Blog Archive

Blog Archive – October, 2017

Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal

October 25, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“A serious problem in America is the gap between academe and the mass media, which is our culture. Professors of humanities, with all their leftist fantasies, have little direct knowledge of American life and no impact whatever on public policy.” ― Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae, 1990, and Sex, Art, and American Culture, 1992

I’ve waited two weeks since news about Harvey Weinstein’s malignant power exploded in the New York press. How long do I hesitate before joining the debate, a debate that must expand, drawing in more people, searching all levels of our culture which this occasion demands?

I suppose every woman, young or old, ambitious or docile, abused or not by a man-- by anyone, perhaps herself an accomplice in abuse--- has something to contribute here.

But what happens after the ten millionth testimony is proffered?  After the trauma is identified? Does it help to say I too am a member in the same shamed and traumatized club along with Olympic champions, film stars and directors, fashion designers, and celebrity journalists as well as secretaries and research assistants, clients and patients? Does it help to confess, to listen, to empathize, to embrace a confessor, or to expose a predator? In the short term, perhaps. In the long-term, unlikely.

Does it help to disguise my feminine lines, veil my breasts, lower my gaze, and extinguish my body odor with mint flavored salve? Is it liberating to confide to my mother or sister, teacher or psychologist exactly what that rat did to my body, to recall my first experience of being violated, the unarticulated shock of what powerlessness really means? I doubt it. In the end, at the cultural-institutional level, none of these are remedial.

Where do we go after all the confessions are in, after the tweets have gone viral, after all the molestations are quantified, even after a court conviction?

I see no solution on the horizon. Because we are inextricably bound into a culture which celebrates the body, male and female. Our civilization encourages full explorations of sex, rewards ambition, and, most of all, it glorifies power, especially if that power is attached to wealth. These ideals are unassailable and no one is suggesting they be expunged. 

This condition is evidenced by the abysmal record, near failure, of the very campaign that claimed to solve women’s problems—the Western feminist movement. A movement moreover, which, sanctioned by the UN, proudly and energetically exported itself to every corner of the world. Instead of weakening the patriarchal, misogynist culture that grips America at home, feminists of the 1980s adopted the paternalistic mantle they claim they had shed. Thus misguided, they set out to teach the world about true (women’s) democracy. I recall in the late 1980s, after the “opening” of China, a US press notice announcing progress in China:--a beauty pageant was planned in the communist state; multiple shades of lip paint were available to China’s women. China was advancing!

I do not recollect newly liberated American feminists applauding advances in civilization when women in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines or Argentina won presidential office.

After the Middle East and Islam became topical in the 1990s, western women ignored their own unfulfilled goals to become global protectors, setting their sights on naughty men who mistreat Kurd, Afghan, Arab, Dalit, or Yazidi women. Feminism gladly brandished its new cudgel to strike at anything in the vicinity of Islam.

What might help reform the entrenched misogyny that’s been exposed in the Weinstein scandal is this: explore how and why we-- young men as well as women-- are attracted to power; why our self esteem depends so much on our beauty, being gazed at. Why do we dash after anything that ‘goes viral’? Why do we want far more money than we need to live? Why can we not say “No” to a cleric’s advances, to a sport star’s invitation, to a boss’ wink, to promises of greater success?

=====================================

   A feature of youth is short attention span; this could apply to youthful America, with its tendency to believe that when its wrongs are revealed, it expresses remorse and then moves forward. Having admitted its misdeeds, it matures. Alas, this is not America’s way. It coats itself in cosmetic confessions. For an example of our enduring immaturity, look at the hugely popular TV series, Mad Men. I completely missed Mad Men from 2007 to 2015 when millions of Americans followed its weekly episodes. Being a media critic, however belatedly, I set out to examine the source of its acclaim. So I began viewing Mad Men. That was last month, before the Weinstein exposé ignited the debate about sexual predators. Discussing the Mad Men phenomenon with others, we recalled how poignantly the series portrayed verbal and physical debasing of women by husbands, lovers and office colleagues. “Yes, that was how men behaved in the sixties; that’s what women accepted. It was the culture then (before the feminist movement). Men couldn’t get away with that now.” Can’t they? “No. Well it’s more subtle, more circumspect, today.” Is it?

“If you live in rock and roll, as I do, you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women. It doesn't repel them.”  ― social critic, Camille Paglia

We have to recognize that the foundation of our culture, dominated as it is by male energy and sexuality, remains intact. This, despite some cosmetic and legal adjustments. How much are women willing to risk in their search for esteem and other rewards.

