Friday, August 31, 2012

The Battle of the Buses: Another Round for These Freaks and These Soldiers

Okay, I paraphrased that Joni Mitchell lyric.  And why am I suddenly stuck on song lyrics from my youth for blog titles?

A little while ago I wrote about ad wars that have broken out around the country, pitting people opposed to Israeli policies against those who brand all criticism of Israel anti-Semitism.  That propaganda war came home recently in a particularly ugly way.  A professional Islamophobe named Pamela Geller, the driving force behind the campaign to prevent an Islamic cultural center from being built sort of near the World Trade Center, decided to post these ads on buses in New York:

For anyone who can’t see it, the ad features a quote from Ayn Rand:  “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man.”  Under that it says, “Support Israel/Defeat Jihad.”  It’s red, white and blue on a black background.  “Support Israel” is surrounded by Jewish stars (which I personally consider anti-Semitism, but we won’t get into that).

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority rejected the ads,saying
“they violated its prohibition on ads that demeaned individuals or groups on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and five other specific categories. The group was given the opportunity to revise the ad, but it refused, and claimed in a lawsuit that the agency’s “no demeaning” language restriction was unconstitutional.
The [federal district court] judge … ruled that the rejected ad was “not only protected speech — it is core political speech,” expressing a “pro-Israel perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict” and implicitly calling “for a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy with regard to that conflict.”
As such, the judge held, the ad “is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.”
The day after the judge ruled in favor of Geller’s organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative, they signed a contract with San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency, known as Muni, to carry the ads.  Muni says it just wanted to avoid a costly lawsuit, since it seemed like it would lose.

The ads went up, and a furor broke out in San Francisco.  Some people started online petitions.  Others wrote letters to the editor.  Still others didn’t bother waging a campaign to get the ads removed, but set out to modify them with creative graphics.  One such graphic superimposed a hand stamping “Hate Speech” over the text, while another remade the words to say, “In Any War Between the Colonizer and the Colonized, Support the Oppressed.  Support the Palestinian Right of Return.  Defeat Racism.”

courtesy:  Robert Mackey, NYT blog

Geller, who has been branded an extremist hatemonger by the ultra-Zionist Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center was disinvited from speaking at a Zionist Organization of America event.   Not surprisingly, Geller lashed out at the Zionist establishment, which is a regular pastime.  She has described Abraham Foxman, long-time director of the ADL, as “a Soviet-style, Soviet born leader” and claims that “New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg … has never met an Islamic supremacist he didn’t bow to”.  One prone to conspiracy theories might suspect that Geller is really a shill to make the mainstream Zionist organizations look moderate.

After a week, during which the buses carrying the ads seemed to grow scarcer and scarcer on the street (don’t ask why I know), Muni put up a disclaimer opposite the ten “Savage” ads.  The disclaimer ad reads:
“SFMTA policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics, and condemns statements that describe any group as "savages."
There's an arrow pointing to the ad it’s criticizing.

The disclaimer begs a lot of questions, including whose idea that ridiculous arrow was.  One friend wondered why they didn’t post it as a “surgeon general’s warning” right on the thing it was criticizing.  Probably they fear that would violate their contract and let them in for a lawsuit.  Personally, my biggest wonder is why it took them a week to put it up.  Did they think no one would notice? Did they feel they needed the pressure to justify the unusual step of putting up a message countering something running on their own buses?  Or did it actually take them a week to figure out what they wanted to say?

Geller is now preparing a new campaign to attack Muni for its rebuff:  “Why Is the City of San Francisco Enforcing Sharia Law?” the headline asks.  Seriously; here's the photo.  

She’s also put up different anti-Islam ads in Westchester, NY train stations and is getting ready to launch the “Defeat Jihad” ones in New York, now that she’s won her case.

Meanwhile, a group of wealthy donors kicked in to run a counter ad on 50 Muni buses, borrowing Geller’s color scheme to promote the message, “Stop 30 Billion/Spend Our Money at Home Not on the Israeli Military”.  Rumor has it the price tag was $20,000.

Now I’ve agonized over the question of whether Geller’s ad really is protected free speech.  With due respect to the First Amendment, in which I’m really a big believer, I just don’t see it.  First of all, this is not a free speech zone.  As I just said, it costs thousands of dollars.  So it’s already being heavily regulated and made available only to some people.  Why is ability to pay an okay limiter of free speech, but willingness to stay within certain parameters of civility is not?  I would not support a policy that you can’t take an ad promoting Israel, or Bahrain or Russia (where a court has just upheld the ban on gay pride events), though I wish people would not do so.  But a policy that says you can’t call people “savages” doesn’t seem overly limiting to me.

