Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Debate this, not this . . .

In his recent book, The Twilight War, David Crist recounts the story of Suq al-Gharb, a town located south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Militias of all stripes - Christian, Druze and Shia - moved into the void . . . General Tammous ordered the Lebanese army into the fray to reassert Lebanese government control and also tp protect the routed Phalange. He committed his best unit, the 8th Brigade, a multiconfessional unit (though its were majority Christians) trained by American special forces and under the command of an indecisive and panicky Francophile general named Michel Aoun. (p. 118)
Up until this crucial moment in 1983, the United States had committed to a limited, peacekeeping posture in the Lebanese Civil War. The battle for Suq-al Gharb changed the calculus. Then special Presidential envoy to the Middle East, Robert McFarlane sent a panicked cable to Washington urging tacit and immediate U.S. military support for the 8th Brigade, fearing that the Syrian faction would win the battle, and that the Soviet hand would extend to Lebanon via it's "client" in Syria. Not only had McFarlane under estimated the Lebanese army's ability to repulse the attack, he wrongly envisioned the entire conflict as a field in the Great Game of the Cold War. It wasn't, it was essentially a local conflict, granted that the "local" refers to the entire Levant.

Crist goes on to describe how the final decision was shifted to the local Marine Commander, Colonel Timothy Geraghty. Geraghty eventually sided with McFarlane, and the U.S. launched naval artillery attacks in support of the - primarily Christian - Lebanese Army. Any pretense to neutrality was lost. Writers such as Crist and Thomas Friedman believe that the attack on the U.S. Marines barracks, and the death of 241 Marines, was a direct result of that fateful decision in Suq al-Gharb.

It's important to remember this tumultuous moment in history when thinking about the contemporary Middle East, and particularly the remarks made by Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Romney has accused Obama of not doing enough in Syria. I am sure there are people who support Obama who do not think he has done enough in Syria. The question that remains conspicuously absent is, of course, what would you have Obama do? I have written on this blog before that, at risk of sounding like minimizing the challenges in Libya and Egypt, Syria remains a completely different beast. To understand just what sort of fray we are talking about here, we must first view the problem through the right lens. The Arab Spring and subsequent uprisings is not simply the Arab people yearning for freedom, it is the undoing of a system of borders and political arrangements that are unsustainable in the absence of dictatorships. This is the final undoing of the colonial legacy in the Middle East. The fact is, simply stated, that the endgame in Syria will affect every country in the Levant, and will have consequences for Israel, Iran and potentially Saudi Arabia.

So, is my recommendation to say "Its too complicated, so we should do nothing"? No. However, I actually do think that we are wiser to wait and see. Direct support for the Syrian opposition will embolden the Hezbollah and Iran, who have both chosen to sink or swim with Assad. The potential for disastrous mission creep looms large, considering that the combination of refugees, foreign fighters and popular revolts in neighboring countries (and increasing friction with Turkey)would inflame the tinderbox that is the Levant, and would likely draw the U.S. into a protracted and costly endeavor.

Regan pulled out of Lebanon after the bombing of the Barracks. The god-like Republican president also lost an Ambassador on his watch, along with several top-flight intelligence experts. I am curious as to what Romney thinks he could accomplish. I will gladly stand accused of being "soft" when suggesting there is nothing we can do to make this situation better. However, I think Romney is debating from the wrong side of this thing. He says that the Iranian people, for example, long for freedom from an oppressive regime. Is this true? We all saw the Green Revolution and its infant steps towards dissent. However, how often do we forget that beyond the northern suburbs of Tehran, Iran is a very conservative country, and for most Iranians, the biggest gripe is the economy, while the nuclear program provides a sense of pride in a nation that inherits a history that includes imperial glory and playing the fanatical underdog.

We need a debate on the Middle East that faces the uncomfortable facts, that sometimes there is no winning to be done. We must face the fact that in the decades-long absence of effective national narratives, Islam powerfully fills the vacuum. Despite our greatest aspirations, we need to accept the Middle East that is, and not the one we want.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Why I'm addicted to HuffPost Live . . .

The simple reason that I keep logging on to HuffPost Live remains that it is a wildly exciting experiment in webby, social, user-generated media. For anyone who works in tech and new media - like myself - certain concepts and ideas have assumed the place of gospel: make it social, make the user a part of the thing, not an observer of the thing, curate but don't editorialize. HuffPost Live gets this, and embraces it, warts and all.

