Archive | August, 2011

Four on Friday: Apocalypse Now?

26 Aug
A view of Earth on August 26, 2011. Courtesy NASA Goddard Photo and Video

A view of Earth on August 26, 2011. Courtesy NASA Goddard Photo and Video

IF you are in the American northeast or even somewhat clued in, you know by now that Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast of the United States, with New York—where I live—firmly in her sights. I have been glued to The Weather Channel since yesterday evening and yes, I did make a water run to Food Emporium earlier today, so I am a bit worried. To take a break from the hurricane insanity, here are my four kinda apocalyptic visions of what might happen on Sunday.

1. New York City will be entirely submerged. Boats sailing above our waterlogged heads will have to watch out on their radar screens for the tops of tall buildings, lest the Empire State Building spire tears a jagged hole in their bottoms and they all sink, à la Titanic. Exactly two years later, a blockbuster Hollywood film will be made about this extreme weather event, starring Colin Farrell and Anne Hathaway. It will be called THE HURRICANE (in all caps) and will incorporate true stories such as the one about the family who saved their neighbors in their 34 foot yacht. The husband and wife had been planning on getting a divorce, and the lawyers had been fighting over who would get to keep the boat, but after the adrenaline rush that was surviving Irene, they decide to stay together and live happily ever after. They rename their boat Irene.(And yes, in my version, sharks will indeed be swimming down the street. The street will be 42nd.)

This photograph which made the rounds online, was purported to be of a shark swimming down the street in Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit. It was later revealed as a fake.

This photograph which made the rounds online, was purported to be of a shark swimming down the street in Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit. It was later revealed as a fake.

2. A televangelist from Texas will say it’s the wrath of God falling on the heathen New Yorkers. (After all, we did legalize gay marriage earlier this summer.) First it was a light warning with Tuesday’s 30-second tremor. We did not mend our elite and liberal ways. This weekend the heavens are making their displeasure known with Hurricane Irene. (Does the name “Irene” have a Biblical reference? Surely it must. According to Google, Irene was the Greek goddess of peace. There’s also a Saint Irene, one of three sisters who were martyred for their faith in Macedonia. What’s the subtext in that?) Next week, if we continue to be wicked, the mighty Lord is planning to send a plague of locusts. (To save yourself, etch a giant “R” in your doorway to proclaim your Republican-ness, says the priest.) The televangelist will hold a prayer meeting where the local NRA membership will sell guns and rocket launchers. No IDs needed, only a rosary. In the affected red states, the governors will decree that they will accept no federal handouts for post-hurricane reconstruction until the U.S. government deficit has been reduced to zero.

The Truman Show

The Truman Show

3. An 18-foot wall of water will crash over FDR Drive and reveal the cleverly painted wall that proves we’ve all been living on a giant Truman Show-esque set all these years. “The Real Real Lives of New Yorkers” is what the show was called, as we were being broadcast all over the world to a riveted audience. Jimmy Choo as a brand does not exist outside the set that is Manhattan. Neither does Tiffany. (Yes, the conspiracy existed all the way back to the time of Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Your ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends were lowly extras hired by the show’s producers who were not deemed interesting or attractive enough to keep around. Oh, and that company that didn’t hire you? That was a last-minute script change to increase the ratings and keep the suspense going. You would have totally got the job in the real world. The hurricane, ironically, will free us all.

4. The mighty Irene will decide that scaring us senseless was enough, and will graciously divert her path and fizzle out harmlessly over the Atlantic. The lawmakers will thank their luck or whatever people are thanking these days, and enforce stronger environmental regulations. All over the world, governments will come together to draft new treaties to stop burning fossil fuels, to stop polluting the environment, to reduce our carbon footprint, stop the drilling for oil in the Canadian tar sands, and take urgent measures to stop global warming. Tuvalu, Micronesia, the Maldives and other islands will hold a week-long Ibiza-style party to celebrate their continued existence.  Electric cars will become super popular. Oil companies will look for ways to monopolize the production of zero-pollution transportation options. Factories will go green. Climate change science will be taught  in schools everywhere—even in the part of Texas where the aforementioned televangelist lives. . (So will evolution.)

