ExperimentalExperience

Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Individualism vs. Individuality: A Photographer’s Work Reminds Us Of The Difference

In Photography on February 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I recently came across the works (thanks to (Notes On) Politics, Theory & Photography) of a photographer by the name of Gregory Halpern. I had never heard of him before, but that is a failure on my part.

I was recently talking to some young photographer’s at a South Asia symposium at Tuft’s University and one of them asked me what kinds of photographers I admire. My response was simple; those who allow their individual intelligence and opinions to come across in their works and photographs.

Such is the works of Gregory Halpern, particularly this gentle, human and beautifully produced piece of work on Harvard University’s staff called Living Wage Campaign

Looking through the images I was reminded of Tony Judt’s recent discussions about social democracy and the role of a sense of community in developing it. In a wonderful talk called What is Living & What Is Dead In Social Democracy? he challenges us to reconsider our regressive narcissism and realize our responsibility to all those ‘small’ people who helped us at every step of our lives and offered the environment, services, support and facilities that allowed us to achieve our individual dreams.

We owe them. More than we are prepared to acknowledge.

We are too used to believing that we individually are responsible for our success and achievements. This self-induced delusion has been the cornerstone of so many assaults on society’s ‘losers’ and ‘welfare junkies’ or whatever it is that we call those we disdain. This belief has been the rallying cry for lower taxes and a related cutting of fundamental social, welfare, educational, transportation and others services that we, since we can just pay to buy them, consider ‘useless’ and ‘wasteful’. We believe that we are not responsible to the community and society around us and that we are nothing more than individuals, isolated and independent of each other for any and everything we achieve.

Nothing could be further from the truth and stories like these remind me, as it should those arrogant mediocrities who pass through the corridors of Harvard and other apparently ‘fine’ institutions of the Ivy League and others. In fact, nothing represents the failure of these ‘elite’ institutions more than the fact that they delude their students into this idiotic dreamland of individuality and community irresponsibility, imbuing them with a narcissism which then becomes the foundation stone of the skull sized kingdoms they create. But there are alternatives and it is a question of asking the right questions. As Tony Judt reminds us:

But what if we treated humiliation itself as a cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to “quantify” the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens before receiving the mere necessities of life? In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. Such an exercise is inherently contentious: How do we quantify “humiliation”? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society? Unclear. But unless we ask such questions, how can we hope to devise answers?

We must ask these questions out of humility, and concern for our fellow citizens, the very citizens who have helped us at every small step of our lives from the moment we left our parent’s homes and tried to make our own way in the world. Nothing has dismayed me more than the recent discussions about health care reform where rarely if ever anyone of our so-called representatives spoke about the idea and nature of society that we wish to have, and of the responsibilities a nation, a democratic government, and functioning republic has towards all, and i mean all, it’s citizens. Lost in the quagmire of cost analysis, political horse-trading and corporate lobby bribes, the entire dialogue marginalized the people we call Americans, leading to even such hideous suggestions that the Americans just do not deserve the best health care this nation can provide.

We are not a corporation. The country is not a business. We seem to have forgotten that. Technocrats, most educated at these so-called ‘finest’ and ‘elite’ institutions seem not to remember that.

The fear mongers like to call this ‘Communism’ with a capital ‘C’. This is just an old instinct that masks greed, callousness, carelessness, lack of compassion and arrogance. It is infantile (clearly this is my favorite word this year), immature and irresponsible. The very people screaming about the sufferings of ‘the other’ across various fashionable ‘other world’ catastrophes, turn a blind eye and a cold heart to our very own – the very hundreds who quietly go about their supposedly ‘small’ jobs, and yet enable the miracles of life that so many of us do achieve.

Look back.

See their dignity and courage and honor.

Give back.

Be responsible.

I wish I can meet Gregory Halpern some day and thank him personally for this  lovely project.

Cutting Past The Bravado And Recognizing Reality

In Our Wars, Photography on February 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm

The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts. The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter” – Bertolt Brecht,1931, in Kahn, Heartfield: Art & Mass Media

You can see George Gittoes disturbing film called Soundtrack To War here (both the quote above and the movie is thanks to James Pomerantz interesting blog site A Photo Student):

I am not quite sure why I made this connection, between the desperate bravado of these young boys whose lives have been dishonored and abused by our illegitimate wars on and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and war/photojournalists so desperately arguing their messianic righteousness while producing empty and impotent products as a result of their efforts.

As I watched this film my heart went out to these men turned into murderers and criminals. I pity them. It is we who made them that, asked them to become the killers that they became, to appease our indifference, or fears, or paranoia, and our lack of comprehension. We ask, they murder. We are all implicated.

Perhaps this is also what we ask of our photojournalists as well – to become producers of moral and righteous products that we can purchase in magazines and galleries and place them in our hands, homes and galleries. They perhaps produce the consumer products that are nothing more than proxies for those real acts of moral and human courage that we are unwilling to do. These latter acts would require action, insight, intervention, entanglement and risk. It just easier to buy the coffee table book or magazine instead, to encourage others to manufacture ‘concern’ or ‘humanism’ so that we can calm our demons, and be lulled into a righteous sleep by these sweet nothings.

Our ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ then, both military and photojournalists, become misleading avatars in a way, to our spinelessness and fear. One is motivated by false promises of ‘protecting democracy’ and the other by the lie of ‘human concern’. Each subverts the very thing s/he celebrates.

Valentine Won’t You Be My Valentine!

In Musings On Confusions on February 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Much has been written about the dangers of love. Even more of the kind that is young and frivolous. It can undermine society, sink morality, break up the family, question authority, and perhaps most dangerously, offer uncontrolled joy that distracts from hard discipline.

