Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Humanity at a Cusp

As the human race wraps up another 365 days of its existence on planet earth, the usual questions about its future still hang in the balance. On the verge of becoming seven billion strong at the end of next year, it may seem that in numbers its future is robust and resilient. But the nature of its survival seems to have a dismal forecast. But there is one thing that keeps the human spirit alive, the idea of "hope". Hope that it can change the trajectory of things to come with ingenious technology and innovation. No matter the odds, the confidence that it can win back time by challenging nature itself is unrelenting. And then there is the arrogance that not much has changed and life will go on as it has for centuries. The inimitable faith that the planet is an infinite place and there is enough room for it to swallow all our refuse no matter what, is still a popular myth bought by many. So the struggle ensues and the battle rages on to keep the dreams for our children alive, so that they may enjoy the beauty mother ship has offered, to generations before.

Humanity is no monolith. It is but a sum of diverse flawed individuals. A smorgasbord of folly, fortitude and formidable tenacity. And so 2010 was not that much different from decades past. Natural and man made calamities, war, terrorism and other earth shattering phenomena made their mark like clockwork. Hunger, poverty, rape and mass murder reminded us yet again that the virtues of human conscience and humanity are never ever present and predictable.

An argument is made that as writers, thinkers, scientists and artists we often concentrate disproportionally on the negative or the dark side. The cynic trumps the pragmatist and the optimist. Especially at years end, one should focus on the strides humanity has made in tackling some of the colossal challenges that it faces and not just on the devastation its actions have befallen. Yes, humanity is on the verge of conquering malaria, the Internet is changing the very fabric of society in many positive ways, space exploration is being privatized, rich people are pledging more of their money to do good on a global scale, nations are beginning to show signs of early cooperation in tackling real climate issues, the rain forests of the amazon were conserved more this year than ever before. So while humanity does make strides and many individuals commit phenomenal acts to uplift the human spirit, they some how seem minuscule in comparison to the havoc it wreaks not just on its fellow citizen but also on species that share this lonely earth.

Humanity's penchant for greed and corruption always looms ever so large, and gets larger as some nations experience an uneven and artificial phenomenon known as "economic boom". The seduction of affluence can blind even the most informed and with unprecedented economic growth promised, consumption is reaching new highs hoodwinking nations and peoples to gamble their destiny. For nations that have always taken tomorrow's sunrise for granted, every day is a wake up call as unemployment runs rampant and a second car becomes a distant suburban dream. Governments looking to get reelected can pass policies and spend their way to the hilt, offering and deluding their citizens that the glory days will return, but what they do not seem to understand is that all resources are a finite commodity, and capitalism in its present form is unsustainable. Even knee jerk capitalism inside communism, with all its successes as in China is fundamentally unsustainable. 2010 in many ways was a year of fundamental change. A reformative year to remind us that the fountain of endless affluence and growth is but an illusion.

So when, where and how do we begin to appreciate the future and move away from the "end of days" scenario that is always present and is constantly reminded to us by the media. When do we begin to look at ourselves beyond the trappings of power, politics, greed, religion, dogma and division and think of ourselves as the ocean that we are. When do we begin to accept that our progress and problems are interconnected and that nations and people are all essentially the same, sharing the same destiny. When do we recognize that no nation is immune to the ebb and flow of economic and social upheaval, despite their historical make up, as globalization has erased certain walls.

And so heading into a new year full of unknowns, instead of making new resolutions, if we as a species can acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past, that would be a huge step in the right direction. If nations were required to publish a report at the end of every year acknowledging and listing the mistakes they made that year, I think the world would be a better place. And if individuals did the same, they would be happier. Wishful thinking maybe, but to think and rethink the unthinkable is to be human.
It is what it is.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

War Criminal

War criminals like everything else in this world, come in all shapes, styles and sizes. Some wear military garb and parade them selves while they commit the worst crimes. There are those who hide behind the military in suits and pose as legitimate leaders while they oppress their own people. Others work within a functioning democracy and still commit crimes against humanity and get away with it.

As wars have been a ubiquitous part of human history so have war criminals. From the early tribal wars, the plundering conquests of Alexander, the Mongol and Viking invasions, Sherman's March to the monsters of the twentieth century, war criminals have defined the moral shape of humanity and how the balance of power ebbs and flows in the world.

"War is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means" said the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz in the 1800s. Since then it has been the mantra by which wars have been legitimized by the power elite.

During the Second World War humanity awoke to a Nazi nightmare. By pushing the limits of human insanity to its maximum, the Nazi's shook the world to its core. Wars before then had seen such brutality, but not in such an organized methodical fashion and that to some degree changed the human equation to the horrors of war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao redefined the notion of crimes against humanity leading to the formation of organizations with lofty goals to tame the evil that lay within man.

And so was formed the United Nations and all its subsidiary agencies with the sole purpose of keeping humanity's plans for war and mutual destruction under check. In the sixty five years of its tenure, the UN has made strides in spreading the virtues of a civil society, formulating the Geneva convention, conflict mediation and keeping the post war peace. But for the most part the United Nations failed miserably at enforcing and maintaining lasting global peace and curtailing the aggression of large and powerful nations. As a result war criminals have spawned across the planet since 1945, showing that keeping man's depraved monstrosity by creating a so called civil set of rules is impossible. The military industrial complexes of the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain have not helped either. They provide the tools needed for war criminals to achieve their goals undermining the very doctrine the UN was set up with. And so the trend continues unchanged, with parts of Africa, Asia, Middle East and South America still baring the brunt of human rights violators. And smaller nations bare the brunt of their land and people being used as "theaters" for military exercises.

In response to the ineptitude of the United Nations to prosecute war criminals, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 1998. The ICC is a permanent tribunal that prosecutes individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. While the ICC has been successful in indicting and prosecuting some African and East European perpetrators with great difficulty, it has fallen short in executing its mandate beyond all geographical boundaries, because all nations have not signed onto its jurisdiction. Prime among them, The United States of America. The United States is a signatory but has not ratified the agreement leaving its war criminals outside the purview of the ICC. India and China do not even recognize the existence of the court.

After two years of virtual anonymity the 43rd president of the United States George W. Bush surfaced to launch his customary presidential memoir titled "Decision Points". This book would set the record straight everyone hoped. It would be a meditation on his tumultuous eight years as commander-in-chief. He would lay it all out for his critics who saw him through a clouded lens. Two wars, the financial melt down, Patriot Act, Water-Boarding, Katrina and Kanye West, everything would be open for examination and introspection. This would be his redeeming moment, the man behind the president would be on display.

So he went on Oprah, spent an hour with Matt Lauer on NBC, gave ample face time to FOX news, returning the favor for staying faithful to him in his darkest hour. Ending on Jay Leno, the late-night comedy hour, where he giggled and gaffed. Any venue that would prompt serious questioning and cross-examination was avoided. Dismissing them as biased left leaning liberal media, he steered clear of any individual with genuine journalistic credentials.

What came through on television was in many ways telling of who George Bush is. In many ways it was no surprise. There was very little remorse or self examination on display. While he did concede that he could have done things better or different when it came to his response to Hurricane Katrina and the unabashed display of the "Mission Accomplished" banner on USS Lincoln, it seemed merely conciliatory. While he did feel bad about the wars that had claimed so many American lives, he still maintained that he would have arrived at the same decision today, if the same faulty intelligence was presented to him. He still maintains assertively the world is a better place without Saddam Hussain and history would someday redeem him. There was no acknowledgment of remorse for the countless Afghan and Iraqi men, women and children who had lost their lives and continue to die as a result of his initiated forced action. He once again defended torture, the secret CIA detentions and vehemently maintained that water-boarding had saved American lives. The one and only thing he seemed emotionally upset about was about an insignificant moment when an inconsequential rapper named Kanye West called him a racist, for his mishandling of the Katrina rescue effort.

To do the right deed for the wrong reason the great poet T.S. Elliot wrote is "the greatest treason". What do you call a president who plunges a nation into war, for the worst reasons possible, causing immeasurable loss of life, and still feels no self-reproach? "War Criminal" is a fitting title. While it may be a harsh characterization and ample conclusions could be drawn to prove otherwise, but when as the commander-in-chief of the world's most lethal military you ignore the recommendation of the United Nations and most of your allies, and just listen to your inner coterie, and your simplistic "Decision Points" devoid of any sense of history, it is hard to absolve you of that title.

George Bush is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last "War Criminal" America will produce. While America searches for reasons as to why the world loves its people, innovation, ideals and virtues and yet is repulsed to the point of harm by the double standards of its power elite, look no further. Any other leader who would cause such senseless loss of life on such a magnitude by use of force, would be indited for war crimes by the ICC. Slobodan Milošević of Serbia and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan were indited by the ICC for war crimes. Even though they had an ethnic cleansing agenda to their killing, the end result was still the same. The use of excessive military force to kill with delusions of creating a better world for their people.