Sadly, though, I fear that scenario number 4 is not the most likely. And that says more about our world than my overactive imagination.

Four on Friday: Hazare Khwaishein Aisi

19 Aug

I HAD not planned to devote an entire post to Kisan Baburao Hazare or Anna (older brother) Hazare, as he is more commonly known, but with his arrest earlier this week (a major misstep by the government) and the subsequent widespread protests in different Indian cities making news in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more, there is too much to share.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

1. First, Anna Hazare is not a modern-day Gandhi, so please stop comparing them. As A.G. Noorani explains painstakingly in this Frontline article, the father of modern India would not have condoned  satyagraha in a functioning democracy. Patrick French writes eloquently in the UK’s Telegraph (one assumes that a careless editor titled the op-ed):

Now Hazare has cornered the government by raising the pitch of the argument, just two days after India’s 64th independence day. A fast unto death is a touchy subject in India because of the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the tactic against the British. One thing successive viceroys and prime ministers particularly feared was the popular uprising that would quickly follow if he died on their watch. The viceroy Lord Wavell wrote in his diary in 1944 that if Gandhi were to die in prison: “I might go down to the readers of two thousand years hence with the same reputation as Pontius Pilate.” Many in India are calling the present events “the second freedom struggle”, since the government is relying on quasi-colonial laws to maintain order and restrict freedom of protest. There is the obvious irony of Congress being the party that used these techniques against the British. The reality, though, is that Anna Hazare is an imitation of Gandhi, pursuing a different agenda.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta elucidates in The Indian Express:

The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue. There is something deeply coercive about fasting unto death. When it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail. There may be circumstances, where the tyranny of government is so oppressive, or the moral cause at stake so vital that some such method of protest is called for. But in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power.

Prabhat Patnaik (one of my favorite thinkers and a great teacher) demolishes this notion that Hazare is somehow a modern-day Gandhi in The Telegraph (Calcutta):

To call Anna Hazare the 21st-century Gandhi, as some have started doing, is pure hyperbole, but many would see a similarity in their methods — in particular, in their resorting to fasts to achieve their objectives. This, however, is erroneous. Indeed, the fact that so many people consider Anna Hazare’s method to be similar to Gandhiji’s only indicates how little contemporary India remembers or understands Gandhiji.

Gandhiji undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. All these three had the objective of uniting people against violence, rather than extracting specific concessions from the colonial State.


In short, Gandhiji’s fasts-unto-death were never a binary affair, with himself and the colonial State as adversaries, to extract specific concessions. He did not, for instance, go on a fast-unto-death to demand the withdrawal of the salt tax; he launched instead a movement against it. And at no stage did Gandhiji ever consider going on a fast-unto-death to demand India’s independence; instead he launched movement after movement for achieving it. Indeed Gandhiji would have considered a fast-unto-death to enforce a particular demand even upon the colonial State, or to extract a particular concession from it, an act not of non-violence but of violence.

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

2. The protests around the Jan Lokpal Bill are not equivalent to the Arab Spring. Paul Beckett makes this point convincingly in his Wall Street Journal India Real Time blog post, so I’ll just borrow his words:

While those in the Arab Spring for the most part are pushing for a complete overhaul—a revolution—in how they are governed, those taking to the streets in Delhi are not. Indeed, their demands by the standards of international protests are almost embarrassingly modest and narrow.


Perhaps there is another layer being added now—a broader discussion about the proper relationship between government and civil society. But both sides are playing within fairly well-defined rules and within a system that can tolerate, and gain from, dissent.

3. The Lokpal Bill is troubling and overarching and won’t solve the country’s problems anyway. The first cautious note (well, the first that I heard, anyway) was from Shuddhabrata Sengupta in Kafila, appropriately titled, “At the Risk of Heresy, Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare.” The reigning media view back in early April—when this piece was posted—was one of blind faith in Hazare and his bill. (Thankfully, now the notes of caution are numerous and widespread; though they are seemingly ignored by the swelling crowds outside Tihar Jail.)

Sengupta writes:

The outcome of the ‘Anna Hazare’ phenomenon allows the ruling  Congress to appear gracious (by bending to Anna Hazar’s will) and the BJP to appear pious (by cozying up to the Anna Hazare initiative) and a full spectrum of NGO and  ‘civil society’ worthies to appear, as always, even holier than they already are.