Few know this better our guardians of all that is good and valuable in our society, our spiritual masters and their foot soldiers, who are ever ready to protect us from this evil which many of us are beginning to suspect is in fact an insidious foreign import meant to weaken and destroy us before the final and complete take over of our society, women and dignity.

So it is with great excitement that I share here information that can help you, weak and emotional citizen that you are, to fight this act of foreign terrorism and defeat the enemies of the state, society and all that is sacrosanct Knowledge if strength. Insight is a weapon. We will defeat this evil of love and its celebration, and return our nation to the path of …er… mild affection and mutual consideration.

Click on the image of the poster below to take you to a page for further details.

The Goldstone Report Facts Page Breaks It Down

In Israel/Palestine, Our Wars on February 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm

The Subtlest Cuts Are The Deepest Or Why Silence About History Continues To Deprive The Haitians Their Suffering

In Journalism, Our Wars on February 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Its difficult to know how to react to this rather strange piece of writing that appeared in a recent issue of Time magazine. Written by the photojournalist James Nacthwey, and titled Haiti: Out of the Ruins, it appears to dance uncomfortably and rather desperately, between a poem and prose. I could not quite tell what it was, and I struggled to work through it. However, not being much of a writer myself, I acknowledge my inability to appreciate its complete poetic possibilities.

But what I could appreciate is what was left unsaid. I found the piece confusing because of a very simple, obvious and glaring omission; the role and influence of the United States of America in the creation of the very history this piece claims the Haitians continue to endure. Or more precisely:

They continue to endure their history — a crescendo of privation and hardship, matched by strength, pride and dignity. Their nation was born in the conquest of slavery; it has been shaped by poverty, struggle and faith.

Not quite.

Even a cursory study of modern Haitian history reveals the heavy and frequently racist hand of America in Haitian history. Their deprivations are not divine retribution or ill luck, but in fact manufactured by over a hundred years of American machination and intervention in Haitian politics, economics and society. We Americans remain afraid of confronting our role in the pathology that is Haiti, and our assiduous efforts to undermine the nation, and in particular, its recent democratic experiments under the leadership of Jean-Bertrande Aristide.

Many have forgotten, and certainly no news organizations has reminded us, that democratically elected Jean-Bertrande Aristide was forcibly removed from power as recently as 2004 and sent into exile. The mercenaries that many in the USA celebrated as ‘liberators’ were likely trained and armed by the USA and possibly with the support and collaboration of France. But these questions remain unasked and certainly unanswered.

James Nachtwey’s piece joins this convention on erasing our presence, influence, and manipulation of Haitian society, politics and its economy. Paul Farmer has spent decade working in Haiti, and penned a piece in the London Review of Books soon after Aristide’s recent removal. Titled Who Removed Aristide Farmer not only gave us a quick lesson on America’s deep engagement, entanglement with Haiti, but also asked some difficult questions about America’s role in Aristide’s overthrow.

Far from being a history, as Mr. Nacthwey seems to believe, that has been shaped by poverty, struggle and faith (can there be a better collection of cliché’s about Haiti?), the Haitian have had to deal with the all powerful presence of a callous neighbor, as Paul Farmer tells us:

By the late 19th century, the United States had eclipsed France as a force in Haitian affairs. A US military occupation (1915-34) brought back corvée labour and introduced bombing from the air, while officials in Washington created the institutions that Haitians would have to live with: the army, above all, which now claims to have the country ‘in its hands’, was created by an act of the US Congress. Demobilised by Aristide in 1995, it never knew a non-Haitian enemy. It had plenty of internal enemies, however. Military-backed governments, dictatorships, chronic instability, repression, the heavy hand of Washington over all: this state of affairs continued throughout the 20th century.

But we would not know this from the Time magazine piece, which in the grand tradition of American populist journalism, attempts to reduce other nations to ‘natural’ pathologies for which we, Americans, our NGOs, and in particular our benign military are a force of divinely sanctioned goodwill. Mr. Nachtwey’s piece speaks in near biblical awe of the presence of so many ‘concerned’ and righteous aid organizations that have now descended onto the country:

The earth shrugged, Haiti collapsed, and the world responded. “Compassion fatigue” was exposed as the straw man of cynics and ad salesmen. Epic catastrophe was met with epic generosity, without benefit of untapped oil reserves or geopolitical gain.

The sheer selflessness of the world is quite remarkable to see. Our role and posture in Haiti has been reduced to that of ‘angels of mercy’ with a carefully constructed ignorance of other ‘angels’ that we have sent down there in the past. I once again quote from Paul Farmer’s piece:

Among those released by the rebels (in 2004) is the former general Prosper Avril, a leader of the notorious Presidential Guard under both Duvaliers. Avril seized power in September 1988, and was deposed in March 1990. A US District Court found that his regime engaged in a ‘systematic pattern of egregious human rights abuses’. It also found him personally responsible for enough ‘torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ to award six of his victims a total of $41 million in compensation.

The US started protecting Avril shortly after the 1994 restitution of Aristide. In November that year, the then secretary of state, Warren Christopher, relayed to the US ambassador intelligence reports that the Red Star Organisation, under Avril’s leadership, was planning a ‘harassment and assassination campaign directed at . . . Aristide supporters’. This information was not passed on to the Haitian authorities. In December, the Haitian police, acting on their own information, sought to arrest Avril at his home. Immediately after the police arrived, US soldiers turned up and tried to dissuade them from making the arrest.

The rebel leader Guy Philippe received training, during the last coup, at a US military facility in Ecuador. When the army was demobilised, Philippe was incorporated into the new police force, serving as police chief in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas and in the second city, Cap-Haïtien. During his tenure, the UN International Civilian Mission learned, dozens of suspected gang members were summarily executed, most of them by police under the command of Philippe’s deputy.

