's false sense of advancement and progress, and one's ignorant idea about the West being so much more sophisticated than the backwards East, please look in your own backyard before pointing those long fingers at others. Don't think for one moment that I am denying the existence of class in India, but India is neither unique in that regard nor are Indians the best at playing that game.
And just when I thought that perceptions about class in India were completely misguided over here, what a treat I was in for when I heard people's ideas about how Indians treat their women. Once again, let me state right at the start that India has had a less-than-proud history when it comes to women's rights issues, particularly within certain religious, economic, regional, and social demographics. To use a certain advertising cliché, India has come a long way, baby. And to use a certain poetic truth, we have miles to go before we can rest.
But once again, to state the obvious, India is neither unique nor particularly worse than any other nation, including the so called, "westernized," "developed" and "first-world" nations. Have you seen the recent statistics referencing rape and other violent acts against women in the U.S.? Have you seen statistics about the pay differential by gender for the same work with the same qualifications? Have you seen how women in America still have to bear the unfair share of the burden of work, family and societal obligations? Have you heard about the glass ceiling here? Have you seen the way in which feminists are constantly derided, chastised, ridiculed and referred to as Feminazis by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his "dittoheads"? Have you seen how certain religious groups in the U.S. try so hard to keep their women down and perpetuate their existence as barefoot and pregnant only? Women are still mistreated in many ways by the Indian systems of economics, politics, religion and race, but then it's also very similar in the U.S. and other "developed" nations like England.
And here's something that has to be pointed out. Actually, through much of India's history prior to her colonization by France, Portugal, Holland, Spain and England, women had an incredibly high status in the culture. They were prominent, educated, respected, revered, and integral to the running and success of the country. Many of India's contemporary attitudes towards women were inherited from the colonizers who treated their own women no better than they treated the savage heathens of India that they had come to save, salvage, civilize and redeem via the atrocities of colonial oppression. Unfortunately, the Indians took to heart too well the Victorian, Puritanical and Colonial attitudes towards women, which needless to say were oppressive, odious and 'orrible! Colonialism not only taught the Indians to hate themselves, but it also taught them to mistreat their women just as the colonizers had with such noncha-lance and with their false sense and assertion of "God-given rights."
Connected to the misperceptions about the status of women in India is the issue of dowry, a practice connected to marriage where the woman's family is expected to bring to the union certain material goods from jewelry and utensils to money and other belongings. When I was first confronted with this issue of dowry, I used to have no retort like my deliberate rebuttals about class and gender. I had no excuse for this system of matrimony which exploits women and their families, pressuring them into bringing a lot of accumulated wealth with them in order for the marriage to be sanctioned and blessed.
I had to do a lot of soul searching on the issue and some educating of myself, and here's what I realized: First of all, and this I have always known, not all communities in India practice dowry. Not all women are forced to deal with this system; and in fact, in many, many cases not only is dowry persona non grata, but it is vigilantly frowned upon, discouraged and looked upon with suspicion and derision. And dowry exists today in America and England and other self-labeled "advanced" societies. It's not called dowry, but what else can you call a system of marriage where the woman's side is expected to pick up the tab for the entire wedding?
It dawned on me several years ago when I found out that in America and other similar cultures, women and their families are expected to pay for the wedding and the ensuing reception while the groom's side is expected to throw the rehearsal dinner party. Hmmm. I guess that's what they mean when they say there's gender equity in America. Now I know fully well that in the U.S. not all weddings are paid for solely by the woman and her kin, and I know that many families frown upon such outmoded and stupid conventions. Yet, the large burden for a disproportionate amount of weddings falls on the women in the U.S. today. But the real rub lies in the fact that many westerners look down upon the dowry system in India with supercilious snobbery while completely denying a parallel set of customs in their own backyard. At least the Indians call it for what it is. They call a spade a spade. There's no delusions, no whitewashing and no propaganda that tries to assert moral and cultural superiority over others.
I speak solely from my own experiences, but I know that Indians are not the only ones misperceived. They are not the only ones faced with stupid questions about their speech, their customs and their identity. And to be perfectly honest, Indians are known to do the same to others from cultures different than their own, including America.
My mother, who often faced the same issues of stereotyping and ignorance while working in the U.S. in the late '60s and early '70s used to counter with the following wise and witty anecdote: Once there was an American woman standing at a bus stop waiting for the morning express bus to work. She realized that the man standing next to her must have been Indian and eager to find out the truth about that country and her people. This woman struck up a conversation with this gent. "So is it true," she asked with wide eyes, "that in India people live in trees?" Knowing exactly where this woman was headed, with a sly grin on his face, a twinkle in his eye, and a fake Indian accent he said, "Yes, of course, madam, that is absolutely true." Satisfied that her convictions had been proven true she pushed the issue further. "So how do you eat your food?" she inquired. "Well, that is quite simple madam," he explained. "We come down from the trees, we go find our food, we collect it, we clean it by the river, we cook it, then we carry it back up into the trees where we live and we eat it."
"And," she probed further, "How do you clean your clothes?" "Well, once again, madam, it is quite easy. We come down from our homes in the trees, go to the river, wash our clothes, go back up into the trees, hang the clothes from the branches and dry them." Intrigued by this fascinating conversation, she asked one more question. "How do you take care of . . . um . . . eh . . . personal business?" The Indian smiled, faking a blush on his swarthy cheeks and replied thus: "Well, it's really quite simple, madam. We come down from the trees, we go down to the river, we bathe, wash, take care of all our personal ablutions and then go back up into the trees." Convinced that she was finished with her line of questioning, the man went back to reading the daily paper. A minute or two later the woman piped up again. "Sorry to bother you," she interrupted, "but doesn't all that climbing up and down the trees make you very, very tired?" Without missing a beat he countered, "Oh no madam, for that we have escalators and elevators!"
So, now when someone asks me the ignorant question of "What caste do you belong to?" I nonchalantly answer, "Certainly one that is much higher than yours!" And when I get that inanely backhanded compliment, "My, you do speak such good English." Depending on the person making that comment, I come back with "Well so do you," or "Yes, I wish I could say the same about you!" – (September 2001)
The Art of the Absurd: Organic Ham and Cabbage Patches
It's amazing sometimes, the funny ways in which life works. To try and make sense of a lot of things that surround us could indeed make one go completely mad.
In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and the two World Wars, Europe went through a particularly dark phase of brooding while trying to figure out exactly where human evolution was headed. After all, the Industrial Revolution promised nothing but great things – better pay, better work, more leisure, more expendable income - and yet the realities were all too different. Not only were many of the promises of the Industrial Revolution a hoax, but the Revolution brought with it a series of conundrums that further complicated the social matrix.
And of course, aided in great part by the proliferating machinery of the Industrial Revolution, the two World Wars wreaked havoc on Europe, and thousands of years of history were obliterated and flattened in moments. This was the promise of technology? If this was progress, then what was the alternative? If this was the face of the future, it was a ghoulish apparition that was too ghastly to gaze upon.
As a result of these dark events and even darker times, European artists began to reflect on the nature of life, existence, and the human condition. Their ruminations and their explorations began to emerge as deeply cynical and morbidly hopeless evaluations of the state of human affairs. The Dadaists believed that everything in life was nonsensical. The Absurdists fundamentally argued that human life on earth was pointless, meaningless and a rather abstruse cosmic joke. The surrealists and the symbolists, tired of trying to find solace and truth via reality, crept deep into the world of dreams, the subconscious and the unconsciousness, hoping that the id, the ego and the super ego could provide better answers to what made humans behave in the ways that they did. Irrationality, isolation and alienation became the identifying hallmarks of the human race at that point in history.
It is also true that some of the art emerging from this exploration of human nature in Europe had been seminal, life transforming and keenly prescient of the future of this planet. From Edvard Munch's The Scream to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, we have seen an amazing attempt to (re)capture the hope and the hopelessness of the human condition. It is also important to point out that all these great movements – from Dadaism and Surrealism to Absurdism and Existentialism – emerged in Europe and not in America. After all, even though the United States had been pulled into both wars, the Americans had not seen their country and continent go up in flames like the Europeans. Nor had Americans seen firsthand the devastating legacies of dicta-torships, fascism, totalitarianism, and unrelenting human oppression. Suffering, in the case of the Europeans, produced some of the most amazing art and some of the most explicit explorations into the human condition that the modern era has even seen.
And yet, today we are reaching a place in our collective memories where prosperity and complacency render us impotent in our search for greater meaning. In Tony Kushner's amazing play Angels In America: Part I - Millennium Approaches, the character of the Rabbi states that, "Soon all the old will be dead." He is referring to precisely the generation that made that treacherous journey through the Industrial Revolution and through the two World Wars. Yes, soon they will all be dead. The question of the hour is this: Are we doomed to repeat those mistakes because our memories don't reach back far enough or because our consciences don't care deeply enough to create a better world for future generations?
Life continues to be plenty absurd these days. Even with our prosperity and our affluence, the absurdity of life continues to rev at full throttle. Perhaps it is precisely because of our prosperity and affluence that we can afford to be as absurd as we like. Want some examples? Well, here goes.
Nestled in the hills and mountains of northern Georgia is the town of Helen. Mostly a tourist trap, the architecture and the milieu is supposed to re-create the feeling of the Swiss Alps à la Heidi and her yodeling brood. There are faux chalets and artificial babbling brooks with wobbly wooden water wheels. Wood-frame houses with off-white stucco line the streets, and happy little tourists waddle down the cobbled paths delighted to spend their dollars on decadent fudge, schnitzels, strudel and caramelized apples along with innumerable tchatchkas all made in China, Taiwan or Vietnam.
Helen would be no different than any other tourist trap were it not for one hell (and I use this word deliberately) of an absurd establishment tucked away at the foot of the hill. In a ranch style, low-lying house, rather plain and unassuming on the exterior, they have set up a Cabbage Patch Hospital! Yes, you heard right. A Cabbage Patch Hospital. Remember that terribly cute craze in the eighties for these ugly yet adorable dolls, over-stuffed with beatific grins crisscrossing their chubby faces? In fact, so huge was the Cabbage Patch Baby fad that these dolls were being traded on the black market for obscene sums of money and even then you couldn't find one for the love of money. Cabbage Patch was huge! And the legacy of that deranged doll craze lives on in the hills of Helen.