At our startup, we have people working in numerous locations in the country. The Google + hangout is our conference room. Its not always perfect, you get slowdown, dropped connections and of course, you can hear when the trash trucks pull up just outside my "office" window. HPL's embrace of the hangout is bold, both as an embrace of an imperfect technology, and of tech that more people - both media and tech professionals, and everyone else - are quickly adopting. HPL has its finger in the pulse.

Of course, the big sell with HPL is the participation of the audience, whether as community "pundits" who make their way through the screening process onto one of the discussion hangouts, or via the chatbox and tweet features. The big debate in the world of the user-generated web centers on those who question whether or not the wisdom of the crowd is actually all that wise. HPL's is selective enough, they are curating on air contributors that provide intelligent, broad and passionate discussion. There is a sense that while these people aren't "professional" pundits - like the usual suspects on the cable news shows - they are people who are perhaps more in touch with the nitty gritty of the issues they discuss.

Its not perfect. I am not particularly enamored of the tone of some of the hosts. I don't want to call out anyone in particular, but sometimes you get a sense you are watching college kids who are well versed in the Simpsons/Conan O'Brien school of humor. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it comes off as distracting and slightly amateurish. millennials probably won't care (for me, electronic music is the Chemical Brothers, not Skrillex, so sort that out). It may be a deliberate effort on the part of the staff to make it fun and young and irreverent. I believe its possible to be serious and intelligent without being elitist and stuffy, but I will admit that perhaps this criticism is based on affectation more than anything else.

When I finally try to get on the air, and hopefully succeed, perhaps I can drop a Family Guy reference. In the meantime, I will watch HuffPost Live with an eye towards its bold embrace of innovation in an industry that desperately needs it. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

My Broken Heart

I have a daily routine that involves reading several news sources, both foreign and domestic. Its part from professional necessity and part out of a natural curiosity about the world, a habit I probably picked up by watching my father read his newspaper daily with rapt attention, as if for a small span of time, nothing was more important than what was in the paper. Usually, I will pick through the headlines and take notes on anything of interest, particularly as it may relate to a future blog post or topic for further research. Today, I am shocked and pained to see familiar images and read familiar words from my life used in connection with senseless tragedy.

A lot of commenting on articles being written about the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mention how peaceful the Sikhs are as a people, and I couldn't agree more. Our faith demands of us a certain kind of gentleness. Our first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, was a mystic and he revealed to the world that the true revolution in human life came from understanding that it wasn't the worldly forms that matter,  but the underlying unity. We are all the same, we are all children of the same creation, and to it we would return when our soul's journey came to its end.

Of course, like many religious minorities, our history too often is framed in violence. Growing up, we attended a gurdwara in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. As kids, my cousins and I would go to the small library - no more than a broom closet back then - and make jokes and generally act like kids do. On the walls above our pre-adolescent covered heads hung paintings depicting some of the darker moments in our history: the torture and martyrdom of guru Arjan Dev, the great sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the murder of the sons of our beloved Guru Gobind Singh.

As I got older, I did what a lot of teenagers do; I rebelled. I stop going to the gurudwara and basically gave up any connection I had to Sikhism. It became a sort of minor footnote in my life; I was Indian, and yeah, my parents were Sikhs, whatever. It wasn't until I got to college and tried to get "back to my roots" did I really come to understand Sikhism. Besides the spiritual and philosophical dimensions, I learned about glorious - and often violently bloody - times in our history. I read about the great admiration with which British military leaders often spoke regarding the warrior spirit of the Sikhs during the Imperial period. I learned the true meaning of our symbols, how the kirpan - a small ceremonial sword - stood for justice and defending those who had no means of defending themselves. I realized that being Sikh wasn't simply a religious identity, it is a quasi-ethnic identity, which I think can best be compared to being Jewish. You may not go to synagogue, you may not keep the Sabbath, but for the most part, you don't stop being Jewish.

The apex of my first trip to India as an adult came when we visited the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism. A powerful, gracious and beautiful humbling. In the presence of the devout who variously hope that prayers of supplication come true, to those who seek nothing but to stand in the light of divine truth, something deep inside you feels as if an alchemy takes place, making a part of you shine like the domes of the sacred shrine.

