Blog Archive – October, 2016
- October 26, 2016
“It’s only a Car!” Oct 25/16 by Barbara Nimri Aziz
“Yes, I listen when I first wake up, maybe while getting the children ready for school; sometimes in the car too.” They’re talking about radio. Radio was supposed to become a marginal medium, surpassed first by TV and then, surviving that, it would be buried by the internet. Yet radio is still with us. More than surviving, radio has introduced new ways of speaking, conversing and telling stories. A whole new sound has been created for example by Atlantic Public Media. Meanwhile some traditions continue.
Except that my very favorite radio show for almost three decades fits no tradition:—it’s part comedy, part advice column, part phone call-ins. (Listener call-ins gave radio a tremendous boost in the 1960s.)
I continue to be a radio addict. As a critic of government policies, an aficionado of literary readings, and a producer of “RadioTahrir” (www.RadioTahrir.org) for 23 years on the avant-garde and activist Pacifica Network (www.Pacifica.org) you’d expect my favorite to be a show related to political or literary enterprise. Actually, the program I listen to most faithfully is one that’s impossibly dissimilar. It’s CarTalk. This, though I’m not even a car enthusiast.
CarTalk is a hilarious, practical advice call-in show. It originated in Boston 30 plus years ago by two feisty Italian brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, both garage mechanics (the do-it-yourself-sort; but to figure out their degree qualifications), a perfectly paired team with a shared irrepressible sense of humor.
Think about it. How often while listening to a non-comedy radio broadcast do you find yourself chuckling? Not only this: these hosts engage in banter and howls of laughter while dispensing serious counsel --all having to do with cars! Threaded though the humor is lots of useful (and reliable) car advice. (They really have to be good because of safety liability, the reputations both of cars they discuss and garage mechanics their guests already consulted.) The stimulus for Tom’s and Ray’s comments are calls from listeners challenging the brothers with simple, complex and silly car problems: mechanical problems, disputes with their local mechanic, family predicaments around co-ownership, repair costs, holiday motoring anxieties, and inheritance problems (cars often pass from parents to children). The issues are actual problems which cars, especially older models, experience. And Americans keep their cars for a long time.
CarTalk, in my view, is the most engaging program on US radio, on radio anywhere. A weekly one hour show, it’s been airing every Saturday morning as long as I can remember. With the passing of Tom the older member of the team in 2014, the live broadcast ended. Today the program continues as The Best of Car Talk, edited from their archives. Meanwhile www.cartalk.com carries a full show, highlighted moments of fun (or guidance), automotive news, and abundant free car advice.
Part of the success of the program, in addition to the spirited character and compatibility of the brothers, lies what cars symbolize in American history and culture. People grow very fond of their cars and are reluctant to part with them, thus the need for repairs to keep them functioning well past their dump-yard date. (We think we can fix our car ourselves—with a little advice.) An owner feels proud that her car’s odometer registers 200,000 miles, or if it approaches 170,000 (as my 1985 Toyota did) we’re determined to keep it running (as I did), whatever the cost, until it cracks 200,000. No car owner likes to spend money on repairs either, so Tom and Ray’s advice mustn’t require a lot of expense. Then there are the mechanical mysteries that emit from a car: you know, those rattles under the hood or the scraping below the passenger seat. So we turn to CarTalk to address our doubts or after our own local mechanic hasn’t performed a cure for our ailing 1968 Chevy pickup, or our limping 1992 Honda Civic..
The brothers seem to know every car model ever made, from 1950s vintage Fords to the latest Swedish, Chinese and Indian brands. After ID'ing their location a caller starts with: “I have a 1978 Volkswagen bus whose windshield wipers don’t work…..”, or “I and my husband are going to take cross country trip with our 3 dogs, two rabbits and a parrot; we can’t pay more than $3000. and plan to dump the vehicle once we arrive; what should we buy?” Tom and Ray try to diagnose the issue and dispense advice, injecting guidance with abundant hilarity, while never, never reproaching or ridiculing a caller. The hour is upbeat, always hilarious, and the advice is highly reliable and, it seems, mostly spot-on.