Most importantly, it enables the current ruling elite to have just stage managed its own triumph, by crafting a ‘sensitive’ response (ably deployed by Kapil Sibal) to a television media conjured popular upsurge. Meanwhile, the electronic media, by and large, have played their part by offering us the masquerade of a ‘revolution’ that ends up making the state even more powerful than it was before this so called ‘revolution’ began. Some people in the corridors of power must be delighted at the smoothness and economy with which all this has been achieved. Hosni Mubarak should have taken a few lessons from the Indian ruling class about how to have your cake and eat it too on Tahrir Square.

After all, “Nothing serves power better than the spectacle of resistance.” Bhanu Mehta writes:

But the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft. They amount to an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power. Power, divided in a democracy, can often be alibi for evading responsibility. But it is also a guarantee that the system is not at the mercy of a few good men. Having concentrated immense power, it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the “most recent Magsaysay Award Winners”. Then there is no sense of jurisdiction and limits. It is not going to look at corruption only. It can even look into “wasteful” expenditure. They can, potentially usurp all policy prerogatives of democratic governments. So many accountability institutions, in the name of accountability, are not distinguishing between policy issues and corruption. They are perpetuating the myth that government can function without any discretionary judgment.

But the demand is premised on an idea that non-elected institutions that do not involve politicians are somehow the only ones that can be trusted. This assumption is false. Institutions of all kinds have succeeded and failed. But the premise of so much accountability discourse is not just contempt of politicians, but contempt of representative democracy.

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

4. Rallying behind the Lokpal Bill is easy, makes us feel better about ourselves, and allows us to absolve ourselves from doing something that can actually make a difference. In yesterday’s New York Times, Open magazine editor Manu Joseph began his “Letter from India” like this:

The best thing about Indian politicians is that they make you feel you are a better person. Not surprisingly, Indians often derive their moral confidence not through the discomfort of examining their own actions, but from regarding themselves as decent folks looted by corrupt, villainous politicians.

This is at the heart of a self-righteous middle-class uprising against political corruption.

In the Hindustan Times, Samar Halarnkar is “not Anna Hazare”:

This is a protest, not a revolution. I sense a lack of emotional proportion and a troubling hypocrisy from a middle class that refuses to get as moved to action by graver things, such as the murder of female children, child labour in homes, hotels and factories, or poverty outside our car windows.

There is excitable talk now of the constitutional right to protest, but this is not something we like to give to Kashmiris, or bother too much when it is snatched from tribals or others on the margins of middle-India’s imagination.

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Both Halarnkar and French compare the vast amounts of media attention given to Hazare with the meager newsprint devoted to Irom Sharmila, the courageous Manipuri woman who has been fasting for more than a decade to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act imposed in Manipur and much of the Northeast since 1980. (Click here for an excellent primer by Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka on Irom Sharmila.)

It is easy, and convenient, and costs nothing to “support” the Lokpal Bill: sign an online petition, join a Facebook group, maybe even go out on the streets to protest corruption. Everybody is anti-corruption, even Bollywood’s beautiful people (except Mahesh Bhatt), after all, and you’re just along for the ride. But try raising the devastating farmer suicides, or the draconian laws in the Northeast, or the rampaging violence in Kashmir, and no one pays much attention. Certainly nothing like the Lokpal phenomenon.

I want to end with words from one of my favorite people, the journalist P. Sainath, who raises uncomfortable questions—his specialty—in this Hindu column:

The 1990s saw marketing whiz kids at the largest English daily in the world steal a term then in vogue among sexually discriminated minorities: PLUs—or People Like Us. Media content would henceforth be for People Like Us. This served advertisers’ needs and also helped shut out unwanted content. As the daily advised its reporters: dying farmers don’t buy newspapers. South Mumbaikars do. So the suicide deaths of a couple of fashion models in that city grabbed more space in days than those of over 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra did in a decade.