Now, you ask, what exactly does a Cabbage Patch Hospital do? Well, they do everything from birthing the baby doll to nursing it to burping it to changing its diaper to singing it lullabies and putting it to sleep. Well, in essence they do every-thing to that damn doll that humans do to real babies. There are pretend nurses and pretend doctors and other sundry pretend hospital staff running around creating the illusion that this is a bona fide medical establishment. Several times a day they simulate a code blue because a baby is emerging from the mother cabbage with some sort of medical emergency. Sometimes the baby is emerging feet first from the leafy labia of mama veggie. Sometimes it's an early dilation. Sometimes the cabbage umbilical cord is twisted around the baby's neck and an emergency C-section (cabbage section - gag!) has to be performed.
If you haven't gathered by now, the whole thing is a bit grotesque, quite macabre, and way beyond the absurd! And everything is done in a cloyingly schmaltzy manner. After birth the Cabbage Patch Baby is spanked on its pudgy bottom. And then it's given an injection of - hold your laughter - "imaginacyllin!" (Barf! Vomit! Puke!)
Of course, besides the main birthing room, there is a nursery, a reading room, a convalescing room and other areas for various stages of Cabbage Patch Baby development. Young kids, mostly girls, are able to buy a baby right at birth and name it to their liking. And one can even adopt a Cabbage Patch Baby left over from various other birthing exercises at the Cabbage Patch Hospital.
If the existence of this establishment isn't a sign that the apocalypse is a comin' (with twenty times the devastation of the promised Rapture), I don't know what is. It is also the sign of a very affluent society, a culture which has so many excess resources that it can afford to create a hospital for a stuffed doll! I used to make the argument that such a hospital could never have found its genesis in a country like India or China or Ethiopia because in such places there are shortages of doctors, so medical care can't even reach all of the human population.
But then I got to realizing that even in this very rich society where Cabbage Patch Babies are getting pre-natal and post-natal care and faux immunizations there are many, many children born into less privi-lege, into substandard care, and into far less Disneyfied conditions. Yes, Ameri-ca has a hospital for dolls, and yet it doesn't have real medical care for many of the babies born to non-Cabbage parents. I know many of you will attack my disdain for this Cabbage Patch phenomenon as being silly and much ado about nothing. Yes, it's true that the Cabbage Patch hospital is a private institution and doesn't get public health funding for its shenani-gans. It is also true that people with money can choose any damn way they desire to spend their moolah.
Yet, I still maintain that there is something profoundly ridiculous and even disturbing about the Cabbage Patch Hospital. And if my description doesn't do it for you, visit the place (although I hate to give them any more clientele) and decide for yourself. I have also noticed Americans love the place, but several European friends I went with were as dismayed as I was.
So, what's the connection between the troubles in Europe at the start of this century and the Cabbage Patch Hospital? On the surface there may seem to be few points of connection. But at a fundamental level, I think it is worth pondering or at least exploring briefly why a culture gets to a stage where a Cabbage Patch Hospital becomes a reality. Is it merely affluence? Is it sheer boredom with what's around us? Perhaps it's that in a country built on the American Dream, where anything is theoretically possible, we have to live with the nightmares that may ensue from such laissez faire thinking.
In the same category as the Cabbage Patch Hospital are the following absurd fetishes dreamed up and profusely consumed by our mass culture. Cologne for pets. Orthodontic treatment for dogs. Fur coats (real or faux) for toddlers. The list goes on and on.
I will also be the first to admit that what's absurd to one seems perfectly logical to another. I think that fitting your dog's teeth with braces is beyond absurd - it's a sign of a society quite out of whack with reality even if the owner of such orthodontic canines might think it all to be par for the course. As a final example of absurdity gone amuck I relate the tale of a Hollywood party I was "privileged" enough to attend last December. I went out for the premier of a huge Hollywood film and was at a party in the hills at some casting agent's home. There were the usual star f***ers, the hangers on and the ones who thought they were hotter than Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise put together. There was more cocaine than sand on Venice Beach. There was more pot being smoked there than at a Hemp Fest. And there were more sexual alliances being negotiated than at a whorehouse. Now all that's not necessarily absurd. But what took the cake was when a couple of people, doped out, coked up and sexed up, walked down to the kitchen looking for that post-toke, post-coital, post-high snack. Finding some ham lying around they seriously inquired, with no hint of irony, "Is this organic?"
I was speechless . . . and for those who know my verbosity, that's truly absurd! – (August 2001)
Suprem(acist) Court: The A to Z of Bigotry: From the PGA to the BSA
To say that I am absolutely appalled would be an understatement worthy of the record books. I am quite frankly outraged, incensed, nauseated, and downright disgusted. How dare they! I mean how dare they allow disabled golfer Casey Martin the right to ride a golf cart between shots at PGA Tour events. "They," of course, refers to the Supreme Court of the land, which is taking the first part of its label a bit too seriously these days. Supreme indeed!
How could they, in a 7-2 ruling, allow something so blatant as this to happen? Martin, who suffers from a circulatory disorder (called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome), cannot walk the long distances required in an 18-hole golfing tournament. So, using the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act - enacted in 1990), Martin sued the PGA, a private organization and won! The absolute gall! I mean the cheek that some people have! What impudence! What blasphemy! What utter nonsense!
Of course, it is not Casey Martin that I am upset at. I am ecstatic that Martin won his lawsuit. Another wall of bigotry has been slightly enfeebled. The blasphemy, the impudence, the utter nonsense here are the inconsistencies in the rulings by the Supreme Court. It is too crazy to even contemplate how the Supreme Court ruled in Martin's favor. Many, conservatives and liberals alike, had considered it a fait accompli that Martin would lose. After all, this is the very same Supreme Court that ruled, not too long ago, that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), another private organization, had the right to set its own standards, its own rules when it came to excluding and discriminating against homosexuals – troupe leaders and youth alike. The Supreme Court gave the BSA carte blanche when it came to ostracizing and rejecting homosexuals en masse.
The PGA is also a private organization which argued, with the same narrow-mindedness and bigotry displayed by theBSA, that they should have the final say regarding whom they allow into their club and whom they choose to exclude. The PGA had, of course, argued that Martin's request had no place in their organization and that they would not allow him to play unless he walked the course like all the other players.
The 64-million-dollar question here, one that no one in the media or culture-at-large has even bothered to raise, is about how one private organization is given the right, by the Supreme Court, to exclude whomever they want (à la the BSA and gays) while another private body is told that they are not allowed to discriminate (à la the PGA and Martin).
In some ways, the answer to the above question is quite simple. The Supreme Court, learned as they may be, are still ignorant, blind, and woefully bigoted when it comes to homosexuals. The other answer to the question, which indicates the PC balkanization overtaking this country, tells us that today there are certain groups whom we cannot discriminate against at all, while it is still sanctioned to legiti-mately discriminate against other groups. It's all about the pecking order, dear reader, and we know exactly where on the social food chain homosexuals are relegated.
It also needs to be pointed out that if indeed the Supreme Court were going to rule inconsistently in these two cases, which at their heart are simply about the ability of private organizations to set their own standards for membership, then they should have ruled against Martin and in favor of homosexuals. I say this because even though both the PGA and the BSA are private entities, the PGA is much more private than the BSA.
The BSA actually receives large amounts of financial and other support from public and state agencies, infinitely more than what the PGA gets in those terms. If the Supreme Court was going to make a statement about the differing degrees to which organizations are deemed private or semi-private, then they should have ruled that the BSA cannot exclude homosexuals from their ranks and roll calls.
But consistency has not been a hallmark of this Supreme Court, which in its own pomposity and self-importance even decided who the President of this country would be, democracy and all that nonsense be damned! One vote on the Supreme Court overruled the votes of more than half the people who bothered to show up and vote in last year's Presidential elections. I am not trying to dredge up the whole seedy underbelly of last year's fight for the White House. I am simply trying to point out that the Supreme Court has become extremely heady with its own profound powers and is ironically becoming, in its own right, a lawless body indeed.
And lest homosexuals feel that they bear the greatest brunt of the Supreme Court's supreme bigotry, it should be observed that the Court has also said that private organizations and companies can discriminate against foreigners, non-citizens and legal aliens. Is this the same Supreme Court that is consistently labeled as liberal by certain parties? If this is liberal I would hate to see what a conservative, Bush-appointed court would look like. Perhaps the coming of the Fourth Reich!
The Supreme Court also probably understood that while their ruling in favor of Casey Martin would probably upset a few, within the larger fabric of the culture, the ripples would not magnify themselves into waves. But they probably also knew all too well that forcing the BSA to accept homosexuals would have sent shockwaves and Tsunamis throughout the conservative population of the land.
Just this past month an amazing documentary by Tom Shepard titled Scout's Honor was aired on PBS. Scout's Honor honestly and simply deals with the BSA's vehement opposition to allowing gay men and youth to be part of their ranks. In particular, the film chronicles the amazing life and efforts of a 12-year-old, straight-identified young boy named Steven Cozza who started an organization called Scouting For All to fight the BSA in their bigotry and exclusionary practices. The film is an amazing piece of work, and the heroism of a young lad like Cozza is even more amazing.
Shepard, while making the film, made many attempts to allow the BSA and its religious allies to speak for themselves in the film. No one bothered to return calls, let alone agree to talk on film. And yet, when the BSA and certain religious conservatives got wind of PBS airing this film, they got their scouting scarves and holy shirts all in a wad. They were enraged that public funds were being used to tell a so-called one-sided story about the BSA's ban on homosexuals. These conservative religious organizations mobilized their members to contact local stations and asked to have the broadcast stopped.
Peter LaBarbera of the Culture and Family Institute (CFI), an affiliate of the Concerned Women of America (CWA), wrote, "Let them know how you feel about the use of your taxpayer dollars for the production and dissemination of a one-sided 'hit piece' on the Boy Scouts of America - a piece that says it is good for fathers to teach their children how to become homosexual activists." (His call for action appears in the June 14 issue of CFI's Culture and Family Report.)