Philippe fled Haiti in October 2000, when the authorities discovered him plotting a coup with a clique of fellow police chiefs. Since then, the Haitian government has accused him of masterminding terrorist attacks in July and December 2001, as well as lethal hit-and-run raids against police stations on Haiti’s central plateau. Last month (March 2004), Philippe’s men bragged to the US press that they had executed Aristide supporters in Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, and many have indeed been reported missing.

In fact, these extra-judicial executions of Aristide’s supporters was the subject of a story that writer Malcom Garcia and I did in 2005. He described our experiences in a piece for The Virginia Quarterly Review called Descent Into Haiti.

Mesnal Delarge's sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-Aristide rally in Port au Prince.  The Haitian National Police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH (UN Forces in Haiti) troops

Mesnal Delarge's sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-Aristide rally in Port au Prince. The Haitian National Police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH (UN Forces in Haiti) troops. Copyright Asim Rafiqui 2005

Despite spending over a month working from inside the slums of Cite Soleil and Bel Air, we failed to find an American magazine prepared to publish our work. This despite providing reports from Harvard Law School & Global Justice Center (2004) and the University of Miami School of Law Haiti Human Rights Reports (2004 & 2006) that corroborated our experiences. Time magazine not only rejected my work, stating that they were not really focusing on Haiti at the moment,but just a few weeks later sent a photographer to Haiti who embedded with the UN troops and provided a from-behind-the-helmets view of what was happening in the country.

Brazilian UN soldiers patrol the streets of the dangerous Cite Militaire neighborhood with a local informant masked to protect his identity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dec. 28, 2005. This dangerous neighborhood is controlled by armed gangs.  Photo by: Antonin Kratochvil / VII

Brazilian UN soldiers patrol the streets of the dangerous Cite Militaire neighborhood with a local informant masked to protect his identity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dec. 28, 2005. This dangerous neighborhood is controlled by armed gangs. Photo by: Antonin Kratochvil / VII

And no, his work or his capabilities within the country were not better than mine. I just had the ‘wrong’ side of the story.

Behind our tears, our beautiful words and our moving tributes to ourselves and our generosity, hides a terrible reality that speaks to our involvement and entanglement with this troubled nation. Pieces such as this one in Time magazine remind me that we are still not prepared to see ourselves with an eye that is engaged, honest, critical and difficult. We are still unable to get past a near infantile idealization of ourselves and our role in the worlds we step forward to conquer, dominate and control. This is not about accusations, about ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, but about a critical completion of history and facts, and a courageous acknowledgment of our role in the lives of others and their role in the privileges that we enjoy and celebrate.

An American who is not afraid of such a critical eye is Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. A review of their reports will reveal the situation in the country under the tutelage our allies. In a recent article he pointed out that:

First of all, Haiti is poor and impoverished because of a long history of U.S. domination and oppression. U.S. Marines invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934. The U.S. seized land and distributed it to American corporations. And the heroic resistance that arose against the U.S. was brutally crushed. Starting in 1957 the U.S. propped up the pro-U.S. dictatorial Duvalier governments—first Papa and then Baby Doc—and the murderous Haitian military, along with the Tontons Macoute gangs that terrorized the people. After popular uprisings ousted these dictators the U.S. maneuvered and intervened—opposing any forces that threatened U.S. interests and working to keep a puppet government in power. In 2004, the U.S. was directly involved in overthrowing the popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (See “The U.S. in Haiti: A Century of Domination and Misery.”) Through all this, the economic and social structures of Haiti have been distorted and geared toward serving the needs of foreign, especially U.S., investments. All this is why Haiti is so poor and dependent.

Beautiful words, soft and lulling niceties, cannot and should not mask history particularly if we are committed to changing things for the better and avoiding the horrors that we inflict and those that we definitely do not want to have inflicted on us. There are many fine works on Haiti, on American and its deep relationship to this country, and about the subtle and overtly heavy handed ways the two nations have relied on each other and suffered because of each other. I list some of my favorites here. Perhaps Mr. Nachtwey can find a moment to read a few, for after all, as he himself argues in this piece:

As a photojournalist, I’ve been involved in documenting the history of the past 30 years, and much of my work has focused on wars, conflicts and social injustice. It’s been fueled by anger, driven by the belief that if people are informed, they will be inspired by compassion and will share a sense of outrage at violence, aggression and the unacceptable deprivation of fundamental human rights.

Knowledge, information, history and understanding indeed. But it will come not just from taking pictures during orgasmic moments of deprivation and suffering, but from a deep, critical and honest engagement with facts, histories, and political realities. It will come from facing our deepest fears of looking deep inside ourselves and realizing the darkness that resides there and the role we have had, as a super power, as an imperialist power, as the single most powerful economic and capitalist force in the region, in distorting the lives and futures of our neighbors. Peter Hallard helps us do just this in a recent piece in The New Statesman called The Land That Wouldn’t Lie where he points out that:

The decision taken by US and UN commanders in charge of the disaster relief effort, to prioritise military and security objectives over civilian-humanitarian ones, has already caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Plane after plane packed with essential emergency supplies was diverted away from the disaster zone, in order to allow for the build-up of a huge and entirely unnecessary US military force. Many thousands of people were left to die in the ruins of lower Port-au-Prince, while international rescue teams concentrated their efforts on a few locations (such as the Montana Hotel or the UN headquarters) that could also be enclosed within a “secure perimeter”.

