Sunday, June 06, 2004

Man on Leash -- One Month Later

The two pictures depicted in this mural in Iran are iconographic representations of U.S. imperialism and racism. The picture of an Iraqi prisoner on a leash held by a white soldier was the one that hit me hardest. While the nonconsensual sex and simulated sex between prisoners was sickening, i couldn't help but feel that at least some of the outrage was fueled by intense homophobia in the Middle East and the United States. Don't get me wrong, those acts forced upon prisoners by soldiers were terrible, but I remained cognizant of the way in which homophobic demagogues could use those pictures to further demonize those who engage in consensual relations. The leash picture represented something more fundamental: harkening back to slavery and the Trail of Tears, the dominion of whites over people of color, and the emasculation and degradation of men of color. Most Americans reacted to the pictures with shame because they identified with the white soldiers (and most of those pictured were white, as far as I can see). But I didn't react out of typical liberal guilt: "this is not America, those soldiers are degenerate and don't represent me, how can I distance myself and my country from these acts?" Those pictures looked like America to me and they evoked the tragedy of the embrace by people of color of a country whose "exceptionalism" has been rooted in colonial racist notions of white supremacy. We are American but we are also the man on that leash.

The Believer on Elliott Smith and Music Fandom

This is an outtake from the new issue of the Believer, an outgrowth of the McSweeney's literary/community service movement started by Dave Eggers. It is from an article by Gina Gionfriddo on the death of Elliott Smith and the author's attendance at a candlelight vigil in the East Village. This excerpt rang true to me on a number of levels:

All of this got me thinking about my own musical fanship and the nagging sense of shame that accompanies it. My friends have trained me to treat the ferocity of my musical passions as a shameful secret. The message seems to be this: Listen to whatever you want and like whatever you want, but temper your enthusiasm to suit your advanced age (I'm thirty-four). Praise moderately and possess no evidence of devotion aside from music. That is to say, no "merch," unless intended ironically. . . .
I bought the issue for the Carrie Brownstein/Eddie Vedder interview but this article and an interview of David Byrne by Eggers were much more interesting.

Monday, April 19, 2004

My Architect at Cinema Village

It has been out for some time, but I finally got a chance to see My Architect on one of my Sunday solo movie trips into Manhattan. The film is poignant on the relationship (or lack thereof) between visionary architect Louis Kahn and his son Nathaniel. It also beautifully captures the monumentality and spirituality of Kahn's later work. The architecture critic Vincent Scully contends that Kahn was channeling the divine spirit in creating his vast church-like buildings, such as the Salk Institute, the Philips-Exeter Library, the Indian Institute of Management, and, most grandly, the capital buildings in Dhaka. A Gujarati architect named Doshi who shared a last meal with Kahn, believes that Kahn was a mystic who understood the spiritual meaning of matter and nothingness.

A Bangladeshi architect named Waras brings this aspect of Kahn's work to a brilliant and extremely poignant summation at the end of the movie. As he is speaking to Nathaniel, Waras starts to cry in appreciation for Kahn's gift of the bricks and mortar foundations of democracy in Bangladesh. He says (paraphrased), "he loved us so much to give us this gift, and though he did not give you the kind of love you seeked, his love was for all people."

It was particularly ironic that Kahn was given the opportunity to build a mosque as part of the Dhaka capital complex, while being deprived of commissions for synagogues in Philadelphia and Jerusalem. In this time of fundamentalist polarization it was especially beautiful to hear the call and see Muslim men praying in Kahn's mosque.

I am generally suspicious of the personalization and anecdotalization of ideas and politics (even as I engage in a form of it here and in my work). However, it seems to me that Nathaniel Kahn has succeeded in illuminating the ideas in Kahn's work through his personalization of its discovery. It's a moving journey.

In addition, it seems clear that Kahn found in India and Bangladesh the kind of support and engagement with his ideas that he never found in his home city of Philadelphia. I think this is due partly to the remnants of internalized racial inferiority felt by subcontinentals and partly to the grand aspirations of these countries to remake themselves in the wake of indepedence, led by visionary statesmen such as Nehru. They seemed to understand and respect what Kahn was trying to do and helped the son understand it as well, twenty-six years after the death of the father.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

A Fan Falls in Iraq

Learned of this soldier's death on a Pearl Jam fan board that I check periodically.

"Kevin Kolm, a former lacrosse star, was a music fan so passionate about the band Pearl Jam that he had the title of one of the grunge group's earliest hits, 'Release,' tattooed on his back, his father said.

Yesterday, four of his friends emblazoned that same word, as well as the date of their buddy's death, on their arms in an act of remembrance, Thomas Kolm said."

