Outdoor sports break: 60 miles north from NYC on the Old Put

As a Westerner venturing into the wilds of the East, it takes time to appreciate the region’s natural beauty. No crags here, no canyons, no shimmering plains. No sweeping views that some overripe Victorian would have called “both terrible and sublime!”

Today, I took the bike path that follows the Old Put some 45 miles north of the Bronx all the way to Brewster in Putnam County (nearly 60 miles north from my house, which I only point out so that you know what a beast on the bike I am).

Out north of Elmsford, you begin to learn about the spirit of the Eastern woods. It is hard to describe, because it lacks that Occidental splendor factor. Sure, it’s the peak of autumn, so the colors are great — but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter. Mile after  mile, it creeps on you. And when I returned and lay down exhausted in my bed, I closed my eyes and, without effort, saw myself projected through deep yellowing forests, the trees like wispy old fingers, a gray sky, a winding path strewn with rusty leaves, going on and on.

Below, crossing the bridge at the New Croton Reservoir.




Nostalgia with purpose: Reflections on a New Yorker’s essay about leaving her city

Back when Rebecca Wolff was a kid, New York was so real, man, you guys don’t even know!

I liked eating this essay in Guernica, but then later I got a stomach ache.

As an expat native San Franciscan I identify a lot with her pining for a realer time — which is why I liked the essay’s flavor. But this writing exhibits what is in some ways the worst kind of it-once-was-realer nostalgia: the self-absorbed longing for the aesthetic of a harsh time, rather than for the lost possibilities that an earlier era held for a now-forgotten segment of the people. Through this privileged prism, being real is defined by running around snorting blow and making out with bouncers. The thing is, for most of the few people I know who were really in the grit of 70s-80s New York, I get a sense of being shell-shocked as much as anything.

Back then was other things, too. It was the taxi driver I spoke to who grew up in East Harlem and used to be scared to leave his house. It was feeling menaced by the evil lurking in the bushes when you jogged across a Queens park on your way home from 8th grade. It was AIDS, it was crack, it was the Son of Sam, it was a lot of people who didn’t make it to 2013 to talk about what a time of creativity it was — so I understand from conversations, and infer from my own San Francisco recollections.

It’s mostly true that all those people running around unironically ironically wearing “Obey” T-shirts in SoHo are Chumps, and probably I am too. But being cool is not really the point. The point is those bodies getting stepped over, which Wolff mentions but which don’t seem to elicit a more political perspective.

I appreciate Wolff’s essay, and it’s definitely worth a read. But the nostalgia to which I pledge allegiance is a different one: a longing for long-gone communities, uttering of the names of those who came before, who lived too fast or too close to the edge to tell their stories.

In the streets outside my house in San Francisco, members of these communities squared off, pulled weapons, revved the engines of rusted El Caminos, repped motorcycle clubs, covered wood-paneled station wagons and front yards with plastic figurines and schizophrenic sculptures, smoked glass pipes in stairwells, serenaded me to sleep with musical worship on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. It was not always an easy place, but in it was a promise of something greater. Saudades de vocês.

To acknowledge the raggedness of those times is not to give these cities’ current trends of chumpiness a pass. But in both New York and San Francisco, it is partly the solipsism of the reigning brand of nostalgia that has kept us from mounting a convincing counternarrative to those who would argue that the story of these cities has been, simply, progress.

In any case, have a read and let me know what you think.

So yes, it’s true. New York City used to be cool, and now it’s not. It’s not at all. It is boring and dismaying and stymied; everything potentially cool in it is overwhelmed and inflated and parodied and sold. You can’t even love the absurdity of it because it’s too painful and we cannot be allowed anymore to callously love, for their absurdity, systems that oppress and impoverish. New York is a giant sinking pile of crap compared to what it used to be. Literally sinking, now that the waters rise so much quicker, the winds blow so much harder than even scientists predicted. Lately I like to imagine that I will have the privilege of seeing in my lifetime real estate values in the city plunge wildly, freefall, as Climate Events force visitors to admit that they pay top-dollar to perch on coastal landfill.

