This week, the website of the Atlantic published 34 photos by Edward S. Curtis, the tireless documenter of American Indians who did the bulk of his most famous work at the beginning of the 20th century. Whatever else these images may be, they are stunning. Have a look.
The gallery got me thinking. In anthropology — the discipline in which I majored and which I took quite seriously in my undergraduate studies — Curtis is, like many of the first Americans who tried to document rather than annihilate Native culture, a contentious figure. You can get a sense of the controversy on Wikipedia, but the gist of it is this: Curtis’s stage-managed, idealized photos disguised the abysmal material conditions of many Indians at the time, and did damage to the spirit as well, promoting the suffocating, one-dimensional trope of the Noble Savage.
There really is no legitimate refutation of these criticisms. They are accurate. They also probably describe how the photographs were consumed at the time they were published. One imagines a Euroamerican in an Edwardian parlor thumbing through the glossy prints from The North American Indian with a kind of false respect, looking out a window where children play Savages beneath a tree, and where acres of rich, verdant, utterly stolen land stretch in every direction. Such a dishonest empathy for vanquished peoples on the part of their tormenters can seem almost like the final insult after centuries of holocaust. Now that we have done the dirty deed of your subjugation, we will soothe our own souls with a distant and abstract appreciation for the idea of your existence — on our terms, and twisted to our satisfaction.
And yet, I find the photos not only beautiful, but also precious. The faces in them do not lie, and with the proper eye we can read lives in their lines and creases. Not just tears as non-Indian audiences usually presume Indians of this and most eras were shedding, but also love, laughter, wisdom, anger, and all the normal experiences and emotions of humanness that owe nothing to race, state, tribe, tradition, fixed culture, or any of the other deceitful notions cooked up by expanding empires in the modern era.
Take, for instance, this image of Sitting Owl.
In this man’s eyes I see a sense of humor, and also a gaze that is considering the photographer — and somehow, even the viewer deep in the future — with all the scrutiny and interest the camera is directing at him. I also see someone who knows how to play his cards close to his chest, and who can be hard when necessary. When we are reminded that the costume is likely at least partly contrived for the photo, that Curtis probably asked for a particular expression, and that a small pox epidemic reduced the Hidatsa people to just 500 individuals two generations before this image was made, then we begin to imagine the life of Sitting Owl in great detail, and we begin to see this face as being composed of stories, personality, creativity, and the brilliant vitality of a kindred human mind.
It’s in viewing these images with a sense of context that I think they have value. It makes me thankful that Curtis took them, and even more so that their subjects agreed to avail themselves. It also makes me sad to think of the deeply corrupt social circumstances in which the pictures were taken.
If I could design an exhibit for these images, they would not just be accompanied by a short caption, or a placard with a bit of information on when and where they were taken, or even a pamphlet with a few essays. They would be mounted on big walls with text surrounding them, spiraling out from the edges and filling the gallery. Biographies, memories, screaming criticisms, quiet poetry — it would all need to be there.
Then, maybe we could say that enough time has passed that we can appreciate this photography, as we try to understand the often hideous history that surrounds it.
On Tuesday, I had the chance to listen in on historian Gregory Mann and French researcher Roland Marchal discuss the situation in Mali, in a panel on the Columbia campus. Some of the big questions about Mali’s future and the road to stability there remained unanswered, but the discussion, which extended long past its scheduled hour, underlined the fact that the situation in Mali is exceedingly complicated, and far from resolved.
That may not seem like a revelation worth reporting. But for those trying to fit the Malian tumult and French military campaign into the convenient narrative of a preexisting framework — whether as an obvious case of the benevolent deployment of European force to stop a state from failing, or just another instance of neocolonial intervention disguised in humanitarian garments — this statement has to be the starting point of the discussion. The disintegration of Malian internal affairs is begging for fresh ideas, and challenging some of the best-equipped thinkers on Africa. One surprising result is that some voices hardly known for being pro-intervention have taken less rigid positions — or even endorsed the French campaign, albeit with major caveats.
Whatever one’s reaction, one comment Gregory Mann made on the panel seemed especially important to me. “Intervention is not a solution,” he said. “It changes the problem — hopefully in a way that makes it easier to deal with.” He’s written more on that here.