It is a sad day for America when not a single perpetrator of the immoral wars have been brought to justice or held to any measure of accountability. If George Bush claims the intelligence presented to him was wrong, and therefore that led him to a decision to go to war, then one way he could redeem himself is to hold those people who fed him that intelligence accountable. That never happened and will never happen. America has never prosecuted any of its officials for crimes against humanity. America does not believe in prosecuting its war criminals, as that would blow the lid on the virtues of democracy and justice it touts. In addition, in the quagmire of the American system of governance, it is hard to prove who actually pushed the button. The culpable characters of this war are all in plain sight, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney to name a few. Holding them accountable is too laborious a task, both physically and politically, which no administration will undertake fearful of its own continuity.

Henry Kissinger is a name that comes to mind from past dirty deeds. He has been sited by many as the man behind the button that launched the indiscriminate bombing of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam war. He was never held accountable for his role in that carnage. On the contrary he became an intellectual and a reputable adviser guiding many subsequent administrations, including George Bush's in world of diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was born to German Jewish parents and was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Oliver North is the only individual that comes to mind in the recent past who was ever tried for war related indiscretions. He was given a tap on the wrist and let go. America will never ratify the ICC for its closet of "War Criminals" is much too large for comfort.

So when America celebrates its democracy and freedoms and applauds its justice system for being fair and impartial, when it comes to its war criminals, it has always been no different then most dictatorships. When George Bush says he would still take us into war given the circumstances he was in, he by default acknowledges that in the two years of hibernation he still has not regained any sense of history. He also by default admits that he lied to the American public and congress. Maybe for him a sense of history is too heavy a load to carry as it clouds his "simplistic" methods of arriving at his "Decision Points".

This week Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, went on trial at the ICC. Bemba is charged with three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities committed by about 1,500 fighters of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) in 2002-03. What is unprecedented about this trial is that, while it may seem like this is just another proverbial mad black man in the dock, for the first time in the history of international justice a military commander is on trial for indirect criminal responsibility for rape and murder committed by his fighters.

Many people in America refer to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a "mistake". Any war that leads to the death of countless individuals can never be called a mistake. It is too frivolous a word to characterize the deaths of so many innocent people. In the real world one goes to jail or hangs for making such mistakes.

A mistake of this nature can only be called an "immoral war crime". It is what it is.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lost in the Noise

November 2nd is election day in America. All 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 38 seats in the Senate are up for re-election. The battle lines are drawn and half way into his term President Obama's influence hangs in the balance. Currently the Democratic party is in control of the House and the Senate with a narrow margin. The verdict is already out in the media. Come November it is predicted that the balance of power will shift, largely as a protest vote against the ruling party and the president.

Balance of power shifting midway through a presidency is not uncommon. The Democratic party under President Clinton lost control of both houses half way through his first term. Two years later he came back to win a second term with a resounding victory. While history could repeat itself, it must not be taken lightly, as the variables always matter. With the current president those variables are quite diverse and complicated.

American democracy, loudly proclaims it is "of the people, by the people and for the people", but gives very little choice to its citizens to exercise that right. With only two parties to chose from, there is only marginal diversity of opinion to be found. And that makes all the difference. Everything as a result gets defined in rather absolute terms as either left or right, liberal or conservative, FOX or MSNBC so on and so forth. While the diversity in human opinion is always gray, the opportunity to express that complexity seems to be diminishing drastically, especially in a world polarized by gut reaction and not informed thought. As a result, the notion of what is "right" in good conscience in relation to values of justice, life and liberty are pushed to the extremities.

Out of this aberration has spawned a group of people who like to call themselves a "movement" naming themselves after a seminal protest moment that took place in 1773, the Boston Tea Party. They call themselves the "Tea Party" and have emerged as a political force carved out within the Republican party. Helped along by some prominent TV and Radio talk show hosts, loaded financial backers and savvy campaigners they have garnered enough support among a certain class of American society to shake up this election. With President Obama as their pinata and a political ideology ranging from the absurd to the plain nonsensical they have captured the imagination of an electorate who find themselves having to make a choice as always between the devil and the deep blue sea.

As many as 138 Tea Party candidates are taking part in the election this year. Instead of forming their own political party, and being grass roots independent as they claim to be, they have decided to be part of the Republican party. Historically a third party in the United States has never been viable. Primarily due to an inability to raise money and influence on a national scale to take part in the mud slinging that has become so much a part of the debating arena. Also many of the views harbored by the Tea Party candidates resonate within the echelons of the Republican party. Those within the party that nurse those views are just too afraid to openly claim them for fear of a backlash. So it is only prudent for them to endorse Tea Party candidates and test the waters and capitalize on the malaise that has set into the voting population as a result of the way the country seems to be going. A perfect marriage of means.

The Tea Party on the surface seems to have mobilized in response to the government's policies of bail outs, stimulus spending, intrusion of individual freedoms by mandating health care, burdening the future generation with a massive debt and the high unemployment rate. All debatable issues which have been a symptom of almost every other administration since time began. But underneath the facade they stand for some radical policies. The obvious being anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-global warming and pro-gun, and the rest that comes with the package. Then there are those on the fringe who want to get rid of entire federal departments including the Department of Education and the IRS, and want to privatize social security and repeal Obama's health care bill. While everyone criticizes spending by the current administration not a single candidate supports any cuts in the defense budget that has long been a source of financial drain. Everyone unanimously want the wealthiest Americans to keep getting wealthier at the cost of an even more expanding deficit. Then the candidates themselves are quite colorful in every way. Overwhelmingly white, they range from Nazi impersonators, to witch craft dabblers to just outright racists.

Another thing the Tea Party, the Republicans and commentators such as Anne Coulter and Glenn Beck have been very successful at, is phrasing inaccuracies and falsehoods as facts and denigrating the fact checkers by branding them the "liberal media". By blowing their horn on the airwaves and confidently speaking lies masked as facts they have been effective in subverting the debate and painting the Democrats as socialists turning America into a European style nation. Anne Coulter, a woman who has made a career out of being offensive and in your face, has gone so far as to calling the Iraq war the "just war" and applauding George Bush for it and calling the Afghan war Obama's Vietnam (which it might as well have defacto become) and blaming him for bungling it when George Bush had in fact got it right.

When the Tea Party supporters came out of the wood work and started gathering across the nation the Democrats did not pay much attention. They thought the screaming dogs would die their own death and responding to them was below ones dignity. When thousands showed up at the Washington mall heeding a call by the right wing talk show host on the Fox network Glenn Beck, people stood up and paid attention. And now with the media at large calling the Tea Party candidates a force to reckon with and the threat of them forming their own caucus within the Republican party in the House and the Senate becoming very real, everyone is running helter-skelter trying to do some last minute damage control. The President, his wife and his Vice-President have rolled up their sleeves and have hit the campaign trail hoping to revive some of their "Obama-08" magic two weeks before D-day. It may already be too late.

If this election is a referendum on the two years of Obama's presidency, it is a bit premature. Yes he inherited a mess for which he is being blamed, but two years in, he has no choice but to take ownership, and that he has. If there is one failure that could be attributed to his Presidency, it is his inability to connect with the nation at large like he did as a candidate. The great unifier seems to have fallen victim to the political forces of division. He was propelled into the stratosphere by an overblown romance between his persona and the media. He was wrongly portrayed as the Messiah who would lead us to the promised land with his professorial ability to work across the aisle. His preacher like speeches and slogans such as "Yes We Can" made us all heady with over optimism, but it was certain that he would be heading into some difficult terrain once inauguration day came. Yet on record he has fared better than most and got a significant amount done, but some how failed to drive his accomplishments home to the public. He even cut taxes for 95% of Americans which should make him and his party popular in an election year, but even that has largely gone unnoticed in the noise. There is no doubt he has left many who would rise again for him disenchanted. Guantanamo Bay still remains open for business, the wars rage on, civil liberties still have not been fully restored since they were compromised by the Patriot Act, War and Wall Street criminals who brought American to ruin still roam free while new ones join their ranks, the peace talks in the middle east have stalled- yet again and even though wall street seems to be having a field day and the recession is "officially over" the high unemployment rate stubbornly eats away at his statistical popularity.

If this election is a protest vote against President Obama it is highly misplaced. If it is a protest vote against his policies, we have not seen them bear fruit yet. If this is about the right rallying its forces to victory, with an element of prejudice at its core, then it is time to counter that force, and do the right thing come election day. The way democracy works around the world is, at the end of the day, one eventually gets what one deserves. It is what it is.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A September Pause

Every year as the sun rises on September 11, as a New Yorker I take pause. I am sure every New Yorker who was here that ill fated day nine years ago does the same. We all look up to the sky and remember that clear blue brilliant day that quickly turned black and gray. This year as the images of that calamity spark and flash in my mind, I sadly find that the poison that spewed out of "ground zero" that horrendous day, continues to make its way through the world with no end in sight.