And yet, shouldn't there also be a call-to-arms protest against the BSA for using public funds to discriminate against gays? To be fair, the BSA's anti-gay rhetoric and policies have begun to hurt them in the pocket book. Many agencies have with-drawn their financial and other support. Even Steven Spielberg, who served on their Board, stepped down to protest the group's attitudes and policies towards homosexuals.
I wonder how many people will leave the PGA because Martin has been allowed to ride a cart? How many advertisers will pull their funding for tournaments because Martin has supposedly unleveled the playing field? And how many people are going to picket golf courses with signs that read, "Martin it's our (walk)way or the highway!" Even if people feel this way towards Martin, they will probably whisper these things surreptitiously, in the bowels of the dungeons that house our veritable good ol' boy's clubs!
As a last point to ponder, it needs to be said that one of the reasons that the Supreme Court was able to rule in favor of Martin was precisely because of the presence of the ADA, an act which protects disabled people from discrimination in the workplace and in the culture at large. We have certainly come a long way in that regards, and even the Supreme Court had to acknowledge that. Sadly, the reason that the Supreme Court is able to rule against homosexuals time and time again is that there are no federal laws protecting the
GLBT community from unlawful and unjust discrimination. The lesson here is that no matter how far the GLBT community thinks it has come, there's still a war to be won.
Last year, during the Presidential campaign, there was an initial outcry about how important the winner would be in determining the climate of the country for the next generation or two based on the forthcoming appointees to the Supreme Court. But the American public was distracted and the truth was whitewashed, making them forget that the Supreme Court has an amazing reach and an indelible impact on the fabric and future of our culture.
We can now begin to reawaken to the fact that the Supreme Court is acting a lot like a Supremacist Court, and it may soon be too late before we completely realize the debacle of what could yet become of this highest court in the land – when supporters of the BSA and opponents of Martin have their say and pave the way. Vigilance is the buzzword here. Unfortunately, the left and the liberals have become frightened by the mention of their own monikers. They are far too less vigilant and far too more willing to hold vigils after the blood has been shed. Perhaps if we were vigilant to begin with, vigils would be mere vestiges of an enlightened, invigorated and en-nobled citizenry. It's time for the public to slam down its collective gavel and say to those cloaked cadavers, "We will have order in our court!" – (July 2001)
The Bridges of Moderation
If the modern world has taught us anything, especially through its proliferation of and obsession with the holy grail of capitalism and the touchstone of laissez faire economics, it is that moderation has become increasingly difficult to maintain. In fact, moderation is anathema to the very precepts of this new global economy where "more, more, more" is the manic mantra of the materialistic masses.
With the economy in a slump, moderation is frowned upon by the public and pundits alike. The government is trying everything in its power to entice (force?) people into spending more money. With an energy crisis threatening to spread from California (like the reverse anti-Gold Rush) conservation is being pooh-poohed and even frowned upon. The remedies being offered are more power plants, increased drilling, and longer pipelines. Moderation is the punishable faux pas of a culture obsessed with bigger, brighter, better, newer and faster.
While gasoline prices are on the rise in the U.S., they are still significantly lower than anywhere else in the world. As a result of which people in other countries all over the world conserve gasoline, don't drive tanks in the guise of SUVs, and realize that gasoline is not as endless as the lies that politicians tell us about not being in cahoots with the energy empire moguls.
In May, when the Bush administration laid out their energy policy and Dick Cheney gave the preliminary pretexts of this so-called policy, he blatantly flouted the fact that conservation had no place in such a plan. When approval ratings tumbled, they came back with a wimpy acknowledgment that some conservation was to be expected. But it as undeniable as George Bush's English is imperfect, that moderation will play no role in the current administration's energy policy.
In the meantime, as oil prices rise commensurate with the summer's heat, spoilt Americans are whining and bemoaning the good ol' days of 99 cents per gallon of gas. Nobody wants to talk seriously about smaller cars, alternative sources of renewable energy, saving energy, protecting the environment; and yet everyone wants their cheap gas, gargantuan car, and unnaturally low oil prices. There's no moderation to be found anywhere.
Well, all this contemplation concerning the modern state of moderation started at the drive-through of a McDonalds. When our order was received, we noticed that the medium fries that came with the "extra value meal" was enormous. A few years ago, that container used to be the "Super Size" fries; and today, with the same prices, the servings have gotten out of hand, resulting in servings more than one healthy individual should be eating. The same has happened with the beverages. And McDonalds is not alone. All over America food is served like it is going out of style. From all-you-can-eat buffets for $5.99 to single fast food meals that could feed a family of 12, food portions have ballooned in proportion to dress sizes, waist measurements and the dire increase in heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Whatever happened to moderation? A friend of mine and I always joke about the fact that in a typical week, most Bestseller lists will have several diet books and several new cook books in the Top 20. Our obsession with diets is as unholy as our obsession with food, and the two are deeply linked. More Americans are dieting and more are becoming obese. As Lilly Tomlin jokes in her one-woman show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," "I have lost and gained the same ten pounds so often that my cellulite has developed a sense of déjà vu."
This lack of moderation, lest someone accuse me of making ad hominem attacks on the right, is not a privilege of conservatives alone. Liberals can be as immoderate as the rest. A case in point is the private, Jewish school in New York that banned Mother's Day celebrations this past May. The school's administration, thinking that it was being ultra-cool, hyper-hip, and prolifically PC, believed that indulging in Mother's Day would in part be "offensive" to children with same-sex parents. I am assuming that they were referring to same sex-male parents. After all, same-sex female parents, via the school's logic, would have double to celebrate!
So in order not to offend those few who were of the "two-dad" families, the school denied all the other children the ability to celebrate Mother's Day. Now, I am no big fan of any of the hundreds of Hallmark Holidays; however, the complete lack of moderation and common sense on the part of some of these officials is appalling. After all, even if a child has two fathers, there has to be a biological mother somewhere. And when Dad's Day comes along those kids would have twice as much to celebrate.
The king and queen of immoderation, Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, understandably, had a field day with this extreme political correctness. And it gave them the perfect opportunity to bash gay folk for shoving their lifestyle down the collective throats of straight people. It should be noted that the policy to ban Mother's Day was probably misguidedly concocted by some well-meaning straight person who thought they were being "oh so with the times!" I think that most gay people do not want Mother's Day banned and yet such immoderation, as exhibited by the school in New York, makes all gay people out to be anti-family and anti-mother. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is ironic that in a political era in which moderates like Clinton and Bush have gained the Presidency, moderation is nowhere to be found in the public and culture at large. I would argue that in the U.S. at least, this abhorrence for all things in moderation goes back to the Puritanical roots of the founding of America. The Puritans were, if nothing else, completely lacking in moderation. Theirs was an extreme zeal that has become deeply ingrained into the cultural fabric, the social mores and the behavioral ethos of the American people. And it finds its way into the way in which Americans deal with everything from race, gender and sexuality to energy, guns, taxes, and social policy.
The future doesn't seem like it will bring any kind of moderation with it. On the contrary, it seems as though greater and greater extremism will become the trans-action modalities for this global culture, from economics and politics to religion and race. It is truly ironic, and worth deep scrutinizing, that the more we have striven towards equality, the more balkanized we seem to get. The more we try to bring people towards truer equality, the deeper the divides seem to get. We may be building many more bridges than ever before, but the rivers have gotten wider and far more torrential. The farther the extremes become, the harder it appears to be able to build bridges of moderation.
It seems to me that any true change, any meaningful discourse, any improvement in the quality of the human race, lies in an approach that looks more to moderation of all sorts than extremities of any kind. And even then, I suppose, we should only try moderation in moderation! – (June 2001)
Culture Vultures: Decapitating the future by bludgeoning the past
When I was in art school, I remember my first ceramics class very well. After a week of toiling and sweating over our first piece of pottery, we all lined up for our critique. Proudly, nails clogged up with dried clay, clothes splattered with colored glazes and muddy handprints, we stood behind our warped, imperfect, yet deeply personal pieces produced in Ceramics 101! Having experienced critiques in other art classes we were expecting to hear the usual aesthetic lingo flung at us just as we had heaved the raw clay onto the potter's wheel. All of a sudden, the professor asked us to carry our pots, plates and vases outside. Aha, we thought, critique's out-side today. The teacher took us behind the art building and lined us up, pieces in hand, facing a large brick wall. And then he uttered these words that are forever imprinted on my brain: "On the count of three, I want you all to fling your first creations against this wall and let them shatter as they may."
His lesson to us, invaluable to any artist: "Never get too attached to your work." Young artists tend to get attached too early to their work, stifling growth, creativity, and aesthetic experimentation. In addition to being great advice for aspir-ing artists, it also has a certain Zen philosophy to it. That's why this memory from art school came flooding back to me earlier in March when the Taliban sect in Afghanistan destroyed the Buddhas of Bamian.
Carved into the yellow cliffs, north of the capital city of Kabul, these sandstone statues are believed to date back to the third century, and with a height of 55 meters (182 feet) and 38 meters (125 feet) respectively, the two Buddhas are believed to be the tallest in the world. This was not the first time that the statues suffered at the hands of man. About 1,000 years ago, iconoclastic invaders from the north neatly hewed off the faces of the Buddhas while leaving their beautifully sculpted lips and torsos intact, as if to save for posterity some of their artistic excellence. These statues were clearly one of the remaining ancient wonders of the world. Their feet alone stand almost two stories tall. They are works to be marveled at, not only because of their beauty, but also because of the limited technology available to the artisans of that time period.
But today, these marvelous examples of ancient religious art have been destroyed beyond any hopes of repair, regeneration and reconstruction. Looming in the yellow cliffs, these battered and bombarded Buddhas stand as a sad reminder of the way in which cultural heritage can be decimated instantaneously. These blud-geoned Buddhas of Bamian stand there, barely recognizable, casualties of a fundamentalist religious sect who are not only bent on destroying other cultural heritages, but are on a daily basis inhumanely oppressing their women in the name of Islam and Allah.