Second, there’s a big difference between criminalizing speech and regulating it.  If Geller wants to stand in a park and hold up a poster with her hateful slogans on it, she should and does have that right.  (Though it seems to me I’ve seen footage recently of people being teargassed and arrested for trying to hold signs in public parks all over the country … wasn’t it something about 99%?)  But policies regulating what you can buy ad space for seem okay to me.  Cities regulate all kinds of things with permits, and the courts generally uphold them.  Why is transit advertising so sacrosanct?

Some people say, well, but if they can refuse her ad, they’ll refuse ours.  A friend in Seattle has been involved in some similar battles up there.  A couple years ago, Seattle Mideast Awareness Committee planned to run ads on buses saying, “Israeli War Crimes–Your Tax Dollars At Work.”  The bus company initially accepted, but backed down in response to pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and other Zionist organizations – the same ones Pam Geller calls apologists for promoters of Sharia law.  After that affair, the King county bus company revised its advertising policies to state explicitly that the goals of advertising on its buses are “Maximizing advertising revenue; maximizing ridership; maintaining a position of neutrality on controversial issues; preserving the marketability of advertising space by avoiding [potentially objectionable] content”.   Hence, according to my friend, they are only accepting ads that are selling something.  My friend, and others, see this as a loss, leading to “a lack of political spice in bus ads and a less robust political discourse”. 

I don’t agree.  I, and many people I have been privileged to work with, are pretty good at getting our messages in well-traveled venues, and we don’t need to give $20,000 of hard-earned money to the government in order to do it.  I signed the petition to Muni, of course – how could you not, but I am more drawn to the DIY (or in this case SIY - Say It Yourself) approach of subverting the Geller ads.  It’s hard for me to get outraged over the government doing the wrong thing; when it does the right thing, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pussy Riot: Feminist or Foe

A couple weeks ago, I did a radio piece on the trial of three members of the Russian feminist punk band “Pussy Riot.”  For anyone who spent the last month on the Curiosity or somewhere, Pussy Riot is an anarcha-feminist punk rock collective which stages public performance art pieces in Moscow’s public spaces.  In February they took their anti-government message to Christ the Savior Cathedral, to protest the fact that Patriarch Kyrill had endorsed Vladimir Putin’s bid for a third presidential term, swapping places with Dmitri Medvedev.

For their 50 seconds of free speech, they were sentenced last Friday to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Pussy Riot’s lyrics don’t all translate very well to English, or maybe it’s my lack of understanding of Russian politics that keeps me from grasping all the nuances.  The piece that got them in all that trouble goes in part:
“Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains
The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!”
I decided I didn’t need to understand everything about their messaging to support their freedom struggle.  First, because no one should be imprisoned for artistic expression, and second, because any group that is calling for the Virgin Mary to become a feminist (although in truth, she probably was) seems like my kind of bunch.  And third, because whatever I don’t understand, I do understand that they are protesting the church’s efforts to force women to “give birth and love” and in the age of Todd Aikin and legitimate rape and Bob McDonnell’s forced vaginal ultrasound, that seems like a good thing to be doing.

Yes, I was amused by Fox News’s outraged coverage of the miscarriage of justice.  Fox apparently supports feminists who attack the government and the church, as long as they’re in Russia – which Fox apparently hasn’t noticed is not Communist any more.  (In fact, Putin narrowly beat out the challenger from the Communist Party, which is gaining popularity again.)

But if I wasted energy worrying about the hypocrisy of Fox News, I would not have much left for such important tasks as blogging.

Then yesterday, friends on Facebook were sharing a piece from RadFem hub, called “Pussy Riot: Whose Freedom, Whose Riot?” 

“You can measure the degree of feminism of an action by how men react to it, and if men collectively cheer and celebrate it, then you can be pretty sure there’s something wrong about it, or that it doesn’t somehow support our liberation from men…. What was it that men liked so much about Pussy Riot?
Well, under closer inspection I discovered that the high level of coverage was related to – though indirectly – promoting men’s right to women’s sexual subordination and the pornification of our movement. The arrested women actually form part (and are victims of) a mixed anarchist group called “Voina” (meaning “war”) … who regularly engage the women in extreme and degrading women-hating pornography as part of their public “political stunts”.