In New York City these days I see loads and loads of formerly brilliant people—gender champions, visual whizzes, start-up ho’s, crackerjack dancers, actors, journalists, and chefs—who have stayed too long at the Fair, to use Joan’s wistful archaic turn of phrase, are baffled and internally conflicted as to why they can’t admit that New York sucks so hard. Why they can’t draw the proper conclusion: That if they are to work all the time in order to pay super-high rents that make it impossible for them to do their art, if they never have a chance to see the people they came here to see, who are also less brilliant now that they are muffled by the smog of wrongness that hangs over New York (thicker than the smog of smog that hangs over Los Angeles, another city that’s not even half as cool as everyone who’s moving there says it is), if they are living somewhere that is giving them less than they are giving to it, then they should leave. They should find somewhere to live, perhaps collectively, perhaps not individually, perhaps they should try to make sense of this whole living-somewhere thing in a way that doesn’t pretend, as New York City does, that we are all ruthless rock stars with amnesia and aphasia and lifetime amniotic sacs.


Old San Francisco (Bernal Heights 2013)

A Dungeness Crab City

I complain a lot about the changes occurring in San Francisco, and I stick by those complaints. There is much being lost in the fading past of this “Dungeness crab city,” and certainly not all have benefited from the transformations. Reading this captivating article, however, I am reminded that there is something bigger happening as well. And along with being a time for a lot of greed and silliness and even mourning the losses, it is a moment of great energy and creativity, which seem too big to be stopped. Let’s make the most of it. If there’s any truth to the sentences below, maybe the energy can be harnessed for something bigger than profits… political consciousness, social engagement, new economic priorities… maybe…

In 1966, Hendrik Hertzberg, then a young Newsweek reporter in the Bay Area, wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism”:

The hippies, much more numerous than the Beats ever were, accentuate the positive. . . . Like the Beats, they are dropouts from the conventional “status games,” but, unlike them, have created their own happy lifestyles to drop into. “In a way,” says Jerry Garcia, twenty-four, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead and one of the cultural heroes of Haight-Ashbury, “we’re searching for respectability—not Ford or GM respectability, but the respectability of a community supporting itself financially and spiritually.”

The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on life style over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts—only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area today. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

From Nathan Heller’s “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s New Entrepreneurial Culture Is Changing the Country,” in The New Yorker. 

My friend’s family survived the Westgate attacks. He shares his personal and political reactions.

Since Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my good friend Sachin Gathani about the tragedy at Westgate Mall in Nairobi. This was not only because he is a good friend, a Kenyan citizen, and an insightful analyst of Kenyan affairs. He was also personally affected: his family members escaped from the mall after spending harrowing hours hiding in the parking lot, where they had gone to see a children’s cooking competition. (Sachin currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, but flew home to Nairobi almost immediately when the attack began.) In light of that, I found particular value in his carefully considered perspectives on the violence, which struck so close to home. We decided to to collaborate on this Q&A so that I could air some of his views.

Q: Your brother, sister-in-law, and 3 year-old nephew escaped Westgate Mall after being trapped for hours during the attack. Can you tell me a little about what happened, and how they got out?

My brother and his family were actually leaving Westgate Mall having taken my nephew to the play area and also to observe a children’s cooking competition. They were in the car park on the top floor when they heard gunshots and instinctively ran with a group of people to a corner where they huddled behind a few cars. They were stuck in this position for a number of hours and witnessed several people who were killed as they tried to escape the indiscriminate hail of bullets and the two grenades that were hurled at others who attempted escape. After about 3 hours, the military personnel managed to fight back the terrorists and formed a protective cordon to enable them to escape through a back entrance of the mall. While I am very thankful that they were unhurt, I know that the searing images of innocent bystanders getting killed in front of them will have left an indelible mark on them. No three year-old should have to witness that.

Q: It is obviously a huge relief that your family escaped, though I am sure they are very shaken up. Four of your acquaintances who were at Westgate on Saturday did not make it out, though. Can you tell me anything about that?

I have a very bittersweet feeling right now. While I am very relieved that my family made it out alive, I know a few friends that did not and were killed immediately during the attacks. I don’t think the details are necessary but as you can imagine it was quite emotional as the news of their deaths slowly trickled in through the course of Saturday and Sunday.