Nine years ago, almost three thousand lives were cut short in downtown New York City. Since then the killings have not stopped. Countless have perished in the unholy and unjust wars that erupted soon after, and untold more are exterminated everyday as the conflicts see no prospects of stalling. If there is one person who can fly a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" it is Osama Bin Laden.

If in fact Osama Bin Laden was behind the attack on the World Trade Center, and if his mission was to bring the west to its knees, his operation has been a tremendous success and continues to bear fruit. The mayhem that ensued after 9/11 successfully drew a mighty nation to squander its treasures and nine years later, more or less has brought it to its knees. The two wars have drawn a debt ridden America deeper into the abyss. The economies of other western nations are in deep recession struggling to rebuild from the verge of total collapse. Young men and women have given their lives to fight wars in response to a threat of a nebulous entity called Al Qaeda. The lives of Muslims and Non-Muslims in the hundreds of thousands around the world have been tragically cut short by drones, car bombs and IEDs questioning who the real terrorist is. The name Al Qaeda still strikes fear and justifies the continuation of conflict and human rights violations in impoverished corners of the world hardening young people to blow themselves up in the name of "God".

Nineteen men on a Kamikaze mission changed humanity like never before. They altered the way we live and perceive one another. The fact that they were of Muslim descent and from a Muslim nation launched a quasi battle between religions and faiths, which years later still poisons and clouds the way people view their fellow human being. The suspicion of the other is profound. The successful and failed violent attacks, by nations and terrorists make the situation worse, maintaining a high degree of mistrust that sees no border.

While the wars rage on, the west believes it lives by a higher code of ethics which are constantly tested. They feel that their most cherished freedoms and ideals of thought and expression are in jeopardy and under attack. Therefore the right wing elements in the west are taking on the militant Muslim world on their own terms. In the process not only demonizing a whole group by the actions of their most extreme but also projecting a narrow view of themselves. The recent irrational and misguided protests against the building of a legitimate Islamic center in lower Manhattan and the attention given to an insane individual by the name of Terry Jones who calls himself a pastor, who threatened to burn a few Korans to grab publicity, shows that the healing is far from over. Infact it has has barely begun, as the wedge of ignorance gets driven even deeper. And the response in the Muslim world was all too familiar. Burning of the American flag and calling for Jihad and death to America. Even in flood ravaged Pakistan some people found time to show their customary anger.

So where d

o we begin to think beyond hatred and suspicion and not play into what the media chooses to highlight? When do we truly honor the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Atheists and the rest who want to just live and not bring their beliefs into the public sphere to cause friction? When do we recognize that sixty Muslims died in the twin tower mass destruction and their flesh and blood was no different and the grief of their loved ones is as real?

It is election season in America. It is that time of the year when candidates reveal their true nature or say things they don't really mean to speak to their base in an attempt to corner votes. It is also that time of the year when people in power suddenly restart dormant polices to grab attention. This month President Obama kick started the Middle East peace process. Something that has become customary for every President to give it a shot. Only to seem engaged and caring about something that is at the center of all hatred the Muslim world has for the west. "The Tea Party" supporters came out in big numbers to support an agenda that has an unnerving fascist underbelly, blaming President Obama for everything they could put their finger on.

As September drew near there came an overwhelming sense of perceived mistrust and hatred of Muslims in America. A fear of marginalization not seen since the Japanese Americans were subjected to internment camps in the 1940s. In the blaring noise of the media ramblings of the likes of Glenn Beck of Fox News and the polling by other media outlets things seemed like they were spinning out of control. The more disheartening aspect of the circus was the refusal of right minded people to come and vociferously speak out against the poison that was rapidly permeating. Even President Obama trotted guardedly on this issue buckling to misguided political advise. The main casualty was the character of a nation which despite all its failings had always spoken for the voiceless, and now had found itself cowering.

Was this recent whipping up of ethnic hatred only a minor blip in America's conscience, as it grapples with its declining prosperity, trying to find an answer when the response stares it in its face? Or was it a preview of things to come. One would only have to wait and see as the future unravels. Until then the wars rage on with words in this country and with bombs in other less fortunate ones.

This week peacemaker laureate President Obama's administration signed a historic arms deal with a despotic regime. The 90 billion dollar decade long arms deal is America's biggest ever weapons sale period. While we deplore Iran for following medieval methods, resorting to stoning its women as punishment for adultery, we shake hands with Saudi Arabia which delivers justice in the same draconian ways. And lest you forget the 19 Kamikaze who flew airplanes on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia and not Iraq or Afghanistan. One of the reasons Bin Laden presumably attacked the United States is because he detested its presence in his nation and the unholy relationship it has with its ruling family. And so make no mistake. The end to this war nine years in the making, is no where close at hand. Even the blind can see the hypocrisy of power. It is what it is.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Do the Right Thing

For the past few months I have been directing a documentary film with my mentor and colleague about a remarkable individual by the name of John W. Jones. John was a product of two hundred years of free labor that gave America a head start in the world, "slavery". Born on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia in 1817, John W. Jones sought freedom at the age of twenty seven when his owner Sarah Elzy, who took good care of him was in ill health. Instead of freeing him she decided to transfer him to a relative. For a slave this was reason enough to escape, as the future lay uncertain and the threat of being separated from family and being violently abused was great.

John's grandmother had always pointed at the geese flying north, and filled his imagination with stories of freedom and opportunity. So one night he decided to follow the geese. With four of his brothers in tow he made a run. With only a shirt on his back he took on a daunting journey north on foot. Traveling mostly by night guided by the stars, dodging bounty hunters, on rafts and freight trains, seeking shelter in safe houses that made up the Underground Railroad, he arrived three hundred miles later, in Elmira, New York. It was 1844 and Elmira was booming.

For most runaway slaves Canada was the final destination but for John, Elmira became home. With the help of some formidable white abolitionists of the time, John started his life as a sextant at the local First Baptist Church. He taught himself to read and write and established himself as an honorable black man in a white man's world.

A few years later civil war broke out and Elmira became a site for one of the largest prison camps of its time. The Elmira Prison Camp soon came to be known as "Helmira" and was the Abu Garaib of its time. Twelve thousand confederate soldiers were packed into a camp made for three thousand. They were made to live in squalor under canvas tents most often on paltry rations. Within a year three thousand prisoners died of disease, cold weather, poor medical attention and hunger. It so happened that since John was a sextant he was handed the job of burying the dead. While it was the norm to just discard the dead in unmarked ditches- as they were the enemy, John W. Jones out of his own christian kindness decided to give each soldier a proper burial. He gave each a coffin and a wooden gravestone on which he recorded their name, regiment and company. He maintained a meticulous log and enclosed the same information in a bottle and placed it inside the coffin. He received $2.50 for each body he buried. John became a wealthy man by giving a Christian burial to the very people who were fighting to keep the unchristian system of slavery alive.

John lived at a time when photography was in its early experimental stage and the magic of moving images was just being invented. As a black man his encounter with technology of this nature was highly unlikely. Yet there exists one photograph taken during his halcyon old days. What endure are stories and the three thousand marble pointed grave stones at the Woodlawn National Cemetery that speak of his great deeds. So when we decided to make a film about him, we knew there was not much to go with in terms of archival material. We knew he was no intellectual like Frederick Douglas who left behind great writings. And we were not interested in making a Ken Burns style opus. We wanted to catch John W. Jones' ghost blowing in the wind. We wanted to find out for ourselves if his spirit still inhabited the land that he traversed. We wanted to find out if anyone had ever heard of this man, who had helped more than 800 slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The only way to find out was to walk in his steps.

So with a camera in hand we decided to take the journey from Leesburg to Elmira. Walking on foot was out of question. 300 miles was a long distance, time was of the essence and we were not brave enough to walk the woods by night. So we decided to do what Americans do. Rent an automobile and burn some fossil fuel.

From research we plotted the journey he possibly would have taken and the towns he must have touched along the way. Our plan was to spontaneously stop in these towns and ask people on the street, in cafes, churches, porches, farms and factories if they knew if the Underground Railroad passed through their town and if it did had anyone ever heard of a man called John W. Jones. Our mission was two fold. To find out if people in fact knew their place in history and if they didn't, we felt compelled to enlighten them with the tale of this great man who lived more than a century ago. A man who did the right thing strictly out of good conscience, when all that was expected of him was to stay alive.

We started in Leesburg, Virginia by just walking down a street and pointing a camera at a group of people lounging on a sunny porch. They were keenly aware of the role Virginia had played in the business of slavery. In 1860 one out of every four families in Virginia owned slaves. They also enlightened us with a lesser known fact that Leesburg was the capital of the nation for a day. But they had not heard of John W. Jones and were moved by his story. Then we met Dr. Deborah Lee who knew everything there was to know about this man. She had the journeys of slaves seeking freedom cataloged in her book titled Honoring Their Paths. A page in her book was dedicated to John W.Jones.

