The Glaring Absence of a U.S. Department of Culture

November 7, 2008

200px-ussealThere’s been much excitement and speculation about how Obama will staff his Executive Office. With Joe Biden Jr. as VP (link to the Senate) and Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff (link to the House), the search is on for 15 new Cabinet members*: Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health/Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing/Urban Dev’t, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, and the Attorney General.

What missing? Secretary of Culture.

Call me biased, but pretty much all the most powerful nations in the world have one. There are Ministers or Secretaries of Culture in France, England, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Italy. And so on and so on.

It’s the 21st Century: America needs one.

Obama’s victorious campaign itself proves that images, words, beliefs, attitudes, narratives, and aspirations can bind us together, powerfully, as a nation (and tear us apart — as Dubya’s violent legacy proves).

Culture — the ideas, practices, and ideals people share — is a dynamic and critical apparatus of any nation-state. Mightier than steel, as Obama wisely put in his acceptance speech. More primal than religion, if I may add.

In these dark, fractious days, the strength of American Culture/s (or at least, the belief in it) just might be that magical something, that je ne sais quoi, that pulls us through to a new and better era.

So, I’m putting this out into the blogosphere: Secretary of Culture, Please!

(Cultural Council would be cool too.)

*For posterity, here’s a pdf of Dubya’s Cabinet.

A New President, But the Same Old Homophobia: Proposition 8 Wins in California

November 6, 2008

The sun seemed to shine a whole lot brighter yesterday morning after America voted to get Barack Obama into the White House by an overwhelming margin. The NYTimes headlined: “Racial Barrier Falls as Voters Embrace Call for Change”. Just as Germany tore down the Berlin Wall, we cast our votes to overcome this conveniently-exclusionary thing called Race. We are Making History.

So, what the hell were the states of California, Florida, and Arizona thinking when they simultaneously voted to BAN same-sex marriages? Let’s stop discrimination but only with regards to Race? Hey, go right ahead with those barriers against same-sex couples? Yes, we are Making History indeed. Who ordered the Rain on Our Parade.

According to the NYTimes yesterday afternoon: In California, 52% voted for a ban on same-sex marriages (already deemed legal by the California Supreme Court back in May). Homophobes in Florida and Arizona won by even bigger margins. Arkansas passed a measure that bars gay men and lesbians from adopting children.

THIRTY states have now passed bans on same-sex marriage. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut consider same-sex marriages legal. Rhode Island and New York recognize marriages performed elsewhere.

Why do religious fundamentalists consider marriages between same-sex partners such a profound and urgent threat to the traditional family unit headed by a male/female partnership? Aren’t the cultural trends towards divorce and single-parenthood even bigger (more logical) threats? And speaking of race, why do so many black and Latino votes support the bans on same-sex marriages?

It seems to me: If you want to fix the family, fix the FAMILY. Don’t blame other people. Don’t exclude alternate lifestyles. Really, Stop The Hate Now.

These bans are crimes against humanity. As Obama’s win unleashes a “Flood of Hope” worldwide, we need to direct some of that energy against the bigots that hide behind the dark cloud of religious fundamentalism.

Yes We Can. Let the Sunshine In.


Obama Wins: A New Dawn Is Here

November 5, 2008

obamawave

“This is our moment. This is our time.”

Listen. Yes We Can.


Separate and Not Equal in America’s Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

November 4, 2008

prcoqAs Americans head to the voting polls today to decide who will be the 44th President of the United States, four million American citizens who are residents of Puerto Rico will be barred from casting their ballots.

A Spanish colony from 1493 to 1897, Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris in December 1898, putting an end to the Spanish-American War. It marked the end of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and signaled the rise of U.S. colonialism.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship and in 1947, the right to democratically elect their own governor (previously an appointed post). In 1952, they drafted their own constitution which was ratified by Congress and approved by President Truman.

Today, Puerto Rico is officially an Estado Libre Asociado (which translates into “Free Associated State”) or Commonwealth: a self-governing territory — with its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches — that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sovereignty. It belongs to the U.S., but is not part of the U.S. It has limited (non-voting) representation in Congress. Its head of state is the President of the United States — who it can nominate in party primaries (as we saw on June 1st), but NOT vote for in presidential elections.