And of course, there the museum dedicated to the 1984 massacre by the Indian Government - Operation Bluestar - that sought to overthrow an alleged separatist guerrilla movement. Images depicted the damage done to the shrine and the surrounding structures, the corpses of many heroic Sikh Shaheeds who died in defense of the faith. Another bloody frame for the hall of historical remembrance.

Today it all comes back to me. Not even 24 hours from the shooting, it is too soon to make sense of things. Too soon after Aurora to perhaps ever make sense of either tragedy. Aurora made me angry and confused; why does this keep happening in this country? Oak Creek brings with it a different kind of sadness. I can't help it, I know I am supposed to be a global citizen, and regard any human loss of life as a tragedy for all of us. But sometimes its hard to shake the sounds, the colors, the scents and the experiences that are in fact the very content that has defined your own  existence as an immigrant or a minority. Its too close to home, precisely for the reason that for so many immigrant communities, it is in our homes and places of worship that we can truly express and practice the culture from "back home," as we struggle to assimilate and become part of the "broader American family," as our president called it.

Another picture on the wall, another moment to remind us of the wisdom and sacrifice of those who came before, and those will have yet to be born. Waheguru ji ki Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Syrian Knot

With the massacre in Houla, and the discovery of 13 people who had been apparently bound and executed near Deir az-Zour, the grim reality of the deteriorating situation in Syria has taken center stage across the globe. The diplomatic isolation induced by the expulsion of Syrian diplomats in numerous countries also seems to suggest a turning point in the conflict. Even the Russians couldn't stay silent. Meanwhile, many commentators now openly speak of the failure of Special Envoy Annan's Six-Point Plan. With the brutality coming to life - and diplomatic channels being closed - the question looms with a long and stark shadow, what is the way forward in Syria?

The problem with Syria is that its not just a problem with Syria. I wouldn't try and suggest that Libya or Tunisia present "simple versions" of post-Arab Spring situations. That would begin to trivialize the struggle, the sacrifice, made by the citizens of those nations in their resistance to and success over tyranny. Furthermore, I am confident that a detailed study of either case would prove that the implications of whatever comes next in Tunisia and Libya impacts other nations, particularly in the Maghreb, and perhaps ultimately in Southern Europe. The problem with Syria, however, rests in the fact that any outcome will change the strategic calculus for the entire region.

Its no wonder that Turkey's Erdogan was quick to make a pronouncement and condemn Assad, urging him to move quickly to reform his country and address the will of the people. It is similarly no wonder that Hezbollah chief Nasralllah's unusually tone-deaf and miscalculated appeal for patience from the Syrian people was met with such criticism; the Shia leader doesn't usually get these things wrong, and his public support for Assad fell completely flat. Turkey will have to deal with a refugee problem at best, and an emboldened Kurdish Movement at worst, but more on that below. In the case of Lebanon, recent reports indicate that the turmoil in Syria has already reached across the border. The countries fates are inextricably linked, and it is more than likely that Nasrallah will lose his patron in Damascus. Its hard to tell how that may affect the balance of power in Beirut, but clearly Hezbollah showed its hand when Nasrallah asked the Syrian people to give the dictator Assad more time..

And its not just the Hezbollah that has benefited from the graciousness of Assad. Already, there are reports of Hamas leaders fleeing Syria for Egypt and backing away from Assad, while perhaps strategically positioning themselves with a future Ikhwan government and president in Cairo.

The Arab Spring had previously pressed Jordan into reform, though some feel it has come too slowly and without significant result. Refugees will be a problem for Amman, as well as a renewed push for democratization. The refugee issue will likely spread to Western Iraq as well. However, for Iraq and Turkey, the question of the Kurds presents perhaps the greatest challenge. A good friend who works with representatives in the Kurdish Government in Iraq makes the point that despite expressions of pan-Kurdish unity and national aspiration, the reality is often more splintered and complex. Syrian Kurds often consider themselves simply Syrian Kurds, with little to do with Kurds in Turkey or in Irbil. However, that doesn't mean that a transnational Kurdish moment could not arise, especially given that what we may ultimately be seeing in the region now is the slow dismantling of the colonial legacy, including its stilted dictatorships and national boundaries.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not a Dark Age, maybe just a dim one.

The digerati believe that we don't need to memorize things anymore. Well, maybe some things, but not most things. The reason should be apparent to anyone from my generation, and perhaps just taken for granted by kids. Its because the machine will do it for you. Think Wikipedia. As the apostles of the new age have said, its not vital to know the date of the Battle of Hastings. you can just look that up. What is important, is that the Norman Conquest influenced English culture by bringing in a permanent French influence etc. Just Google it.

