Staying awake in the city that never sleeps

From Jacob Lawrence's migration series, 1941
We used to say that New York was the city that never sleeps. More than that, it is a city that wants to keep you alert. However, the flashing signage, noise and bustling-hustling crowds in Times Square, the agitated foot and skateboard and motor traffic, the rattling subway and the hurried pace and startling changes may produce the opposite effect, stupefying you with conflicting demands on your attention and shutting down most of your brain, leaving the remaining working part so focused on whatever you're trying to do that you mindlessly become another vector in the general agitation, avoiding obstacles but otherwise oblivious to other people and your surroundings.

All that is true, but New York also offers sites and events that invite quiet reflection, that permit you to integrate some of all those stimuli into a coherent narrative. The New York Public Library, with all its branches, has always bee such a site, and I hope it will remain so — though we heard disturbing news of plans to sell off the branches (more valuable as real estate) and ship the books out to an out-of-city warehouse. Good people are fighting to save the libraries, and good people in New York have been able to accomplish many things, so maybe it'll all be all right.

Other great sites for reflection on where we are and what it all means include the great museums, the galleries and the theaters. We returned to Madrid yesterday after another week in New York, a city we know well — we lived there for over 30 years — and still recognize, though it is ever changing. And we took the opportunity to take in some shows at a couple of museums, several galleries and a theater: the Music Box, for the revival of Wendy Wasserstein's 1989 hit, "The Heidi Chronicles". Great production, terrific actors, in a very dated story that reminded us how far we have not yet come in women's struggle for recognition and equal opportunity.

In MoMA, we spent a lot of time at the exhibit Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980 — mainly because we've been working on a book that includes that period. Not, in our view, a totally successful presentation of such a complicated history — as Ronald Reagan famously noted, there are a lot of different countries "down there", and unless you already knew a lot about what you were looking at, you might not be sure whether a particular project or building was in São Paulo or Mexico, or 1952 or 1972, and some enormously important events (e.g., the coups in Chile and Argentina) were scarcely mentioned. But, if you did have some idea what you were looking at, you could find many fascinating, more obscure works that you hadn't seen before. Susana will be writing a more detailed review, so I'll leave my comments at that.

A totally successful exhibit (in my view) was the marvelous One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North. Seeing the entire series of Lawrence's 60 paintings, re-united for the first time in many years and set out on the four walls of a large gallery in the order he intended, was marvelous in many ways. First, the beauty of the pieces, in Lawrence's dramatic, flattened images in just four colors, emphasizing the stark reality of the great black migration from the southern to northern states of the U.S. in the years just before Lawrence was born (in 1917). And then, of course, that dramatic story, which the young Lawrence (he was only 23 when he painted the series) had thorough documented, by his readings in the  collection on black history amassed by Puerto Rican-born scholar and bibliophile, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the wonderful resources of the New York Public Library,) and from his many conversations with his parents and other older neighbors in Harlem. The exhibit is further enriched by works by other artists, including the poet Langston Hughes (a friend of Lawrence, who illustrated Hughes's collection of poems with the same title as his series picture series, "One-Way Ticket"), a video of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, another of Betty Holiday performing "Strange Fruit," and many other black musicians and graphic artists.

This I saw as a hopeful, optimistic picture of triumph, of people who and maintained and efended their dignity against the tremendous odds of color discrimination. 

But then, for a much more pessimistic view of ethnic relations in the U.S., the sad show at the Metropolitan Museum, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. The peoples of the American plains seized on new materials (glass, metals), images (clothing styles and others), and the great possibilities offered by the horse — all these imported by Europeans, with extensive contact beginning around 1700 — to create beautiful new forms and to increase their hunting and manufacturing prowess. Their ancestors had already been producing many beautiful objects before the European contact, but with more limited materials; the new things and ideas inspired a great growth and exploration of new styles and images. That demonstrates once again how creative people can be when given the chance. But this flourishing culture was brief, and its end disastrous: more and more Europeans came, killed off the buffalo that the plains people had come to rely on, massacred enormous numbers of "Indians" and then herded the survivors into camps and prisons and reservations, prohibiting their languages and many of their customs.

Some of their descendants have not given up or given in, and it's good to know that their are still rebels among them, defending their dignity and expressing themselves in new ways. But overall, the story told by the Met's exhibit is very sad one.


The Nationalist Solution - NYTimes.com

In considering how to confront religious extremism and the terror it manifests, David Brooks has posed the problem intelligently in his column in today's NYT, The Nationalist Solution - NYTimes.com:
Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.
I think this is true and important. However Brooks' proposed solution for some of those alienated young men is unconvincing: "a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime."