So, today Americans vote for President. And Puerto Ricans vote for Governor: not-quite-equal-citizens in a not-quite-independent, not-quite-common land for almost a century.

It’s definitely time for change. We’ve waited far too long. Here’s hoping today is the day change makes history. Vote OBAMA.


Right to Humor Trumps Sarkozy’s Lack of Humor

October 29, 2008

Today, a French court rejected President Nicolas Sarkozy’s demand for a ban on a Sarkozy voodoo doll released by French company K&B earlier this month. According to BBC, the Paris judge ruled that the doll was “within the authorized limits of free expression and the right to humour”.

The voodoo kit includes a manual, a doll emblazoned with some of the president’s more memorable quotes (including “Get Lost You Pathetic Asshole” and “Work More To Earn More”), and pins for users to stick into the doll.

Sarkozy’s lawyer had argued that like any French person, Sarkozy owned the right to his own image, which was violated by the sale of the doll. According to the Guardian, the highly litigious president has been ridiculed by his critics for launching the legal action — his sixth lawsuit since his election. The doll has become a must-have.

Earlier this year, Sarkozy and wife Carla Bruni won a case against Ryanair for using their image in a Paris newspaper ad without permission. Sarkozy has also launched a legal case against another company that produces novelty T-shirts bearing his name and a target sign, saying “Sarkozy Tolerance Zero”.

Whatever happened to Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ?

Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty images

Hooray for the Sheriff of Cook County

October 23, 2008

In Time Magazine’s October 27 issue, “Verbatim” (its regular page of quick quotations) includes this statement from Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County, Illinois:

We’re just not going to evict innocent tenants. It stops today.

According to Time, Dart said this upon “suspending foreclosure evictions in the Chicago area because renters were not being properly notified about their landlords’ financial problems.”

Without knowing much else about Dart, his stand struck me as so profoundly and simply human. Yes, let’s just stop kicking people out of their homes. It could be as simple as that. We’ve got to start somewhere.

My Google search led to a CNN article about the sheriff. Apparently, he made the statement on October 8 to protect innocent tenants who are “victimized by an uncaring, reckless system.” On October 16, he announced he would resume evictions but these would be based on specific conditions (see CNN report). Also, that he would hire a social worker to help evictees find alternative housing.

That’s heroic. Yes, one person saying “no more” CAN make a difference.

Of course, CNN also reports that the Illinois Bankers Association is critical of Dart’s actions, saying he was “elected to uphold the law and to fulfill the legal duties of his office, which include serving eviction notices.” Now THAT’s a crime.

blixity to the Illinois Bankers Association: Shut The Fuck Up.

Dart is one public official who seems to be looking out for his public. A blixity tip of the hat to a GOOD MAN in deed.

Photo of Sheriff Dart from http://www.easthazelcrest.com

Kings and Kingmakers at Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner

October 19, 2008

NYT’s top cultural chronicler Bill Cunningham ran the lead photo above for his “Evening Hours” page this Sunday. From left: Cardinal Edward M. Egan, Alfred E. Smith IV (great grandson of Smith), Nan Smith, and Senator Barack Obama at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner held on October 16th at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

The dinner reportedly raised $4 million for underprivileged children. Which is (undeniably) well and good. It also brought together — in royal white tie — the city’s (arguably, the nation’s) political, cultural, and media elite: both presidential hopefuls, both state senators, the city’s 3rd-term-seeking mayor, a Catholic archbishop, news anchors, and so on and so forth.

Power. With a capital-P. I can’t help but think how much of our futures were shaped that night.

No surprise to anyone that politicians must pal around with the ruling dynasties of wealth and religion in order to get work done. But I am curious about whether and how Obama’s promise of change will weather these dominant regimes with which he is ostensibly at odds.

Certainly, there is no choice. Obama MUST/WILL become the next American president. There is much at stake. One hopes his presidency radically alters photographs such as this.


Why We Don’t Want Another Cold War

October 10, 2008

Left: Putin executing a martial arts move.

Right: Bush executing an “oops” move.


Panic in America

October 6, 2008

Last week’s bailout, aka America-rescues-Main-Street-package, seems to have ignited some bad-ass bad-energy—contrary to expectations. The house WAS on fire. Now it seems the entire street, neighborhood, zip code IS on fire.

