Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Convenient Other

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The New York Times has, for the past week at least, offered a steady drumbeat of editorial and opinion articles on two on-again-off-again wars: The War on Gaza and the War on Drugs. The Times is ostensibly known for generally taking the liberal point of view, but their coverage on these two topics rather highlights particular liberal hangups. As it stands, for however the Times has become the poster child to conservatives of the liberal bias of the mainstream media, it comes as little surprise that the Times’ opinion on marijuana decriminalization had only been scooped on this point of view by the National Review by only eighteen years.

The common conceit is that Democrats argue only in terms of fairness and not how to make things work, and that Republicans are required to make the cold, hard decisions that governance requires. However, it tends to be the topics that Democrats agree with Republicans on that espouse the most irrational rationales and taboo subjects of the Democrat party. Both Israel and marijuana exist prominently among those subjects, and for similar reasons.

The greatest obstacle in the way of legalization of marijuana is that it eliminates the convenient prodding of ready-made boogeymen: Black people. Indeed, the Times’ latest missive on their ongoing series highlights this aspect of the legislative history on marijuana. The War on Drugs is fought on the image of violent, gang-affiliated minority street dealers. It’s no surprise that the places that have been most successful at decriminalizing pot also happen to be where local citizens are both liberal and overwhelmingly white, for that drug dealer image is not as thoroughly pervasive there.

Similarly, the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel and Palestine is it removes the convenient justifications for Israeli expansion: The Palestinian leadership. The ever-present threat of destruction at the hands of Hamas (or Fatah or Hezbollah or the PLO) is necessary for the continuance of right-wing politics and policies, for it silences the liberals. None of these organizations, however, represent a true existential threat; they simply don’t have the firepower. Nor are they meant to be true threats, just obstacles: Even when democratically elected, they’re represented as little more than Kalashnikov-wielding suicide-bombers.

In both cases is the opposing point of view marginalized. Direct statements from such are often-times omitted entirely. To depict the side in support of the Gaza incursion, the Times has offered an Israeli Defense Force attache and has quoted Israel’s US ambassador at length. To depict the side coming out against the incursion, the Times has offered a Jewish Israeli author and a Jewish American columnist. Most of the news on the matter comes from Ben Hubbard and Judi Rudoren. Hubbard also writes for the Times of Israel and Rudoren follows a Times tradition of placing a Jewish reporter in charge of the Jerusalem bureau. The dozens of news and opinion articles by such writers overwhelms the sole published statement by a Palestinian journalist and a Turkish professor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opinions grace the paper on a daily basis, but only speculation on the opinions of either Hamas leader Khaled Mashal or Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas are given, and generally through the lens of Israeli columnists.

The Times’ opinion generally tends to boil down to “Israel has a right to defend itself, but…” and its two editorials on the subject rest on the opinion that the status quo is preferable to open warfare. Its coverage of John Kerry’s attempts at enforcing cease-fires and truces points out that the Hamas leadership views that the status quo is untenable, for it means the continued running of Gaza as an ersatz concentration camp. The Times editorial board generally agrees on this notion, but doesn’t provide a peaceable means to reach a more amenable conclusion except to surrender unconditionally to Israel.

This has direct parallels to the law-and-order coverage that the War on Drugs has long received: Run-down minority ghettos are starved for decent education, health care, jobs and social services, but the media speaks overwhelmingly of drugs and violence, both in straight number of news reports as well as proportional coverage. The Times has offered a retrospective its “evolving” view on marijuana, though not its coverage of minority neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Brownsville. If the Palestinian question is framed primarily in terms of having terrorists rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of Israelis – so too has ‘hood’ Brooklyn been spoken of primarily in terms of having gangs rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of yuppies – with public outcry and public monies being funneled with that impression in mind.

The New York Times has generally viewed such neighborhoods like empires have viewed their colonies: Entities to be civilized whether their denizens like it or not. The point of view is invariably that of the gentrifiers, not the gentrifiees. They herald low crime and “livable spaces” while simultaneously lamenting the ousting of local populations under gentrification. “Stop and Frisk” was an annoyance, but not as much an annoyance as the perceived threat of crime. If their coverage of the hood continues along the path of their coverage of the strip, we’re likely to expect more lukewarm reservations on the abuses of power while tacitly sanctioning the inevitable crackdowns.