Q: Those of us glued to our computers through this entire episode are seeing a lot of amazing pictures of Kenyans coming together to volunteer, donate blood. I know you’ve been involved in that too. My sense is that you’ve channeled some of the emotional reaction to this tragedy into community action. Do you think the same is true for others?

It has been really humbling to see how the community has come together to volunteer, donate blood, feed the military personnel and medical volunteers, raise money for victims, etc. I can’t recall a similar moment in Kenya’s history whereby I have seen such solidarity except immediately after 1998 US Embassy bombings (which killed at least 212 people), which really shook Kenyans and brought them together as one people. And there are several communities I can refer to here: the Asian community that has mobilized their community volunteer service groups, the Muslim community that has condemned the violence which was purportedly committed in the name of Islam, the broader Nairobian community that responded and waited hours in line to donate blood and our brothers and sisters in cities like Nyeri and Kisumu who also donated blood and money for their fellow Kenyans in the capital. So, yes — and I think it’s an accurate way to frame it – I do think that the Kenyan community has channeled their emotional reaction into community action. My concern is with the aftermath. Once some semblance of normalcy returns to Nairobi after a few harrowing days, how are we then going to channel the lingering emotional reaction of this tragedy? There is a danger of a reactionary response by our government and by our communities.

Q: Kenya has been through so many divisive events in the last few years, among them communal violence linked to the elections in 2007. Do you have a sense of what this moment means for Kenyan national unity? Might the community reaction we’re seeing with volunteers and the like translate into a refreshed sense of purpose for the political class — even a squashing of some differences?

I think it is too early to define this as a watershed moment in terms of Kenyan unity – we have been here before with the 1998 bombings. But let us also recall that less than 5 years ago, our post-election violence pitted neighbors against each other and resulted in over 1,100 deaths. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Westgate tragedy has reawakened Kenya, as one commentator I read put it. The words of President Kenyatta were refreshing when he expressed how humbled he was by the generosity and selfless sacrifice displayed by Kenyans that he felt even more committed to ensure that his government delivers because that is what its citizens deserve. But it is important – and maybe controversial – that we put Westgate into context and examine why this tragedy has had such resonance across the country and the world and what it may mean about a refreshed sense of purpose by the political elites. I am cognizant of the problem of framing this as a tragedy that primarily affected middle-upper income Kenyans and wealthy expats, given the number of Kenyans of various working class backgrounds that also lost their lives. But it is also accurate to say that this tragedy has affected the elite of the Kenyan polity in ways that previous Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya did not. In 2011, the first known Al-Shabaab attack, was a bombing at a blue-collar bar in downtown Nairobi and at a bus terminal. Other similar attacks occurred through 2012 in the Ngara neighbourhood of Nairobi, a nightclub and sports bar in Mombasa and several other smaller attacks in the predominantly Somali neigbourhood of Eastleigh (Nairobi),  Garissa and Wajir (in the north near the Somali border). While Westgate was much larger and more prolonged in terms of the terror inflicted than previous Al-Shabaab attacks, the reality is that the number and profile of casualties inflicted in the past few days (the list includes President Uruhu Kenyatta’s nephew, Ghana’s most famous poet and intellectual leader, a prominent Australian architect and his Harvard-educated wife, a Peruvian UNICEF doctor, Kenyan businessmen, young Nairobi professionals and several diplomats) will definitely result in a decisive action by the political class. How this reaction manifests itself, I am not too sure but it is something we should be wary of.

Q: You also told me you are hearing a lot of “scary, reactionary” comments from people. It reminds me of some of the things that we heard in the United States after 9/11. Can you explain that more and give some examples? As someone who was directly affected by this tragedy — lost friends in it, had a near miss with your own family — can you empathize with such reactions? What do you have to say to people are advocating retaliation?

I understand where these reactions are coming from. I may have been guilty of it too when I first heard of my family’s ordeals and later about my friends. I’ve heard reactionary comments denouncing the Islamic faith for such barbarism, calls for ‘smoking out the Somalis’ from Eastleigh, demanding a final military solution to the Somalia problem, building walls along the border, etc. And this brings me back to my earlier point. I hope that we do not quickly forget the solidarity we have demonstrated and revert to nationalistic jingoism or religious persecution that targets and vilifies people of Somali origins or Muslims. Similarly, I also hope our political class use this as a moment of reflection as they consider a sober and strategic response.