OOOPS! America’s surge against the recession is NOT working! Oh-kay.

I can only count the days till this vacationing-in-TX-president—with the help of big media and two glaringly unqualified presidential hopefuls—announces the next rescue plan for the current didn’t-quite-rescue-the-economy plan.

Sort of like the next surge in Iraq to fix the last surge, which I think was intended to help the last last surge, and the last last last one, and so on and so on, ummm, five years ago. Same (strategy or tactic). Whichever. Whatever. Same old, same old: we’re screwed. Good thing we’ve got tax breaks for wooden arrows for children. Nothing like training them young.

We fell for this after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Bush declared an endless war and a state of exception that has now become the rule of (non)law. Last week, we seem to have fallen for it again. We’ve now got a multi-billion dollar bailout/rescue plan that’s resulted in a market nose-dive. This sucks—globally.

Bush sure knows how to hit that panic button. And America jumps, with increasingly grave consequences. Fight or flight. That’s all we seem to know. We seem to have forgotten how to take the time to consider our options, to debate strategies and formulate comprehensive tactics, to work towards a short-, mid-, and long-term. It’s all about the here and now, isn’t it?

We’ve got to get a grip, collectively. Time to hit the pause button. Hell can wait.

Photo: Niffty/Neal on flickr


The Seven-Year Itch

September 11, 2008

Seven years ago today, we woke up to a frantic friend’s phone call telling us to switch on the tv. The image of a pair of towers smoking, in flames, has been on a playback loop ever since. The image has been captured, framed, and delivered from so many different visual perspectives and political platforms, by so many people, for so many people. A monumental image in its multiple imprints to fill this monumentally empty crater blasted out of space and time by mad men.

What have we, collectively and individually, done with this image, this absence? As a nation, we’ve decided to fight. Given in to an endless rage that’s begun to erase the boundaries that define a democracy. Scratched the primal itch for war, for many wars. As an individual, what have I decided? This is a crucial question (and thus, the 40+ day blogging hiatus…)

In an attempt to remember an event that changed my life so viscerally, I thought I’d borrow Judith Butler’s words. She writes in “Precarious Life”, a selection of five essays on the “Powers of Mourning and Violence” (Verso, 2004).

That we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain, however, is whether the experiences of vulnerability and loss have to lead straightaway to military violence and retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war

…What role will we assume in the historical relay of violence, who will we become in the response…?

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army adopted the slogan “Be All That You Can Be”. After 20 years in use, it was dropped for the current “An Army of One”. Is that what we have become? Individuals fighting a perpetual war?


America’s Collective Anxiety Attack: We Need Group Therapy

July 2, 2008

A wise man at NYT’s Op-Eds, Thomas Friedman, wrote last Sunday about the urgent need to build/rebuild this nation from within. Titled “Anxious in America“, his column stresses:

It’s the state of America now that is the most gripping source of anxiety for Americans, not Al Qaeda or Iraq.

…My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline… We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working.

I remember Bush’s challenge to the world shortly after the maniacal attacks on the WTC towers 7 years ago: “you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Somehow, these past 7 years have focused so much on “you” or “them”, that our government seems to have lost track of “us”. If there’s no us, then what are we fighting for?

Friedman urges us to dig ourselves out of this hole (aka gigantic crater) by voting for the candidate who will place nation-building as his top priority.

This year, America needs to make a critical political choice, examine its own problems, and buckle down with some hard-working, long-term solutions to rebuild and rebalance. We don’t need any more “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” or dancing ex-stars. We need an American President! And we definitely need group therapy! Are we ready to snap out of this collective depression?


A Few Firsts: Gay Prides in India, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Havana

June 29, 2008

While NYC kicked off its 38th annual gay pride march yesterday, other cities were celebrating — or fighting for — their first. Another striking illustration of how uneven sociopolitical landscapes get across borders.

In India, gay rights supporters came out in the streets of Calcutta, Bangalore and New Delhi. Some wore masks, fearing persecution and violence yet wanting to participate. Activists called for an end to discrimination, seeking the “right to love”.

According to IHT, the marches are happening just 3 days before the Delhi High Court is expected to hear arguments on overturning a law against homosexual sex that dates to the British colonial era.