The author goes on to describe in detail some of the “extreme and degrading woman-hating pornography” created by Voina.  I found it disturbing, and had no desire to go look at it for myself to see if she was misrepresenting or exaggerating it.  And in fact, I was disturbed by some of the signage at the Free Pussy Riot rally I went to, such as the sign saying, “Putin Don’t Like Pussy So He Can Suck My Cock.”  I don’t know the guys who were holding that sign, but offhand, it seemed anti-gay as well as unnecessarily using sexual imagery to express hostility.

Still I’m also troubled by the assumption that “if men collectively cheer and celebrate” something that claims to be feminist, it can’t be real.  Some members of Pussy Riot were members of Voina, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that they still are, or that they have not evolved in their thinking about feminism, or that all of the members condone everything Voina put out.  We don’t know – or at least, I don’t – why Pussy Riot left Voina and formed their own all-women’s group.  What I do know is that they seem to be serious young women.  Here are a few excerpts from their closing statements

Katya Samutsevich:

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judicial system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this.

Maria Alyokhina:

Our schooling, which is where the personality begins to form in a social context, effectively ignores any particularities of the individual. There is no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.
Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom. 

Nadya Tolokonnikova:

A human being is a creature that is always in error, never perfect. She quests for wisdom, but cannot possess it; this is why philosophy was born. This is why the philosopher is the one who loves wisdom and yearns for it, but does not possess it. This is what ultimately calls a human being to action, to think and live in a certain way. It was our search for truth that led us to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I think that Christianity, as I understood it while studying the Old and especially the New Testament, supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier. It was not in vain that when Christ was among the prostitutes, he said that those who falter should be helped.
Pussy Riot is not perfect.  Like many young women, they are grappling with the contradictions of the sexual revolution in a climate of antifeminist backlash.  But isn’t it more useful for feminists to challenge them than to condemn them as unworthy of our support?  Katya, Nadya and Masha may have, unfortunately, two years to think about the actions they’ve taken and what they want to do when they get out.  Maybe some of the radical feminists who are critiquing them want to take out paper and pen and write them letters, gently posing some questions about their performance style.

(I’m not actually sure how to write to them, but on their facebook page it says to send letters to  I’m trying to find out if there’s a snail mail address for them.)

A guy named Anatoly Karlin has provided some very interesting analysis of the case and its subtleties on Al Jazeera.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Too Many Martyrs and Too Many Dead*

A friend texted me the other day:
“Blog topic:  How the Sikh massacres managed to stay on yahoo news for one day compared to colorado days and days.”
It's a question a lot of people have been asking, actually.

Sikh temple shooting getting less coverage than Aurora theater tragedy: Why?

Two mass murders happened two weeks apart, but they get very different treatment by the media. Were the Dark Knight killings that much more important?

I thought, what can I say about that?  We all know why that is.

Racism.  Brown people don’t count as much.

Riddhi Shah, writing in the Huffington Post, knows it.
On Sunday night I turned on the TV to find that only CNN was covering the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin that killed six. Fox News had a program about a prison in Latin America, and MSNBC, something else that was equally irrelevant [ed's note:  irrelevant?].
Compare this with the coverage of an incident that happened only two weeks ago, the shooting that killed 12 people in Aurora, Colo. Networks devoted themselves round-the-clock to the attack….
So, obviously, the question is: Why is it that the American people, and the American media in particular, care less about this attack?”
"This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games”
is the title of the article this photo came from
Conor Friedsdorf, columnist on the Atlantic Monthly blog, has another explanation:  We don’t want to think about terrorist acts when the perpetrator is white, because of what it says about our social policy.
“Attacks like his are disconcerting to some white Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they've tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. …What if white Americans were as likely as Muslims to be victimized by those policies? What if the sprawling national security bureaucracy we've created starts directing attention not just to Muslims and their schools and charities, but to right-wing militias and left-wing environmental groups (or folks falsely accused of being in those groups because they seem like the sort who would be)?
…[I]f the next terrorist attack on American soil looks like Oklahoma City?  How would President Obama or President Romney wield their unprecedented executive power in the aftermath of such an attack? Who would find that they'd been put on no fly lists? Whose cell phone conversations and email exchanges would be monitored without their ever knowing about it?”
Friedsdorf ignores – or presumably doesn’t know -- that white leftists, especially environmentalists have, in fact, been targeted by the post-9/11 security apparatus.  The Earth Liberation Front, made up almost exclusively of white activists, has been designated by the FBI as “America’s top domestic terrorist threat.”  Daniel McGowan, the subject of the excellent documentary “If a Tree Falls,” was one of a few non-Muslims incarcerated at the “Communication Management Unit” in Marion, Illinois, dubbed “Little Guantanamo.”  (If you missed the movie, it’s scheduled to be rebroadcast this Saturday on PBS’s POV.)  White antiwar activists, most associated with the little-known Maoist group Freedom Road, in Minnesota and Chicago were the targets of FBI raids and grandjury summons.