Similarly, it has been argued that we should stop teaching algebra in high schools. The rational here is that whatever simple operations algebra helps us with in everyday life - like paying a tip perhaps - can be done on a smartphone. Instead, what we should be teaching kids to do is to program to design and develop the tools (software and hardware) that are going to continue to power innovation, efficiency and productivity.

It seems to me that the implication of this is two fold. First, we are talking about basically abandoning certain assumptions about education, that have hitherto been thought of as "classical education." In the case of algebra, the refrain from students for decades has been "why do I need to learn how to do this. I am never going to use it." And while that was most likely true, there were some good reasons for it. the most important of which is that perhaps as a freshman in highs school, you just don't know any better. You may find after a year that you have a knack for math and science and that you in fact want to become an engineer. The education system was designed in some ways to allow for that self-discovery. Of course, others argue that it also made students suffer for struggling with subjects for which they simply had no affinity (this is a subject I will tackle in a future post).

This is the other aspect of the classical education that we assumed valuable on its face for so long. And that is, simply put, that learning for learning's sake is a fundamental good. You learn about literature, not because the school expect you to become a writer, but they expect you to be able to make sense of all the artifacts of culture you may encounter in the world. I think that this assumption is now threatened and its continued influence may be crumbling.

What I don't know is whether or not its a bad thing. The second implication contained in the idea of essentially uploading vast areas of human experience to the machine is that we may end up living in a world that is not dark, but at least dim. I am delving into the realm of the speculative, but bear with me. The idea I am trying to express is that we will still have civilization, we will still have individuals with highly technical expertise, but we will lose a lot as well. What we consider great and good is simply a product of a particular moment in time. In one hundred years, the idea of a Beethoven or a Picasso or a Frank Lloyd Wright may seem quaint, when the value system, language and discourse of that future is considered.  I use the examples of artists because I think that a society based on instrumentalist, individually adapted education and the economic system that it seeks to support, would likely reduce the artistic bandwidth of the population overall. Artists, writer and composers will still exist, but most likely only through a system of patronage, or more likely will be more akin to designers of  various technical products.

Those who see the change coming, who can read the writing on the wall that signals the end of the classical education system will lament the loss of a certain kind of human ingenuity, and may well look back at the industrial age as a golden age. Civilization will go on, but some human knowledge will be lost. Not lost because we have forgotten, but lost because we had turned our responsibility for it over to the machines.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Left, Right and De-centered

Making sense of the world always presents certain dangers. Last night my partner and I discussed various philosophical frameworks that use the word "post" in their primary formulations. Post-modernism, post-materialism, post-liberalism; each carries with it some notion of both a break from what they proceed from, as well as containing the challenge of preventing. or at least eschewing, totalizing views. We are told, on the surface at least, that we must always remain vigilant regarding essentialist statements, and must constantly maintain that anything we can say about the world is contingent, and never to be assumed as taken for granted.

The style of post-modern analysis, of course, extends beyond the jargon of the ivory tower, and allowed for the emerging multiplicities of various minoritarian narratives and subsequent political and social movements. However, the great challenge has been, and remains, how to integrate these positions into a more comprehensive worldview, or system of worldviews that negotiates the position of the minor with the power of the major. The problem is two fold; on the one hand, there is the problem of an infinite regress of contingent propositions, the "nihilistic" tendency that post-meta narrative has oft been accused of. On the other hand, there is the problem of relevance, where by novel formulations of "oppressed" groups remain fully embedded in hegemonic capitalist discourse.

At this point you well may be accusing me of useless jargon, so let me try and put some of this in terms of "real-world" examples (forgive me that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis, but a starting point, this is a blog post after all). A simple example of the regress problem can be seen in large scale in the idea of Balkanization. It is not simply the historical and political process of the breakup of the Balkan states, but the notion of fragmentation. Its a question that will undoubtedly emerge (if its not already) in the ongoing breakup of oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Balkanization gained momentum from the notion of discrete groups emerging as communitarian movements arrayed in opposition to "totalizing" constructions (Yugoslavia). Similarly, one can view Iraq, and other Arab nations, as artificial political constructions based on post war geopolitical considerations rather than natural affinity of the various communities contained therein. To paraphrase Dr. Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, there is no Arab state, it simply is not there. What we find instead is a strategy against imposed discourse - the idea of "Iraq" or "Syria" - and instead a sectarian vision with shifting allegiances that more often than not transcend literal national boundaries.

