Mar 29, 2006

Save Indian Family: Indian Men (not) Dealing with Modernity

I just saw this speech by Suketu Mehta about “Power Feminism” and ”Power Machismo”, as posted up on the Sepia Mutiny News Tips page. I’ve been working on the post below for a while, but just keep getting side-tracked. As it’s going to be a crazy month and I’m on an evening break, I figure I should at least wrap this thing up and post it, especially in light of his piece.

First, a note about the speech. It was interesting, at quick glance, though I don’t know if I agree with all of his characterizations concerning modern society and gender roles, but maybe it’s just the trumpeting of modern India that got on my nerves (though it was more muted than Tharoor’s overblown tribute in From Midnight to Millenium). Then again, he did highlight some of the challenges that remain in front of India (female infanticide, the great literacy divide, and ongoing dowry violence).

Regardless, I looked it over a couple of times and didn’t see anything directly about what I’m posting about below (perhaps this topic is a little too fringe or seedy for a conference speech).

* * *

So, a friend of mine sent me a link recently, encouraging me to check out The Indian American, the online version of a relatively recent publication to hit the streets of desi America. I think the idea is that this should be a bit more hip, and speak a little more to my generation than the India Abroads and News India Times in the U.S. (though I think that Rediff has turned India Abroad around a little, some of the reporting is still vacuous at best).

While perusing the front page of The Indian American, I looked at the links that they offered on their “Indian Blog” roll. The last on the list is “Save Indian Family” Thinking that it sounded like a social service/advocacy organization, I played along and clicked. What I found was at first entertaining, but then became troubling. Now I’m wondering if it’s a bit of a window into the unexpected reactions to changes in India that I’d been wondering about for some time.

* * *

It’s not about “Saving Indian Families” any more than Cows are Cool is about hamburgers (though it did teach me that Joaquin Phoenix is an ardent vegan who doesn’t even wear leather on the set for work).

Anyway, from what I gather, the site is haven to a small group of Indian men (in India) who aren’t particularly happy with the developments in India, at least in the realm of gender equity (which boggles the mind when you take a macro perspective of how far women still have to go in India to have economic and social parity in the nation, but I guess we can equate that with the fearsome white folk stateside).

The main focus of their ire seems to be section 498a of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with dowry harassment. Here’s the statement from their website:
Save Indian Family(SIF) is a movement spearheaded by about 1500 Engineers, Techies, NRIs, Professors, Scientists, Corporate executives, Intellectuals and Senior Citizens working towards creating a Harmonious Society. The online activists are about 590 in number and every week about 30 new people join us.

SIF works against patriarchy, gender based discrimination, media bias, elder abuse, unscientic social research and fund chasing by various organisations in India. SIF members swear by Gender Equality.

SIF Members believe in Free Speech and they are courageous enough to talk about truth without bothering about political correctness. So, some of the findings of SIF can be quite startling to an average reader.
So the first thought I had when I read this statement, without reading the articles and comments, was “hey! they want harmonious society. that’s good.” Reading onward, I saw “against patriarchy and gender based discrimination” and thought “wow! these guys are progressive, too!”

Needless to say - that’s not what’s happening here. These guys are part of a backlash against both the increased legal action against dowry retaliations, and the changing role of women in Indian society. These guys don’t seem to be able to take it. And they’re pretty vicious.

This outlet allows them to highlight specific stories and basically rant against women and social policy in India that apparently does more than simply threaten the status quo of institutional oppression. Oppression that women have confronted in India and around the world from the beginning of gender role assignments in society. But these men seem to feel that they represent a silent and besieged majority of men who have been transformed into the victims of the modernity and Westernization that have turned Indian women into a formidable and dangerous foe.

Here's a choice sample from their blog:
The root of the problem is not 498a, alimony, sowry or maintenance.

The root of the problem is the design by the society to exploit the masculine gender.

So, boys are emotionally suppressed and many of them are sent to work at early stage.

The boys are conditioned to protect and provide for family at the expense of their own well being. This job literally never ends for the man.

The parents and wife put pressure on him to toil hard and provide for the lifestyle. If he does not, then he is not ambitious. If he does, then he is a workholic. He is made to go through choices between
devil and deep sea in his whole life.

So, how men/boys can stop this social attrocity ?

Here are some perspectives:

1) If a man is abused by wife and her family, first he should reduce responsibility towards his parents.

If parents crib, then tell them to get out of Patriarchy and join protest against society’s hypocrisy against men.

2) Do not think of future, savings for old age and responsibility towards children.

3) Do not take insurances for secuirty of family and wife.

4) Do not work hard and get to emergency mode in office.

5) Remove all responsibilities from mind (towards family, towards parents, towards children, towards economy, towards society).

6) This approach will free the man’s mental resources(CPU and Memory).

7) Then, the man can muster enough strength to fight the female and her treacherous parents. He can also teach lesson to armchair hypochondriac hypocrite social activists.

In short, a man must cut off all the responsibilities and live for one day at a time. That will free up all his resources. Then, he can tackle the vicious female and her family in a powerful way.

A few quick observations:

1) It’s really weird the way they use “patriarchy” on this site. I think that it’s somehow getting lost in translation (from Western English to Indian English. It kind of reminds me of that line in the Princess Bride that Inigo Mantoya tells the Sicilian after noticing that he keeps saying “Inconceivable!”

So it seems that they haven’t figured out that patriarchy is not synonymous with women’s rights or gender equity, but is instead more of what they embody through their vitriol. But it’s really pretty funny to read their comments about how increased independence and refusal to allow men and their families to walk over their rights is the result of the backwards “patriarchy” of the West. I want to just write comments to enflame the regulars and get them to write long rants against patriarchy. Sorry... I do not think that means what you think it means!