Q: After 9/11, grief-stricken Americans reacted with anger and many supported military actions which later seemed to have questionable effectiveness, or turned out to be huge mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. At the same time, it caused many Americans to become a bit more engaged and aware of their country’s role in global politics, and the way they were perceived in many parts of the world. Do you think there are any analogies to be made with Kenyans — especially as regards to their country’s role in Somalia?

With all due respect, I think Kenyans were already a very politically-engaged people and I don’t think the Westgate episode will have the same effect of political engagement that 9/11 did for Americans. Kenyans, and many other people from the developing world, cannot afford the luxury of ignoring our country’s role in geopolitics because we are probably affected more directly by geopolitical machinations than other Western countries. With regards to 9/11, there is a danger of using history by analogy but the comparison – and lessons learned from the reaction – to 9/11 is fair. Firstly, I do hope there is a better and more nuanced understanding of our role in Somalia and the history of radical movements like Al-Shabaab, starting with the removal of the Islamic Courts of Union in Somalia by Ethiopia/US and the subsequent radicalization of the extremist elements that sought to defeat the intervening foreigners through any means necessary. Understanding the history and context of these problems will allow us to chart a political solution, and not only a military solution. Secondly, what we can learn from 9/11 is that Kenyans need to be more vigilant about the over-reach of the executive on security-related matters, which is understandable and likely given what has just taken place.

Q: What can people do to help at this point, both inside and outside of Kenya?

For people outside Kenya, I would say continue supporting people you know who are dealing the loss of loved ones or are dealing with trauma that they may have faced. I personally have been touched and overwhelmed by the support of so many friends and acquaintances around the world who have reached out to check in on how my family and I are doing. For people inside Kenya, I know that the hospitals and Kenya Red Cross blood banks are at full capacity given the remarkable display of generosity over the past few days. We have also raised more than Ksh 57million [around US$ 700,000 and counting] via M-pesa donations for the victims. Going forward, I just hope that we can remember this moment of what makes Kenyans Kenyan as we enter into this critical period of reacting to Westgate and demonstrate our ability to move beyond reactionary responses.

Q: Any links you want to share to things you’re reading/watching/paying attention to as you follow this crisis?

There are plenty of articles and blogs on the internet and newspapers recounting blow by blow accounts of survivors’ ordeal that demonstrate the horror inflicted at Westgate. But these are a selection of the items that I think are some of the best reflections of what happened and implications for the future:

Kenya Reawakened by Gathara — one of the best pieces I’ve read on our response and patriotism

What Next for Kenyan Policy on Somalia by Ken Opalo — one of Kenya’s best political analysts summarizing future Kenyan policy on Somalia

Senseless [and Sensible] Violence: Mourning the Dead at Westgate Mall by Mahmood Mamdani

Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, and the Folly of “Otherness” — What Al-Shabaab Revealed about Us by Charles Onyango-Obbo — Ugandan writer on framing the Westgate tragedy

Making Sense of the Chaos in Kenya by Nanjala Nyabola — Kenyan grad student’s initial reflections on the crisis

Sachin, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions, not all of which can be easy to ponder with the situation so fresh. 

Thomas Friedman teaches us history

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.

The Case for Reentry Courts in California

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 void at the center of the anti-Islam video crisis

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.

(Sunday evening music break): This blog is not dead…

…It’s only stunned, tired and pining for the fjords (like Monty Python’s parrot).

Taking a break from blogging is like not immediately responding to a heartfelt letter from a friend. The longer you wait before writing back, the more monumental your response needs to be. Finally, the task becomes too daunting, and you don’t write at all.

And with so many significant current events (Wikileaks), my alma mater’s career services office attempting to block discussion of such news, thought-provoking articles, etc., I’ve been in exactly that position. Lots to say, but where to begin?

Let’s start here, with a song I am feeling tonight from Tanzanian artist Diamond.

Mbagala is his hood; I think the video adequately translates the story. (He’s a poor boy, empty as a pocket…) The only thing I take issue with is that Lil Weezy impression at the end. Otherwise, love it.