I think what happened to these Buddhas is a travesty. I think it is an abomination that the world stood by while the Taliban mercilessly attacked these statues as they do their women each and every day. But before the rest of the world, particularly the West, gets too smug about the culture vultures that are the Taliban, let it be said that they are not the first to annihilate cultural art and artifacts.
In fact, the West has had a long, falsely legitimized and well-documented history of destroying the art and artifacts of ancient cultures. One has to look no further than museum collections to know that most of the ancient art therein is stolen, plundered and pilfered from places like India, Egypt, Iran, China, and other countries, each with pasts longer than the cumulative age of the entire West.
Colonialism brutalized culture much in the same way that the Taliban are doing today. Thankfully, the Taliban have access to a small collection of objects, monu-ments and creations, as opposed to the colonizing powers who (mis)took the whole world to be their imperial oyster. While the Taliban have destroyed a wealth of cultural history, their annihilation pales in comparison to what the West has destroyed, systematically and surreptitiously.
I can't count the number of temples in India that were willfully destroyed by the colonial powers for a number of reasons. One, they wanted to take the indigenous wealth back to their countries to acces-sorize their personal palaces, villas, government buildings and other monu-ments to Western supremacy. Two, they physically obliterated traditional arts as part of the legacy of establishing true civilization (read "white, Christian arrogance") in these places of pagan pluralities and hoards of heathen hooligans.
Many of the ancient Indian temples were beautifully adorned with statues and reliefs of Apsaras, semi-nude female dancers, as well as male figures. A lot of the colonial powers as well as Christian missionaries deemed these to be profligate, perverted and prurient in their nature, never once understanding that these figures were a part of the religious and mythological heritage of Hinduism. Many of these statues were defaced, their breasts lobbed off, or the entire women blasted off, leaving these once majestic temples looking like heaps of rubble and ruined rock.
If some colonials didn't have a problem based in prissy purity, they thought that looting these ancient temples, monuments and palaces for their own wealth accumulation was par for the course. So much was stolen during the colonial rule that it would make today's drug lords and mass murderers seem like petty criminals by comparison.
Yet, it was all done under the self-afforded legitimacy of colonial supremacy. It is interesting to note that to date no attempts have been made to return artifacts once stolen during colonial rule - objects that sit in museums, private homes and government buildings, all across Western Europe and the United States. Yet, items stolen from the Jews during the Holocaust have started to find their rightful way back to the heirs of those whose property was destroyed and plundered by the Nazis.
There are individuals, willfully ignorant or stupidly naive, who would argue that much of the art that was destroyed in places like India, China, Egypt and Iran is not actually destroyed because it lives on in museums and private collections. Yes, it is true that entire statues, objects and even large walls of temples are preserved in institutions worldwide. However, most often they are part of a larger whole that now lies incomplete or indecipherable in the countries of their origin. Is there a fundamental difference between the bombed Buddhas in Bamian and a temple in India that has huge chunks now residing in, say, a British museum? I would emphatically answer in the negative!
What wasn't destroyed, either to take back to Europe or for reasons of puritanical propriety, was destroyed in the battles and bloody wars of colonial imposition. Thousands of years of culture were often annihilated in a few days of cannon blasts and gun fire. The colonialists were as fundamentalist as the Taliban, although many would vehemently deny any such comparison. It's also interesting to note, as an aside, that in an age when monetary reparations (too little and too late) have been made to victims of the Holocaust, and talk is emerging about similar reparations for the heinous legacy of slavery in the United States, no one has ever whispered a single word about reparations to the victims of colonialism all over Asia, Africa and parts of South America.
Even in America, the imposition of the settlers, on a land that was thriving with Native American cultures, has its own horrendous history of cultural annihilation. That continues today where in many states sacred Indian burial grounds have been covered over in gravel to make parking lots or have been buried under cement to support yet another mall.
Perhaps in an insidious sort of way, the West's reluctance to do anything serious about the Taliban action against the Buddhas might have come from a deep-rooted, self-knowledge about their own past of plundering, pillaging and profaning ancient cultural artifacts. And in some ways I would argue that at least what the Taliban did was out of a sense of blind devotion to faith and religion, whereas the West not only destroyed, but did it for self-gain. It always aggravates me when I go to see the Crown Jewels in England, or to view some ancient Indian sculpture in a British museum. I am, of course, aggra-vated by having to lament the destruction of once proud, profound and prolific ancient civilizations. But I am even more deeply aggravated by the fact that I have to pay to see what once belonged on the soil of my homeland.
By decrying the actions of the colonials, I am in no way justifying what the Taliban have done. Rather, I am merely arguing that the Buddhas of Bamian, once proud and upright, are today broken and groveling symbols of a long legacy of cultural annihilation in which the West has played a starring role! It is true indeed that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Which brings me back to my first ceramics class. It was difficult enough to shatter one's own piece against a wall. Imagine if my professor had asked us to swap pieces with the student standing next to us and then proceeded to ask us to shatter one another's work. It's one thing if the British want to blow up the St. Paul's Cathedral or aerial bomb the Canterbury Cathedral. It's quite another to go to far-off places and do the same to someone else's heritage. But then again, we know, don't we, that St. Paul's and Canterbury are far superior works of art than anything those lowly savage Indians ever produced! At least that's what they taught me in school. – (May 2001)
Going Once, Going Twice . . . Sold!
A couple of months ago, an enterprising and cheeky young boy did something amazing, something heretofore only the stuff of overwrought literature and religious proselytizing. He went to that dubious space on the World Wide Web where you can buy and sell everything - from celebrity pubic hairs and toenail clippings to velvet Elvis paintings and Rosie O'Donnell's decoupage giftware - and conducted a transaction that would have made Faust drool like a newborn infant. This young lad logged onto E-Bay and put up nothing less than his own soul for auction. Yes, he put his soul on the virtual block, up for bids from anyone willing to make a deal for the repository of his karmic kit and kaboodle. And some woman from a faraway state, either in on the joke or many pennies short of a whole roll, actually bid 400 dollars on that most intangible of all entities and won the existential auction.
But before you mock this bizarre bargain, and before you thumb your nose at the buyer and seller, don't forget for one infinitesimal moment that we sell more than our souls everyday and most of us would be lucky to receive so much as 4 dollars for our wares, much less 400 whole dollars. These days, everything is up for grabs, from Presidential pardons and election outcomes to unborn embryos and personal medical records.
Buying and selling is the universal tongue, the lingua franca of our hyper-commercial culture. A few years ago there was the deadly notion being bandied about between Coke officials and satellite designers to put into space a device that would be capable of projecting a logo of the ubiquitous soft drink into the night sky that would be clearer, larger and more luminous than even the brightest star. There was talk about how to "buy" ad "space" in our tiny corner of the Milky Way. Well, we can thank our lucky stars that this idea disappeared into the black hole of grossly misguided marketing mistakes. But even to consider the chutzpah of a corporation that assumed they could purchase a part of the sky as a canvas on which to globally and continually project their logo is way beyond the pale!
We don't need to turn our attention to the vast universe to balk at the extent to which corporations will go to get their logos and brand names in view of as many people as possible. We need only look around us in order to realize how inundated we are, how these corporations and their sales forces have encroached on every surface they can find to slap their names and logos across. The notion of private space and sacred space is fast becoming extinct, a misnomer in its own time.
Just about every sports arena - professional, semi-professional, amateur, even collegiate or high school - now bears the name of a large corporation. Here in Columbus, we have the recently completed Nationwide Arena. Even the University's basketball stadium's name was sold to Schottenstein/Value City. All over the country, new arenas - some funded by taxpayer dollars - are popping up with familiar brand names: The Staple Center in Los Angeles, The Miller Field in Milwaukee, and The Target Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul to name just a few. Of course, this is not just a recent trend. It all started early in this century with the opening of Wrigley Field in Chicago.
You say, so what? Aren't these corporations paying big bucks to get these stadiums erected? Aren't they investing in their communities? So what's the big deal? They get to slap their name onto a pile of bricks and mortar in return. Doesn't seem like such a bad bargain. True, true, true. But where does it all stop?
A few years ago, there was the bizarre case in Georgia where an entire school was asked to participate in a Coke promotion. The whole student body gathered together in an open field wearing Coke t-shirts. The freshmen formed the letter "C," the sophomores the letter "O," the juniors made a "K," and the seniors completed the spelling with a human "E." An aerial camera was to photograph this school spirit and in turn the school got some bucks from the soft-drink maker.
If that doesn't seem bad enough, ponder this: One student, with some semblance of individuality remaining, showed up to this faux corporate rally wearing, God forbid, a Pepsi shirt. The student was promptly suspended for a short period. One couldn't concoct fiction like this if one tried. It was obvious that this educational establishment valued corporate cohesion and conformity over individuality, the right to choose and freedom of expression. And that educa-tional institution is not alone!
Today, universities have been corporatized beyond recognition. And it's not just about taking corporate money to build stadiums and selling the university bookstores to Barnes and Noble while putting smaller vendors out of business. It's not just about giving Coke an exclusive contract over Pepsi to sell soft drinks all over the university and at university events. It's the fact that all decisions at the university are being made as though the university itself were no different than a large corporation. Universities have become blank canvasses for corporate logos. And it should come as no surprise that what's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander. If a university is nothing more than a profit maximizing entity, then some goals and aspirations of the educational ethos have got to take a back seat to the almighty dollar. And those that inevitably suffer are the students, without whom the academic institution ceases to exist.
Even more disturbing is the notion that corporations are now funding research studies and entire departments with huge cash flows. While it would be nice to believe that academic truth and scientific veracity always triumph over corporate influence and results in favor of its benefactors, the realities are starkly different. Truth and ethics have no chance against the almighty dollar. Educational integrity and research results are as up for sale as a box of Uncle Ben's Rice at your local grocery store.
Atlanta will soon be the first city to have a mall named after a large corporation. The Discover Mall, named after the credit card service, promises to give shoppers a two percent discount at the mall if they use the Discover card. Visa and Mastercard are sure to follow suit. And here's the fly in the ointment. The mere naming of a mall after a corporation is hardly shocking. After all, a mall is merely a conglomeration of corporate entities all vying for the purchasing power of the American consumer. What's truly disturbing is how little it takes to buy the allegiance of the commodity savvy consumer - two percent of return to spend three hundred times what one makes on stuff one doesn't need but must have to keep up with the Joneses!