These are not about accusations, but about intellectual and critical rigor and the truth. White washing our crimes, our engagement, our schemes and our very specific and targeted protection of geopolitical gains in Haiti, does not serve the interest of truth, and certainly does not serve the goal of stopping these crimes in the future.

So, in my own little humanitarian effort, here are some recommended readings:

Farmer, Paul Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights & The New War On The Poor

Farmer, Paul The Uses of Haiti

Wilentz, Amy The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier

Hallward, Peter Damning The Flood: Haiti, Aristide & The Politics of Containment

Readings more historical, taking us back to the moment of Haiti’s revolution and independence include:

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

And of course, the absolutely brilliant set of historical novels by Madison Smartt-Bell, each of which is a tour-de-force of American writing

Smartt-Bell, Madison All Souls Rising

Smartt-Bell, Madison The Stone That The Builder Refused

Smartt-Bell, Madison Master Of The Cross Roads



Sleepless In Lucknow Or How The Jaipur Literary Festival Became A Nightmare I Want To Wake Up From

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on February 9, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Lets begin by celebrating overt and rabid racism – Ayaan Hirsi Ali was at the Jaipur Literary Festival and I was left bereft with incredulity at the idiocy of the event organizers. Rather than create a genuinely interesting and intellectually serious environment around writers, thinkers, activists and intellectuals, the festival seems to prefer polemicist, celebrities, second class ‘European’ award winners, starlets, and of course, a lovely collection of Islamophobes and reductive racists.

Ms. Hirsi Ali, a woman famous for veiling her ignorance behind sweeping generalizations, ethnocentric simplicities, categorical accusations, outright inaccuracies, outrageous fear mongering and a very seductive racism masquerading as ‘free speech’, received great support from Mr. Dhume in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. In a piece called India’s Group Think on Islam Mr. Dhume waxed lyrical about Ms. Hirsi Ali’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival with paragraphs such as:

Speaking to a packed hall, with her burly bodyguard unobtrusively off-stage, Ms. Hirsi Ali spoke about Islam—and its problems with individualism, women’s rights and sexuality—with a frankness unfamiliar to most Indians. She described the faith she was born into as “a dangerous, totalitarian ideology masquerading as a religion.” She argued against the moral relativism that has prevented Western intellectuals from scrutinizing Islam as they do Christianity and Judaism.

Ah yes, that hideous cult that has infested people for centuries can now be discussed with greater honesty and ‘Enlightenment’ inspired intelligence particularly since it seems that these animals called ‘Muslims’ seem to have no intellectual, theological, artistic, creative, poetic, philosophical, scientific, literary or other capability within them.

Mr. Dhume points out (rather desperately) that she was not alone at the festival and in fact, among the ‘mainstream’ voices helping the world and now India reach a consensus on the ugliness and diseased nature of all Muslims was the fabulously fashionable Mr. Tunku Varadarajan. I have written about his earlier and his fine insights into the collective mindset of the hundreds of millions of Muslims that infest this earth. You can read my comments about his writings in a piece called Going Muslim At Fort Hood Or How Rabid Simplicities Masquerading As Insight Just Sell More Magazines.

Everyone seems to be asking the one question that we are supposed to believe is gaining greater and greater consensus around the globalized-free-market-capitalism believing world: what are we going to do about these M**ther F**king Muslim terrorists out to destroy our way of life and our return-on-equity?

Of course Ms. Ali is now a ‘scholar’ at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization that boasts such intellectual luminaries as Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Irving Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, John Yoo (yes, that is the same Yoo of the Torturers-R-Us club) and others who recently gave us the Iraq invasion, justifications for torture and many other fine achievements that I can’t think of.

And perhaps all this would be quite amusing if for one small problem; that their idiocies and posturing as free speech advocates hinders a genuine and serious engagement on matters of human rights, justice, equality and liberty not only with the Muslim countries they criticize, but within the very European and North American ones they live in. Their well-funded yet empty diatribes reduce a complex human polity that in fact Islam represents to simple and frankly untenable sweeping and general statements that can’t stand the test of even the most cursory examination.

Their hate ridden reductive polemics not only encourages and emboldens the most extremists of religious reactionaries (of all colors Jewish, Christian and Muslim) to grab the podium in support or defence, but also erases the voices of the genuinely liberal and intellectually creative from both within the religious and secular Muslim communities and others are otherwise engaged in matters of justice, rights, social policies etc. within. By harping their inanities, they provoke inanities and erase acts such as those by Cairo-based activist Hossam Bahgat who recently argued, using Sharia processes, for the rights of people converting from Islam to other beliefs. Such contestations over Sharia, and the laws and mores of society, are commonplace in all nations, including (shockingly!) Muslim ones. Instead, by arguing that ‘Islam’ is totalitarian, fixed, unchanging, backward, evil, destructive, ill-liberal etc. etc. these so-called ‘Enlightenment’ speakers are indulging in the most unenlightened of arguments.

Societies, and yes, even Muslim societies, are best understood through a careful examination of their political, social, economic and, yes, imperialist realities, and not through reductive and frankly racist discussions about ‘the Muslim mind’ or the suggestion of their robot-like collective mindset that seems to have a fibre-optic cable connection to the Koran from which it takes all its decisions and actions.