2) All kidding aside, this site is pretty scary. Though I’m sure it’s a fringe group (after all, 1,500 in a nation of nearly 550,000,000 men is not a big deal), but how many other groups are out there? And how many men are seething in their isolation, unclear about how the reforms and changes in India are ultimately better for the nation, and feeling threatened as cosmopolitanism and opportunity begin to gnaw away at the gender gap? Are these groups analogous to the white pride thugs in the United States, the UK, and Australia who have drawn the tight circle around themselves to protect against the demons of race, ethnicity, and sex that they hate? I don’t know either way, but I think that there may be more of this kind of backlash, with men feeling like they are losing ground and not understanding the concept that parity of this very fundamental kind will pay off in the long run.

3) Regardless of the future - you should contact the Indian American now, tell them that you checked out their site, and that you’re shocked and appalled that a fringe group like this one, which is so obviously anti-woman, is getting equal play as some of the other noteworthy blogs on their site. Someone was lazy in researching who they were advertising. We shouldn’t let that stop us, though!

Here’s my quick note to them:
To Whom it May Concern:

I just started reading the Indian American online, and the content is pretty good, but I was shocked that you linked to the fringe hate group "saveindianfamilies.comorg" on your main page. The group is clearly anti-woman and anti-progress. I am appalled at their site and hope that you will soon remove the link, because it definitely makes me think twice about reading your publication.
* * *

I don’t have the energy to write about this right now, but it definitely calls to question larger issues around so-called “modernity” and the ability of societies to catch up with the rapid developments. India didn’t have extensive mobile phone networks 5 years ago. And now we’re moving into high-speed access and second generation internet technologies and job development. If the United States are having a hard time dealing with the rapidly changing technology, how are older societies dealing with it?

Regardless, this post seems like it’s opening up a lot more questions and possible tangents than I originally envisioned, so I’m calling it a night here, to pick another fight, another day. Feel free to troll on that site, though. These guys take this stuff too seriously, even if they are crazy.

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Michelle Malkin is Scared: We Must be Doing Something Right!

She posts her limp reaction to the uprising of solidarity in LA here. Malkin isn't worth much space here - I wish she allowed comments on her site, but clearly she's afraid of the "freedom" that she trumpets in the name of military action, near absolute executive power (when the president thinks like her - would be funny to hear her reaction to FDR's actions in the 30s if she were around at that time). Wait - she's consistent, she did defend the Internment of Japanese Americans in her funny book. But then maybe that was more her fringe protectionism (she may be a darling of the extreme right, but I believe in the movable middle regardless of political party, and she's on the fringe).

Anyway - she posts up some good pictures and asks where the assimilationists are. She's afraid of the silent brown majority not being so quiet anymore. She wonders what would happen if people had signs saying "White is Beautiful." For someone engaged in (albeit questionable) media, you'd think she'd have some ounce of critical ability to see that Vogue, Entertainment Tonight, most TV and movies, and all pop culture tell us that already. Did she ever read "The Bluest Eye"? Probably not.

Anyway, ¡Viva Aztlan!

Keep up the pressure. Maybe she'll keep posting up cool pictures.

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Sanctuary Cities: It's a Movement

Though Cali has been questionable in some of the crazy things (read: Ward Connerly ballot initiatives) that have gotten through in the past 10 years, but I have to say - the Saturday protest that broke the 500,000 mark, and the numerous other accounts of resistance (from LA high school students to the santuary city initiative below) have definitely been very impressive.

Some folks have been wondering what's up with NYC. Chicago, Denver, LA, and other places have hosted large-scale actions. What about NYC, haven for immigrants the world over? It's coming, albeit late. April 10. I'll post more when I find it.

COACHELLA: Another Alta California city votes to become an "Immigrant Sanctuary"

Hector Carreon
La Voz de Aztlan

Los Angeles, Alta California - March 24, 2006 - (ACN) Yet another city council in Alta California has voted to become an "Immigrant Sanctuary". Coachella, a city 125 miles east of Los Angeles and with 30,957 residents, passed a resolution that states "the city will provide a safe, healthy and dignified place to live for its immigrant communities, regardless of immigration status."

Coachella Mayor Jesse Villarreal said that the undocumented immigrants living in the city can rest easy knowing that the local police won’t act as border patrol and turn them in. The resolution will also protect US citizens of Mexican descent from being harassed by the police who could mistake them of being undocumented. . The city populations is 97% Latino.

The "Immigrant Sanctuary Movement" is rapidly expanding in Alta California with the cities of Maywood, Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Pomona and San Francisco having already passed similar measures. The city council resolutions are attempts to prevent local police from arresting the undocumented if the anti-immigrant legislation presently before the US Senate passes.

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Mar 27, 2006

Guthrie's "Deportee" and the Immigration Debate

Thought this was a bit of a positive note, in spite of the grim immigration deform legislation that's being discussed in Senate this week.

Heard Billy Bragg on the radio a couple of days ago, and learned both about his work (which I didn't know before this program) and about a really interesting bit of information about Woody Guthrie, the man who inspired Dylan to reach deep into the heart of American music to draw upon the raw truth that he eventually found.

Apparently, Guthrie read a story about a plane of Mexican immigrants that crashed, killing all 28, as well as the pilot and copilot, who were the only 2 to be named. The New York Times only mentioned the others as "deportees," neglecting even to give them some kind of final rites afforded by printing their names in the paper.

Guthrie, drawn by this insensitivity, wrote a poem called Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) that dealt with the story. I'm surprised, and quite touched by this - it's heartening that there were people involved in folk music who would step forward and highlight injustices of this kind even before Dylan and Cash. His poem is below:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane
All they will call you is, deportees

The crops are all in and the peaches are rottin''
The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps
They're flying them back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted
Our work contract's out and we've got to move on
It's six hundred miles to the Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rascals, like thieves

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills
Who are these good people all scattered like dry leaves
The radio said they were just deportees

Is this the best way we can harvest our orchards
Is this the best way we can harvest our crops
To die like dry leaves and to rot on the topsoil
And be called by no name except, deportees

This broader consciousness is what we need today - though Springsteen is out there consistently (check out tracks on the haunting Ghost of Tom Joad and the more recent Devils and Dust, and there are others who speak up both in song and off the stage, we need more folks in mainstream music to take up these issues and broaden the debate. They need to help take it out of the hands of the right-wing talk show hosts.