The New New York

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He walks down a Midtown street, not too far from Bryant Park, holding up the optimistic side of the conversation with his companion. No, New York’s economy is on the up and up, he said; just look at the new construction everywhere – while pointing at one of those new cheap hotels with rooms like pods and stalk-like architecture, twisted between outdated 1961 setback laws and local M1-6 zoning ordinances. He certainly looks like a striver: Unflattering slacks, starched pale blue button-down shirt over the beginnings of a beer paunch: Not highfalutin, merely upper-middlefalutin, the sort of guy who goes golfing on the weekends but on a public course.

He’s not altogether wrong, of course. New York is on the up and up: One need but look at the new skyline under construction to realize that. The world’s tallest residential tower is slated to be built on 57th Street, to match all the other thousand-foot luxury condos there already underway. The two grand projects of the Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center add enough office space in New York to build a second Los Angeles. The city is even building new subway lines (or, rather, stubway lines) for the first time in more than half a century, although none of them have opened yet. A bright new glass-clad dawn for a city naysayers had written off back in the Bad Old Days.

This man, in a sense, represents that New New York. Gathering from his loud complaints about his workload, his job is to cover for his business’ practices by any who would threaten them. His workload is a case load, and his successes can be determined solely by dollar value. His existence is one at odds with convention: He is a supplicant and a working man, but he is also conveniently and effortlessly devoid of ethics. He does not share the heartlander’s conceit that law and morality are in accordance, but he does not hew his own morality to replace law, and is thus freed of obligation. He can and has found success, and indeed sees the city as one which engenders success.

Old New York appears to be invisible to him. It doesn’t give him the information he needs, so he tunes it out. In that way he represents another dichotomy, one indeed that he shares with his environs: He works within a cold, blank edifice, and is himself largely the same. His information is funneled to him via his handheld device, in his eyes the new public world, but cavalierly invisible to the old public world. A public world that can become unseen at will. A semi-public world, much like the semi-public plazas common to this section of town. He sits at the bar and chats with the bartender about his handicap on some course out in Long Island while his companion plays with his handheld device, and when the bartender turns away, he, too, plays with his handheld device exclusively.

People like him have existed in New York before; coming into Grand Central from places like Scarsdale. Suburbanites. But he’s not a suburbanite: He lives on the Upper East Side in a fresh new condo – no word, though, on if it has poor doors. He’s been there for two years. It’s convenient for him. He doesn’t need his companion at the bar. He doesn’t need anyone at the bar. He’s holding a running conversation on his handheld device. The bar doesn’t matter; not its tin ceiling, not its oak panels, not its jukebox. It’s merely a vessel to convert money for liquor, another convenience. He’s drinking bud light from the bottle. What a combination: First-class budget and dime-store taste buds.

Huxley’s book referenced Shakespeare’s punchline and in so doing telegraphed its own joke. So in form does this man embody his. It isn’t so much the glass boxes he walks through or the iProduct in his hand but the social construct such represent and which he is a part: One that courageously presses forward towards a strongly envisioned future but with one eye constantly vigilant for the authorities to come around and realize just what exactly is going on and put a stop to it. A circumstance best spoken of in terms of ironic pastiche for at heart it’s a surprise one has managed to get away with it for so long, like ditching your friend at a gas station while he takes a piss and never receiving the expected angry call. Reality has yet to catch up.

Speaking of reality, half of the city can’t afford to live there, but do anyway at great expense (by hook or crook) because that’s where the jobs are. Crime is still down but police brutality is up. A sixth of the MTA’s budget is just paying the minimum on loans and most of its infrastructure is actively crumbling. A new Hudson River crossing was deep-sixed by Jersey three years ago and the new East River crossing for which construction had resumed eight years ago has become the city’s albatross. The city is building a bridge of steel on a foundation of wood, but such information is not coming through on this man’s handheld device. It’s just not pertinent to him, so he doesn’t see it. Reality, after all, is now opt-in. The New New Yorker exists on a more sublime plane, and who can blame him?