February 2011 saw one of the largest rallies staged in Delhi in years. Lakhs of workers from nine central trade unions—including the Congress party’s INTUC—hit the streets to protest against rising food prices and unemployment. This was many times bigger than the very modest numbers at Anna Hazare’s fast and larger than Ramdev’s rollicking ‘yoga camp.’ These were workers and unions not linked to the state. Not market-driven. Not corporate-funded. And expressing clearly the interests and values of their members. In fact, fitting some classic definitions of ‘civil society.’ The rally was covered by the BBC, Reuters and AFP but was mostly invisible in mainstream Indian media except when attacked for creating traffic jams.

Do we only care when something happens to People Like Us? Can we rise above the confinements of class and caste and connect with someone like Irom Sharmila, fighting a quiet, difficult and unglamorous fight that is unlikely to be resolved in a burst of televised drama? If we are looking for traces of Gandhi in modern-day heroes, we could do worse than Sharmila, who “responded to extreme violence with extreme peace.”

Four on Friday: The Violence Report

12 Aug

1. AS Jatin and I were driving to the Newark airport this morning to pick up my brother who was coming back from summer vacation in Mumbai, we listened to part of today’s Democracy Now! broadcast. Amy Goodman was interviewing a same-sex, binational couple who are on the verge of being separated thanks to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. The act was signed into law by President Clinton and denies same-sex married couples the protections and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign says that DOMA: “purports to give states the ‘right’ to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.” It also

creates a federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse” for the first time in our country’s history. This is an unprecedented intrusion by the U.S. Congress into an area traditionally left to the states. Marriage is defined as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and spouse is defined as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Marriages that do not fit this description would not be eligible for any benefits offered by the federal government. Under DOMA, even if a state were to recognize same-sex marriages, the federal government would not. The people involved would be unable to receive a number of benefits, including those related to Social Security, survivorship and inheritance.

In the case of the couple interviewed by Amy Goodman, Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, an Australian national, might be separated on August 25—the date that Makk has to leave the country or be subject to deportation. Wells and Makk have been together for 19 years; they have been married for seven. They were among the first same-sex couples to tie the knot when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004. Makk is also the primary care-giver for his husband, who has HIV/AIDS. Wells described his relationship with Makk:

We got married on July 22nd, 2004. It was really the most momentous day of my life. I had never imagined that I’d be able to get married. And when the opportunity came to me, I realized that I was with the man I had looked for my whole life. I had never felt anything towards someone the way I felt about Anthony. And I didn’t think about us being torn apart in the future. We had been able to keep within the law and get the proper visas. And being together, although it was a lot of work, it was possible. It was only at the end of last year that we ran out of options. Now we find ourselves in this position.

Although last month President Obama said he would not defend DOMA in the courts, it is still on the books. Which means that for the moment, Makk and Wells are facing an uncertain future.

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

As one-half of a recently married, binational, heterosexual couple, it is especially unfair that Makk and Wells are being denied the immigration benefits that were extended to my husband and me. Makk said:

There’s thousand of couples in our situation. It’s not just us. And something needs to be done. And they can do it. And it’s clear—it’s clearly discrimination. And our relationship, as long as the other thousands of binational, same-sex couples—we have committed relationships, and they are just as committed as heterosexual relationships. And it is very discriminatory, what they are doing. And it’s—and I’m sure that the people will see it, and someone’s going to step in before I either have to leave or stay illegally. And this is something that we have tried over the years so hard not to do.

I remembering going to watch the gay pride march in New York in June, just a few days after New York announced its legalization of same-sex marriage, and the infectious joy in the air. That was a day of celebrations, and for good reason, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves again. The work of fighting for marriage equality is far from over. Last month Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced a bill to repeal DOMA, called the Respect for Marriage Act. The White House later endorsed it. You can chime in here.

2. The plight of the same-sex California couple got me to thinking about violence: legal violence, physical violence, all the forms that violence can take. It can take the form of indifference, like the indifference of the world to the immense suffering in Somalia, to watch people starve to death and not lift a finger to help. This past week we’ve been hearing about the supposedly “mindless violence” of the rioters in the UK, and the violence of the cuts in government spending and their effects on the poorer classes in that country.

I can’t say I understand what’s going on, or why—and I don’t think I’m the only one—but here are a few pieces that I’ve read recently that have shed some light on these events.