Of course, in the case of the Middle East, the urge to "make sense" imposes a new meta-narrative on the situation. As I have written here and elsewhere before, one can view the emerging situation in the Middle East as the aligning of forces into two major camps: The Saudi-directed Sunni world, and the Iranian-led Shi'a world. This of course, helps us to make sense of the top-down geopolitical machinations of regional competitors, but it fails to account for further fragmented communities. How many countries should there be in the Middle East? Surely the Kurds deserve their own homeland, but what about the Marsh Arabs, or Alawites? Does the hyper-communitarianism of the post-modern age have any rational basis for limitations on self-determination?

The Western Liberal response generally comes down to projecting onto these fragmentations the idea of totalizing liberal systems. In other words, as long as all of these communities have access to the major democratic institutions - electoral, legal, socialistic - then no one should fear for their liberty. However, even we progressive minded liberals often neglect the implicit ideology present in our own nobly regarded institutions. For the liberal West, the problem isn't the totality of the system, its that occasionally it goes bad, and it requires reform. the Occupy Movement surely isn't a monolithic thing, and I know that some within it have spoken about socialism or anarchism as ways forward. However, in its early inceptions, some elements within Occupy resisted the temptation to declare the movement "anti-capitalist," and held to a more modest proposal of reform of the lobbying system, the electoral system and tax law. Thus emerges the question of relevance; the 99% may not be the 99% because of certain practices within an otherwise egalitarian narrative, but precisely because the system requires  that there be a 99%. In this case the movement has simply identified the structural relationship that defines its existence, but it remains embedded in the political economy and logic of late capitalism, and perhaps this is because the temptation to reassert an alternative meta-narrative (Marxism, anarchism) is resisted in favor of respect and tolerance for liberal institutions that simple require some tinkering.

To the right of this, is the totalitarianism of God's kingdom. I believe that we are living in a moment that is defined by the ascendancy of a sort of global conservative ideology that is rising from the ashes of the current (though perhaps not complete) failure of the left to make sense of the world. The vacuum has been filled by the God Men, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. This class of power excels at making sense of the world, and in a time when many feel that the end of the world is easier to achieve than the healing of the world, God Men have a ready audience. It is thus incumbent on the left to not only represent the needs of ever fragmenting communities, but to envision a world in which common values can unite disparate groups without a top-down reductionist narrative that forces affinities, rather than nurtures affinities that already exist.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Chirping into the Aether

I signed up for Twittter awhile ago, used it briefly, and then sort of abandoned it. I suppose I just didn't "get it." Lately, my motivation to engage with it has returned and I find myself once again chirping away. I am still not sure, however, that I get it. In fact, I am almost certain I don't.

I suppose the first problem is I don't actually have anything to sell. I would love it if I could use Twitter to bring readers to this blog, but I am afraid of the success. Now, you might think it an insane notion. However, my suspicion is that I would end up being forced to feed the Twitter beast just to sustain followers and redirect them to my blog. I want to blog, not be my own social media marketer. If I produce a couple of blog posts per week, I suspect I would have to fill the rest of the time with tweets about my shoes, or the neighbor's dog, or even -god forbid- how great a turkey sandwich that was. Otherwise, the followers would forget about me.

Maybe not. Maybe my writing is so wonderful, people are so eager to read what I have to say that they wait with bated breath for my twice a week tweet and link. Its possible. But it seems more likely that - given the crowded attention span of modern life - I would have to work to elbow into your mind-space at every opportunity.

I am not a celebrity, obviously, and so I am not going to use twitter to sell myself, or to practice the thinly veiled conceit that social media makes fans feel closer to celebrities. I don't know where this comes from. What do you think is going to happen, that your shining wit and charm is going to come through on clever status comments, or tweet replies, and the celeb in question is going to follow you? I am sure somewhere, someone will come out of the virtual woodwork and object with a vociferous "I've done it." At which point they will describe the strategy by which they convinced some celeb to follow them on twitter. And I, of course, will reply with "Perhaps you should spend that energy on a productive hobby, like wood-working or badminton."