The personalities of the brothers and the chemistry between them explain much of CarTalk’s popularity. But this program taps into our American romance with cars and our attachment to these celebrities of manufacturing history. Cars enjoy an unparalleled place in American life. Desoto, Mustang, Studebaker, Roadster, Impala:-- these names are deeply embedded in the American lexicon. Each represents an image fixed in our memory, in the brains even of young people born long after a model ceased being manufactured. Cars represent key points in millions of Americans’ lives, in the latter 20th century if not now. Famous songs eulogize cars; cars are the subject of poems; “Motown” is the trope for Detroit city, center of auto manufacturing for decades, and the music genre that emerged there.
A driving license, not a pair of Nike trainers or the latest iphone edition, was and still is for many, the primary goal of a US teenager. We started saving for our first car even before we had our driver’s license; cars compete with sports to occupy 90% of young men’s conversations. We concocted quiz games about cars and car models. There is an entire industry in the U.S. devoted to auto museums, small scale car models, and road functional antique cars. Cars parked in residential driveways are part of American architecture. In my town, I recognize my neighbor by the color and model of their passing car. We can usually gauge a person’s income by the model of their car.
Whatever the caller’s car model, one of the brother’s recognizes it—1972 El-Camino, 1959 Ford Torino, 1990 Dodge Viper, 1980 Desoto Adventurer, or 1966 Volkswagen bus. (Most callers seek advice for only 20 plus year-old vehicles.) These radio hosts seem to know any car’s mechanics and particularities that could cause problems. Instead of saying “Take it to the junk yard; it’s past 250,000 miles”, they do their utmost to help extend its life. They treat the car like it’s a family pet. Only occasionally Tom would advise—“It’s only a car!”[ It's Only A Car! a media story ]
- October 19, 2016
In response to Ralph Nader’s relentless calls --now there's a long distance runner-- high school social studies classes may devote a special hour this month to teach school children about the American electoral system. But it’s their parents, the voters, who need the crash course in civics. And quickly. We have less than two weeks to become real participants in our democracy. How can this happen when citizens are gripped by 24/7 coverage of a made-for-TV national blockbuster fed by ceaseless new corruption and sex revelations and deepening personality clashes of celebrity candidates?
In the days remaining before we cast our votes, there’s little likelihood that ignorance and confusion about the 435 House races can be addressed so that voters can make intelligent choices. Since their outcome will decide the balance of power in the US Congress, why are we not preparing ourselves, to make our vote in our home districts count?
Take the state I am familiar with--New York. New Yorkers pride themselves on having a political sophistication, but are actually woefully ill-informed. About the presidential circus, everyone I meet can volunteer lengthy comments; they quote press accounts of gaffs, policy shortcomings, poll numbers and the latest satirical skit. They may know the name of their incumbent congressman or woman, but not if they’re running again, how many terms they’ve served or who their opponent is. And races for the state senate or assembly? Forget those.
In just one campaign in this state, the problem is readily apparent from a sample of neighbors: “I want to know what a congressperson actually does,” announces Kathryn, a short-tempered resident who’d all but given up on politics. She plans to attend our meeting with District 19’s candidate and it’s evident that even though she’s 60ish and a professional who works with the public, Kathryn has never spoken to a member of the US Congress, not even to a congressional candidate. Her newfound enthusiasm to break this pattern is because this weekend she’ll have a chance to meet one.
Privately—by necessity since we could arouse neither interest nor help from our state or country Democratic party-- a few residents managed to lure one candidate to a town hall gathering. (New York is not a “swing state”. It’s expected to go wholeheartedly Democrat and as a region which the Democratic Party takes for granted, there’s no aggressive campaigning here --i.e. no significant funds are allocated by the national party.) Ours is one of four or five US House seats in NY where incumbents have resigned or otherwise will not run.These seats are open and present fair competitions whose outcomes could alter the balance of power in the House of Representatives. Don’t they count?