She drove us to the very plantation John had seen the geese fly north and then walked us to a thicket on a rolling meadow. Inside the overgrown bush lay grave stones which were hard to reach. The marked ones, which we could not see as they were deep in the bush, belonged to John W. Jones' owner Sally Elzy and her family. The unmarked ones which were on the outer rim of the site, Deborah said belonged to the slaves who served them. John. W. Jones' mother lay under one of the plain gray stones sticking out of the ground.

Next we stopped at a majestic mansion on the Oatlands Plantation a few miles from the grave site. The view from the verandah of the building was breathtaking. Perched on a hill the mansion looked down on lush green rolling meadows and ridges as far as the eyes could see. Deborah pointed in the distance and said John would have worked here and crossed those meadows on his way to freedom. The plantation grounds and the mansion today are a popular destination for lavish weddings. While I could appreciate the beauty of the place, the elegance was definitely undermined by the despicable history that lay beneath.

Our next stop was in another small historic town in Fauquier County a few miles from Leesburg. "The Plains" is a quaint little town on the Virginia Civil War trail. Surrounded by lush green farms and meadows the air there was certainly special. We stopped at the only local cafe which claimed the actor Robert Duvall as a neighbor and a regular. Speaking to the young men and women working there we were surprised to find how aware they were of their towns history, especially its relationship to the Underground Railroad. One of them directed us to a farm which had remnants of slave quarters. The bare walls made from irregular stones and mud, spoke volumes of the condition the people lived in and why seeking freedom was inevitable for some.

Outside the coffee shop we ran into a black man with a limp, who seemed like a permanent fixture of that street, and everyone knew him by his first name. He had lived there for fifty years or more and had worked on local farms and had experienced segregation. When we told him what we were doing he directed us to an old lady up the hill who knew a lot about that time. We walked into a cluttered modest house. A grand old slender lady in her nineties sat on a sofa in her nightgown. The smell of cigarette was thick and Oprah was on TV. Surrounded by a sickly overweight daughter in a wheel chair and a gaggle of grand and great grand children she listened to the John W. Jones tale. She nodded her head and refused to speak to the camera, for fear of her soul being snatched. She mentioned her parents being "share croppers" and you could tell she had a good idea what it was to be a child of a slave, but did not want to talk about it. And so we moved on.

We then visited Karen Hughs and Jane Butler down the road. They had created a museum in tribute of the Afro-American history in Faquier Country. From Africa to Obama the whole black experience was captured in their little museum with photographs, model recreations and framed artifacts. They had also assembled genealogical data on slave families and were successful in tracing their own roots back to some of the families that lived and worked in the area. Interviewing them in front of an actual cage that was used to transport slaves on ships from Africa was eyeopening. For them the emotions of what was done to their ancestors centuries ago was raw and very present.

We drove north along the Susquehanna river on route 15, which in the old days was known as the "Old Carolina Road". Slaves and others traveling north from Virginia took that road touching small towns, jumping on and off barges and trains leading them north where opportunity lay. The drive was picturesque with the river on the left and thick forests covering the landscape far and wide. Meandering through small towns and meeting town historians who all had something special to add to our quest, we arrived in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania.

Not having a plan, we decided to walk down a street in a predominantly black neighbor hood and speak to residents lounging on stoops. We met a grand old lady reading a book on her porch. She was initially hesitant to speak to us, as we had caught her at a time when her hair was undone, but after some persuasion and listening to the John W. Jones story she opened up. Moments later her daughter entered the scene and enquired if she had told us the story of "George?". We wondered who this George was. We later found it was none other than the first president George Washington. She claimed he had fathered children in her ancestry. She certainly had some albumin in her pigment.

Next we arrived at a church down the road. It was seven in the evening and some parishioners were hobbling into the basement in time for bible reading. It was a mixed crowd, but the flavor was certainly black. A poster of President Obama in a cowboy hat hung on the bulletin board with the words "There's a New Sheriff in Town". When the sermon began you realized Jesus was certainly the only sheriff in this town and salvation was only guaranteed if you lead him into your heart. After bible business we gathered around for a tête-à-tête. No one had heard of John W. Jones but his story did strike a chord and the debate heated up when we posed the question "Have we come a long way from Africa to Obama?". The responses were as varied as the crowd. But there was a unified voice that said yes we had come a long way, but the culture of hate and racism had not gone far.

Through out our journey we posed the "Africa to Obama" question and we got some surprising answers. As John W. Jones in his way had conquered a frontier to freedom, there is no question that the election of Obama was a trailblazing moment not to be taken lightly. But what we have seen since his election is a meteoric rise in the divisive rhetoric of fear and hate. The forces of intolerance that dogged John W. Jones seem to be alive today in a different shade waiting for a moment to engulf us again. From the recent push to abolish the fourteenth amendment and the lynch mob pandemonium against the proposed construction of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, it seems like the bullhorn is again in the hands of some lunatics who insist on leading the blind.

Our journey for the time being ended in Elmira at the final resting place of John W. Jones at the Woodlawn Cemetary. He and his family lie under a shady dogwood tree a few feet from Mark Twain and the three thousand soldiers he buried with kindness, civility and humanity. To appreciate the life of John W. Jones and draw inspiration, one only has to look within and question what it means "to do the right thing" when all that is expected of you is to only exist. It is what it is.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dictator Dressing

There was a time when nations stood for an ideal. There was a time when governments believed in the values of democracy. There was a time when politics was not only about self interest but about the common good. There was a time when nations around the world worked together to see that power was decentralized for the benefit of humanity. Or was there ever such a time? Was the gift of democracy ever delivered to us with transparency and promise?

As the world's largest democracy rolls out a red carpet to welcome one of the world's foremost violators of human rights and democracy, one wonders if there is hope for change. The President and Prime Minister of India play host this week to General Than Shwe, the head of the Military Junta that has ruled Burma with brutality for the past forty years. India has cultivated close diplomatic and military ties with Burma over the past decade to pursue economic and security interests and counterbalance China's growing clout in the country, which sits between the two Asian super powers.

Working with dictators has always been seen as a strategic move and has been rationalized by democracies through out history. The idea that isolation makes dictatorships dig in, there by punishing their citizenry even more has been a very valid argument. The people of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's regime had suffered a great deal due to sanctions. Most often dictatorships are measured by the rhetoric and policy of their leadership. If they are pro-western or pro-business they are often welcome. If they are hard line communist, left wing or overtly megalomaniacal they are shunned and isolated.

Being a beacon of democracy, America has had a very disturbing and complicated relationship with dictators all around the world. It has worked with the worst violators always justifying by using the phrase "national interest". Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, Suharto, Mobutu, Papa Doc,
Zai-Ul-Haq, Parvez Musharaf are just a few the American government has toyed with. There is also evidence that the United States business establishment had dealings with Nazi Germany, before they were dragged into the war. The problems America faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan are partly because of their policy of dictator dabbling. Through the past two centuries, European nations have propped up dictators through out Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The repercussion of those actions are felt even today with disastrous consequences.

Working with a dictator is always easier than working with a democracy as there is no approval process involved. There is no lag time. There is no congress, senate or opposition party to ratify agreements. All you need is to convince that one man at the top, lure him with either money or political support and he will get the job done. Or offer a cozy business relationship as in the case of China (a communist dictatorship) and lo and behold you have a win win situation. But as we have seen through out history any relationship based on pure selfish interest, comes at a great cost, most often a genocidal cost.

India sites three main reasons to be doing business with a despotic regime. It wants Burma's huge natural gas deposits to support its burgeoning middle class' hunger for an American lifestyle. It wants influence to counter China's unilateral push for dominance in the region. Political instability in its north western states are fueled from Burmese territory and India wants that stopped. For this India is willing to undermine its own history and character, and is willing to turn a blind eye to an individual it has given its highest civilian honor. The undisputed leader of the democratic movement, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, 14 years later, is still under house arrest and has been barred from taking part in a sham election that takes place this year. She has dissolved her party in protest as the world looks on.

By giving the Burmese dictator legitimacy, India compromises the very foundation it was built upon. By having a business/military relationship with a dictatorship India lowers its standing as a democracy. Apartheid ended in South Africa because nations around the world banded together and refused to do business with a repressive regime. Mahatma Gandhi brought the British regime to its knees by partly disrupting its business enterprise. And here is a nation founded on a legacy of fighting oppression, providing business opportunity to a Military Junta that grossly oppresses its own people.

The ruling party in India today, The Congress Party, was spearheaded during the freedom struggle by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who are considered the founding fathers of the nation. It is their party that is appeasing this dictator today. With this decision India might as well abandon referring to Mahatma Gandhi as its founding father. As this desecrates the ubiquitous garlanded photo frame of Bapu, that dresses every government establishment across the nation. By rolling out a red carpet to a dictator, India dishonors all those who have sacrificed to uphold the one quality that defines us as humans "freedom". It is what it is.