Yes indeed, revived nationalism may fulfill their need for a bold and self-transcending heroic vision. Revived nationalism is what is fueling the reciprocal slaughter in eastern Ukraine, and fueled the 1990s wars in the Balkans. And rather than an antidote to religious extremism, it may be a facilitator. In the chaotic violence in Libya, Syria and other places, nationalist and religious fanaticism tend to be mutually reinforcing. The decapitators of ISIS are fanatics of that new self-proclaimed "state", whether or not they have any clear notion of Islam.

In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gathered evidence from many cultures that a spiritual crisis in mid- to late-adolescence is almost universal, and can be resolved only by what he calls "conversion":  a turning away from the chaotic and contradictory messages that assail every young person to find some "process of unification of the self" which always brings "a characteristic sort of relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is cast into the religious mould. Happiness! happiness! religion is only one of the ways in which men gain that gift." (p. 163)

Note, "only one of the ways."  James continues: "The new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual's life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic demotion." (163-164)

The histories of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran — and almost every other country — offer examples of other sorts of passions, other visions that united people in heroic struggles to construct something rather than destroy it. Mosadegh in Iran led one such movement. And in the Arab countries, Nasser in Egypt another, and the early Ba'ath in Syria, in those years when "Arab nationalism" aimed at modernization and national development, not religious intolerance. If that is the kind of "revived nationalism" Brooks was referring to, I'm afraid it's too late. Those movements were killed by pressure from more powerful nations in the 1950s (Britain principally, in the case of Iran, with more complicated frustrations in the other cases) which is one reason why they have not been repeated.

In any case, a new inspiring vision is not something outsiders can hope to inject. It can only emerge from within the alienated youth's own ideological and social environment, in the languages and symbols most familiar to them. The most we can do, and this is a lot, is rein in the racism and intolerance that beset those youth resident in Europe and widen opportunities — educational and occupational — for them to resolve their struggles of identity, so that fewer of them turn to destruction. And try not to frustrate so blatantly their new projects of construction, which will almost inevitably be opposed to vested economic interests. 

And don't miss this report by , on how a young well-educated Egyptian from a supportive family became an ISIS terrorist — and his friends' thinking that the same could have happened to them. From a Private School in Cairo to ISIS Killing Fields in Syria (With Video) - NYTimes.com


Podemos: a different sort of party

My article on Podemos (CounterPunch, 13-15 February) has generated some thoughtful responses, including one from a French journalist friend who, remembering May 1968 in Paris, is worried that such "a social upheaval is not easily transformed into a viable political power."

As I told him, I think we may have some interesting disagreements — interesting because they provoke further thought. Some (at least ) of the campaign proposals for the European elections were quite unrealistic, but they served not only to get all those voters (1.25 million!) but to put the goals of a decent, more egalitarian distribution on the agenda for all the parties. And Iglesias and the others have taken the critiques into account, and refashioned the proposals to make them much more reasonable. The structure of Podemos makes it extremely flexible and open to pragmatic adjustments of this sort — not turnabouts decided by a leader (like Zapatero's disastrous reversal on the Socialist Party program in 2010), but responses to demands and critiques from the base.

Podemos has adopted the formal trappings of a political party (statutes, officers, etc.) because that's what the law requires for elections, but it is more of a social movement than an organized party. It's unlike any other party for the openness of debate, the fluidity of leadership and (unheard of in Spanish politics) the scant respect for hierarchy — Iglesias and his closest allies are generally respected, but not always heeded. In the primaries for municipal elections, Andalucía and Aragón already have chosen rival slates to Iglesias'. Susana (my accomplice) and I are involved in our Podemos circle here in Carboneras (a coastal village of 8,000 in Almería, Andalucía) for the same reason as most of the supporters across Spain, to shake up established, self-satisfied local structures that are doing too little for the community.

My correspondent suggests (if I've understood him rightly) that movements like Podemos "challenge  the two pillars of a decent European society : democracy and free market." First, I don't see how such an open, internally democratic movement as Podemos can be considered a challenge to democracy — but maybe there were such strains in the May 68 upheaval in Paris. And as for the "free market," I personally have been very impressed by the analysis of another Frenchman, Thomas Piketty. As Mohandas Gandhi said of European civilization, I think a free market would be a very good idea. But to try it will require some major reforms of the one we've got, so skewed to preserving the wealth of the wealthiest.


Podemos: Threat or Promise? — CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

Click here for my latest article on this fast growing new party, in CounterPunch.

Podemos: Threat or Promise? 