I think the problem is not so much that I don't "get" twitter. Its just I don't care. That is to say, I am not interested in the lives of celebrities. My favorite celebrities are people whom I admire precisely because they seem like working people whose jobs happen to be entertainment. I am not interested in "brands" per se. I buy stuff I need, and I try to get a good price. I could care less about the web presence of my q-tip manufacturer. Your product is going to clean my earwax, let's just keep it real.

I am not giving up on it. I may yet figure twitter out, and if nothing else, it is a fascinating sociological artifact. Its value in grassroots political organizing has been made more than evident. There may be something to all this chipping and chirping. Who knows?

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to retweet!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Waiting for Andre

By the time Andre the Giant reached the age of twelve, I suspect he was still called Andre Rousimoff. However, its possible that the moniker that would carry him to fame had already been applied. At the tender age of 12, Andre stood a towering 6'3" and weighed in at a svelte 240 lbs. Life being generally cruel, this meant poor Andre was too big to ride the school bus. Fortunately, his father had a dear friend who had a flexible work schedule, and offered to drive Andre to school. This is a picture of that man:

For those who read caricature, that is indeed Samuel Beckett. You can't make this kind of stuff up (oh yes you can, people do it all the time).  What you can make up, however, is a dialogue between them. So, let's have at it:

ATG: Hey Sam, how are you today? Sam?
SB: Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
ATG: Yes, yes, some of the time.
SB: Oh, you’ve got a gift for rhyme?
ATG: I prefer wine
SB: If I had use of my body, I would throw it out the window
ATG: Is that how you would like to go?
SB: I shall state silences more competently than ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.
ATG: That is very good Samuel!
SB: Enough. Habit is a great Deadener. I mean it.
ATG: Anybody want a peanut?
SB: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

OK, so its just a mash-up of Fezzik and Beckett quotes. But admit it, it reads a bit like Endgame, no?

Why I Write

I have had many jobs. More than I care to count, frankly. It runs the gamut, of course, from running the till at coffee shops and dry cleaning establishments, to basically professional positions dealing with real clients and real money. The real money was theirs of course, I got paid significantly less than real money. I have even had professional writing work, both as a proper editor and as a feature writer. My greatest journalistic moment remains my interview with Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame. I considered framing a copy and sticking it on the wall above my desk, but I didn't want it to become an epitaph or an "in memoriam." I still have plenty of writing to do.

So why write? Clearly, its not for the money. I would be better sorted being some kind of account coordinator or a plumber, or anything for that matter. Of course, those inclined to credulous optimism always chant the refrain, "Follow your passions, and the money will follow." It may be true, I just wish I was passionate about something for which money could more easily pick up the scent. I would love to tell you that I write because I have a deep passion and desire for self-expression, and that communication knows no higher or more noble form than the eloquent filigree of an elegant sentence. But, of course, that is bullshit. My inner Diogenes knows full well that the choir at that church is getting smaller each week, and that indeed what people want to read is more often than not represented most ubiquitously by banal and instrumental constructions that invite readers to "relate" to and "really feel" what the writer is saying. Oh yes, we must connect with readers, don't get me wrong. But let's face it, one of the reasons I write is because I simply have far much to say, and I unfortunately pursued an academic discipline that helped me develop the tools to spew my inner world onto the page, virtual or otherwise. So, it turns out, that I write because I am primarily selfish and think entirely too hard about things, while I should be playing basketball and forming shallow, but entertaining friendships or something. Xbox maybe?

This is not to say that I don't believe that I have something of value to offer as a writer. However, it is useful to make the distinction between believing and knowing. In any event, for me writing as a process and act involves more of a neurotic tick than a lofty pursuit. It is a compulsion born from a moment of reckoning with a Kierkegaardian sense of dread.  And if that sounds like a bit of pretension, it is. But what, in the end is writing other than embracing a certain kind of self-delusion that attempts to make of the moment something grander than perhaps is called for? I don't know, I barely understand the question myself.

In the meantime, I will continue because I see no other way forward. It seems, as they say, the thing has chosen me, and not the other way around.

All best.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dunk this

I have learned recently that Mormons can actually baptize people who are already dead. This stunning revelation first came to me in the form of a blurb about some enterprising Mormons taking it upon themselves to baptize Anne Frank - yes, she of the holocaust diary - and thus ensuring that her gentle soul could indeed gain entry into the heaven that she deserves. Though one wonders what her soul has been doing in the meantime, short of sitting in her living room in purgatory waiting for some Mormons to knock on the door and actually intending to let them in.