Urged on my some residue of hope for this country and an anthropologist’s curiosity, I’m devoting time to move through my neighborhood, risking rude rebuttals and challenging beware-of-dog warnings to urge residents to vote November 8th and to inform them of the candidate I’m supporting.
After Kathryn, I run into Lebron who’s in town for casual work as a housepainter. (He’s actually a professional cook.) Handing him a campaign flyer I ask: “You live in Middletown, so you’d be voting in this district, right?”
“Well, I’m now registered. But district 19, I don’t know.” I check my map; Middletown lies on the border of Sullivan and Orange counties. I’m uncertain too.
Steve working nearby overhears us and offers that he too isn’t sure if he votes in district 19. “My house is in Sullivan but my business is here in Delaware County; are they in the same congressional district?” (It’s a legitimate question since District 19 includes 7 whole counties and shares 5 counties with other electoral districts). This uncertainty also suggests that Steve, and maybe others too, haven’t visited their ballot station—they haven’t voted--in many years.
Sharon, down the street, steps out of her house to talk. We rarely see Sharon at our pancake breakfasts or summer Bar-B-Qs, so her eagerness to come to the coming town gathering is a good sign. “I think I have some things to ask her; I’ve seen some TV ads; there are pros and cons. What about the tax cap; what’s her position on that? I heard she wants to raise taxes.” “Come and ask her yourself”, I retort. “I will.”
(I make a note to phone Sharon on Friday to remind her of the meeting time.)
Taxes seem to be the overriding issue; no comments on foreign or energy policies, jobs, educational reform, or Citizens United (unpopular with the left because of the liberty it grants wealthy individuals and corporations to donate to candidates).
Even as Election Day nears a lot of people here haven’t yet made up their minds, certainly not about congressional candidates (they seem clearer about their presidential choices). More than once, before I have a chance to properly identify myself at their door, the householder assaults me with “Oh, no, I’m not for Hillary”, or, “I was for Sanders, but he’s out. So I’m undecided.” If, before the door closes I can explain which candidate I’m here to talk about, unfriendliness turns to curiosity. “Who?” Accepting a brochure, they ask: “What party is she? Oh, yeh, I think I saw something about her—she’s not from this area.” Or,” I saw a TV ad and have my doubts.”
“Well, do you expect to vote on Nov. 8th”? I retort, trying to end our exchange on a positive note. “Let’s see; I’m undecided. I need to know more”. Ten replies like this are erased when a door opens and a smiling citizen announces, “Oh she has my vote for sure. She’s terrific.”
Does he know more than the others? Is he a party faithful? Does he simply believe he counts?
And another thing: the state assembly and senate races! On Nov. 8th do we have to vote for candidates there too?[ Less Than Two Weeks ]
- October 06, 2016
What a year for political satire. It’s nourishing; it lowers our stress level; it breaks taboos. Every democracy needs satire but one wonders how much it will count when it comes to votes on November 8th.
For many months following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when demonstrations of patriotism and US prowess, heartily broadcast and reinforced by US media, criticism of America’s war policy was barely tolerated. The nation’s wimpy image (military defeat, reprocessed as “The Vietnam syndrome” http://thevietnamwar.info/vietnam-syndrome/, was buried; and a new era of ‘just wars’ was launched-- so Americans believed. After they successfully (sic) routed the Taliban in 2001, then overthrew Saddam, US troops were unassailable, the Iraqi victims so welcoming of liberation. (We tend to forget how it was only when body bags started arriving home that criticism, beyond marginal anti-war activism, surfaced.)
Dissent took more than a year to emerge and even then criticism came initially only in the form of satire, e.g. Jon Stewart in The Daily Show. Stewart’s mockery of these wars awakened Americans to the lies they’d been consuming. His funny exposes pricked their conscience.