We the People

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While whiling away some time at the one remaining Blaggards in Midtown – after my favorite Fashion District dive succumbed to the incredible commercial rent speculation New York is currently experiencing – as I waited for the pro-Gaza protest to get under way in Times Square, I overheard a conversation, as one is wont to do in a bar, between three thickly-accented Brits about the nature of the Afghan Mujahideen.

One man who identified himself as a former soldier remarked that these men were particularly savage in their reprisals, referencing incidents wherein they actually crucified enemies and left them to die of exposure. He pointed out that in arming such people against the Soviets, Americans had created a monster.

His statements were of a bent that indicted America’s foreign policy, for which I was in agreement, but for a different reason: He argued in effect that we should not have armed what are obviously a savage, unreasoning people. I interjected that the veneer of civilization is thin indeed, and that our own actions are not so differentiated as he implied. He categorically disagreed with me on this issue, and stated that while we employed torture in order to gain information, they did so for sport, which was a fundamental and unbridgeable divide.

It was nearing my time to go don the Palestinian flag and march, so I did not continue the conversation but instead said my goodbyes and took my leave. However, this man’s remarks stayed on my mind. Forgetting, of course, the human piles and electrode-crucifixes that Abu Ghraib prison became infamous for under American authority, his stance that civilization was stronger and more insurmountable an edifice was a troubling one, for it meant not only that he believed these people could not be “saved,” with all the attendant implications therein, but also that western civilized folks would never fully embrace such “barbarism,” with all the attendant implications therein.

While walking to Times Square, I thought of two counter-examples. The first and most direct is that of Afghan society prior to the armament of the Mujahideen – from Soraya Tarzi to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the politics were comparatively moderate as contrasted with what came after under the Taliban. Women in the cities were allowed to go to university and hold respectable public positions, and indeed wear more western fashions. The sorts of progresses America pushed for under the Karzai regime have pre-Taliban precedents.

The second and most telling counter-example is, of course, the single-generation Nazification and subsequent de-Nazification of Germany, an ostensibly “civilized” country where an entire culture was whipped into a fervor that saw the systematic deaths of millions by brutal means that would match or surpass medieval methods – with such activities as the skeet-shooting of Jewish babies, to say nothing of Mengele’s vivisectionists – and then, just as quickly, “cleansed” of such ill motives, where even referencing such a time in any but the most sober format is quickly censured if not outright censored.

If one can accept that a people can be “Nazified” or “de-Nazified” within a generation, then it logically follows that civilization’s hold on societal strictures is thin. If one cannot accept that a people can be “de-Nazified;” that the Germans (or indeed anybody else) had it in them to commit such acts all the time, and needed only the right catalyst – a view in line with Hannah Arendt’s treatise on the “banality of evil” – then civilization is merely a patina by which society collectively deludes itself.

That I was protesting against Israel’s excesses concerning the bombing and invasion of the Gaza strip – with its heavy civilian toll, especially concerning the deaths of well over a hundred children – and tacit American support of such actions, made this particular line of thinking quite pertinent. To listen to the Zionists on my Facebook feed, Israel’s right to such acts came down not only to the provocation of Hamas’ rocket attacks (forgetting the string of mutual provocations beforehand) but also that Israel was a functioning, western-style liberal democracy – in short, a civilized nation – whose motives were thus unassailable when viewed in comparison with its neighbors.

The protests and the international reaction are of course of mixed provenance – European protests, critics noted, were tinged with anti-Semitism (although conversely any American criticism is painted with the “anti-Semitism” brush even should it come from Jews) and indeed the state of Israel exists largely because western nations did not want a flood of Jewish refugees in their countries, not to mention the moral turpitude involved in granting a colonial possession against the wishes of its native population – but the underlying implication of Israel’s unchecked aggression is that civilization is not infallible, nor is it indisputable, should it even exist as a functioning concept at all.