Monday, June 7, 2010


As the Gulf of Mexico turns into a cesspool and the rainbow sheen on an once blue ocean enrages everyone with a conscience, what next- is the question on everyone's mind. The live video of oil gushing out and the discrepancies in the estimated volume polluting the pristine waters on a daily basis only make things more excruciating. As the disturbing images of birds imprisoned in brown goo remind us of the curse of oil, another monumental industrial catastrophe from the past is in the news once again.

Twenty five years ago on a dreadful December night in 1984, a deadly gas leaked into the air from an American owned chemical plant, in the city of Bhopal in northern India. The horror of what transpired that night can never be put into words. The nightmares are still fresh in the scorched eyes of its victims, and the memories never seem to fade and the pain is relentless. More than 20,000 people have perished since that night. Some died instantly, some over the years and some continue to die and others are yet to be born. The ghost that killed that night was Methyl Isocyanide (MIC) and some of the people who created it and stored it in a congested urban center were sentenced to two years in prison by a court in Bhopal this month. It took the system twenty three years to pin the blame on eight Indian men. As expected the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Hastings, now an old man, was not among the eight. Union Carbide does not exist anymore. It was bought by Dow Chemicals thus absolving the American officials of some of the crime. There are cases pending against the American officials in US courts for the past twenty five years that have amounted to nothing. Extradition requests for Warren Anderson are still being pursued. The Bhopal court fined the convicted members of the Indian unit of Union Carbide Rs 500,000 ($11,000) each. All the convicted applied for bail immediately after sentencing and their request was duly granted.

As oil gushes into the gulf, and marine and avian life is decimated, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between the two tragedies. In both cases multinational corporations are to blame. And failure of oversight is the primary recipe for disaster. Bhopal still haunts us two decades later and so will this disaster. We cannot even begin to comprehend the fall out of this new human engineered calamity. Another catastrophe stemming from greed and callousness, where profit trumps safety and the sanctity of life. In the Gulf the human toll is less direct. All that is lost so far is livelihood and the food that it produces for human consumption. The catastrophe in Bhopal questioned the way we live. The rape of the Gulf of Mexico will question the motives for our unending addiction to oil for generations to come.

As the pundits begin to estimate what the clean up will cost and whether BP will survive this calamity financially and as Wall Street predicts BP's buy out, the parallels between Bhopal and the Gulf become even more eerily similar. When Union Carbide realized what had happened in Bhopal, they figured they could throw money at the problem and cut their losses. And so they did. In 1989 they agreed on a settlement and paid out $490 million. The Indian government had asked for $3.3 billion. Unfortunately the settlement for the victims amounted to very little as the pool was too large. Each ended up getting as little as $1000 as compensation. In the present situation BP is doling out huge sums of money to help the fishermen and the coastal communities directly affected by the spill. The President has vowed to go after the company, and has launched a criminal investigation. Whether anyone will go to jail for this, is yet to be seen. The clean up costs are estimated to be close to $23 billion and BP has vowed to take on the expense. An escrow account of $20 billion dollars has been set up to handle all claims as long as they last.

Whether BP will survive this financial burden is to be seen. What is glaring is the disparity in the way this disaster is being handled. Since this tragedy is unfolding in the continental United States the pressure to take responsibility is immense. In Bhopal, twenty five years later, the dodging game still continues and the victims are still fighting for justice. If a disaster like Bhopal were to take place in the west, the outcomes would have been monumentally different. Life is cheap if you are poor. Partly to blame is the Indian government, that pushed for a lighter sentence as they were fearful of the negative impact it would have on foreign investment. A similar sentiment is being expressed by some congressmen and senators in the United States establishment.

What is astonishing is that the disaster unfolding in the Gulf is not the first of its kind. On 3rd June 1979 there was a similar explosion on the Ixtoc rig off the coast of Mexico. This explosion spilled three million barrels of oil into the ocean and its effects are still glaringly present in the ecosystem of the region. Some scientists beg to differ but fishermen have to travel far into the ocean to find their catch. They never had to do that before oil hit their shores. This rig was drilling only at a depth of 11,000 feet below sea level when disaster struck. The Deep Water Horizon was meddling a mile below the ocean surface and two miles below the sea bed. According to a recent New York Times article The Niger Delta in Africa has endured the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and the swamps are long since lifeless. Children play in oil soaked puddles and the ground water has turned to poison. The largest American company in the world Exxon-Mobil is the culprit here and does not payout compensations anywhere close to what BP is being asked to in the Gulf. So much for the double standards in the era of globalization.

Some 25 years after the gas leak in Bhopal, 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region. Though there is some dispute as to whether the chemicals still stored at the site pose any continuing health hazard there is clear evidence that the violators got away without even cleaning up the mess. I don't think BP is going anywhere, and I don't think a thorough clean up is even possible.

What stands out from all of the above observations and all that is being unearthed about BP and its recklessness, is that big corporations care about one thing alone, PROFIT. When governments, whose job is to safeguard the public fail, we have a recipe for calamity. When there is collusion between corporations and governments, then all that are left are wastelands, making the citizenry impotent and emaciated. Whether this systemic problem can be fixed is questionable. Even as President Obama tries to salvage the situation the best he humanly can, he is being accused by the right of "shaking down" the corporations, which visa-vie is not good for America and Capitalism. It never seems to amaze me, that no matter the cost we pay for our kamikaze ways, politics always divides us in the face of adversity and trumps the severity of the situation at hand.

As the doomsday scenario unfolds in the Gulf, one cannot help question the validity of human addiction to oil. From wars to eco-disasters oil is the plague that spurs ruin, yet it touches us daily in the most innocuous ways. There are more than two hundred products in an average household that are directly derived from petroleum. So where and when do we begin to see that we are in quicksand and the rope that can pull us out is shredded. Humans tend to act when there is catastrophe, or they tend not to, no matter what. Already the oil industry is contesting the six month moratorium on deep water drilling with some success. Change is discomforting and as a result deadly slow. If we can think that we can conquer this latest catastrophe and go back to the ways of the past, think again. This time the genie is not going back into the bottle. It is what it is.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Smoking Bomb

May 1, 2010, it is crowded in Times Square as usual. Wide eyed tourists all dazzled by the neon, whose glow is claimed to be visible from outer space, strain their necks upwards. At around 6:30 PM an unassuming T-Shirt vendor looks sideways and spots a smoking SUV parked on 45th street and alerts the police. And so begins an all to0 familiar chain of events. The 24/7 madness of the news media is put into motion. Soon live pictures of Times Square engulf TV screens across the nation. A robot is deployed from a distance. It becomes apparent it is a car bomb.

Within hours we find out the bomb is made up of a Nissan Pathfinder, gasoline, propane tanks, firecrackers, simple alarm clocks and eight bags of a granular substance, later determined to be nonexplosive grade of fertilizer, inside a 55-inch-tall metal gun locker. Enough to cause significant damage and put a city on edge which has seen the worst. And so begins a manhunt and media speculation runs amok. The usual suspects are all named. Al Qaeda, Taliban, Right wing militia, Home grown terrorists and everyone else in between. Without a shred of evidence at hand, everyone with two cents to add goes on the record on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC and FOX. Some say the target was the Viacom building because of a Mohammad joke on their comedy show "South Park" that did not go down well earlier that month. Others are trying to track down a man seen on close circuit TV taking off his shirt close to the bomb site. 53 hours later a man is pulled off an Emirates flight to Dubai. The "Times Square Bomber" is found and Attorney General Eric Holder announces with pride, that the man has confessed to the act.

The Muslim community cringes as the name Faisal Shahzad is announced. They were hoping for a Timothy McVeigh, but no such luck. Pictures of a fresh fair faced young man with a glowing smile are plastered across every TV screen and newspaper and an ominous sketch of a distraught man of Pakistani descent turned terrorist is painted. We find out he is a naturalized citizen, who like many immigrants from the subcontinent came as a student on an F1 visa. We find out about his prominent family roots, broken marriage, his financial distress, his trips to Pakistan, the possibility of the Pakistani Taliban getting to his head and his newly cultivated pencil thin beard. These days any facial hair on brown skin is enough to brand you as a possible suspect. Faisal is read his Miranda rights, much to the displeasure of Senator John McCain and his creed, and is locked away in a maximum security cell in Manhattan. What we learn from here on about Faisal, is through carefully managed official disclosures from the FBI and the Justice Department and weak media reporting based on hear say and interviews of people he supposedly knew here in Connecticut and in his hometown in Pakistan.

The bomb if ignited could have killed with deadly impact. The morbidity and seriousness of this act cannot be discounted. But since Times Square was not in Iraq or Afghanistan, where a failure to ignite would have gone unreported, the outcome had unintended consequences. It became rife material for comedy. From John Stewart, Saturday Night Live to David Letterman were all getting laughs making fun of the alleged bomber, his name, his looks and his failure to succeed. Secretary Hillary Clinton was on "60 Minutes" saying she would come down hard on Pakistan if any links were to be established. Senator Joe Lieberman proposed introducing a bill that would strip residents of their citizenship if any link to terrorists or organizations deemed dangerous by the United States government were to be found, and so on and so forth.