For background, you may also be interested in my earlier articles, on the movements in Spain that have now converged to create Podemos.
  • Historic Reversal: Bombs and Bullets in Spain. Op-ed on the 2004 election of the socialist government in Spain in wake of terrorist bombing of Madrid's Atocha railway station. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 16, 2004
  • Spain's "Indignados". On the political occupation of public spaces across Spain through the summer of 2011 ("15-M"). The Voorhis Voice (Claremont Democratic Club) , June 2012
  • Spain's many currents of protest. Discussion of protests actions spurred by "15-M". Originally published in Norwegian translation on the website Radikal Portal, August 2013.


One reason I am not a Super Anchor

TV News in the Age of the Super Anchor — CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names
"The Deeper You Dig, Any Story Collapses.” That maxim is attributed to Cy Romanoff, who ran the local news wire in the city of Chicago many years ago. …
In fact, most of life is played out in shades of gray. When you start digging into any supposed scandal you usually find that the bad guy is not all that bad; the good guy not all that good, and often the supposed villain is not really a villain at all. Such subtleties, though fascinating to uncover, don’t make for the kind of clear-cut morality plays that are the staple of the major news shows. 

The producer frequently finds he no longer has “a story.”
From the article by Barry Lando, posted today. For me, as a sociologist, the "subtleties" are the story, the story of how things really work. How are we ever going to make sense of conflict in Ukraine, or the rise of phenomena such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, or "Charlie Hebdo," or anything else that matters, if we have only black and white caricatures in our repertoire?

Nowadays, if you hunt, you can find investigators of subtlety — though not on prime time TV news. Analysts, not actors, posing sharper questions rather than looking for  facile answers. I try to be one of them. And CounterPunch in one place to look for them.


The spectre of "real democracy"

A spectre is haunting Europe —and it's scaring the bejezus out of all the older parties. Lessee, what should we call it? Syriza? Podemos? Die Linke? Populism? Maybe we can call it "democracy", that is, rule by the common people. And "solidarity" where people join in groups and collectively try to help each other and take decisions for the whole commonwealth. Or maybe we should just call it "communism", because that's what the word still meant — rule by the common people and solidarity — back in 1848, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels popularized it in a manifesto.

But we have to be careful today with that word — the word "communism" has been sullied by the many horrid acts committed in its name. Gulags, purges, inquisitions, restrictions of all types. Like Christianity. Nowadays "populism" has become a popular insult. It's a fear word, with no precise meaning. It just represents that terrifying spectre, the end of the hegemony of "the markets" and the political parties that do their bidding.

Nobody who knows history expects Syriza to fulfill all the expectations of its supporters, or Podemos either. But each in its own way (obviously, conditions in Greece and Spain and the potential alliances in each are vastly different) is shaking to pieces the older Tweedledee and Tweedledum two-party systems. Which have more and more come to look like two faces of a single party, the one subservient to the big financial interests. And that has been a system that produces increasing inequality at such a rate that it is destroying itself, driving its own opposition.

How could a tiny coalition of leftist parties like Syriza triumph over the long-established Pasok and the newer, but well financed, New Democracy? How could Podemos rise from nothing to a real power contender in Spain in the course of just a few months? Not by the brilliance or charisma of its leaders, though those have helped, but by the mass support for change, structural change. What was called "Real democracy now!" (Democracia Real Ya, or DRY) in Spain's famous 15M movement, that began 15 May 2011 and took over public spaces in all the major cities. An impulse shared by masses of people in Turkey (Gezi Square), Egypt (Tahrir), Hong Kong, but which here in Europe may actually succeed. Or at least present a formidable challenge to the Bundesbank, the IMF and all their associated interests, and work to rebuild a society where inequalities are reduced and public wealth goes to public uses.


Toward a sociology of satire

We've been reading a lot of serious stuff about humor since the assassinations of the "Charlie Hebdo" team and the related assault on the supermarket in Paris. It's really hard to joke about so much blood. But sometimes humor is the best, or even the only, way to deal emotionally with such trauma, without totally breaking down. And that's really what satire is about, coping with horror by laughing at it. That's what the latest cover of "Charlie" has tried to do. But millions of people don't get the joke, and can't be expected to, because the kinds of horror they're facing is something entirely different from "Charlie"'s audience.

Satire is an interplay of three terms: author, target, and audience, and they have to work in concert. The author is looking for a laugh at the expense of people or practices that make him and his intended audience uncomfortable. The laughter is supposed to be cathartic, a release (however brief) from that discomfort or fear.

For it to work, the audience has to recognize the target and share the author's discomfort.

