Saturday, June 30, 2012

Italy vs. Germany in Queens

Wimbledon has been eating into my time for political blog research.  So, too, have the US Olympic Trials, and now it’s European soccer.  On Thursday, my friend Stephen lured me to join him at a Queens beer garden he recently discovered to watch the Euro 2012 semi-final between Italy and Germany.

And so, this post documents a little bit of Thursday’s foray into Queens.  With our friend, Linda, Stephen and I squeezed into his Suzuki Sidekick and headed over the Triborough Bridge into Queens.  This bridge, re-named the RFK Bridge in 2008, actually consists of three different spans, several smaller bridges and viaducts, and over fourteen miles of approach roads.  

Bronx, NY, Triborough Bridge, Hell's Gate span
This photo shows us crossing the East River suspension span, also known as the Hell’s Gate span.  Triborough Bridge construction began on the on October 25, 1929, the day after “Black Thursday” and the beginning of the Depression.   Work soon halted and would not resume until 1932-33.  But when completed on July 11, 1936, this complex ranked as one of the largest public works projects of the Depression Era.  It was larger, in fact, than Hoover Dam.  As the site, Big Apple History, reminds us, “completing the bridge took 31 million work-hours, in 134 cities, across 20 states.  In the middle of the Depression this project was so huge that it alone buoyed the economy of the whole country.” 

As you can see form my first photograph, the Triborough Bridge lacks the imposing monumentality of a Hoover Dam, and maybe it only can be appreciated if viewed from the air.   Nevertheless, it not only helped to rescue America from the Great Depression; it also continues to serve us well, carrying approximately 200,000 vehicles per day.

This bridge-and-highway complex should make all Americans proud, as should all the other products of the New Deal--FDR’s program which “established the concept of economic security as a collective responsibility,” in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Michael Hiltzik.

Yet, today’s Republicans and conservatives voice nothing but contempt for the New Deal,  and this sorry state of affairs has Hiltzik asking a question that all Americans need to be asking today: “Do conservatives who attack the New Deal actually know what America gained from it?”

How can a significant proportion of our electorate idiotically deny the obvious: that, in Hiltzik’s words, “the New Deal physically reshaped the country. To this day, Americans still rely on its works for transportation, electricity, flood control, housing, and community amenities?”   Consistent with such denials of America’s past history, today’s Republicans refuse to join President Obama and their democratic colleagues in support of a single public works project.  This not only threatens our ability to rebuild America's economy and create jobs that we desperately need.   It also robs future generations of Americans of the opportunity to look back as proudly on this decade as we have looked back at the New Deal.

Did I intimate that this blog post would not delve into politics?  My apologies, but how can I help myself when I can’t even drive five miles without encountering the physical and social benefits of our enlightened political past, nor need I reach further than my pocket to pull out my Social Security and Medicare cards?  But let us proceed to that beer garden and the soccer match.

Queens, NY, Rite Aid store, 36th Street & Broadway
As we drove through Queens on Broadway, I saw a Rite Aid store with some elegant terracotta cornice work.  My first thought was that it might have been an automobile dealership from ca. 1920, but we passed it too quickly for me to get a good look at its sculptural details.   On Googling the address, I discovered that this had once been a Child’s restaurant, and so I at least had the date right. Childs was one of America’s first national dining chains, and by the early 1920s it had expanded to around 125 locations. Close-ups on Google of the sculptural details revealed marine motifs, such as fish, seashells, and seahorses, which were common with Childs restaurants; obviously, this was no auto dealership.  Still, during this period, both sorts of commercial establishments made use of such terracotta decoration and often employed highly reputable architects.  Childs, so I found out, even engaged such respected architects as William Van Alen and McKim, Mead and White. 

Queens, NY, Studio Square, 35-33 36th Street

Queens, NY, Studio Square, interior from entrance
Our destination, Studio Square, appears to be part of a recently renovated, six-story industrial building in Long Island City. Its exterior is plain, and its interior is simply functional: funnel the crowd past the cash register and the first of several bars on the way to the outside beer garden beyond. 

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden
We selected our first draft, proceeded to find our places at long picnic tables, and sat down to watch the game. In deference to Germany, our first drafts were a good K├Âlsch beer. However, as we sat down, it was clear that the fan base at Studio Square was Italian. 

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden, Carmelo

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden, David
Seated behind us at our table was an entire row of Italy fans. Carmelo not only wore an Italian tee-shirt; he also wore the Italian flag as a cape. A few seats down was, David, wearing his green Italian tee-shirt. 