Maria Margaronis blogs for The Nation online about the mood on the streets:

The police are overwhelmed; the politicians nervously continue to plough their furrows. “Sheer criminality,” says Home Secretary Teresa May, as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage would imply condoning it. Labour politicians flirt with the temptation to blame government spending cuts, as if such fury could build up in a matter of mere months. Of course the cuts don’t help: they are the final straw, the irrefutable evidence that the poor are now dispensable, outside society. Nor does the larger sense that nobody’s in charge, that the economy’s in freefall, that bankers have been looting the public purse for years, and that our leaders have no idea what to do about any of it. There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.

Michael McCarthy in the UK’s Independent writes of the death of British civility:

I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture. The role of culture in making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.

This is in sharp contrast to a society like that of the United States, for example, which is largely a rule-bound society. To give just a single instance: drinking alcohol in the street used to be rare in Britain, because it was frowned upon – but in the US there are local laws specifically forbidding it. The rule-bound society, which is the reason for the vast proliferation of lawyers in the US, arose in America because the founding fathers created a new nation from scratch, starting with a written Constitution that set out the first principles and then writing down and proscribing everything else about people’s behaviour.

Britain, whose governing process evolved slowly and organically, does not even have a written constitution, merely a set of understandings about how things ought to be done.

But these understandings have, in the past, been widespread and very powerful. The bus queue and the idea of queuing generally is an example that persists; I remember my shock and spluttering resentment when I first went skiing, years ago, and stood patiently with the other Brits in the queue for the chairlift and watched as the little French and Italian kids skied to the front and forced their way in.

In the Independent, Camilla Batmanghelidjh responds with the argument that these kids feel no sense of community, of ownership:

If this is a war, the enemy, on the face of it, are the “lawless”, the defenders are the law-abiding. An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.

And in the Guardian, Zoe Williams writes about the psychology of looting, and the lack of worrying about consequences:

By 5pm on Monday, as I was listening to the brave manager of the Lewisham McDonald’s describing, incredulously, how he had just seen the windows stoved in, and he didn’t think they’d be able to open the next day, I wasn’t convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies?

And on the BBC, usually my go-to network every morning, anchor Fiona Armstrong interviewed West Indian journalist Darcus Howe in this video that has drawn so much ire that the BBC has had to apologize for it. After Howe said he was not shocked by the events, Armstrong asks: “You say you’re not shocked. Does that mean that you condone what happened in your community last night?” In what universe does a lack of surprise equal endorsement? It goes on in that vein, see for yourself:

Democracy Now! subsequently interviewed Howe along with Richard Seymour, a popular blogger in the UK. Seymour offered his opinion on the riots and the seeming inability of the British authorities to stop the mayhem:

First of all, the circumstances of the killing are that they allowed people to believe that Mark Duggan had a weapon and that he shot that weapon at police officers, and that, therefore, you would conclude they fired back in self-defense. That’s absolutely untrue. The IPCC, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, has confirmed that the bullet that was fired and lodged in a police radio was a police bullet. So, it would be an interesting question, who fired that bullet and why? Which among the officers did so? But it certainly wasn’t Mark Duggan. So, they lied.

But in addition to that, they didn’t inform the family. They let the family find out from the media. And they didn’t send round a family liaison officer to speak to the family. None of the usual procedures, in this highly unusual circumstance, was followed. So, generally speaking, there was a backlash, a reaction against the police, as a result of this.

I just want to say also, in connection with this, Darcus mentioned the competition for the top jobs in the Metropolitan Police. It’s important to note the backdrop here. This is the deep crisis that has shaken the Metropolitan Police in the context of the hacking scandal, in relation to the relationships between top Metropolitan Police officials and the News of the World, News International empire. That has created a deep crisis within the police. It’s an ideological crisis as much as anything else. And so, this is, I expect, one of the reasons for the disarray that they’re in at the moment.

Riots are about power, says Laurie Penny of the Penny Red blog:

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

And Dan Hind has a thoughtful piece on Al Jazeera arguing that the violence is not apolitical, and it is not driven by a single cause:

Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements. In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.