What emerged from mere observation as a lay person who is not swept by printed words or sound bytes, was that Faisal's actions- if indeed he is the man behind the bomb-were that of a distraught man who had lost his bearings and resorted to violence to make a point. A list of such people in recent American history runs long. His motivations could definitely have been influenced by Jihadist rhetoric and other anti-American propaganda which is unusually wide spread outside the continental United States. But whether he was a trained assassin, sent on a mission, seems highly unlikely. A person on a mission in today's world, would have sat in the SUV until it exploded or would have been a little more skilled at putting together an explosive device.

Faisal Shazad joins a long list of men with a Muslim name, who have been detained for either hatching terror plots or coming close to executing one, as in this case. Every time some one is put away by the FBI, politicians come out of the woodwork proclaiming that there is a very present threat of people attacking the United States because they are jealous of "our way of life". Even President Obama did not stop short of expressing this sentiment this time. I guess it resonates with the masses and helps demonize the unknown and the unfamiliar. I always wonder what they mean by "our way of life". The rationale that was given for illegally invading Iraq and Afghanistan was largely because "our way of life" was under threat. Does "our way of life" mean consuming to the point where we endanger the planet, does it mean dominating the planet with economic and military force or does it mean our cherished freedoms. Most often the word "freedom" is evoked in conjunction with this phrase. The terrorists hate our "freedom" and therefore we must protect it, even if it means going to war in far of lands destroying other's freedoms under the guise of bringing freedom and democracy. The people who actually threaten "our way of life" are the very politicians who do the fear mongering and shred the constitution when it is convenient. Under the Bush administration "our way of life" was grossly violated for eight years using the Patriot Act. Innocent people paid with their blood and continue to do so and these home grown suited terrorists are yet to be brought to justice. When Senator John McCain speaks out against Miranda rights and Joe Lieberman attempts to sign into law a bigoted bill and the state of Arizona passes a racist law, that is when "our way of life" is threatened. But that threat is never seen as dangerous by a majority as it is violent only to the powerless.

The Jihadist terrorists who attack the United States do so because they have a bone to pick with the United States government and its checkered history. They see the United States government's double standards to hold on to global power and influence undermining the very democracy it touts. They see the US making deals with dictators and illegitimate undemocratic regimes as it has done recently in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are keenly aware of the US and its relationship with Israel and how it never comes through in solving the Palestinian stalemate while millions live in sub-human conditions in the newest concentration camp called Gaza. While there is no excuse for the violence terrorists resort to, to make themselves noticed and heard, by the same token as Arundathi Roy says "there is no terrorism like state terrorism". While the extreme Jihadists given a chance would like the whole world governed by Sharia law, I think they are really not attacking us because of the freedoms we enjoy. They are attacking because they envision us to have criminally overstepped our boundaries, and they can find good reasoning and rhetoric to use that argument as a powerful message. A message people are willing to give their lives for. It is a battle of interpretations, of how they see the world, and the way the west wants the world to be.

As Faisal Shahzad gets his day in court, another terrorist with a Muslim name Mohammed Ajmal Kasab is sentenced to death in an Indian court for killing innocent civilians in Bombay in 2008. People in India are lining up to hang him, as if to take part in a noble cause. The cycle of violence continues, as more join the ranks of Jihad, motivated by violence and extreme ideology. The end of this battle is no where near as nations gear up for a response with even more violence. The "eye for an eye" method rages on while innocent people stand exposed in the line of fire. Where and when it will end no one knows.

Lance Orton the unassuming T-Shirt vendor was called on by the President and thanked for spotting the smoking bomb and alerting the police in Times Square. He was proclaimed a hero. To stop this scourge and the cycle of violence the President would also have to call on people who are on the opposite side of the divide, what he would say in that call, only he knows. As he is the peacemaker with the prize. The alternative is not working and will not work. It is what it is.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Screen Junkies

After seeing my face in the mirror in the morning, the first thing I look at is my laptop screen. As the thermometer creeps along downloading twenty messages, anticipation of that one life altering set of words increases. Only to realize all I have received is junk. Then I visit the Times and BBC website for a cursory glance to catch up on the latest mass killing far from home, and then check my second email account. Then I look at my BlackBerry/iPhone to see if I missed that all important midnight call. I plug my ears with an iPod and am on my way to work. I enter the subway to join the seemingly growing population of headphone rigged fellow passengers, all staring at screens of different shapes and sizes, lost in a bubble of their own. Only programmed to jump off at their designated stop. At work I move onto my desktop and start my all important routine, banging away at my keyboard as if conducting a symphony. Fifteen minutes later I check my Facebook page to see if an old friend dropped by. Then launch my IM window to see if anyone urgently wants to communicate. Before I know it, its lunch time and I am sitting at a table all by myself chewing down a healthy salad staring at CNN on a giant flat screen announcing the next great gadget to hit the streets, the iPad. People have been lining up since the day before to get this new mobile teat. I get back to work to see if my Apple stock went up. At the end of the day at the gym I am walking alongside people trying to keep their cholesterol in check, while typing on their Blackberry. I wonder, are we really communicating when we are communicating all the time?

I cannot remember the last time I put pen to paper to communicate in the form of a letter. Except for signing an odd check or scribbling a note on a hallmark card, pens seem to lie on my desk gathering dust. With an impressive array of gadgets to choose from to communicate, the most popular still seems to be the email. "Electronic Mail" a process by which with a tap of a key one can transmit words at lightning speed through an invisible network of computers across the world. Thus reaching someone just a few feet away or few thousand miles away. I remember engaging in this act in the early nineties in college and thinking the skies had opened up and god was speaking to me. Today email, Facebook, Instant Messaging (IM), Skype, Twitter and a host of other inter-phases glue us to screens of different sizes keeping us in a seeming state of constant contact.

The thought of being in constant contact makes us feel we are part of a community, but are we really a part of a village? Is the world really shrinking or are we fooling our selves and buying into the marketing campaigns of an electronic age. Yes the technology is trans-formative, much like a telephone was in its day, but has it now reached a point where its just becoming redundant and cluttered? Social networking sites catering to every subculture the human race can think of, crop up every second in cyberspace, beckoning people to plug in. As a result for many, privacy has become a thing of the past. To be naked is to be real. There is a bubble for everyone. There is room for the pornographer and there is space for the pious. All you need is a screen to stare into and digits to tap away. In the age of the wikipedia the world is at your finger tips, literally. What you do with it and how much you rely on it defines who you are as an individual.

Japan, South Korea and the United States are some of the most wired nations in the world. Does that mean they are communicating better than other nations therefore are they more productive? Has this proliferation of technology into every seeming aspect of life improved the way we live? Was the age of the telephone and telegram really the dark age, sort of a pre-industrial beginning to an information age? It is hard to decisively say so. While data is moving faster and therefore things are getting done at a more rapid pace, we are piling up mountains of e-waste and people are still getting lost despite their GPS. Since we can get things done faster there is an illusion that we have all this time to devote to other activities to better our lives. But when you pay close attention, it seems like things have become more frenetic round the clock. The screens have created the "working from home" phenomenon which has no boundaries. It seems like we have become slaves to screens, developing an attention deficit when we are not plugged into one. Therefore you must have a screen in the taxi, in the bar, at the gym, in every room in the house, so one feels safe, and one with the world, therefore productive.

Technology defines a generation and shapes the next that is to come. It is upto the individual to decide the role technology plays in their life and the extent to which it shapes them. But more and more it seems that choice is becoming limited giving rise to a lifestyle that is pervasive. It is okay to interrupt a conversation if the cellphone rings. It is okay to have the TV running at all times, even when you are not home. It is okay for your children to stay glued to movie screens in the car and ignore the landscape outside. It is okay to be in your bubble even when you are surrounded by humanity. As we find more and more screens introduced into our reality, and everyone is "online" all the time, finding that "offline" moment becomes more of a struggle.

My daughter who is twelve, has been trying to persuade me to get her an "iPhone", "Apple laptop" and or her own "Facebook" page. The usual her friends have one so she must have one logic is put into play. She already has a cell phone where she receives a text message every other minute from friends she sees everyday. She also has her own email account. When I ask, why "Facebook", is it not enough to be able to call, email, chat and text anytime, her response "well with "Facebook" I can always stay in touch, I can put up photos, I can make new friends and stay in touch with the old etc." While I know I can only hold out for so long before my rationale will be labeled old fashioned, in the age of "sexting" and free access to porn my fears run deep. But then again this generation will be shaped differently, with screens over riding all authority and conventional forms of knowledge in the social networking temple of the internet.