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden, Celebrating Balotelli's first goal
I’ll leave the game description to the professional sports writers. However, here’s the response to Italy’s first goal, scored by Balotelli, who headed-in a crossing pass from Cassano. This was the twentieth minute of the game. The Studio Square crowd went wild with cheers, song, and chants of “Italia.” In the foreground are my companions, Stephen and Linda. As you can see, Linda seems completely caught-up in the festive atmosphere, even though she has such strong ties to Germany that, naturally, she would have preferred an opposite result.  Linda is nothing, if not a good sport!

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden, Celebrating Balotelli's second goal
Here is the crowd response to Italy’s second goal, also scored by Balotelli.   He took a long pass from Montolivo, sixteen minutes later, controlled the ball well, then sprinted forward and kicked a blazing shot into the top right corner that seemed to freeze the German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. 

Queens, NY, Studio Square beer garden, The Italian Flag
The Italian fans had lots to cheer about. Their team had completely outplayed Germany.   Tomorrow, I will watch the final as Italy plays Spain.   Then, it’s back to deciding what my next political subject will be. 

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy and safe Fourth of July.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Guanyin & Dragon Lady: Two Tough Women

In Sunday’s New York Times (print version), readers saw front-page pictures of two beautiful and tough, albeit very different Asian women.  On the first page of the news section of yesterday’s Times was a picture of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar as she stood in Oslo on Saturday, finally free to accept her Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1991.  The photograph is by Daniel Sannum Lauten (Agence France Presse); his picture captures Aung San Suu Kyi looking out at her audience over the profile medallion bust of Alfred Nobel, her benefactor in the sense that his prize, in her words, “opened up a door in my heart.”   We see a woman whose face projects a sense of welcoming, alertness, and curiosity; she appears completely open to her audience.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Oslo, Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, June 16, 2012

On the first page of yesterday’s Sunday Styles section, readers confronted a large picture of Wendi Murdoch, who fixes the camera with a tough, challenging gaze.  This photograph was taken in London in April by Facundo Arrizabalaga (European PressPhoto Agency) during News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal.   In a sense, Ms. Murdoch also stares out past her benefactor, her husband Rupert. Among one of the hundred richest people in the world, he has given her entree to the highest levels of international power and wealth.  Here we see a woman whose face projects defiance, a withering look;  she cautions the world beyond to keep its distance.

Wendi Murdoch, London, July 2011

Both photographs are equally compelling, even seductive.  They make me want to know more about these two women: more than the fact that, last July, Wendi jumped to the defense of Rupert and slapped a pie-thrower during his Parliamentary hearings; and more than the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi had spent twenty-one years under house arrest in Burma, and only two months ago was elected to the lower house of the Burmese Parliament.

Unfortunately, Wendi Murdoch declined to be interviewed for yesterday’s Times article by Amy Chozick, the title of which is “Declaration of Independence.”   Thus, we have only second-hand information about her, most of which implies--with frustratingly few specifics--that she is molding a life independent of News Corporation, the hub of her husband’s world.  We are fed little morsels, such as the fact that Wendi wanted to have her daughters meet those of Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  After their first meeting, Chua remarked that Wendi “parents almost identically to the way that I do.” In other words, a form of demanding, tough love.

Another morsel that Chozick offers her readers is that several of Ms. Murdoch’s friends describe her as “someone who is, above all things, a world-class networker, collecting powerful friends and brokering connections.”

Networking certainly seems to inform the few things I managed to discover about Murdoch in my quick search.  She received her student visa through the sponsorship of Americans Jake and Joyce Cherry, who had been working in China. While living with them in the USA, she had an affair with John Cherry and subsequently married him just long enough to obtain a Green Card.  She would marry Rupert Murdoch two years after meeting him in Hong Kong and a mere three weeks after he divorced his previous wife. Subsequently, Tony Blair became godfather to their daughter, Grace. As Anne McElvoy writes of this event, “Rarely has there been such a perfect meeting of money, power and influence. The child (Presbyterian with a convert Catholic spiritual sponsor) was baptised in the River Jordan at the invitation of Queen Rania, thus ensuring maximum coverage of global faiths in one event....Political godparenting is a way of re-inforcing tribal loyalties and creating future networks.”

Rupert and Wendi Murdoch

Now, it may well be that Wendi Murdoch is not the sort of manipulative Dragon Lady that my selected sources imply.  But with very little data and no primary source statements by her that might soften her image, Wendi as Dragon Lady has resonance. Understandably, the Dragon Lady is a Western stereotype, maybe best remembered from the mid-1930s-on comic strip, Terry and the Pirates.   She is not an authentic part of Asian culture.  Still, what we do know of Wendi does nothing to alter the possibility of her as a beautiful, tough, ruthless and seductive Dragon Lady.