Now don't get me wrong, the purpose of this particular screed isn't (solely) to pick on a curious religious practices of a curious religion.  Although, I certainly won't pass on the opportunity. No, the purpose of this screed is to pick on someone who believes in this practice - and has in fact practiced it - and is simultaneously running for the highest office in the land.

As it happens, Mitt Romney allegedly baptized his dead, atheist father in law. When pressed recently about the practice of "proxy baptism," Mitt's reply essentially amounted to "Sure, but not recently." Comforting. However, the real outcry, and reason Romney now has to face it, involves the proxy baptism and conversion of Frank and deceased members of the Wiesenthal family. This has led Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel to declare that Mitt's co-religionists should, well, stop it.

So in an effort to suss out the nature of the hullabaloo, I began to research the whole concept. Being the intrepid and responsible inquiring mind that I am, I looked it up on Wikipedia. However, within seconds of reading the article, I was so struck by the sheer bullshit of the notion that I stopped. I don't need to know the details. Look, it is utter nonsense, no matter how you slice it. It is no more important or valid a practice than stoning one's disrespectful son or painting your door frame with lamb's blood. It strikes me that to think that baptizing anyone, dead or alive, for any reason other than that person being in need of a quick rinse is nothing more than the persistence of superstitious beliefs that is bogging our nation down in ridiculous cultural conflicts while real problems continue to loom.

Look, people are allowed to believe what they want. If it comforts you to believe in talking snakes, or magic stones that decipher golden tablets, have at it. However, if you choose to run for arguably the most important job in the world, expect some derision, if not flat out ridicule. But perhaps more importantly, I want to say to those who are offended by proxy baptism, the people like Wiesel. I beg you, don't allow yourself to be offended by this utter tripe, this fantasy built upon fairy tale. It is as many historians have done regarding Holocaust denial. Scholars who have spent careers studying the subject will often decide simply not to engage in debate with the deniers, because to do so would give the appearance of legitimating views which, for legitimate historians are farcical at best, venal and hateful at worst.

Then again, I suppose its quite possible that Wiesel is invested in his own fantasies, and really does believe that the souls of these posthumously converted Jews are in point of fact, subject to contention. Heaven help us all . . .

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From the Outside in

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Maximum Rock and Roll, talking about what it was like being an Indian kid in the hardcore and punk scene in Southern California. In that article, I discussed how most Desi kids gravitated towards hip hop and bhangra. I eventually came to appreciate both styles, but they have never been as close to me. I was always on the outside looking in, both within the punk and metal communities, and within my own immigrant community. However, over the years I discovered many musicians who inspired me and left a profound impression. These Desi artists took chances, did their own thing, and dared to stand on the outside. This post is a tribute to them. 

Have you ever watched the video for Hey Jude? Dig that during the big chorus there is a turbaned Sikh in the crowd singing the "na na na naaa." The true "fifth Beatle?" The Rock and Roll Panj Pyare? Well, it was pretty cool to see when I was a kid. It said "you belong here too." 

When I was in high school, my older sister's friend told me that I should go and buy a record by a band called the Southern Death Cult. I did, and I loved it. I knew about Ian Astbury of the Cult, but when I bought the record I was struck by another name: Aki Nawaz. I knew he was one of us. And he was playing in a Goth band of all things. I loved goth, but what the hell kind of Indian kid with a stubbly beard and dark skin tries to dress up as a lithe, alabaster skinned Rice-ian Vampire? But it was OK, Aki was in the Southern Death Cult, so I wasn't completely on the outs. 

I found Aki again years later, and he was still doing it his way. This time around, it was with the experimental hip-hop/rock/fusion group Fun-da-Mental. Now, it seemed, Aki was scaring people, embodying the outsider as threat, the digital jihadi straddling a line between radical and fundamentalist. Though I don't always agree with Aki, his very presence gives Desi kids permission to set the world to rights, or just as well tell it to fuck off.

I've always been a bit of an Anglophile (if that isn't obvious) and I fell in love with Britpop. It was intelligent (Oasis notwithstanding), stylish, and often embraced the margin. So how happy was I when my friends came to me to help them understand Brimful of Asha?  Tajinder Singh, in his round faced glory, fronting a rather smart band that used Indian elements in the music, but not like some orientalist obsessed Kula Shaker garbage. I often wondered if Singh's parents were like mine:

"Vhy don't you study the Medicine?"
"I want to play Rock and Roll."
"Vell, at least you can play the Bhangra."