Need more proof of how easy it is to buy the good favor of the American consumer? Walk around any college campus at the start of each new term, particularly the autumn one. At every turn you will see credit card companies asking people to sign up. In return you get a bonanza of a t-shirt that will barely make it through two wash cycles, a rainbow-colored plastic slinky and candy bar or bottle of soda. And of course everything is awash in brand names. Not only do you sign up for their credit card, but every time you wear that free t-shirt, you become a walking billboard on their behalf. And the number of young students whose credit standings have been destroyed for a tacky t-shirt or a stupid slinky is legendary.
Last month, when the new Michael Jordan athletic shoes were put on the market, there were near riots, police were called out, mayhem ensued and customers were trying to buy 40 and 50 pair at a time. In the past, young boys have killed other young boys for Starter jackets with team logos emblazoned across the front, back and on both sleeves. That's not what the phrase "clothing to die for" was supposed to mean.
And have you noticed the recent annoying trend of commercials before the previews at the movies? It wasn't bad enough that some of us wanted to escape to the movie theatres to run from the commercial saturated programming on television. Now we have to sit and listen to the Maytag Man and watch an endless string of advertisements for dot-com companies before getting to the previews and feature film. We need to be reminded to go out and buy Coke, notwithstanding the fact that only Coke products are sold at the concessions.
Go to China, and even in the most remote villages, where the air is still unpolluted and where the water is still drinkable straight from the river, Coke machines are widely present. Walk down the cobblestoned paths of Prague, where ancient history is palpable in every church facade and in each smooth stone beneath one's foot. And amidst this awe-inspiring ancientness sprout innumerable neon signs, garishly intrusive, announcing McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
School systems all over the country now have exclusive contracts with one beverage company or another. In return for some educational enhancement funds, Coke or Pepsi get to have exclusive rights to put pop machines all over the school's property. And of course, the more soda the students consume, the more money the school makes. It's learn your three "Rs" Not only do you sign up for their credit card, but every time you wear that free t-shirt, you become a walking billboard on their behalf. And the number of young students whose credit standings have been destroyed for a tacky t-shirt or a stupid slinky is legendary.
And, by the way, grab a Coke whenever you can! That's exactly what our Rittalin-riddled students need, caffeine and sugar in endless amounts, being peddled by administrators under the guise of educa-tional improvement strategies.
There is no indication that this trend is slowing down or even reversing itself. There seems to be no public outcry or moral outrage at the fact that the idea of private spaces without logos and brand names is so easily succumbed to by the consumption hungry hordes. There seem to be no limits, set either by the corporations themselves (as if they were even capable of self-discipline), or set by public interest groups and the government. Everything is up for sale and the sky is the limit, literally.
It's not far off when tourists to the nation's capital will have the immense pleasure of visiting the "Viagra Washington Monument," or the "Lockheed Martin Veteran's Memorial," or the "Dollar Car Rental Capitol Building," or the "Trojan-Ex White House." Laugh if you will, but it's not so far from the truth even today. With political favors traded for money like crabs in a whorehouse, corporate money is the final arbiter in Washington and don't let your elected representative tell you otherwise.
So when that young lad put up his soul on E-bay, it was only a natural progression of the inevitable. It's all for sale and the highest bidder wins. Corporations would brand our foreheads with their logos and insignias if we allowed them to and some enterprising/desperate individual would gladly do so for a few lousy bucks. I just hope that they hand him a t-shirt that reads, "I sold my soul and all they gave me was this lousy t-shirt!" – (April 2001)
Decadance 101: Welcome to Romerica
I have a confession to make. I have been glued to watching a series about survivors on the telly and, believe me, it is quite something. I have never seen anything like it before. It was amazing to watch these individuals fight to stay alive. I was riveted as I watched these tribes do whatever it took to stay around. I was inching closer towards the screen as each individual did heroic and brave things for their own survival and for the enhancement of their tribe. My jaw dropped open at the amazing courage of these individuals and my face crumpled into a grimace as I watched them scavenge in the muddy landscape, devouring anything that moved.
I watched with intrigue as this one dark-skinned woman, emaciated and limping, wandered around scavenging for anything to eat. It was arresting to observe a man walk miles and miles in the unmitigating heat to search for a few drops of drinkable water for his parched palate and for the others in his suffering family. I grew exhausted as I watched people walking for miles without end searching for clues and hints about their impending doom and survival.
My eyes popped out as I was made aware of the spectacle of people walking around barefooted, hobbling from fatigue and malnutrition, trying to build tempo-rary shelter, to stay safe from the wretched and unforgiving forces of nature. My ears perked up as I watched them at the end of the day, resting their weary bodies upon the hard ground, gathering around, some with fire, some without, to discuss the events of the past few days. There was real pain in some of their voices. Some were crying uncontrollably and some were too defeated to show any semblance of emotion. And even as they sat there, having just survived what had just happened, they knew that others from among them would soon be gone. I watched in fascination and revulsion to see the extent to which people can be pushed in order to simply survive.
Watching the survivors of last month's devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake in India was a disquieting and unsettling experience for me to say the least. But even more unsettling and disquieting has been the massive popularity of that other "Survivor" show on television - the one taking place in the Australian Outback. The one where a group of privileged, good-looking, telegenic, spoilt and whining Americans are shoved together into a precarious living arrangement for 42 days with producers, directors, script writers and a hundred television cameras on hand. What people will do for their 15 minutes of Wharholian shame!
It is insulting to anyone who has truly survived a life-threatening experience to be asked to believe that these men and women are bona fide survivors. About the only thing they have to really survive is the backbiting, underhandedness and conni-ving nature of their fellow players as they try to remain the last one left on the show.
It would be no hyperbole to rename the show CONNIVER!!! This show brings out the worst in human beings as opposed to the best in situations like the Indian earthquake where people truly have to survive and help each other stay alive.
What is even more dismaying is the insane popularity of a show like Survivor and the shameful fact that so many viewers have bought into the show's falsehoods hook, line, and sinker, believing that what they are watching is indeed "reality TV." This show is about as real as Pamela Anderson's mammary glands before she had the silicon removed. It is about as real as a three dollar bill. And it is about as real as George W. Bush's presidential victory last November. It wouldn't be so bad if the show called itself a soap opera and left it at that. It's drama and not reality. It's glamour television where the criteria of strength and survivability are superseded by the lure of physical appeal. It's a complete bastardization of the word "reality" and an abysmal depth to which our entertainment standards have sunk.
And shows like Big Brother, Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire, and Temptation Island, make Survivor seem like Masterpiece Theatre by comparison. On Temptation Island couples are forced into the temptation of cheating on their partners. Forced infidelity is the mantra of the producers, and these young glamorous couples, all perfectly tanned and toned, are asked to survive sexual temptation. Baloney!
And here's the real hoot. When the producers of the show realized that one of the couples had a child they kicked them off the show saying that had crossed even their standards of decency and morality. Such hypocrisy. So what are we to believe? That it's OK to encourage adultery in childless couples but not OK when these same couples are parents? It's so typical of the slippery slopes of subjective standards where moral ambiguity is based on human whim and not on a deeper sense of consistency and human conviction.
Adultery is adultery and is unmitigated by the presence or absence of children. But on the boob tube adultery is now mass entertainment. Here's a point to ponder. How different are we from those ancient Romans we so self-righteously chastise, in all our modern indignation, for feeding Christians to the lions? Are we not feeding these couples (self-absorbed and shallow as they may be) to the ravenous hungers and basest of base desires in ourselves - we who are learning to stop at nothing to find a new piece of titillating television adventure? Are we not just like those savage and salivating Romans who watched unapologetically as humans were ravaged and savaged by those feline beasts? It's just that the round Roman arenas of yesteryear have been replaced by the rectangular screens of our TV sets, the lions have been reincarnated in the form of our gutless and illiterate mass audiences, and the Roman Emperors have been reborn as the equally and incredibly amoral and money-hungry TV executives and producers. Welcome to Romerica!
From Rosie O'Donnell to Joe Schmo America, people are hooked to watching a bunch of back-stabbing, self-absorbed, and million-dollar-obsessed men and women as they try to survive in the Australian outback. As the first Survivor proved, the winner was a conniving, egomaniacal, and slimy Richard Hatch. Thus, we reward individualism in its most narcissistic incarnation and we punish teamwork, honesty, compassion, and fidelity.
We still ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn in certain places, and yet we insist that Survivor is great reality TV that teaches us so much about the human condition. We are outraged at EMINEM's lyrics but intrigued by Temptation Island's lewdness. We are offended by films like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Priest, where real issues of the abuse of religious power are critiqued, and yet we exalt the power-hungry egomaniacs of reality TV.
I would posit the notion that the type of ideals, mores and virtues promulgated by shows such as Survivor, Temptation Island, and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, are far more detrimental, deleterious and depraved than anything in even the most stupid of Hollywood films ever made. Here's why. We know that those films are fiction. But when a show markets itself as reality (even though it isn't) and a media-illiterate mass audience laps it all up like slobbering and starving pigs at the garbage heap, then the danger is imminent and the damage is dramatic.
And to be fair to America, this is not the only place where such shows are hugely popular. In fact, many of the American shows are reincarnations of programs from abroad. The issue really isn't whether Survivor is good television or not, whether it is worthy television or not. The real issue concerns what is lacking in our society and interpersonal relationships that we need to turn to such degradation and human baseness as our escape from our own realities. How morbid must our own realities be that we find relief, rest, and reassurance in the rabid (un)realities of the shows under scrutiny here.
I am not suggesting some return to a Puritan or Platonic ethos of entertainment. I am simply suggesting that we more closely examine what has made us hunger for this type of entertainment. And let us also remember that the next time we criticize some out-of-control civilization like the Roman one for its barbaric vistas of entertainment, we in all our electronic modernity are just as savage, mob-like and prurient in our pleasures. Maybe we haven't come such a long way, baby!!!