While India does not explicitly outlaw homosexuality, the 1861 penal code enacted by the British colonial government rules that “carnal intercourse against the order of nature between any man, woman or animal” is punishable by imprisonment of 10 years to life.

The Guardian reports on these other firsts:

Czech Republic
A gay parade in the country’s second largest city, Brno, was delayed on Saturday when the marchers were attacked by a group of rightwing extremists, who were shouting abusive slogans and throwing eggs.

The march was delayed by about an hour and took an alternative, shorter route than had been planned, under police protection.

Bulgaria
Extremists throwing rocks, bottles and petrol bombs attacked Sofia’s first gay pride parade on Saturday. Police say that they blocked the extremists from harming the 150 or so people in the procession through the city. About 60 people were detained for harassing the participants. Bulgaria’s Orthodox church says the march should be banned as it undermines the country’s Christian traditions.

Havana
Cuba’s first gay pride parade was abruptly cancelled last Wednesday.

The unofficial march, organised with Florida’s Unity Coalition, was not sanctioned by Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education, which is headed by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro.

Imagine that.

So, we continue to fight until everyone’s rights are equal. This is not a gay issue. It’s a human rights issue.


Gay Pride in New York City

June 29, 2008

So today we celebrate with great pride. LOTS to be thankful for. Lots more to fight for.

If you’re able: shut your computer down now and go support any one of three main events today (Sunday, June 29), organized by the folks at Heritage of Pride:

Rally at Bryant Park: 42nd St. and 6th Ave., 2 – 6pm

March: begins at 5th + 52nd and does runway down to Christopher + Greenwich St., noon till end; Governor Paterson becomes the first governor to kick off the march

Dance/Fireworks at Pier 54: 13th St. + Hudson River Park, 4 – 10:30pm

Cheers, Queers!

In memory of one of the best, who died of AIDS way too early. Music CAN change a world.


Two Music Videos About Certain Inconvenient Truths

June 28, 2008

Friday afternoon: Al Gore blamed for 2000 election mess.

Friday evening: Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on tv! I watched it all over again. It never ceases to impress, depress, overwhelm, and energize. I suppose if Gore had become president, he would not have had the time to focus on the bigger picture. Perhaps we are winning the more crucial fight after all. Or, at least we’re thinking about it.

The film always reminds me of one of the most visually- and aurally-captivating music videos I’ve come across:

“Timber” by Coldcut Hexstatic (1997). The mashups and repetitive sequencing in both sound and image are STILL unmatched today. (Ideally, watch on a large screen with major speakers. Till then, here’s a YouTube version.) This is a must-see.

And of course, the film’s perfectly-fitting and always-inspiring theme song: “I Need to Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge (2006).

Here’s to Al Gore. And respecting the earth.


Supreme Court Justice Blames Al Gore for 2000 Election Mess

June 27, 2008

Yesterday, Justice Antonin Scalia led a 5 – 4 vote to lift a ban on handguns in D.C. — a decision welcomed by many Republicans but criticized by many law enforcement officials around the country. Today, the conservative, originalist judge is spouting nonsense again.

The UK’s Telegraph reports that Scalia blames Al Gore for the outcome of the 2000 presidential elections. Apparently, Gore should have conceded without resorting to the courts, without pushing it up to the Supreme Court. Just like the honorable Republican president Richard Nixon.

In an interview about his book “Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges”, Scalia told the Telegraph:

Richard Nixon, when he lost to [John F.] Kennedy thought that the election had been stolen in Chicago, which was very likely true with the system at the time…

But he did not even think about bringing a court challenge. That was his prerogative. So you know if you don’t like it, don’t blame it on me.

I didn’t bring it into the courts. Mr Gore brought it into the courts.

So if you don’t like the courts getting involved talk to Mr Gore.

Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia is one of the leading conservative justices on the Supreme Court. He insists that the controversial 5 – 4 decision to stop the Florida recount was “absolutely right”. Because of these 5 justices, Bush prevailed in Florida by just 537 votes.

I can’t help thinking where we might be today had just one justice changed his or her mind. I guess Scalia’s new book on how to speak and write persuasive arguments will come in handy next time.

(Here’s an interesting video interview with Scalia on CBS News back in April 2008.)