But beyond celebrating the anti-jingoism that constitutes Guthrie's patriotism and particular American spirit, the lyrics underline the some of the more troubling aspects of life for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Already severely marginalized and shut out of many normal aspects of American life, they are being pushed further into the shadows (and if some would have their way, right out of the country). There are obvious overtones of racism and xenophobia afoot, but there is also a visible mean and retributive streak permeating this conversation. The pundits and idealogues are a super-minority in the United States, and as most tests and polls indicate, even basic understanding of macro-economic principles that govern "free trade" and open markets eludes the majority of the public. Hell - kids can't even find the United States on the globe, so forget a more nuanced understanding of how global market pressures and the allure of the bottomless line for greedy multinationals have precipitated the tremendous influx of immigrants, both through closely regulated channels and alternative paths, to the US.

The irony of the American backlash against immigrants is manyfold. First, the average white American doesn't know much about the rest of the world, but assumes that people come to the United States because it's the best place in the world to live. "They love us cuz of our freedoms." More like freedumb. Joe Average needs to think that the United States remains a peerless, fearless leader at the top of the world, and that other nations aspire for its greatness and yearn for its protection. The steady diet of jingo-nationalist drivel that has flooded the airwaves from the Reagan years onward has eroded the sense of independent thinking, the feeling that a truly free press would be free to openly question and criticize without being labeled liberal or biased, and that the public at large would demand truth instead of the opaque filters, smoke and mirrors, and appeals to the lowest common denominator. It is absolutely astounding that people really think that all people who come to the United States would rather be here "taking their jobs" than working in a good job in their homes, where their civil, social, and cultural networks are intact. Americans are some of the least traveled, least knowledgeable people about the rest of the world - they have a vague sense that their country is the best off and most desirable, but they have no idea nor perhaps any inclination to wonder why, or wish for a more equitable distribution of opportunity and prosperity around the world.

Second, mainstream Americans who aren't thinking very hard and are being stirred up against immigrant rights in this country aren't seeing the big picture at all. They are afraid of change, of course, and they are being pushed towards a false belief that their jobs are at risk because of immigration, when the truth is, their jobs are at risk because America hasn't kept up and figured out new ways to remain a global economic leader. The short-term strategies that fund farmer subsidies, allow for multinational corporations based in the United States to seek and exploit workers around the world, and employ temporary work programs for specialized technicians and engineers from China and India without making it easy for them to settle in the United States are all contributing to the bleeding away of competitive advantage for American workers. The corporations are going to do just fine - or as WalMart shows us, better than fine - because they are getting around unionized labor and minimum wage standards by going overseas, and the United States government is turning a blind eye to their practices. Americas failed their responsibility as world citizens because they can't see beyond their own priorities to understand how worker abuses like extreme oversea sweatshop labor make everyone a loser. Human rights are more than just feel-good ideas, and should be enforced even when it means that the American consumer won't get the lowest price on their goods. And it's too late to cry over that spilt milk now. But that's not what American conservatives think, and cry (wolf) they will, right until the bill passes.

But meanwhile, China and India are keeping more of their engineers and scientists, and even attracting some back from the US, where glass ceilings and visa headaches have made it more difficult for the best and the brightest to be all that they can be. So now, instead of "celebrating" that the low-level tech jobs that the H1-Bs were taking are not being filled as readily and as quickly (and perhaps now more Americans can take those jobs), all you see is the programming and print news that are focusing on the growing strength of the two Asian nations. Suddenly, the fear isn't only that "they" are coming here to take our jobs, but it's going to be that they are going everywhere else to take over the lead for innovation, productivity, and supply of bright labor and products. So now, instead of a fear for individual jobs (which is also somewhat baseless, considering the severe restrictions on H1-b hiring, and the fact that only some employers were hiring undocumented workers, with tremendous abuse and substandard wages), there's a vague, bordering on xenophobic reaction to the growth in other countries.

So which one is it, uninformed and emotional American public? Do you want the US to be the economic leader at the expense of the rest of the world, and keep this place the beacon for those trying to make a better life for themselves and their families in light of the impact on nations with citizens who aren't as lucky - simply by birth, not by any inherent entitlement - as you? Or would you rather that the playing field around the world were a tiny bit more level, but your labor is still not worth much because you haven't been educated in a way befitting a global marketplace. American education, as a largely mono-lingual endeavor, is not preparing the next generation for interaction with the world. The hubris that English will and should be the only lingua franca of commerce and opportunity is ludicrous. It is only the latest of the colonialist languages to have their time in the sun, but the age of colonialism may be ending, though imperialism and other strands of North/West-centric policy and dominance will remain for a long time.

I don't envy common Americans (myself somewhat included). They've been duped, bamboozled, and played for stupid for so long that their leaders, corporate bosses, and the rest of the world either regard them with a mix of pity and disdain, or they don't regard them at all.

It's sad to think that a nation founded in good principles has evolved into a place where ideal citizens are no longer breathing, hard-working persons, but rather corporations, which are considered citizens through the conventions of legal fiction, and have twisted this place beyond recognition.

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Mar 24, 2006

Subservient Chicken

Not that it's my specialty (nor desire) to highlight all things even remotely interesting to the desi-pop-culture-ADD crowd, but this was pretty cool...

That subservient chicken thing on the Burger King website a while back that was a really popular forwarded link for a while was actually designed by a Desi American dude, Jeff Benjamin, as part of a re-brand for the company to make them seem more relevant and known to the modern (internet savvy?) generation. I found this out, as I do many things nowadays, from the snippet of a news video blog, Rocketboom. Click to see the clip of Jeff talk about the thinkin' behind the chicken.