In the Disney/Pixar animated film "WALL-E", the human race in exile from planet earth are portrayed as an obese disconnected lot, plugged into an illusion of reality created by the constant presence of a screen in front of them. While it is true that for most of humanity, this is a distant vision, as their "underdevelopment" shuts them out from the benefits of the information age. But for the "developed" world it seems like we are fast approaching this vision in subtle ways. If to live means to unplug, if to stop and smell the roses means to consciously disconnect, then the question we must all ask is where are the "screens" taking us? So when you trade the tactile weight of a book to that of an iPad, don't be sold by the wonders of it, but ask do I really need another "screen" in my life? It is what it is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The American War Movie

All the wars America has been embroiled in, have brought pain, profit and global influence to a nation that does not seem to get enough. From the war against the natives of this land, the Civil War to the present Iraq and Afghanistan war, conflict has defined and wounded the soul of this nation for more than two centuries. Yet America cannot relent. Always finding new ways to further its power and influence across the planet through the compelling use of its military might.

Wars have scarred the psyche of this nation by sacrificing its youth. The same wars have brought back huge profits to the military industrial complex, the bedrock of its economy. Another contribution the wars have made, is provide rich material for writers to spawn an impressive volume of books, movies, music, video games and television shows which have captivated the minds of a global audience. Cinema for one through its century long existence has shaped how the world sees America's wars and how America sees its men and women engaged in the act of war.

Movies made on the subject of war have brought us stories of heroism, horror, histrionics and angst in vivid detail. If one were to count the number of movies made in Hollywood on the subject of war since the silent era, the list would be grand. War contributes to the full range of human experience, from life unto death and all that comes in between. War brings out the monster and the hero in its participants. Therefore the "theater of war" is an obvious place to go to find stories that can sear the human imagination. But it is always the hero that is given more credence as it is complicated to confront the monster.

Charlie Chaplin's silent short film "Shoulder Arms" (1918) set in France during World War I is one of the earliest films to deal with the subject of war as a theme. From that to the recent Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker" the subject has been tackled in every incarnation possible. From comedy, drama, graphic horror to science fiction America's wars have rewarded film makers with rich material to make statements about the human condition and the insanity of its actions. Since the 1930 classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" movies about war have often been handsomely rewarded with Oscars, underscoring the importance given to movies about war and by creating a genre of its own.

Off all the wars, The Second World war and the Vietnam war have been the favorites of the Hollywood establishment. Partly because of their dramatic outcomes. The second world war was the "just war" which America won and saved the world from annihilation. The Vietnam war brought home the horrors that were much too real to bear and unpopular for the reasons we all know today. While films made on the Vietnam war by far more honest and potent in their depiction ("Full Metal Jacket", "Apocalypse Now", "The Deer Hunter", "Platoon", "Tigerland") the ones made on the Second World War in general seemed embellished ("Casablanca", "The Longest Day", "Kelly's Heroes", "Where Eagles Dare") even though the horrors were no different. As a result the second world war is still being milked for stories by filmmakers like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as they feel it was never explained in all its dimensions. Their latest epic television installment "The Pacific"- similar to their earlier contributions "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan"- tries to set the record straight once again by showing the horror juxtaposed with heroism. The message here, lest you forget wars were and are a gruesome enterprise. There are heroes, but they are mostly dead ones and the ones who survive to tell the story become one by default.

While other warring nations such as Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Japan have made considerable number of films dealing with the subject of war they come nowhere close to America's obsession. In the last two years alone there were more than a dozen big and small films made dealing with the subject of war. Quinten Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" set during the second world war and Katharine Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" set in Iraq, grabbed the most attention this year.

Almost all American films about their wars are always from an American point of view. And in most cases from the point of view of the white male soldier on the front line who is bearing the brunt of America's heroic or unjust dirty excursion. In any case the boot on the ground is most often the hero even if he is tormented by the dirty business he has to engage in to stay alive. If there is any villainy it is always attributed to secondary characters who are jealous or are plain evil and are trying to bring the good man down. The enemy most often is primitive or caricatured or is always the shadow we don't quite understand and simply don't care to. There are only a handful of films that have tried to see the war from the non-western point of view. "Letters from Iwo Jima" by Clint Eastwood, is one recent film set during the second world war that sees the war from the eyes of the Japanese. It was even made in the Japanese language.

The rationale for this is simple. It is the Americans who are making the films about their war so obviously it is going to be from their point of view, as it is only their point of view that is reported and therefore that is what they understand. But when these films drop on the rest of the world like a juggernaut, they seem to skew the way the world views America's wars. And there in lies the problem.

The recent academy award winning film "The Hurt Locker" attempts to a look at the Iraq war from a very personal American point of view but still succumbs to some conventional Hollywood cliches. It was clear right from the start that a decision was made by the storytellers to make subtle comments on the politics of war, by only focusing on its human toll. "The Hurt Locker" is the story of a soldier who's job is to disarm roadside bombs before they detonate and kill American soldiers and innocent Iraqis. So marches in our American hero putting his life on the line for the greater good of humanity. And he does it with no less flare than Rambo or Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He is macho, brash, fearless, determined, obstinate and damn right good at what he does. He has disarmed over eight hundred bombs in his short career. And that is what heroic Americans do in times of war, they put their life at risk to save the world and only they know how to do it best. And much like Rambo our bomb squad hero cannot function in the sane world so he must return to the insanity of war to get his adrenaline fix. As usual the enemy is a shadowy entity, every Iraqi on the street is suspect and no one can be trusted. While the film does capture the precariousness and unpredictability American soldiers face in Iraq, as they are an occupying force, the Iraqis just form an ever threatening backdrop. Much like Iraq and Afghanistan in reality has become to most Americans, a mere backdrop.

In many ways like the films that came before it, "The Hurt Locker" tries to capture the psychological toll wars take on its executors but falls way short in its impact. Films like "Full Metal Jacket", "Apocalypse Now" and the 2006 French film "Indigénes" did a far better job in capturing the damaging nature of war. "The Hurt Locker" has a thin plot and fails to justify adequately some of the motivations of its characters. Other than the fact that we get an exciting documentary style look into the world of a bomb squad on the front line. Gender politics aside, then why the critical acclaim? Is it another case of a movie being given credence as it embodies the angst of a war weary nation or was it just time to award a "war movie" to punctuate this generation while the wars are deeply unpopular and still in progress. As if there was ever a "popular" war.

It is a known fact that the military has always seen Hollywood as its propaganda partner. At the same time it has known to be less cooperative with films that are critical of the military establishment as in the case of the recent film "In the Valley of Elah". The military has always embraced Hollywood where it seemed fit by providing unfettered access to its hardware to be used as sets. The film"Top Gun" had a full airplane carrier at its disposal through the shoot. In 1999 Steven Spielberg received the military's highest civilian honor from the Pentagon for making "Saving Private Ryan". The very establishment that orchestrates the wars gave an award to a filmmaker who claims to make anti-war films. Can there be anything more ironic?

Wars will always be a treasure trove of subject matter. Stories of human suffering always make good entertainment, the only thing that deters Hollywood is the box office. "The Hurt Locker" was the lowest grossing Oscar winner ever. Hopefully one day in that treasure trove there will be a movie where the Americans will play the role of the backdrop and the misery and brutalization of the so called "enemy" will be the forefront. Only to show there is no such thing as a "just war" all there is, is just violence, death and mayhem. And I hope that film wins an Oscar and not in the foreign film category. It is what it is.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Where is the President we elected?

A year in, if there is one thing President Obama can say he has categorically accomplished, is escalating the war in Afghanistan and increasing the controversial drone attacks in Pakistan ten fold. The drones seem to terrorize and kill more innocent people than the alleged terrorists they are supposedly meant to. Now with the "surge" and push into Taliban controlled territory underway the White House waits to declare the operation a success. On the domestic front lofty goals of passing a revolutionary Health Care reform bill, dealing with a record deficit, putting a stop to Wall Street's debauchery, closing down the abhorrent Guantanamo Bay prison camp, holding the past regime accountable for war crimes and criminal violation of the constitution all seem to have fallen by the wayside. Partly because of a corrupt, inefficient, impotent, partisan congress that puts politics before the good of its people, and also due to a lack luster performance by a leader who treads too softly in a jungle of wolves.

Historically the congress has always behaved the way it does today. There is nothing revealing about it. There have also been moments in the past when the country has been as polarized as it is today. The Civil Rights act of 1964 was filibustered a record 54 days before it was passed thanks to President Lyndon Johnson's legendary craft at maneuvering the congress. The only thing that is unprecedented today is that we have a black president in power. That definitely is an underlying factor for the stalemate we see in certain quarters of the congress. But what seems to be missing in President Obama, is his ability to navigate and manipulate the congress to get the people's work done. He seems to rely too heavily on his earnest, honest image to bring about a bipartisan solution to everything, which as we know has failed time after time. Or maybe he just does not have the metal that we so fervently were lead to believe that he did. The message that is being sent through all the noise and the anger being absorbed and propelled by Fox News and the Tea Party cult, is that the President is incapable, inept and bad for the country. The democratic party and the White House are not helping either. They are not able to capitalize on the gains the President has made on "keeping America safe". Under his presidency more terrorist threats have been foiled than in all the eight years under President Bush. 95% of Americans are enjoying tax cuts even in a time of financial crisis. These achievements are not cutting through due to the mismanagement of the message by the White House and the party. A historical symptomatic problem of the party and its inability to unify.