But instead we seem to have a group of rather popular social ‘celebrities’ who argue that unlike other human beings, anyone or anything ‘Islam’ is inhuman, and lacks any kind of social, economic, political, and emotional reality and are forced as in some ‘totalitarian’ nightmare to unthinkingly and absolutely carry out the statements and phrases of their holy books. Muslims are less human and more zombie like. Islam, and only Islam, explains all their behaviors. And particularly their pathologies. There is no other explanation because they do not posses human traits, frailties, weaknesses, sensitivities, habits and propensities. So an abusive husband, who happens to be of Muslim background, can only be abusive because he is Muslim and his religion and holy book tells him to beat his woman. An angry employee who kills and has a Muslim background (like the Fort Hood killers) can only have done so because the Koran taught him so. They are never described as criminals, and their acts are never just crimes – They are vast conspiracies to overthrow our liberal and gentle way of life, each just one drop in a tidal wave of overly fertile, massively fucking, rapidly reproducing pathogens of which we were fortunate to have caught/arrested/killed one in time, but must remain aware of the others. But hey, if the person is not Muslim, then an abusive husband is just an individual criminal, a gun-toting bulldozer driver who destorys a village , just an angry and lone person. Their weekly church attendance, their teenage year Bible classes, are not relevant. How could they be, for they are not Muslim.

Mr. Dhume is happy to see that India too is coming around to the world’s view on Islam. Writing for the right-wing and fiercely ideological The Wall Street Journal his attempts to suggest that a minority, fringe perspective as somehow enveloping the greater world, is not surprising. This is the same journal that continues to sell us now laughably ridiculous idea of the unstoppable progress of free-market capitalism just as that very model has collapsed on its face and is in fact no longer in effect as most all the great bastion of capitalism are effectively nationalized institutions surviving on government/public charity.

In fact, if anything, despite the silly and infantile discussions pervading in Europe today, the world is developing in the opposite direction. It is beginning to see that there are infact social, political, economic i.e secular histories to understand, and that among a polity that includes dozens of nations, hundreds of cultures, millions of peoples, and tens of millions of ideas on spirituality and life, there is a greater need of intelligent and carefully considered dialogue.

To encourage India, a nation with a deep heritage of tolerance, acceptance, syncretism and pluralism, to adopt the hideously racist, divisive, reductive and xenophobic ideas of what is really a lunatic fringe, and to suggest that this in fact is a pre-requisite for its greater ‘integration’ into the modern world, is frankly insulting and outright ridiculous. It is also quite disgusting for it is purely propagandist i.e. lacking all substance and using fantasy, seductive simplicities and rhetoric to obfuscate and bamboozle.

What makes all these diatribes even more ridiculous is the daily evidence of the crimes of the very so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘free’ societies these paid-by-the-hour polemicist claim to be defending. The liberalism of the United States of America, the very liberalism and freedoms that Ms. Hirsi Ali seems to suggest are under threat by something she calls ‘Islam’ have in fact been torn asunder by our very own political, military, intelligence and now corporate mercenary institutions. And yet, the luminaries at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ms Hirsi ‘I the Enlightenment’ Ali, seem to have nothing to say about it.

Thankfully, there remain some real journalists and some real intelligence in the USA.

Chris Hedges discusses the destruction of the American justice system at the hands of ‘The War Against Terror’. Aafia Siddiqui has become the poster child of a system that has gone horribly wrong, particular since it was handed over to ‘pay by the head’ private mercenaries determined to capture anyone and anything they could label as a terrorist. Including women and children. In a piece called The Terror-Industrial Complex Chris Hedges points out that…

The threat posed by Islamic extremists, while real, is also wildly overblown, used to foster a climate of fear and political passivity, as well as pump billions of dollars into the hands of the military, private contractors, intelligence agencies and repressive client governments including that of Pakistan…Terrorism, however, is a very good business. The number of extremists who are planning to carry out terrorist attacks is minuscule, but there are vast departments and legions of ambitious intelligence and military officers who desperately need to strike a tangible blow against terrorism, real or imagined, to promote their careers as well as justify obscene expenditures and a flagrant abuse of power.

The writer Petra Bartosiewicz has carried out an investigation into the abuses of the military and the CIA/FBI in the rendition, disappearance, torture, accusation and trial of Aafia Siddiqui. In a piece called The Intelligence Factory – How America Makes Its Enemies Disappear tells us that:

The continued political appetite for a global war on terror has led to a commodification of “actionable intelligence,” which is a product, chiefly, of human prisoners like Aafia Siddiqui. Because this war, by definition, has no physical or temporal boundaries, the demand for such intelligence has no limit. But the world contains a relatively small number of terrorists and an even smaller number of terrorist plots. Our demand for intelligence far outstrips the supply of prisoners. Where the United States itself has been unable to meet that demand, therefore, it has embraced a solution that is the essence of globalization. We outsource the work to countries, like Pakistan, whose political circumstances allow them to produce prisoners with far greater efficiency.

And what does this efficiency get us? Nothing short of cold-blooded murder, as Bartosiewicz reminds us of one consequence of this hunger for terror suspects:

Saud Memon, a Pakistani businessman rumored to own the plot of land where the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered, was arrested in 2003, held by the United States at an unknown location until 2006, then “released” to Pakistan, where in April 2007 he finally emerged, badly beaten and weighing just eighty pounds, on the doorstep of his Karachi home. He died a few weeks later.

The entire piece makes for sober reading.

But these are things that Ms. Hirsi Ali, so in love with the tiresome clichés of ‘the Enlightenment’ – an epoch of European history that owes a huge debt to the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and the light of the Muslim intellectuals, artists, scientists, philosophers, writers, poets, travelers, musicians and others that helped push back Europe’s darkest ages (see at least Jack Goody’s Islam In Europe if nothing else for goodness sake!), can’t seem to find reason to discuss. To say nothing about the fact that so-called Enlightenment values that she continues to parrot were reserved for a few European citizens, and were in fact argued away from the ‘lesser’ peoples including those whose heritage she shares. Rarely has a philosophical – reflected in the works of Kant, Mill, Voltaire and so many others, been so evident in its sheer hypocrisy. The values it espoused were not for all, and certainly not for the lesser nations of peoples. It was an exclusive club, a selective, racially determined one. Ms. Hirsi Ali has nothing to say about this, but perhaps this quote from Kant will refresh her memory:

“Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.” (from Eze, E.C. Race and Enlightenment)

And don’t even get me started on James Steward Mill.