Terry and the Pirates: Dragon Lady, Sept. 27, 1936

Aung San Suu Kyi radiates a different form of beauty, toughness and seduction. Her toughness is beyond dispute, given that she was arrested three times and saw her house arrest terms extended three more times for a total of twenty-one years.  Then, there is a spiritual component to her beauty and seductiveness.  It comes through in her Nobel Prize address on Saturday, as in her stress on the importance of kindness and of recognizing the “oneness of humanity.”

Committed to goals that transcend personal happiness, she refused her military government offers to leave Myanmar to join her beloved husband and two children, knowing that she would never be allowed to return to her country were she to join them.  Thus, she elevated her non-violent commitment to foster democracy and human rights above even those most basic, personal ties of wife and mother.  In awarding her the Peace Prize in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that it "wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

Robert Marquand, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor last week, observed that Aung San Suu Kyi “is in the tradition of Gandhi, Mandela, and Havel....[and] there is something spiritual about her.”  Indeed, there is something spiritual about her, and I am tempted to call her Guanyin.  In Buddhist belief, Guanyin is the female bodhisattva associated with compassion, and her name means one who observes the cries of the world.  The goal of a bodhisattva is to bring happiness to all sentient beings and relieve them from suffering.  It is because these also are the goals and themes that Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized in her Nobel remarks in Oslo on Saturday that I associate her with Guanyin.

Guanyin, Song Dynasty, 1025

And so, in a peculiar and roundabout way, this blog post, initially prompted simply by my visual attraction to newspaper photographs of two contemporary Asian women, manages to transform them into two radically divergent, iconic feminine types.

Now, my wife, more Dragon Lady than Guanyin, says this is much too long for what it accomplishes, and she wouldn’t bother reading it.  I expected as much, which is why I read it to her before publishing it.  Like a good husband, I saved her from reading it tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rescuing Political Dialogue: Bring It To The Table

Yesterday I went to a session being offered in the event space of B&H Photo in Manhattan.  All I knew about the event was the name of its presenter, Julie Winokur, and its title, “Where Video Meets Politics.”  Naturally, the title resonated with my interest in politics, and so I went to feed my curiosity.  As I sat in the event space watching the presenting team set up the room, I worried that I must have had the wrong day;  all I saw were several people adjusting lights and a Canon EOS5D Camera on a tripod, focused on a small table between the camera and the audience, and on that table was a glass with a single, yellow flower.  I thought, “Is this about politics, or is it about still-life photography?”

I was soon to learn that the table and its single flower were the essential and sole props for a very imaginative attempt to engage the American public in genuine political dialogue.  The principals behind this admirable effort are Julie Winokur and her husband, Ed Kashi.  Julie gave an enormously engaging presentation and showed some video clips of her project.  Its title is Bring It To The Table.

Julie Winokur

Bring It To The Table is a video and web project designed to bring Americans together.   Participants are asked to present their political beliefs and discuss them with Julie, who sits across from them and encourages them to elaborate on their statements.  She and her team then edit these videos into what they are calling a series of “webisodes.”  These “webisodes” will make up a participatory on-line platform for community engagement.

Julie’s hope is for Bring It To The Table to bridge political divides, elevate our national conversation, and serve “those who are tired of hyper-partisanship and want to steer political discourse back into the hands of the American people.”

And, about that flower: Each participant, early in the discourse, is asked to move the flower from its position at the center of the table to the approximate position that defines her/his political persuasion on a sliding scale from conservative to liberal.  So, as the viewer sees the video, the flower to the viewer’s right will signify some level of conservatism of the participant, and vice-versa if on the left.

Participant of Bring It To The Table

 However, in order that the viewers of the video correctly read the flower’s position, the participant at the table must move the flower in the opposite direction to her/his political inclinations. Intentional or not, this becomes a clever opening gambit that plays into the intentions of the entire project, which are to reinstate a healthy political discourse and actually encourage Americans of different political persuasions to begin talking to--and more importantly, listening to--each other. 

Participant and Bring It To The Table, Madison Square Park, NYC

Americans today tend to avoid political discourse except in the company of people and friends who hold similar opinions.  As Winokur laments, “somewhere along the line, politics replaced sex as the one thing in America we don't discuss in mixed company – even amongst friends and family.   Democracy is founded on robust dialogue, and if we can’t have conversations across party lines, democracy doesn’t work.