What is also appalling is that on matters of war and invading other nations the congress historically has always come together promptly without much debate or deliberation to give the President a go ahead . On the contrary on matters of real progress and change for its people on a fundamental level, the congress has always stalled and delayed. For example there is a dire immediacy to pass Health Care reform, as people are truly suffering as the economy continues to sour. If and when the Health Care bill passes it is only expected to take effect in 2014, while the decision to invade Iraq was arrived at in record time.

What essentially comes through as a result of the dastardly failings of the congress in a time of monumental crisis, is that this so called democracy is essentially being run by a single party and not two parties as we are lead to believe. The party in question is the "ruling-class" which predominantly rules from the center. Ralph Nader said "America is run by a single party with two wings" and that assessment seems to ring true today. We elect politicians hoping they would put our immediate needs at the top of their agenda, but their behavior time after time shows that they put the needs of the corporations first. Lobbyists from the big financial firms are storming Washington preventing congress from passing the tough legislation that is needed to curtail Wall Street and its risky behavior. And once again they have been stunningly successful. Goldman Sachs posted record profits even in this climate by engaging in the same risky behavior that brought the whole economy to its knees. Only this time from a position of competitive advantage. Things on Wall Street are business as usual. One year later, this is by far this administration's biggest failure. Obama's campaign pledge of keeping special interest groups out of reach seems to have failed miserably. And now he runs the risk of those same corporations not doling out the money needed for his party and its campaigns.

On the international front, in his first year President Obama spanned the globe dropping bouquets of peace and extending overtures of friendship to Iran, North Korea and the Islamic world, for which he was awarded a Nobel peace prize. He made impressive speeches asking nations to follow the ideals of democracy and respect human rights and the rule of law for everyone. He championed nuclear non-proliferation and has made it his priority to reduce and rid the planet of nuclear weapons. But in action he passed a record defense budget, escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, refused to address issues of political freedom, human rights and democracy on his visit to China and snubbed his fellow Nobel colleague the Dalai Lama not once but twice. The first time he refused to meet him and the second time he did it in the most muted fashion possible, all to appease the Chinese who have the United States in a strangle hold, controlling 800 billion dollars of its debt. Even if it was a token gesture and did not mean much, in contrast President Bush awarded the Dalai Lama with a Congressional Gold Medal. Even in this equation it is obvious that China needs America as much as America needs China, so it is a mystery why America cannot substantially confront China on matters of human rights, aggression and political freedom. The sad truth is that in this new year of the Tiger, it is China's roar that is heard loudest around the globe, and it is to it's dominance that America
clearly bows today.

Maybe it is premature to ask where is the president we elected? After all it took sixteen years to bring America to this state and so it might take as many to rise back up, or maybe there is no rising back up. What is expected though expeditiously, is a promise of strong steps taken in the right direction in a time of crisis. If the current trend persists a president that still enjoys popularity runs the risk of rapidly loosing all his capital. If we do not see a radical shift in the mood of this nation, if there is no glimmer of "hope" that was promised, then what little was gained is lost. One does wonder if the optimism candidate Obama embodied was just a projection of the hopes and fears of a disenfranchised and dejected populace or was it truly "change" that is yet to come. While President Obama has restored dignity, flare and poise to the office that has made him a poster boy for the planet, if he cannot deliver the radical change his supporters so desperately need and look to him for deliverance, November will stunt his presidency forever. It is what it is.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Method to its Madness

My last four weeks were spent in India, in a city down south called Hyderabad. This is the city I was born and raised in. I left Hyderabad eighteen years ago in search of America. Ever since, I have returned every couple of years from my current home in Brooklyn, to reconnect with my roots. My trips back are always complicated and conflicted with the inevitable question always posed, whether I could return to live here again-in urban India-and feel at home.

India is announced almost every other day in newspapers and on TV globally as "BOOM TOWN" nation. Even President Obama in his State of the Union address, highlighted India and China as two nations to watch as they transform into economic giants. While there is some truth to it and it is reflected in the rampant consumerism you see in the rapidly expanding urban middle class, there are other indicators that are far from being reached that would qualify India to be evolving into a "developed" nation. Clean air and drinking water for most is a luxury, poverty is sizable, corruption is ever present, social unrest is always round the corner, quality public services are in short supply and collective social responsibility is limited only to its expanding gated communities. Yet there is a method to this madness, and therefore India survives and thrives as a functioning democracy, decade after decade, falling, failing and rising to be reckoned with.

If one were to pick a metaphor to describe the state of affairs in this nation, any city roadway would paint an apt picture. The traffic in any urban city in India has always been in a state of complete chaos. It has steadily gotten worse with the astronomical growth in vehicular traffic, a reflection of the increase in purchasing power. People for some reason on the street do not see any purpose in obeying any rules, unless there is a policeman involved. Traffic lights seldom work, and when they do they are seen as an irritant. Then there are vehicles of all different speeds on the same road. From the rickshaw, mopeds, motorcycles to the buses, all fight for space on the same narrow street. While today you see, Benzes, BMWs, Bentleys and other gas guzzling mammoth machines shunned by the west, the fact of the matter is the roads have not changed at all. They are still bumpy, in disrepair and full of potholes and speed breakers. The new cars offer air-conditioning without which driving is an ordeal and injurious to health as the pollution is out of control. At every traffic stop one is stormed by destitute beggars and street vendors trying to eek out an existence selling tissue boxes and other cheap Chinese made knick-knacks. Sidewalks do not exist so people have to walk on the same street as the traffic. Having to cross a street as a pedestrian, is putting ones life at risk. And so the urban Indian street becomes a vivid representation of the struggle being waged inside the psyche of this great nation.

The person walking the street or riding a two-wheeler feels it is as much his/her street as the person driving a shiny Benz. And there in lies the problem. While India has achieved phenomenal growth since the economy liberalized two decades ago, certain fundamentals have not changed. And whether they will change is a question I ponder, every time I am here. I feel there is no cohesive vision for the future to level society in terms of basic human rights and dignity. It is a difficult proposition to fundamentally bring about change in the social and cultural behavior of a people, who have come to accept the apathy of the system as a constant companion. Navigating it is the only way to exisit. Class-ism, caste-ism, regionalism, ethnic division and disparity still seem to tear at the nation, and most people put up blinders to avoid confrontation in plain sight. A sense of collective social responsibility seems to be missing across all levels of society as a loss of sense of history seems to plague a people. On the other hand consumerism creates a greed that is insatiable, putting it in direct conflict with its spiritual foundations. It seems like there are two Indias that exist side by side. One that has money and aspires to afford an American lifestyle, and the other that struggles with inflation and just about makes ends meet. The India that wants to be America is the one that is celebrated and projected into the consciousness of the people via television, films, popular youth culture and everything else. All the while corruption becoming the mainstay and an ethical existence becoming harder to achieve as money becomes the only defining factor of ones success and status.

While corruption is not native only to India, it just happens to be in your face here. It runs from the bottom to the top touching every one in its path. While in America, the corruption seems to exist only at the highest levels. As America struggles to pass a Health Care bill and fails to fix Wall Street's debauchery, the cancer that grips its political and business establishment at this juncture, shows its devastating impact touching everyone in its path not just at home but around the globe. A nation that prides itself to be developed and wealthy, and a defender of democracy and freedom, in some ways is no different.

The over arching mood of any nation defines the people that live in it. One does get a skewed vision of reality when viewed through the eyes of the media, but the view one gets from one's car window sometimes is more telling. Hyderabad was a place I once loved, I am ambiguous about that love today. The people here are near and dear to me, but the city seems to be slipping away. Whether it is just the change I see that is not to my liking or whether it is the nostalgic self that yearns to see the past that is gone, in my eyes the corruption of the soul of the city is hard to escape from. Within one's four walls the culture is rich, irreplaceable and heart warming beyond compare. The generosity of its people is unmatched but why this does not translate out into the public sphere is a mystery. The Hyderabad of today is dotted with malls, hotels, fancy restaurants, trendy living spaces, software companies and multiplexes. What are gone are the wide open spaces, the culture of respect and the recognition of its rich history that made it a unique city. Every place has to change, and change is inevitable, but change that does not value the past is oppressive.

During my stay in Hyderabad, my father-in-law, to whom I was very close, met with a sudden end. He was an honorable professor who stood tall and believed in the dream Jawahar-Lal-Nehru envisioned in his youth. All his life he refused to bribe anyone and resisted all forms of corruption and lead an ethical life. It so happened that it became my responsibility to record his death at the local municipal office in order to receive his death certificate. The irony of it all is that I had to bribe an official to receive his death certificate in a hurry. 

Despite all of the above, despite all its flaws and frustrations there is something very present, tactile and sublime about this nation. Even if I don't physically live here, Hyderabad will always be home.
It is what it is.