It is Islam that is the greatest danger to civilization as we know it. Not war, not torture, not injustice, not pain, not suffering, not displacement, not occupations, not uranium-tipped bombs, not rendition programs, not torture prisons, not contorted judicial systems, not war machines that have budgets larger than the GDPs of most nations, not pre-emptive strikes.

No, it isn’t any of this.

I will say it again; that their idiocies and posturing as free speech advocates hinders a genuine and serious engagement on matters of human rights, justice, equality and liberty not only with the Muslim countries they criticize, but within the very European and North American ones they live in. They distract from the works of those who are seriously engaged in their societies and communities and addressing issues of rights, justice and equality. Arab and Muslim societies are as complex, contested and constructed as any other any where in the world. And just as our societies in Europe and the America’s have their social, political, religious and other struggles, so do they. But these strangely castrated intellectuals like Ms Hirsi Ali with their hate ridden reductive polemics not only forces the most extremists of reactionaries to grab the podiums, but erase the voices of the genuinely liberal and intellectually creative from both within the religious and secular Muslim communities and others who are otherwise engaged in matters of justice, rights, social policies etc. within. Their arguments are not criticism, and not interesting. They are simply stupidities and polemics that evade serious questions, scholarship and most importantly compassion and humanity towards those they are determined to reduce, ridicule and relegate to non-human status.

I will also add this; that they are incomplete and inconsistent. There is much to criticize about the extremists, misogynist, fundamentalist and illiterate in Muslim societies around the world. But these criticisms cannot be selectively applied to just Islam, but in fact apply to all religions as we know them. At this very moment extreme violence and murder is being carried out in the name of a concocted Judaism, while Christian soldiers, proud to overtly talk about their ‘greater god’ are in occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. We have Christian ministers who repeated blame homosexuals and ‘liberals’ for hurricanes and earthquakes, rabbis who sanction the murder of the children of ‘the other’, and Popes who in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence encourage people to continue to have unprotected sex. As she stood on the podiums of Jaipur, she did not remember that powerful influence of India’s Hindutva groups, whose crimes in Ahmedabad and countless other acts of ‘communal violence’ have yet to be accounted for. She did not remember the xenophobia of the Shiv Sena, which even as she stood there shedding the spotlight on herself, was practicing the worst for of xenophobic racism against the citizens of this very nation. That a xenophobic, violent and racist party in fact held the reins of power in this country for at least 8 years before its citizens finally tired of its policies and incompetence and threw it out of office. They rejected this ‘consensus’ that Mr. Dhume so wants to suggest is taking over India.

Instead, she spewed venom on Pakistan, yes, because it was Muslim, and also failed to remember that its people have also been engaged in a struggle against the extremists with an alacrity and determination and who saw all religious parties defeated in the 2008 elections. Ms Hirsi Ali, such a lover of liberty and justice, has continued to remain silent on the racist and brutal policies of the state of Israel and its deeply fundamentalist and extremist Jewish society that celebrates the murder of Christian and Muslim Palestinians. But then again, they do pay her bills and perhaps that is the greater liberal trait of all.

We can criticize, but we have to be consistent and we have to be intelligent. Sadly, these celebrities at the festival lacked both.

Now, I just have to figure out what the organizers of the Jaipur Festival were thinking, and when and if, they will decide to make it a genuinely interesting yet complex, nuanced yet insightful, festival. One that can tell the difference between genuine criticism and genuine racism. Or will it just become a right-wing-lunatic gathering that finds more eloquent and articulate ways to push its racist, derogatory and denigrating values and voice. We will see.

The Idea Of India Project Update: No Words To Describe It Or A Daily Reality That Is Also A Daily Fear

In Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Idea Of India Project on February 6, 2010 at 5:25 am

There are words to describe an inability to find words. Speechless, dumbstruck, dumbfounded, silent, bereft of speech, tongue-tied, inarticulate, mute, dumb, voiceless, and probably others.

But what words describe when you can’t find images?

And what words describe when you keep missing them?

There are no words really to describe this state of being, and the feelings that sit heavy in your heart when you are experiencing it. In all the decades that photographer’s have been dealing with this phenomenon, it has never occurred to them to give it a name. Perhaps we are just afraid to name it in the hope that no one will know about it, and we will not have to accept that we have to work through it.

India’s complex street life, and Lucknow in particular, has left me overwhelmed and feeling that these alleys, avenues and streets simply refuse to show their secrets. I have walked, waited, watched and talked all in the search of a handful of frames that can express something of the feel of this town of Lucknow. And yet each evening I return to my room with the undying feeling that not only did I miss images – which are there but I cannot seem to organize or ‘see’ them to place on the film, but that those I grabbed are ruined because of poor timing and sloppy angles. I feel off-balance, and unable to keep up with the pace of the life unfolding in front of me. There are a million obvious images, but none that feel right to a frame. I see and yet I cannot find. I struggle to look, but yet I sense that I am not looking in the right places. Or I just miss.

And in the rare moments when something close to a photograph does appear I keep ruining it with poor timing, inappropriate angles or by being club footed and lumbering towards it so slowly that the moment is gone. Yesterday I had waited nearly 3 hours for a frame, arousing suspicions among the many shopkeepers who had patiently tolerated me and my cameras on the corner of their street, and then missed it when it seemed to come together! If I had a dime for every time I have felt like throwing my cameras against a wall and taking up that job flipping burgers…..!