All these points make sense to me. I don’t have the answers or solutions to this problem, but it seems to me that these authors do a fairly good job of sketching in broad strokes the motives and roots of this maybe not so “mindless” violence.

3. This past week, The New Yorker published a much-discussed anatomy of the violent raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1. Written by a young freelancer, Nicholas Schmidle, in the narrative nonfiction style, it is a riveting account of what actually happened during that raid, and how the Americans finally “got” bin Laden.

What has been getting press in the aftermath of its publication is the fact that Schmidle did not speak with any of the Navy SEALS who actually conducted the raid; instead, the story was reconstructed from accounts by others who heard the radio communications and who, presumably, were very familiar with the details of the raids. Nowhere in his story does Schmidle reveal that he never spoke with the SEALS; and he tells the tale so skillfully that it seems as though he did. The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi revealed in this post just how Schmidle got his story. Farhi wrote:

Schmidle says he wasn’t able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

But a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.

Some readers were critical of this. Columbia Journalism Review questioned the secrecy of The New Yorker‘s fact-checking. Women’s Wear Daily collected the criticisms in this column. And the redoutable Poynter devoted many, many words to this minor controversy. (For the record, I think Schmidle and his editors could have made his sourcing clearer without losing the urgency of the narrative.)

But the most piercing critique was made by this Reuters blog, aptly titled, “When There Are No People in Pakistan.” It’s been making the rounds among South Asians on Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t see media critics at CJR or Poynter taking note of it. Presumably only Pakistanis care when their voices are left out of a story that takes place in Pakistan—this is violence by omission, perhaps?

Forgive me, Reuters, for quoting in such depth, but it needs to be underlined and highlighted:

In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner  talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.

Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.

Now scroll down to what seems to be the first clear reference to Pakistani civilians. It was in the context of whether President Barack Obama should consider an air strike on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound or a helicopter raid.

“He (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers. That option would avoid the risk of having American boots on the ground in Pakistan. But the Air Force then calculated that a payload of thirty-two smart bombs, each weighing two thousand pounds, would be required to penetrate thirty feet below ground, insuring that any bunkers would collapse. ‘That much ordnance going off would be the equivalent of an earthquake,’ Cartwright told me. The prospect of flattening a Pakistani city made Obama pause.”

The helicopter raid decided, the assault plan was fine-tuned. “The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors.”

And of the people who lived in Abbottabad? What of their reaction? Linguistically, they are described in three letters – a “mob”.

”After describing the operation, the briefers fielded questions: What if a mob surrounded the compound? Were the SEALs prepared to shoot civilians?” wrote Schmidle.

The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night.  He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed.  In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.

In the final paragraphs of the piece, the journalist writes:

I don’t know what really happened that night from May 1 into May 2. I don’t know, and none of us know, how its repercussions will play out in Pakistan over the months and years ahead. But I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

4. To end this piece on a slightly lighter note, I want to mention a mild form of violence to language, but humorously. I recently discovered this Facebook group, English Whirled Wide, which seems to collect images from around the world of quirky, ungrammatical, and just plain funny signage. In case they require a Facebook log-in to view their collection, I am pasting some of their images here:

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

To celebrate how we can contort and twist and refashion the English language, here’s Zigzackly’s declaration of the 2011 Great Grandson of Godawful Poetry Fortnight, which runs from August 19th to the 31st. To all those who point out that this “fortnight” only lasts 13 days, Zigzackly says, “Poetic license!”

In the spirit of English-mangling and good fun, here’s my contribution:

A journo once went to the sea
Where whales danced and exclaimed with some glee
But the writer took note
And dreamed up a big boat
Thus Moby Dick was created by he!

(Before anyone sues me for libel or defamation, let it be said that this is just my offering to the godawful poetry gods and has no bearing on the actual authorship of Moby Dick!)

In case my feeble attempt has disgusted my dear readers, I will leave you with some real poetry, by the United States’ new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine.

What Work Is
By Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Four on Friday: Photo Galleries

5 Aug

THIS one goes out to all my creative, shutterbug, artistic friends and family.