Sexual abuse and harassment of women must be viewed within a wider portrait of this unwholesome nation. Progress has faltered on many fronts: we’ve returned to Jim Crow incarceration and racism we believed was far behind us, a condition documented by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. Human trafficking, approaching slavery, is rife. Child abuse and kidnapping continue; pornography has surged with the application of digital tools. Rape of women by the military is carried out against captives but also fellow soldiers. And we all know something about torture in the 21st century.

Back to the ‘Weinstein problem’: the press continues to engage us with yet more stories of celebrities’ encounters with this pervert. Yes, just like fellow media moguls Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes. But surely this is part of a ‘cultural condition’ we’ve known about and debated for some time, e.g. campus rape, the violation of women by fellow college students. Like Hollywood insiders, university authorities ignored or minimized the violence. They treat the scourge by referring cases not to police but to college grievance committees. A 2015 film treatment of the issue does not indicate the problem is solved. University cover-ups, we learn, serve to maintain a reputation attractive to philanthropists.   

The ongoing problem of sexual abuse of women (on campus or in the film and TV industries) was a subject of acerbic exchanges among feminists 30 years ago. On one side, almost single-handed—the “anti-feminist feminist” culture and art critic-- Camille Paglia boldly took on mainstream feminists. In a sustained series of exchanges, many of which appear in her 1992 collection Sex, Art and American Culture she declares, “Feminists keeps saying the sexes are the same…telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything or wear anything.

“No they can’t.” Paglia exclaims. She attacks what she sees as mostly white, educated feminists for their “pie-in-the-sky fantasies about the perfect world (that) keep young women from seeing life as it is.” As a result, she argues, “Women want all the freedoms won, but they don’t want to acknowledge the risk. That’s the problem”.

I’d like to hear Paglia’s take on today’s debate around the Hollywood scandal (it’s bigger than one disgraced pervert). She might help us more fully explore issues of risk and responsibility, not men’s-- women’s. How can that be taught? Children are supervised ever more closely via their cell phones. Can this prepare them too handle risks as adults, faced with predators like Weinstein?

[ Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal ]

Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize

October 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Iraqi government has every right to assert control over Kirkuk and its environs. (One only wonders why it waited this long. The city had never been a Kurdish center and only after it repulsed threats by ISIS three years ago, did Peshmerga replace Iraqi government forces in the area. Peshmerga has been a coddled and abetted military presence in the US-UK-Israel plan to divide Iraq. (No Kurdish force has had any legitimate presence there.) So recent references by both National Public Radio and BBC news hosts about Peshmerga fighters representing Kurdish sovereignty in Kirkuk are misleading at best.

No one yet knows what the outcome will be of Baghdad’s belated move to affirm authority in the area with its surprising military victory in and around Kirkuk earlier this month. Interested foreign parties from Turkey to Israel have remained silent, thus far. Meanwhile Kurdish spokespeople are making alarming claims in the international press about the deployment, even suggesting those Iraqi forces are ISIS-linked, also invoking the trope of Shia militants taking over their (sic) city, assertions left unchallenged by an acquiescent NPR and BBC.  

Why is there so little willingness by US and British media to acknowledge the character and legal status of Kirkuk in Iraq? One hears no reference to the strategic transformation of the city and its environs by nationalist-secessionist Kurdish interests from a majority Turkmen community to a Kurdish one starting in 1991 when the US and UK helped establish an inchoate Kurdish sovereign state in northern Iraq?

The day of the Kurdish referendum in September I noted the process by which Iraqi Kurdish leaders worked to convert Kirkuk into a Kurdish city, with the intention of annexing it when the time came (last month) for their claim of independence, and ignoring the Iraqi constitutionally defined border outside Kirkuk and nearby areas.

It is mystifying why the Turkmen of Iraq, a fiercely Iraqi nationalist, significant minority, has been so invisible in international press coverage of the region. This while they embody a remarkable ideal that opposes any military action. Visiting Kirkuk on two occasions before American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I saw the displacement of Turkmen families (begun in 1991) in progress and I’ve followed their growing fear of Kurdish dominance, all without threat of armed retaliation. Their population is not small—at least three million-- and many Turkmen are well placed in Iraq’s government. Although that proved insufficient to thwart Kurdish ambitions over Kirkuk.     

Turkmen’s marginalization in their heartland has won little sympathy outside; their identity and ethnic rights are completely overshadowed by Kurdish separatists and their foreign partners and lackeys, such as Peter Galbraith. Are we to accept comments by BBC guest Nadhim Zahawi as a fair assessment (BBC World News 10.17.17)? Zahawi is a British-Kurdish millionaire, a UK member of parliament, also director of Gulf Keystone Petroleum GKP operating in Iraqi Kurdistan; he moreover chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan. This in addition to his many controversial legal involvements.