Today, most of us have had similar misgivings, especially when we see evidence of an entire political party agreeing to do everything--or nothing--in order for the other party to fail.  For example, last month Jay Rosen wrote in his blog, News From Nowhere (a title most likely borrowed from that classic work of late-nineteenth century utopian socialist fiction by William Morris), that “over the last few years our political discourse has completely deteriorated.”  He rightly blames this on the media, rather than on our political parties.  As he notes, “news organizations refuse to place any kind of filter on what they print...[and] nothing will change until journalists are willing to risk printing an article that appears to have a “view from somewhere” because one side didn’t bother to chime in with anything substantive.”

Similar misgivings were stated a few months earlier by Marjorie Pritchard, who began an article entitled “What Happened to Civility?” with these words: “American political discourse seems to be on a path to paralysis. Extremist rhetoric and demagoguery, half-truths and outright lies, and the politics of personal destruction permeate every level of public debate, from Congress to traditional media to the Internet. This lack of civility appears to threaten central features of our democracy and is a cause of increasing alarm among the general public.”

Redressing this imbalance in contemporary American political discourse will not be easy.  We see some rare attempts, such as Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who has done her best to invite major Republican figures onto her show and also regularly brings on Michael Steele, the former RNC Chairman.

Then there are a few, random, personal encounters with the “other side,” as when the Baltimore-based filmmaker, actor and journalist, John Waters--creator of Hairspray--decided to hitchhike across the country and spent many hours in a car with a conservative Republican councilman from Myersville, MD, Brett Bidle, discussing politics.  Bidle stated of this experience, “We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that’s what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time.  I think that’s what America’s all about.”  Waters remarked that, because of their engagement, Bidle was “the first Republican I’d ever vote for.”

Brett Bidle and hitchhiker John Waters

This is, indeed, “what America’s all about,” or what America ought to be all about.   But something sadly has gone amiss in our country, and we need more than an occasional, serendipitous encounter with a hitchhiker to put America back on an even keel, to bring it back to a place where Republicans and Democrats might disagree but also are willing to work together for the good of our nation.

Can we envision a future in which American politicians from both aisles will work together once more to serve the interests of our entire citizenry?  Wouldn’t we all want to enjoy the fruits of the sort of bipartisan efforts that gave us TVA (1933), PWA (1933), the Social Security Act (1935), the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), or the Civil Rights Act (1964)?   All of these were passed by margins of over 60% in each party as well as in each chamber of Congress.  Such numbers seem impossible to achieve today.

In an environment in which top Democrats are accusing their Republican colleagues of deliberately sabotaging our economy in order to weaken President Obama’s re-election chances, and in a time when sixteen major Republican lawmakers and three others met secretly on the night of Obama’s inauguration to propose “unyielding opposition” to every Obama proposal, it is hard to imagine how our elected representatives could ever regain the cooperative high road of American politics.

Simply stated, they can't.  Instead, the American people are going to have to bear the burden of generating the atmosphere for a new, bipartisan political climate.  And this is where Bring It To The Table may blaze a path over the next five months and even after the November elections.  After all, it is about--and by--Americans of every political persuasion.  It intends to set up its “Star-Spangled Table” in both of the convention cities, in our various “swing states,” and all across America, in libraries, malls, parks and barbershops.

For this, it will need support, of course, and--appropriately-- it is using the most grass-roots of methods to raise the money: Kickstarter.  It (Bring It To The Table) is proposing to raise $30,000.00 to develop its “webisodes” and offer up its participatory web site in promotion of a healthy political discourse.  So far, it has raised $26,192.00, but unless it gets the last $3,808.00, it will receive none of the money so far raised. This is how Kickstarter works.

I have just contributed $75.00 to its cause (so now Bring It To The Table only needs another $3,733.00). I urge you, my readers, to consider supporting this interesting and unusual political cause as well.  Here is Bring It To The Table's 

Kickstarter url.  I hope you at least will open it and look through it.  Considering the potential of Bring It To The Table to bring together our political factions and enrich our democracy, it is asking for a pittance.  It would be a tragedy if it were not able to raise the rest of the money by the deadline of Monday, June 18, at 11:00 pm. edt. 

If you require a bit more persuasion, I encourage you to look at two brief videos that Julie has done on other projects:  One is a moving piece about how she and her husband altered their lives in order to take care of an aging father with dementia, The Sandwich Generation.  The other is a powerful and gorgeously photographed piece about international oil exploration (and exploitation) in the Niger Delta, Curse of the Black Gold.

I hope that some of you will join me in supporting this experiment in political dialogue.  Here I am, by the way, having taken my seat at yesterday's table at B&H Photo.

Tyko Kihlstedt participating in Bring It To The Table, B&H event space, NYC

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Et Tu, PBS?