This is another statement that might seem pretty obvious. As self-apparent as it should be though, the thinking of drone-happy US strategists ignores this. Too often, the American approach is to smash a problem with missiles and hope that’s the end of it — or to invest an infinitesimally smaller amount of resources in feeble diplomatic efforts after the fire stops raining.
For Mali’s sake especially, I hope the French are a little smarter. There’s no real reason to think they are. At least for now, though, we can acknowledge one positive outcome: the march of an unpopular and tragically destructive takeover of Mali’s north has been reversed. A Malian friend spells out the hope and obstacles the country now faces (things in brackets are my additions):
I share [the] principle that Africa (or any other region) should be policed by neighbors helping each other out.That being said…. I think the French were extremely courageous to come help the Malian forces. For one thing, the African Union and the regional organization (ECOWAS) have been doing little to help Mali out… The country was under embargo and was being pushed to negotiate with Al Qaeda affiliated groups. It has received so little help that the army doesn’t even use blank or real bullets during training exercises (you have to see it to believe it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkFBjBqWzAc). The Malian state is still very unstable with the former coup leaders holding on to power.Over the past year or so, this only allowed militant groups to recruit/train to subdue the rest of the country. They have millions of dollars in ransom money. When they started their new offensive, the (still!) ill equipped and trained Malian army was losing the war, and if not for the French, the Jihadists probably would have been in the suburbs of Bamako by now. This would have been an even bigger humanitarian disaster and probably turned Mali into another Somalia and Al Shabab. Right now +500,000 Malians are refugees or internally displaced people. [See UNHCR figures here.] Bamako has close to 2,000,000 people.Another thing is that most of the West African countries are as troubled as Mali was a year ago. To this day, the African forces have not made it to Mali. In my opinion, it took a lot of courage for the French to jump into this mess. Mali is not much of a geo-strategic country and not an oil/uranium producing one either.The French clearly didn’t want to be involved and waited until the very last moment. People see them as liberators, not a colonizing force. [....] This is a country where +95% of the people are already Muslims but they are still having their cultural heritage destroyed by Islamist movements. [....]Now that there is a clear air superiority, I think the long term solution should reside with the Malian and African forces. It should be relatively easy to liberate the cities. [....]There is so much left to do… We still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, this past week was a good week for Malians (the post D-day equivalent for one of the poorest countries on earth).
Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that actually has three too many red pieces and not enough blue and green. Tedious, time-consuming, enraging when you realize there is no solution. Increasingly, this is what I feel like trying to mount an organized rebuttal to — or analysis of — Thomas Friedman’s columns on the Middle East.
His latest gem, “Iron Empires, Iron Fists, Iron Domes,” takes us on a lurching tour of the Levant, from Antakya to Syria to Tel Aviv. There are sentences to agree with and to disagree with here, but in general I’ll bet its Rubik’s Cube of metaphors is a tile or two short, and I’m not going to fiddle with it for too long.
But the part where he talks about the history of ethnic and religious coexistence in the Middle East does warrant a closer look.
At first glance, his account looks like a step up from his classic Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he mostly ascribes modern Middle East conflict to the cultural vestiges of primal desert society. Ultimately though, the step is not a big one. After explaining how the “iron empire” of the Ottomans, with their “live-and-let-live mentality” made minorities comfortable enough not to rock the boat back in those days, Friedman describes the post-Sykes-Picot scene:
When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.
This sort-of-right passage includes a fundamental misconception about Middle Eastern (and African history) that I hear repeated all the time, everywhere from casual conversations to the mainstream media. Friedman is right that colonialism royally screwed up the region, and created problematic states. But the reason these states didn’t work well is not that they included different ethnicities and religious groups. That idea suggests that people of different backgrounds are incapable of living together in a functioning, stable polity.
The diversity of the Middle East’s nascent states in the 20th Century was a strength as much as a liability. As Friedman correctly notes, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and a mosaic of languages and cultures coexisted in relative harmony for many centuries before European colonialism. The problem with the new states was that the political model they inherited from European colonialists — winner take-all nationalism in which political power was tied to ethnic and religious identity — was contrary to the region’s longstanding diversity. (It is not surprising that Europe, in the wake of centuries of religious wars and ethnic consolidation, foisted such an inappropriate system onto the Middle East.) The subsequent failures have little to do with borders cutting across supposedly more deeply ingrained tribal or religious identities. Much more important to failure has been the inadequacy of the architecture of the state (see Lebanon), and the factors of foreign occupation, military intervention, and oil politics.