The wider public, it seems, is only permitted to know that Kirkuk sits on major oil deposits. (Of course that explains it being coveted by the Kurds in alliance with the West.) But what about the longtime Turkmen character and history of the city? What about the sustained opposition by Turkmen Iraqis and the Baghdad government to surreptitious tactics by the Kurds to make it appear the city and surrounding areas is Kurdish and lies within the three Kurdish-dominated governates (Erbil—a once Turkmen-majority city for 700 years, Sulaimania and Duhok) that have enjoyed considerable autonomy since 1991. Kirkuk is no more a part of Kurdish Iraq than nearby Mosul is, and Kurdish rights to Kirkuk has never been part of the semi-autonomous understanding between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad.

[ Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize ]

In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees

October 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I received the invitation from Magnolia Pictures to preview a forthcoming film by artist Ai Weiwei, recognizing the name of its celebrated Chinese director, I was eager to screen it. I have a scant impression of the visual extravagance of Ai’s art work, but knew nothing of his filmmaking before my research for this review. Now I learn of his copious filming explorations resulting in more than 20 video productions between 2003 and 2013, some rather lengthy, e.g. Chang’an Boulevard (10:13 hrs), or So Sorry, and mostly completed in his homeland.

                Ai Weiwei’s early videos are largely investigative visual documentations of injustices, tragedies, dissident profiles and autobiographical projects. A prolific artist who also identifies himself as an activist and dissident, Ai gained international attention, predictably, when in 2011 he was detained for some 81 days in his city, Beijing.

He works in multimedia, often on a grand scale. This may explain his attraction to the theme of this film, Human Flow @HumanFlowMovie @aiww, due for release October 13th in the USA. More than two hours long, taking us into fourteen refugee camps across more than ten countries from Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico (notably, this project omits reference to Tibetan or Qinghai refugees from China), employing some 100 staff and 60 translators, Human Flow is of epic scale in more than its title.

                Human Flow is essentially a human rights message—a visual statement of the unfulfilled rights – or dreams, if you will-- of refugees across the globe. His tens of thousands of subjects—representing tens of millions worldwide--are souls in transit: South Americans slipping across the Mexican border into the USA, Palestinians driven from their lands, Africans escaping from various homelands by boat across the Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern families walking into the European mainland. It’s about fences and guards, and waiting huddled families.

Most of those offering testimonials, Ai Weiwei films inside refugee camps. Stark, somewhat formal, on-camera interviews with individuals provide first hand accounts of their victimization, anxiety, and bitterness.

Little of what we witness in Human Flow will be new to anyone following international events. In recent years, with the massive exodus of people from the Middle East into Europe, the military conflicts, the controversial status of undocumented workers, the deaths of thousands crossing the Mediterranean, and subsequent debates about what host counties ought to do, even the most disinterested of us is aware of the “human tide” pressing upon our shores.

Testimonies by refugee families in the film are interspersed with statements by officials-- professionals in the refugee business: we hear from doctors inspecting camp conditions, from human rights lawyers citing UN conventions, from a diplomatic Jordanian princess, from Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine’s most articulate representative, from UNICEF’s spokesperson in Lebanon, from Israel’s B’Tselem director, from the Carnegie Middle East director, from a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. All offer choreographed, disembodied statements about the need for more, more, more…  

A short segment with the single politician in the film, Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, is noteworthy for its candor. About migrants, Jumblatt declares, “without memory you are nothing”; about refugee management he points to the hypocrisy of international refugee policies. In skimming over Jumblatt’s blunt assessments, Ai Weiwei missed the chance to explore more fundamental issues behind those pompous, exploding human rights’ businesses. He could have offered us a really piercing story, introducing Human Flow with Jumblatt’s provocative assertions followed by dialogue with Jumblatt about the financing of camps, the wars generating these exoduses, the pornographic use of pitiful images of victims, threaded together with the powerful visuals that Ai’s cameras capture. A lost opportunity by a man known for provocative, daring work.

As with his other projects, Ai Weiwei wants us to know he is there:  on the ground with sobbing refugees, beside his camera crew at a tense frontier, his hair disheveled by sand-laden desert winds. Here is the anthropologist, there-but-not-there, allowing refugees and their surroundings speak for themselves, images superimposed with an occasional news headline or quote from a Turkish or Arab poet to augment the pictures.

Which brings us, finally, to the images. What is new to our refugee portrait are spectacular aerial shots presenting a panorama of refugee living:—we are taken high above an endless, blue sea, a boat laden with escapees slowly moving into the frame; we gaze through a wide angle photo of a camps’ columns and columns of orderly white structures; another aerial encompasses countless scattered huts amid the detritus of their impermanence; we are held beside tents haphazardly pitched at a railway station, dwarfed by an enormous, slowly moving train passing resolutely behind. This is the “flow”-- perhaps more accurately termed “stagnation”-- that impacts the viewer more forcefully than faces and statements of refugees and administrators. 