And there's the problem. Or several problems. To wit,
  • To be effective, it has to be deliberately offensive to its targets without alienating its intended audience. But with the Internet and television, its targets are a big part of its audience.   
  • In France, readers of Charlie Hebdo were and are uncomfortable with Sarkozy's frenetic impulses, Hollande's wavering, Valls' authoritarianism, the Catholic church hierarchy's moral pronouncements, Zionist nationalists and radical Islamists — among the more frequent targets. But even within France, from Paris center to the banlieues, in Marseille from the port district to the fancy shopping area next door, very different factors make people uncomfortable and fearful.
  • Getting the laugh depends on irony, deliberate exaggeration which demands shared understanding of symbols and caricatures. All of us non French have probably been misreading a lot of the jokes in Charlie Hebdo, according to this persuasive discussion by Tekno. And the readings in Chechenia or Pakistan are also wildly opposite the satirists' presumed intention.
  •  Satire also requires a shared culture of discourse, i.e., what is permitted and what is not permitted to say. What a satirist can get away with in France can get you lashed to death in Saudi Arabia, jailed in Egypt, run off the airwaves in Venezuela. 
  • And you can't really get away with all that much in France, either — as Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a very funny man but with very different targets, long ago discovered. 
And those are some of the problems with "Charlie Hebdo" and all satire today. But we have to keep laughing, every chance to get, whenever we start quaking with fear. Even, or especially, when we're afraid somebody who is offended is going to try to kill us.


The imaginary "Muslim community": postscript to my latest post

I just read this essay (in its Spanish translation) in today's issue of El País. It struck me as a revelation, making sense of all the contradictory news reports from France, and about Muslims generally. Here it is in English translation, from Huffington Post. It will set in context what I posted earlier today, on "Two trails to terror".

There Are More French Muslims Working for French Security Than for Al Qaeda — Olivier Roy

Two trails to terror

Alabama-born jihadist Omar Hammami
How is it that so many young men and women born and raised in secular, post-Christian, democratic societies in Western Europe (or the U.S.) acquire the passion to kill and die for Islam? Not just the slaughterers of Charlie Hebdo or their confederate in the kosher supermarket in Paris, but many others in Syria or Iraq or on the streets of London who pose proudly for videos as they prepare to slay defenseless prisoners.

We actually do know how this happens in most cases, though it's harder to explain just why. What is clear is that it is not Islam that has driven these youth to terror, but their commitment to the movement that requires them to embrace an extremely violent caricature of Islam — to justify their actions. They are what French investigators of the phenomenon have called "precarious personalities," youth bursting with energy and rage who need direction and control in their lives. Some, like the Kouachi brothers, are/were orphans, others feel their parents have failed them for all or any of the reasons that children generally rebel against their parents — the parents' attitudes are from another time or even another country, and thus seem irrelevant. And the children live in societies where employment, education and other social goals seem unavailable or unrewarding, and where other outlets they've tried — becoming a rap star, playing video games, or petty crime in some of the known cases — have failed, and they'd much rather blame the society rather than themselves. Some of these European Jihadists come from Christian or even Jewish families, and even those whose parents were nominally Muslim were not raised to be devout.

In this respect, their path to terror has been the opposite of the original Afghan taliban, whose zeal derived from a skewed but dedicated reading and reciting of the holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran and the haddiths. "Taliban" is the plural of talib, religious scholar, a term which took on a special meaning in the isolated madrasas of the Afghan mountains, which exaggerated the intolerance of very rural people against modern, urban intrusions.

Because of course there are many other Muslims, more modern and worldly, who have also  studied the teachings and history of their religion, but come to entirely different conclusions. Islam was a religion of war, originating in a 6th century warrior society, but became in many parts of the world  a religion of brotherhood and peace and the encouragement of learning in all fields, very notably in medicine in the so-called "Islamic Golden Age" of the 8th to 15th centuries. But, like any religion, a selective reading may be taken as a pretext for bad behavior. How the ignorant, fierce taliban became useful tools for more sophisticated Muslims with other grievances against modern society is a big part of the history of Al Qaeda.


But back to our European Jihadists. Once they've committed themselves to this violent, anti-European and anti-democratic movement, at great risk to themselves, belief in the literal meanings of the Jihad becomes essential to their self-definition. Other Muslims may laugh at or ignore mocking of their preachers and their poses and their rhetoric, but the new converts to violence cannot stand it. Satire shakes the very fundament of their being, the substance that holds their personality together. It's called "cognitive dissonance" in psychology — people can't stand evidence that tells them they've made a foolish decision.