Tuesday, October 26, 2010


October 28, 2010

When you make a pact with the devil, the devil always wins.
The Faust of the moment is Juan Williams, the political commentator who was fired from National Public Radio last week for a remark he made at his other job as the left-wing provocateur on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. It was a remark that was unexpectedly candid — even to him, I think — and that could have led to fruitful dialogue. Unfortunately for all of us, he made it on Fox News, dialogue's desert.
In a segment entitled, "Danger from the Muslim World," host Bill O'Reilly leadingly asked Williams, "Where am I going wrong there, Juan?" "I think you're right," he replied. "When I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous." Digging himself deeper, he continued, "Now I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week, he said the war with Muslims, America's war, is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts." Uncharacteristically, O'Reilly did not interrupt. He didn't have to: Why hang somebody who's hanging himself? Surprised, it seemed, at his own words, Williams quickly pivoted, taking O'Reilly to task for identifying all Muslims as potential terrorists.
In a reasonable venue, where participants talk with each other instead of at each other — NPR and PBS, for example — Williams might have retained the composure to soberly reflect on what he'd said. But in a format that abhors reflection and values only the juicy bite, that was impossible.
Days later, on ABC's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos perceptively prodded Williams: "Should you have gone the extra step and said, ‘Listen, they're irrational, these are feelings I fight'?" "Yeah, I could have done that," Williams replied. Reiterating his comment about airports and Muslim clothing, he added, "in the aftermath of 9/11, I am taken aback. I have a moment of fear and it is visceral, it's a feeling .... So to me, it was admitting that I have this notion, this feeling in the immediate moment."
Speaking for myself, I have similar feelings, even though I live in a neighborhood populated by West African Muslims and see the "garb" on the streets every day. I think many, if not most, non-Muslim Americans have these feelings too. They are part of our ongoing 9/11 post-traumatic stress disorder; any little reminder of that disaster triggers them. As Williams himself admitted, these feelings are irrational. It is our collective national principles of justice and civil liberties grounded in the Constitution that have thus far spared us from total surrender to them, yet they have influenced much of our national reaction, from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to the uproar over the "Ground Zero mosque."
It is the irrational, the visceral, the incendiary that governs the panoply of programs on outlets such as Fox News. Williams may have taken that job at Fox with the best intentions, thinking he could inject some reason into the unreasonable. But he ended up leading a double life, sacrificing his integrity as a seasoned, insightful commentator to play O'Reilly's "liberal foil," as a New York Times story described him.
Sucked into the vortex of the visceral, few could escape. Though NPR's decision to sack him was inevitable — long before the present incident, his format-fed flippancy on O'Reilly"undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," in the words of its press release — the "feeling in the immediate moment" led first to NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller's passive- aggressive recommendation to "take it up with his psychiatrist or his publicist," and then to renewed attacks from the right against public broadcasting and calls to eliminate its federal funding — which, thanks to its enthusiastic listeners and like-minded foundations and corporations, comprises only two percent of NPR's budget.
Right now, Williams is sitting pretty, the unexpected darling of those he has spent most of his career opposing, sweetened all the more with a $2 million contract from Fox News.
But as with Faust, sooner or later the devil will have his due.