It is clear that one of the reasons that these shows have emerged recently and have become exceptionally and exponen-tially lucrative is that audiences are hungry for something different and something new. After all, it is easy to blame the spineless and feckless TV executives and producers for creating such vile nonsense, but they wouldn't be creating the garbage if there weren't lowly vermin salivating uncontrollably to turn the boob tube on every time a reality show comes on. So what is it in ourselves that causes us to seek entertain-ment in the debasement of other human beings, in the degradation of human values and the human spirit, and in the desanctification of community, compassion and commonality?
To all those contestants on current reality shows and the myriad Survivors yet to come, I have a real challenge for you. I dare the producers of such shows to really challenge these individuals searching for fame and fortune to do the following. Take a dozen or two of these hubristic monsters and leave them in the garbage dumps of Manila in the Philippines where hundreds of thousands of young street children have to scavenge through waste and shit and offal and refuse of all kinds to survive! Or take these spoilt TV-obsessed backstabbers and abandon them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in Israel where legions of frightened Israelis and Arabs try to make it through each day without getting a bullet through their skulls and without having to bury a loved one.
Better still, take these money-grubbing fame seekers and leave them in Bangladesh during the monsoon season where each year, for the past several, countless have been washed away into the Bay of Bengal, and those that have managed to stay ashore have lost everything! Yes, even their TV sets. And for a sequel let these shallow souls stay on after the flood and rebuild only to have it all wash away again next year. And in the time between the floods let's see if they can survive the poverty, devastation, destruction and desolation compounded by a lack of relief services and governmental resources to rebuild with. Talk to me about being a survivor when you have experienced that kind of an environment and those sorts of life experiences.
For those audiences grotesquely glued to their television sets, I challenge you to live a week, let alone 42 days, without the idiot box! Now that would be survival!!! I'd even turn on my TV each week to watch as you starved without our national diet and stay glued as you squirmed to find alternative ways with which to nourish those empty minds. That's the truth. "Real" reality can be painful! – (March 2001)
Civil Rights in Our Media Age: Telegenic Martyrs and Photogenic Victims
This past month has been an interesting one for civil rights. A month filled with odd happenings and convoluted contradictions. Interesting too that it should all happen around the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. A day on which to stop and not only celebrate one of the world's greatest civil rights leaders, but also to pause, to assess the past, present and future of equality, justice, and human rights for all.
There was the bizarre confirmation hearings of George W. Bush's nominee for Attorney General, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft who has many a time scuttled nominations because of the person's views and value systems, today, in a case of confirmation karma, found himself being opposed for his views. Of course, this time around it wasn't fair! Ashcroft opposed James Hormell's nomination by Bill Clinton as ambassador because Hormell was openly gay. For no other reason than that! And yet today, Ashcroft and his cronies are appalled, insulted, and shocked that Ashcroft is being opposed in his bid for the AG's position because of his views on race, abortion, sexuality and other civil rights issues. The contradictions and the hypocrisy are abundantly evident - to those who dare to think!
Then there was the Matthew Shepard movie presented by MTV, followed by a 17-hour blackout during which the names of other hate crimes victims were scrolled continuously. The sentiments behind such a move are to be applauded and admired, but it also raises many questions. First of all, in this media-saturated age, with a multitude of channels available, other than it being a symbolic gesture, what real effect did it have on the viewership? My assumption is that after watching the Shepard film, people probably watched the names for a bit and then flipped the channel to VH-1 to keep the music fix going! Or they flipped to another channel or turned off the set completely.
Also, going black through the night, while an act of protest, is not like turning off one's broadcast feed during prime time watching hours, which for MTV is presumably all day long while college kids and school kids are at home, in between classes or playing hooky! It's like taking away a teenager's driving privileges when she is laid up in bed with a broken leg to begin with. In our media-savvy age it's hard not to be cynical about the effects of such a protest - well-meaning as it may have been.
But here's the real rub. What happened after the blackout ceased and MTV resumed its regular programming? What is it like to scroll names of brutally slain people for 17 hours and then replay Eminem's videos with their violent lyrics, their homophobic and misogynistic rantings? I am fully aware that Eminem is
incredibly talented, but the contradictions of the above scenario have to be acknowledged and examined. And while MTV has given us some interesting gay characters through their Real World series, they are hardly bastions of completely open acceptance of gay images. The point is that the messages being sent via our media overload are contradictory at best and delusionary at worst.
But here was the real shocker of the whole issue of hate crimes as raised by the Matthew Shepard day on MTV. Since the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard several more dozen people have been murdered in equally brutal and heinous ways. Why have we not really heard about these people? Why has the media not made such a stink about these individuals, ranging from men and women, young and old, to gay, bisexual and transgendered indivi-duals? Why has there been no national outcry? More importantly, why have civil rights groups and activist organizations not brought the same fervor and protest and action to each of these dearly departed as they did when Matt was murdered? Where are Ellen and Elton for these individuals? Where is HRC (Human Rights Campaign) for these individuals? Where are the book deals and the movie scripts and annual vigils on death anniversaries for those who have died after Matt?
Could it be that we are tired of protesting and meeting the same resistance and bigotry time after time? Perhaps. Could it be that we are fatigued by the horrors that have become so common-place? Possibly? Or is it that we are numbed by all the incessant pain? Quite likely. But I think there is a darker and less easily acknowledged fact as to why we have more or less ignored those victims who have come after Mathew Shepard. And believe me this is as hard to write as it may be to swallow.
Could it be that in our age of media infatuation, some victims make better poster children than others? Could it be that we are more sympathetic toward those victims who are more photogenic and infinitely more telegenic? And isn't it true that infatuated as we are with youth and beauty that we might prefer to mourn more publicly those victims who are such? It's morbid, but I believe that these are the unspoken and unacknowledged truths about how we market our victims and how we project our fear and loathing surround-ing hate crimes to the world at large.
After all, it is much more sympathetic to rally behind a good-looking, early twen-ties, young man taken from us in the prime of his youth with so much promise ahead. And, of course, that is all true. But what about the balding, pudgy, fifty-year-old guy in plaid with the bad toupee who was the victim of bigotry? Or what about the aging drag queen in her fading sequins and washed-out wig with too much mascara and beat up pumps who was beat up to a pulp? In our obsession with all things young and beautiful, this is how we choose whom to exalt and whom to exempt from our public outrage.
I don't mean to suggest for a moment that we don't give Matthew Shepard all the attention he has gotten and all the awareness that his death has created. But shouldn't our outcry, activism and action be just as fervent, just as unmitigated, just as glorious and just as prolific for those who don't photograph well, who don't fit within our comfort zones of age and gender variances? It's something to think about. It's not politically correct to say these things, even in gay circles, perhaps because it exposes internal contradictions, internal prejudices and internalized homophobia which can all be as debilitating as those from the outside world.
Our lives have been transformed into tiny pixels and digital bits of information in this media-saturated world. And, we must be careful that struggles towards greater equality, continued efforts for human and civil rights, and unceasing demands for a better tomorrow don't fall prey to the shallowness of a television screen and the mere lip service of sound bytes. – (February 2001)
"Queer As Folk," a TV Drama
Imagine this. You are settling down in front of your large television screen and while flipping through the channels you come across a smooth, round, white as snow, male derrière slowly undulating in the warm light on rumpled sheets which will be rumpled further still. Suddenly the camera cuts to a taut and somewhat large tongue, perfectly pointed, as it elegantly and gracefully travels down the smooth, youthful back leading to those ample mounds of butt flesh mentioned above. The tantalizing tongue, belonging to a man nonetheless, lingers shamelessly in that soft spot where the small of the back morphs into the perfectly shaped rounds of the gluteus maximus. The sheer eroticism and pleasure threatens to burst through the confines of the small screen. All at once, the youth is flipped over on his back, his legs hastily raised towards the ceiling as the torrid tongue lashes deep into uncharted territories, giving the recipient, and the audience, a journey into desire's darkest and stunningly sensual topographies. Let's just say that this is the sort of activity that makes the Pacific Rim sound like a very dirty place! Imagine it!
And for a moment you think someone left a porn tape in your VCR. Or, perhaps it's one of those European flicks where such sex always seems integral to the tale of tortured spirits and traumatized lovers. Maybe you've accidentally caught some cable feed with the latest soft core rendition of a pseudo Harold Robbins novel. But no, you're watching Showtime's latest teleseries "Queer As Folk," based on the British series of the same name.
Showtime aired the first two-hour long episode of this torrid tale on December 3 and promises to air hour-long episodes at least for the next 22 Sundays with the possibility of much more to come. Thus far the series has garnered very high ratings, a lot of good to decent critical praise and many tongues-a-wagging and even more eyes-a-popping! The series which focuses on the very gay lives of three gay men and their extended circle of family, lovers and other friends is a sharply made drama that has good conflict, tart humor and gobs of unbridled sex. While the British series was set in Manchester the US incarnation has been moved to Pittsburgh presumably for the contradictions between its blue collar grit and East Coast sensibilities. (As an aside it needs to be noted that the series is being shot in Toronto, Canada, and as such Pittsburgh has never looked so good even with all its recent gentrification! I am trying to get my editors to pay for a, ahem, "fact finding" trip to Pittsburgh to check out the veracity of the show's recreation of the gay milieu there.)
The producers of the US versions have promised to take the shock value several notches above the British version and few had thought that a cinematic possibility. When I first stumbled upon the British series I initially dismissed it as shock for shock value's sake! After all, shock value ain't so shocking any more and has very little value in a media-saturated hyper-real culture. But as I delved deeper into the machinations of this torrid tale I was completely disarmed by the sheer honesty, bluntness and joie de vivre that the series projected. Truth be told, the US version, although based on the UK one, is just as interesting to watch and equally frank, forward and fresh. And because Showtime's series is much longer than the original six-episode series of Channel 4 in Britain, the US series has the luxury of developing new characters and story lines. The lesbian characters in the US series are more fully developed and even they get to have honest, open sex.