I like telling the chicken to "freak out."

Sounds right.

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Thank you.

Feeling particularly grateful for life and the people in it, including those who are in my life directly, and you who read here but may not comment. Your eyes, your time, your hearts: no words.

Been trying to stay afloat otherwise, and working towards freedom in the middle of May. Perhaps more content at that point, too. Meanwhile, remember the following tech PSAs:

1) is a great way to keep track of your bookmarks and keep them accessible online, as well as create a virtual corkboard for a group of friends or allies. At least until All Peers goes live (see #2).

2) Firefox still rules. And it's about to get better.

3) Pandora makes mandatory work fun.

Have a great weekend.

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Mar 23, 2006

3 Christian Peacemakers Released in Iraq

The news about the three Christian peacemakers was noteworthy today, not only because it was a shard of happy news in this otherwise bleak cycle (of at least the past 6 years). Of course, it's happiness in the face of what created the situation to begin with, but that's not news.

What I got out of the coverage that I've heard:

1) The news that I've heard has continuously mentioned "3 Western Christian Peacemakers" and "2 Canadians and a Brit." It's notable that at least in this instance, a desi man (Harmeet Singh Sooden) who I think is a converted Sikh, is included as a Westerner, and as a Canadian. Is it because of his religion? Or is it because desis are becoming more recognized as members of these communities? Regardless, that was noteworthy.

2) As I feared, the reports are that information leading to the rescue came from 2 detained Iraqis (in Iraq). I heard the message loud and clear: Folks are critical of these detentions, but the information we got came directly from this technique.

3) Ironically, the Christian peacemakers are in Iraq in part to protest the detention of thousands of Iraqis. I didn't expect a strong condemnation of the same after this result this week, but in their celebratory statement, they write:

"Throughout these difficult months, we have been heartened by messages of concern for our four colleagues from all over the world. We have been especially moved by the gracious outpouring of support from Muslim brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. That support continues to come to us day after day. We pray that Christians throughout the world will, in the same spirit, call for justice and for respect for the human rights of the thousands of Iraqis who are being detained illegally by the U.S. and British forces occupying Iraq.

During these past months, we have tasted of the pain that has been the daily bread of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Why have our loved ones been taken? Where are they being held? Under what conditions? How are they? Will they be released? When?" [link]

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Mar 19, 2006


Sometimes, we're out of touch with important people in our lives for a long time. Sometimes it's only a little while, but in that span, galaxies can spin out of control, empires crumble, lives change forever.

I got some news today that doesn't deal with me directly, but it's close enough, and bad enough of a prognosis, to really make my head and heart reel. I'm okay, we're okay, but someone and his family are not, and the suddenness of this change, of any change that becomes the focus point for a "before" and "after" re-envisioning of personal history, is quite jarring.

I feel like writing about other things is meaningless right now. Cancer is so frighteningly random.

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Mar 15, 2006

Large Oil Spill in Alaska

As Earth's condition moves to critical and Americans remain with their heads planted firmly up their asses about the irreversible damage that threatens not only fragile ecosystems but the future of us all, I open up the daily science news feed, and the following article greets me.

267,000 gallons of crude oil? I guess you could argue that the oil is natural, and that at least it isn't asbestos or something manufactured. But the natural world wouldn't have that much oil come up on its own in most circumstances. And we wouldn't end up with it strewn out and destroying what it touches. Man may not have created oil, but he craves it and that desire has created disasters in its wake - environmental, social, and political.

NY Times

March 15, 2006
Large Oil Spill in Alaska Went Undetected for Days

WASHINGTON, March 14 — The largest oil spill to occur on the tundra of Alaska's North Slope has deposited up to 267,000 gallons of thick crude oil over two acres in the sprawling Prudhoe Bay production facilities, forcing cleanup crews to work in temperatures far below zero to vacuum and dig up the thick mixture of snow and oil.

The spill went undetected for as long as five days before an oilfield worker detected the acrid scent of hydrocarbons while driving through the area on March 2, Maureen Johnson, the senior vice president and manager of the Prudhoe Bay unit for BP, said at a news conference in Anchorage on Tuesday.

At the conference, officials from BP, the company pumping the oil, and from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said they believed that the oil had escaped through a pinprick-size hole in a corroded 34-inch pipe leading to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

The pressure of the leaking oil, they said, gradually expanded the hole to a quarter- or half-inch wide. Most of the oil seeped beneath the snow without attracting the attention of workers monitoring alarm systems.

The leak occurred in a section of pipe built in the late 1970's, in the earliest days of oil production at Prudhoe Bay. The larger pipeline, which carries North Slope oil across the state, was completed in 1977.

Environmental groups were quick to point out that the spill raises doubts about the continuing reliability and durability of the infrastructure of North Slope production.

The current spill is among the worst in the pipeline's history, and the first of such a magnitude likely to be blamed on the decay of the aging system. In 1989, about 11 million gallons fouled Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground. About 700,000 gallons escaped from the pipeline after vandals blew up a section of it in 1978, and about 285,000 gallons spilled in 2001 when a hunter shot the pipeline.

Asked later on Tuesday about how company and state officials arrived at their tentative conclusions about the cause of the spill, Ms. Johnson said investigators had "looked at the leak investigation system, at all the logs and all the charts" that measure oil volume and pressure at different times and in different areas.

At the news conference, Ms. Johnson said that although routine inspections last year indicated increasing corrosion in the pipe, the severity of corrosion found since the leak pointed to a swift and sudden deterioration. "We had no reason to expect" that this pipe, which carried 100,000 barrels of oil to the Alaska pipeline a day, "was going to leak," she said.

Ms. Johnson also said the leak was "smaller than our system would detect," adding that it was "still not acceptable to BP."