Is it proper for a professional to admit that he is constantly burdened by a sense that even after nine years as a professional he continues to have moments that don’t even lift him beyond an amateur or hobbyist, or the dilettante? I will have to think about that.

And yet there is something seductive, something addictive, about this struggle. Perhaps it is what making a photograph is all about. An interviewer once asked me why I loved photography and I responded that it wasn’t photography that I loved, but the act of searching for and making an image. After that I was largely indifferent to the rest of it. And so I remind myself that like all great loves, like all obsessions, the struggle is what makes it so compelling and not the goal itself. I have to accept that it is the search more than the object and the process more than the product that this is all about.

And so I continue in this lovely city of Lucknow. I stay close to this feeling of mediocrity, this sense of constant failure, and I continue to walk out each day and I continue to talk myself through the quiet moments, the lost opportunities, the mundane light and the confusing complexity of life. I continue to try to make the photograph.

I have to accept that there are no perfect images, no final answers, and no resolutions to this sense of constant doubt and questioning. It’s the very realization that informs the work on this India project itself. As I explore this incredible country I realize that I can’t offer shrink-wrapped and convenient answers to complex questions of pluralist and syncretic cultural, religious and social spaces but instead show life and history as a series of compromises and even contradictory accommodations. And that that is the best we will ever be able to do and that it is the essential thing we must do.

The perfect image continues to defy me. I accept the compromises that do come my way.

I believe that there isn’t a word to describe this state of affairs either!

To Hear Or See An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions on February 6, 2010 at 2:15 am

There is something terribly indecent about it and we have to be honest and acknowledge it.

The hoards of photographers and wanna-be photographers, most eyeing each other and copying each other so that they may not get ‘left behind’, that have descended on Haiti since the devastating earthquake there remind me why I have felt so alienated and disconnected from this entire craft. The specious justifications of ‘bearing witness’ or that ‘…news pictures help drive a response of aid’, just no longer ring true.

Rarely have so many people used so many clichés so repetitively to justify an act (the news photograph) so lacking in engagement for so long. Decades since photographers started using the language of ‘concerned photographer’, a new generation continues to parrot the same language, and continues to hide its real motivations – determined more by careerism, a pursuit of awards, or just plain bravado, behind a veil of moral, and messianic language of ‘bearing witness’, and ‘in the hope that it will change things’. I am hearing it all over again in Haiti and its driving me nuts!

It’s not only tiresome but insulting to the intelligent. It’s blather. I would rather prefer that photographers were honest and respected their own work enough to admit that they are heading to Haiti because 1) they are on assignment and its work, 2)  it’s the ‘hot’ story and disasters sell well, 3) that it has legs in the NGO and post-trauma markets, 4) there is potential to make career-making images, 5) this will be an important awards story and 5) every one else is there so why not. Photographers crave such situations; they are in the global media spotlight, they are easy to work in (logistically they are tough, but images are very easy to produce), and they can garner a lot of attention to the photographer for his/her bravery and gumption.

Now, to help spread the gold to others, some are offering  ‘disaster workshops’ to those demented enough to consider the horror of another human being’s life as an opportunity to study how to photograph and film it. At this very moment there are people asking students to fork over in excess of $4000 to take part in ‘on the ground’ workshops among the debris and corpses of Haitians to learn about “…working in disaster zones and other difficult and dangerous situations, survival and logistics in difficult environments, photograph people, working with NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) and aid organizations, editing and digital darkroom technique and marketing and making your stories available for the world to see.” The sheer callousness of this leaves me ashamed to even call myself a photojournalist. The indifference to the situation on the ground, the carelessness about the long-term, complex horrors that await the survivors of this disaster just leaves one wondering whether we, as practitioners, have completely lost our moral compass.

It’s a party, and everyone is invited!

A number of insightful pieces have been written about  the television news teams, photographers and videographers descending on this disaster that in fact does not need them there. Others have accused this hoard of ‘journalism’ professionals indulging in nothing more than disaster porn. We now live in a decade of deeply connected worlds, with communications and emergency response institutions and infrastructure that does not rely for pictures before kicking into action. We say this during the Asian Tsunami where photographers were largely late to the situation because of its remoteness. We say it again after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir and even after the catastrophe in New Orleans. Most of the photojournalists are not ‘breaking’ the story here, if they ever did, but merely gawking at it. One could argue, that they may in fact even be distorting it by their relentless pursuit of stories that will garner publication and awards in next year’s World Press Photo and that perpetually remove any political context of the disaster. And that will continue to demean and marginalize the Haitian’s as victims, helpless beggars and criminals. What else can explain the mindnumbing and repetitive nature of what has emerged from the country so far and the determined focused on not the Haitian’s as people and human beings struggling to overcome, but on the aid organizations, media celebrities and the US military as heroes and messiah. Or at worse, it is just about the media itself.

Haiti is a man-made disaster being sold on prime time television as a ‘natural’ disaster. Economist Edward Glaeser argued this recently in a piece called Preventing Haiti’s Next Crisis and pointed out that we have a hand in creating this mess. And Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently in a piece called When The Media Is The Disaster about the dehumanizing language and imagery that is typically used to describe such post-catastrophe situations when it comes to ‘the other world’. And for those who can be bothered to read, there is Paul Farmer and his books on Haiti. His troubling The Uses of Haiti and the simply brilliant Pathologies of Power:Health, Human Rights & The New War On The Poor are both must reads for those who seem to have found a sudden and deep concern for the Haitians.