The deficiencies in Friedman’s analysis remind me of those in much writing on African conflicts, such as Mali’s. Africa Is a Country’s criticism of that reporting earlier this year could apply here, too:
Al Jazeera … has been the place not to go for Mali coverage … [there have been] a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?
This misconception is fundamental because it treats ethnic and religious variety in the Middle East as inherent incompatibilities — ancient, unquenchable hatreds — rather than social differences that the politics of the last century have turned into potential fault lines.
This is important because if we accept that diverse Middle Eastern peoples can only live together under an iron fist, then the only logical future for democracy in the region is some preliminary segregation and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Friedman’s “ethnographic map.” (Maybe someone can locate that map for me in some exhibit on passé anthropological concepts?)
I don’t accept that this is the only path. Cosmopolitan societies are just as viable in the Middle East as they are in North America. Their history of diversity is the proof of this potential, and a vision that stands a chance of taking us past the impasses and killing of today must recognize this.
California needs solutions to its unconstitutional prison overcrowding. One part of the response is realignment – in which responsibility for nonviolent offenders, among others, is shifted from the state to the counties.
The problem is, counties don’t have the jail space either, and they are scrambling trying to figure out ways to either accommodate more inmates or keep people out of institutions. For the November issue of California Lawyer Magazine, I reported on the reentry courts in California. It’s a system that some hope will provide alternatives to jail time for parolees. Have a look here.
The irony of the uproar connected to the now infamous anti-Islam video is this: almost everyone who has involved themselves in it has voluntarily taken on a role as grotesque, poorly scripted, vacuous, and disconnected from reality as the absurd characters in the cheap YouTube clip that is nominally at the heart of the crisis.
The video itself is the kind of sordid but forgettable drivel that gunks up plenty of corners of the Internet, and would be utterly inconsequential in another context. Having forced myself to watch the clips — they are certainly hateful but also less than mediocre, far less — it’s plain that the real story is not the video, but how it has been promoted by rabble-rousers like TV presenter Sheikh Khalad Abdalla (who has been called a sort of Egyptian Glenn Beck), and those like his dependable foil, Islam-hating Florida Pastor Terry Jones. John Hudson of The Atlantic Wire explains this well here, and also makes the excellent point that the mystery of the day — the identity of the real producer of the clip – is a sideshow barely related to the uproar.
And yet the main question murmured around American water coolers today seems to be, ”Why are they so angry about a movie?” The answer has little to do with the clip itself, or with belief. What we’re likely seeing is the savvy manipulation of public sentiment, under the guise of religious dignity, mostly for domestic political gain in the countries where there are demonstrations or worse. It’s too early to ponder the particular details of how this is happening — and commentators everywhere are venturing opinions at the risk of contradictory revelations in the next days and weeks — but in broad strokes, it is clear that these originated as political actions, not spontaneous faith-based responses.
There is lots of raw anger toward the U.S. in the Middle East still, despite what your tour guide at the Statue of Liberty told you about America being the inspiration for the Arab Spring. It may have something to do with, say, 10 years of a bloody war on terror that has fractured societies and occupied countries and … well, a lot of other things besides a 15-minute video with mind-bogglingly crappy production value. That anger is an amorphous commodity that is available for use at the hands of skillful populists.
Thus, the out-of-control flag-burner is one role that people have taken on in the crisis, and the amateur provocateurs who made the movie are undoubtedly thrilled and surprised at the impact of their handiwork. (They may or may not realize that they are essentially in league with their supposed nemeses — other extremists who would also like to move us all irrevocably toward a worldwide war on religious lines.)
But other responses have been equally one-dimensional. If you’re an American, a perusal of your Facebook feed will show that at least a few of your acquaintances are freshly astonished with the “barbarity” of Islam. Others condemn the filmmakers as the real cause of the violence. Still others respond that, however bad the video is, what’s really on the line is our free speech. Shouting matches erupt; accusations are thrown; positions become more polarized.