The normal fluctuations of oil flow in this particular pipe could have masked warning signals, state environment officials said.

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Mar 14, 2006

Dark Days: On Life Underground

NetFlix has opened my eyes to the world of independent documentaries that I missed along the way. The latest that I checked out was a keeper called Dark Days, which enters a community of homeless New Yorkers who made a community for themselves in an old abandoned train tunnel on the West side of Manhattan, deep underground. The film is shot in black and white; the sounds are courtesy of the trains, the residents, the rats, and DJ Shadow; and there is a story behind what you see on screen, which doesn't shock so much as it illuminates what was once well beneath the surface of the cold Manhattan streets.

I thought the film by Marc Singer was the typical anthropological adventure and exploration of a particular breed of New Yorker - the so-called mole people that urban legend had introduced to the intrepid about the labyrinthine depths of the old lattice of train tunnels that criss-crosses beneath the most densely packed area of land in all of the United States. And at first, you think that's exactly what you are watching as you are introduced to a cast of residents with particular habits and idiosyncrasies. However, as you continue to watch their day-to-day lives in a loose structure that doesn't quite conform to classical act-based story-telling (and doesn't have a narrator to lead us along the premise), you start to wonder what the point is of these endless takes. Is there a story? Is it going to be obvious, or is this something fully in the realm of art-for-art's-sake?

But then you start to think about what these folks have in this tunnel, and how they have survived, and found ways to survive, build homes out of what they could find, salvage the usable food and materials from our waste, and even means of income from the discarded items of value to others that they picked up and sold. You think about how they cared for their homes same as any of us would. How they made due, tapping into electricity currents, cooking what they needed, and even supporting one another. You realize what their stories, or at least some of them, were to get them to that place, and how each of them was a survivor, unwilling to live exposed to the elements, or in a shelter where they had no sense of ownership or privacy. I was overwhelmed by their sense of ownership down there.

And then the film moved on to show that they were at risk of being tossed out when Amtrak decided to run their Albany - New York corridor through that tunnel, and how they worked with Coalition for the Homeless, and they were eventually connected with homes on the surface. And then you realize that they didn't enjoy living in the tunnels at all, and that they were surviving, but that they had no romanticized notions of what it was - that they felt and knew that it was hell. And the happiness they showed about moving on and up from that environment was the second striking thing.

The third wasn't actually in the film, but in the making of. There, an interview with Marc Singer revealed that he actually had just been interested in the stories that he was hearing about someone living in the tunnels, after he had been spending some time with homeless folks on the surface. He went down, with only curiosity, not a film project, driving him, and he ended up meeting, and spending about 2 months with folks that he'd found in the tunnel. He then learned, after becoming friends with a lot of the residents, that they were at risk of being kicked out. He was upset, they were upset. One of the residents said "they should make a film of this to remember what it was," and Marc started thinking that it would be an effective advocacy tool to either help stop the eviction or get them place up on the surface, instead of a place on the waiting list.

So he thought he'd make a film, but that the residents would be the crew and that they would have a stake and a role in the making of the film, so that they would be working towards their own solution. And that they would use the money from the film to solve the housing issue for the residents. When I heard the story behind the film, I felt that it actually added a great deal to it for me. And the way that Marc worked to get financial backing without releasing creative control, and that he was actually homeless near the end, having run through all his resources to get to a standstill before finishing the film, and actually having to stay with the residents for lack of an alternative. He spoke about how they took him in, and made it possible for him to finish the film, and also about how they found it funny that he had to join them.

Much is said about the use of film and other media as a medium for change, but often, it is a subject/object and observer relationship, much like anthropology. It feels like the camera lens is a significant wall between the filmer and the filmee. But Dark Days certainly feels very different, mostly because the residents were involved in the making of the film, even if creative decisions may not have been consensual. And because the film remains both the rare example of an advocacy piece that worked before the end of filming (and was able to include some of the positive end result within its 85+ minutes), and a historical document, as the residents destroyed the underground homes that they so carefully and painstakingly built and maintained when they had to vacate.

While it may not be the most compelling subject for folks, I think that the film does what it needs to establish the humanity of the residents and the lives that they were leading without pleading for pity or aggrandizing their situation. It made me think a little differently about my city, and it also showed that not all unhappy stories have sad endings.

Definitely one to check out.

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Mar 10, 2006

A Twist on Bart Simpson Selling His Soul

This is a really funny. Check out the site.

College student sells his soul
March 09, 2006

CHICAGO (UPI) -- A Chicago college student got more than he bargained for when he offered his soul on eBay -- now he has to attend services and write about them.

Hemant Mehta, 23, of Chicago, who attends DePaul University, sold his soul for $540 to Jim Henderson, who runs the Web site. In his eBay listing, Mehta had offered to attend an hour of church services for every $10 of the winning bid. Instead, Henderson has asked Mehta to attend 10 to 15 services of his choosing, write about them, providing running commentary for the Web site, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Mehta, who was raised in Jainism, an ancient Indian faith that vows no harm to living things, scores the services on a 10-point scale -- 10 being boring, boring, boring. He critiques sermons and church bulletins, and his commentaries have been popular on Henderson's site.

Mehta told the journal, with his commitment half-done, he's no closer to converting, although he allows church is "not such a bad place to be."

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Mar 9, 2006

2 Thoughts on Int'l Women's Day

In honor of International Women's Day, or perhaps because it reminded me of a couple of things, just a short post about two things tonight before I'm off to bed.

First, I've heard some progressive South Asian sisters mention the fact that there aren't a lot of good (hetero) progressive men out there. Even I have bemoaned the fact that there aren't a lot of progressive hetero men out there, albeit for a different reason. Or at least men willing and/or able to take more leadership (but that?s another post altogether).