Having just returned to New York this evening after several days on Cape Cod, I turned on our local PBS television station, Channel 13, to watch Moyers and Company while my wife and I hustled up some dinner.  Channel 13 is in the middle of a fund drive, and so it is presenting special segments;  following the Moyers program was a lengthy double-segment titled “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,” featuring Dr. Daniel Amen.

After a few minutes of watching this video of Dr. Amen presenting his “findings” before a rapt audience, I turned to my wife and asked why in the world was PBS airing this blatant infomercial?  Once I turned off the program and went to my computer, I quickly found out that others had asked the same question, at least as far back as four years ago.  On May 12, 2008, for example, the neurologist, Robert Burton, wrote a piece in titled, “Brain Scam. Why is PBS airing Dr. Daniel Amen’s self-produced infomercial for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease?”

Now, I am neither a medical doctor nor a scientist--simply a well-educated humanist with a healthy dose of skepticism.   And what I saw in Dr. Amen’s video presentation quickly had my skeptical antennae quivering.  Clearly, this man was looking for fish to haul aboard into his Amen Clinics; and the net he threw out was wide enough to gather in most of our older population. Among its many strands are memory issues (most everyone’s worry), obesity (America has the highest rates in the world), and depression (a major chronic illness in America).  And, after getting one’s brain scanned as a way to diagnose one’s particular malady, Dr. Amen will prescribe treatments that bring health to one’s brain and cure any number of disorders.

Now, if this weren’t enough to arouse my suspicions, the many images Dr. Amen showed of brian scans surely wakened my incredulity.  Given the fact that my particular academic discipline was Art History, in which I work with visual images all the time, I found something particularly “fishy” about those SPECT scans that Dr. Amen kept showing as evidence of various malfunctions in a person’s brain.  His scans lacked sharpness; they looked manipulated and unreal, more like some sort of asteroid full of deep penetrations and holes than a brain.  And then, Dr. Amen simply presented these images with neither any description or analysis--as if the dimmest member of his audience would know what he or she were reading on the screen.  To an art historian, an image, if it has significance, requires some description and analysis; a presentation lacking this becomes meaningless.

SPECT Scan from Amen's software

Traditional SPECT Scan

But as I am a humanist, not a scientist, allow me to mention one other person besides Robert Burton who, with more appropriate scientific credentials, has questioned the validity of Dr. Amen’s claims.  Dr. Harriet Hall, in an article titled “A Skeptical View of SPECT Scans and Dr. Daniel Amen,” has written: “I believe it is improper to charge thousands of dollars for a test that has not been validated and may not be safe....At the very least, he should be describing the test as experimental.... I, personally, would not undergo the test at Dr. Amen's clinic even if it were free. In my opinion, based on current knowledge, the possibility of harm outweighs any potential benefit.

It would appear that Dr. Amen, with clinics in California, Washington State and Virginia, is more interested in collecting his $3,250 for a “comprehensive evaluation” that he is in protecting his patients from the radiation effects of his SPECT scans.

Moreover, in my opinion, Dr. Amen comes from a questionable academic lineage.   He holds an undergraduate degree from Southern California College (now Vanguard University of Southern California), a Pentecostal Christian college. Subsequently, he earned a doctor of medicine from Oral Roberts University School of Medicine (the medical school of this Charismatic Christian university suspended operations in 1989, after a mere decade of existence).  Even more questionable is the fact that, until 2007, the home page of the Amen Clinics stated the following:  “Everything starts and ends in your Brain-Soul connection.... The brain-soul connection is vastly more powerful than your conscious will.”

Regardless of our particular belief system (or lack thereof), I think we can agree that the soul is separate from our physical body, that it is non-material, and that it cannot be proven to exist, scientifically or otherwise. That Dr. Amen, as a scientist, would posit a connection between the brain and the soul, simply increases my suspicion about everything that the man does.

Having voiced my suspicions about Dr. Amen, however personal and unscientific they may be, my main concern is the fact that I encountered him on a PBS television station, and on a major New York City station at that.

What is this blatant piece of advertisement doing on public-TV? Why would Channel 13 show Amen’s infomercial, especially after respectable scientists had questioned PBS about showing him several years ago?  Across America, PBS stations have been presenting his infomercials as if they were actually a regular part of their programming.  Yet, the Amen video was produced by Amen and High Five Entertainment out of Nashville, and has nothing to do with PBS.  Does Amen pay these stations for this privilege of airing his videos?  Is this where public-TV is heading?  Who can we trust? Will PBS soon join FOXNews as a disseminator of propaganda paid for by the highest bidder?   I feel betrayed: et tu, PBS?