Because of the director’s celebrity, a lot of people will want to see Human Flow. Still, given Ai Weiwei’s objective of using art to change perceptions, we need to ask: can this film do that?

 

 

[ In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees ]

ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work

October 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects….They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it… across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

                “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man: gloved, goggled, masked he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat…   …the tenant stared after it ...his wife… beside him, and the quiet children behind. And all of them stared after the tractor…”

This merciless machine might belong to Israeli militants preparing another Jewish colony-- a common scenario on Palestinian lands. The watching silent family could be the indigenous peoples of Brazil’s disappearing forests. Or farmers of Gujarat, India, relocated by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Just as First Nations’ livelihoods and wildlife habitants of Canada’s boreal forests were invaded to make way for Alberta’s massive oil extraction operation.

                That opening passage some will recognize from Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel -- perhaps the most powerful portrayal of a people uprooted, forced into poverty-- internally displaced refugees. It’s a process newly identified by Canadian researcher and author Naomi Klein as “disaster capitalism”. Klein brilliantly and poignantly defines the occurrence in her 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Shock Doctrine describes in unequivocal terms how corporations and companies  – I would include “non-profit” NGO institutions and human rights agencies among them--have learnt to respond with rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock to profit from a multitude of disasters:-- man-made catastrophes, wars, reckless economic policies, economic embargoes,  climate-induced disasters, or other world changing crises.

                Grapes of Wrath, written following droughts in the American West, recalls the removal of farmers from their homes and livelihoods across Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. Those droughts arrived in waves between 1934 and 1940, precipitating a series of bad harvests, with wind erosion aggravated by an absence of dryland farming methods. After farmers’ credit was exhausted, banks foreclosed on family properties and turned over much of that ‘dust bowl’ to agribusiness which capitalized investments with the timely rapid mechanization of farm equipment. Tens of thousands of dispossessed families become migrants, moving westward with whatever they can carry atop their old vehicle, to answer a fraudulent promise of abundant jobs in California. As they move, many perishing on the way, they are confronted by distrust and contempt. They find themselves derided as ‘Okies’ by those met along their trek —“Keep moving; we don’t want your kind here”, they are warned.    

Steinbeck paints a poignant image of commercial bankers in league with those machines:

 “Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics, because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank-- or the Company—needs-- wants—insists-- must have---- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them. These lasts would take no responsibility …” …”the bank--- the monster has to have profits all the time.  It can’t wait. It’ll die.”

Standing with the bosses, ready to enforce the corporate plan, are vigilantes and mean-spirited police wherever the migrants stop. Anyone daring to dissent is threatened with jail, blackmailed, ‘disappeared’.

The poor press silently on. 

At the end of their journey, desperate surviving refugees arrive in the green orchards of California eager to regain their dignity and family cohesion only to face new company men, also finding themselves competing with other hungry job seekers for lower and lower wages. Here too they are met by bosses allied with police authorities to maximize their own gains, driving the uprooted families to greater degrees of desperation.

Are those 1930 ‘Okies’ not ancestors of our estimated 25 million refugees now wandering over our globe? Not only are today’s ‘Okies’ viewed with suspicion; their homelands are occupied by one kind of disaster capital complex or another, diverting national resources into foreign assets, fishing coves into tourist resorts, mixed farmlands into single cash crop ventures, and bankrupting their governments with US-made defense imports. 

                Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the earliest dramatization in English of what we now recognize as “disaster capitalism” (although nothing of that is indicated in summaries of the story https://www.arts.gov/partnerships/nea-big-read/the-grapes-of-wrath.) The epic journey of Steinbeck’s Joad family began with a climate disaster—droughts that turned vast farmlands into what became know as the dustbowl, invoked in Wood Guthrie’s 1940 collection Dust Bowl Ballads..

Some may recall, as I did, a passionate story of the Joad family, with the noble Tom Joad striving to keep hope alive; and Ma Joad, the optimistic matriarch directing her forlorn, dwindling family forward.  What I remembered from the novel and the film are beautifully crafted characters with their personal hardships and disparate responses to misfortune. In the character of Tom Joad, artists have found inspiration: there was singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, himself a dustbowl refugee from Oklahoma; two generations later, Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced a stage version of Grapes of Wrath; and in his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen draws comparisons between the dustbowl and modern times.

Today, temporarily immobilized by an accident, I’m rereading Grapes of Wrath after a 40 year hiatus. Now Steinbeck’s political message moves into the forefront. This is not the history of a climate refugee family. It is the history of capitalism in America—disaster capitalism-- with an alliance of police force and wealth, where machinery is supreme, where honest labor is not enough, and where the family is secondary--a worthy reread in modern American times.  END

[ ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work ]


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