Even more broadly than just in the desi community, while sitting in my requisite campus meetings around issues concerning human rights, public interest lawyering, and other positive and progressive issues, it is hard not to notice the obvious gender disparity, even as it is not represented in the tenured faculty (less than 25% of our tenured faculty are women).

But back to desi organizations and organizing. There just aren't very many hetero men who are doing this work, which makes it very strange to be in spaces where you are the clear minority, but you still hold certain gender-based privileges. How do you negotiate that? And how do you navigate the slippery slope of personal and romantic interactions (if you're single) in a setting where you're in such a peculiar position as a "wanted" partner? It just seems complicated, and unfortunate, that the gender gap is so great.

Do we chalk it up to the ability of women to move beyond the expected work paradigm and see the importance of community work? Or is it that this work is undervalued (it is) and women have taken the flag because community conventions frown upon non-capitalist leanings? Whatever it is, the gender imbalance is striking.


Which leads me to my second observation for the night on gender. A lot of attention has been paid to India in the media and the blogosphere in the past week, in the wake of President BushÂ?s first visit to the nation. Amidst the reports concerning the nuclear deal with India, a think tank in the United Kingdom released a report that estimates that upwards of 10m girls may have been aborted in India over the past 20 years. The report has been hotly contested, with some saying that this is a ploy to make India look bad, and more rational minds stating that the true numbers are grim, but not 500,000 a year. One researcher estimates that between 1994 - 2001, 1.5m female fetuses were killed. Regardless, these numbers are crazy.

Call it female infanticide, gender selection, or even gender genocide, the numbers are staggering. Whether 1.5m or 10m, can you imagine how many people that is? There are only 2.1m South Asians in all of the United States, of all ages. This isn't a state-sponsored system of forced sterilization (though one could argue that the state is responsible for the poverty that pervades all areas of India, which combined with a traditional culture steeped in patriarchy, makes it less surprising that families are making this terrible choice concerning girls).

But my question is, while I find the whole situation reprehensible, do I feel that way because of the cumulative effect of the numbers? At some point, for each woman and family, isn't it their individual choice of what they want to do in their family? How does someone who has fought for the right of a woman to choose whether or not she wants to end a pregnancy reconcile that commitment to choice with the situation in India when that choice is being used in what seems to be a clear bias against female children? Do you argue that it's a (poly)cultural bias
in India and an outlier in the broader movement for safe contraception and effective birth control? Or do you find a way to show conditional support for a woman's right to choose, provided that this kind of phenomenon does not arise? Can you show conditional support for a position and still really be a strong advocate for it?

I actually haven't got the energy or time to finish this thread, though I think it would likely just be a lot of words in a big circle. I don't know what the answer is, but I definitely feel that hand-in-hand with the sobering news that we've been reading about female infanticide, it calls into question, at least for me, whether some of these technologies (especially sex screening) have moved into India faster than the population has evolved to adapt to it. But I'd love to hear what y'all have to say on the issue...

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Mar 7, 2006

HR 4437 Rally; South Central Farmers

Kept unusually busy by the deadlines and requisite decisions to make in my academic life, so I haven't had the chance to post any of the items that I've wanted to write about. Hoping that next week will give me more opportunities to get some things together - a lot is going down and there are a lot of things to cover.

For now - two things - the picture above is of some folks who got out and protested the crazy House bill that just passed today - which among other things, makes it a crime to work with undocumented immigrants. It's a crazy bill, and as usual, it's galvanized the radical conservatives who think that it's unAmerican to make sure that we treat people humanely. I guess given the track record of the Federal government, especially in times of war, I guess that qualification is actually true. Anyway, I've been trying to find more reporting about the rally today in DC, because the linked picture is only about 500-800 people who marched in Georgetown, but not the big rally at the Capitol Building, which I read was supposed to draw upwards of 20,000 - 25,000 people.


And on the other side of the nation... 350+ families who are part of the largest urban farm in the country, on 14 acres of land in South Central Los Angeles have won a temporary stay (until next Monday) from being forcibly removed from the land which they have painstakingly developed. To watch a short documentary about the farm and the plight of these folks, check out this site.

From their recent press release:

For 13 years, 350 families have tended a 14-acre urban farm in the middle of South L.A.?s gritty industrial belt. Growing their own cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and other staples has helped make good nutrition affordable. Traditional crops like chipillin, alachi, quelite and pipicha have helped keep meso-american cuisine and folk-medicine alive. This urban farm, the largest in the U.S., provides a safe, children-friendly environment for 350 families and thousands of visitors who come to the lively farmers market on Sundays. The farm is also an oasis of green-space that helps to lessen air and water pollution in the surrounding community.
This is such a compelling story, and it both flies in the face of and reconfirms what we learned in our first-year Property Law class about the theories of property and how they play out in real-world arenas.

[pardon me as I geek out a bit - look ma, I actually learned something!]

There are competing theories of the purpose and nature of property under English common law, and by extension, American jurisprudence.1 Under Locke's labor theory of property, those who inject their labor into the "commons" have a right to use and ownership of the land. However, the utilitarian or law and economics approach to property rights view the purpose of property solely as economic, not political, and property should be allowed to rise to the highest utilization, which would be most valued.

This latter approach and theory helped European settlers to quickly rationalize the conquest andthieveryy of Native lands in the New World, arguing that the tribes did not best "utilize" the land when they walked through it without leavingindeliblee marks of human domination and control. Without industry, without roads and buildings, and without leaving a permanent mark, it was argued, the tribes were not really making use of the land, and therefore didn't deserve ownership.

Well - what's happening here in South Central? The developer wants to build something where the farm is. And a farm is no longer viewed as the peak of use of land, especially in an urban center. Therefore, the physical labor to till the earth, to make it grow, to feed a community and still have enough to sell on Sundays in a vibrant farmer's market, does not compare to the maximization of the "worth" of the property that development will enhance. In other words, capitalism and bullheaded industrial development trump community self-determination and sustainable green development.