Friedsdorf also doesn’t seem to realize that many provisions of the PATRIOT Act were first put in place under the Clinton administration, immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing – and used exclusively against Muslims.

Nonetheless, he has a point in saying that we don’t like being reminded of inconvenient truths, such as that white supremacists are a bigger threat to “democracy” than either Islamists or anarchists.

But how’s this for a theory:  Incidents like the temple massacre, or the burning of the mosque in Joplin, Missouri (for the second time), don’t preoccupy us because we understand them all too well.  We wonder why the Aurora mall shootings occur – perhaps because we are in deep denial about how sick and alienated our society is.  We can’t really wonder why racist assaults happen.  As Rahiel Tesfamariam wrote, “the temple shooting … reflects the fact that racial hatred is as American as apple pie.”

In response to my blog about the Aurora shootings, another friend wrote:
“In SF this year there have been 130 gun shot victims. 50 of them died. It’s all bad but I have a hard time seeing the difference between one person shooting a bunch of people in one place and 130 people shooting 130 people in the streets, cars, homes, etc. And this is just stats for San Francisco.”
She’s right; we don’t call those 50 killings a massacre, but they’re just as dead as the 12 victims in Aurora and the 7 in Oak Creek.  But here are some other mass killings that don’t get days and days of coverage in our media:
  • Car bombs targeting Shia pilgrims killed 66 people and wounded over 200 on June 13 in Iraq during a religious festival.  Iraq Body Count lists 91 civilians killed in August.
  • Environmental activists in Brazil are being killed at the rate of one per week during the last year, according to the group Global Witness.  Total activists deaths in the last three years amount to 365, reported the UK Guardian.
So what’s my point?  We can’t think about it all.  We need to think about it all.  We need to find a way to look at all these mass killings, not as separate but as one huge blot on our collective conscience, and at the same time we need to acknowledge the different causes of each situation.

It is not completely true, though, that the “mainstream” U.S. has failed to make the connection between Aurora and Oak Creek.  A man named Cody Hickman, who survived the Aurora shooting, used the survivors’ facebook networks to create a group on Sunday called “Surviving Together.”  He wrote:

“For those who do not yet know, there was a shooting today at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. Lives have been lost, and many have been injured. In the wake of the Aurora Theater Shooting, we all now know what our neighbors in Wisconsin are about the go through. They will need support, and resources. The volunteers who run this page, as well as the Survivors of the Aurora Theater Shooting page are here to help in that effort. We would like to use our experience with this page to help those in Wisconsin, in whatever way we can.”

*The title is from the Phil Ochs song, "The Ballad of Medger Evers"

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why am I wasting time watching the Olympics?

Watching the Olympics is definitely a guilty pleasure.  I feel like I shouldn’t watch them, but I can’t stop.

Here are the reasons not to watch:

1.         The commentators – they tell us what we already know and what we don’t want to know, and top it off with overblown schmaltz.  My favorite line so far, Bob Costas on the U.S. women’s gold medal gymnastics team:  “Like all Olympic champions, they will now walk together forever.”  What does that mean?  That their walk from the floor to the medal stand will be televised incessantly for the next few days or years?  That they will all be remembered equally? not true.  That they will always care about each other?  Probably true, but so what?  And not only did he say this meaningless line with such gravity, but due to some sloppy editing, he said it twice.

2.         The selection.  They only show a few of the sports (though I guess if you’re home during the day, you can watch many hours of soccer and kayaking) and a tiny few of the competitors – the Americans and the winners, and sometimes not even all the winners – in the men’s gymnastics team final, they focused so much on the U.S. team that they barely showed the Ukrainian bronze medal team at all.  Once upon a time, I remember watching things like archery and weightlifting, but I guess they’ve decided the people who participate in those sports aren’t gorgeous enough for prime time.