1. The New York Times had an arresting photo essay this week on children’s bedrooms around the world. As much as I love looking at pretty pictures, my favorite kind are the ones that tell a story. The story that documentary photographer James Mollison is telling in his new book, Where Children Sleep, is one of stark contrasts, between the little girl in Tokyo and her bedroom crammed with toys stuffed together on floor-to-ceiling shelves, and the four-year-old boy in Romania whose bedroom is a mattress on the ground on the outskirts of Rome. He shares the mattress with the rest of his family. The Times article that accompanies the images says:

Mr. Mollison’s new book, “Where Children Sleep,” had its origins in a project undertaken for a children’s charity several years ago. As he considered how to represent needy children around the world, he wanted to avoid the common devices: pleading eyes, toothless smiles. When he visualized his own childhood, he realized that his bedroom said a lot about what sort of life he led. So he set out to find others.

Jasmine, 4, has participated in more than 100 beauty pageants. She lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside. CREDIT: JAMES MOLLISON

Jasmine, 4, has participated in more than 100 beauty pageants. She lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside. CREDIT: JAMES MOLLISON

(The New York Times generally does stunning photo essays and multimedia features. I recommend poking around through those sections here and here.) Mollison lets his subjects tell the entire story, contrasting their portraits with visuals of their bedrooms. The children are photographed against a white background, allowing the entire focus to be on the child. (Kinda reminds me of a portrait photographer we studied at my media program in Bombay, August Sander, whose stark black-and-white pictures of ordinary people in the Weimar Republic revealed so much. I have hazy memories of piercing eyes, a stern man standing stiff and posed, an elegant dog in the foreground, stairs to the house at his back. Before seeing Sander’s images, I had thought that posed photographs could never be truthful; one needed to capture the image when the subject was free and in his or her natural environment, unaware of the camera’s steady gaze, but his beautiful photographs convinced me that even our poses give us away. In an article on the Minnesota Public Radio website, the author quotes Martin Weinstein of the Weinstein Gallery: “For me what makes him a great photographer is the truthfulness of the portraits, the directness of the portraits,” says Weinstein. “It’s his attempt to not induce any type of emotion. Very few of the pictures are taken where people are laughing or smiling or making facial expressions.”)

August Sander portrait of a man with dog

August Sander portrait of a man with dog

That was a looonng aside. Going back to the portraits of children’s bedrooms, I wanted to mention another portrait that I saw recently. It was not a photograph, but the film Stanley ka Dabba, made by Deepa Bhatia and Amole Gupte, the husband and wife team behind the fantastic film about an autistic child, Taare Zameen Par (before it was hijacked by Aamir Khan). I’m not going to review it here—though I loved it and recommend it highly—but want to say that the tension in the film is created by the lack of Stanley’s bedroom. If in Mollison’s photographs we get a sense of the children, their lives, their families, their homes, and their interests from the bedrooms, in the film Stanley ka Dabba the filmmaker’s deliberate secretiveness about Stanley’s personal space is just as telling. (Go see it to find out what I mean by that.)

2. I recently discovered iPhone photography, using a free app on my phone called Instagram. I hear that the paid app Hipstamatic is even better. From Foreign Policy‘s recent five-part photo series on the war in Afghanistan, with all the photographs taken with an iPhone and edited using Hipstamatic, I am mighty impressed.

Speaking of bedrooms, check out this lovely contrast between, on the left, refugee children peeping inside a makeshift house at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on February 27, 2011, and on the right,Daniel Gretebeck, 21, from South Lyon, Michigan, rests on his cot at Forward Operating Base Minden, Helmand province, on October 31, 2010. Photographs by Balazs Gardi.

The War in Hipstamatic CREDIT: Balazs Gardi

The War in Hipstamatic CREDIT: Balazs Gardi

Here’s another of my favorites, from the fifth part in the series, See No Evil, by Omar Mullick, of Rahmatuallah Rahmani, who lost most of his family and children in an air strike in Helmand province sits at the mosque in the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul. There’s a kind of a haze that prevents us from seeing the two men clearly. It may be a function of the fact the picture was taken with a camera phone but it suits the mood perfectly. It feels like a cloud of grief that separates this man from us; his experiences are so terrible we cannot, from our privileged standpoint, even imagine what he feels.