But all is not as peachy keen in Pittsburgh as it may seem. While the series is slick in its production values, brilliantly acted for the most part and rich in characters that you definitely want to know but never bring home to your mama, there are issues that need airing beyond the detailed sex acts and daunting drug (over)doses frequently shown on the screen.
Make no mistake that "Queer As Folk" is a slice-of-life soap opera that is very accurate in its portrayal of gay men in all their oversexed, drugged-out, fashion conscious glory. There are no stereotypes here because all these men and women are very, very real. However, they only represent a microcosm, maybe even the macrocosm, but not the entire GLBT culture. There should be some concern that a series such as this, which will be watched by many, if only for the sake of curiosity, may continue the notion that the archetypes fostered in the series are indeed the stereotypes of the community.
It's all very well to take a series where no man has gone before, sexually and metaphorically. And those within the community are intelligent to know that the series has chosen to zoom in on certain demographics within the GLBT culture. But to an outsider things might not be so clearly elucidated. It's like television newscasts around Pride Day celebrations which choose to show only the leather men, drag queens and dykes on bikes as representative of the queer culture. Or like news broadcasts around feminist issues which selectively focus in on the bra burning, male hating factions, making all feminists seem like castrating divas.
So it needs to be asked whether "Queer As Folk" will project the notion of all GLBT folk as club-hopping, drug-popping, promiscuous and shallow figments of feckless frivolity? It would be one thing if we had plenty of other mainstream material - books, movies, television shows - that showed a broader spectrum of the diversity within the GLBT landscape. But sadly we don't! And when television finally grows up and bursts out of the closet we get something that is brilliant,
honest and yet something which has the grave potential of marginalizing us further. I am not suggesting that the series be taken away or that we impose some self-censoring caveats. Rather, let the series flourish, but let it not flounder without discourse, debate, and counterexamples.
The series also threatens to reinvigorate issues surrounding NAMBLA (National Man Boy Love Association) since one of the characters in the film is a 17-year-old who has sex with a 28-year-old hedonist. While the sex is consenting it is likely to be used in the attack against gay men who "convert" youngsters to their Sodom and Gomorrah ways. In an upcoming era under President elect Bush, with increasing power being granted to the old ways of the conservative agendas and the Christian right, "Queer As Folk" is both necessary and nebulous. On the one hand, it affirms that queer folk refuse to be kept at bay and in the closet. On the other hand, it gives ample fodder to the enemy to regurgitate the same tired refrains of perversion, pederasty, and promiscuity.
The truly sad part is that those who will attack the series probably will never have watched a single episode, a la the ridiculous boycott of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" by hordes of religious fundamentalists who had never seen the movie, mishmashed its premise, and attacked the art and its makers as the work of Satan himself. And when such attacks are made it is my fervent hope that educated and informed counterarguments will be made to keep the ignoramuses at arms length and further.
"Queer As Folk" is a ground-breaking series not for the candid sex it shows but because it shows gay men and lesbian women in their full humanity - deeply complex, flawed, and profoundly in search of meaning all at once. That's the avant garde nature of the series in that it shows GLBT folk as real and as equally screwed up as their straight counterparts. In fact the title of the series is derived from an old English saying "there's nought so queer as folk" which tells us that there is nothing so screwed up as people - gay or straight!
Besides, for all the talk about graphic depiction's of gay oral sex, rimming, anal sex, and the like, "Queer As Folk" still treats the penis as some sort of holy icon never to be seen up close or fully erect. It's very Hollywood and the Middle Ages in that sense. You know, the idea where female frontal nudity is fair game but male frontal nudity is sacrosanct. In fact, Showtime's other series, "OZ" about the prison culture was far more honest in its portrayal of male genitalia and the brutality of male-to-male sex. In "Queer As Folk" you will still see the ridiculously and strategically draped towels and bedsheets, post coitus, where the genitals are coyly hidden from plain view. It doesn't seem so daring after all.
And while many will tune in to see what all the brouhaha is surrounding the gay sex, they will soon find themselves coming again and again to watch a sometimes sad and sometimes funny story about what it means to be gay in America in the year 2000. Gay men are no longer just the hairdressers, waiters, flight attendants and token characters any more. In fact, what is so refreshing about "Queer As Folk" is that it has been made with no apologies to the straight folk. It doesn't for one minute stop to ask what will straight folk think about this? In that, the series has made a very bold move forward. It is the first series, far beyond even "Will and Grace," that doesn't ask the hetero world for its permission to exist! Now imagine that! – (January 2001)
Lavender Frivolities in an Era of Lavender Apartheid
I should have known that the election was going to be a ghastly mess on the very night that I was trying to follow the outcome of the tightest race in the recent history of American presidential elections. I should have known that my angst that night would prolong itself into days and now weeks and perhaps even months of trepidation, turmoil, and tiresomeness.
Being a political junkie isn't always easy nor is it always looked upon as a favorable pursuit. And, like all junkies, there are certain fixes that count more than others. For a certifiable political junkie, the presidential election, particularly one on which so much was riding, was the fix to rival all fixes. And if the right candidate had won, the high would have been incomparable. Conversely, with the wrong guy getting in I was prepping for a four- or eight-year hangover; and while Bush and Cheney may have changed their alcohol swigging ways, their win will cause a lot of us to take up heavy drinking. But I digress!
Rather than sit at home and watch Rather, Koppel, Jennings and others call the horse race, I decided to make this a communal experience and, with my friends Paul and Greg (also veritable political junkies), decided to head to one of the local watering holes to follow the votes come in. Besides, if the candidate of our choice wasn't going to win, we'd need something to dull the pain and disappointment. So off we headed, naively assuming that some bar would have the election coverage playing where the community could sit together and watch our collective hopes, dreams and futures being born or observing our hard-won civil rights, increasing acceptance and significant political clout evaporate before our very eyes. Years of hard work since Stonewall were hanging in the balance, and for every step forward in the past 25 years or so, we could be heading towards making ten steps backwards!
We got to the bar of our choice and yes, there it was on the big screen, the 2000 election coverage. Seeing the big screen with Sam Donaldson's magnified toupé through the glass window of this establish-ment gave me the first high of my political junkie's rush for the evening. As we walked in, right after Gore had (wrongly in retrospect) been given Florida, I realized that unless you were a proficient lip reader or psychic to the network news anchors, it was bloody hard figuring out what the heck was going on. The picture was up, but the sound was off. One had no clue as to what the anchors and analysts were talking about, and the only cheers or jeers drawn were when the numbers on the screen pushed electoral votes one way or another. Of course, we have since learned what a flawed process that has been, and that evening, without the sound on, the ballot see-saw seemed all the more chaotic and nauseous.
Why had this bar (and others) decided to broadcast the election coverage without the sound? More importantly, why had this bar decided not to make a community event out of watching the election results come in? I have already been squarely attacked by many on my instincts to go to a bar to follow the election: "Why on earth," these agitated individuals have queried, "would you go to a gay bar to watch the election?" I agree, it's not the most conducive place, but we gather there for other events of lesser community importance, so why not for this? In truth, I have had no good answer to this question other than my unflagging belief that watching the election results come in, particularly in an election of such gargantuan importance to the GLBT community, should have been more of a group activity. After all, the community seems to be very proficient at other types of group activities!
So, right after we saw conflicting numbers flash on the screen, sans sound, I decided to ask our server why the bar didn't just turn down or turn off the music and turn up the sound on the coverage. "Like," I was chastised, "like totally, if we were to do that, all these people wouldn't be here!"
Silly, silly me. So, I let our server sashay away with the notion that I was such a fuddy-duddy, and unnaturally craned my neck towards the screen in an attempt to exponentially sophisticate my lipreading skills on the spot. Then, as things began to slide downhill for Gore, lipreading was further diminished by my angst, distraction and growing depression over the thought of four to eight years under Bush and Dick. I thought I would try to appeal to the better senses of our server one more time.
Hesitantly I beckoned his lip-synching majesty to our table. As I waited for him to finish his mini-performance to Cher's Believe, I knew that I was going to get nowhere with this. But I persevered: "Why can't you guys just turn the sound up on the coverage, because it seems like many people in here are interested in finding out what is going on?" I thought that I could tell him that people go to the DJ's booth all the time and request Madonna, Chakha Khan, Ricky Martin, Toni Braxton and The Backstreet Boys. How about if we pretend like I am requesting say like Jennings or like Koppel or like Brokaw or like even Bernie Shaw rapping to the beat of an election in turmoil?
"Well, like listen," he patronized me, "like, we are like a video and like music bar, okay? Like, we can't turn the music off!" I thought, ooops! How silly of me. Of course, there must be some licensing requirement that states they have to play music in order to serve alcohol or something. But then quick as lightning, I came back and said, "But you guys show 'Will and Grace,' 'Bette,' and 'Sex and the City.' There's no music playing then is there?"
His lip-synching face shuddered to a stop in mid sentence of "Like a Vir...." His face contorted confusingly for a moment, and then with a "whatever" look straight from hell, he went on "....gin. Oooh! Touched for the very first time." As I seriously doubted the veracity of the first refrain, I knew he was going to be touched – by a nuckle sandwich to his jaw! Try singing Unbreak My Jaw then, Miss Faux Toni Braxton thang!
And so it was, that evening as the election disintegrated into chaos my anger and angst was growing at all fronts. Why couldn't the gay community, for one night in four years, turn down the remixed, hyper-percussive beats of all our real role models and heroes like Madonna, Cher, The Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin and Celine Dion, so that we could watch a process that is at the heart of this democracy and one that is at the heart of our survival and progress as one of the most beleaguered minorities left in this sometimes home of the free and land of the bigoted brave?
I know, I know. It's a damn bar! And I have learnt my lesson. But, it still begs the question about what's important to us and about trying to figure out if the stereotypes of gay men being frivolous and only concerned with the bar culture are indeed true or transparent. To be fair, there were a few women at the bar, but they seemed to be mostly straight and a group of them, out of tune, out of beat, and out of their minds in general, insisted on giving me the pleasure of croaking every song being played out that evening!