3.         The obsession with winners and losers.  Okay, it’s a competition, it’s about winning.  But coming in fourth at the Olympics is just not losing by any stretch.  When figure skater Michelle Kwan finished second at the 1998 games, she said to her family on international television, “Hope you still love me.”  When gymnast Nastia Liukin was waiting to see if she’d won gold or silver four years ago, her father and coach said, “She didn’t come here to finish second.”  I thought, she’d better have won because if she didn’t, her father won’t love her.

When the commentators talk incessantly about the heartbreak of coming in second or fourth, the catastrophe of not having a good meet, they ignore the obvious fact that someone has to finish fourth and even last.  If it’s our girl, we cry for her; if it’s someone else’s favorite, we cheer.  The British crowd went wild when the Japanese team screwed up because it meant their guys won silver.  Understandable, but did anyone stop to think about what the Japanese guys were feeling?

Even with the Americans, once they drop out of medal contention, they drop off our screens as if they were never there. What happened to John Orozco after he fell from grace on Wednesday night?  They spent days getting us to root for the guy, and then he totally disappeared.

4.         Michael Phelps.  Someone I would just not want to spend one second listening to, who happens to be a freakishly talented athlete.  I cannot reach for the remote fast enough when he steps out of the pool.  Though to be honest, I haven’t heard an athlete give a good interview this year.

5.         People critiquing things they can’t do themselves.  A coworker of mine is an ice dancer.  She started skating pretty late in life, which I admire enormously, and she’s gotten very good for essentially a recreational skater (though with the expense and injuries she’s had to bear, it’s hard to call it “recreation”).  She doesn’t like watching freestyle skating and says the triple jumps the Olympic champions do aren’t very hard.  Once I asked, “So how many can you do?”  Of course, she said, “Well I can’t do any.”  I know what she’s trying to say – that we’ve lost appreciation for the technique of pure skating, without the Wow Factor of big jumps and spins – but it still doesn’t make sense to me to say that a triple-triple or quad-triple combination isn’t hard.  If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it because they all want to win.  If you’re the only woman in the world who can do something, it might not be what a sophisticated viewer enjoys watching, but it’s obviously difficult.

Of course, Olympic television coverage is not geared to the educated viewer.  People watch baseball, football and golf week after week, and develop an understanding of the finer points of what’s involved.  In sports like gymnastics, skating and diving, which most of us watch every four years, the audience is inevitably going to be seduced by the big high-flying skills and not necessarily what people who have actually learned the sport know to look for.

That’s what they pay the analysts for, and that’s why they harp on the tiny hops on the dismounts or the fact that a diver bounced their toes twice before leaving the springboard.  But those commentators can’t do the skills they’re picking apart either, because most of them competed decades ago, and the sports have evolved light years since then.  Olga Korbut was the first gymnast I remember becoming a household name in this country, back in 1972.  She did a single back somersault on the balance beam, and the officials considered outlawing the move after that because it seemed so dangerous.  That same year Kathy Rigby, the top U.S. gymnast, left out her one planned aerial cartwheel on the beam in hopes of helping her team win the bronze, which they didn’t.  Now every beam routine must include at least one somersault and the gymnasts are doing one aerial move after another, some with twists.

I pass this mural on my way home
from West Oakland.
6.         The commercials.  I mostly don’t watch them, but every now and then you accidentally catch one.  They’re so obnoxious.  There’s the homophobic one for Matthew Perry’s new show, with Shawn Johnson and the guy in the Star Spangled Spandex, and then there’s NBC’s unfortunate airing of their “Animal Kingdom” promo right after calling attention to the fact that Gabby Douglas is first African American gymnast to win an individual Olympic gold.  Then there are the annoying “Thank You Mom” ones, which I guess are selling Proctor & Gamble cleaning products, Visa’s soft-focus “Go World” series featuring the caramel voice of Morgan Freeman, and just to break it up, Barack Obama promising to really create jobs if we give him another chance.

7.         The knowledge that neighborhoods were destroyed and millions of dollars taken from London’s crumbling social infrastructure, while laws intended to regulate corporate exploitation of the Games are being used to stifle free speech. 

Here are the reasons to watch:

1.  The athletes are amazing.
2.  The athletes are amazing.
3.  The athletes are amazing.
4.  There’s nothing else to watch.