Corporal Kolm and his friends sound like the kind of fans who I might stay away from at a Pearl Jam concert -- big, white, potentially hostile, etc. However, his untimely death makes me focus on the war that is raging and that claimed 68 American lives and many, many more Iraqis last week. While the media is getting better about sharing the consequences of the violence, the war is so far from urgent in most people's minds, even for the activist students with whom I work. I think this might partly be due to the class and race stratification separating people I spend a lot of time with from those who are serving in the military. It also might be due to the stratification within activist movements into pigeon-holed categories divided by "issue." The anti-war march that I attended in New York in March was largely white and seemingly upper middle class, with very few people of color in attendance, unlike the post-9/11 immigrants rights rallies that I have attended. Amongst progressives, there might also be some satisfaction in seeing Bush's war go so badly. Whether it is apathy, class or "cause" stratification, or the progressive wish for the fall of Bush, our inattention to the war has made us complicit in the deaths of people like the 23-year-old Kevin Kolm.

Here are a few lines from "Release" for the late Cpl. Kolm:

i see the world, feel the chill
which way to go, windowsill
i see the world's on a rocking horse of time
i see the birds in the rain
dear dad, can you see me now
i am myself, like you somehow
i'll ride the wave where it takes me
i'll hold the pain...
release me...

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Long Winters at Northsix

I went to see The Long Winters at Northsix in Williamsburg last night and came away as a sort of fan. Generally, I stay away from seeing shows when I haven't heard the records (which is a damn stupid way to take in the music scene in New York in light of the terrible radio options). I went to this one because of the connection of the band with the post-grunge Seattle scene that includes Death Cab for Cutie. I'm crazy in love with the new DCFC record, Transatlanticism, as well as the Ben Gibbard "side project," The Postal Service. (For the record, all the cool kids (like my purported friend ____) were into DCFC at least 3-5 years ago; they're too popular now but I don't care. This is what happens when you go to shows based on what you happen to hear in the atmosphere, but I digress.)

Anyway, Long Winters is led by this incredibly funny doofy blond guy named John Roderick. He's literate and amusing and kept playing corny classics by request from the audience between his own music, like Hot for Teacher and Barracuda. I don't have any of their records, but a song named Cinnamon (with a Neil Young tag in the middle) and another called New Girl just took off and propelled the young hipsters in front to bounce to the music. I saw a guy with long hair put his arm around his friend because the music was making him so happy, it was pretty damned sweet. This tall promoter dude was called to the stage because it was his birthday. He had been swaying with his uber-pregnant girlfriend throughout the show. The band also called up some guy from Brooklyn named Andrew, who was decked out in full Beacon's Closet ware, to sing along for a song. Yet another sweet young man, who hesitated to sing into the mike at first and eventually was enthusiastically harmonizing with Roderick.

As usual, I was self-conscious because I was there alone and was once again the only person of color in the hall. Today I find out that John Roderick is older than I am, which makes me feel slightly better about my solo Friday nights, while some friends are putting their kids to bed or working on computer theory papers or law review articles. The thing I usually get from these small shows is a great deal of respect that the folks have on stage for their craft. Maybe because I cannot play music (yet), watching them "at work" inspires me to pay more attention to my craft (whatever that may be). So, okay, I was not at home writing my life's work, but I was inspired by the band and the joy of the crowd.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Prashad/Hampton on Solidarity and Struggle

I'd prefer to quote others than to stretch my usually quite prosaic thoughts to blog-worthiness. So I initiate the excerpt series with Vijay Prashad from The Karma of Brown Folk, quoting Black Panther Fred Hampton:

"Solidarity must be crafted on the basis of both commonalities and differences, on the basis of a theoretically aware translation of our mutual contradictions into political practice. Political struggle is the crucible of the future, and our political categories simply enable us to enter the crucible rather than tell us much about what will be produced in the process of the struggle. 'Some things if you stretch it so far, it'll be another thing,' Fred Hampton explained. 'Did you ever cook something so long that it turns into something else? Ain't that right? That's what we're talking about with politics.'"

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Obama for America

Barack Obama has impeccable liberal credentials and a nuanced view of race rooted in the exploration of his own ethnic and geographic identity. Charlton McIlwain at The Gadflyer has an interesting look at the upcoming campaign against investment banker Jack Ryan. One of McIlwain's arguments is that because race is omnipresent in media coverage of the candidate and there is the usual bombardment of stories about Black crime on local news, Obama will have to battle a Willie Horton effect each day of the campaign. I don't imagine that this is a new fight for Obama, though it will take place on a big stage. The question is whether his candidacy will challenge entrenched assumptions about race and change the rules of the game for future African American candidates. This depends on whether the candidate and his supporters proactively talk about race, class, and identity. I'll be looking to local observers of the campaign for greater insight on how this issue plays out through November. This is one of the important meta-stories embedded in what most observers think will be a successful electoral campaign.