Mixed Messages

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I found myself, yesterday, in a place that I, like any self-respecting New Yorker, tend to avoid like the plague: Times Square. I was there on a mission to capture the proceedings of an organization that rented an hour’s time on one of the giant glaring billboards in order to display something that wasn’t bright, garish, empty advertising. They were called See|Me, and they were going to display art.

This created a curious scene as New Yorkers came to loiter on the scene amidst the Disney characters, street performers, cops and ever-present hordes of camera-clutching tourists. This eclectic band also held cameras, but was comprised mostly of artists, and they were there to see their works displayed to the world – or a reasonable (or reasonably American) facsimile of such. Each would get their five seconds of fame, provided the dazzled tourists would care to look.

Comedically enough, it was the presence of the gathering of mean-mugging locals with their studied aloof mannerisms that attracted the attention of the tourists more than the works themselves. A tourist would approach someone with a camera pointed directly at the building-sized display and ask what they were doing. Taking pictures of the art. Oh, the tourist would reply, and walk on.

Prior to the event, a middle-aged woman with loose-fitting white tank-top came up to me and said, “you look like an artist. Are you here for the exhibit?” I was, silently wondering whether my studied aloofness was too studied, but she soldiered on and told me that one of her works had been approved for the exhibit, but then censored at the last second. She explained that such was because it depicted an oil painting she made of a woman in a see-through blouse.

I remarked that I found that funny, as the panel in which the art was to be displayed was currently busy presenting ten-story tall underwear models with obvious cameltoes doing acrobatic poses and looking longingly at the milling crowds below. Just a few blocks up was a hundred-foot pop singer whose latest album was being sold by her nudity, her arm draped across her chest, leaning against a headboard while lounging on satin sheets. Next to that was a lusty gaze from an airbrushed bimbo’s face promoting an ever-euphemistic gentleman’s club.

Even in Disneyfied, family-friendly Times Square, home to life-size Elmo and Buzz Lightyear, clearly sex, or at least the suggestion of it, is broadly accepted.

My newfound compatriot had, despite her rejection, decided to show up anyway. As she described, through her ill-disguised bitterness, she had to see just what on offer was deemed acceptable. During the proceedings, she was not disappointed: Indeed quite a lot of skin was bared, so long as the picture was cropped cleverly, or the model was twisted away from the camera, or any other means of suggestive trickery. We as a society appear to have been desensitized to the female form, and inured to female sexual suggestion, but yet display it as illicit in practice. We are a strange bunch.

One artist recently decided to hold a mirror to that particular neurosis by turning the tables on the subjects. Photographer Bek Anderson filled Rivington Design House on the Lower East Side with prints of nude male models two days ago. Not sexual, but very nude. It immediately drew ire from local prudes: “I guess the new people in the neighborhood are unaware of how many children live here.” Setting aside how tame this is compared to recent iterations of the Lower East Side, Anderson retorted, “There is nothing pornographic or offensive happening in that photo. It’s a portrait of a man. He is naked, but doing nothing indecent. We see naked women all the time in photos where they are highly sexualized and people don’t notice because they are desensitized.”

Indeed, now having been blasted by bouncing bosoms selling vacation destinations, jeans, music, airlines, soft drinks and candy – and that’s just one building – with little objection from the people below, I concede she may have a point. We have become accustomed to hypersexualized fantasy objects, but are inexplicably shocked by frank portrayal of real sexuality.

This barrier, among others, would not be broken down by the Times Square art exhibit, but then it would be asking too much for one hour’s worth of images to break down the perpetual onslaught of consumeristic vacuity before the masses, even if only symbolically. Indeed, five seconds for each particular piece of art was not enough to reflect upon it, and the artists down below were mostly (or merely) waiting for their piece to come up so that they might photograph it. Rather than stand against form, they became that form, their works made hollow, their messages muddled. Yet more grist for the mill of color and spectacle, no time for meaning or reflection.

Perhaps, then, it was for the best that the hapless woman’s piece be censored: At a stint of only five seconds, it would either be ignored or distilled into a flash of titillation, a conspicuous exercise in futility before an audience trained to react in only the most limited, pre-ordained ways. It probably works better as a story of controversy. Yet one more reason to avoid Times Square with a passion.

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