Talvin Singh didn't play bhangra either, though he could play tabla with the best of them. Talvin came at just the right time. I was attending raves, getting way too high, and indulging deeply into drum and bass. DnB was grittier, it expressed a street-level spirituality, while trance was just ear candy. Then came Singh, who took drum and bass and mounted it on a rocket ship blasting off from the Deccan Plateau. The Asian Underground wasn't big in the states, but I used to imagine that if I was in London at the time, I would have finally been on the inside for a change. 

There are others, many others. Nitin Sawhney, for example, remains one of the most unique artists I know, Desi or otherwise. The Asian Dub Foundation not only created a once in-an-immigrant generation sound, but they used the money they made as musicians to teach kids music. 

And now there is a new generation. I was fortunate enough to meet an incredibly talented cat called Mandeep Sethi, an emcee with an agile tongue and a deep soul. I know I said I didn't ever really get into hip-hop, but Sethi is doing things his way, he isn't out there talking about blingin' his whip with his thug bitches or however it goes. My latest favorite band is the Kominas, a band that emerged from the taqwacore scene and seems to be the fulfillment of what I and a couple other lonely brown kids thought might be possible almost 20 years ago. 

Here's to you. Keep on rockin' in the brown world . . .

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Dire Straits

So what happens if the Iranians try and close the Strait of Hormuz? In light of the recent threats emerging from Tehran, the question begs examination. How likely are the Iranians to attempt such a provocative action, and how effectively can they actually execute such an operation?

Lots of questions. And since we are talking about the Mullah Regime, we will end up relying on speculation for many of our answers. There is something in the Hormuz threat that reminds one of the recent rhetorical storm raging in Pyongyang, as if Tehran is attempting to let the world know exactly what cards its holding, lest someone make a hasty Security Council vote. Of course, the Iranians didn't just realize last week that the Strait is strategic, so one imagines that whether it is internal or external, the regime is feeling pressure from somewhere. Many observers have been waiting for the Persian version of the Arab Spring, but more pressing than the possibility of street eruptions are the divisions internal to the regime. Ayatollah Khamenei finds himself in the unenviable position of dealing with a conflict between economic reformers loyal to Ahmadinejad on one hand, and the Revolutionary Guard and its wealthy, merchant class patrons on the other. While the major figures of 2009's Green Revolt are largely incapacitated, popular uprising is not beyond the realm of possibility. So the regime heads towards a critical, perhaps historical moment, with elections set to be held in March of this year. The stakes are incredibly high, and it may well prove a transformative moment for Iran.

Hence the threat to close the Strait; a regime being backed into a corner, looking for an enemy to rally the reluctant, and severely underfed and underpaid masses. Heavy sanctions could cripple a regime that is already suffering from economic stangnation and a currency, the rial, in virtual freefall. Khamenei views this as an act of war, and would attempt to the close the Strait in response. Of course, it is important to remember that this would be more of a severe nuisance than an actual crippling blow. In a paper for the journal International Security, Caitlin Talmadge discussed in 2008 the potential outcomes of an Iranian military closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Talmadge presents a detailed analysis that explores best and worst case scenarios, and her analysis benefitted from a dialogue with William O'Neil, a former Defense Department official and Navy officer. Both Talmadge's original paper, as well as the subsequent O'Neil correspondance, warrants attention, as it detail the actual logistics and material concerns of a Hormuz closure. However, the take-away from the discussion is that any closure of the Strait would be, again, more of a temporary nuisance to the US and the West than a decisive strategic blow. Furthermore, it would likely cause great exposure, and ultimately great cost to Iranian command and control infrastructure on its Gulf flank, and possibly further inward.

Would Khamenei risk such costs in order to rally the nation around a crumbling regime? Thus far, the consensus seems to be that the Iranian people are nothing if not proud, and that as with so many nations, the external enemy always takes precedence. However, such a gambit on the regime's part may finally galvanize a revolutionary moment, if a group or groups can convince the Iranian people that the mullahs are simply using them as pawns in a game of self-preservation. As stated before, the threat of the closure reveals a desperate moment, what remains to be seen is who will best capitalize and seize the day.