While the movie is undoubtedly condemnation-worthy, and also protected in the United States by the First Amendment, all of this gives the producers(s) far too much credit. The abject inferiority of their project is apparent to anyone remotely familiar with contemporary media. This is how, one must guess, they wanted us to react.
It’s all a bit sad. People everywhere are retreating into caricatures of themselves and fulfilling each other’s worst stereotypes. In doing so, the protesters, their denouncers, their apologists, and most especially those who would cast this as a clash of religious values, have become poor players acting out a script written by idiots.
As such, we’d all do well to take the whole conflagration with a bit of skepticism, and recognize the real political aims — both domestic and international — of those who are fanning the flames.
Because if everyone buys into this tale’s sound and fury, things could get a lot uglier still.
It was published last weekend, but I was too busy to post it! Here’s “The Global Imagination of Protest,” by me and Anya Schiffrin, my co-editor for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring. Take a look:
NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.
As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome. Read more.
Today I spent the afternoon at Rockaway Beach, one of the most “natural” places you can reach on the subway in this crazy city. Once you get over the stifling heat, the interminable ride on the 2-A-S, and the infernal racket therein (excited beach goers escaping hot apartments can be rambunctious), the broken glass and occasional condom in the waves… Wow. New York is amazing, and nowhere do you see the vivacity of this city more distilled than on this strip on the edge of the Atlantic, a kind of collective front stoop for a city with not enough space.
Pregnant ladies in bikinis, back handsprings, tattoos both stylish and ill-advised, I’ve seen it all today.
But to be honest, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I remembered just how special Rockaway Beach is. I had just walked back to the subway shuttle that runs, Spirited Away-style, through the middle of Jamaica Bay and some rather grody marshes. The day was turning to evening, and high cumuli that had spat rain and made blue penumbrae above the apartment blocks were clearing. I ran into the last car of the train, where a policewoman was holding the doors. I set myself up in the opposite door with my duffle bag and the djembe I was caring around (long story). The car was hot and still — kids whose days had been too long, and their parents, whose days had been even longer.
Then the policewoman left, the doors closed, and the train lurched forward. A dad in the corner seat leaned forward from his family.
“Yo, turn that radio on!” he shouted. And the car was flooded with music. Specifically:
1. Dile (aka Otra Noche) by Don Omar
Within 30 seconds, people throughout the car stood up and began dancing, from middle-aged men in t-shirts and jean shorts down to their calves, to someone’s grandma across the aisle. Some younger women stayed in their seats and moved their shoulders to the beat. The dad who gave the call for the radio started passing styrofoam cups full of something that made people suck air through their teeth. He walked over to talk to “Mr. DJ” to exchange a handshake; DJ explained that a guy owed him money but he had him load up his iPod with 30 gigs of music instead.
I couldn’t help bobbing my head just a little. Actually, I didn’t even know it until the dad called me out.
“Hey, when you gonna play that drum?” he asked.
“No man, I’d just mess it up!” I smiled sheepishly.
“But I saw you moving — you feel the music in your veins, huh?”
Ha. I did.
Yes, New York, your rhythms are in my veins somehow, and this decidedly non-lowrider-influenced Sunday Night Oldies Show is dedicated to you, and all your fine people. Here’s what else I’m listening to tonight.
2. No Woman No Cry by The Fugees
Sure, The Fugees are no Bob Marley, but when I listen to their version of this song, sitting in an apartment with a fan on trying to fight the 80+ degree Manhattan heat at 1 a.m., I hear the heartbeat of this vast metropolis and the yearnings of 10 million apartment lights on its ragged edges; the breath of the city:
“I remember when we used to rock/in the project yard in Jersey./And little Georgie would make the firelight/as stolen cars passed through the night.”
3. 911 by Wyclef featuring Mary J. Blige
I love this city. That doesn’t mean it’s good for my health. Even in its gentrified form, it’s crowded, polluted, lonely — the individual is so dwarfed — and instills one with the dangerous and absurd illusion of being at the center of the universe. Watch this video and realize that this collaboration between two singers from Yonkers and Brooklyn-NJ, respectively, is as much about the painful love for a sprawling serpentine city as it is about a cursed romance. Maybe they’re one and the same.
Here’s one more for the road:
4. Dile al amor by [the Bronx's own] Aventura