But you will not hear such insights from the photographers who continue to hide behind a messianic language, and their apparently uncontrollable moral imperatives that drive them to such situations. Erased are their more human motivations fueled by careerism, vanity and access to easy publication. I of course generalize; I am sure that there are some whose motivations may incorporate something more. I certainly hope that this story, a story that will required years to unfold, will be their focus. For most, even the most ‘morally committed’ or ‘witness washed’ will quickly move on once the magazines and news spotlight moves on. And it will move on, if it has not already.

And along with it that messianic language, those morally upright statements, that will then be appended to the next set of car-crash images the ‘concerned’ photojournalist will gleefully produce, eager to see them anywhere and any how, for so long as they remain about his/her incredibly deep and committed concerns, and not about the people whose lives s/he used as fodder for a career.

I ask for forgiveness, for this post emerges from a sense of frustration. This is a sweeping condemnation and I write it to provoke. There are the serious photographers like Maggie Steber who has made Haiti her life’s work and can tell us something important about the disaster on the ground. And there are others, and we need them there because they will help us not just see but understand. It is however tiresome to see so many flocking to this situation, their egos fueling a greedy wish for disaster journalism, and their motivations carefully hidden behind hollow sounding niceties. We are not supposed to point our fingers at this, nor discuss this. It’s just not what photojournalists do.  We remain quiet in the face of obvious exploitation of a another people’s catastrophe that is simply masquerading as ‘photojournalism’, or ‘witnessing’ or something else equally self-satisfying.

There is too much left unexamined about the motivations of this craft and of its practitioners. And that what is left unexamined touches on issues of decency, morality, judgment and power. We, as photographers, are ignoring these issues at the expense of our craft. We are too quick to reach for our six-shooter justifications to distract from what most actually do. And sadly the industry, the audience, the editors, grant juries and others just eat it up and echo it back thoughtlessly. I can’t think of another craft so immune to self-analysis, so trapped in its tired clichés, and so determined to just carry on as if nothing around it is changing. This is even more clear when an occasional voice speaks up and reveals the sheer exploitation, and misuse of it all, as the photographer Eliza Gregory so beautifully revealed in a piece she wrote called Photographer As White Messiah: Looking Back At A Picture I Wish I Had Not Taken.

If photojournalism is struggling it is because it is trapped, mummified in a language and power relationships to its subjects that have remained unchanged in the face of a changing world and media space. Something new has to emerge to rejuvenate our work and our craft, but it is not multi-media or better digital cameras. It is a deep commitment to self-criticism and re-examination of the postures we adopt in the countries and communities we work in, and the traditional roles we have assumed for ourselves i.e. moral voice, messiah, witness, voice to the voiceless or any number of clichés.

The catastrophe in Haiti must be revealed and images go a some way towards doing it. But why must they be so relentlessly exploitative and not informative? Why must they reduce the victims even further, rather than show their courage and their strengths? Why must they be so relentlessly about us, our work, our courage and our ‘role’ instead of being about those who have to actually live through and build through this catastrophe? And why must they always be the same e.g. Kashmir earthquake to Kobe to Haiti it all just ends up one big dump of similar stuff? Why is it so distant, so aloof, so demeaning, so simple, so unthinking, so formulaic, so predictable, so yesterday, so boring, so numbing, so infantile and so useless?

Please do not attend a workshop in Haiti. Please do not take your thousands of dollars worth of equipment and head there. It’s not fun. It’s not an adventure. It’s not exciting. It will not make you a better man. Nor will it make you a photographer, not even a better one. And to those photographers who had the courage to go there I salute you and ask that you just look a little longer, stay a little longer, wait a little longer, and understand a little more. Please help me, who is not in Haiti, understand what is really going on. Please do not produce work that is a substitute for the beggar’s bowl. Please don’t demean me, the Haitians or yourself. Please let me hear and see an Haitian.

ADDENDUM: And for those still making the inane argument that the images are helping bring in the aid, I ask that you please just stop. The Haitian earthquake response has been spectacularly quick and voluminous. So much so that we had clear evidence of too much aid overwhelming the logistical capacity and operations themselves. There were aid convoys that could not make it in and had to dump stuff, aid flights, including those of medical NGOs, that turned back and even ships were unable to get materials into the country. Just managing the logistics of the immense and intense global focus on disaster response may have exacerbated the plight of the Haitians as they struggled to find ways to fend for themselves while the aids organizations and systems were working out their details. Much like the earthquake in Kashmir, this situation has received an amazing response and by people more useful on the ground than yet another photographer justifying his fishing for nice pictures.

A Bit Of Word Play Fit For A King Or Regent Street

In Journalism on February 6, 2010 at 2:01 am

Speaking Howard Zinn

In Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on February 3, 2010 at 6:13 am

I have so much to say about him, but can’t find the right words. But I could not leave this blog without mentioning a man whose ideas and values has had a tremendous influence on my own. I mentioned to a friend that a great generation of American dissidents is passing and I fear that there isn’t a new generation to replace them. Chomsky, Vidal, Cockburn, Barsamian come to mind and each have been at their task for decades. I hope that I am wrong. But, while I wait to discover and read a new generation, here is Viggo Mortensen reading Zinn, thanks to PULSE.

Howard Zinn is the author of the remarkable A People’s History of American Empire, and A People’s History of The United States: 1492 to Present both necessary correction to ideas and understandings unthinkingly absorbed from television, magazines, daily newspapers, high school and college education. And before one begins to prepare accusations of unpatriotic behavior, one should remember that a government, a political system, an army and an empire have little or nothing to do with a patriotism that is committed to justice, equality, rights and liberty for all who belong to a nation. If we are patriotic, then we are patriotic to the values that are ethical, moral, just and equal. Not to individuals, symbols, sitting administrations and institutions of war.

This is not my insight.

It is Zinn’s.