3. The same magazine has an interesting collection of images of visual art from Egypt: graffiti, performance art, public cinema, poetry, and more. One of my favorites is Tahrir Cinema. The author writes, “Recently, a group of filmmakers has been putting on ad hoc screenings in Tahrir Square, dubbing the series Tahrir Cinema. Lindsey writes, ‘[Filmmaker Lara Baladi] provided a projector and a screen; a passerby volunteered to get a mat for the audience to sit on; electricity was jury-rigged from streetlights. And soon hundreds of people were sitting, entranced, watching footage from the revolution that various amateur and professional filmographers contributed.'”

And then there’s this mural of a menacing tank heading toward a boy on a bicycle. Learn more about the collective artwork here.



But what I want to leave you with is not an image but some words. A poem by Kareem Abdulsalam, part of his collection, Teargas Poems. I saw it on the website

4. What Comes From a Cop

Armored cars
Boxes of perfected fear.
We thought they were divine creatures come to crush us
as native Americans first looked at horses.
We thought death itself sprang from them.

Armored car
Went up in flames
And the policeman inside struggled against the tongues of fire
Fought against fear.

When we rescued him,
He joined the rebellion.

4. This week is Shark Week on Discovery Channel, as I’m sure you know from the incessant ads on TV. As much as I dislike the sensationalism of the shows (some of them, at least)—if you’re trying to educate the public and raise awareness about these beautiful creatures, why use the image of a surf board with a bite taken out of it by some presumably confused shark as a recurring logo?—I love shows about sharks in particular and marine creatures in general. Some shows are better than others (some are quite bad, with soap opera-ish narration and melodramatic soundtracks) so pick your viewing judiciously. But ever since I observed great white sharks off the coast of South Africa last year, I have been fascinated by them.

Far from the man-eating monsters they are sometimes portrayed to be, they are actually the ones hunted by humans. According to “Man Bites Shark:”

While we might be alarmed at any indication that sharks are showing up in different places or biting into more and more humans, they’re far more vulnerable to us than we are to them. There have been only two recorded shark attacks in Massachusetts waters since 1670, but commercial fishing has decimated the area’s spiny dogfish shark population in recent decades. Since the 1970s, the numbers of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have fallen by 97 percent along the U.S. East Coast, with bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks declining by as much as 99 percent. In the Mediterranean Sea, researcher Francesco Ferretti and his colleagues found that fishing has decimated large, predatory sharks over the past two centuries. Looking at the activities of the 21 countries that use the Mediterranean as their fishing grounds, they concluded the species that fared the best, blue sharks, declined 96 percent during that time, while hammerhead sharks declined more than 99 percent.

Shark Week from Discovery Channel

Shark Week from Discovery Channel

And according to Traffic, a site which monitors wildlife trade:

The top 20 shark catchers account for more than 640,000 tonnes annually, nearly 80 percent of total shark catch reported globally. The top 10, in order, are: Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, United States, Japan, and Malaysia.

I had no idea that India contributed to the decline of shark populations! Another random fact: there’s more likelihood of being injured by a toilet than a shark.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File reports that in 1996 there were 43,687 injuries related to toilets in the United States and only 13 shark-related injuries and deaths. That means the odds of actually dying from a shark attack that year were 1 in 3,748,067.

See a great series of shark pics here. (If you’re interested in learning more about marine life, check out this National Geographic article from 2005 about orcas, more commonly known as killer whales, which share lots of traits in common with us! The are a highly social kind of dolphin with distinct cultural habits, such that orcas in one community will not behave in the same way as orcas from a neighboring community. They have families, called pods, and extended families, called clans. And sadly, they are showing increasing levels of toxic contamination from PCBs or Polychlorinated biphenyls, which disrupts reproduction and does all sorts of damage. It’s worth a read.)

And because I’m an inveterate dog-lover and can’t resist pics of cute canines, here’s an adorable collection of pooches by Carli Davidson caught post-bath while they are in the middle of shaking themselves violently to fling the clinging water droplets off off off them! Go on to her site to see the full Shake series, but here’s a teaser:

Shake doggie shake! CREDIT: CARLI DAVIDSON

Shake doggie shake! CREDIT: CARLI DAVIDSON

On that note, happy weekend all!