October 14, 2010

Cuba has long been a magnet for photographers. The intensity of the island — its natural beauty, its prodigal hedonism and dire poverty, its political volatility — drew photojournalists like Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson to document it extensively in the first half of the twentieth century. When the charismatic and photogenic Fidel Castro and his companions came on the scene in the late 1950's, opportunities for the saleable shot for thirsty news magazines worldwide proved irresistible.
It is that window of utopian hope, wedged between the Fascist totalitarianism of the 1950's and the Communist totalitarianism of the 1960's, that is the subject of "Cuba in Revolution," an exhibit of photograph and film at the International Center of Photography in New York City through January 9, 2011.
The chronology begins with a room devoted exclusively to the work of Constantino Arias, often called "the Cuban Weegee" for the "flash and run" spontaneity of his pictures. He started out in 1941 as a society photographer for the Hotel Nacional in Havana, snapping photos of overdressed matrons, jitterbugging couples, and bloated businessmen from America, liberated from the button-down life in the States and captured at their most uninhibited. Gradually, however, he was drawn to what lay just steps from the swank hotels — the cluttered alleys and tumbledown tenements of the other Havana, the aging prostitutes, sweating pushcart vendors, and most of all, the homeless and hungry. On the first wall you're amused by a full-length shot of a middle- aged American tourist clad only in swimming trunks and a huge sombrero, with a quart of Vat 69 in one hand and a bottle of Bud in the other, teeth clenching a fat cigar; on the opposite wall, you're appalled by the image of an emaciated young woman in a grimy dress, curled like a fetus against the wall of a colonnaded building. On a third wall is a series of photos of the demonstrations at the University of Havana in 1952, students marching with locked arms in one scene, panicked and scattered by water cannon in another. Arias caught the brewing storm.
In the next room, a collection of news photos from 1953 to 1959, Fidel and Che first appear, boyish and beardless in business suits, predating their hairy transformation. Fidel, fresh out of law school, organized a guerilla band and led a symbolic attack on a military barracks in July of 1953. He was captured and imprisoned, and two years later was exiled to Mexico, where he met Ernesto Guevara, an Argentinian physician whose student travels around oppressed Latin America turned him radical. The two snuck into Cuba in 1956, recruited troops, and engaged in increasingly widespread and effective skirmishes with government forces, eventually toppling the Batista regime in 1959. From the beginning, Castro knew well the power of the press and welcomed photographers such as American Andrew St. George to document not only the battles but the humanizing day-to-day life in camp — Fidel reading newspapers in his makeshift study, Che on his cot, stripped to the waist, dreamily sipping yerba mate tea from a ceremonial bowl and straw.
The revolutionaries entered Havana in triumph on January 8, 1959, and the photographers followed, capturing the gesticulating speeches of Fidel and the adoring faces of the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Castro took a prolonged tour of the Western Hemisphere, attempting to build support for his cause. Rebuffed and embargoed by President Dwight Eisenhower, he went to the United Nations in September of 1960, sidling up to the Soviets and infuriating his American hosts with a trip uptown to Harlem to identify himself as a champion of civil rights. St. George captured the mood in a photo of raucous protesters carrying placards reading fidel is welcome in harlem anytime! and u.s. jim crows fidel just like us.
As he settled into leadership, Fidel exploited the camera to solidify his salvific image among Cubans. One room of the exhibit is devoted to "Heroic Portraits." Osvaldo Selar's ultra-closeups of Fidel, one a profile cropped at the eye, slender fingers cradling a cigarette at his lips, every hair of his beard in crisp detail, and a second one backlit to illuminate the cloud of smoke from his cigar, are among the finest in the genre.
Even more sensuous are the photos of Che, surely the sexiest subversive of all time. Among them is Alberto Korda's 1960 shot of Che with beret, taken on the fly yet so quintessentially iconic that, stylized and colorized, the likeness soon turned up as posters, T-shirts, and among the oeuvres of Andy Warhol.
Even death did not detract from Che's photogeneity. When he was executed in Bolivia in 1966, local photographer Freddy Trigo was present when Che's body was displayed to the public as a warning to would-be revolutionaries. An entire room of the exhibit is devoted to his photos of the corpse, laid out on a slab, stripped to the waist as in the yerba mate shot, head propped up, eyes open, staring at the camera: And you thought this was the end of me.
The remaining part of the exhibit features Soviet-style heroic photos of post-revolutionary life, and a strange little section on the already-subversive youth culture of the late 1960's, images of free love and of teens displaying purloined Beatles albums, along with a propaganda short depicting the singers as chimpanzees.
Two other propaganda films are of more interest, one a lengthy "March of Time"-like chronicle of the revolution, another from the mid-1970's showing "mi hermano Fidel" dropping in on a blind old campesino and ordering him a new home, a pension, and free health care. "Socialism," he tells him (and the viewers), "has something more to do for you."
The exhibit is an extraordinary reminder of the power of the image to shape the attitudes of a nation and the world. Fidel, still before the camera 50 years later, knew that from the start.


October 7, 2010

If there's any word to describe the American political scene today, it's "myopic" — no forest, only trees. Confined to their own little boxes of self-interest and fear, most politicians and many of their constituents can't see the Big Picture, can't connect the dots between one issue and another.
Take the Mexican drug wars, for example.
The conflicts among the cartels, which have left 28,000 dead over the last four years, are fueled by arms primarily supplied by dealers in the United States. Yet there is no political will to shut off the supply. As The Washington Post reported recently, "Some 7,000 gun stores operate along the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are not required to notify authorities even if an individual buys dozens of assault weapons in a short period. In fiscal 2009 U.S. agents revoked the licenses of just 11 stores for violations. Once the guns are purchased — usually by ‘straw' buyers acting on behalf of cartel middlemen — they are easily trafficked across the border."
Reinstating the ban on the sale of assault weapons, which expired in 2004, would eliminate 80 percent of the estimated 5,000 AK-47s and similar firearms crossing the border every year. But Congress, ever in the thrall of the National Rifle Association, has been unable to pass such legislation. Even President Obama, once a forceful champion of the ban during the campaign, has retreated from his promise, despite pleas from Mexican President Felipe Calderón himself. What makes the most sense evokes the least action.
Then there are the dots between the drug producers, the drug runners, and the drug buyers and users. U.S. drug policy has focused primarily — and unsuccessfully — on shutting off the supply of drugs from abroad while doing little to decrease the demand here. A number of international think-tanks, such as the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, consider the so-called "war on drugs" a failure and recommend treating drug abuse as a public health issue, not a crime. Legalizing marijuana, which the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates comprises 60 percent of the Mexican drug cartels' business, may be far more effective in gutting them than interdict. As Jorge G. Castañeda, formerly foreign minister of Mexico and now a professor at New York University, and historian Héctor Aguilar Camín wrote in The Washington Post last month: "Legalization would make a significant chunk of that business vanish. As their immense profits shrank, the drug kingpins would be deprived of the almost unlimited money they now use to fund recruitment, arms purchases and bribes." They argue that passing California's Proposition 19, which would allow the private use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana, could effectively evaporate one of the cartels' major markets.
The dots are all over the map. They lie beyond borders. Connecting them demands understanding that it's not just us, it's all of us.