This community's fight for self-determination - and to use the land as land rather than an abstract commodity - feels like a critical struggle that planners and advocates alike should be watching carefully, and hoping that it turns out the right way.

Especially in light of what happened to the vibrant Chavez Ravine community before Dodger Stadium was built on top of it in the mid-50s. From that PBS site:
Located in a valley a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was home to generations of Mexican Americans. Named for Julian Chavez, one of the first Los Angeles County Supervisors in the 1800s, Chavez Ravine was a self-sufficient and tight-knit community, a rare example of small town life within a large urban metropolis. For decades, its residents ran their own schools and churches and grew their own food on the land...

The death knell for Chavez Ravine began ringing in 1949.... The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted money to cities from the federal government to build public housing projects. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron voted and approved a housing project containing 10,000 new units?thousands of which would be located in Chavez Ravine.

Viewed by neighborhood outsiders as a ?vacant shantytown? and an ?eyesore,? Chavez Ravine?s 300-plus acres were earmarked by the Los Angeles City Housing Authority as a prime location for re-development. In July 1950, all residents of Chavez Ravine received letters from the city telling them that they would have to sell their homes in order to make the land available for the proposed Elysian Park Heights.

Using the power of eminent domain, which permitted the government to purchase property from private individuals in order to construct projects for the public good, the city of Los Angeles bought up the land and leveled many of the existing buildings.

The plan for Los Angeles public housing soon moved to the forefront of a decade-long civic battle. The story of Chavez Ravine is intertwined with the social and political climate of the 1950s, or the ?Red Scare? era. While supporters of the federal public housing plan for Chavez Ravine viewed it as an idealistic opportunity to provide improved services for poor Angelenos, opponents of the plan?including corporate business interests that wanted the land for their own use?employed the widespread anti-communist paranoia of the day to characterize such public housing projects as socialist plots.

[Eventually, the Dodgers swept in with a deal to get a stadium at a fraction of the cost spent by the city to get them to that point - R]
I didn't know about the Red Scare storyline - funny that the crazies thought that public housing would undermine the "American way of life." Instead, maybe it made it easier for the consumer culture to run amock, now that the undesirables (read: poor) were to be cordoned off from the nicer, more affluent neighborhoods.

And, man! - the sale of the Dodgers broke the heart of Brooklynites who are still unable to support the Yankees 50 years later, and destroyed a vibrant community in a way that would have made Robert Moses proud in one fell swoop.

The pattern of building over poor communities of color and immigrant communities just repeats again and again, doesn't it? While Philadelphia Chinatown was successful in stopping a new stadium from landing on them (even though they were backed up against development on all sides), DC Chinatown is virexistenton-existant, relegated to the token translations on the signs for Chipotle, Ann Taylor, and all the other chain stores that inhabit its city blocks. The largest Chinese gate in the United States greets the tourist as he enters a fully invisible city, inhabited by ghosts and unfulfilled dreams.

[1] As an aside, British common law, which is the backbone of American jurisprudence, owes much of its basic structure to the system that came over from France during the Norman conquest - one of the reasons why there is a decent amount of French included in what is called British common law [which surfaces in American law as well] - fascinating stuff, but for another time.

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Mar 6, 2006

And the Winner Is... not ignorance, at least.

Watched the Academy awards tonight, like the millions of others with nothing to do on a Sunday night (though there was much to do and I just wasn't doing it).

I was getting set to writing a scalding re-review of Crash after it won Best Picture, focusing on the negative (and non-existent) portrayal of Asian Americans in Los Angeles, of all places; about the sad script that shone in the opening lines by Don Cheadle about how humanity in L.A. reaches out to touch someone, sometimes by crashing into one another; about the way that Matt Dillon's character finding redemption after being the absolute anti-hero killed me; about how there's no resolution when the young cop played by Ryan Phillippe kills Cheadle's brother because the good Samaritan is a racist in the end; about how I'd seen the seamless weaving of stories before in a more convincing way in Magnolia; or about how I, with my limited exposure to L.A., though that Collateral was a better portrayal of a city that bewilders and escapes me...

...but then I read these words on Sepia Mutiny:

"The carjackers were like scholars. The Latino dude who lived in a ghetto barely had any accent. If youÂ?re going to deal with race, be accurate."
...and I just had to drop my commentary on the film for a moment to say: WHAT THE FUCK? I wonder if the author is saying that it's impossible for someone to be intelligent and steal cars? Or is he saying that it's improbable that two young black men could understand and discourse about racial inequity, just because mainstream culture doesn't promote that dialogue in any way greater than suggesting it by showing chocolate and peanut butter coming together peacefully in the old school Reese's (not that Reese) Peanut Butter cups commercials.

Is it really that hard to believe that someone who doesn't have an accent doesn't live in the suburbs with 2.5 cars and a job as a lawyer? I find that analysis to be even more problematic than the one found in Crash, because I know that what I saw in Crash is possible, though I didn't like everything being tied up neatly in the end.

It is a simplistic, and dangerous, assumption to think that class, language isolation/English proficiency, and race intersect in the neat and convenient boxes that we want them to. I find it wholly acceptable and plausible that the Latino man in the film isn't a gangbanger, and that he doesn't have an accent, but that he's just trying to make things work for his family, and that he's got a homebase in a place where he feels comfortable - maybe where he himself grew up. I find it particularly offensive that someone would find that to be inaccurate - as if it would be impossible to have a similar story of second generation desis growing up in Jackson Heights, Jersey City, Richmond Hill or any other central community location who stay there when they have their first home, and fill it with unaccented words in two languages.

Look - Crash wasn't perfect, but let's not fault the writer/director for giving a little space to the characters; for recognizing a difference between Persians and Iraqis; for giving us a small slice of the complexity of stories and the interwoven nature of our lives - and the fact that there's more to the surface and far more to what lies beneath. Let's at least give him that due, even if we thought that another film should have won. And let's not fall prey to the same faults of the people who we tend to criticize. Let's not generalize to the point of ignoring the nuance of our experiences, even if the greater point is actually that another film deserved the nod.