A lot has been made about the great divide between gay men and lesbian women, particularly in the arenas of politi-cal activism and overall social concerns and involvement. I am not so sure that these chasms are necessarily true or justified. I know lots of very intelligent gay men who are equally committed, involved, and dedicated to things beyond keeping up to speed on the latest tank tops from 2-xist and the appropriate jeans to match from Tommy Hilfiger. But on that particular evening the frivolities of lavender existences were more apparent than even I have been willing to acknowledge. It was made all the worse by the fact that the next day I heard reports that many lesbian bars here and in Cleveland had organized election watching parties at the local bars, pubs, watering holes and yes, even those sacrosanct music video bars!
I am not picking on this particular establishment nor on the gay community at large; however, that evening raised many important ancillary issues that beg asking: How politically involved and savvy was the gay community this year in an election that was so important to the entire nation, particuarly in the arena of the continuance of civil rights and social, legal, and economic equality? Have we reached a stage where we think we can rest from fighting for our still, ever-so-precarious civil liberties? Perhaps for some, being able to dance with perfect and dipiliated pecs under a strobe light, one's tank top stuffed into the pocket snuggly holding one's gym-worked glutes, marks the end of the civil rights road! We've come a long way baby and this is as far as I've wanted to come! Maybe.
Perhaps having 36 people brutally murdered by gay hate crimes is better than 40 or 100 GLBT folk meeting their untimely and violent deaths. Hence, we can all rest a bit easy now. As long as the stock market is rising, who cares if hate crimes are on the rise and if we are increasingly legislated out of legitimacy at the state and federal levels. Prosperity and relative progress in the arena of civil rights has led to common complacence. Too quickly we forget the hard battles of just a decade or so ago and fail to acknowledge that there are many hard wars yet to be fought today, tomorrow, and for a long while to come. This is really about our common involvement in our collective future to throw off the shackles of a socially sanctioned and in some cases self-accepted and self-imposed lavender apartheid. This is not really about whether some bars would broadcast the election covereage. The issues run much deeper.
Perhaps we deserve a Bush-Cheney win so that we can realize how our complacency has spoiled us into believeing that we have arrived! Perhaps we need a kick in the pants to reactivate our passions, our fighting instincts and our activism for all the work that still remains to be done. In an awkward and ironic sort of way, in democracies, people get the governments they deserve. And sometimes, in order to realize we deserve better, we have to be beaten up along the road of hard knocks! Let's just hope that, as Maya Angelou eloquently put it, after the dust on the road-of-hard-knocks settles, we can unequivocally claim, "Still I rise!" – (December 2000)
Matthew Shepard and The Shepherd Iniative
Who knows what might have been? Today he could have been finished with his college degree and working in the career of his dreams. Today he could have been sitting at dinner with his parents, later attending a party with friends. Or, today he might have been preparing to go out with the man of his dreams. Maybe he'd find himself driving under the dark and starry skies of the northwest, his lover's hand held tightly in his own. But most of all, today he should have been alive.
Two years ago, on October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally assaulted and left to die in an open field in Wyoming, strung up to a split-rail fence and pistol-whipped into a coma, his face completely covered in blood except for where the tears had streaked down his face. He died five days later in a Colorado hospital. In light of that horrible massacre, based solely on the fact that he was gay, The Shepherd Initiative, according to their mission statement, was founded in Columbus as a "diverse coalition of Christians affirming the dignity and integrity of all people by virtue of their Divine creation; regardless of gender, race, religion, age, or sexual orientation." Their mission also "seeks to begin to inform the public discourse on homosexuality from a Christ-centered perspective."
As part of its ongoing work and as part of the healing process, The Shepherd Initiative recently held a memorial service for victims of hate crimes. As I sat among the pews of the Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus on October 11, 2000, the second anniversary of the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard, the news of his horrific death in 1998 was fresh in my memory. The vigil held that year on the steps of the Statehouse is also lucidly emblazoned in my brain. Sitting at the memorial, in that eerie contradiction of devastation and healing, I realized that Shepard's death is fresh, not only because it is merely two years old, but also because the heinous and senseless persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people has continued at rising rates, with increasing degrees of brutality, but with decreasing outrage and calls to arms to end this hate.
The service started with a chilling reminder of the fact that even after the brutality of Matthew Shepard's murder, numerous other gay, lesbian and transgendered people have been brutally slain, based simply on their sexual orientation. As the candles on the altar were lit from the main Paschal candle, the Reverend Mary P. Johnson read the names and methods of slaying of individuals who have been victims of hate crimes.
These men and women, some anonymous, others known, some young and some old, some gay and lesbian, others transgendered, have met with fates worthy of a Sophoclean or Euripidean tragedy. They have been bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat; they have been stabbed multiple times in the head; they have been shot 16 times; they have been crucified; they have been repeatedly run over by a car and, yes, they have even been beheaded. Their crime: being homosexual.
And then there was the recent case of the bar shootings in Roanoke, Virginia where a man claimed he had been traumatized on account of his surname "Gay." He decided to vent his rage by killing people whose sexuality was gay. Rather than victimize his traumatizers, he sought fit to traumatize those already victimized. And, less than a month after that awful crime, the story has become invisible and the hate goes on. The rage has been rapidly replaced by complacence and the hate goes on. The call to arms in light of such events is soon transformed into political pledges that ring hollow and remain unrealized and the hate goes on. The hate goes on and on and on ad infinitum.
Surrounding all of this is the absurd debate about hate crimes legislation that would provide harsher penalties for people who brutalize individuals based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. There are many, particularly on the right, who argue that such laws are unnecessary because such criminals are already punished to the full extent of the law. George W. Bush argues that any murder is a hate crime. But such criminals aren't always punished to the full extent of the law, and shrewd lawyering and legal loopholes make for gross injustices in the proportion of the punishment to the crime.
There are those who argue that such legislation would give "special rights" to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. First of all, the notion of "special rights" is an old, tired, out-of-tune song that is mindlessly chanted by those on the right to rally their hordes around their ballot boxes and fund-raising initiatives. How can a group have special rights when it has not even attained equal rights?
If the hate crime legislation were to grant special rights to gays and lesbians then so be it! Hurrah for this, because GLBT individuals are "special" targets of such heinous crimes. The way I see it, special targets merit special rights! It's rather Biblical you know, an eye for an eye. Moreover, we do have special punish-ments to protect certain groups. Penalties for crimes against children are punishable by a different set of standards. Yet we don't see anyone arguing the case against "special rights" for children. And if the argument is that children are helpless, I agree. But so are many of the GLBT people across this country.
In fact, what is so insidious and telling about the Roanoke shootings is that GLBT people were attacked on their own territory, much like the London bar bombings of 1999 in Soho. Just as gay and lesbian people have started to create spaces of their own where they can feel freer to be who they are, they learn that they are not immune from attacks, verbal and physical, even on their own territory. The notion of safe spaces, à la Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," while still emerging is already being desecrated by the insanity of gay baiting and violence fueled by societally sanctioned homo-phobia. Walk down the Short North on any given evening and notice the drive-by shoutings and even egg throwings aimed at GLBT folk going about their business or GLBT folk who happen to be in a seem-ingly gay-friendly neighborhood.
At the service hosted by The Shepherd Initiative, Rector Richard A. Burnett said that "we are keeping watch for Christ's sake," for those who have suffered so much and for the sake of those left behind. The sermon, brief yet powerful, was delivered by Reverend Timothy Ahrens, Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church. He started with a blow-by-blow account of Matthew Shepard's journey from being unknown to becoming a global figure of martyrdom in the struggle of GLBT people who are continually victims of an assortment of hate crimes.
"The horrors of this crime are painful to hear again," he said, "as they are painful for me to say." In 1998, after the death of Shepard, there were 33 more hate crimes and "those are the ones we know about," continued the Pastor. "The light of this one man and the torturous death inflicted upon him have changed us forever." Reverend Ahrens also referred to the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, saying that people needed to strike back against hate crimes in non-violent ways. Ahrens also referred to the "soul force" created by Reverend Mel White. "Hate enters our schools, our workplaces and our homes," Ahrens proclaimed, "and it destroys individuals and washes out hope."
If we were to tally all the destroyed individuals and washed-out hopes we would realize that the treatment of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals amounts to nothing short of a lavender holocaust. But how do we measure such things when the hate is so ingrained in us, when the brutality towards them has become so normalized and when negative attitudes towards them are societally sanctioned and politically proselytized? We will never know how much great human potential has been lost every time a young kid was taunted with the word "fag" on the playground, or every time someone is fired for being gay, or for all the times that GLBT folk have been relegated to the abnormal, the biologically mutant, and as threats to society.
Ahrens ended the sermon with the idea that we should all "carry the image of Matt's blood-covered face with the streaks made by his tears, because those are the tears of the angels, those are the tears of Christ." "May the light that shines in the darkness never be drowned by the dark-ness but overpower that darkness," he concluded.
The service, which was hauntingly accompanied by the Columbus Gay Men's Chorus, ended with a "Ritual of Commitment to End Hate Crimes" led by Sylvia Niedner of The Shepherd Initiative. The Shepherd Initiative has enumerated ten ways in which people can work towards this goal. The ten ways to end hate are to act, unite, support the victims, do your homework, create an alternative, speak up, lobby leaders, look long-range, teach tolerance, and dig deeper. These strategies were posted on the walls of the church; and at the end, as the congregation went to the altar to light their candles, they were asked to go and stand by the one method that they would follow through on over the next year. After all the candles had been lit, the congregation walked out of the church and into the street to symbolize a taking of the light of Christ into the world.
And if you aren't Christian, it doesn't matter. There are still many things that you can do to try and put an end to all this craziness. Remember, on November 7 when you vote, that your ballot could determine the future of GLBT folk when it comes to issues of persecution and violence. The choice is abundantly clear as to who would protect GLBT folk more. Not only that, it is also clear that if George W. Bush gets elected, for every forward step made in the arena of GLBT rights, we will take ten steps backwards under the Dick and Bush duo. We simply can't afford that. We have so much further to go and stepping backwards only means that future generations will live as second-class citizens in a societally, governmentally, politically, religiously, and culturally sanctioned system of lavender apartheid. – (November 2000)
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