Military folly remains sacrosanct in the USA but parody and satire were essential to renewed critical discourse on the government’s aims, its strategies, and the behavior of its troops. Political satire has its place in any culture, in any period.
What I’m witnessing from our witty satirists (many of them based in the ‘liberal’ centers of New York and California ) in today’s US election season is not satire. It’s ridicule. Yes, these skits and caricatures make us laugh. They are undeniably clever and The Donald provides abundant fodder for comedy. (Clinton too, but to a lesser degree.)
What these comics’ ultimate aims are, I’m uncertain. Evening entertainment, no doubt; and kudos for their wit. However, if they hope that brilliant ridicule will motivate people into political action and genuine debate, they are misguided. I suspect, regrettably, that fans who enthusiastically distribute these nuggets of funny wisdom will accomplish nothing-- beyond feeling themselves more informed and more intelligent. Their indulgence may. moreover, move them utterly further from those --not only The Donald but also his many loyalists-- whom they view as dumb, ill-informed, gun-totting religious hardliners.
Cartoonists are having a field day this election season: The Onion, Wapo, Truthdig, are joined by many others. I’ve no problem admitting they’re clever and fun. But ridicule has its limits; it can undermine healthy dialogue. By definition ridicule is: speech or action intended to cause contemptuous laughter at a person or thing; derision.
Engaging examples of ridicule I receive come from well informed ‘liberal’ colleagues who, moreover, consider themselves political activists. They are not shirkers; they aren’t so disenchanted that they’ve eschewed news channels for basketball, cartoon and cooking shows. No; they indulge in sharing these ridiculing images as if they’re somehow engaging in political action. It won’t work.
Misunderstanding how ridicule operates meanwhile imbues these would-be activists with a sense they are doing something, that they’re so funnily effective that they’ll turn the tide of public opinion and defeat their opponents. They’re misguided.
New York City is a notorious enclave of political and personal ridicule. It’s a lifestyle here, a putative sign of its inhabitants’ sophistication and intellectual superiority. It’s invoked during this campaign season as a means of being politically enlightened, and active. Ridicule is good for laughs, yes. But it’s ineffective in terms of changing the behavior of their objects of derision. Indeed I suspect that partisans of the target of that contempt interpret this humor as a kind of racism. So they may instead rally around the target (as a victim)—in this case Donald Trump—with a sense of injustice and evermore energy.
They need to read Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a timely survey by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild who devotes her anthropologist’s temperament to understanding a part of America that others make little effort to comprehend. Hochschild’s mature investigation challenges ‘liberals’’ views of fellow citizens in Louisiana who they are likely to dismiss as occupants of ‘Trump territory’, justly worthy of ridicule. Basing her conclusions on extensive research, admitting that we all (even sophisticated Berkeley and New York liberals) “live in enclaves”, Hochschild is able to show considerable compassion for white, Christian Louisianaians whom others often deride . In her recounted interviews she vividly demonstrates this community’s political intelligence and she suggests they are grossly and dangerously misunderstood by other enclaves. She concludes: if “we can find common ground… there are possibilities”, and advises liberals that “the shoe is on our foot to reach across.”
 In the presidential primaries earlier in the year, it was noted that as few as 29% of New York voters cast their ballot. This New York rate was only exceeded by Louisiana voters.[ Beware Liberals, Ridicule Won’t Help Defeat Opponents ]
You must be the change you wish to see in the world
- a poem.. a song..
- "Obama"poem (Arabic)
- Qur'an Surat Al-Qaria
from 'Approaching The Qur'an' CD, reciter: Seema B. Gazi
- Book review
- Remi Kanazi's
Poetic Injustice:Writings on Resistance and Palestine
reviewed by Sami Kishawi.
- Tahrir Team
Lynne Stewart with our interns
- Read about Lynne Stewart with our interns in the team page.
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