Of course, I haven't seen many of the other films, so I don't have much to say in that regard, except that I liked Capote and really couldn't expect it to win because it was dark. I didn't think that it was slow - I thought that the subject matter led to a brooding film, and that the pace kept us in sync with Capote as he tried to find an ending to his book, and the line between what was moral and what was unethical became ever frayed and twisted upon itself. I'm not a huge fan of mimicry as a heralded form of art, but it was perhaps harder to see in Capote than it would be of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles (though I have to say that Joaquin Phoenix was on fire and inspired in that role and I was rooting for him, and Jamie Foxx owned Ray).

Anyway, it is what it is. There wasn't enough oomph about the war or about this sham of an administration, there was no statement about the war on immigrants (of course) and even the Academy co-opted the theme of cinema leading the way of social change within one of too many montages.

Regardless, it's time to rent some of the movies I missed, like Tsotsi, whose director was more real and seemed prouder to represent his country than anyone else I saw on that stage, and Paradise Now, which I've heard is very challenging as well.

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Mar 4, 2006

Checking in.

Checking in. It's the beginning of a weekend in which I don't anticipate running around too much, which is a welcome relief from the insane pace of this year to date. A lot to catch up on, mostly in school-related affairs, but maybe even some short posts, since it's been a while, and there's so much going on. I'm still waiting for the weather to brighten up though - the blustery winds and sub-freezing temperatures are so not cool in March. I'm not a fan of the sweltering heat and intolerable humidity of some northeast summers, but bring me spring already!


There's a major rally going to DC next week on March 7, in response to some crazy immigration deform legislation kicking its way through Congress. Organizers hope for 20,000 to stand for humane immigration policy and a recognition of the fundamental human rights that should be afforded all folks living in the United States.

In looking for an URL to add to the announcement, I found some hateful site (no link on purpose) condemning immigration and immigrants alike, claiming that "respect for the law" is the only reason that they are very anti-immigrant, and stating their indignation at being called racists because they target immigrants from Mexico and other parts of the South who are visible ethnic and racial minorities.

I feel like I'm just re-treading old, old ground, but it amazes me how much "respect" these people suddenly have for the law in these very narrow circumstances, but everything from environmental regulations to gun control, traffic and tax law, and who knows what else is just "big government" getting in the way. A guy should have the right to "protect" this great "White" land however he wants, but forget trying to regulate his crazy ass when he's doing whatever the hell he does to get his kicks when he's not scape-goating immigrants for the immense shoe being put up his ass by the U.S. government and its big business buddies.

*sigh* How do you combat this kind of ignorance?


Just hope for a better baseball season, I guess. Though that seems like a bit of a stretch in itself. I may be a New Yorker, but I hate the Yankees. I'm going to have to root for whatever team isn't trying to build a stadium on top of or despite a community below it (see L.A. Dodgers, Washington Nationals, ALMOST Philadelphia Phillies). Hmmm. Maybe it's all about Little League this year.

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Mar 1, 2006

PETA & Ringling Take Battle to Court

In the news today - many of us have heard about the crazy infiltration of revolutionary, progressive, and even a few hate groups that the government has admitted to over the decades. Most of the work was to gather intelligence, to find weaknesses, to thwart power and consensus building (at least in groups like the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party). But COINTELPRO was an insane government strategy and program to survey and watch "domestic threats."

Meanwhile, in the post-9/11 world, network tv (news and dramatic programming is so interchangeable nowadays, so why distinguish?) would have us believe that in the hundreds of "sleeper cells" in the U.S., there are just as many, if not more, infiltrations, counter-intelligence efforts, and maneuvers to see and know what comes next.

Regardless of whether you're impressed by that or not, you have to check out this article about what's happening with Ringling Bros. and PETA (and of course, other groups that are anti-circus/anti-cruelty). Basically, allegations state that Ringling has been hiring people to infiltrate the anti-circus groups, destruct what they can from the inside, and arrange counter-protests. While I'm not a big fan of circuses either, and haven't gone to one since I read some of the terrible stories about what happens with the animals (and witnessed through the news the numerous times that animals have acted out (especially elephants) and killed someone with the circus, based on memories of prior abuse), sometimes PETA and its friends do go to extremes. Still, PETA is to extreme animal rights activism what Greenpeace is to environmental direct action: they aren't the radical fringe - those would have to be the animal and earth liberation fronts.

But I digress. It's just pretty funny that a circus is being accused of sneaky and downright unfriendly activity as is mentioned in the suit. If it's true, it's nuts, even if it's ultimately not found to be illegal. Watch out! The circus isn't just in town, it's in your board room. Choice quotes from the story:

"The Ringling Bros. circus infiltrated animal rights groups, stole sensitive internal documents and illegally wiretapped circus opponents as part of a national conspiracy to disrupt animal rights groups, a lawyer told a Fairfax County jury yesterday."


"During opening statements, PETA accused Feld of overseeing the espionage campaign against it and other animal rights organizations. The attorney for Kenneth Feld, [whose family has owned the circus for nearly 40 years], responded that infiltrating groups is not a crime, that PETA was not harmed by any alleged action by Feld or his employees and that Feld did not know of the operation or do anything illegal. Monitoring rights groups was necessary to protect the circus and its customers, Feld's attorney argued, and he noted that donations to PETA have risen, not fallen, since the start of the conspiracy."
So look out kids, it's not just the government that could infiltrate your chapter of G.R.O.S.S.. Suzie may have hired Hobbes out to mess up that water balloon drenching you were planning, and sell you down the river.

[afterthought: the internet could be considered the great equalizer. here's propaganda on the other side of PETA]

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